Monday, January 24, 2011

Arne Naess and the Call of the Mountain

In the last twelve months, this blog strayed somewhat from its tagline and became a vehicle for exposing the pseudoscience of some Hawaiian fruitloop with a cult following. It's been kind of fun, but I'm a bit tired of arguing with people now. I figured it was time for a change.

Today I was reminded by a friend about a man called Arne Naess, a visionary philosopher who was central to the foundation of the deep ecology movement. His writings were a massive inspiration for me when I studied ecology in the '90s, starting with this excellent little book. After having spent several years studying particle physics, which could be seen as an extreme form of reductionism and of abstracting oneself from the world (it needn't! but it can seem that way sometimes), this approach to investigating reality was a real breath of fresh air.

He spent nearly 25 years living in a hut high on a Norwegian mountain, and wrote An Example of a Place as a celebration of it. He saw the mountain in many ways, including as 'a great father'. Naess considered all of these relationships to be as genuine as any material reality, and saw them as calling out to be deeply experienced. He referred to them as being the key to "the establishment of a place as a Place."

I have a great deal of respect for someone who can exemplify and articulate his own radical philosophy with such brilliance. His approach could be described as being deeply spiritual (it certainly is by him), but it doesn't compromise on anything that science has revealed to us about our world.

We seem to be creatures evolved to encompass only our immediate environment and tribe. It is deeply challenging for us to take on board the reality the global reach of our interdependence with each other, with other species, with ecosystems and landscapes and the climate. The scientific facts themselves convey very little of the reality they describe. The reality cannot but be transformative for anyone ascribing to any kind of deeply-considered and heartfelt value system. It doesn't matter how much hyperbole is used, or how much melodrama and over the top CGI they are presented with, or how loudly or how often they are repeated, the facts themselves cannot give us that.

In addition, we're asked to rely on increasingly complex scientific inquiry to hand the current picture down to us, which puts us at an even further remove from it. It shouldn't surprise us if people prefer to turn away altogether from consciously putting their trust in science and devote themselves to the safe haven of simplistic opinion.

One of the primary motivations of deep ecology, as Bill Devall says elsewhere in the documentary (see link at bottom), is "the search for meaning in a world of facts."

We need to build our own philosophy, as an active participant, to find our own personal way of seeking that meaning. The aim is "self-realisation", a way of being in the world that embraces our interdependence with nature, using imagination, deep reflection, appreciation of wildness, fullness of experience and, above all, action.

It stands in contrast to the continual stream of denial that modern life twists our arm to accept on a daily basis. It's so easy to find ourselves falling into the trap of believing that the less attention we pay to the source of everything we eat, drink, breathe and travel through, the better. For some of us – at least some of the time – a kind of wild awareness that this is no way to live becomes a thing to be cherished. For Naess it was far more: experiencing our interdependence as fully as possible lies at the heart of inquiry, and living in accordance with that inquiry lies at the heart of the true Self.

This might look like fluffy subjective ecopolitics, at least at first glance, to someone of a materialist disposition. For me personally, this man's vision stands at the very heart of what science is all about: the attempt to transform the way we see our world, and live in it, in accordance with What Is.

Arne Naess died in 2009 at the age of 96, two years ago as I write this. I feel sad that I found out only today.

The full 51 minute documentary can be watched here, on Daily Motion.