Filling a Real Need

In culture, Miraverse, recording studio by Michael Tiemann

The artcile Is There an Ecological Unconscious? in the January 31 2010 Sunday New York Times Magazine probes a deep psychological question, examining solastalgia and soliphilia along the way.  Both are rooted in the Latin solacium (comfort), but one riffs on nostalgia (which connects to the Greek root –algia (pain or suffering)) and the other is more cogently connected to love and friendship (based on the Greek root philia).  The article makes the case that global climate change is not measured merely by tenths of a °C or meters of sea-level rise or even parts-per-million concentrations of atmospheric CO2, but can also by the psychic disturbance of mountain-top removal and the disorders that arise from an increasingly inaccessible natural environment.

The inquiry of how eco-culture and agriculture affect social culture and psychological health is apropos.  With the rise of industrial machines and processes which cannot be distinguished from weapons and strategies designed to do war with the Earth itself, we live more than ever in a world that is evermore a reflection of our own intentions, well-meaning or not, well-considered or not.  The scars inflicted upon the earth to raise up the Chartres Cathedral were one thing, but the scars created in the name of cheap coal are another altogether.  The dislocation and disorder they create is of a whole new order.

Beyond that principle idea, starkly illustrated in the opening page of the article, two other ideas really struck me.  The first, attributed to Gregory Bateson, is this:

It was Bateson’s belief that the tendency to think of mind and nature as separate indicated a flaw at the core of human consciousness. Writing several years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” at a time when the budding environmental movement was focused on the practical work of curbing DDT and other chemical pollutants, Bateson argued that the essential environmental crisis of the modern age lay in the realm of ideas. Humankind suffered from an “epistemological fallacy”: we believed, wrongly, that mind and nature operated independently of each other. In fact, nature was a recursive, mindlike system; its unit of exchange wasn’t energy, as most ecologists argued, but information. The way we thought about the world could change that world, and the world could in turn change us.

The second reports:

Recently, Kahn set out to study how we respond to real versus digital representations of nature. In an experiment reported in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, Kahn and his colleagues subjected 90 adults to mild stress and monitored their heart rates while they were exposed to one of three views: a glass window overlooking an expanse of grass and a stand of trees; a 50-inch plasma television screen showing the same scene in real time; and a blank wall. Kahn found that the heart rates of those exposed to the sight of real nature decreased more quickly than those of subjects looking at the TV image. The subjects exposed to a TV screen fared just the same as those facing drywall.

In themselves, these findings may seem merely to support what many already hold to be true: the authentic is better than the artificial. Nature is more healthful than television. But for Kahn, the plasma-screen study speaks to two powerful historical trends: the degradation of large parts of the environment and the increasingly common use of technology (TV, video games, the Internet, etc.) to experience nature secondhand. “More and more,” Kahn writes, “the human experience of nature will be mediated by technological systems.” We will, as a matter of mere survival, adapt to these changes. The question is whether our new, nature-reduced lives will be “impoverished from the standpoint of human functioning and flourishing.”

The goal of a recording studio is, quite simply, to capture a vision, expressed artistically and artfully, so that it may be shared and experienced by different people at different times in different places.  And the challenge is to do so in a way that makes the experience of the recorded product more rewarding and valuable to the human psyche (and thus the whole health of the earth) than merely staring at drywall.  If we can do that with The Miraverse, we will have accomplished something!