In June this year the Dutch newspaper Trouw announced that Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister of economic affairs, had decided to allow drilling for gas fields near the island of Schiermonnikoog off the north coast of Holland. He claimed that he had to, that he could not refuse, implying that there were no other options available. This is not the first time Kamp has defended gas exploitation activities in the Netherlands: in 2013, for instance, he declared himself to be in favour of shale gas exploitation (see my blog on this). Although he was already fiercely criticised in 2013 and by now must be fully aware of the rise of new, more sustainable sources of energy, apparently his (economic) thinking has not been affected much by this. We have to seriously ask ourselves how we can stop this political drive to keep on exploiting and destroying our landscapes (or seascapes).
Another item, closely related to this, that has been given much attention in the news recently is the unprecedented rising water level and floods, which occurred this year in many European countries due to heavy rainfall. This is the visible result of centuries of disrespect for the landscape. The news reports focused on quantifying the scope of the damage in the areas that were badly hit, on preparing ourselves for heavier rainfall in the near future and how to deal with that. It is as if they do not dare to ask the central but unsettling question: what can we really do to prevent future disasters?
It is a fact that the alarming scientific reports which paint a very bleak future for us and the various legal activities which have come about as a result, have not inspired us yet to radically change our lifestyle on a collective scale. Apparently human reason and law have very limited power in this regard. If we are serious about protecting the landscapes (on which, after all, our society and even our mental health still fully depends!), we have to look elsewhere. But where?
Recently I heard someone formulate a very interesting answer to this question. This person was Arita Baaijens – an internationally acclaimed Dutch ‘discoverer’, biologist and writer – who has just published a new book about her ‘Search for Paradise’. In Amsterdam, at a talk about animated landscapes, she explained how she had become fascinated by the shamanic view on the sacred landscape of the people living in the Altaj mountain range, and had spent many years travelling through these majestic and remote areas in search of it. Then one day, when she had nearly given up hope, it revealed itself to her unexpectedly.
The world beyond reason
Baaijens said this experience had completely transformed her outlook on life. According to her, a sacred landscape is something much more than what we take in through our senses, and is accompanied by the overwhelming realisation that everything around us is really alive. It had also made her aware how difficult it is for Western people – who, like herself, have been firmly schooled in science and reason – to actually experience the sacred landscape. She is convinced now that only by opening up to its power might we finally learn to respect life again and stop our exploitative behaviour. And she emphasised that we don’t have to travel to faraway mountain ranges to discover the sacred landscape for ourselves. We are always surrounded by potentially sacred landscapes wherever we go. They are right on our own doorstep, even in the Netherlands.
New scientific insights
The power of landscapes or the environment has also been (re)discovered by science, in particular through the discovery of all kinds of fields, like the electro-magnetic fields which surround us everywhere. Their impact on our lives might even make us wonder whether we are in control of our environment or whether the environment is in control of us. This is what James Beal has to say about this: ‘By and large, our democratic institutions are based on the faith that we control our destiny through human-made political, scientific, technological, religious and other institutions. The hard evidence, however, shows that we are products of the environment – sustained, nourished and influenced by the electromagnetic gravitational-tidal system of the earth-sun-moon group’. (‘Earth’s Environmental Fields and Human Health’, in: The Power of Place).
Towards a sustainable future
Although many environmental campaigners might already have been inspired by the sacred quality of landscapes, perhaps even unknowingly, this ‘news’ might still sound irrelevant to most Western people. It must be particularly difficult to digest for the Dutch, who have a long history of shaping and reshaping the landscape, and obviously consider themselves to be in control of it. Minister Kamp is of course also an exponent of this tradition, so we need not blame him fully for this. But it is becoming ever more important that for a sustainable future we do have to find a broad base for the protection of landscapes against human exploitation. The creation of legal rules and legal action to limit exploitation will not help us very much when there is no basic widespread conviction that the landscape is a powerful, living entity in itself.
Perhaps the heavy rains that descended on us recently must be seen as one of the ways Mother Earth is calling us, reminding us of who is really in control here, telling us to take another good look at the land- and seascapes around us…