In 1966
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My life has been overshadowed by the gathering ecological crisis. I have a childhood memory, strangely both clear and hazy, that was an intimation of things to come. As a small boy in the 1950s I am sitting at the kitchen table turning the pages of a weekly magazine—possibly Life or Picture Post. I come to a double-page spread featuring a dramatic black and white photo of a filthy smokestack, illustrating an article pointing toward a future environmental crisis. I ask my mother about it, and her reply brushes my concerns aside as if forbidding even the thought behind the question, “You don’t want to think about that, dear”. But clearly the notion that life on Earth was precarious lodged in my mind.

Throughout my adult life this early intimation was reinforced, first as a curiosity, then as a challenge, now as an approaching catastrophe.

I was 18 when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—often seen as marking the beginning of the modern environmental movement—was published in 1962. I was wrapped up in my own late-adolescent concerns, yet I do remember feeling a shudder at the awful image of birds’ eggs being so fragile that they were crushed as the mother bird nestled on them. In 1966 Paul Erlich warned of excess human population in The Population Bomb. In 1972the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, bringing into the public domain the notion that economic growth was essentially pernicious. In the same year I was impressed by Gregory Bateson’s assertion in Steps to an Ecology of Mind that if we didn’t change our relationship to the natural world our chances of survival were that of a ‘snowball in hell’ .

It is also important to note that human population in 1944, the year I was born, was around the 2 billion mark. Today it stands at just under 8 billion and still rising.

In my 40s, the 1980s, I began teaching ‘sustainable business’ to management undergraduates, starting with Limits to Growth; through teaching it I began to understand the book properly, grasping the essence of exponential growth and the graphs fell off the cliff in the early twenty-first century—as indeed they are doing. And my professional life was marked by a series of landmark publications. Just to pick out some of the mainstream ones: The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World reports began in 1984; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established in 1989 with its first report in 1990; Earth in Balance by Al Gore published in 1992; Kyoto protocol 1992; WWF Living Planet Reports starting in 1998; Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

From my 50s in the 1990s until I retired in 2008 most of my teaching and research was in the area of business and sustainability. I was faculty on some radical educational ventures (If you want to know more, read our book Leadership for Sustainability) and led some great research projects (have a look at our very readable report on the adoption of low carbon technologies, Insider Voices). At first it felt there was plenty of time; a degree or urgency arose in the 1990's--I remember discussing the issues with colleagues, agreeing that there were another ten years to change course before it was too late. That sense of urgency has gathered in now ing 2019 is quickly transforming into a sense of crisis and impending catastrophe. As a one climate writer put it, “Looks like we’ve gone from ‘oh we should do something about this’ to ‘holy crap we’re in deep doodoo’ pretty quickly”. The disruptions to the Earth System increasingly suggest we are approaching the end of modern civilisation as we know it, if not extinction of the human species, taking many others with us.

How to respond? I want to be part of a change in the way we modern humans live on our planet, even at this late hour. There are activists declaring Extinction Rebellion, school children on the streets, lawyers establishing the rights of non-human beings, all kinds of good ideas around about how to make the way we live and our economics, energy production, manufacturing, consumption more in harmony with ecological realities. But I believe there is a deeper question, it's not only about what we do but how we experience ourselves. We are, after all, just another species, an ordinary (and extraordinary) member of the community of life on earth. It's just that we don't think of ourselves like that very often.

Several years ago, I was privileged to meet the geologian Thomas Berry to interview him for Resurgence Magazine. He argued that we need to experience ourselves as part of a community of live on earth. He told me that new economic and industrial proposals may seem viable, but they miss out on the idea of a community of mutuality with all other living beings "If we don't have a sense of community we won't have the psychic energy to carry it through... [we need] a certain intimacy with the process that rewards us spiritually even if we are deprived materially.

I see my contribution is to help develop and articulate that sense of community and intimacy, mainly through my writing. After all, as Browning told us, "A man's reach must exceed his grasp..." I see myself as a writer whose work links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. My two books, Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea and In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage, weave explorations of the human place in the ecology of the planet into the stories of sailing voyages. I write a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist; and have contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, The Clearing, and review for Shiny New Books. Links to all my writing are through this website.

I am presently (March 2019) collaborating with artist Sarah Gillespie, drawing together words and images in a pamphlet On Presence and asking questions about the place of art in a time of catastrophe. In the summer of 2019 I sail from Scotland to Iceland, which may result in another book. My work may not make much difference, but it is what I can do. Gregory Bateson told us that the most important task is to learn to think in new ways. I would add we need not just new ways to think, but whole new ways to be modern human.

 

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Peter Reason web pages last updated March 6, 2019