Someone asked me recently what ecology mean to me. I was flummoxed. Er....Everything? How do you answer that? It's like saying, what is God to a believer. Indeed before the invention of god what was there except what we now scientifically describe as 'ecology'? I wondered at first if my problem in answering is in the language itself: the word ecology presupposes that issues surrounding the environment, Earth, the planet are somehow distinct, separate from ourselves.
This allows reflective distance, a sense of ownership over the 'subject'. But this in itself is an illusion of power that I don't subscribe to. There is no such thing as ecology, I might say, because we the planet, animals, plants, air and sea are all inseparable. In this sense I have always been something of a Daoist at heart. So ‘ecology is my religion?’ No, that’s not it.
I asked Wikipedia for help.
Had the phrasing of the question been ‘the environmental movement’ I might have been better able to answer: ‘how do you feel about the continual degradation of our natural resources for the purposes of profit in the face of a growing global crisis, a perfect storm brewing in the near distance of climate change, food shortages, catastrophe’ or ‘how do you feel about the immanent catastrophe facing the human race?’
Then I could speak from the heart, from a real sense of urgency: I feel angry. I feel helpless. I feel the urgent need to do something coupled with confusion as to where this something should begin. But then I’d have to admit that, despite having attended my first meeting of Greenpeace at 16, I do nothing for that movement except watch from the sidelines as those braver, more certain, more dedicated than I chain themselves to the masts of oil rigs, endure artic conditions to protest on our behalf. Why do so little? Because I am not, by nature a protester. Yes I've been on the odd March but it's simply not me. Or rather, I have not yet reached that essential tipping point. A direct debit is more my speed. I read the bumph they send me. Internally I applaud their courage and gall but meanwhile I'm appalled at my own inactivity.
But this doesn’t answer the original question, what does Ecology mean to me?
To answer this question I feel I need to dig much deeper into my own misgivings about the world I was born into. Unlike 80% of the human population I was born into a Western democracy, something I am continually told, is a privilege. The reasons why it is presented as such are multiple. We have medicines; we have education, a welfare state, human rights and individual rights. Our world is governed, not by dictators or warlords, but an elected government, marrying the needs of the people to those of a benign market. How I feel about this could be summoned in the image of Clara from the Johanna Spyri, Heidi is clearly less privileged than Clara but we are in no doubt that the sickly Clara, raised in affluence is the poorer for her wealth and privilege. Because it cannot buy her well-being. Only the clean air and freedom of the Alps can bring colour back to her cheeks.
Freud (1856-1939) Freud also challenges the “folklore” of modernity and examines the “consequences of the modern adventure”. He argues that civilisation is constructed through three elements: beauty, cleanliness and order. These are achieved through constraint, training and “a renunciation of instinct”. Freud believed that modern society was one of compulsion, regulation, suppression that forces renunciation of our innate selves.
For me, being Western and relatively affluent in world relative to the majority of the world population does not make me feel lucky. The benign market, so often cited as the blind but wise god of all things, large and small has lead us perilously to the brink of not only ecological collapse but also internal combustion. The illusion of consumption as a path to satisfaction, let alone happiness is shipwrecked and on the rocks. We can clearly see that economic growth based on this model is utterly flawed; yet we feel powerless to challenge it in any meaningful way. We are in need of revelation: of an unmasking of capitalism and a return to ourselves, to humanity, to ourselves. The great Modernist project of ‘Progress’, an inexorable trajectory of ever increasing prosperity, freedom and wealth has failed. Just as the great creation myth of Adam and Eve predicted, our pursuit of knowledge has cost us our immortality. Because we are now prisoners, albeit with golden handcuffs, of a system that demands we sacrifice the one resource all of us have in finite amount: Time.
In his lifetime, Freud witnessed the greatest regulation of Time through the standardisation of the railway network, the distribution during the 1890s of approximately twelve million pocket watches throughout Germany.
"Eternity is not the endless duration of time. It is the absence of time” William Blake (1757-1857)
Does a mother consider ecology when she reluctantly returns to work and pays for childcare? Do we think of ecology when we lose our job because we are sick? Do we think of ecology when we feel the first twinges of a heart attack, or a terrifying lump? Do we attribute our relationship to nature when we are denied the dignity of dying at home, or giving birth at home? Our fundamental life rites are no longer our own. But do we consider this to be part of some bigger problem, a symptom of our disassociation with ourselves as animals, as humans?
