I have now seen the image of little Ivy Bond licking her frog perhaps a thousand times. It always makes me smile, and it always will.
I first met her father David, the protagonist of Project Wild Thing, nearly three years ago, and I have a feeling the idea of making his daughter lick a frog was in his mind’s eye even then. The film hits cinemas around the country this weekend; though I am biased, it is funny and moving in equal measure, and I would recommend it from the bottom of my heart.
It also matters. It matters because, as David and I discussed back in 2010, films don’t just tell stories, they can change stories too, and our relationship with nature is a story in dire need of changing. You might call me the philosopher (or the geek) behind the film; if that is the case, and for those who are interested, here is the treatise.
We have a story in British, perhaps Western, perhaps increasingly global society about our relationship with nature. The building blocks are both religious and scientific, involving sources from the Old Testament to Hobbes to Darwin, yet the story is not an essential conclusion of any worldview. It goes something like this.
I am separate from nature, and I have to compete with nature for my survival. If I lose, I am weak, and I deserve to lose. But I can use things from nature to build my strength – to the theme of this blog, I can consume nature to build myself. And if I do that well, I have a chance of winning my competition with nature, and coming to control it, as master of all I survey. That is my destiny.
This story, so deeply ingrained as to be almost unconscious, manifests itself in different ways in different aspects of our society.
An example of the powerful metaphors arising from this story is the idea of a “race against nature”. This is particularly prevalent in agriculture, where the idea is that we must continually seek new controls – fertilisers, pesticides, and so on – that get us ahead of nature. Each will provide a temporary solution before nature “catches up”, and in the process is also likely to create new problems for which we must then find another new fix. But it is the human condition to run this race, seeking always to break new limits. Or so we believe.
The problem is that this story is constructed on a fundamental flaw. We are not separate from nature. We are part of nature. We are part of a system, a player in the team, not an opposing side. And like any player, we depend on the team for our success.
As James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, has reflected, this means that by seeking to compete with nature, the more accurate description of our behaviour is “like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour.” On this understanding, there are only four possible final outcomes: “destruction of the invading organisms; destruction of the host; or symbiosis – a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader.”
Only one of these is particularly desirable. “Destruction of the invading organisms” means us gone and nature continuing. “Destruction of the host” means nature gone – but then we are gone too, nothing without the team. Symbiosis remains as the sole desirable option. And it requires a change in story.
So far, so apocalyptic. But now things get fun. Because the shift of story that we need to make, while it is cognitively very difficult, is actually quite subtle. Its consequences are significant, but actually not a million miles away from what we do now. And we’ve changed a story like this before.
Once upon a time we all believed the sun orbited the Earth. The story of our society depended deeply on this idea. It underpinned our centrality in the universe, our primacy as a species and as a planet. It drove the structures of our society and our use of technology, as we designed and innovated to maximise our benefit from the story we lived in. And for a very very long time, that story fitted all the facts we had available.
One day, someone started to find evidence that the story wasn’t right. This seemed to threaten an awful lot of the structures of society, so we kept it quiet. Over time, though, the evidence built and built until we couldn’t ignore it any more. And then we changed story. And now, nothing could seem more obvious.
What’s most interesting here is that most of the evidence fitted both stories about the universe just as well. One object did orbit another. The Earth in many ways did operate just as we thought. We’d just got it the wrong way round. So we just needed to retell the story slightly differently. And when all the confusion settled down, that’s what we did.
That’s what we need to do again.
We need to and are retelling Darwin, for example. The survival of the fittest isn’t about a tending to one dominant organism or even one individual, the survival of the single fittest being. It is about the survival of as many organisms as possible that fit. Surely that fits the evidence better, focusing attention on random mutation and the exploration of nature’s niches as much as on natural selection and the elimination of failure as the key mechanic of evolution.
We also need to and are rethinking our “race against nature”. A new metaphor is starting to establish itself in agriculture, the idea of a “dance with nature”, where we use her energy to build our own, making the most of nature but in a way that gives energy back and builds it for the future, not seeking to conquer and dominate.
All this is not to say we need to stop using technology. In fact, quite the opposite. But just as technology after Copernicus (and certainly after Galileo) was designed with different intentions, to explore and maximise a different universe to that which came before, so the same sort of shift must now apply again. The technology we need is technology that aids symbiosis, not technology that dominates and conquers.
This might help us see a way through the seemingly intractable debates around, for example, genetic modification – there are elements of what we consider GM technology now being developed that could actually allow us to work with nature’s power rather than against it, localised gene selection and crossing from seed banks enabling us, potentially, to farm without pesticides and fertilisers, or with far fewer. This is technology we need. In the new story, the distinction we need to draw will not be an impossible fight over what technology goes too far and constitutes us “playing God”, creating hard and unresolvable lines between those who believe that becoming Gods is our destiny and those who believe it is evil; but about which technologies work with the grain of nature, and which against.
Perhaps the biggest change we need to make for all this to be possible, though, is the story we tell our children. We are Copernicus’ generation – we are seeing the change that needs to happen. But for many of those who have been brought up with the Sun orbiting the Earth, the change is too hard. That’s fine.
But we can’t take as long over this shift as the century and more between Copernicus and Galileo. So what is not fine is that we are bringing up our children in a way that stops them from having the opportunity to experience the world differently. Perhaps the greatest negative of the current story is the phenomenon American author Richard Louv has defined as “ecophobia” – a fear of nature among children, born out of the fact that in their education they are taught that nature is other; that it is dangerous; and that it is dying.
This is why Ivy Bond licking her frog makes me smile so much, and why Project Wild Thing is such an important film. It is about what happens when we remember we are part of nature, not her enemy, and that love of nature is the most important thing we can cultivate in our children, now more than ever. It is a joy to behold.