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.
Damn you, now I’ve got another book on the wish list. 😀
Amazing post…you said it much better than I could have.
I actually like cities as an environmental ideal – I feel that the more compact structure leads to an easier distribution of resources and much *less* stress on the surrounding areas. I feel that with some resources to basically lower heat reflection and with a distribution of park space within the city, what you’ve got is a really “green” way for humanity to live in the world.
And then there’s the emotional stuff which you’ve mentioned – I look at my semi-rural upbringing, which was really emotionally starved, and compare that to say, my friend Tony, who grew up in some of the nastier parts of LA – but because it was still a city, he had access to cultural resources that made him in some ways truly privileged!
Here’s a video I found looking for stuff on where I went to college; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsrqBHEOT0k – I think it’s interesting from a civil engineering and architecture standard. The close-in, smaller-business atmosphere of the city proper, instead of breeding the sort of urban wasteland most people fear, creates a diverse and interesting community. That’s what you can do with urban areas at their best and I truly believe in that.
An excellent and often over-looked facet of the eco-pagan perspective. I used to live in central metropolis and miss the diversity and relatively easy access to services there. I used to ride my bike for miles, from shops to work, and such. Now, in a more rural area, it’s much more commuting to work, and even basic things like schools. Our neighbors are not nearly as neighborly (not unkind, just less ‘communal’) here with 1/4 mile between us.
Lupa, I love that you addressed this issue on your blog – and I cannot agree more! While I do for the time being live in a smaller town, I am used to city living, and I can say that people are often a problem no matter where we live! I also do not believe most people were “cut out” for living in a rural environment and isolated from others – thus, why cities have more people in them in general. It seems that only the most self-sufficient types would choose to live in isolation – and even then, I think they would benefit from some social interaction. It is true that very few of us could make those “nature communities” truly work – and our efforts would indeed be much better applied at improving where we already live (not to mention do a favor for uninterrupted nature) – bravo Lupa!!