Lack of Time. No Time. No time to stop. Time and our relationship to it, is central to our possession of ourselves, which in turn is paramount in our connectivity to the earth and it’s resources, to the dominant issues of our time: ecology, human rights, worker’s rights, climate change, mental illness, cancer, food shortages, children’s rights, the rights of indigenous tribes to their lands, the rights of future generations to an unpolluted planet.
As children we live in a timeless reality, one where flow is the norm and is only disrupted for sleep, bodily functions, food. But gradually as we get older we are increasingly introduced to more and more limiting schedules, a process of acting according to the perfunctory ticking of a collective clock: now we must rise, now we must work, now we rest. It’s written into school hours, TV schedules, train timetables, ‘business hours’, maternity leave, sick pay…and so on. Everything must be performed according to the proper allocated time. We may campaign for shorter hours, longer holidays, extended leave but essentially we are all still prisoners to this system.
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” - Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Surely this is the true message of the white rabbit in Alice in wonderland: Alice, who, at the age of 11 is still connected to the eternity of childhood, encounters the absurdity of the ever- rushing rabbit, a character who, through the painful precipitous calamity of the rabbit hole, introduces her to the perverse, insane and at times, debauched world of adults. One where those in power wield authority with random and fearful violence, where many live in fear and others are forgetting it all with foolishness and oblivion.
The Agrarian system that predates industrialised time was also a schedule, but one that mirrored our own internal rhythms. We raised with the sun, slept when the moon was high, worked with the seasons, the rhythms of animals, plants, rivers and tides. This was and still is a system that works. This is the system we have left behind. This is the system we are fighting to preserve for others. Yet we do not consider that it may be of benefit to us.
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”
This classic quote from Marx epitomizes the endless churning of modernity, the constant uncertainty produced by the needs of the market. Our needs and wants are satisfied, not by our local environment, family and friends but an ever-expanding machine of production and consumption. We live, not according to the natural rhythms of our lives but to the sound of the standardized mechanical clock.
Each of us, living within the comfort of consumption, security and democracy are so distant from the sources of our existence - the soil, seas and rivers that feed us, the water that we drink, the satisfaction of cooperation with others, growing our food, raising our children. We no longer hunt for our food, we do not need to fear starvation or death. But we are inexorably lost to ourselves. By removing the timelessness of chaos, we have removed ourselves from every possible danger, every the possible outcome except that which we have predicted and anticipated. The big price is our lives. We exchange certainty for danger, comfort for chaos. And in exchange we relinquish Time. Ecology, spirituality, commerce, environmentalism, we have words for everything but these words don't help us understand our disorientation. Because they are part of the edifice: the systematic segmentation and organisation that is at the heart of living out of Time separately from ourselves, from each other, from nature.
What is Ecology to me? It is an idea, a fantasy, a dream of another, timeless world where I am connected to the world and myself in ways that I can only glimpse at, imagine, hope for. In a million simple ways I am aware of how I have lost connection to the obvious, rational, reality that formed the basis of human evolution for millennia. I am, with everyone else, lost in complexity, historical amnesia and a paralyzing awareness of my own powerlessness. Only art seems to have the power to restore something of this unblemished sense of timelessness to me. Art, at its best returns us to a bigger sense of our own purpose, the bigger picture of our life journeys. It restores balance to us individually and as a society. It's not the solution to environmental problems, but it is part of our ecology. As humans, we have made art from the moment we discovered tools and probably before.
In Brighton there is an exhibition and discussion space calledOnca,dedicated to the promotion of discussions around Ecology, using Art as the medium. Onca's mission is to inspire creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change. They have an upstairs area where anyone can organise discussions and a downstairs gallery for exhibitions on Ecology. It was the Director and trustees of Onca that asked me, 'What does Ecology mean to you?"
As an artist I can only hope to eventually answer that question.
Radio Three are currently running a wonderful series askingwhy we make music.
There's also a lovely simple video by The School of Life on Art's purpose in restoring balance in society called What is Art For?