Cracks in a paved mirror: the eco-phenomenological dimensions of contemporary urbanisation in Asia
Michael Chew1, 1
School of Education, University of Western Sydney (Masters Student) firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract There is a well-established literature on the macro-scale health and environmental impacts of urbanization in Asia. However, a key but often-neglected effect of this urbanization is the growing psychological disconnection of the population from natural environments. The first part of this paper sets out the context of disconnection on the interconnected perceptual and imaginative levels. The second part introduces Eco-phenomology as a theoretical and methodological process to explore the potential for authentic human-nature engagement. The third part of the paper presents and discusses results from the author’s first-person phenomenological inquiry into humannature interactions in the context of Dhaka. The fourth part then briefly sketches out opportunities for redeveloping an ecologically grounded perception and imagination that can contribute to a sustainable Asian urbanism.
SECTION I - URBANISATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION
Urbanisation trends in Asia
Urbanisation and environmental impact
Consumption, perception and nature
SECTION II – ECOPHENOMENOLOGY AND METHODOLOGY
Methodology Context: A Rooftop in Dhaka General remarks about the method Bidesi subjectivity
7 7 8 8
SECTION III - INSIGHTS AND ANALYSIS
A different layer
SECTION IV - TOWARDS A PSYCHO-SUSTAINABLE ASIAN URBANISM 12 Re-embodiment Slowing down Re-connecting with nature
12 12 13
Aesthetics Nature amongst us Seeing past the product
13 13 14
Opportunities for further research Location Gender Economic status
14 14 14 14
Introduction The extent of urbanisation in Asia presents great challenges for dealing with the accompanying environmental impact of increasing consumption of urban dwellers. Importantly, this rising consumption occurs in the context of an urban environment that has both increased disconnection from nature and increased exposure to consumptive images and messages. Thus, there exists an opportunity to explore different means of engagement with nature in these urban settings which can provide opportunities for reconnecting people with the natural world. In this paper I use a first person phenomenological approach to explore my experiences of nature from an urban rooftop in Dhaka over a one year period. These This study provides some insights into alternative modes of ecologically grounded perception and imagination.
Section I - Urbanisation and environmental destruction Urbanisation is one of the hallmarks of modernity – commonly regarded as a sign of progress and an explicit register of a country’s level of development. However environmental destruction has advanced hand in hand with urbanization in a range of complex and interconnected ways. Urbanisation trends in Asia Asia1 is the largest of all major regions with 30 per cent of the global land mass and 60 per cent of the world’s population. In the West, urban populations have generally remained stable over the last generation – even declining in some places, particularly in the US. However in Asia the trend is firmly in the reverse, with urban growth rising steeply, outstripping in many cases general population growth, which is in turn far outstripping population growth in the rest of the world (Khan, 2002). Asia is undergoing the process of a massive demographic, cultural and economic transformation as people flood from its vast rural areas into burgeoning cities. This transformation is shown in the figure below (Zlotnik 2003):
The term ‘Asia’ is a contested, both culturally and geographically. For the purpose of this paper I am referring to countries in the combined South Asian region east of Pakistan and the East Asia region west of Japan.
Urbanisation and environmental impact Accompanying urban transformation is an associated increase in environmental impacts. To a certain extent, this is related to the core functioning of the city. The first cities were born of the crucial phase change between nomadic and settled populations, and through being better leverage food surpluses because of increased populations which allowed for more efficient specialisations and social organisation which enabled still more food to be produced, in turn increasing population growth. Through this cycle, ever growing amount of inputs in the form of foods and other natural resources are fed into the city, while growing waste from this consumption flowed out. In contemporary times these inputs and outputs have swollen considerably to the extent that the eco-footprints2 of some of the world’s mega-cities are larger than their nation’s – for example Tokyo in Japan. As Rees (2001) describes: The metropolis has a population of 33 million and a per capita EF of about 4.9 gha, metropolitan Tokyo‘s total eco-‐footprint is 161,700,000 gha. However, the entire domestic biocapacity of Japan is only about 76,860,000 gha. In short, Tokyo, with only 26 per cent of the Japan‘s population, lives on an area of productive ecosystems 2.1 times larger than the nation‘s entire terrestrial biocapacity.
