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As we gravitate towards the world's growing urban centers, we sever our most obvious ties to nature. To preserve the environment from further destruction, it's now vital to recreate our emotional attachment to land and place. The following article was commissioned for the 2004 opening of the Gwangju Biennale in Korea.
Millions of people are enriching themselves while our world is becoming more impoverished every day. Our ravenous consumption and fascination with earning a quick buck is slowly suffocating Mother Nature. Earth is becoming less diverse by the minute. We are razing forests. We are polluting oceans. We are allowing agro-business to establish vast mono-crop fields. Pushed aside and deprived of their habitats, frogs, monkeys, wildcats, grizzlies, wolves and thousands of other creatures have disappeared forever or are dwindling to the brink of extinction. Earth is become less diverse.
The ongoing environmental destruction is nothing new, so why should we care? Because the artist’s ability to contribute to cultural diversity depends on the biological diversity that surrounds us. The extinction of a Capuchin monkey in Brazil is intimately connected to the possible extinction of creativity in Gwangju.
Wilderness is our original and abiding muse. Some 20.000 years ago, Cro-Magnon artists decorated the caves in Lascaux, in southwestern France, and in Altamira, in Spain. They painted, carved and sculpted standing, galloping, prancing bears, horses, rhinoceroses, ibexes and imaginary animals.
These artists were very good naturalists. They had a keen sense of animal behavior and their work included anatomical details as small as a bison's tear duct and a mammoth's anal operculum. They could have painted a cubist abstraction, but instead they chose to paint the creatures to which they had the strongest relationship. Their fears, their loves and their awe for the natural world survive in their works to this day.
Even the smallest bugs inspire great art. What would art history be like, for instance, without something as seemingly uninspiring as the locust in the natural world?
One Sunday a few years ago I was walking through Stockholm when I passed an etching that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small copper plate of several insects, dated 1594. Among the perfectly drawn critters was an oddity, a tiny dragon-like animal. I couldn’t help wondering if the artist, Nicholas de Bruyn, had made a mistake. The animals in his plate seemed exact, but among them was this obviously imaginary creature.
A few months later I was at the Royal Library in Stockholm when I learned that earlier in the 16th century there had been a locust invasion in Milan, Italy. News of this invasion spread throughout Europe, partly through drawings in newspapers. It seemed clear to me that De Bruyn’s dragon was in fact a locust. His etching incorporates the power of the locust, not as an individual insect, but as a population, a scourge and threat to the farmer’s crops. It had become a creature of his imagination. A dragon.
Centuries later in the early 1970ies, Bob Dylan received an Honorary PhD from Princeton University. The award-ceremony coincided with the hatching cycle of the cicada. In New Jersey, periodical cicadas emerge from the ground in early to mid-June after spending 17 years in the nymphal stage feeding on the roots of trees. The darkened skies above the University town inspired Dylan to write The Day of the Locusts, one of his more popular songs.
The locust is a tiny yet concrete example of how natural diversity breeds cultural diversity. If there were no locusts, there would be no dragons etched by de Bruyn and fewer songs by Bob Dylan. Our culture would be impoverished, less diverse.
Now let’s look at something a more fundamental to the history of western art: the Golden Section. You find this proportion in Greek buildings and Renaissance paintings. You find it in Sandro Boticelli’s Venus and in Still Life in Motion by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It’s a proportion that just looks right, that looks natural.
The Golden Section is a proportion where the whole is to the larger part, as the larger part is to the smaller part. Divide the longer section with the shorter section and you get the ratio 1.618. It turns out that we are surrounded by that proportion.
The natural world is suffused with the Golden Section. The constant that defines it reappears as the exponential in a geometrical progression known as the Fibonacci series. That series describes the spiral growth patterns found in everything from tree trunks to clouds, in flowers and sea shells. Art and life can be described by the same mathematics.
Without the inspiration of a diverse nature, without the sunflower and the nautilus shell and the fir tree, there would possibly be no Golden Section. Thus the instinctive processes of artistic creation are closely tied to the fundamental principles of natural growth. Eradicate or impoverish the wild, and you rob artists of a fundamental muse.
Even today some of the more spectacular artists turn to nature for inspiration. Sheep-pickler and shark-slicer Damien Hirst, is a conceptual artist who suspends animals in formaldehyde. Our artists in Lascaux painted, sculpted and carved running, leaping, suffering animals. Hirst shows us animals that are inanimate, dead. What has happened to the relationship between man and other animals in the intervening years?
