I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.
Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.
Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.
Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).
There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.
So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.
We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.
We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.