As more and more cities take up more and more areas of land, the entire planet is placed increasingly into ecological ‘overshoot’ – where current human demand for new resources and disposal of waste exceeds the earth‘s total regenerative capacity by about 30 per cent. For the present world’s population to live at North American-level material standards, would require the regenerative capacity of four additional Earthlike planets to support (Rees, 2001). Thus, cities form concentrated sites of consumption that require vast areas of land for resources and waste. From a Marxist perspective this is known as ‘metabolic rift’, (Moore, 2003) and encapsulates the inherent contradictions of capitalism - the 2
The area of land and water ecosystems required, on a continuous basis, to produce the resources that the population consumes and to assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on Earth the relevant land/water is located (Rees, 2001).
5 engine of competition and consumption as manifest in growing urban forms literally eats up the productive capacity of soils nearby and has to expand further and further. Consumption, perception and nature Consumption on an individual scale is a key driver of environmental destruction, with modern goods having increasingly large resource inputs and outputs. The individual values and imagination behind this consumption are an essential component of the logic of late capitalism, forming the micro-scale counterpart that underpins macroscale economic growth. Across the great economic and cultural diversity within the Asian region, evidence points towards general people’s preference for materialist values, and adherence to the perceived central goal of economic growth (Bhandari, 2009). Though this study did reveal medium to high degrees of concern about the environment across Asian countries, these attitudes seem to have not translated into practice, given the rising levels of consumption and environmental degradation across the region (Tay, 2008). The process of urbanisation amplifies this impact, as people tend to increase their consumption and waste after moving to urban environments (Rees, 2001). Alongside this process of accessing more resources and raising their material standard of living, is a parallel disconnection with nature that distances inhabitants from the very destruction that this consumption causes. People arriving from rural areas become insulated from the ecosystems which both sustain their resources and which handle their waste. Their daily lives and livelihoods no longer intersect with the natural world and, eroding their identification and felt connectedness with the landscape. At the same time, urban migration can also be driven by environmental destruction, and evidence suggests that people’s lived experiences in degraded urban and rural natural environments can induce passive attitudes towards nature and lower concern over its protection (Haaften, 2004, Siddiqui, 2003). This reconfigured relationship with nature can be seen in the broader context of urban modernity. The triumph of modernity for the city was one of object/reason over subject/feeling, mind over heart, science/logic over art/aesthetic, and culture over nature and this can be seen in the modern architecture that dominates city skylines around the world. This impact of modernity is higher in East Asia than in Europe, particularly in many rapidly industrializing nations without participatory democracy3 (Khan, 2002). Within cities, the central commercial areas have become the aspirational and dominant, where the race to attract more capital and investment leads to more and more spectacular, larger than life architecture and urban spaces, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, or Pudong New Area of Shanghai. The counterpart to these large-scale developments on the street level is the proliferation of advertising images which compete to take up prime positions in the everyday visual field. They employ powerful archetypes to arouse desire and create associations between products and aspirational modern lifestyles. Consumers engage with imagination to help create their identity in the world and they use products to make these imaginaries become reality (Small, 2008). In the context of urbanisation, these desires are all the more powerful as many of these advertised consumer goods and services were previously non-accessible to the new urbanites. 3
This is in stark contrast to how the West has successfully assimilated Eastern philosophy and aesthetics in the beginning phase of Modern art and architecture towards the late 19th century and early 20th century.
6 These rich and carefully constructed semiotic forms cultivate an anthropocentric form of visual and sensorial literacy. When Kong et al., (1999) wrote about this in the example of people’s perception of nature in Singapore, one interviewee commented: `I think the reason why most Singaporeans like to go to the movies is because we're brought up in this media culture. That is entertainment, and we want to be entertained. Unless the birds are in fl ying formation or something . . . otherwise it's very hard to entertain yourself in nature . . . We have to learn how to appreciate.' The media-rich environment promotes fast-paced ‘entertainment’ which largely excludes everyday nature experiences. The positive experiences of nature that were reported had less to do with contact with nature itself, instead focussing on social activities in natural settings. While Singapore is on the extreme end of urbanisation in Asia, it serves as a useful reference point to consider the implication of increasing media exposure. In summary, the modern Asian city, through its specific forms of perceptual environments, contributes to generating an urban imagination that is both anthropocentric and orientated towards consumptive behaviour – an imaginary that is not-conducive to environmentally friendly behaviour.
