Natural entanglements

An interview with David Kidner

It’s safe to say that psychologist David Kidner’s 2000 book Nature & Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity is one of the most intelligent and sensitive assessments of the way Western industrial society, and especially postmodern intellectual culture, has misframed and damaged our relationship to the natural world. After reading it around 2008, I got straight in touch with David in order to interview him. Shamefully, I let the interview, conducted via email, gather dust on a virtual shelf for nearly a decade.

Relaunching Dreamflesh, I tried but failed to get back in touch with David to finish things off (I don’t believe I got to the end of my questions) and publish it. Sadly it’s not been possible to track him down. It seems that another book of his on a similar wavelength was published in 2012: Nature and Experience in the Culture of Delusion. I hope to read and review it soon. Meantime, here’s that brief email conversation we had, finally dusted off.

Gyrus: The ideas in Nature & Psyche are quite subtle, requiring specific terminology as well as a kind of iterative repetition to draw them out and stall simplistic misinterpretations. Given that this interview simply doesn’t allow that kind of depth, how would you sum up your thesis in the book?

David: For most people, nature is something “out there” that we visit on holiday, watch on TV, or escape from if we get caught in a thunderstorm. On the whole, we think about it or observe it rather than experience it. This obviously has big consequences for the natural world, since this sort of emotional and physical insulation from the world means that it’s all too easy to ignore ecological realities; but less obviously, it has big consequences for us. With the exception of a few intimate relationships, we experience ourselves as relatively separate from anything outside ourselves; and this represents a massive but concealed depletion of experience.

We take this reduced form of selfhood so much for granted that we have the utmost difficulty imagining that other forms of subjective awareness are possible. This was brought home to me vividly when I was teaching in Colorado. Some of my students were Navaho from the nearby reservation; and they found my talking about the natural world rather odd. Nature, to them, was something we’re part of in an embodied, felt sense, so that damage to it is experienced as a personal hurt. Scott Atran found something similar in his study of Guatemalan forest-dwellers: the best conservationists weren’t the peoples who could think and speak about the forest most articulately, but those who experienced it almost as part of themselves. One of the main points I was trying to make is that from any non-industrialist perspective, our self-contained individuality and consequent emotional separation from nature seems odd, unnatural, and often mad; and I was trying to shake readers out of the comfortable illusion that our particular style of experiencing is natural and inevitable. The book is an exploration of the ways in which we are entangled with “external” nature, and the ways industrialism disguises and weakens this entanglement.

Much current environmentalism seems to be abandoning any experience- or feeling-toned orientation: environmental economics price-tagging the “services” that natural ecologies provide us, carbon trading, etc. These market-centric models are often trumpeted as taking over from the perceived failure of a more “romantic” environmentalism.

The notion that “the market” can save the natural world conceals what I would see as basically an assimilation of the enormous diversity of nature by a much simpler system that’s destructive to it. Our identification with narrow forms of “rationality” reflects our own assimilation by this system, so that we learn to distrust our own feelings, intuitions, and embodiment.

Conversely, the grain of truth in “romantic” views of nature is that just as subjectivity is more than rationality, so nature is more than we can recognise through rationality. As natural beings, we don’t so much calculate nature’s “value” as sense it, intuit it, become immersed in it. If we are whole, in touch with our embodiment, we recognise the diminution of nature that occurs when we see it as a commodity or in a solely rational way. To his credit, Darwin recognised this when he described how his scientific training had made him “colourblind” and no longer able to feel awestruck by the natural world.

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 139

There’s a further twist to this process, too. Rational thought and language began as means of representing the world, but have become increasingly autonomous, so that they are now turned against the world. Models of nature become prescriptions for nature. For example, Franz Vera has pointed out that our idea of “forest” has changed over the centuries, so that we now think of forests as closed-canopy woodlands. But in mediaeval times, the term “forest” denoted a constantly changing patchwork of woods, open grasslands, moors, and bogs; and it was in these mixed ecosystems that species such as wild herbivores and oak trees would flourish. Today, these dynamic, mixed ecosystems are rare: the countryside consists mostly of discrete, permanent areas of open farmland, moorland, and woodland. In other words, our simplified, tidy categorisations have been applied to the natural world, so that when we think we’re “restoring” wilderness we may in fact be imposing our idea of wilderness — and as Vera shows, that’s something very different! When this happens, not only do we “freeze” nature’s dynamism, but we also lose many species which flourish on the conceptually opaque margins of ecosystems.

