Now I’m not going to say that Animism is THE answer to climate change, war, poverty or our existential crisis, but I am going to say that developing an Animistic understanding of life, the world in which we live and of our relationship to it, is a huge step toward a solution to these problems.
We have lost ourselves. The moment we turned away from our connection to the natural world, whether it was caused by religion, science or being caught up in the rapid urbanisation and development of the word, we began to lose ourselves. We lost our sense of belonging to the world, of being an essential part of it. The world ceased to be our home, sustainer of life, sacred mother Earth and instead became a set of resources to be chopped up and divided for profit.
An Animistic Perspective
An Animist sees the world in a very different way. The world is alive, every animal, bird, insect, tree and plant is alive. Most religions do not deny this and science proves it, but Animism goes deeper. The community of a forest: trees; plants; animals; birds; insects; fungi; even the clouds, rain, soil, streams and rocks is a living thing, an entity in its own right. While most people would say that life is classified as some level of consciousness, some form of intelligence, the exact type of intelligence is not really specified. The forest is alive and there is an intelligence built on the communal intelligence of its inhabitants. Without getting into the specifics of how trees communicate, how the water cycle and the cycle of life and death work together, within a forest everything works in harmony, just as within our own bodies, the community of bacteria, organs which have evolved over millions of years, muscles, nerves and so on all work together to create one conscious organism. And of course this is not limited to forests, every terrain has life, the earth itself is a community made up of different environments, mountains, oceans, plankton blooms, migrations, minerals, lava flows, water and it all just works.
Now this might seem a crazy, far out concept to most of us in the western developed world; we humans tend to lean toward a narcissistic, egotistical view that we alone are intelligent, separate from the mud and rain, but even we are integral parts in the life of this earth, we belong.
Our Connection to Nature and Our Health
Just as when a part of our body becomes infected, it affects the whole system, so too is the earth affected when one part of it goes awry. When a thyroid becomes overactive we suffer from a range of symptoms including sudden, dramatic weight loss, sensitivity to heat, anxiety, tremors and ins some cases infertility; our whole system is negatively affected by one small part of the whole. Eventually an infected organism must remove the infection or the organ which is infected or it will die.
As our separation from nature continues we are seeing a significant rise in anxiety, stress, depression and in suicide and I believe this is no coincidence. While medication can help reduce the symptoms, the cause remains unchallenged. However there has been increased interest in a particular form of therapy called forest bathing. Scientific studies have been undertaken to prove the benefits of forest bathing and the results are clear, exposure to nature reduces stress and anxiety and there have been cases of reduced hostility.1
Connection to the natural world is essential to our wellbeing, remaining separate from nature has negative effects on our system.
Animism, Empathy and the Changing Earth
We live in a time of unprecedented change in the environment, from acid rain and holes in the ozone layer to climate change and the loss of 60% of earth’s wildlife in just 40 years! 2
When nature is separate from us it is easy to dismiss these catastrophic events as unimportant, short term or even, as in the case of climate change deniers, fantasy. Animals are no longer beings which inspire us as children, they are a nuisance in the way of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Mountains are not the cradle of our ancestors, they are a storehouse of minerals such as Bauxite which is used in the creation of Aluminium. No matter how important a mountain is, even if it is considered sacred, if the western world wants what is inside it, explosives will destroy it, machines will pull it apart and the world will be scarred forever. 3
When we fail to see our connection to something, we lack the ability to empathise with it. Animistic cultures around the world don’t just see a connection to nature, they see nature as our family, we are just one child in a great family which, when we are connected, supports and nurtures us and to which we are responsible.
An Animistic culture works to preserve a balance between man and nature because it recognises that man is part of nature. It is a simple equation that if a group hunts too many deer, the deer population will go into decline and die out, therefore there will be no more food. Farming reduces this risk by allowing man the ability to breed and control animals, but with a growing population, a growing demand for food is inevitable and in the modern world we have serious problems with our livestock through overcrowding, disease, overuse of antibiotics and a greater contribution to climate change. The animals now separate from nature themselves and being kept in such awful conditions are displaying many of the same neurological conditions that man is suffering.
It’s no secret that the planet is in trouble, but the pace of the western world will not slow at the threat of rising sea levels or runaway greenhouse effect. It’s clear to see that the modern world is broken and it is time to develop a mode of thought which holds empathy for the natural world. It is our responsibility as citizens of the earth to maintain our environment, for our health and to ensure that our children, grandchildren and so on will have a world worth living in.
Animism is not the only answer, but an Animistic way of thinking, of experiencing the world is an essential part of the solution.