Thinking like a mountain

By David Orton                    


How does a person extend the sense of self-identity

 to include the well-being of the Earth?

    My previous column discussed the concept of “sustainable development” and spoke of the necessity for an alternative ecological vision.

A key component in such a vision, I believe, is a shift in personal consciousness. This is perhaps summed up in the famous phrase from the former American forester and wilderness philosopher Aldo Leopold: “Thinking Like a Mountain”.


“What nonsense – how can a mountain think?” is a common response. But what is being conveyed is that individuals need to move from an anthropocentric or human-centred view of the natural world, to a biocentric or deep ecology view. We ought to stop looking at the natural world as a treasure house for human use. We have to cease seeing humans as in some sense on top of an evolutionary heap. Humans have to be seen as equals with other plant and animal species whose ecosystems have an inherent value. They are not “resources” for human use.


Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement, dealt with the interactive role of humans with the natural world when he said that humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of life forms “except to satisfy vital needs” – an escape clause to the sceptics. However, I think there is an attitude of reverence for non-human life in deep ecology, which must be grasped if we are to stop the destruction of our planet.



Changing personal consciousness


How does a person extend the sense of self-identity to include the well-being of the Earth? How does one change from a human-centred world view to a biocentric or life-centred vision? How do we stop using the term “resource” to mean anything in the natural world which can potentially be turned into a commodity? How do we really learn to look at human history in a geological time scale, embracing about four billion years and thus gaining some kind of perspective of our importance in the geological scheme of things? How do we see the human species as necessarily dependent upon and arising from every plant and animal on this earth because, as has been said, the first cell is the common ancestor of all of us? How can we reconnect with the natural world, develop a true ecological sense of self and motivate people into activity?


For most greens it is a long personal odyssey, moving from an anthropocentric to a biocentric world view. People coming into the green movement from the human-centred socialist or communist traditions often seem to find it embarrassing to talk about transforming personal consciousness, as described here. There is a scepticism about spiritual questions in the green movement. Any rituals which try to assist people in moving to a biocentric world view tend to be dismissed out of hand. Yet those of us on the Left have our traditions, and we feel our emotions stirred when, for example, we hear the Internationale or those Spanish and Italian anti-fascist songs. Personally, two events seem to have been crucial in changing my world-view. One was a month-long kayak trip to South Moresby in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Through it we became very conscious of the power of the natural world. Our “freedom” was in understanding natural forces and not pitting ourselves against them. The other event was the struggle in the early eighties against uranium exploration and mining in Nova Scotia. I studied some geology to better take on the company geologists. The fossil record made me conscious of how little time humans have been on Earth.



Council of All Beings


Two of us from Nova Scotia took part in such a Council in Vermont, in September of 1989. The Council is essentially an organizing tool to bring a number of people to a non-anthropocentric view of the natural world and thus reconnect them with the Earth. There is no formula; we gathered on a quiet hillside in a circle, took turns in reading from that now contentious speech of Chief Seattle, and spoke in small groups of how each of us saw the earth perishing. From this despair some form of communal empowerment occurred. The climax of the Council was when each individual spoke from the perspective of an animal, plant, or landscape, and about the impact of humans on them. Finding this perspective is called a “Vision Quest”. Often masks are used, although we did not do this.


Following our return to Nova Scotia, we and over sixty others, inspired by the Council, attended a "funeral" organized to mourn the clearcutting by the Scott pulp and paper company of about 300 acres at Spiddle Hill in Colchester County. A living forest had been reduced to wood-chips right on site. This biocentric demonstration culminated in a number of local people giving speeches on the general theme expressed by a native speaker: “the great pain we all feel when we see something like this...murder on an indescribable scale.”


Two books which can help in changing personal consciousness are A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold and Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, by John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess,


Canadian Dimension April/May 1990

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