Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part II. Notes on habits

Chapter 8. Eden reclaimed

I was slowly walking back to my hotel room, stepping carefully around snails with large, almost comical heads, and brightly coloured shells. They were the size of small rotund sparrows. It was 1.30 a.m., the end of another day in paradise. I was staying in a beautiful hotel with manicured verdant lawns that swept down to the white sand and clear warm waters of the Indian Ocean. It was now January and I was attending a sustainability conference in Mauritius to present my new research (of course, I saw and felt the irony of this).

I had spent the day in various plenary sessions listening to the latest views on environmental sustainability. What was nice about the conference was that it had a type of session called ‘garden conversations’ which were unstructured 60-minute sessions that allowed delegates to meet the plenary speakers and talk with them informally about any emerging issues and, in addition, there were ‘talking circles’ which, according to the organisers, were ‘meetings of minds, often around points of difficulty. They are common in indigenous cultures. The inherent tension of these meetings is balanced by protocols of listening and respect for varied viewpoints. From this, rather than criticism and confrontation, productive possibilities may emerge.’ I had presented my work on the implicit attitudes to carbon footprints and the response was very favourable, many productive possibilities emerged, and I discovered that few researchers interested in sustainability seemed to have thought about this issue before but I could see that many were thinking about it now.

I had chosen a hotel close enough to where the conference was being held just outside Port Louis, in Pointe aux Sables, but really miles apart from the chaos and patchy squalor of that town. I was guided to my room by the sound of the crapaud, the Creole name for the little frogs crying out for a mate in the ponds dotted around the hotel. These were man-made with slate waterfalls, with the water emerging out of the mouths of golden lions, and goldfish swimming under the gentle sparkling falls, but the tropical nature of the island had invaded the interconnected ponds to give them new life; the whole thing pulsated like a membrane. The croaks sounded like the raspy death rattle of a human being, that terrible Cheyne-Stoking sound and rhythm, but with the opposite emotional significance. This noise was all about life and the celebration of libido rather than the celebration that thanatos had finally neared the end of its fateful journey. I timed the interval between the croaks – almost exactly one per second. The whole hotel was pulsating with this incessant noise that seemed to be getting louder. The volume bore no relation to the tiny creatures from which the noise comes. I picked one up to examine it, and it sat quietly in my hand before I released back into the lush pond life.

I had travelled halfway across the world to be here. One and a half hours to Charles de Gaulle airport and then eleven and a half hours to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport. Then, I had to travel another one and a half hours across the island in a private taxi, sitting there with its engine running so that the air conditioning would make it nice and cool for some Westerner like me. Of course, I could see the extraordinary irony in holding a conference on sustainability in Mauritius with academics reluctantly travelling from Minnesota and Harvard and Manchester to be there. But then again it does not pay to be too ethnocentric when it comes to academic debate. Sustainability is a global issue, and Mauritius is much closer to Africa and India and Australia than many other possible locations. And Mauritius did give me a sharp reminder, with its corrugated iron huts with hardboard walls, and buckets on the ends of rope for toilets, of the sheer economic significance of premier tourism in countries like this, with hard-working Western executives with lots of air miles in need of air-conditioned taxis and hotel rooms. If, and when, we cut back on air travel to Mauritius and other jewels in the Indian Ocean, either voluntarily or through some kind of prohibitive legislation in the future, these places will suffer greatly. And this is a real possibility in terms of the current ethos, with air travel being often singled out for particular criticism in terms of global warming. Walker and King (2008) say that ‘In terms of overall numbers that’s not strictly fair.’ But they add:

Aviation is directly responsible for about 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is just 1.6 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. However, molecule for molecule the emissions count for much more than they would on the ground because planes are very efficient at causing greenhouse warming. High-altitude deliveries of nitrogen oxides (which form ozone, another greenhouse gas), as well as the water in contrails that can go on to form cirrus clouds, together enhance the direct effect of carbon dioxide by up to a factor of three. (2008:124)

Sustainability is all about choice, but many of the choices are not easy. The next afternoon I lay in a hammock overlooking the sea, watching a weaver bird pick at the bread that I had dropped: the bread dropped carelessly rather than intentionally. Two small familiar-looking sparrows approached to nibble the bread beside the weaver bird; a red-crested, red-bodied serin walked arrogantly towards the other birds and stood in the middle waiting his turn. A water vole with pink feet ran through the scene and appeared to squeak. Two tiny grey doves arrived and walked around each other in what looked like a dance. This small part of earth, covered in luxurious thick grass, was fully alive and perfectly harmonious. The sea lapped the shore and I started to drift off; this was as close to a tropical paradise as I have seen or I could imagine. In the blue distance two fishermen a half-mile out from the shore cast their lines. They looked as if they were walking on water. But the perfection of the whole scene made me worry in the way that things do when they are too good.