Section II – Ecophenomenology and Methodology What is the potential then for revitalizing perceptual and imaginative connections with nature? This section considers this from the first-person, phenomenological perspective. Phenomenology, with its emphasis on epistemology of direct lived experience, forms the theoretical framework for this inquiry. I present a brief background to this framework and its context within the broader field of ecopsychology below. Ecophenomenology Pioneered by Edmund Husserl, classical phenomenology locates truth not in objective scientific empiricism, but rather in the domain of subjective experience of phenomena. Classical phenomenology aimed to lay the groundwork for an authentic ‘science’ that could study the world as structured and constituted through the consciousness of the lived perceiver. Although Husserl sketched out an ontologically distinct position of the earth in his later work4, a sustained focus on the ecological dimensions of phenomenology was to be developed later. The latter field of ‘eco-phenomenology’ has emerged to be primarily focused on the study of our embedded and interconnected relationships with the natural, or non-human world. The foundational works of Kohak (1984) and Evernden (1985) called for a new phenomenology of nature to redefine our place in the biosphere - in relation with, rather than domination over, the natural world. Subsequent authors such as Sewall (1999) and Abram (1996) have continued to develop these ideas, the latter drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s development of phenomenology to explore our essential and vitiating relationships with nature. Merleau-Ponty radicalised Husserls’ phenomenology by rejecting the perceiver’s transcendental, idealist consciousness for an ontologically embodied one. 4
His later notes suggested a privileged grounding of the earth as a common place of perceptual rest relative to all observers. For further reading see Abram (1996).
7 Subjectivity in this reformulation is indistinguishable from the body - its movement and orientation in the world, together with its senses. In terms of vision, this view overturns the Cartesian model of ‘disembodied spectatorship’ - instead the subject’s gaze is embodied, seeing from a particular type and orientation of eye, in relation to the comportment of the rest of the perceiving body. This paper draws upon this conceptualisation of phenomenology for its inquiry. Eco-phenomenology can be viewed as one part of the larger field of ecopsychology, including but not limited to research into ecological identity, deep ecology, sense of place and transpersonal psychology. While eco-phenomenology shares some conceptual ground with the latter fields – such as emphasis on an expanded sense of self and non-dualistic thinking - eco-phenomenology distinguishes itself through its focus on embodied perception as the basis for (re)constructing an ecological identity. In the light of previous discussion on urbanisation and environmental destruction, the phenomenological perspectives are valuable as they can provide a middle way between anthropocentric and eco-centric viewpoints, in which the world is perceived as something to be neither exploited for human gain nor revered as separate to our lived existence (Stefanovic, 1994). I apply these ideas of embodied perception in the phenomenological research methodology. Methodology Phenomenology relies on the method of ‘getting back to the things themselves’. By using the process of the epoche, - ‘bracketing’ our experience – we attempt to remove our preconceived notions about the phenomena under consideration (such as from another knowledge authority, eg science), thereby allowing ourselves to experience it directly through our own perception.5 From this position we describe the phenomena as experienced, the relationship between it and the perceiving self. These qualitative descriptions can then be distilled to capture the ‘essences’ of the perceived phenomena – key meanings that underpin individual experiences. Context: A Rooftop in Dhaka Applying these phenomenological methods to this inquiry, my exploration focused on experiencing the natural world within the context of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh with a population of estimated at 14-15 million, in which I lived for one year. Dhaka, while seen as a place of opportunity for the thousands of Bangladeshi’s that flock in daily from the country side, is also known for it difficult living conditions. 30-40% of people live in slum areas that are subject to constant threats of eviction and poor access to hygiene, while everyone suffers from intermittent waste and power service, and chronically congested roads that severely constrict mobility. The rooftop location was used as it served as a key space of contemplation and engagement with the natural world, whilst being very assessable, and non-unique. In the dense contemporary city, rooftops are one of few places to gain a wider access to the natural environment. 5
Although Merleau-‐Ponty does reconfigure Husserl’s original concept of the epoche, it can still be treated as approximately the same method in this inquiry. A proper discussion is outside the scope of this paper, but Smith (2005) provides an excellent summary.
General remarks about the method The phenomenological process is iterative and potentially never-ending. Unlike other social scientific analyses that rely on statistical sample sizes to infer generality, phenomenological methods are centred on distilling meaning and common features from observation. These are the qualitative ‘essences’ of the experience derived from perception and reflection. As embodiment and perception is highly specific - varying according to politics, culture and economics - I do not claim that the insights described are universal, and I expand on this below. Instead they are intended to be ‘sketches of meaning’ that are relevant to contemporary Asian cities. These sketches are italicised, and are represented in the paper as first person distillations from my journal notes, which are then analysed theoretically. The personal and qualitative focus of this method has attracted critique from proponents of quantitative research methodologies (Starks, 2007), however as outlined above, exploring personal lived experience is precisely what is needed in this era of over-reliance on exclusively rational ways of knowing. Bidesi subjectivity A specific limitation for this inquiry is the fact that I am observing and writing from a bidesi (foreigner) experience. Both my mind and my perception are foreign – the former honed from Western academic training, the latter trained through life experiences in a very different sensory environment – namely, urban and rural Victoria, Australia. While some studies show differences in perception of nature across cultures (Johnson et al., 2004), others suggest that experiences in nature may actually reduce cultural difference (Johnson et al., 1997). In addition, as a bidesi, I possess relatively high wealth and social privilege. Thus my observations are not likely to be representative of the general population. However it is this same outsider status that makes these observations potentially valuable – by looking and experiencing with this foreign perspective, new insights may be gained beyond the local horizon of possibilities.
Section III - Insights and analysis In this section we explore and discuss the phenomenological insights from the inquiry. A different layer Looking out from the rooftop, I see a unique perspective on the city – an encounter with a soft green layer of foliage and life that is not visible from the street. This foliage obscures the concrete and other construction, and serves as an alternative horizontal layer of perceptual experience – one filled with birds, bats, swaying tree limbs and rustling leaves. From this perspective, nature is revealed as active and dynamic – birds and bats fly by, trees sway in the breeze, while the human world seems a static backdrop in comparison. This is in contrast to the perspective offered to the observer on the street, where sensual reality is often dominated by human interactions and human-designed visual environment, and where nature can be encountered as the static backdrop – the tree, the grass, the lake. Therefore, as I look across this other world, I enter tentatively into the perceptual landscapes of non-humans – insects, birds, bats, trees – which would be normally closed to me. Through seeing the crow glide by next to me and squawk to its companions, or to observe the bats clambering for their sleeping place amongst the leaves, is to take a first little step into these non-human worlds. In these visual landscapes I am only one perceiver amongst many, one perceived amongst many. In effect by this simple switch of vision, the observer enters these inter-subjective landscapes at a different physical scale, above the ground and the usual horizontality field of vision that this afforded. This is just one gesture towards the embodied encountering of the visionary cultural historian Thomas Berry’s key insight - ‘The universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects’ (Berry, 1994). This inter-subjectivity is actually an evolutionary inherent, and we ignore it at our peril. As Abrams (1996) writes: Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes... to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
Gaze I catch the eye of crow as it stares at me from the rail. Involuntarily I look away, like someone who has been caught staring. Laughing at my shyness I return to look back on the crow, which hasn’t dropped it’s gaze. Perhaps the most concrete example of trans-species intersubjectivity is holding the gaze of an animal. It happens every day to pet owners, but with non-owned animals, it affords us a glimpse of alternative subjectivities. By acknowledging subjectivity, we
10 are invited to expand our care - as Chew (2006) writes, holding the gaze ‘calls us in an intensely personal way to extend our compassion and ethical care beyond our own species’. It can also help us understand ourselves – by reflecting back our inquiring minds through the gaze of the wild other, we are holding a kind of mirror up to ourselves, one who through its very difference has the chance to make us question ourselves on a deeper level than a familiar human gaze. Eisely (1969) states it eloquently, ‘We do not know ourselves until we catch the reflection from an eye other than human’. Open sky …stepping off the last stair and onto the rooftop, the expanse of the open sky surrounds me and frames me in its vastness, with the movement of air, smells and light playing with me on all sides. The sky has a unique status as providing a visual and physical frame to the environment – both natural and human – below and all around. Just like the air itself, the sky is invisible – it only makes itself observed through its framing and holding of all the other elements of the city. Abram (1985) discusses our ignored connection with the air and its unique status as holder of the biosphere’s perceptual exchange, ‘We are immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea… Just as, in breathing, we contribute to the ongoing life of the atmosphere, so also in seeing, in listening’, while Stoknes (2008) suggests a reformulation of our scientific definition to better consider our embodied relationship with it, ‘Let’s call it the Eairth – the closely intertwined links between earth and sky, ground and world, ocean and clouds, rain and water vapor. The Eairth, then, is this living, creative world that we are fully inside… Eairth continually brings forth hospitable places that my body readily participates it.’ Experiencing the sense of space, and connectivity from the wind in my hair, the sunlight on my skins, distant smells drifting into my nostrils whilst standing on the rooftop gives an embodied credence to the concept of eairth. It is this invisible ground for all my perception that I am co-constituted with – we know on a scientific level with every breath, billions of molecules of oxygen become part of my bloodstream, and on a visceral level the groundedness that we receive after a few deep breaths. The air is a challenge to our perception – as it is invisible to sight it is readily ignored and its generative and restorative functions also forgotten. Yet it is in this perceptual challenge that exists an opportunity of re-imagining our nature-human relationships. For instance, in the case of Dhaka and other rapidly urbanizing Asian cities, the current practice of dumping toxins in the air may be reconsidered if it could be viewed more holistically. Horizon Looking down from the infinitude of sky, my gaze meets the crest of the horizon, which is turning pink at the day’s end. As the sun sinks lower, the colours shift before my eyes. Standing on the rooftop, there is another way of engaging with the air. It is clear that this invisible totality of space is also mutually constituted by the spatial horizon –
11 with all its human constructions – which serves to frame it. In addition, this horizon provides a temporal aspect to the act of contemplation – viewed at dusk and dawn, the sun’s rising and sinking simultaneously connects time and space with the rotation of the entire earth. Abram writes about the horizon revealing a natural unity between the experience of space and time – it is this ‘ground and the horizon that transform abstract space into space-time. And these characteristics 'the ground and the horizon' are granted to us only by the earth’. The physical curvature of the earth provides an anchored reference point beyond the mirrored signs of the human-space of the city – a geological arrow to a future that lies over the horizon, rather than inside our minds.
Contemplation My eyes rest upon the mesmerising layers of swaying green foliage in the distance. The wind has picked up, and the trees slowly bend to and fro, their leaves forming intricate patterns in which the gaze can get lost in. This ability for nature to be a place to be ‘lost in’ perceptually on one level derives from its fractal, or self-similar nature. As I stare at the trees, their fractal forms imbues this specific aesthetic moment with broader connections – their symmetry and intricacy draw me into connection with other natural fractal forms, for instance the curvilinear forms in plants, animals, and humans. This ‘curious familiarity’ is connecting and encompassing, and ‘connects’ in a more holistic manner than the semiotic connections that I absorb on streets level – these are functional, directing me here or there, or working my unconscious to associate desire with product. The difference between the two can be illustrated further using Sewell’s (1999) concepts of ordinary vs true attention ‘Ordinary attention’, tends to skip from thing to thing6, while with ‘true attention’, ‘self-consciousness fades from view’. Many parts of the city tend to invite ordinary attention, for instance the semiotically rich streetscapes with their high visual stimulation. In contrast, through comprehending nature directly and exclusively, opportunities for true attention arise, with the mind being able to lose itself in the fractal forms. This way of seeing can have the effect of suspending the conscious, restless, ego - allowing for an opening up of experience and a deeper connection with the object of perception. Another ecopsychological concept that can expand on this is Kidner’s concept of ‘resonance’, which refers to the essential quality of the lived engagement of the subjective self with the other as producing a shared experience that is greater than both, and not reducible to either.7 In the context of perception, Kidner (2001) writes ‘…when I experience a beautiful landscape: there is a subjective resonance which includes myself and the landscape, and does not occur in the absence of either.’ One reason for the intensity of the nature experience is the above mentioned contrast between static and dynamic forms. Like Sewall’s ‘true attention’, being drawn into gazing at the swaying trees or circling birds can represent a momentary loss of the ego self, and gain of another larger, coupled inter-subjectivity. 6
This can be seen as a visual correlate to its mental counterpart, the ‘monkey-‐mind’. See Sewall (1999) for extended discussion. 7 Kidner writes that resonance ‘..recognizes and respects the structure of the other, so that the wholeness which evolves out of the joint resonance of self and other incorporates the individual structures of both or all such components’. Kidner (2001)