Our relationship to nature has undergone a radical transformation. Our societies are now governed by an omnipotent market force that treats all life as an inanimate object destined for consumption. To consume means literally to destroy or expend. In a fundamentalist consumer society, destruction is a way of life, and wilderness is doomed.
The system that leads to the extinction of a million year old creature blindly puts corporate and individual profit before diversity, unless that diversity has a monetary value in itself. It is a system that is incapable of respecting the integrity of the other, the existence of something wild and foreign. It doesn’t matter whether that other is created by an artist or by Mother Nature. It must conform, or it will cease to exist.
We continuously fail to recognize our historical dependence on untamed nature, both as artists and as consumers. The United States could not have become the world’s only hyper-power without its abundant wilderness. Without the promise of a better life out west, without the virtually endless land and unreachable frontier, there would be no manifest destiny. The frontier has now been conquered, the resources dug out, the land controlled. As the US continues to devour its natural, political and artistic wilderness, its dream is increasingly devoid of promise, full of misgivings. It has become a nightmare scenario, where a nation is supplanting its beautiful wilderness and creative legacy with the vagaries of an infertile stock market and a debilitating oil addiction.
We ignore our inescapable dependence on nature at great cost to our social and personal health. As earth becomes progressively less diverse, there are fewer perspectives and fewer things to talk or dream about. “Imagination—a kind of wildness in itself—used to be one of this country’s greatest strengths: the ability to invent and to question authority and the status quo—to ask What if?—to challenge, and ask Why?” writes American nature writer Rick Bass.
Yet here I believe the artist and the environmentalist share a similar agenda. Artistic creativity depends on a total acceptance of the wilderness within. We fear true, subversive art as we fear true, wild nature. Neither accepts the limits we wish to set, nor the roles we wish to assign. "Art is dangerous because it doesn't have a definable function. I think that is what people are afraid of,” says Damian Hirst.
Like our Cro-Magnon forbears, the devoted artist is a devoted naturalist, acting in defense of the magical, the natural, the wild, protecting the integrity of everything that is different, chaotic, sudden and inexplicable.
It is this role of the artist as naturalist that I wish to see explored at the Gwangju Biennale. The artist as preserver of our creative commons.
All the Virology on the WWW - links to independent and government biological warfare sites
Canadian Defense Research Establishment - biodefense information
Centers for Disease Control
Center for Non-Proliferation Studies - reported status of chemical and biological weapons programs in various countries
Chemical and Biological Defense Information Analysis Center
Harvard-Sussex Program on CBW Armament and Arms Limitation
Hardin MD - extensive list of resources from the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences
Johns Hopkins University -center for civilian biodefense studies
Journal of the American Medical Association - consensus statement: anthrax as a biological weapon
Nova Online - the companion Web site to "Bioterror," a film that follows three New York Times reporters exploring bioweapons research and the current threat of anthrax
Pig Disease Information Centre - slides from a lecture on anthrax, with photos of patients
Plague War - a report on the biological weapons threat and how the Soviet Union amassed an arsenal of bio-weapons
The Federation of American Scientists - position papers and comprehensive biological weapons links
The Stimson Centre - a think-tank active in chemical and biological weapons issues
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute - chemical and biological warfare project
The Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute
The University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies - analysis of the current state of verification negotiations under the Biological Weapons Convention, plus relevant UN documents and UNSCOM reports
The US Chemical and Biological Defence Information Analysis Center - plenty of links especially to biodefence contractors
Earth Charter - a people's treaty that seeks to inspire in all peoples a sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility
Environmentalists Against War
- a coalition opposing
the US attack on Iraq
The Future in our Hands - a movement in search of a new lifestyle and a more humane society based on solidarity with the world's poor, on ecological balance and a reassessment of personal values
Fair Trade Coffee
The Fair Trade Federation - an association committed to providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged farmers worldwide
Global Exchange - a coffee-campaign by this non-profit action center dedicated to promoting people-to-people ties around the world
The Washington Area Coffee Contact - coffee enthusiasts organized for the free exchange of ideas and information concerning organic, fair-trade, and, shade-grown or bird-safe coffees
The Guardian Special Report on Fair Trade
Oxfam international background briefing on coffee market
AlterNet - a project of the Independent Media Institute, dedicated to supporting independent and alternative journalism
Earth Crash Earth Spirit
- a spiritual look at our environmental crisis
Eartheasy - earth-friendly alternatives to everyday lifestyle and consumer choices
Earthscape - an archive of papers, conferences, educational materials, books, journal abstracts and articles
ELDIS, Institute of Developmental Studies - gateway covering development information sources
Ethical Junction - links to ecological websites
Forum on Religion and Ecology - an interreligious, multi-cultural initiative engaging in scholarly dialogue on the environment.
