I have written elsewhere about how we people in the present age largely see the natural world solely as a resource; a utility, a storehouse to be tapped on demand. Whether we view it from a point of view as tourists of exotic savannahs and rainforests; or as food for consumption; as entertainment; as potential nuisance and harm; as materials for providing goods and services in general; the case with the natural world it is still the that ‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you.’ but in a way almost a burlesque of the Biblical dispensation.
Robert Burns wrote to his tiny subject in his celebrated poem; ‘To a Mouse’:
‘I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union’
And this topic is my theme in this piece today.
Firstly I want to look at wildlife programmes on TV and radio; and at how these are being presented and so perhaps get to the bottom of what presuppositions are held in common between audiences and presenters of them.
Of course, as one would expect, especially from biologists and persons who work with animals, and particularly with wild animals, Darwin’s theories, as these have developed since he wrote them, are high on the list of presuppositions of wildlife presentations. It is presumed always that in the wild life is hard and nature rigorously, even harshly, is ever in action sorting wheat from chaff and winners from losers. No sense that ‘every dog has its day’ or that it might sometimes be ‘summertime and the living is easy’. Alongside this presumption are the distant and inaccessible places, the remote and most inhospitable parts of the world, inimical to human life, which are those most favoured by the programme makers. So that, in contrast with our plushly-furnished living rooms, the ambience is stark and our own comforts and ease are thus felt as being accentuated. Why is this?
A meadow of flowers in late spring is not a subject for television; it pulls in few audiences; nothing moves or preys, nothing is at immediate risk or facing hardships. ‘The uncertain glory of an April day’ is pretty tame stuff in our mental worlds. I have written elsewhere about the need to thrill and to captivate audiences with fast hectic and risk-taking action which appears to be the essential one thing needful for ‘good’ television in the present age. Thrillers, spies, cliff-hangers, whodunits, and such, are all the fare which is the order of the day. Ever, of course, upping-the-ante, turning the screw, ratcheting up that extra notch of sensation and tension, thrill and shock. This of course applies to wildlife programmes every bit as much as to fiction (and factual) TV – but there is more than only this here.
The idea of the natural world as at best indifferent, and for the most part hostile to human life and values; that all out there is ‘red in tooth and claw’ and thereabouts only the fittest survive; all this partakes of our general outlooks as well as partaking of Darwinism and of a commonplace romanticism being applied to Darwin.
There thus exists a large and precipitous divide opened up, between our understandings of nature, and our understandings of our own contemporary ways of life. Nature is a spectacle for us; a place we look upon as being elsewhere, almost to the point of it seeming to us to be alien to our own selves and our societies. A disconnect exists. It is akin to the same disconnect many of us bear in our apprehensions about the nature and sources of our food, of our medicines and medical treatments, of our deaths, of our human fellows in other places than those with which we are familiar – as if instead of TV bringing the world into our homes it has instead brought a means to see the world and remain untouched by the world it is showing to us.
And not just TV but our grocery shopping, our shopping for clothes, and our general economic setup whereby we are wholly removed from the fact of resourcing, manufacture and preparation of all the things which current lives seem to feel are required necessities for living. Even the maintenance and repair of aeroplanes, train engines and ships; all happen ‘behind closed doors’ just as death and ritual burial happens ever elsewhere than in our ken or our fields of activity and presence. At a service we see a boxed up corpse sent into instant incineration or buried; a great cosmetic operation has been performed on the contents beforehand so as to dress nicely the window of death. We see only flowers and tears; sweet things but nothing blatantly and factually material concerning the demise. The very thought of being confronted with such is unseemly to many minds and eyes ears and noses; but how far this is a reflection upon us rather than upon the fact of death and its dreadfulness is a moot question indeed.
In the same way we kill our meats in abattoirs again on the other side of a closed door from meat’s consumers. There are few scenic shows on abattoirs on TV and on the processes by which we get our meats as it comes to us from our butcher’s shop or supermarket. Like all foods it is for the most part wrapped in polythene, possibly vacuum packed or packed in a sterile or irradiated atmosphere; no chance of a human hand having touched it since it was slaughtered – yet God knows what antibiotics and other drugs have been pumped into the animal it came from whilst it was alive and into the meat itself once the animal has been killed? Ah, but this is all good antiseptic stuff being pumped in and it is all for our goods, our healths our wellbeings. Drugs and chemicals, packaging and presentation of meat and other goods is not, is never done, for the sake of marketing or for the sake of offering farmers and others better yields and so greater profits? God forbid! And of course when all this happens behind closed doors we are spared from the nasty and even distressing scenes because of the care and consideration of the abattoir managers and of the manufactures of other goods; who have only our finer feelings at heart. Of course we can trust them. Of course there are not less noble reasons why we do not see, are not easily able to see or to keep tabs on what goes on behind these doors. God forbid!