The lesson here, I think, is that while we shouldn’t reject rationality, categorisation, and so on, we also need to check any course of action against our “gut feelings”. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Unlike the Itzaj of Guatemala described by Atran, we’ve become so identified with ossified forms of rationality and language that we’ve become insensitive to what our own senses and intuitions are telling us.

‘Industrial’ by Kevin Dooley, CC licensed

The disconnection of the rationalist, Western, industrial mindset from nature is a well-worn, perhaps trite topic to some. Your approach has a couple of elements that strongly revitalize it: the analysis of how this disconnect has grave, documented personal, social and ecological consequences (e.g. the study of Brazilian sugar plantation workers), and the idea of culture as a means of integrating humans into nature rather than raising us “above” it. Could you discuss these?

Those of us who live in the affluent areas of the world have the luxury of reacting to our disconnection from nature as a matter of political debate and personal choice — whether to buy organic vegetables, install solar panels, or cycle to work, for example. But for a larger proportion of the world’s population, there is no choice: environmental degradation impinges directly and often devastatingly on their lives through drought, deforestation, the extinction of wildlife, and so on — often leading to a flight to poverty within vast cities. We talk and write about environmental problems; they live them. In many cases we generate the problems, while they deal with the consequences. The Brazilian sugar industry exemplifies a pattern which is repeated across the world as people who previously lived sustainable lives within natural contexts are assimilated into industrial processes that not only destroy ecosystems but also weaken social frameworks and impoverish psychological well-being. Organisations such as the World Bank view these changes as alleviating poverty, since people who were not formally paid become wage-earners; but on almost any non-economic measure, it is an impoverishment.

One of the effects of this industrialist transformation is to isolate people from each other and from the world — a process which loosens the cultural links which previously related people and the world. In any non-industrial society, culture is a connective medium: it grows out of the earth, as its roots in the latin word colere, to till or cultivate, suggests. For indigenous peoples, culture and subjectivity are not separate realms which hover above and can then be applied to the world: they are already part of the world. Meaning lies in the world, not just in the mind. As Lévi-Strauss put it, animals are “good to think with”; and so, for that matter, are trees, pebbles, and rivers. Industrial society separates all these aspects of the world so that they can be reassembled into a new, capitalist, system; and for this reason, the term “modern industrial culture” is largely a neologism. We’ve lost the sense of culture as bringing the world experientially alive: instead, culture has become almost an alternative to nature, something we associate with art galleries or Radio 3…

There seems to be a certain lack of concern with “origins” in Nature & Psyche. If you define industrialism as an “exotic ideology”, dismantling and colonizing natural structures, where did industrialism come from? Is it useful to generate stories about its origins, perhaps to be imaginative and mythical about it? Or should we follow Buddhism (or, indeed, cognitive behavioural therapy) and dismiss speculation about “who shot the arrow”, concentrating just on ending the pain?

This, I think, is a difficult, but crucial, question.

The Achilles heel of any evolving, complex system is a tendency to collapse into simpler fragments; and these vulnerabilities increase with complexity. The higher we build, the greater the likelihood that sooner or later the building is reduced to a simpler state — namely, a pile of rubble. And for present purposes, evolution has generated the building, and industrialism is the pile of rubble — only in this case it’s commodification and a sort of physical reductionism, rather than gravity, which have led to the destruction. Where nature builds enormously complex ecosystems, industrial farming produces monocultures. Where indigenous peoples tend to rely on a complex, embodied sensing of the world, we rely on what Freud called a “dictatorship of the intellect” — a simplified rationality that backgrounds intuition and systemic awareness. And where ecosystems perform multiple roles, industrial processes tend to have a single purpose: producing a cheaper gadget, maximising profit, growing more wheat per acre.