Section IV - Towards a psycho-sustainable Asian urbanism The discussion above shows how careful observations in the framework of ecophenomenology can give us meaningful insights into our relations with ourselves and with nature. Sustainability in urban environments is not just about clean energy and waste management – it is also a crucial psychological issue, stemming from how our human-nature interactions participate in our perceptions and imaginations. In this section I sketch out some broader implications with respect to a broader notion of urban sustainability. Firstly though, some reflection on the choice of observation space. The rooftop here was the physical space where these experiences revealed themselves to me over the one-year period. The latter are not bound by this specific physical space – in Dhaka and other cities there are countless other opportunities for these and many other related experiences to present themselves. On the other hand, the rooftop space here does hold a sort of special position – in the context of increasingly dense Asian cities, it is one of a few places that can offer this range of nature-interactions and yet remain very accessible to people. View in the nexus of tensions between a compact city and people’s desire for a spacious and green environment (Wiersinga, 1997), the rooftop can be a fertile intermediary space. Of course, one cannot simply walk out onto any rooftop and expect a transformational experience! The experiences and their analyses can be seen as part of the long and essential process of re-imagining human-nature relations, breaking down the binary, hierarchical split between the two that an increasingly Westernized contemporary Asian culture perpetuates.8 Two practical manifestations that will be discussed here are re-embodiment and ecological aesthetics. Re-‐embodiment Many of the above perceptions were accompanied by a great sense of embodied perception, different to the semiotically driven perception that is generally evoked by human urban landscape. By getting back in touch with our own bodies and becoming aware of the connections they have with the world, we can begin to soften the edges of the modern mind/body, culture/nature dichotomy. Re-engaging with physicality gives us the opportunity to dim, the ‘lighthouse beam’ of consciousness that we have learnt to project uni-directionally out onto others and nature (Chew 2006). Several approaches present themselves: Slowing down As modernity expands across Asia pace of life increases – and with faster lives, people have less time to genuinely listen or engage with the natural world, which operates on different – and often longer – timescale. Instead, we are increasingly 8
Of course, there is far greater complexity regarding the changing and traditional Western vs. Asia values with respect to nature, both of which are non-‐singular and plural. Further discussion is outside the scope of the paper but can be found in Milfont 2006 and Ignatow (2006).
13 caught up working in a globalised economy that operates across time-zones, the tempo of which increases with the growing speed of information technology, all the while leisure time is increasingly taken up with absorbing a frenetic diet of intermingled news and entertainment. Research has also shown the faster life pace can be more environmentally destructive (de Graaf, 2003). By tempering this expanding stream of mediated stimuli - for instance, reducing television or internet use in favour of time with nature - we can regain this balance. Or it can also mean recovering lost practices and arts – such as the slowfood movement, or building cooperatives that trade on skilled time rather than money. It is also through creating spaces for contemplation – both natural and human made, and (re)developing concepts of time that are gentler on the planet and each other. From the vantage point of the rooftop, remembering the earth’s horizon as temporal reference point at the beginning and ending of the day can serve to provide a bodily grounding to daily routine. Re-connecting with nature Children are readily seen engaging with nature with genuine curiosity and embodied reciprocity, but all too often adults are socialised into compartmentalizing their nature experiences – usually as a backdrop to their own aims, such as surfing, bush-walking, or as a relaxing ‘retreat’ from the realities of urban living. Traditional practices such as Tai Chi can provide this reconnection, as well as other more contemporary experiential processes9. On a broader level, we need to ensure that our urban spaces have sufficient nature available for immersive and rich interactions. A new approach in urban design – the ‘Green Urbanism’ approach (Beatley, 1999), argues that cities should be sustainable not only in reducing environmental impact, but also be green in the sense of making nature (trees, parks, green rooftops) present. Aesthetics Governments and NGOs frequently use all kinds of approaches to change people’s environmental behaviour – moral, financial, social, to varying degrees of success. However these behaviour change techniques rarely use the recognition of the natural world’s intrinsic worth to generate the change. This is where expanding people’s sense of beauty – or bringing it to them - can have influence. Enabling people to see the beauty of nature that is right in front of them, almost all the time, can have a profound effect on their actions. Several ways present themselves: Nature amongst us The Wilderness Society calendar. The moonlit desert screensaver. The 9th generation David Attenborough film. The growling grass-frog ringtone. We like to surround ourselves by stylised representations of nature10, allowing us to get our restorative ‘nature–fix’ (Van den Berg et al., 2007) without changing our actual lives, which are usually profoundly disconnected with the natural world. The awareness and appreciation of nature that dwells all around – in people’s kitchens, workplaces and streets can be cultivated. The more that people’s positive connection with nature can 9
Many of these contemporary practices draw upon Asian ideas from Buddhism or Taoism. For discussion and an extensive list, see (Macy, et al. 1998). 10 These ‘larger than life’ representations of nature can serve to place the viewer in a voyeuristic relationship with nature. For further discussion see (Thomas, 2010).
