‘We Must Cultivate Our Garden’
Cultural Dimensions of Global Environmental Issues
Concern about the rampant destruction of our natural livelihood is also leading to a cultural quest that includes an urgent search for a way of life that allows us to conserve goods such as water, food and air, which are vital for our survival but are in short supply around the world. This quest is akin to a cultural revolution because in order to conserve such resources, we have to radically change our lifestyles, regardless of where we live in the world.
A cultural revolution would, for example, also entail turning our back on the way we generate power, which at present is heavily based on oil. We are approaching peak oil, the point at which the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached. According to some studies, we have already reached this point; others expect that we will reach it in the near future. At the moment, the world’s industrial systems are dependent on mineral oil. No less than 95 per cent of all industrially-manufactured products are made using it: e.g. fuels, lubricants, plastics, pharmaceuticals, dyes, or textiles. It is the basic prerequisite for the transportation of large amounts of goods over long distances. Oil-powered container ships, lorries, aircraft, and information technology are the backbone of globalisation. Yet oil-drilling catastrophes illustrate just how dangerous the methods used to extract this commodity, which is in increasingly short supply, are.
The oil business and our unquenchable thirst for petroleum are causing violence and misery and fostering undemocratic and corrupt political systems in many parts of the world. Many oil-producing countries are not only politically problematic, but are also characterised by undemocratic conditions. Numerous studies use the term ‘raw materials curse’ in the context of oil wealth. The author Ryszard Kapuściński, for example, has called oil a ‘resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts’. The lives of those who live along oil pipelines change forever. The Nigerian author Helon Habila describes the destructive power of oil in his 2012 novel Oil on Water.
Ecuador is showing the world one way of turning away from oil: its constitution affords equal protection to all living things. Moreover, the hope is that the UN will pay the country not to exploit its oil deposits, in order to preserve the rainforest, which is vital to the planet. Industry and security policy are currently trying to adapt to the post-fossil age. While work on ‘green technologies’ continues, people fear recession, food shortages, political instability, and war. Will the world become smaller after this ‘tipping point’? Will agriculture be less globalised? Will new global markets emerge for environmentally-friendly products, sources of energy, and services? And what would that mean for the globalisation of culture, which is based on physical mobility and economic exchange? How can we survive without an everyday culture that is built on oil?
Considering other viewpoints
This example shows that if we don’t consider other viewpoints, there can be no communal survival on this planet. Human existence has always been the subject of religious and philosophical reflection. In the Christian religions, there are approaches that give weight to the dictum ‘I am a sojourner on the earth’ (Psalm 119:19). Islamic sources recommend that we deal ethically with creation. Currently, Muslim associations are increasingly calling on us to take environmental action.
The recognition of the other as a locus of experience is key to our ecological survival. A world consciousness that thinks outside the box must be based on such an approach. In this context, local cultural traditions and regional interpretations of reality are increasingly gaining in importance. Species are becoming extinct and monocultures use uniform seed types. All of this is impoverishing the world. With the disappearance of these species and seeds, we are losing a specific knowledge about how to deal with nature. A new world consciousness that does not end at the boundaries of our own society is barely being explored at all at present. There are certainly enough examples of how to approach this new world consciousness. A few European examples are worth mentioning here. In the mid-nineteenth century, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt criticised the dominance of humankind over nature; his notion of the ‘cosmos’ led to the concept of the world as a single unit. The holistic concepts of nature developed by the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner or the artist Joseph Beuys are currently being rediscovered. The ‘Poetics of Relations’ by the Caribbean philosopher and writer Edouard Glissant also takes a cosmopolitan step in this direction. Glissant not only uses elements of nature – above all islands, the sea, and water – as key metaphors, he also brings them together to create a ‘globalisation theory’ which says that everywhere on Earth enters into a relationship with everywhere else.
