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Green Philosophy

Mocking Nature

Paul Keeling reacts with a Green perspective on religious insult.

The deep sense that some things are sacred underpinned the outrage felt by many Muslims upon the publication in 2005 of offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. While the resulting violent protests cannot be condoned, the universal principle of respect for another ’s beliefs can be readily acknowledged. And I can personally empathize with the visceral experience of religious insult, even though I am not a member of any established religion.

Religious insult on a massive scale is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. In 1988 millions of Christians across America protested the release of the film The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese, for its perceived unbiblical and disrespectful portrayal of Jesus. Many religious leaders, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, supported the Christian efforts to persuade MCA/Universal not to offend a whole religious group.

One need not be Muslim, Christian, or Jewish to relate to religious insult. In 1988 I spent an unforgettable summer camping and working amidst the splendours of the Yukon Territory, including 22 days canoeing solo down the Yukon River. During that 720 mile float through the beautiful hinterlands between Whitehorse, Canada and Circle, Alaska, I crossed only two roads, and encountered very few human beings. With only one human living in every seven square miles, the Yukon Territory is habitat for grizzly bear, moose, wolf, Dall sheep, caribou and peregrine falcon, as well as many rare and endangered wild flowers. In the summer months the sun hangs above the horizon during the night-time hours, casting a majestic glow over an almost implausible expanse of land and sky. Those days and nights paddling alone through the Yukon wilderness filled my heart with an inner stillness and strength which I vowed to remember and preserve forever. But several years later, when I spotted a ‘GMC Yukon’ SUV on the road, I was jarred. The Yukon Territory felt like a sacred place to me, and now it had been commodified and trivialized.

‘Yukon’ (Gwich’in for ‘Great River’) has connotations far beyond a mere geographical name. I knew it had been picked as the marketing brand for a type of motor vehicle for a reason, and that reason bothered me. It was the hypocrisy and inappropriateness of specifically selecting an open, relatively unspoilt, largely roadless area as a name for a wasteful, hulking urban assault vehicle that grated on me. I was as offended by it as any religious person might have been if confronted by a ‘Messiah XL’ or a ‘Ford Prophet’. But my sense of outrage struggled to find a voice. It was not grounded in theology in any obvious way. Nonetheless, while I recognize that a cartoon mockery of the Prophet Mohammed or a disrespectful interpretation of the life of Christ are deeply offensive to many people, what I find offensive are television commercials depicting a rotating aerial shot of a Ford SUV parked atop a butte overlooking Bryce Canyon, or a Nissan Pathfinder whipping around a corner amidst the forests and glacial summits of Banff National Park. These images are disrespectful presentations of the natural world: they carelessly conflate the glorification of nature with the glorification of SUVs and other automobiles. The hypocrisy of the juxtaposition is striking, because the massive emissions, road building, oil development, and waste of resources involved in the manufacture and use of SUVs like the GMC Yukon are directly at odds with the pristine qualities and ecological health of regions like the Yukon. The context in which such SUVs and cars are presented is a mockery of nature.

By ‘mockery of nature’ I mean an insincere, disrespectful or trivializing portrayal of nature, albeit in a way that is not deliberately rude or mean-spirited. With these SUV and car advertisements a more subtle and thus in some ways more dangerous collection of human failings are on display: carelessness, ignorance, cynicism, greed and insensitivity. But because the ad- makers’ abuse and insults are not intentionally or overtly provocative, they go relatively unnoticed, and so are free to run rampant. (An example that I recently saw of what could only be deliberate, conscious mockery, was an enormous billboard depicting a Toyota Tundra parked beside a pristine alpine lake in the foreground of a glacier-bedecked mountain peak. It read: ‘The Truck That’s Changing it All’.)

