Posts Tagged ‘biodecathection’

Plumb Beach, Brooklyn cleanup 




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.

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Green heron on the Newtown Creek by Bernard Ente

by Erik Baard

I often visit the Newtown Creek by kayak. When sentiment overtakes me and I talk to it, it’s without much expectation, much as with a dying elder who seems insensate.

Its breast rises and falls with the mechanically reliable tides, but that life support won’t return vibrancy to the body at its inland stretches. Those extremities are stilled. Sandy slopes where creatures once skittered and slithered have long-since been replaced by stained retaining walls. Nothing below is attuned to the the muffled sound of my voice, nothing darts from the turbulence of my paddle. The brightness of the sun and moon glints but doesn’t register. It’s an ecosystem in deep coma.

This was once a marshy expanse rich in herbs, grasses, blue fish, striped bass, waterfowl, turtles, and oysters. Small, family farms later flourished, harnessing tides to cleanly turn grain mills. Of the local apples, Thomas Jefferson boastfully wrote from Paris in the 1780s, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin.”

Starting in the 19th century, landfill truncated the meandering, sustaining tributaries, erasing all 1.5 miles of its tidal wetlands. Industries including leather tanning, paint production, and metal refining left toxic deposits on the creek bottom; six state superfund sites flank the creek whiles dozens more are contaminated. In the 1950s, Standard Oil (precursor to Exxon-Mobile) spilt at least 17 million gallons of its product underground in a plume that now encompasses 55 acres. Raw sewage and untreated stormwater gushes into the creek at a rate of 2.7 billion gallons per year.

This green heron stood in the backwaters of one of the Newtown Creek’s branches, gingerly perched atop the protruding wood edge of a collapsed pier. The first thing I saw in Bernie Ente’s marvelous photo was the brilliant conversation of colors. But that superficial stimulation yields quickly to sad awareness of the water’s oily sheen and the sulfurous black muck smeared across the balloons’ faces. Certainly sympathy is drawn into those alert yellow eyes. But there’s a broader malaise in a scene like this, a sense of a place where life itself seems irrevocably aggrieved.

Now imagine living next to it. After a time, would you turn away? Would you leave your neighborhood to seek “nature” elsewhere, even if as a tourist?

That shrinking away from one’s own ecosystem is what might be called biodecathection. Decathecting begins the grieving process; we withdraw in anticipation of loss. It’s emotionally self-protective. In the case of a long degradation destined to snuff out a beloved ecosystem, I believe it grows outward from a collection of personal experiences into a cultural meme. It spawns neglect. We abandon corners of our city where riotous wilderness has been hushed to a thready pulse. A corner where the heron surveys the damage.

I came to the idea of biodecathection amidst something of a crisis of faith in one of the most important underpinnings of my volunteer work and hobbies: biophilia, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s insight that humanity is born with a hunger for the very presence of life. Possessing that word let me harness the passion by which I was possessed.

One person who seems quite well-qualified to give biodecathection a sniff test is Stephen Kellert, co-editor, with Wilson, of The Biophilia Hypothesis and author of Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. His recent book, Building for Life, guides readers toward design that integrates biophillic wisdom. I asked point blank if there was merit to this idea.

“I suspect there is. There’s no question in my mind anyway that when environmental systems are degraded there’s a great emotional impact. There’s a kind of grief and one way of dealing is to shut it out, to deny it,” said Kellert, who is the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Co-Director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology. “If you have a sort of diagnosis, if you know what the problem is, you might find a remedial approach.”

The “cure” for biodecathection is to take the emotional risk of full engagement in the renaissance of an ecosystem. Muddy hands, grit under the fingernails, sunburned calves, aching shoulders, stiff backs, bug bites. Hours spent in dreaming up solutions to the problem with partners, arguing them out, and passionately advocating for them.

As Kellert said, “Getting people involved in restoration is a powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual event. It can be an incredible act of atonement that’s intensely gratifying.”

It’s also a social event, given the enormity of the challenge. Indeed, ours communities heal with our ecologies. They are one.

It’ll be up to the pros to test the applicability of the biodecathection diagnosis. Many researchers have demonstrated the usefulness of the biophilia concept in the decades since its 1984 introduction in a book of that name. Tapping the human desire to affiliate with other species has made school curricula more compelling, cities more sustainable, parenting more interactive, and homes more comforting. Social psychologist Frances Kuo of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign reported that kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder performed better in tests of their concentration after just minimal exposure to greenery. Some children’s advocates have even gone so far as to repackage that label as Nature Deficit Disorder.

Anyone can immediately sense the stress that grows with passing hours in a barren setting, especially one where life once thrived. Lush locales induce the opposite effect. No wonder why resorts pull in billions of dollars to their retreats amidst green mountains and tropical islands.

Unbroken background stress, which can emanate from living in a despoiled environment, can overtime interrupt sleep patterns, exacerbate heart conditions, weaken the immune system, and cause otherwise cause illness. But episodic stress exists for a reason. It drives us to take necessary action. One obvious action to take when scraping by in a challenged ecosystem is to plod on to find a new one, lured by this psychological force of biophilia. Certainly humanity has migrated great distances to settle the planet, and quests for lands of plenty have shaped history. But is that all we’re about – acquiring, fouling the nest, and moving on? As disappointed as I am with our species, I’m not that uncharitable.

I propose that if our intelligence evolved from a need to keep track of complex social networks, then our minds are naturally predisposed to building webs, complex manifestations of order, like ecosystems. “Play” reinforces survival behaviors in all species; I would put art and gardening in that category. The roots of agriculture are here, but only to a point. Intensive monocultures covering thousands of acres don’t bring the same sense of wellbeing as diverse, if smaller, gardens.


Coming tomorrow in Part 2: Healthy skepticism from Majora Carter, and a discussion of what other forces are arrayed against biophilia.

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