I reminded myself what Erich Fromm wrote in 1941 about the first choices facing man as described in the Book of Genesis. Fromm was here attempting to understand the destructive political forces that were then gripping Europe in the form of the rise of fascism. ‘Man and woman live in the Garden of Eden in complete harmony with each other and with nature. There is peace and no necessity to work; there is no choice, no freedom, no thinking either. Man is forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He acts against God’s command, he breaks through the state of harmony with nature of which he is a part without transcending it’ (1941:27). This, according to Fromm, was the first act of human freedom, the first transition from mere unconscious existence, the first essentially human act. Human beings are just that because they do have choices, and the consequences of these choices are the parameters that define all our lives.

I lay there pondering some of our choices for the future. So what exactly were they? Was it just going to be air miles for the elite, the thinkers like the ones at this conference, conspicuous consumption for the few, and a new silent hypocrisy (where we simply won’t mention any longer what we consume – but we will consume it nonetheless), the rebirth of a new elitism that will even be acceptable to someone like myself? Were they the kinds of decisions that we will have to make for the good of the planet because we all can’t go jetting off across the world to hold a dialogue in a garden circle on a tropical paradise?

I went for a run that afternoon and soon saw, more starkly this time, that this paradise that I was now inhabiting was something of an illusion, a mirage created by unconscious forces, driven by images of white sand and palm trees and glamour in a desert of crippling poverty, with descendants of generations of African and Indian slaves that worked on the sugar-cane plantations that now provided the impeccable service culture, with dark-skinned waiters and waitresses in sailor suits and Nehru jackets that appeared to be naturally obsequious (but that was a dangerous conclusion although their smiles did fade naturally and slowly as they turned away from you as if they were genuinely pleased to serve you). I was suddenly overcome by an ill-defined and unfocused guilt. I felt guilt about the beauty of the world, or that part of the world that I was now privileged to inhabit, and guilt about my position in it, in that I still did not appear to be doing much to help even some bits of the planet (as if you could choose to help just bits of it rather than the whole natural thing). I did, however, make a list of things that I could do while I was here to help assuage this guilt. I came up with a list of three.

1 I will in Mauritius only travel under my own steam – except at night or when I have got heavy bags – and I will not eat more to fuel it. This despite the fact that my own steam really means running and my runs are taking me past the dry, flattened, frog-like skin of many dead rats who have feasted on the sugar-cane and have then been run over by fuel-inefficient cars as they venture out of the fields of sugar-cane in their bloated state. I also noticed on these runs that nobody was walking outside the towns, cars were everywhere, and plastic bags of rubbish were dumped beside the roads. There is not much of a green conscience when you are this poor. The cars and lorries came far too close to me and I was continually stepping into spikes of sharp cane to avoid being knocked over.

2 I must reduce the carbon footprint of what I eat. This is, I now know, in line with my general unconscious instinct, even if it is not as strong as it might be, but for some reason it is still not being translated into practice. I will eat only local produce at the hotel and I will quiz the staff diligently to determine whether the pineapple or the pawpaw is more local to the north west coast of Mauritius.

3 I will not leave the TV on standby, even though the red button acts as a constant reminder to switch on the BBC World News to keep up with Israel’s invasion of Gaza because I need to always remember how politics can change everything in an instant, unleashing darker unconscious forces barely restrained in a civilised world (perhaps rereading Fromm had made me more sensitive to detecting the work of the destructive death instinct, which was now seemingly being allowed free rein in the Middle East).

I laughed at the first two on my list and felt nothing but despair with the third. Every Israeli spokesperson seemed to be a softly spoken woman, in uniform or not. Western reporters were being prevented from entering Gaza, and they reported instead from the Israeli side of the border and therefore often had direct footage of the effects of the small number of rockets still fired by Hamas into the border towns of southern Israel. The description of the damage these rockets were doing always seemed to precede the horrendous destruction of Gaza.