This mockery of nature is readily evident in a taxonomy of names for cars and SUVs, and it is also highly revealing to examine the marketing strategies behind these names. One naming and branding agency, Igor International, lists SUV names such as ‘Forester’, ‘Pathfinder’, ‘Mountaineer’, ‘Tracker’, ‘Freelander’ and ‘Escape’ under what is called the ‘Experiential’ branding category. This involves “a direct connection to something real, a part of direct human experience. Usually literal in nature but presented with a touch of imagination. ” Other names such as the ‘Yukon’, ‘Montana’, ‘Rainier’, ‘Tahoe’, ‘Denali’, ‘Tundra’, ‘Sequoia’, ‘Canyon’ and ‘Frontier’ are in the ‘Evocative’ category. This is “designed to evoke the positioning of a product rather than the goods and services or the experience of those goods and services. Removed from direct experience, but relevant, evoking memories, stories, and many levels of association. ” From a marketing point of view these names are perfectly appropriate precisely because they help sell the product. But from a consideration of the direct contradiction between what these products are in reality, and what they are called, the inappropriateness is obvious indeed.

Note that forestry, mountaineering, tracking, path-finding and escaping are deemed to be part of “direct human experience” while the kinds of actual places where such activities might meaningfully take place, such as the roadless wildlands of Montana, Denali, Rainier, Sierra, Tahoe, Yukon and so on, are “removed from direct experience” but still “relevant” because they evoke “memories, stories, and... associations.” Characteristic landscape features of these places, such as the tundra, the canyon, the Sequoia trees or the frontier, are similarly compromised, but valued for their evocative qualities. Animal names such as ‘Cougar’, ‘Lynx’, ‘Falcon’, ‘Eagle’, and ‘Ram’ are also readily co-opted for the purpose of marketing automobiles, despite the fact that “probably no single feature of the human-dominated landscape is more threatening to biodiversity, than roads ” as conservation biologist Reed Noss says. The irony, of course, is that these products offer a fantasy ( ‘Pathfinder’), while at the same time they threaten the real counterparts to these fantasies (the wildlands of Montana). But the latter retain their ‘relevance’ insofar as they sell SUVs – as is also the case with Native American group names such as ‘Aztec’, ‘Cherokee’, ‘Navaho’ and ‘Comanche’, despite these also being “removed from direct experience.” Yet very few people protest the implications of these branding techniques as offensive.

We may soon carve up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration so that we may fill up our ‘Toyota Tundra’. We will thus preserve the tundra in name, in order to evoke memories and associations, while trashing the actual tundra landscape which inspires those associations. We drive through paved expanses of commuter homes and mega-store warehouses on streets named after the landscape features which these developments frequently obliterate: ‘Blackberry Creek Road’, ‘Timberline Ave’ ‘Coyote Canyon Road’, ‘Heavenly Meadow Drive’. But again these hypocrisies go without notice or protest. Nobody is offended. Blasphemy against God is condemned, but apparently it is not offensive to abuse God ’s creation, and shamelessly, hypocritically mock it in the process.

Are these mockeries of the natural world a form of religious insult? Not according to how the divine is traditionally viewed in the West. But if nature is an expression of the divine, or if the divine is deemed to be immanent in nature and not only transcendent to it, then it is certainly possible to be deeply religiously offended by how images of nature are used. John Muir, the great wilderness preservationist of the 19th century, was raised as an evangelical Christian, and later described the wonders of nature as “terrestrial manifestations of God” which “declared His glory.” Of course, appreciating that natural entities and processes have some autonomous, intrinsic value deserving of moral consideration (ie respect) need not in itself amount to a religion. But I would claim that this sensibility can be felt as deeply and firmly as any explicitly religious creed. It occupies the same place in the heart, and can be insulted, violated and desecrated in the same way. The difference is that nature has no mosques, churches or holy texts which send people into the streets to protest on its behalf.

I can’t imagine what it might mean to achieve the Old Testament goal of “subduing the earth.” But as Homo sapiens survives in an increasingly artificial ‘anthroposphere’ of its own engineering, I am sure wild nature will increasingly be “removed from direct experience” and replaced with fake, ersatz alternatives that will inspire “memories, stories, and many levels of association.”

By tolerating the mockery of nature we implicitly excuse and perpetuate our abuse of the natural world. Many people, regardless of religious tradition, may come to wish that we had protested the mockery of nature sooner.

Have I offended anyone?

© Paul M. Keeling 2008

Paul Keeling has an MSc in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and is currently an environmental writer living in Vancouver.

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