I am not suggesting anything unlawful or against regulations and regulatory bodies goes on thereabouts; what I am suggesting is that what goes on even though lawful is often felt by those with the say to be done better without sight of and without a knowledge of the actual factual processes, being encouraged to a general public.
Thus we have a benevolent consumerism, benevolent as much as, if not more, towards producers and towards the cult of entrepreneurship than towards the consumer, who is just a piece in the puzzle of the quest of wealth, All is backed to the hilt by government, and again we are felt best served to be removed alienated from production of near all consumer goods.
The emphasis of wildlife programmes is to reinforce the feeling that home is not like that; that home is a place where one need not keep oneself fit to be able to survive; home is a cosy insulated, kapok-lined safe-nest. Nature is other; is antagonistic to life; it is not human or soft and gentle, like those soapflakes which one is warned on the packet not to get in one’s eyes or to leave open near children.
This cosy-home feeling is extensible for many of us to out of doors and to social ‘networking’ in general. The close and insular safety and assurance of a personal ‘network’ wherein one gets involved in and embroiled with fruitless tete-a-tetes which signify little except that little is happening or else registering in the minds of their participants.
Visibly, in manifold ways, it is as plain as the nose on one’s face that our society, it seems to me deliberately, is being closed down from news and understanding, and from awareness of the basic material conditions of life and living. These basic material conditions are not necessarily hostile, perhaps rarely so, nor even often indifferent – we have bread to eat and ale to drink – but whilst we are directed to be focused on buying and selling, on games and on sports and leisure, and on producing and making money; we are in no way able to turn our attentions to more foundational things, such as quo bono from all this hive of hectic activity we name in the present to be our liberal way of life?
It appears to me to be very likely that the mass of people, and myself too, I say, I am just another guy, no-one special, we are being herded and managed like the flocks of sheep and the corrals of beef; which we are not encouraged to access because these things are being managed behind blinds and shutters. This is not so much the result of a conscious conspiracy as it is a consequence of a cartel of unwritten, perhaps unacknowledged, agreement on an ethos acquiesced in by what might be called – remembering that scum as well as cream rises to the top – the big entrepreneurial few.
These are those who claim for themselves a title of ‘opinion-former’ and who are contented and self-assured enough to feel that they have the nous and the means and the right and the opportunity to say what goes and how things should be run and set in order.
Whoever is there amongst us, except the fortunate few who maybe have seen in Christ (or perhaps elsewhere?) another and far better way; who is not the person to capitalise (the word itself gives the game away) on their position were they to be happily translated into such a high and hot seat at a United Nations of predation that is Capitalism? And if this is true, and I fear it is, then are we to expect those who have catapulted themselves into that stratosphere of Capital to become plaster saints and so to keep a weather-eye out for us rather than to seek out every opportunity for themselves and for their own advancements?
Thus, this is the rationale behind this Troupe of Thieves and Robbers; for them to promote to us their own ethos of ‘every man for himself and the weakest goes to the wall’; and yet be full aware that this ethos of theirs is a divide and rule policy of theirs for their managing of the many; and likewise another management policy is the overwhelming undiluted feelgood factor which is ubiquitously promoted in their consumerism, TV and movie shows, advertising, entertainment, sports, and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all; which for most of us comprises a life. All this is merely window-dressing, herding and flocking, diversion and distraction, a keeping of us ‘happy’ whilst they continue to ransack the planet so as to amass yet more wealth and grandiose power (dreams). No wonder we have the term ‘midlife crisis’; a time when people look forward and take stock and draw a blank about what life might really be about.
We find ourselves at a loss in a way similar to the gorgeous ladies and fine gentlemen in Robert Browning’s poem ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’:
‘As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?”
