We gathered in the foyer of the British Museum, underneath a banner for the latest exhibition; Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds. We weren’t queueing for tickets; we stood in silence, in a circle, as an act of witness to the destruction being caused in the pursuit of profit by the company sponsoring that exhibition – BP.
Holding a Quaker Meeting is a very simple protest – if that is what it even is – that means space is gently occupied by a group of peaceful people, whose presence draws attention to something everyone would be able to see anyway, if they were to look. Not just BP’s logo – that’s obvious – but casting a light on the all of the systemic violence that has brought that corporation into one of our museums in the first place. BP are not sponsoring our museums and art galleries because they have a great love of art, culture and history – they are there because they need to sanitise their image, and to ensure their view of their world remains hegemonic.
Normally in Quaker Meeting I flit between letting my mind wander wherever it goes, and gently bringing my attention back to my breath, to the flowers or water on the table, to the light coming through the window, to the week I’ve had or the week coming, or to the most recent piece of ministry. In the British Museum, I found my mind settled on the words written on a banner held aloft at the COP 21 protests in Paris:
“We are not fighting for nature – we are nature defending herself.”
In these words there is a sense of hope and interconnection that startles, baffles, and comforts. “We are nature defending herself” speaks of a radical break with the status quo – capitalism’s constant thirst for more resources and ever expanding growth, that is so often achieved to the detriment of societies and cultures, and the destruction of forests, deserts, rivers, lakes, seas, air, animals, birds, insects, fish. Deeper though, those words act as a break with the standard rhetoric of many environmental campaigns and activists; that system tweaks are all that are needed, not systemic and cultural change. I’m convinced we need a radical change in how we use the earth’s resources, and that that has to be nurtured within a radical shift in our relationship with nature, of how we see ourselves in relation to nature.
Stepping back a little, it seems violence is made possible when we are able to effectively distance ourselves from the victim. At a talk I attended recently, a member of Veterans for Peace described the psychological reconditioning that takes place in military training as as important as the physical preparation for war. In his book ‘On Killing’, David Grossman described how in the First World War many soldiers – physically prepared but not mentally reconditioned – ended up not firing their weapons, but by the Vietnam War and onwards the military had ‘successfully’ raised the kill rate, by training soldiers differently. The VfP member described being taught to ‘shoot at the mass’ (rather than the ‘body’, or ‘person’) from distances that made it harder to relate to the target.
Is it trite to suggest a similar reconditioning in terms of our relationship with ‘nature’? Have we been taught to see ourselves as inherently separate from the rest of the earth, to see the earth as an object? Has this allowed us to accept and participate in ecocide?
Have we been conditioned to see nature as an object to meet our own ends, rather than something we have an inherent, deep connection with, something (everything?!) that has value in and of itself? Do we know how to look at a tree, an animal, a river, an insect, a whole ecosystem, as something inherently valuable, regardless of whether we manage to extract resources from it, consume it, even visit it to ‘enjoy’ it? How would we (re)learn how to do that? Could we?
George Monbiot explored some of these themes in ‘Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding’, a fascinating account of how areas of the Earth’s lands and seas might be allowed to return to wild forest and ocean. He dares us to imagine hundreds of acres of forest, with wolves roaming free in Scotland and wild boar in the south of England, and at the same time imagine what rewilding ourselves would mean; indeed, he suggests it would take a degree of rewilding our hearts and minds to find the idea of boars and wolves palatable. For this to be possible, for this healing of our planet to take place, it feels like we need new stories (or to remind ourselves of old ones) about what a healthy relationship with nature is about; relearning this will be deeply spiritual, as we redetermine what and how we value, how we understand our roles and relationships. It will be a grand shift, away from capitalism, growth, extraction, and profit.
And so when corporations like BP look at our world and only see oil to be extracted and profit squeezed from the very rocks, we should balk. And when corporations invade our cultural spaces to legitimise their worldview, we should act to expose them.