Color & Control:

The Natural World and Our Sense of Belonging


Ok, I’ll admit that this post is going to be a little bit of a tangent from The Belonging Initiative that we have come to know and love. Recently, I have had several conversations about how our sense of belonging fits with the natural world, the environment and all of its wonderful ecological complexity.

If there are two approaches to the issue of what the Environment is and how it is related to the human species, namely: the anthropocentric and the ecocentric – I would tend to put myself in the latter group. I am, at least at some basic level, aware that human systems, even humanity, is only one small part of the larger totality of the earth and all of the systems therein. However, for the most part, I have assumed our sense of belonging as something separate from our sense of “oneness” with nature.

Below is an interesting article by Stephen Belbin that begins to breakdown that assumption. Here is an excerpt that I think captures well the crux of the article:

“To belong to a community and to serve it is not to worship it. The sense of belonging transcends the belonging itself.The totality with its imperfections and constant change can be thought of as an image (one of perhaps many) to be used as a bridge by which to cross to the perfect and unchanging reality beyond, which the sense of belonging is a glimpse. To worship Nature or indeed to worship power would be to live on the bridge. That would be as inappropriate as thinking we can bypass the bridge by belittling the visible here and now as commonplace, even evil and claiming instead a self righteous inheritance of a glorious future invisible.”

PART II of ” Totality and Belonging: Towards Eco-concept Synthesis”

by Stephen Belbin

In short, the sense of belonging, if achieved, gives us a leadership role within the totality. But if we are leaders where should we be going to, where should we be leading the totality. What is the goal? …To see where to go, we again have to see where we have come from. All the evolution of abiotic and biotic forms, the development of human technology and civilization, the ever rising human population, the struggle against poverty and disease, the growth of urban areas and the increasing sophistication of the urban lifestyle, the ever more intense agricultural systems to support that lifestyle and the impact of all this on the rest of the totality are all because of the will to live, not just the will to survive but also the desire for a better life. Progressive global change has occurred but it has not been a planned change towards a set goal. As long as the basic will exists and we cannot deny it in ourselves, the development and the application of ever more sophisticated technology will continue. But eco-leadership brings in important difference between the future and the past. The sense of belonging gives us a responsibility not just to honour our own will to survive but also that of other elements and by extension, the will to exist of the totality itself. It is about avoiding thinking the environment such as air and water have always been there and are free. That is like reducing the Environment to a state of slavery, like saying people have always been there and are for free. Eco-leadership is about avoiding that enslave mentality.

However, we also need to recognize that all objects and the totality itself are completely indifferent to us and that to be an eco-leader is to also rise above the general indifference of the world: to care and to care everyday. But does an indifferent planet need leadership? It does, given the unpredictability of the Universe. Although over much of geological time there has been, within limits, a general degree of surface temperature stability which has promoted the Earth’s biotic evolution, this will sooner or later collapse with or without a negative human influence on the climate system. Similarly, there is the inevitable occurrence of some extreme event, which will endanger the Earth’s existence, if not something like a super meteorite, but then the eventual collapse of the sun itself. There is a need for some part of the totality to evolve that will appreciate more than itself and its own survival but will also respect the totality, serve it and save it and in doing so serve and save itself as well. That if anything should be the goal of eco-leadership.

But there will be many roles to play in different places in saving the planet. Putting litter in a bin, making sure the tap works, but doesn’t leak or is left on are examples of necessary grass roots responsibility in action. Eco-leadership requires more than experts in laboratories and at conferences but action by all of us in day-to-day participation not for its own sake or for a quick dollar, but for the common goal even if our efforts often go unseen and unheralded.

But another key aspect is the continuing development of high and appropriate technology not only in new forms but also in terms of greater accessibility. We would not be serving the totality if poorer sections of the human community were denied access to the opportunities to better their lives as they see fit through economic development. But more than that, it would be reducing the poverty that is considered to underlie much of environmental abuse at local community level. For example, African villagers cut down the tree because they seem to have little choice for fuel. People suffer and the environment suffers along with them. But we must be careful not to use economic poverty as an excuse for poverty of attitude to the environment. Did those same villagers still cut down trees in the same way before colonization when they were no money? It is not just the first world that needs responsibility in action during future development. We must all recognize that with the “big car” should also come the sense of belonging and responsibility in action; otherwise the empowerment of “have-nots” will be a step backwards, in reality a disempowerment of the totality

But we must also take care this technological development should not lead to a universal globalization and spell our isolation mentally from other communities and Nature. We should avoid machines making us machines with no time to think or feel. That would be a denial of the sense of belonging and would undermine our leadership role. Even if the future for many of us is the fast life in well planned, slum free, space rich, “bubble cities” then we should also seek to free Nature through technology as well as environmentally responsible action, to develop and maintain non-polluting environmentally friendly places for people to live, so that not all the world will be paved over by the grey concrete of towns or the green concrete of monoculture.

