If you recognize Marc Bekoff’s name then you probably know he’s the scientist who voraciously collects news stories about animal life around the planet—especially research into the psychology and sociology of animals—and then spreads that news through his popular online columns and occasional books. ReadTheSpirit has featured many stories about his work over the years, including this interview about his book Animal Manifesto and this more recent interview about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.
Most Bekoff books fill us with so much gee-whiz news about animals that we are eager to share the stories over coffee or dinner with friends—which is precisely Marc’s intention in publishing them.
So, there’s a big difference in tone when you begin reading his latest book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.
This is a short book with a big message. It may remind readers of the work of environmental activist and author James Gustave Speth, who shows up in many forms of media these days, including National Public Radio. Speth is a secularist with little personal interest in religion and yet he closes his eloquent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, with this surprising admission: “I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”
Essentially, that’s the departure point for Bekoff’s new book. How do we kick off the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that Speth and many others say we need to save our planet? Bekoff says we can start simply with daily steps to reconnect our consciousness with all living things on the planet—especially all forms of animal life from pets to the world’s wildest creatures. This expansion of our daily awareness, Bekoff argues, will bring with it a deeper compassion for animals (other humans and also non-human animals). If we can increase the world’s compassion—step by step in one life after another—then we have a chance to save Earth from a host of ecological dangers.
“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming reenchanted with nature,” Bekoff writes in his opening pages. “It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism. … It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.”
If you think of “wild” as dangerous and predatory, then you are already missing Bekoff’s startlingly hope-filled message. After decades of studying the science of consciousness, psychology and sociology in the world’s animal populations, Bekoff believes strongly that sustainable coexistence really is possible in our world. We don’t have to collapse into an apocalyptic state of savagery because of global warming and other looming ecological disasters. We don’t have to turn the world into a Hunger Games horror story. And in making this claim, Bekoff lines himself up with the likes of Speth and also the teachings of Pope Francis, as well. (You’ll enjoy reading Marc Bekoff’s sidebar to this interview in which he explores Francis’s recent off-the-cuff statement about animals.)
Want something fresh and hopeful, inspiring and also very practical, to read in this New Year of 2015? Order a copy of Rewilding Our Hearts right now. Bekoff closes the book by selling his argument on the basis of his own experience. He has drawn thousands of readers to his work, all around the world, and the reason we keep returning to his columns and books is this: He’s so darned hopeful about our future!
He writes: I have often wondered why I haven’t burned out despite many decades as an activist working for other animals. The reason, I have come to realize, is that I’m constantly rewilding. Every day I connect with nature and the animals around my home, and I hold to the unwavering belief that I’m doing some good in the world. I work really hard on a lot of “ugly stuff,” but I nurture the resilience to keep at it by making sure my life is balanced: I’ve learned how to “get away from it all” for a while and return fully recharged. I believe in what I do, even if there isn’t a gold star at the end of that day. Indeed, I may not live to see the fruits of my labor, but that’s just fine.
Isn’t this an intriguing fellow? Consider inviting friends to read this book and discuss it with you.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Marc Bekoff. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVEW
WITH MARC BEKOFF ABOUT
‘REWILDING OUR HEARTS’
DAVID: Americans are deeply divided on climate change: whether our climate really is changing, whether human activity is causing it, and whether we should enact legal limits to curb its effects. University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker has reported on these divisions in his OurValues project. What’s your sense, Marc, of why we are so divided on an issue that most scientists tell us is settled by the data?
MARC: Mainly, a lot of people are unaware of the science. Americans lead very busy lives and don’t have time to follow the latest news in science.
We also have this incredible ability to look at something that is staring us in the face, actually impacting our senses, and we deny that it’s there either because we don’t want to believe it’s there—or we don’t believe the data. Some political groups have complicated the problem by telling people that this is a political issue. It’s not. It’s really a-political.
My new book is really an attempt to get people to reconnect with themselves, slow down, pay attention to what is happening and realize these challenges we are facing really are a-political. We’re all affected by this. We can’t put reality aside simply because we heard this from a Right-Winger or that from a Left-Winger.
DAVID: Your central point—that we need to “rewild” or reconnect ourselves with the larger natural world—suggests that we have lost that connection.
‘THIS IS EASY TO DO …’
MARC: We become unwilded due to education and lifestyle and the busy kinds of lives we lead. What I’m trying to show people is that it’s good for them and good for the world to become reconnected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals.
I stress in the book that this is easy to do. You don’t have to be so rich that you can fund an entire movement. Even if you live in New York City, you can rewild in the middle of Central Park as I’ve done just going into the park, for example, and watching the squirrels and the birds. My message in this book is multilayered, but we can start to rewild our hearts with simple steps that reconnect us to nature and other animals.
DAVID: When I read your book, I thought of the work in recent years by E.O. Wilson and James Gustave Speth. Let me use Speth as an example—he’s certainly not a religious leader and in fact he is a secularist in his personal life. Yet, Speth says: Science is not enough. We’ve got to change hearts.
MARC: When I say that science is not enough, you have to remember that I love science. I’ve spent years studying the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. I write about science all the time. What I mean is that science is not going to make us more compassionate. So, rewilding is a personal transition, a spiritual transformation. By rewilding we will encounter feelings that some of us may never have had. It’s those feelings that can reinforce the need to make change and motivate action.