I switched channels and watched Reading play Watford in the Coca-Cola Championship. This match reminded me that this is a very small world with shared concerns, and that maybe some degree of convergence is possible. The crapauds, however, getting faster in frequency and even higher in volume, and now sounding like a thousand football rattles, suggested otherwise. I retired in a black mood, thinking of how strange the crapauds sound, and that the world is an odd, diverse and varied place in which everything changes as you move around it, there is no fixed reference point anywhere and consensus on anything – war, famine (and who is to blame), sustainability, global warming – will be virtually impossible.

The next morning the sun was shining again; it was high in the sky, brilliant and intense, and my spirits lifted immediately. In front of my veranda was a panoply of palm trees with their heavy yellow coconut burden. Incongruously a rose bush sat to my left bearing pink roses, presumably for the honeymoon couples that come here. The palm trees were thick and luxuriant and spaced at a pleasant distance but with no obvious pattern, as if nature has been tamed and improved by man’s intervention. They had even made the spacing seem random and natural, but it was far too pleasing to the eye for that.

But at midday suddenly everything started to change again. The rain was coming once more, but now it felt different. However, this was also the day of my first sailing lesson and I did not want it to be spoilt by the wind and the rain: after all, sailing needs wind doesn’t it? The attendant in the sailing office advised me to leave my powder blue Armani sunglasses in the kiosk – ‘In case you capsize or are knocked unconscious by the boom, monsieur,’ he said helpfully in his French creole. I also offered up my grey Nike Pegasus running shoes stained with clay and reeking of sweat and effort. He motioned to the step below the kiosk: ‘Leave them there monsieur, they’ll be quite safe.’ He obviously didn’t want to touch them. The instructor stood forlornly on the small laser sail boat. ‘The rain,’ he said, ‘it is coming. It is a cyclone.’ I put on my yellow lifejacket carefully, fastening each of the three poppers in turn; I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

‘Cyclone is good,’ I said, ‘lots of wind.’

‘No, no, monsieur, too much wind, cyclone blow, blow, blow.’

He obviously wanted to go back into the kiosk to play cards with his friends. His facial expression was telling me everything that I needed to know.

‘Do you suffer from panic?’ he asked.

‘Pardon?’ I said.

‘Do you have panic? Because if you do have panic we can’t do sail, if you panic we drown. We might as well go home.’

I shook my head slowly and mournfully, eyes wide open like a small but determined puppy. ‘I don’t do panic,’ I said. We walked slowly together to the slightly built craft and I clambered in clumsily, which only seemed to worry him more.

‘Cyclone is very bad,’ he added, allowing me one last chance to back out.

We sat on the small boat facing each other as he explained what each of the small instruments did. The rain was definitely getting harder. There was a thin nylon rope, blue and white, for tightening the sail, a light aluminium rudder for steering the boat and a boom that shuddered unpredictably and violently across the boat.

‘You must sit hunched up and duck when the boom comes, otherwise you will be knocked out,’ the instructor explained.

We set off into the white silver bay, now grey from the rain. I was gently guiding the boat. He was standing on the bow holding onto the sail, the pelting rain streaming down his face; he was looking miserable, he would clearly rather not be here at this moment in time but I had been insistent. He looked past me towards the shore, wistfully.

He tried one more time. ‘The rain,’ he said, ‘it is coming. It is très mal.’

We were picking up speed and the small boat was gliding through the waves. I wanted to take all of the stunning scene in, but the driving rain was forcing my eyes into a narrow slit; I was just focusing ahead.

‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Manchester,’ I replied. Soon we were talking about Ronaldo and Alex Ferguson and the way that Manchester United always seem to start slowly in the Premiership but nevertheless always seem to end up on top. We were making contact at last. He asked what I did for a living and when I told him I was a Professor of Psychology he became animated.

‘My mother do psychology too,’ he said. ‘She reads the tarot cards and she reads the rice grains. I have seen her with my own eyes cure a man in a wheelchair using the tarot cards. She found out what the matter with him was and then fixed it by sacrificing a hen. Can you cure the man in the wheelchair?’

I shook my head sorrowfully. ‘Unfortunately not,’ I said. ‘I once cured a student with a fear of public speaking by forcing her to talk to a lecture theatre full of two hundred students, but that was about it.’