As for nature and that part of the natural world we refer to as ‘the wild’; and as for the painted hostility of nature to its creatures and vegetations; the supposed stark harshness and difficulty of surviving in the wild and so on; the fact remains that creatures do reproduce successfully ‘after their kind’ and that there is – just as there is in our own lives – very often a petulant and abandoned period of early youth, followed by a full summer of light and heat with a graceful autumnal winding down before the dark days come in. This is the way with most of nature; and nature provides for its creation just as it provides for us – even though oftentimes we are not well-sighted sufficiently to appreciate that this is the bedrock we remain reliant on and subsistent upon.
Thus under a belief that offence will be given to others of other religions which do not have such a celebration, Harvest Festival is no longer enjoyed as a Thanksgiving to God in many British schools. I am astonished that there might be religions which have no awareness of the bounty of Providence towards men and women, but this is the excuse given – in truth. The fact might be more likely that Harvest Festival has dwindled because our general awareness and appreciation of nature as bountiful; and of our reliance upon it being so; has similarly dwindled. And along with such a loss of realisation of these connections to whereabouts some of our most important roots lie, has come too a concomitant loss in quality of life. Thus we have lives centred on trivia and on marketed leisure; on gossip and on ‘beat your neighbour at his own game’ and on a whole raft of infills and makeshifts which have supplanted an appreciation for a life of gratitude and praise towards the provider of all good thing to us – in whichever shape or form one might wish to try to understand or grasp the idea of such an entity.
I feel that I am rowing against the current and that the wind is not behind me; I am very much aware that I come across to many as antiquated and as ‘living in the past’ and maybe perhaps as ‘unable to accept the fact’ of post modern understanding and post this and that. Yet I have read post modernist works and many I have enjoyed and found useful to me in clearing my mind on issues and thoughts. I listen now and then to highbrow-type shows on radio mostly; maybe I read a blog or two weekly also; and I feel I could give a fair account of what the current orthodox intellectual position is -for British intellectuals anyway.
My heart is however firmly with the divines of the Reformation and the two hundred years that followed it in Britain; the time in which the King James Bible was made and The Westminster Divines did their works; when the great Puritans lived and some of them went to found what was to become the USA; this was I believe a Golden Age for religious thought and endeavour; and one which had large and yet-enduring political consequences.
I feel very much that we have, during the past two hundred years, junked the baby, particularly with Christmas hard approaching, I may say – the Christ child – with the bathwater when we emptied the waste away.
As a result our horizons far from having become broader and more exciting – for all that science and technology has delivered to us – have narrowed severely and our freedoms and our awarenesses are constrained and delimited abruptly: curtailed, compared to the horizons available and availed of by persons over much of 2000 plus, maybe 6000 plus, years of history.
Let me give you an instance of this ironic and sad state of affairs. Copernicus and Galileo were penalised and persecuted because they each saw clearly that man is not the centre of things and earth not in the centre astronomically-speaking – and this clear-sightedness posed a great threat to the authority and continuance of the Church. The fear of the Church was that people just might start ‘going their own way – like sheep’ and drifting away from the Church itself. This fear was varnished over and presented in a form saying that Galileo and Copernicus were anathema and even antichrist; that they were mistaken and wrong. Either way they had to be silenced if this was at all possible. In order for the Church to remain with a firm foot in the door of every person’s house men had to remain at the centre of things astronomically as well as in all other things. The anthropologists term this conceptual centring of mankind ‘anthropocentrism’.
Galileo is a folk hero these days; he is one of the exemplary justifications for our science and its achievements. A role model. It is due to him and his like, so the story goes, than men and women became able to move away from anthropocentrism and so ‘move on’ and become set free in mind to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’ etc etc. OK accepted – all good.
I was hearing a term used yet again last evening on a show named ‘Freethinking’ on BBC Radio 3 when a pundit spoke of an ‘anthropocene’ age, and even more pretentiously of an era presumed yet to be and named by men and women as the ‘post-anthropocene’. These terms I assume are ones inspired by the geological classification of aeons and eras of ancient prehistory right up to our present time which is normally called the Quaternary Age. The terms mean: firstly ‘anthropocene’ means ‘the age of man’ of his presence and dominance on earth; and secondly ‘post-anthropocene’ is that putative age to be wherein no human beings have survived and the species homo-sapiens is extinct.