So, in a nutshell, I think that industrialism can be regarded as a simplification and a perversion of nature, in rather the same way that cancer is a simplification and perversion of healthy processes of growth. In each case, something is flourishing — respectively, corporate and metastatic growth — but in each case there is severe “collateral damage”: to the health of other life-forms, to diversity, to the well-being of humans, to other creatures, and to the natural order as a whole.

Personally, I would make a value-judgment here, and suggest that diversity and complexity have reflected the direction of the evolution of life for billions of years, and so are basic values. Consequently, anything that undermines these basic values is — depending on one’s frame of reference — destructive, sinful, or pathological. So the fact that systemic vulnerabilities are in a sense “built into” the natural order doesn’t make industrialism “natural”. We have choices: either to recognise the value and centrality to life of the natural order, or to become identified with the simpler, shorter-term aims of industrialism — “efficiency”, wealth, “development”, and so on.

Photo by Cathy, CC licensed

For these reasons, I’d part company with J. Baird Callicott, who argues that “man is a natural, a wild, an evolving species not essentially different … from all the others [and therefore] the works of man … are as natural as those of beavers, or termites, or any of the other species that dramatically modify their habitats.” Just because there’s no clear conceptual division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘industrial’, that doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t fundamental differences between them. There’s no clear dividing line between day and night; but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same. But I wouldn’t want to imply that humans are essentially destructive. The problem isn’t humanity, but rather industrial humanity. One can regard industrialism as a virus that is colonising an increasing proportion of humanity. Our central nervous system, with its evolved dependence on cultural forms that aren’t ‘hard wired’, is spectacularly vulnerable to a whole range of destructive ‘viruses’.

So: I think it is useful to ‘generate stories’ about industrialism; and the stories become more useful the more closely they reflect the realities involved in the conflict between the two great systems we live within: industrialism and the natural order. As you can see, being a critical realist, I don’t believe that all stories are equally valuable! Some may be helpful, others misleading. A danger is that some of the stories we tell ourselves may cover up realities rather than express them — increasingly so as our situation becomes more threatening.

Presumably you view most transhumanist tendencies with suspicion, at least. Certainly futurist visions of evolution culminating in the nanotechnological colonization of the universe, bringing all matter under conscious control, are psychopathic and probably unfeasible in the terms of your thinking. On the other hand, developments like nanotechnology — in concepts like “growing rather than building”, and artifice drawing closer to the complexity of nature — seem to hold the promise of advanced technologies that resonate more closely with organic structures than industrialism as we know it.

Given that any technology is the outcome of forms of thinking that are generally shorn of feeling, focused on a few prominent criteria and disembedded from their ecological context, I am not optimistic about consciousness’s ability to define the future by taking over from natural processes of mutation and selection. It’s all too easy to identify with consciousness and become intoxicated by the possibilities of conscious design and control, happily oblivious to everything that’s outside one’s sphere of understanding. This sort of intellectual narcissism is, I think, one manifestation of a recurring dream (or nightmare, according to taste) that we can become free of embodiment, material constraints, and ecological embeddedness, so that — for example — what we experience as ‘I’ exists in a new, unfettered form which can flit, Neuromancer-like, across various matrices. I don’t doubt that there is the technological potential to realise aspects of this dream; but I very much doubt that the world we produce will be in any appreciable way healthier, more beautiful, more vibrant with life. One of the things that this vision forgets is the extent of our own necessary ignorance: what we can’t recognise or understand, increasingly, is viewed as not existing!

A more positive possibility, I think, is that technology could be re-embedded within a more complete and embodied relationship with the natural order; but unfortunately I can’t see much sign of that happening at the moment.

More realistically, I think that if we understand humanity’s sophisticated central nervous system as making us irremediably vulnerable to colonisation by ideologies such as industrialism, as I suggested above, it seems likely that this evolutionary trend toward complex and partly autonomous nervous systems has developed beyond what is adaptive. Whatever beings replace us, I suspect, may well embody rather simpler nervous systems, and/or a greater degree of integration into the natural order. That’s not to say that technology’s fire will not burn brightly before dying: like the quartet playing while the ship sinks in the film Titanic, technology will continue to develop even while the social and ecological foundations that maintain it are being eroded from underneath, as I think is happening now.

