Reviewed by Martin Lockley
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder is a “gentle” man. He is quite famous as a tireless animal rights activist who approaches his calling, with positive, firm, non-militant and proactive persistence. Author of a dozen books, many with words like “animal” and “compassion” in the titles, he is also well-known as a friend and collaborator with Jane Goodall, DBE, who is also among the world’s most conscientious animal rights activists. As a University of Colorado academic (from another campus) I’ve known of Marc’s work for some time, met him once or twice, and shared mutual associations with other advocates of conservation. We are variously involved, some of us peripherally, in what some have called the New Nature Movement in which Marc has distinguished himself as “one of the leaders.”
But as Marc and Jane would remind us, having compassion for mistreated animals and ecosystems, or fighting crass materialism and consumerism involves more than lip service or joining a movement with “leaders” and green environmental associations. It involves a change of lifestyle, heart and consciousness, which in turn involves action and leading by example. This does not mean living like a survivalist, “off-the-grid.” Rather, Marc defines the premise of “rewilding our hearts” by saying that “caring is OK. In fact…it is essential.” Wilding or being wild therefore is, or should be, a natural and comfortable human condition, whereas to suffer alienation and “dis-ease” is to be “unwild” and conditioned to an unnatural existence where we suffer what some have called a “nature deficit disorder.” [See my review, Network 118, of How to Raise a Wild Child, by Scott Sampson, another Colorado resident: it is after all the wild west]! Likewise to resist our natural inclinations and potential for compassion is to pass on the other side of the street, to be Homo denialus, a bad Samaritan, or a “slacktivist,” who sees or admits no evil, or need for conscientious action. [Complacency is perhaps a convenient trap into which our compassionate inclinations too easily take refuge when we fail to challenge questionable deeds appropriately].
As children we mostly love animals and are spontaneously playful and friendly to one another. We warm to the sense of belonging to humanity and the organic world. We enthusiastically love life and our innate connection with it is what Eric Fromm aptly called “biophilia.” We are naturally comfortable with compassion, empathy and coexistence rather than strife or alienation, and in today’s interconnected world coexistence is increasingly important. All this shows that we only have to cherish and nurture the compassionate side of our nature to realise a more harmonious world. But as Marc points out, progress in this sphere involves some urgent work. Knowing we have compassionate instincts is not enough. [As one activist put it “wearing a button is not enough.”] Action is required whether it means becoming a vegetarian, reducing our consumerism and carbon footprint, recycling, supporting green causes or influencing friends to help save the planetary environment. The worst case climate and environmental scenarios are dire, but every mitigating action helps reduce the threat a little, and just might help shift the collective consciousness. As Marc says “inaction is inexcusable.” So Marc’s social movement creed promotes the “eight Ps” which involve being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate.” “Make the most of the best and the least of the worst” he advises, advocating gentle persuasion over militancy. The economic benefits of green technology are already helping persuade the recalcitrant deniers of the old school that the gentler, environmentally-friendly pathways are better.
Some PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates have gained a reputation for militancy and extreme positions. But it is not extreme to object to mistreating animals, or plants (forests?) for that matter, as long as you protest peacefully. You can chose whether to swat a fly, or let it find its way out of your house, just as you can chose whether to let corporations and developers cut down woods or drain wetlands in your community. The statistics on how many factory farmed animals are killed each year for our dinner tables is horrifying: not millions or even tens of millions, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of billions of fish, mammals and birds. How that number might be reduced if we all ate less meat, at the same time reducing the need for pasture which is used 20 times more inefficiently than crop land. As a lousy student in school I managed to avoid dissecting animals in biology class, and remember vividly lamenting the death of a nematode worm a few years later in my zoology lab petri dish at university. At the time I was an idealistic vegetarian and even drew a little cross, in my notebook: I evidently thought it a Christian worm! This natural reaction is so common, that recently students have been excused from assignments involving any kind of vivisection. 50 years ago Spike Milligan campaigned against forcing dogs and rabbits to smoke cigarettes, and quite right too: it sure ain’t natural, and the argument that it might help humans is feebly self-serving. Thankfully while some food corporations are making last ditch attempts to outlaw protests against factory farming, many labs that conducted animal experiments are moving in another more “humane” direction, rethinking their practices and substituting models.
Part of the shift in consciousness that goes with the New Nature Movement is conservation psychology defined as “ the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation in the natural world.” This may be of interest to SMN members, as is the paradoxical fact that humans need to realise they are not an exceptional species [in terms of sentience], but at the same time may have to come to terms with being “the only species that can really change things for the better. We are that powerful, and in that sense we are that exceptional.” It is on that note than Marc ends, positively. We are capable of a) recognising the harm we do, the problems we create, and b) addressing, mitigating and reversing them. This is perennial wisdom, not unlike the Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It is part of the human condition to be aware of what we do that is both good and bad, and how our actions reflect on the positive compassionate or darker sides of our nature. Surely to be human is to be humane. “Rewilding is part of a global social movement that can unify us.” “We live in a magnificent yet wounded world.” We inflict the wounds partly on ourselves, but we also have the concept of healing and the wounded healer. By healing ourselves we will also heal those with whom we coexist. This very sentiment highlights our compassion and ability to animate our hearts, remember the vital soul or “anima” and make compassion and personal rewilding all the rage.