The Role of Culture in Getting Us Into, and Out of, the Environmental Crisis We Face
The first event in the Synchronicity Earth Deeper Thinking Series was so popular, we had to find a bigger venue. This was enormously encouraging, suggesting to us that our (small) community is ready to dig deep. As synchronicity would have it, Jeremy Lent was back in town and looking to strike up a conversation.
LISTEN: What does culture mean to you?
Thinking about Jeremy’s ideas on how culture is patterned into us, we decided to unpack how our relationship – or lack of relationship – to the natural world directly correlates to our accepted historic cultural frames. We considered how our dominant economic, cultural, and political paradigms have led us down an ecologically destructive path. To the conversation, we brought in Jerome Lewis, to provide anthropological insight into what it means to be human, at the most fundamental level. We then paired both Jeremy and Jerome with Ella Saltmarshe, who kept us focused on the practical path towards reshaping our future and the importance of creating new narratives.
Over the course of the evening, we explored three main components: how culture shapes our values and how values shape the world we live in; how culture and values determine our relationship with nature; and what new cultural narratives are needed to move us away from the environmental crisis we are facing.
The conversations took us across time and deep into human history, demonstrating the rich cultural contexts that we have inherited and that shape so much of who we are today. It became apparent that the choices we make are informed by years and years of prior acceptance – etched frameworks that have shaped humanity throughout time. Whether it was Jeremy, talking about the values of ownership we began to acquire when we developed into agrarian societies and the inequalities that arose as a result; Ella’s insights into the role of advertising as the dominant storyteller in our world or Jerome describing our evolution as the only ‘singing primate’ and how this has shaped our culture, the range of topics touched upon was vast, varied and profoundly thought-provoking.
The evening gave us space to consider how the current cultural frames most of us live by – at least in the ‘Western’ world – particularly those determining our relationship to nature, became so dominant. By understanding how we got here, might we be able to chart a course towards a healthier, more sustainable relationship with nature? Can we imagine an alternative cultural narrative, one that puts the needs of the natural world on a par with our own?
For me, the importance of context, for conservation as in any field of work, cannot be underestimated. This may be relatively obvious when we think about working in different countries and varied landscapes. The importance of context is perhaps not so obvious when we consider the less tangible factors that determine who we are and how we behave: culture, language, history. These frames define much about us: who we are – and what we bring to the efforts by way of our own cultural frames can help us to imagine and develop the most rational responses to conserving the natural world which we depend on. In effect, we bring our context with us, and therefore, it is important to, well, know thyself.
Knowing ourselves may also provide clues about why so many aspects of contemporary Western society have become so estranged from the natural world. Spending time, diving a bit deeper into ‘how we got here’ can help us navigate ‘how we get out of here.’
Though we are heading down a destructive course, the future is not yet written, and solutions exist – now we need to implement them at scale. This will require much greater personal, political and cultural will. Context, we must remember, isn’t concrete. It is ever changing.
Jeremy Lent and Ella Saltmarshe
LISTEN: How does culture shape our history and our values?
LISTEN: How we can start to change the cultural narratives which inform how we live?