Here we have the age in which we are living defined and delimited by it being ‘the age of men and of their domination of the earth’: I do not think the medieval Church could have put better its own view of life. Further, the gall with which the purveyors of these terms have presumed that there is without doubt to be an age in which humans have died out and become a species extinct, is stupendously audacious in its presumption and hubris. Here we have displayed one of the crucial maladies which define our age, the age of man (sic); and this is our self-satisfaction and complacency, our racing certainty that we are dead right; so that I might say as Job says to his persecutors: ‘I see that you are the people and that wisdom with die with you.’
Where is our modesty; our humbleness, our respect for nature and for the progression of time to do as it pleases rather than us backing that horse which comes in when we shall all expire? It is indeed the great arrogance of the Church all over again; only with a fixated belief that our science and technology and our human brainpower combined cannot be matched or prevented in any way – we know we are right.
It is little wonder we have little charity towards those in the world drinking dirty polluted water; and eating husks and scavenged roots, who live on a few cents diet a day in no sort of house or home we should consider suitable. The people who are little better of than slaves and working in atrocious conditions which make our precious concerns for health and safety and for 24/7 A&E (Emergency Room) services look like Paradise on earth. We have so weak an association of empathy and sympathy with such persons not because ‘that was in another country and besides the wench is dead’ but because our own horizons are so curtailed and stunted. We do not ‘live’ their suffering alongside with them and inside us as we see and we hear of their travails; we are unable to relate because ours is a world, a society, wherein so much has been insulated from us for our comforts and so much shoved under the carpets for us for our peace of mind: And for the pockets of the entrepreneurial few to bulge yet bigger.
‘I am half-sick of shadows said
The Lady of Shallot’
Rather than us biting the bullet and taking the plunge and testing the water or sucking and seeing for ourselves we are contented, and even so blasé as not to care sufficiently to become contented with, going out there and seeing for ourselves and feeling for ourselves the misery of so many people’s lives in these awful places. And also and marvellously so – how such afflicted people can be hospitable and smile and be welcoming and pleasant and overboard with a rush of overflowing loveliness to the stranger from the wealthy place who has dropped into see them and their ways of life.
My friend went to East Africa in the noughties. He was in his early forties and he went out with a team to build a clinic for people there. Noble enough. He was astonished, shocked and appalled at what he found when he arrived in the village – he had never conceived such deprivation could exist and yet human lives could bear it and stay functioning and functional. He was a graduate. He was not a recluse or a wallflower – he was a ‘networker’ and still is; and I would say at least compared to me a dynamic person. One who kept himself bang up to date on what concerned or interested him.
Yet here he was as if he had flown not to the sub Sahara but to Neptune or Pluto and found undiscovered unimagined life existent there. I wondered where he had been when the TV had posted up so blatantly such environments across the nation as it is wont to do now and then? I am no traveller; but many many persons here in UK are so very very embedded, and inured to a comfortable easy life, that such pictures of factual horror just do not sink-in for them as being the reality in certain parts of the world. Our softness of life has made us insensitive. Dylan puts it less kindly and sings:
‘Your corrupt ways have finally made you blind’
Just as the daily doses of horror during the Vietnam years and the daily doses of horror in the post Iraq war 2 years as promoted daily by TV and radio news and newsreel; just as much of it just passed many of us by as being ‘not our back yards’, so it is with these horrors of suffering around the globe when we become exposed to reportage of them – although this said many people do really yet remain guilt stricken here about Iraq.
Just as we find hard our connecting back with nature and with its basis for all life including our own human lives; so we find it equally hard to connect across the sea to foreign peoples, who are yet humans like us, and who are trapped in lives of such deplorable squalor. Much more and rather we would as easily find it in our hearts to complain bitterly and show intemperate anger at our Foreign Aid budgets being ‘too high’ and at our taxes and other dues being outrageous; at our trains being late and the flight to southern Spain or to Orlando being delayed. Sadly too many of us don’t know we are born – as the saying goes.
King Lear, who lived in a royal palace all his eighty plus years before he found himself cast out and wildly maddened by the treatment that his usurping daughters dished out to him; he says when he bumps into a poor mad beggar who like Lear is also battling with and suffering in the great stormy weather going on around the dramatic action:
“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.”
It took Lear eighty plus years – but he got there eventually – thus there remains hope for us.
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