DAVID: This idea of each person doing a little bit each day sounds good, although I’m sure critics will complain it’s too little too late. I think that a lot of our readers from various religious and cultural backgrounds will agree with you. I am continually surprised by news reports that show incremental changes growing into huge movements. National Public Radio recently reported about the trend toward removing the grassy lawns that take so much water in dry regions of the U.S. That started with just a handful of people and now it’s transforming millions of acres and is saving lots of water.
‘HOW OFTEN DO YOU GO OUT FOR A WALK?’
MARC: That’s right. Maybe more people will realize that a green lawn is nice but it’s too costly in the resources it takes to sustain that. Many people around the world still love ivory jewelry—so we still need to reach a point where people realize that the price of ivory’s beauty is the slaughter of elephants as a species.
The problem is that we treat our own homes better than we treat the earth as a home. What I’m talking about is the process of coming to realize that the earth is our home.
Ask yourself: How often do you go out for a walk? How often do you look at the plants and animals where you live?
Those are very small ways you can begin this process. Set a little time aside at lunch for a walk. If you’ve got a dog, take your dog along as your companion and pay attention to what interests the dog as you walk. (He laughs.) If you don’t have a dog, then take your cat! Seriously, some people do walk their cats. Try it!
There are lots of small changes you can make right now: Do you have an errand you need to run this week? If it’s less than a mile away, try walking. I keep a backpack always ready with anything I might need for a walk or a ride on my bike. Plan ahead and make it easy to spend time outside.
I’m not against technology. I use my computer and iPhone a lot. But I also take time to set them aside during the day.
WATCHING THE SQUIRRELS
DAVID: As I read your book, I thought of something my son Benjamin started a year or so ago. He put a bird-identification book and a pad of paper near the big window at the back of our house and he challenged us to write down which birds we spotted right in our back yard. Very simple. Our backyard is quite small—but we’re now much more aware of the diversity of birds out there.
MARC: Yes, I love that idea! I’m writing it down right now so I can share that idea with others. As I’m thinking about that, you could also start a list of the kinds of flowers you can spot in your regular walk through your neighborhood. Or, here’s another one: If you regularly pass a stream or river, make a note each day about the water level and the state of the stream—make a list of plants you see growing there each year.
The whole point of this is to learn about the many cycles going on around us all the time. If you live in an apartment in New York City, go watch the animals in Central Park. I do that.
One day I was in Central Park, watching some squirrels and this family came upon me and the mother asked what I was doing.
I said, “I’m watching squirrels.”
And the mother said, “But they’re just squirrels!”
And I said, “No they interrelate to each other. They play. Their families relate to each other.”
And what happened? The mother’s children very quickly got enchanted with this idea and began paying attention to the squirrels.
DAVID: There’s a lot more readers will discover in this book. Let me just take one example from the middle of the book: Biophilic Cities, in other words cities that are friendly to a diversity of natural life. First, you cite a study by cognitive researchers on the beneficial effects of simply living near a park; they document lower levels of “mental distress” if you happen to live near a park.
Then, you give examples of projects that some people are undertaking right now to make their cities more “biophilic.” The goal, you explain, is to make sure that our urban landscapes “include more natural areas and take practical measures to protect wildlife from human impacts.”
MARC: This plays off the idea that biophilia is in our genes—we’re born with an attraction to nature. We need to make our cities more attractive to people, to be more like Mother Nature. Again, I’m calling attention to practical ways we can make changes where we live and then it will be easier to “rewild” ourselves and feel an even greater connection to the other animals and the flora around us.
There are so many things that can be done. We need to stop building buildings that mask sounds or that set up reflections so that animals are unable to navigate properly. We keep building too many buildings that cause birds to crash. We lose a lot of animals every day because of the thoughtless way we build skyscrapers.
DAVID: Some cities are getting this right—and attracting residents who care about these things. You mention projects in Vancouver, Chicago and Amsterdam.
MARC: Look at Amsterdam. The city actually has corridors where it’s easy for birds and animals to move through the city and also for people to sit down and appreciate nature. Central Park in New York is a good example, too.
DAVID: Readers who are curious about the ideas you are describing don’t have to simply take your word for it. Like your earlier books, you devote a lot of space—almost 30 pages—to detailed notes so your readers can find out more information about the many topics you cover. You list books, web sites and specific articles.
MARC: Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of the fact that as a scientist, I write about topics that most scientists don’t write about. I’m very careful in noting my sources. People may criticize the idea of rewilding—and critics may say it’s a little bit of a fluffy idea—but I’ve never been criticized for my science. I’m absolutely solid on my scientific sources and I always cite those sources. I want people to know that my claims are credible and it’s important for them to be able to follow my notes if they want to read further.
DAVID: You’re hoping readers will be moved to action, right?
MARC: Yes, rewilding is possible. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s a personal journey. It’s contagious. I like to think of “rewilding” as a meme that will spread.
If someone gets involved in rewilding and, because this feels good to them, they wind up doing something great for the world—then so be it. I’m happy.
DAVID: Let me close with a question about Pope Francis’s recent off-hand comment that our pets may one day be in heaven with us. He isn’t the first Catholic leader to say such a thing, of course. Pope John Paul II made some similar comments, but the fact is: Most people around the world thought it was a surprising thing to hear from the pope. That story went viral. What do you think? Is the pope rewilding?
MARC: I’ll have to think about that. Let me write something about this, after I’ve studied it more.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)