The question of the ‘we’ in this world society is far from being answered. Who are the players, and in what power constellations are they moving in undemocratic or dictatorial regimes, where civil society – so often acclaimed in the West – does not exist? All too often, politics makes people prisoners of the here and now. The urgency of the temporal dimension remains abstract and has little to do with the lifetime of a parliament or multi-year plans. People find it hard to think in terms of multiple generations. It is not only the classical developed countries that are under enormous time pressure in this respect; so too are both emerging nations and developing countries. Will the latter succeed in skipping the phase of resource-intensive, catch-up industrialisation? How can the errors of Western industrialisation be foreseen and avoided? It no longer seems possible to imagine the future as a form of a catch-up development, but rather as a process during which we would skip development phases that have proven destructive in the past.
The artificial separation of humankind and nature
This is where the search comes in for an ethic that applies to all living things and which is currently inspiring a lot of people. The division of things into humans, animals, plants and artefacts, into acting subjects and passive objects – a division introduced by the modern age – is now once again being debated. The focus of this debate is on the rights of other living things, and also on the way we deal with common goods, such as water or air. Assuming responsibility for and developing a moral obligation towards living things that we consider to be mute – indeed, which we ourselves silenced – is, as the philosopher Bruno Latour has said, more urgent than ever before. Every thing and every being is determined by its relationship to other things and beings; this applies as much to humans as it does to stones or trees. It is not about extending morality to new beings, but about doing away with the boundaries between humans and animals, between things that are alive and things that are not. Nature that is separate from humankind is a cultural construct of the European tradition of thought.
In this respect, neither the Western concept of nature conservation nor its understanding of the environment can be transferred to all areas of the world, the reason being that this understanding puts humankind at the heart of the environment. Twenty years ago, the French philosopher Michel Serres called instead for social contracts to be supplemented by natural contracts. According to Serres, creating a non-parasitic alliance between humankind and nature is the critical task for the future: ‘Global history enters nature; global nature enters history’ (Serres). Air, water, and earth are all common goods that belong to everybody. What does this mean for their protection and our understanding of property? How can the rainforest, which has so many functions that are so essential to the survival of everyone on earth, be preserved for all of us? As a consequence of the fatal idea of property and ownership, we only have the remnants of nature left to deal with - remnants that we are sacrificing to monoculture. This once again raises the question of ownership and the balance of power. All of these questions go far beyond the ecological, and are of huge cultural significance.
One such link between nature and culture is the garden. For millennia, and in almost every civilisation in the world, people have imagined their happiness as a garden existence. For millennia, the continuation of life after death in the garden of Paradise was the seen as the reward for a good life. The garden, whether real or imaginary, was considered a place of refuge from hustle and bustle and commotion. The idea of the garden can be very fantastical (such as Gilgamesh’s Garden of the Gods or Dante’s Garden of Eden on the peak of the Mountain of Purgatory), or it can be very real (such as Plato’s Academy or Epicurius’ school, The Garden). It can also take the form of modern urban gardens such as the homeless gardens in New York, or the Prinzessinnengärten (Princesses’ Garden) in Berlin, all of which are places of refuge that were created by humans. Cultivating, preserving, breeding, keeping bees ... these things are currently all the rage around the world, not only in the heart of Europe’s major cities. In an age of irresponsibility and freedom from worries, gardening is a reflection of people’s desire to assume responsibility and exercise care.
Unlike in Paradise, where everything grows of its own accord, we have to cultivate our garden, take care of it, and be aware of the temporal dimension of the future in the form of sowing times, planting times, crop rotation, and periods of growth. A garden that is laid out by people develops over time and through time.When Voltaire closed his famous work Candide with the words ‘We must cultivate our garden’, it was against a backdrop of plague, wars, and natural catastrophes. In other words, the garden also has a political dimension: WE must cultivate OUR garden, where the garden symbolises the world that we share with each other. Our garden is not a garden of purely individual interests where one can flee reality in an escapist manner. It is a piece of earth in the social collective.
was head of the literature, science and society department at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and is currently a visiting professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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