Guest blog by Deniz Ortac
Every person who carries a feeling of deep compassion for nature has, at some point, had some sort of an insight. I had one as an early teenager when I watched a stunning documentary from 1982, called “Koyaanisqatsi”. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” originates from the Hopi language and means “Crazy Life” or “Life out of Balance”. The film’s fusion of image and sound spoke more than a thousand words, featuring the stark contrasts between natural beauty and human frenzy.
Since childhood I have always been in love with nature and more recently, through my partner’s work, have become a strong admirer of conservation efforts all around the world. The conservation industry is blessed with what other industries can only dream of – passionate and incredibly driven people with a deep urge to make a difference. Many conservation projects have gone to great lengths and have shown amazing successes in protecting some of the world’s most beautiful and valuable natural assets (and Geetha’s blog is a fantastic tribute to that!).
But many conservation projects, despite their important and truly inspirational work, focus on treating symptoms instead of underlying causes. Just like some charities have a vision of, one day, becoming redundant (because the issue they address has been resolved), wouldn’t it be the greatest achievement if conservation is also, one day, no longer needed? Why haven’t we achieved this yet? What are the invisible forces that seem to start a new fire for each one that has just been put out after a hard-fought, gruelling battle? What are conservationists ultimately up against?
I recently stumbled upon a quote (from the recent documentary with the title Planetary) that may shed some light:
“Today we have not only an ecological crisis; we also have a kind of story crisis. That is to say there is something very wrong about the way that we understand who we are and our relationship with the Earth.”
This resonated strongly with me and immediately reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that we are part of this amazingly complex and interwoven system, and whatever harm we do to it, we ultimately do to ourselves. Technology and a seemingly vast abundance of resources have given us the illusion of being a separate entity; that we can somehow bend the laws of biophysics and get away with it. During a time when most people now live in cities, the causal link between our choices and their impact on the natural environment is becoming harder to recognise.
In my personal life, the story crisis is most evident in the reactions I get when speaking about this, even with the people close to me – friends and family. I am always conscious of that awkward moment when my counterpart suddenly stares at some invisible point above my head, with eyes clouded in a mixture of confusion and disinterest.
Yet it is clear to me that our ecological crisis cannot be solved without tackling our story crisis. For our story to change, conservation needs to engage a broader range of people and involve them in new ways that trigger personal reflection, ultimately shifting perceptions and consciousness. In essence, the task is to take the average consumer and turn them into “personal conservationists”. And this is about people like you and me; the choices we make every day. Ultimately, it is these simple choices that matter the most. Their impacts are real but occur too far away from us, and are therefore commonly ignored by our busy and preoccupied minds. Let’s be honest: nature, wildlife, and the environment more broadly, are not at the top of most people’s mind when, say, accepting a plastic bag in the supermarket which may end up in our oceans. Why? Because we have lost touch with nature and, perhaps more importantly, with ourselves. So the question I ask myself quite often is: How can we get our story right? How can we re-connect and become better at personal conservation?
Last year I had the opportunity to explore this question in more depth during a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) in Sydney. Over the course of eight months, I was fortunate enough to meet 24 other fellows who had vastly different backgrounds but were grappling with similar types of questions. In weekly seminars featuring high-calibre guest speakers, and three residential retreats, we explored many aspects of creating change for a more sustainable place.
Part of the CSL program was a sustainability project to be undertaken by small groups. Our group chose to look at exactly that question – how can people re-connect to nature? It became clear to us pretty quickly that “immersion” was key – the idea that connection happens when people get repeated, meaningful and positive exposure.
Physically spending more time in nature would do a wealth of things to the story we tell ourselves and to the people close to us. Have you noticed how perception of time slows down in nature? Your body relaxes, your breathing deepens. Suddenly all your senses are engaged. You start listening to the sounds, taking in the smells and letting the eyes wander through the landscape in respectful awe. As you become more and more mindful, curiosity sets in. You start asking questions a child might ask. This is the mental zone in which nature connection happens and personal conservation gets activated.
I am personally convinced that conservation has a big role to play in facilitating this sort of immersion approach. Citizen Science, for instance, is a great example for involving communities, not by “raising awareness” but by getting people involved in conservation while increasing their exposure to nature. True, Citizen Science is likely to attract people who are already tuned into nature. But if conservation can find ways to reach a broader range of people, then maybe, one day, we will have many more personal conservationists contributing to a world in which life on Earth is finally back in balance.
Meet my guest blogger, Deniz!
Deniz is currently involved in multiple projects related to more sustainable transport options at Transport for NSW, and is also volunteering at Circular Economy Australia. Initially trained in Economics, he recently completed a Master of Environmental Management at the Institute of Environmental Studies (UNSW). He also completed a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership last year, after which he completed a conservation volunteer program on an African nature reserve.
Watch the full “Koyaanisqatsi” movie.