Grounding is a term that appears quite frequently in this column. By it, I am referring to the organic connection that holds people psychologically and physically to a particular living environment. Usually, traditional people are by necessity more grounded than say modern people, because they use basic implements that they have developed to interact with their environment and produce the food, clothing and shelter they need to survive. This is particularly true for preliterate tribes, but it is also true for pre-industrial village people. These are people who amplify the survival connection with strong emotional connections. Mythologies are developed that firmly place people as cosmologically belonging to their habitats along with the animals and plants and rocks and the spiritual beings that personify the natural forces over which the people have little or no control. Granted these pre-industrial people sometimes have to migrate, but usually it is not something they would do for pleasure. Even nomads keep moving around out of economic necessity. And even then, these movements are within a geographic expanse that represents a certain relatively narrow zone. Like herders who have summer and winter pastures for their animals. Or like Bedouins on the desert. But in all these cases, the people develop a receptivity to the flowing, blendable, continual stimuli that emanate from their physical environment and allow them to psychologically merge with it.
As people start to develop more complex societies with urban areas, it becomes easier to feel more apart from one’s natural surroundings. People in cities do not see and feel as strongly the connection between their food, their clothing, their shelter, and other products, on the one hand, and the living environments from which all these things are drawn. People live in environments that they have created and where the direct influence of nature is much more minimal. These living environments are filled with the figures of buildings, vehicles, tools, crafts and art. This represents a superstructure placed on top of nature, a superstructure that tends to protect people against the perishability with which nature threatens people. Because it is a superstructure that separates people from nature, there is much less of a sense of real grounding from one’s living environment. There is an attempt to use this superstructure as a substitute for natural grounding, but because we don’t experience the superstructure as being really rooted in the earth, it floats in an experiential vacuum, and we float with it. And because the superstructure is built by accretion, in most cases, rather than totally organic planning, we start to experience the buildings as being in arbitrary clusters that crumble off from one another.
This loss of grounding has been much greater as humanity has progressed into modern technological society. Now it is not only the public environments in which people live: the clusters of tall buildings, the construction sites, the highways, the sidewalks, the residential developments, the housing projects, the cars, trucks, buses, trains and planes. Rather it’s the more intimate technological encounters within our fields of experience: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets. What I have called screen reality to distinguish it from the primary experience of external world reality. Environments filled with the defined discrete stimuli of technological figures, both of the hardware and software variety. Environments filled with the sensory distortion created by modern technological society. Not only the clutter of all these technological figures, but also the vast experiential vacuum, in which they are floating around. Overstimulation from the figures, understimulation from the vacuums. All this sensory distortion prevents the kind of organic connection to one’s living environment that leads to solid grounding.
Now climate change is leading to still another more insidious level of organic disconnection from one’s living environment. It’s particularly insidious for those remaining traditional people who still are very bonded to natural living surroundings and who still live off the food they obtain directly from their natural surroundings. For instance, Native Americans in northern lands in Alaska and Canada are still highly dependent on the many animals among which they live for their sustenance. Climate change will affect the availability of these animals. On one level, climate change will transform these natural environments from environments in which the native people feel real grounding to environments which, with the loss of a natural food supply, will leave the native people in a kind of experiential vacuum. This is not so much the direct contact of the native people with modern technology that creates this experience of the vacuum. Rather, it is the indirect effects created by carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere from the use of technology in modern technological surroundings far away from the more natural surroundings of Native Americans. Even though the Native Americans’ living environments are not highly technological, the climactic transformation from the use of technology in other places turn these natural environments (on one level) into an experiential vacuum for the Native Americans.
For Pacific Islanders, the rising levels of the ocean from climate change may lead to the entire disappearance of the islands on which they live. These people would be experiencing the vacuum of the loss of their homes and their land. Again, a vacuum that is not created by a direct excessive contact with modern technological living environments. Nature will no longer be literally providing a grounding for these people, if the islands go underwater.
And there will be lots of places around the world where it will become too hot for people to live comfortably. We are already seeing increased wild fires, hurricanes and those terrible storms on land called derechos. And increasingly, there will be more and more of what have been called climate refugees: people whose home environments no longer give them either physical or psychological grounding. This is no longer humans directly ungrounding themselves through technology. This is nature itself creating conditions that make the human experience of their natural surroundings so abrasive that people have to leave. We can only hope that through vehicles like solar and wind energy, we can find the means to paradoxically use technology to reconstruct the connection to nature that technology has already dome so much to destroy.
(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow