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Review of The Last American Man

Five years ago I had my own domain, tsigolohcysp.com. I have resurrected it just now so you can read my rants. One was about the Anthropecene, which included a section halfway down about domestication of humans. I also wrote a manifesto against such a thing. These topics relate to the fields of ecopsychology, environmental psychology and conservation psychology, compared here. A related, easily digestible academic piece is Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populationsThis contains a good scene setter:

In the last few hundred years, there has been an extraordinary disengagement of humans from the natural environment (Axelrod and Suedfeld, 1995; Beck and Katcher, 1996; Katcher and Beck, 1987). This is mostly due to the enormous shift of people away from rural areas into cities (Katcher and Beck, 1987). In evolutionary terms, ‘the urban environment is a spontaneous, changeable and historically unfamiliar habitat’ [McMichael, 2001 (p. 252)]. Never in history have humans spent so little time in physical contact with animals and plants, and the consequences are unknown (Katcher and Beck, 1987). Already, some research has shown that too much artificial stimulation and an existence spent in purely human environments may cause exhaustion and produce a loss of vitality and health (Katcher and Beck, 1987; Stilgoe, 2001). Modern society, by its very essence, insulates people from outdoor environmental stimuli (Stilgoe, 2001) and regular contact with nature (Katcher and Beck, 1987). Some believe humans may not be fully adapted to an urban existence (Kellert and Wilson, 1993; Glendinning, 1995; Kellert, 1997;Burns, 1998; McMichael, 2001). With parks and public nature reserves often their only means of accessing nature, the majority of urban-dwelling individuals may have all but forgotten their connections with the natural world.

~paragraph 4.

There is some awareness about this in popular culture already, for example this book about a psychological intervention using nature: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderAnother book is The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert. I will start my review of it with a couple of passages. The first is from p. 8, where the author takes it upon herself to state the following about the kind of person she is…

image

The second is from p. 132 where some weird shit happens…

image

It’s clear from these pages that this is a book written by a bit of a loser about a man whose image has gone to his head. If he is the last American Man, I’m fine with that.

I think the general topic, though, of losing our wildness and taking away that of this planet is a topic worth some thought. Up front one has to acknowledge that the project of the modern world has a point. It’s nice to escape from the dangers of nature. We can be proud of ourselves for having overcome many of the diseases given to us by it through the invention of vaccines, for example. We also need to be aware, however, of the costs of domesticating ourselves and seizing control of nature. Of becoming, ourselves, a force of nature.

By taking control of the earth we run the risk of disturbing the ecosystem. This may sound like I’m launching into an environmentalist rant but actually it’s practical. Sure, this is a planet, but a better way to think about it here is that it is a spaceship. Like the spaceships we see in movies, it has life support systems. In movies these are fancy technology, but on earth this is the ecosystem. It is made up of ‘nature’, ‘natural things’. Like rivers, oceans, plants, animals and cycles linking them all together into one system which provides conditions adequate for life in space.

If we mess with the ecosystem, we could be putting at risk our ability to survive in space. It’s that simple. From the same movies, we have countless examples of what happens when life support systems are compromised or there is a hole in the hull. An example of us putting a hole in the hull because of us being unleashed as a force of nature is the hole in the ozone layer created by our releasing massive amounts of CFCs. The repair of this hole has not been completed. People still suffer fast sunburn in the southern hemisphere because of it.

Clearly, we have the ability to compromise the life support systems of this spaceship (more commonly, but unhelpfully in this context, thought of as the ecosystem of this planet). At the moment we only have one of these craft, and only one man appears to be interested in redundancy. We need to be very careful, therefore, in wielding our newfound power as a force of nature.

Eustace Conway is a bit of a tool, and clearly there are better messengers than Elizabeth Gilbert. I see people like him as being useful, however, in making us aware of the capabilities and even the mere existence of this space ship’s life support system. I think the whole manliness game is a distraction here from the exposure to the life support system that his way of life offers.

No one wants to return to nature and all of its dangers and I’m not advocating that. It would be stupid, however, to go through life unaware of what you depend upon. Just like you would look like an inferior astronaut being unaware of the need to avoid puncturing the hull of your spaceship or forgetting to maintain the oxygen scrubber.

We are all involuntary astronauts. Time to act like we know it. Happily, The Next Industrial Revolution has already begun, see next post.

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This entry was posted on November 11, 2015 by in Environment, Literature and tagged , .

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