by Erik Baard
Yet despite this powerful, primordial drive, we turn away from life at our feet when with some labor, it could be replenished. Why?
Majora Carter has made the Herculean task of turning a truck-choked section of NYC into a greener, healthier place for families her daily job and mission. She founded and directs Sustainable South Bronx, which started a local green roof movement, trains residents for “green collar” jobs, created a waterfront park, and is swinging resources behind a greenway. She became a MacArthur Fellow in 2005 for her pioneering achievements.
As a South Bronx native, Carter knows how completely people can be severed from their landscape.
“They don’t see it as an environment, period. That’s why they go to Jones Beach,” said Carter.
But aren’t we always aware, at some level, that we are in nature? A bird flying overhead, a sprout shooting up through a crack in the pavement, and periods of rain and sun remind us. Our streets aren’t the sterile clean rooms of a microengineering lab. Biodecathection recognizes that we suffer from something more nuanced than depravation. Subconsciously we are lowered into a grinding state of constant mourning. And we worsen our lot in the long run by submitting to the immediate impulse to turn away from the source of that grief.
I don’t want to overstate the power of biodecathection in relation to biophilia. The latter is such a fundamental part of our makeup that it can’t be countervailed. There is no equal and opposite force. Even executives of the worst polluting companies enjoy lunch in the park, or vacations to idyllic spots. In that sense, maybe biophilia’s place in our psyche is akin to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of the Creator: while there are destructive urges, creation is more potent. Dualism is an illusion. I believe that biodecathection is merely the greatest of the lesser forces arrayed against biophilia (and a small outgrowth of it).
Another drain is biophillic misdirection. Parents, educators, and environmentalists often lament that kids today prefer to stay indoors immersed in videogames, television, and other multimedia. The industry of animation derives its name from anima, Latin for “living” and the older Sanskrit aniti, “he breathes.” Let’s recall that the first definition of biophilia given by Wilson was the “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (my italics). In short, modern entertainment companies are parasites profitably siphoning energy from biophilia’s wiring.
David Orr proposed a phenomenon of biophobia, an aversion to environments outside human control. While the urge to have dominion over Earth certainly could grow out of specific phobias exaggerated well beyond their reasonable origins – snakes and spiders can deliver venomous bites, extremely open or closed spaces leave us vulnerable – I have a hard time buying that our species has turned neurotic in such a wholesale fashion. And an aversion to contamination, a disgust response, is learned early. But those studies focused on specific objects that were easily replaced, not the ecosystems upon which we depend.
Another negative force is less abstract. There are people with a vested interest in keeping voters and neighborhoods disconnected from their environment. A conscious realization of environmental degradation, with the full emotional infusion that would entail, would undermine a momentarily profitable false faith in Nature’s endless bounty and regeneration. And people who are eco-emotionally depressed to the point of resignation, to sad slumber, are ideal neighbors for toxic industries. Awakening brings pain. Pain engenders anger. Anger demands change.
It starts with cathecting, a word that derives from the Greek kathexis, “to hold.” Carter recalls in the documentary “City of Water” that her community needed something to “smell, touch, taste” to believe in its power to resurrect Hunts Point, its environs, and the Bronx River.
The American Littoral Society leads volunteer shoreline cleanups that have gathered up hundreds of tons of floatable trash from the shorelines of New York State alone (pictured above is a recent cleanup of Plumb Beach, Brooklyn by volunteers in partnership with ALS, the NYC DEP, and National Parks Service). Grassroots neighborhood groups link up with Partnerships for Parks to replenish and plant. The New York Restoration Project’s staff and neighborhood volunteers have turned hypodermic needle-strewn lots into gardens and revivified parks once thought to be hopeless cases.
I don’t know how much the visceral experience of biophilia can transfer to a global consciousness. I don’t believe biophilia encompasses systems so large that they become abstract; evolution would have no basis for selecting for that attribute. But perhaps some of the epiphanies of the environmental movement are nudging us in that direction – the iconic Apollo 17 photo, the Gaia hypothesis’ pop personification of the global ecosystem (even if that’s not what James Lovelock intended).
What I do know is this: Each neighborhood is an ecosystem and we need to cathect. We something we can champion, something we can heal. Something we can hold and that will persuade us that it’s worth the risk of feeling again. We need Bernie Ente’s green heron as much as it needs us.