FreeNews - articles on health and ecology in Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Italian and German
Grist Magazine - online environmental magazine with in-depth reporting, cartoons, summaries of breaking news stories, diary entries from activists, book reviews, an environmental advice column
Idealist - a comprehensive directory of nonprofit and volunteering resources on the Web
OmPlace - a free information center for health, environmental and social issues
Project Censored - educates people about the role of independent journalism in a democratic society
Social Criticism Review - selected readings on modern society and its ills
The Ecologist - the world's longest running environmental magazine for people with an interest in environmental, social and economic issues
The Mighty Organ - collection of journalistic observations, interests and passions from people who normally get paid for what they write
Voluntary Work Information Service (VWIS) - an international networking service in the environmental and humanitarian fields in over 150 countries world-wide
Third World Network (TWN) - an independent non-profit international network of organizations and individuals involved in issues relating to development, the Third World and North- South issues
EVWeb - devoted to the development and deployment of sustainable transportation technologies
Forest Conservation. - works to end deforestation, maintain climatic systems and begin the age of ecological restoration
Inter-Press Service. - IPS focuses on the events and global processes affecting the economic, social and political development of peoples and nations
Media Channel - non-profit site dedicated to media issues worldwide
One World - global coverage of sustainable development and human rights
Planet Ark - Reuters' world environment news service
Point of Life - interviews, books, humor, poetry, contests, spirit, quizzes and more
Bretton Woods Project - monitors the World Bank and IMF with NGOs and researchers
British Holistic Medical Association - an organisation promoting the practice of holistic medicine
Cancer Alternative Information Bureau (CAIB) - information bureau that questions current treatments and why alternative medicine/treatments aren't given the chance
CEE Bankwatch Network - monitors activities of international financial institutions, proposing alternatives to their policies and projects
Corporate Watch - a radical research and publishing group, based in Oxford, UK, with extensive archive on corporate malfeasance
CorpWatch - counters corporate-led globalization through education and activism
Delta - newletter and information network focusing on Shell in Nigeria
Earth For All - information and products to help meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
European Energy Education Forum (EEEF) - creating information, ideas and contacts between organisations, teachers and students working with energy education
Eurosolar - promotes the total replacement of nuclear and fossil energies with renewable energy
Friends of the Earth – protects and improves the conditions for life on earth
Global Witness - educates the public about the link between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses
GM Info - interactive maps of where GMOs are being produced, handled and stored in the UK
Orion Society - aims to help individuals and grassroots organizations to heal nature and community
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology - works to conserve biodiversity and protect people and their environments from the threats of centralised systems of monoculture in forestry, agriculture and fisheries
Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF) - learning to handle conflicts with ever less violence against other human beings and nature
Anita Roddick - the founder of Body Shop shares her outrage over the menace of global business practices
David Suzuki - this foundation seeks ways for society to live in balance with the natural world that sustains us
George Monbiot - author of Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain, and the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man's Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper
John Pilger - Australian-born author and documentary filmmaker on Iraq, Vietnam, East Timor, Burma, Australia and Indonesia. The site also explores the increasing power of global media organisations
Julia Butterfly Hill - the Circle of Life Foundation activates people through education, inspiration and connection to live in a way that honors the diversity and interdependence of all life
Michael Moore - political satirist, documentary filmmaker, producer of 'TV Nation' and author of "Stupid White Men", this is the loudest single voice of criticism in the United States
Paul Rezendes - one of the leading trackers and outdoor educators in north eastern United States
Ray Mears - writer, broadcaster and survival instructor Ray Mears teaches wilderness bushcraft in England
Tom Brown - the founder of a school for tracking, nature awareness and survival, Tom Brown has been exploring the wilderness since he was 7 years old
Vandana Shiva - founder of RFSTE that works to protect people's rights from threats to their environment by centralised systems of monoculture
Encyclopedia - free encyclopedia that provides more than 57,000 articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia
All the Web
Tourism Concern - the UK's leading resource for ethical and sustainable tourism
All the sites listed above are checked regularly. However, the rapidly-changing nature of the web means some sites may change after I've visited them. Dedijer Media is not responsible for the content of these sites. You can help maintain the quality of these weblinks by e-mailing me if you find faults. Email firstname.lastname@example.org