The missing piece of nature is empathy

freya-mathews-thumbProfessor Freya Mathews

This is an edited version of her opening address of the ‘Nature in the Dark’ video project at the North Melbourne Town Hall last week, sponsored by the City of Melbourne.

How are we, as humans, going to adapt to life on Earth? An odd question when we have been so spectacularly successful.

As with many evolutionary misfits before us, it’s the scale of our success that is causing the destruction of our habitat.

A new manufactured order, totally untethered to ecology, is being overlaid on the natural order, with disastrous results for legions of other species.  

Most people argue we should protect such species because it is in our own interest to do so, rather than because we have a moral responsibility to do so.

But it seems increasingly plausible technology will help us maintain civilization despite the extinction of a large percentage of the Earth’s species.

So if we are going to argue that biocide is wrong, it will have to be on ethical grounds.

The first step is for us to begin to care. We can’t overcome our cultural autism with respect to other species until we care about them.

To care, we have to know. We can’t care about something if we don’t know what it is, or if it exists.

Most of us couldn’t identify the species in our nearest bit of bushland – let alone explain the complex relations amongst them that enable that patch of bushland to flourish.

This lack of even the most basic knowledge of botany, zoology and ecology is normal in our society.

It’s a weird kind of normal. What sort of knowledge could be more fundamental than knowledge of the way the world of living things around us fits together?

So we are in a bind. We are blind to the life-world around us because we don’t really care about it; and we don’t care about it because we are so ignorant of it.

Science cannot get us out of this bind; it explains things in functional terms. To care about other species, we need to relate to them.

It is largely through ‘story’ that we can hope to socialize people into the life of the larger ‘earth community’.

Story is the province of literature and the arts, crucial in developing the kind of rapport with our fellow species that will lead us to care for them, pay close attention to them and align our desires to their needs.

The video art project ‘Nature in the Dark’ – screening at Fed Square between now and Christmas  – contributes to this ‘Great Work’. It brings, right into the heart of our city, glimpses of the normally invisible private life of wild beings. 

The present moment is a tragic one in the history of the biosphere, as much in Australia as elsewhere.

We oversee the largest land-based slaughter of wildlife on earth: three to four million kangaroos and wallabies per year, legally culled in the name of resource management.

The destruction of listed species is permitted: in Queensland the shooting of grey-headed flying foxes was reintroduced on Endangered Species Day.

Gargantuan extractive industries are poised to decimate one of the last great empires of nature on the planet, the Western Kimberley.

In Victoria, hundreds of biodiversity jobs have been shed in the Department of Sustainability and the Environment. 

A new fire management plan rides roughshod over the needs of wildlife and ecosystems. It has been launched under the banner of community protection – as if wildlife and ecosystem are not also part of our community and in need of protection!

But cultures can change. Overseas, the idea of ‘compassionate conservation’ is beginning to gain currency, countenancing only non-lethal methods of wildlife management.

The missing piece in the puzzle at is empathy.  Only artists, writers, poets, animateurs and other adepts of the imagination can supply this link.

‘Nature in the Dark’ is an instance of this vital work of the imagination, and contributes to the great task that lies before us, the telling of the great Earth Story.
Freya Mathews, an internationally recognised figure in ecological philosophy, is Adjunct Professor of Environmental Philosophy at La Trobe University, where she co-coordinates Environmental Culture Research.