The following essay is based on the address given by Michael D'Aleo at SENSRI's seventh anniversary celebration in Saratoga Springs on November 16, 2006.
The New Environmental Aesthetic
It is hard to pick up a newspaper these days without coming across a headline story speaking about the precarious state of our environment. Issues such as global climate change, peak oil, genetic engineering, suburban sprawl, bird flu virus and a host of others catch our attention, and become eclipsed by ever new concerns. It is often the case that continued scrutiny of these problems reveals that many of them have very different dimensions than initially described, while the solutions proposed for the problem du jour often turn out to be less of a solution than what was needed, or even become new environmental problems.
Recently, I found myself driving northward on the highway asking myself - where is all the environmental destruction that is supposed to be all around us? At that moment, I passed a broad, newly opened and cleared field that was obviously being prepared for a large building project, perhaps a new shopping mall or warehouse. Immediately I felt a sinking feeling as I imagined yet another shopping plaza similar to the many that have sprung up in that area over the past decade. Unexpectedly, this thought was quickly replaced with the imagination of a grand European cathedral I had been in a few years ago. Within a few moments, this image transformed into an old Zen temple and garden I had visited in Osaka, Japan many years earlier. These images filled me with a very different feeling, one of hope and inspiration. I then realized that it is not so much the loss of the field that pains us, but it is what might replace the natural landscape that we feel so uncertain about!
The core issue here is about the loss we feel in the replacement of one set of phenomenal impressions with another set of impressions that are less inviting. Often, we lose nature and get a "big box" in its place. This can also happen on more subtle levels. For example, we have lost our time for peace and quiet, and replaced it with the ability to contact anyone, anywhere, anytime by cell phone. Note that there are few objections, if any, to replacing a field or forest with a beautiful building or a lovely public park. When we transform industrial or urban blight into spaces that enrich human experience, such as gardens or parks, we also have very positive feelings toward this change. Again, it isn't so much the loss of a natural landscape that is the problem, it is its replacement by something that reduces the quality of our environmental experience, that trades nature for maximized retail space, that takes away our connection to the natural world. This is what all too often leaves us feeling alienated.
Avoiding the undesirable tradeoffs of human advancement, however, does not mean that our only choices are to go back to "living in the stone age" (the Flintstones) or to create a futuristic "high tech world" (the Jetsons). And we don't have to end up creating the perceptions of a totally artificial reality like the Matrix, either. We can live in a sustainable, harmonious relationship with our present changing world. But to do so, we need new approaches to the technologies involved in environmental issues. We must build on the successes of the early environmental movement, more carefully examine the inherent wisdom of nature, and build a future based on a new environmental aesthetic. What we should be seeking is not a future in which the ends justify the means, but instead a future where every means to an end is one that can be justified.
This new way of being on earth requires development of what we refer to as the New Environmental Aesthetic. This work has three central themes:
1) We must recognize that the world "out there" - the world that we think of as simply given - is greatly dependent on our habitual modes of thinking and perceiving. The relationship between what we think of as "the world" and "our self" needs to be consciously developed and experienced for how it actually manifests. Careful examination of how meaning arises shows that the intentions we bring to our experiences affect what and how we perceive. By recognizing this activity we become more sensitive to the world as interaction rather than as simply self and objects. SENSRI's focus on the nature of knowing is a means for developing practical, integrative approaches that reconcile the current self/world split.
2) We currently have a science of objects; what is also needed is a science focusing on activity. Our present science is almost totally built on the interaction of material objects. Mechanics and material science play the central role in science today, and this strongly defines our present world-view. In this world-view, almost all phenomena are seen as originating from material causes. How can we begin to see the world as interactions or activities coming into and out of appearance? When we experience the more subtle impressions of the world, new relationships are discovered that lead to more integrative understanding and awareness of our world. SENSRI's research into more subtle modes of perceiving dynamic phenomena such as moving water works toward this end.
3) We need to develop technology and machines that don't create one specific outcome at the price of overwhelming our other senses or nature, but instead enhance our opportunities for rich sense impressions. One of the motivations for developing machinery was to take away the drudgery of repetitive tasks so people could have more time to enjoy life, to experience the world. Unfortunately, some of these machines also create conditions in which we are less interested in participating in the world, in which we are encouraged to "tune out" our senses. The auditory qualities of a leaf blower come to mind. SENSRI is working to create new approaches to technologies that enhance our experiences, rather than creating situations where we "tune out" and turn inward, increasing the separation of self and world.
The human being is a creative being. Art, music, and engineering are human activities in which we strive to create conditions of being that do not exist in the natural world. When these arts are well carried out, that which was created outside of the natural world is transformed into something beautiful. A new experience is created that enhances some aspect of the natural world or creates something new. This is the goal of the New Environmental Aesthetic: the creation of environments and conditions through the creativity of human being - in harmony with nature - where our results enhance sensory impressions This is the difference we experience between the old cathedral or temple and the new "big box".
To achieve this will require a new generation of scientists and new ways of working. New educational opportunities will be needed. SENSRI has already developed programs for high school students, and has been helping educate the next generation of teachers through programs such as Teaching Sensible Science (editor's note: this program is described elsewhere in this newsletter). What is also needed is to help educate the next generation of researchers and engineers. Toward this end, SENSRI is developing a center for Integrative Science, which includes a graduate degree program focused on developing and practicing the skills needed for human beings to re-imagine and transform the world we co-create. Studies in Integrative Science will focus on the three themes previously described:
• Deep investigation into how the way we think informs our relationship to the world/self experience.
• Development of more conscious, attentive, subtle skills of perception of phenomena of the natural world.
• Creation of technology whereby human beings can work in a more harmonious yet creative manner with the designs and activities of nature.
Creators of this new technology will need to synthesize the consciousness of the philosopher with the subtle perceptive abilities of the artist and the rigorous understanding of the scientist. This synthesis will form the seed for the creation of the New Environmental Aesthetic.