Such cities needn’t be places of emotional and psychological dislocation. We do not need and indeed should not cut ourselves of from our roots, even if the root comes simply from the sense of belonging. But neither should the cities be places of arrogance, full of tight little, right little groups who have the best and who know the best. Others will still choose to live outside, but they should also not be isolated in the mind as outsiders, rather as those who have taken an equal choice based on the same will to live a better life. Neither should they just be tolerated. Their traditional lifestyles should be linked and complementary with life in the cities and modern rural areas all based on eco-leadership orientated technology, public policy, land tenure and daily action. We know that deep divisions between human communities leads to frustration, even hatred with possible kick backs with no one and nowhere safe.

But we should also not be sentimental about traditional ways. For many, the world has been traditionally a harsh place, not all was positive. Also, tradition should be a living thing relevant to today. Indigenous environmental knowledge should be a response to prevailing conditions in both town and country, not a set of fossilized ideas. Furthermore, traditional lifestyles should be about use of rural areas not a way of preserving “hands off” islands of Nature. We should also be careful not to allow traditional approaches to be perverted or manipulated either to serve the desire for power of a few or to halt technological development. This would again undermine our role as eco-leaders.

Despite the importance of the totality in the concept of eco-leadership, this approach is not a case of Earth first totalitarianism since the will of the human species is not subsumed but is essentially the same as the totality itself. Neither is eco-leadership a case of nature worship. To belong to a community and to serve it is not to worship it. The sense of belonging transcends the belonging itself. The totality with its imperfections and constant change can be thought of as an image (one of perhaps many) to be used as a bridge by which to cross to the perfect and unchanging reality beyond, which the sense of belonging is a glimpse. To worship Nature or indeed to worship power would be to live on the bridge. That would be as inappropriate as thinking we can bypass the bridge by belittling the visible here and now as commonplace, even evil and claiming instead a self righteous inheritance of a glorious future invisible.


To summarize, within the eco-leadership framework, the human species is viewed as part of the totality of planet Earth but with the potential to achieve a leadership role by developing a sense of belonging and by recognizing the need for environmental responsibility in action towards the basic will of all components of the totality to survive and prosper. The development of human civilization and the corresponding use of the Environment should not be seen as an unnatural retreat from Nature or as an evil domination of Mother Earth but rather as the expression of the will to live that all organisms share. All organisms have formed their identity by, to some extent modifying their surroundings and achieving some degree of separation. In doing so they can sometimes become polluters for others. This is not to say that every action by humankind on itself and on the environment has been correct but that our development is not the real basis of our difference.

However, clearly we have reached a point where science and our consciousness tell us that we need to modify our ways. The will of people to seek a better life is there and must remain but it must take on a new form born out of a self-realization i.e. the sense of belonging with all else to a total community. Technological, sociological and economic development and its accessibility around the world and the mitigation of all real and potential threats to us as a species should continue but not justified by power or by divine command or by just the will to survive but by a leadership role position earned by through the sense of belonging and the resulting environmental responsibility in our day to day actions, not directed to master but to free ourselves, to free Nature and to save the planet. There is room for different beliefs and ways but we all should all strive to be eco-leaders playing different roles in different places living different versions of what we perceive to be a better life. Alternative and living, traditional lifestyles should continue not just arising from the free choice for a better life, but as communities taking on a role of direct interaction with and appropriate use of a Nature freed by technology and an environmentally friendly attitude of eco-leadership.

Such an approach can be seen as a contribution towards eco-concept synthesis blending positive aspects of the two environmental schools outlined at the beginning of this article. But of course, no concept will simply solve all our problems just like that. The translation of an eco-theory into political, economic and local community action and interaction to achieve just resolution to our environmental conflicts, needs to thought through and clearly articulated. But whatever form the new theory takes, it seems likely that the environmental change which we can perceive and in which we are involved requires a change in thought and deed. It is time perhaps not just to grow but to grow up, to rediscover some of what we may have lost in the mass environmental exploitation and material development which we needed to do to free ourselves. If that development is viewed as rebirth then we need to take it one important stage further to be all culturally reborn and for the environment to be reborn too. Surely, this will not be possible if we perpetuate the conflicting versions of our grand eco-theory with the confusion and casualties it fosters. Furthermore, when on our current path we have done with ourselves in whatever way physically or mentally, then what is left of Nature may through biological evolution, look elsewhere for a new species to take up the challenge which we will have failed to meet.

Click her for Part I of this article.


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