"Under the Stars"
Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on Earth. But they didn’t know it. Two thousand years ago, Romans aggravated soil erosion and flooding by cutting forests to build ships to fight Carthaginians. They didn’t know it either. Quite unintentionally, changes in human ways often affect nonhuman nature. The arrival of the automobile, for instance, eliminated huge flocks of sparrows that once fed on the horse manure littering every street. To create a world means to destroy one or many, to transform the cosmological dimensions of being-in-the-world.
We are the first species that has become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality. We have learnt that the historically accumulated, global environmental effects of a growing human population, technological innovation, and economic development have become inseparable from the Earth’s geoprocesses. We have entered an epoch unlike any in human history, say scientists – the Anthropocene, where the climate is tipping out of control due to mining, deforestation and the burning of oil, gas and coal. We have begun to understand our influence upon nature but we now need to learn how to restore our balance with nature.
What are the roots of our environmental crisis? Are we aware that human ecology is primarily conditioned by religious beliefs about our nature and destiny? American historian Lynn White denounced Christianity, especially in its Western form, as the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of linear, cumulative and progressive time, but also a remarkable story of creation, with God creating light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes, then Adam and Eve. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his supremacy over them. God planned all of this overtly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any other purpose but to serve man's purposes. And, even if man's body is made of clay, he is not part of nature: he is made in God's image. Christianity, in contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploits nature for his proper ends. Furthermore, in Antiquity every tree, every spring, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit: centaurs, fauns, and mermaids. Before cutting a tree, mining a mountain, or damming a stream, man had to pacify the spirit in charge. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature without any concern for consequences.
Of course, we live now in a different, scientifically advanced age, but the essence of our acts and thinking often remains incredibly similar to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity, or to the Orient. It is rooted in the Judeo-Christian theology, which proves that we continue to live today mostly in a context of Christian axioms. Our science and technology have also developed out of Christian attitudes toward man's understanding of nature, from Roger Bacon and Galileo, to Leibniz and Newton. Buddhism and Eastern spirituality in general promote a more holistic worldview, based on the concepts of interdependence and impermanence, which could provide a valuable source for addressing the interconnected problems of the current age. From its origins in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and is now exerting an ever-increasing influence on Western culture. Idealists such as Schopenhauer, Romantics like Thoreau, the composer Wagner, architect and social reformer Rudolf Steiner and the artist Joseph Beyus – all acknowledged the influence of Buddhism upon their work and thought.
Interdependence refers to the idea of ‘oneness of nature’, with every being and every aspect of reality reflecting and containing all others within it. The concept is vividly conveyed through the well-known image of Indra‘s Net with a jewel at each node, metaphorically portraying the universe as an infinite relational field of phenomena and entities. As the author of the term ‘interbeing’, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said: “When we look at a flower, we may think it is different from non-flower things. But when we look more deeply, we see that everything in the cosmos is in that flower. Without all of the non-flower elements - sunshine, clouds, earth, minerals, heat, rivers and consciousness - a flower cannot be.” Organisms are just configurations of energy, moments in a network of relationships, knots in a web of life. The doctrine of impermanence affirms the transience of all phenomena and, implicitly, as contemporary ecologists and philosophers agree, the nature’s state of constant flux rather than stable equilibrium. Since Darwin, it has been understood that flexibility and receptivity to change define all natural beings and that all species are subject to mutation at any time.
Are we, subsequently, prepared to radically rethink our deeply inbuilt spiritual axioms and explore alternative paradigms? To consider pivotal questions about our global impact as a species and re-imagine ways of being-with-the-world and being-on-earth? Then we have to (re)sensitize ourselves to the ground beneath our feet, the trees around us, and the stars above first.
Simona Nastac, residency and exhibition curator
Works produced during the program
A critical reading of Nature in selected poems of Rabindranath Tagore
Music InContext: The Attic residency