THERE IS AN ancient Greek myth that seems to be a potent parable for our times. Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility and the rhythm of the seasons, appears in disguise as a mortal priestess to the imperious King Erysichthon, suggesting that he refrain from cutting the trees of a sacred grove planted in celebration of all that she embodies. He ignores her and continues to cut, hungry for timber to build a new banqueting hall for his palace. Demeter, revealing herself in her full splendour, condemns the King to perpetual hunger, however much he consumes. Unable to sustain the excess of a hunger that is never satiated, he becomes a beggar in the streets, reliant on handouts and eating dirt.

Endless production and consumption is the hallmark of today’s corporate capitalism, but permanent dissatisfaction seems to be the zeitgeist. The Greek myth of Demeter is very apt. But the heart of the myth is that all these ailments are due to the King’s inability to pause in wonder and respect at Demeter’s sacred grove.

Humans’ seemingly irrevocable break from Nature – a conceptual divorce that is normalised in modernity – creates the fundamentalist instrumentality of our (non) relationships with the non-human world. Nature is something to be measured, mapped, modelled, commodified, conserved, used. It is not felt, celebrated, danced, or given gifts. Even in the arena of ‘biodiversity conservation’, policy and practice are guided by quantifiable measures: of numbers conserved, of percentages of the Earth’s surface under ‘protected area estate’, and of money generated through tourism and through global finance markets in the burgeoning area of Payments for Ecosystem Services.

Bioculturalism – the acknowledgement that biological diversity is linked with cultural diversity in knowledge, languages and practice, and that sustaining both is necessary for both ecological and cultural wellbeing – is an emerging concept that marks a radical step to bring varied cultural values into debate regarding ‘Nature conservation’. It was the central theme for a recent symposium, ‘Sustaining Biological and Cultural Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World’, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is implicit in the recently adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms, for example, that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas…” And a new initiative in Peru’s Cusco Highlands – the Parque de la Papa (‘Potato Park’), established by Inca descendants to preserve the astonishing diversity of potato varieties developed through cultural practice – has been named explicitly as a Biocultural Heritage Site.

These are major conceptual steps towards re-entwining the domains of culture and Nature, and of mind and body, which have been so violently wrested apart in 2,000 years of patriarchal social organisation. But, as the Demeter myth suggests, the key to healing this trauma is the knowledge that we are part of a spirited, soulful and rhythmic Earth, and that we need a revolutionary adjustment of our current practices in the light of this knowledge.

Given the discourses of mainstream ‘environment and development’ rhetoric – which would rather solve all problems with techno fixes and tweaks in policy than suggest radical changes in consumption and other practices – the sharing of stories and experiences that run counter to this flow is a significant tool for change.

I HAVE AN experience I would like to share here. It takes place in the dry lands of northwest Namibia during the 1990s. I continue to be connected with this area. At that time, I was a young and enthusiastic Ph.D. student in anthropology learning about peoples’ uses of, and relationships with, the landscape. My particular focus was on plants, but I soon realised that these are woven with and inextricable from all the other beings that make up the landscape. I was learning from Damara people, whose name for themselves is ≠Nu Khoen. The story is in the photograph shown. It was taken in 1995 at a place called |Giribes: large open grassy plains northwest of the settlement called Sesfontein or !Nani|aus.

We had driven out there early in the morning, and the sun was starting to burn. I had my notebook and plant press at the ready, and was keen to get going with the ‘resource-use’ documentation that I hoped to do that day. But the first thing that these three people did – they are Nathan ≠Ûina Taurob on the right, his daughter and her partner – was to move some way away from the car, sit down and start talking out at the landscape. I remember feeling slightly impatient at the time, anxious to get on with the ‘real work’ of knowledge collection and documentation. But I was curious enough to ask what they were doing.

The answer I received was that this was aoxu – the practice of connecting with and giving something away to the ancestors of the land and of their family, to ask for safe passage and for success in finding the foods they wished to gather. They were giving away tobacco – ≠Nu Khoen people have long been known for the pungent tobacco they grow in small gardens. The direction that they are facing is to the north, towards the settlement of Purros. This is the land where Nathan ≠Ûina grew up, and where his ancestors remain. They were no longer able to live there, but at that time they continued to return to these areas, sometimes for several weeks at a time. Most of this movement was completely invisible to the various formal administrations of the region. And some of it meant moving into tourism concessions, run by commercial enterprises, that officially they no longer had access to.

I have been meditating on this and other experiences over the past ten years. I knew from the quality of attention that was there that something significant was going on. But the rationalist academic culture that I came from had left me with enormous blind spots, and it has taken quite an effort of unlearning to arrive at a sense of understanding.

I THINK AND feel now that what this experience taught me is that it is possible for human beings to embody an implicit logic of reciprocity in the flow of relationship with the other beings that make up what we now call biodiversity. In this ‘logic’, all ‘resource-use practice’ is simultaneously a negotiation and an exchange that binds people into multifaceted reciprocal arrangements with ancestors, with future generations, with spirit and with other species. It is not just about something that is taken to use; it also is about something that is returned. This logic is practised in the remaining shamanic cultures worldwide: cultures that interestingly seem to have maintained biodiversity.

What I notice, however, is that under today’s globalising culture of neoliberalism, much biodiversity conservation policy and practice seems to promote a very different logic: one of accumulation, whereby value is determined by the market – by what can be bought, sold and monetarily profited from. The creation of value for biodiversity is increasingly entrusted to the opening up of new markets and new buyers for ‘it’. The most recent expression of this is in the area of ‘payments for ecosystem services’. The Katoomba Group’s Ecosystem Marketplace website, for example, states that “Markets for ecosystem services [including biodiversity] will one day become a fundamental part of our economic and environmental system, helping give value to environmental services that have, for too long, been taken for granted.” But I want to ask who it is who has not valued these ‘environmental services’. And when they speak of ‘our’ economic and environmental system, who are they speaking about?

What we are seeing here is an accelerating wave of enclosure to exploit natural capital for the global market, such that commodification now extends from genes to species and to ecosystems – in other words, to all the domains of diversity that are delineated by the Convention on Biological Diversity. It also seems to me that the freedom espoused by this ‘free-market environmentalism’ simultaneously closes off possibilities for other freedoms – other choices regarding relationships between human and non-human worlds – to be maintained.

In tandem with these marketisation processes is the ongoing transformation of experience of the non-human world into the touristic consumption of conserved Nature – promoted for the generation of income in most conservation initiatives. It’s as though Nature now is to be experienced through the windscreen of a vehicle, the lens of a camera, the barrel of a rifle, or on the Discovery Channel. In all of these it is a kind of disembodied vision that is prioritised and mediated via technology: a vision that perhaps separates more than connects. As such, this continuing ‘neoliberalisation of Nature’ sustains the creed of growth that drives the cultural colonialism of modernity, further transforming Nature into commodity and spectacle, and capturing the participation and labour of diverse locals in order to do so. The question remains: will biological and cultural diversity be enhanced via this trajectory?

In contrast, bioculturalism might provide a much-needed conceptual framework for reanimating the connections between Nature and culture with spirit and appreciation. Re-learning the rhythms of both life and death, and making the revolutionary decision to practise being in love with the Earth. •

Sian Sullivan is a Lecturer in Environment and Development at Birkbeck College, University of London.