Freedom and nature

Before we started to be excluded from the land, we enjoyed a freedom to live as part of the fauna of the planet. We enjoyed a relationship with the land that answered our needs as human beings, enabling us to live freely according to our own natures.

This does not mean that life was perfect, or that life could ever be perfect. Human beings are flawed in the same way that all nature is flawed. But at the same time the beauty of nature includes these flaws, even depends on them. The flaws form part of reality, natural reality, and so do not strike us as being ugly.

A withered branch, a tangled vine, a crumbling bank – these do not detract from the beauty of nature, but enhance it. The same applies to products of human labour. A medieval stone farmhouse with bulging walls, sagging roof and decaying window frames is not ugly. In fact, its imperfection is beautiful. Its imperfection is itself a kind of perfection, without any need for a certain regularity and smoothness with which we have come to associate that term.


Such is also the case for humanity itself. We are not perfect in the sense that a computer or a robot might be perfect. We all make mistakes, misjudge situations, behave in ways that we later regret. That is what being human is all about. That is what makes humanity beautiful, what makes life beautiful. It is our freedom to be ourselves, with all our flaws, that constitutes our humanity.

So the idea of a human existence within nature should not be confused with any unreal conception of what this way of life might be like. It is the reality of a life connected to the land which constitutes its beauty. Moreover, immersion in that complex, subtle reality constitutes freedom.

Contemporary culture sets the idea of nature apart from humanity. It is treated as something to be treasured maybe (at the same time as being mastered…), something to be protected, looked-at and visited (at the same time as being exploited…), but always as a thing, or a collection of things, which does not include humanity.

We cannot stop being part of nature, because that is our reality, but we can cease to realise that we are part of nature. This results in a gap, a discrepancy, between reality and our understanding of reality. Any such gap is dangerous, because our decision-making – individually and collectively – is not based on a true understanding of reality.


This is plain to see with regards to the direction human civilization has taken. Non-human beings are treated as objects. The living structure of nature – the reality in which we exist – is regarded as an impediment to human interests and is ripped up, torn apart and destroyed.

Like a man perched high up in a tree, sawing off the very branch on which he is sitting, we have lost sight of our own reality, with disastrous consequences. When we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. We destroy our own freedom, too, because that freedom emerges from and depends on that nature of which we are part.

What sort of freedom could there be for humanity if the surface of our planet became uninhabitable? To be “free from nature” – which is the motivating desire behind the delusion of industrial “progress” – is to be free from reality and, ultimately and logically, to be free from existence, from life. For a species which is biologically part of nature, to be free from nature simply equals death.

[Excerpt from Forms of Freedom]


A Dreadful Disharmony

The other day I read an inspiring interview with environmental philosopher Pierre Rabhi in the French newspaper Libération.

Although he’s known for his life’s work in agroécologie, Rabhi stresses that simply eating organic food isn’t going to be enough by itself to save the world. He has a much broader vision of the social changes that will be necessary, but warns that the way ahead is blocked by ignorant people defending the current system: “Unfortunately, these people have the power to set the course of history. It’s a tragedy: our destiny has been left in the hands of unintelligent people.”

That evening, I happened to be rewatching The Sacrifice, the superb 1986 film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky – the last he made before dying of cancer at the age of 54. This includes an important monologue about civilisation, delivered by the central character Alexander (played by Erland Josephson), amidst the sighing of the wind through a beautiful little Swedish wood overlooking the sea.

It immediately struck me that there was a correlation between the words of Rabhi and Alexander. They complemented each other, fitted together perfectly as harmonies of one and the same prophetic chorus of alarm that is warning humankind of an unimaginably dire future ahead, unless we are somehow able to dramatically change the course of our history.

In the newspaper interview (with Coralie Schaub) Rabhi describes the quality of his simple life in rural Ardèche: “I look out on magnificent countryside, I enjoy the sound of birdsong, the sky, the stars, these are the great gifts that life brings us. What is all the other stuff about? Earning money to be able to go and do winter sports, or get a tan? What do you want life to be? Are we just here on earth to make our personal contribution to a rise in the GNP, then disappear? … We’re living in a society which has transformed the human being into a kind of salaried slave. Some are lucky enough to do a job they love. But many are forced to waste away their life because they need a wage. And once they’re no longer needed, they’re thrown on the scrap heap. What sort of society is that? That’s what my revolt is all about.”

Alexander, in The Sacrifice, laments that man has constantly violated nature: “The result is a civilization built on force, power, fear, dependence. All our ‘technical progress’ has only provided us with comfort, a sort of standard. And instruments of violence to keep power. We are like savages! We use the microscope like a cudgel! No, that’s wrong… Savages are more spiritual than us! As soon as we make a scientific breakthrough we put it to use in the service of evil.”

Says Rabhi: “I’m not an angry sort of person, but there are moments when my indignation pushes me to that point, because the stakes are so very high. This is all about future generations. What we are we going to feed them on when the seeds have disappeared and the land has been destroyed? Humanity has got to understand that it can’t go on destroying life. Do humans need nature? Yes. Does nature need humans? No. If you’ve understood that, you’ve understood everything. Either we carry on tangling ourselves up in wrong-doing and destruction and we end up wiping ourselves out, or we understand that we have to collaborate with life, with this extraordinary mystery which made us and from which we get our food.”

Tarkovsky’s Alexander concludes: “Some wise man once said that sin is that which is unnecessary. If that is so, then our entire civilisation is built on sin, from beginning to end. We have acquired a dreadful disharmony, an imbalance if you will, between our material and our spiritual development. Our culture is defective, I mean our civilisation… If only someone could stop talking and do something instead.”

The return of the wolf

The wolf is making a come-back in France and across Europe.

A report in Le Monde on October 25 reveals that the wild animals are now appearing in agricultural areas far from the deep forests that are usually seen as their homes, such as the Haute-Marne area between Paris and the German border.

There were wolves everywhere in France back in the 18th century, but they were poisoned and hunted to the point of extinction and Canis lupus only reappeared some 20 years ago, in 1992.

Now there’s an estimated population of 300 individuals, which is thought to be growing at a rate of 20% a year. Numbers could shoot up even quicker, as in the right conditions they can manage a 40% annual increase.

It seems it is fallacy to imagine they are only forest-dwellers, as they can live pretty much anywhere there’s a supply of food – they mainly live off wild animals, such as deer, but up to 25% of their menu comes from domesticated animals like sheep, young cattle or goats, which obviously makes them less than popular with farmers.

Like many people, I feel a strange affinity with the wolf. I’m not quite sure why this is, as I am usually pretty apprehensive about encounters with their less ferocious canine cousins.

The wolf obviously symbolises something for us. Unlike a domestic dog, it is not a fawning and dependent creature, but a proudly independent one capable of leaving the pack on its own and heading off to find a new life hundreds of miles away.

The wolf also represents something wild and primal in us that has been repressed, but not quite destroyed, by modern civilization. A rise in the numbers of wolves seems like a return of this wild element into our cloistered and sanitised world.

I write “seems” because it is as a result of conservation laws that wolves can no longer be slaughtered in the way they once were. But maybe the very existence of those laws hints at a part of the human psyche still drawn to the idea of the untamed?

Maybe, deep inside, we all yearn to be standing on a rocky mountain ledge on a crisp winter’s night, feet planted firmly in the snow and wailing our solitary heart’s soulful desires to the listening moon?