‘You very cruel man,’ he said. ‘My mother can walk on coal and she can do sacrifices, just small sacrifices, chicks, hens, goats, nothing too big. She just cuts their head off and reads the tarot. Can you walk on coal, monsieur?’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I did walk across the beach this morning and it was very hot indeed!’ He didn’t really get the joke but I laughed anyway, which he seemed to find uncomfortable. He had a professor with him in his small boat in a developing cyclone who appeared to be laughing at himself.

‘Turn left monsieur, left, you must dance with the wind, not fight it. You must learn to live in nature, not fight against it all the time.’

The wind was now much stronger and the boom was being shunted abruptly from side to side; I could see no pattern in the changing turbulence. He, however, was standing on the bow reading the direction of the waves. He clung onto the sail, delicately balanced in the driving wind and rain. Suddenly he shouted out a warning but it was too late. ‘Duck, monsieur, duck!’ And the inevitable happened: the boom struck me with some force in the back of the head giving me an instant headache but simultaneously waking me up. I suddenly had the first clear thought of the day. What was I doing in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a tiny boat (almost like a lollipop stick) with the son of the local witch doctor? The rain was torrential.

‘What you think of black magic?’ he suddenly asked.

‘It depends on how it is used,’ I replied.

‘Sorry,’ he said back, sounding as if he assumed that I hadn’t heard his first question. ‘What you think of black magic?’ he asked again.

‘Good,’ I replied this time.

‘You like?’ he said, smiling with large white teeth.

‘I really like,’ I said. ‘I would love to meet your mother. Could we perhaps go back to the shore now?’

‘No, not yet,’ he said, his smile temporarily leaving him, ‘your lesson is not up yet. I want to learn more about your psychology. Turn the other way.’

‘Towards the cyclone?’ I asked hesitantly.

‘Yes, that way,’ he said, gesturing towards the cyclone but without actually mentioning it.

I sat in silence for a moment just listening to the rain bouncing off the boat.

‘Have you met Ronaldo?’ he asked, and looked disappointed when I failed to answer. ‘Would he like a sacrifice? What about Alex Ferguson? My mother would sacrifice a large goat for him for Manchester United to beat Chelsea. You tell me what score you want, two nil, three nil, my mother arrange it.’ His mind was racing away with him, thinking about all of the commercial possibilities when east meets west. I just wanted him to keep focused and get us back safely. I was trying to put all that I had learned in this lesson, which was not very much, into practice and the small white sail-boat responded well, sprinting back towards the land like a dog trying to get out of a storm. I shook hands with him when I half fell out of the boat onto the shore. ‘Thank you,’ I said.

The rain was torrential now: torrents fell through the trees, torrents raged though the rivulets and drains. There was a large cyclone off Rodrigues Island maybe heading south east, maybe turning towards Mauritius, but it had still sent all this rain here. I stood sheltering with the beach boys who hired out the pedalos and the sail-boats to the tourists. They told me that the cyclones were far more frequent and more intense than they had been in previous years, and that the beautiful manicured grounds of this hotel that sweep down to the lapping waves of the Indian Ocean were now often the victims of flash floods. They also told me that the temperature was rising – they had seen this with their own eyes. Even though they were all in their late teens and early twenties they said that they personally had seen the change – each summer now the temperature climbed to 37 degrees rather than peaking at 32 degrees as it did when they were younger. ‘It’s getting too hot for some tourists,’ said one dark African boy with a fashionable goatee. ‘And much, much too wet,’ said another. ‘One day the tourists may not want to come.’ I knew that they were right from some recent studies I had read. But it is one thing reading it in a paper, and quite a different thing to stand there feeling the new intensity of the cyclone on the horizon.

I climbed back off the beach and saw that the palm tree outside my room now appeared to be emerging out of a deep pool about two metres across. It was an odd sight, like an island that had been drowned – maybe like a vision of the future. A little bird, flame red in colour, called a red cardinal, hopped towards the pool of water around the base of the tree to pick insects from the wet soft ground around the new pond. The heavy patter of rain through the leaves was everywhere. It was such an evocative image, an image that I knew would prove to be indelible, and it pushed one clear thought my way. It was such a cruel thought. The thought was that we helped make this Eden, we tamed it, we structured it and we imbued it with our unconscious desires and our symbolism of tropical island beauty and romance and sanctuary and aspiration, but then our choices – one at a time, linear, sequential and unconstrained – might already have helped to bury it.