By the way, I think that one of the assumptions that often frames this sort of debate is that one should be ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’. But since it’s been shown that most people are in any case optimistic to a near-delusional extent, I suspect that optimism’s dangers far outweigh its benefits. Optimism may be the more politically correct — indeed, the only politically saleable — attitude; but far more important is that we recognise our situation realistically.

I was surprised that there is no mention at all in Nature & Psyche of the Gaia hypothesis — perhaps the single most influential metaphor in recent times weaving together our conceptions of natural ecology and the individual organism. Was there a reason for this omission? What potential, and what dangers do you see in the Gaia metaphor?

My feeling is that the Gaia hypothesis is a useful antidote to the reductionism of the natural sciences and the disciplinary dissociation that fragments our understanding; but there’s a huge gulf between the relative simplicity of the ‘Earth is a homeostatic system’ analogy and the opaque complexities of biospheric interaction. Words can give an unjustified impression of understanding, and so conceal our ignorance, leading to ‘premature clarity’. I’m not at all anti-science; but I think that sometimes an openness to our own ignorance is more environmentally positive than an overestimation of our of understanding.

That’s not a criticism of Lovelock, who is well aware that Gaia is a nice simple label for an otherwise unmanageable level of complexity. Gaia is a fine metaphor; but therein lies the fatal attraction. This danger, by the way, is not one that’s specific to the notion of Gaia: it causes major problems right across the board. For example, social constructionism takes the perfectly reasonable idea that language influences our understanding, and extends it to the absurd conclusions that language creates reality and that ‘there is nothing beyond the text’. In a similar way, evolutionary psychology takes the perfectly reasonable idea that we carry with us evolved fears, strategies, needs, and so on, and then tries to use these insights to explain very different phenomena like culture. And various religions take particular ways of ordering spiritual experience and then define them as The Truth. It’s important, I think, that we recognise not only the strengths of an idea, but also its limitations. Put differently, cognitive clarity may be seductive; but it’s no guarantee of accuracy.

Returning to Gaia, the notion that the world operates systemically is of fundamental importance, in my view; but this isn’t the only way to think about it, nor is systemic functioning necessarily best viewed as the operation of a single, earth-scale system — as the Gaia notion has been interpreted by some people. Beware the limitations of whatever model is currently fashionable! Once we were blind to the reductionist implications of physical science. Nowadays, the critique of physical science has become commonplace — as well as simplistic and smelling strongly of straw men. As a replacement, the systemic view is trendy; but as has happened in the field of family therapy, we are beginning to find that it, too, has limitations.

The past few years has seen the rapid rise of, for want of a better term, “eco-capitalism”. The end of the Cold War — Fukayama’s “End of History” — collides with the end of the ability to deny ecological crisis — especially regarding climate change — and a lack of envisioned alternatives generates the “neo-green” movement. Where the challenge of ecological crisis is a business opportunity; where pragmatism about capitalist desires leads to green consumerism as a consciously pursued solution; and where the polarized reaction to environmentalism thus far makes anything associated with “the old guard” — morality, caution, contraction, romanticism, traditionalism — hideously unfashionable, almost despised (or repressed). How do you place yourself in this dynamic? Do you choose a side, or do you see that as buying into a false opposition?

The contrast between these two ideologies — consumerism and the ‘free market’, on the one hand, and one which tries to rediscover and recover the more ecologically embedded qualities of traditional living, on the other — has been polarised by the development of industrialism, which takes the human liking for trade and expands it in a totally unbalanced way. This situation causes enormous tensions within the self, which has a stake in both ideologies, causing what Carl Rogers called ‘incongruence’. One can see this as a reversal of context and specific: that is, whereas trading was, in pre-capitalist times, one part of a multifaceted life-world, the life-world has now been redefined as part of capitalism. For example, one often hears of a factory closing ‘because it is no longer economically viable’; but how often does one hear that a factory is being kept open ‘because the employees need the jobs’? In other words, the health of the economic system is prioritised over the health of human individuals—and ‘economic rationality’ over broader human concerns, so that the qualities you mention become unfashionable because they interfere with the ‘free market’.

