It’s not Oedipal being green

July 12, 2011

Some of you might have seen a clip that has been doing the rounds (it’s from David Mitchell’s SoapBox) that features a complaint about the way that climate change activists often seem to be pleased by the idea of civilization being devastated and love telling all us naughty children off about the way our bad habits are exacerbating the problem (the original post can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKUPUznJZoE).

The analogy used is that we do have to clean up our messy rooms if we want to have pudding (or take care of the planet if we want to have the Maldives). What i like about the post is that Mitchell admits that burning oil is fun and that we can’t blame technology for the fact that we didn’t realise that using it would eventually damage the planet’s atmosphere. This leads him to make the claim that climate change dialogue is often Oedipal: it ends up sounding like either dad telling us off (“I warned you this would happen!”) or mum trying to make out fixing it should be fun, an opportunity or a pleasure. But, as funny and insightful as this is, it still seems bound up within that whole 20th century fascination with Freudian psychology that means that everything can be reduced to a story about me, mummy and daddy.

I think the argument needs to break these Oedipal bounds, just as it needs to get beyond the strictly human if it is to really learn how to take care of the environment. It’s not all about us. Whenever we get caught in the track of thinking about the planet as humanity’s garden, as the place created for our pleasure and responsibilities, we perpetuate the biblical myth of Eden, which in turn has roots in Mesopotamian technologies of crop and animal husbandry. Daddy (culture) brings technology and law, mummy (nature) should be seeded and harvested. When it works we all profit (happy in peace, light and prosperity), when it doesn’t we feel hard done by (exiled from the garden to the darkness of the threshing floor).

And there’s the limit: it’s all about us. Every turn we take when we think about managing the garden brings us back to self-interest. Now, admittedly, this is always the best horse in the race to bet on in any social game you care to name (politics, economics etc); but is it going to help us to guarantee at least the hope for a flourishing planetary future, for other creatures as well as humans, for biodiversity of landscape and different styles of consciousness as well our manicured cities with their prescribed allotments of nature?

Let’s accept Mitchell’s point that climate change is not best spoken about as either a threat we secretly enjoy harbouring (apocalyptic scenarios are certainly very popular and seem to target a streak of misanthropism in all of us) or an opportunity for greater pleasure (i agree with him: burning fuel is more fun than cleaning your house). But in the inevitably anthropocentric discussion about how we should ‘manage’ our ‘garden,’ room needs to be made for putting aside solely human concerns so that we can listen to the truths of the other creatures and the sorts of habitats they can flourish in.

Listening to the earth, as well as (preferably before) ourselves – that is an attempt worthy of king ego. Oedipus did, after all, seek truth beyond his own self-interest. (Although this may be a bad analogy given the devastating nature of the truth he uncovered!) His subconscious desire to be reunited with the feminine and to overthrow the confines of cultural tradition (the king, or father figure) may even be reinterpreted for the 21st century as a path to be retrod anew: what would the earth itself ask us to do with our brilliant technological prowess if we were to ensure the best future for all planetary beings and forms? It may not be the royal standard of living conditions the mass media marketing moguls insistently imagine; but it doesn’t need to be a backward look to cave-dwelling Neanderthals either.  There is a way forward that harnesses technologies without devastating ecology. We simply aren’t giving ourselves enough credit for the potential to find it; or rather, we continue to define ourselves by the self-interested story of what we can get out of the planet while the going is good. That is the Oedipal cycle we need to break – pleasure in a confined dream – for a transformed vision in which the promise of flourishing is for all, not just for some.


One comment

  1. For a ‘Hot time’ call Gia on 555..?
    No but seriously,look what were up against http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejuh-XE6RF4

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