14 happen continually, subtly, and in their homes and workplaces, the harder it will be to maintain the hierarchical and destructive relationship of humans over nature. In turn, the more ‘natural’ it becomes to treat all life with respect - not only dolphins, seals or other iconic and anthropocentrised species. Seeing past the product As discussed, the psychodynamics of late capitalism are highly effective in expanding people’s desires for consumer goods – the very best psychologists, marketers, artists and designers work tirelessly for this aim. In this context, our socialised perceptions adapt ever more quickly to the current products and lifestyles that flash before us, needing newer ones to satiate ourselves. Instead, an alternative ‘newness’ can be found in the attitude of paying ‘true attention’ to what is already there. Through this attitude, we can quench our trained thirst for novelty by seeing new perspectives in old things, whether they be consumer products or natural environments – both can have environmentally beneficial effects.
Opportunities for further research Location I have purposefully restricted the inquiry to one particular space. However, there are many other urban spaces in which phenomenological methods could be also used to study human-nature interactions fruitfully. Further work could explore private and public spaces and the phenomenological effects of individual versus collective engagements with nature. Gender Dhaka, like many south Asian cities, has clearly defined spatial segregation of the sexes – with women and girls having limited access to public areas and spending more time in private spaces. Female exposure with public nature in urban areas therefore has much more limitations, although because of work roles women may have greater access to nature in residential settings. The extent that this might affect restorative or other benefits of this exposure is unclear and makes for further research. Economic status People from lower socio-economic groups generally have a relatively higher exposure to the natural environment compared to richer urbanites, due to the nature of their work (Van den Berg, 2007). However, their relative lack of education may also have an effect on their attitudes towards the environment (Ignatow, 2006). The interrelations of these effects are still unclear.
Concluding remarks If we are to move towards a genuinely sustainable Asian urbanism, it is not sufficient to engage with the self-nature connection alone – without broader cultural change, the individual changes brought on by isolated individuals reflecting on their own perceptions amount to precious little. Similarly, most of these ideas for social change above are currently difficult to implement – simply because they operate outside of
15 the dominant paradigm of humans as separate and superior to nature. They would need to be coupled with systemic structural change. For instance, urban planning and infrastructure must allow for green spaces to flourish in the city, modern architecture needs to take into account eco-phenomenological perspectives, actively creating and sustaining human-nature interactions. Our ways of working in terms of time and space need to be re-examined to make sure they nurture, rather than inhibit, our connection with nature. In modernizing Asia, as in the West, the current environmental crisis is a crisis of perception - we remain largely blind to the natural world and our own embodied place within it. This is an acquired condition - ongoing participation in contemporary urban environments with their rich semiotics can disembody of perception and strengthen the consumptive imagination, in which nature is at the periphery. Ecophenomenological approaches can other an alternative, providing an essential complement to structural change as they address our life-world, our basic assumptions and desires in our daily lives. Collectively, these add up to our society and economy, and without these phenomenological considerations, our structural actions simply propagate the singular belief that the best human minds coupled with the best technology will alone solve the environmental crisis. This technological approach needs to be complemented through authentic perceptual participation in nature, which nurtures an ecological imagination. As we move deeper into the 21st Century, with the rising environmental crises, it is through the ecological imagination that we can form the basis for a new ethic of care and respect for the natural world. After all, this is simply another way of caring for ourselves. Dhaka, 22 April 2012
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