It follows that this fundamental problem — that capitalism has become the context of our lives as well as a system of trade — won’t be resolved by ‘eco-capitalism’, which leaves this context intact and then tries to apply it to ‘green’ goods. The problem, I suggest, is not so much about what we buy and sell as the system of trade itself, which needs to be recontextualised as a part of our lives, subservient to cultural, ecological, and psychological health. Complementarily, this will also involve a recontextualisation of ‘economic rationality’ as one faculty among many, allowing the re-emergence of those currently sidelined aspects of humanity which you mention, including morality, caution, and romanticism — which, in my view, grow out of a healthy embeddedness within the natural world.

As for the other two — ‘contraction’ and ‘traditionalism’ — well, we certainly need a considerable degree of contraction; and again, this follows from an awareness that humanity is one species among many. Traditionalism is perhaps more of a mixed bag: while the sort of future society which I’d see as desirable would involve some traditional features, I think our focus should be on the future, and what type of world we envision.

Some people took from the film Fight Club the idea that Chuck Palahniuk (the author of the novel) is cynical, even mocking about support groups or group therapy. Yet he’s written very generously about them in non-fiction, seeing them as taking on important roles that religion used to play, in confessing, finding forgiveness; and fostering creativity, story-telling, performance. Equally, James Hillman, despite his cynicism about therapy, sees the therapeutic relationship as one of our culture’s prime arenas for nurturing the psyche, the imagination. The ideal of bringing imagination to bear on “everyday life” is inspiring, but you feel we need cultural structures to support and integrate the psyche into culture and nature. What are your views on the structures we have now for imaginative interaction, and how would you like to see them evolved?

A major problem here, I think, is that support structures have often been assimilated to industrialist ideology, so rather than connecting us to nature, they reflect our distancing from it, and so further alienate us. As Hillman points out, for example, therapy is in some cases a substitute for engagement with the world. In the industrialised world, we all too often seek meaning in isolation from the world and then apply it to the world, rather than finding meaning in the world and our engagement with it. As a child, I struggled to accept the notion that beauty was in paintings and stained glass windows, when all one had to do was to look outside the window at the sky and the clouds to see what, to me at least, was far more beautiful. Similarly, Roger Brooke makes the point that we become spiritual beings not through some internal insight or maturation, but “through the world’s revelation as a temple”. That’s exactly right, I think; and in the same way, we become loving by recognising the loveliness of someone or something outside ourselves. Meaning, I suggest, is in the world (which includes our own embodiment) and in our own resonance with the world, not in some rarified realm of thought or aesthetics.

So: if by ‘culture’ we’re referring to the idealist realm of dissociated human meaning and the sort of ‘art’ it produces, then I’d see that as an expression of the problem, not a solution. But if by ‘culture’ we mean what roots us to the earth, then that’s a different matter. An example is Roger Williamson’s account of an Inuit man returning to the Arctic from hospital, to be told that in his absence his wife had died and his children sent to a missionary school. As Williamson relates, the man

spoke earnestly to the owner of a dog-team that had come out to meet the plane, a kinsman’s concern and understanding written on his features. And right there and then, straight from the aircraft onto the ice, he drove the borrowed team off into the surrounding country, promising to return in a few days. He drove that team nonstop, except for pauses to rest the dogs and hunt for them — for two days and two nights, and did not sleep until the third day. As we watched him heading over the ice and up the coast until he was out of sight, we understood.

R.G. Williamson, ‘The Arctic habitat and the integrated self’, in M. Aleksiuk and T. Nelson (eds), Landscapes of the Heart: Narratives of Nature and Self (2002)

That, I think, is what a grounded culture is about: expressing something about oneself through embodied action in the world, and refinding one’s place in the world, as well as a refocusing on the world. Whether Fight Club does this, I don’t know (I haven’t read the book). My guess is that one could see it as either a re-grounding in physical action, or as an expression of the empty individualism which sees others as competitors — or, more likely, as both.

The header photo is by Gyrus, and shows Piles Copse on Dartmoor, one of the few remaining high-level woodlands, composed of distinctive gnarled Pedunculate Oaks.