One of the things that neopaganism and ecopsychology have in common is the tendency to idealize rural living and emphasize the unhealthy aspects of cities. At the most extreme, cities are cancerous pustules on the flesh of the living Earth, full of filth and pollution and psychic assault at every turn. Conversely, the wilderness is presented as pristine, a paradise and the pinnacle of healthy living environments.
With paganism in specific this often manifests as the desire on the part of numerous pagan folk to buy up some land and create a wild sanctuary where other pagan folk can come visit and be in the healing wilderness. I’m not the first one to point out that if everyone bought up some wilderness, there’d soon be no wilderness left. See, even the presence of a few humans affects the wildlife in an area. With some species, that effect, so small as it is, still has a significant impact.
I used to be one of those pagans. In fact, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to buy up land and have it preserved forever and ever. But I also wanted to live there. Now that I’m older and (one would hope) wiser than my ten-year-old self, I’m aware that such a plan has many complications, the impact on the wildlife being only one.
I’ve also been living in cities–Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland–for the past not-quite-decade. And I like it quite a bit. The small town I grew up in was seriously lacking in the cultural and subcultural input that I take for granted these days. I love 24-hour Wifi/coffee shops; I love goth/industrial dance nights; I love the abundance of pagan, occultish, and otherwise alternative folk. I love that, especially in Portland, I’m in a place where it seems everybody has tattoos, even high up in corporations and in the health care field and, well, just about everywhere else. I couldn’t get these things in the place I grew up in. I did get a lot of closed-minded douchebaggery, and daily psychological abuse on the part of my peers, and a dearth of exposure to anything outside of country, oldies, and soft rock music. While not every small town is this way, and not every city is as progressive as Portland; I’ve had better luck being myself in urban areas. So for that and many, many other reasons, I’m quite happy being a city girl.
Back to the sustainability angle, though. There are just way too many people to be able to let everyone enjoy rural living while allowing the wilderness to have enough room to be itself without any human intervention. Not only would it require too much of what wilderness remains, but there would have to be a drastic, fundamental shift in the way that Americans (and most other industrialized humans) approach land use.
The problem isn’t cities in and of themselves. It’s how they’re built and managed. For example, most people have absolutely no conception of how a city changes the nature of the bioregion it’s in, from the climate to the soil and waterways. This isn’t just within the actual perimeters of the city, but a large area surrounding it–everything’s connected.
Reading books like Green Metropolis has given me a better appreciation for the city as a vehicle of sustainable living. After all, if one can live sustainably on under an acre of land, and when people can be concentrated into a smaller area, leaving more untouched places for the wilderness to recover, why not? Less time spent traveling, easier access to resources, greater human cultural diversity in a given area–what’s not to love?
Yes, there are numerous studies in ecopsych/environmental psych and other disciplines showing the negative health effects of cities. This, again, goes back to how cities are designed and run. Psychological stress from urban life often comes from the wear and tear of commuting, unpleasant physical environments lacking greenspace and other amenities, economic depression, and a lack of physical safety. These things are not limited to cities, though; it’s just that because the people are more concentrated, so are the problems.
The solution is not to dissolve cities and push the more sensitive wildlife even further into the corners of the wilderness as we create happy rural communes. The solution is to make cities better places to live. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Apart from the sheer logistics (and arguments thereof) of greening a city, there are considerations of class such as gentrification; cultural factors, to include immigration and spirituality; what to do with the open spaces that remain, as well as how to continue feeding larger groups of people with omnivorous options, and how much of the open space should go to that; and so forth. And, of course, not everyone is going to want to live in a city no matter how nice. Lots to think about.
I still want to interact with the wilderness, but as a visitor, not a resident. Like the spirit world, I want to try to leave the wilderness to its native inhabitants, and only go in as necessary.