Notes from Anna: Bird’s Eye Views -- A Perspective on Eco-Ethics
Years ago when I was in middle school I went with my class to an exhibit of paintings by Nicholas Roerich, hosted by the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies. I felt an emotion that I could not identify, as I walked through the exhibit space with rows of canvases depicting the views of Himalaya Mountains, painted by Roerich during his stay with his family in that region. The radiant skies and the snow-covered slopes, painted under varied light of different times of day, in vivid pigment, seemed to oxygenate the air in the room.
At the onset of the past century, the Roerichs pioneered "the living ethics," an approach to living on earth that emphasized care and responsibility of one human being for all others, and for the environment. The industrial revolution had not nearly reached its full sweep, and yet human alienation from nature was beginning to be a concern, which Roerich addressed by developing his "living ethics," becoming one of the grandfathers of modern ecological ethics.
While environmental conservation grows more and more tightly connected with mindfulness and individual responsibility of the citizens, the humanistic approach once exemplified by Roerich, once again is gaining momentum. One of the foremost thinkers in this area today is Erazim Kohák, a Czech ethicist, awarded the Medal of Merit by the Czech Minister of the Environment in 1998, for his varied efforts in promoting ecological conservation in his home country.
"...What we are accustomed to calling the "ecological crisis" is not a product of a conflict between human needs and the needs of nature but of a flawed perception of what our needs in truth are. It is, I believe, a crisis of our humanity rather than one of nature or technology, and so requires not only technological but also humanistic answers" -- wrote Kohák in his book The Green Halo: A Bird's-Eye View of Ecological Ethics.
My teacher and friend Kevin Bowring recalls visiting Kohák at his homestead in New Hampshire, from where Kohák writes and directs a number of his graduate students in Prague. Kevin's car broke down on the way, and the author and his wife picked him up and brought him to their house, where they then spent five hours in conversation. Kevin was forever impressed with Kohák's careful presentation of the views of other eco-ethicists -- even those, which clearly contradicted his own. "I've hardly seen such a sense of responsibility and honor embodied in any one person," Kevin summed up his impression of the encounter.
An e-mail I recently got from Sam Nelson, who resides in Australia, spoke in the same holistic spirit of what constitutes the core of the environmental problem today:
"The problem with conceptions of the environment today is that they are compartmentalized as something extraneous to our lives, as if the environment was something that happens elsewhere. This is extremely odd, since we are talking here about each breath we take, the earth holding up our feet, the rivers flowing in our veins, and the fire in our skies and hearts. But amazingly this is the case. The environment has become, in the popular fiction, an undistinguished and rather dull image in the fast-moving stream of gossip emanating from the media. Having grown up in a small town in Alaska, where you the wilderness interpenetrates every moment of your being I have never had sympathy with this dysfunction, but watching my daughter grow up in an urban environment I am starting to understand where it comes from."
As I'm typing the final passages of today's column, The Decemberists croon in my headphones: "Los Angeles, I'm yours!.." I am a twenty-something, who, grown up between the rural idyll of the Caucasus and metropolitan Moscow, has settled on city living in the States. For now. Still, as my fingers run over the keyboard, the shadow of a cloud runs over me, and all of us, together with our planet, run through time and space, bound by the same destiny.
Please be in touch! I look forward to your e-mails, with your views on ecology today, and its interpretation in the current arts and culture -- in your country, your community, your life. Until then,