Redefining Patriotism to Win Elections and Save the World

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“These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature.”
John Muir


Old cypress trees line several stretches of Autauga Creek (see more)

The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –

AUTAUGA CREEK, Ala. — Sitting here in the camper van in the brief cool of an August morning, reflecting on our exploration of Autauga Creek by watching the video footage and looking at the photographs, my mind wandered back in time to my first encounter with Alabama native scientist E.O. Wilson.

It was a spectacular autumn day in 1993 on the Quad at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa by the back steps of Gorgas Library, where Wilson was signing books. I had just read the introduction to The Diversity of Life, his latest book to be published at the time. I recall being absolutely blown away at the very eloquent and personal nature of his writing, coming from a scientist, not usually known for their literary eloquence.


I had just begun my own academic career and was already deep into reading research in journalism and communications, a field that is surprisingly devoid of great writing. That encounter led to other communications with Wilson over the next few years. We communicated by letter while I continued to explore his works for ideas to incorporate into my own research. We talked on the phone for an hour one day about the time I published my first Website while teaching journalism at Georgia College in the mid-1990s. He was interested in my ideas, since he was trying to figure out how to use the Internet and the World Wide Web to further promote his own theories about protecting biodiversity and changing public opinion on the environment.

Eventually we even exchanged e-mails while I was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, although with the assistance of his secretary at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

His ideas on biophilia, sociobiology and eventually consilience led me to try to do something revolutionary in communications research. But at that time there were still some conservative historians and academic bureaucrats who thought the Internet was a passing fad and who would have none of this creative thinking for their little unread journals.

Sometimes it can be a curse to be ahead of your time. Wilson found this out when he created a shit storm of controversy in the 1970s when he first proposed the idea that human society could learn a thing or two from the social organization of ant colonies. Post-modernism was already on the rise in academe, where scholars in the critical thinking school were already suggesting that there is no such thing as verifiable truth. So when he suggested that evolution could explain a lot about human nature and every behavior was not the product of nurturing, critics exploded in rage.

Over the years since, however, the ideas of this kid from Alabama who dared to dream big because of his love of insects have continued to gain currency. And I’m still working on a long-range plan to bring those ideas home to my native state of Alabama in a way that also tends to get me criticized in some unlikely circles. It comes as no shock when right-wing attack machine radio shock jocks come after me, or if the tea party might find something to criticize — if they could find the Web. But it is confounding when I am attacked from those who purport to be environmental activists, when all I’m striving to do is help people understand what’s really going on.

So in the interest of continuing my efforts, and those of E.O. Wilson, let me quote Wilson from a more recent presentation about his theory that we are all connected by the “love of living things.” We all share an innate, genetic and yes evolutionary affinity with nature, whether some people are willing to admit it for political purposes or not.

It might just express itself by the recognition of a “beautiful day” when the humidity is low and a cool breeze catches your attention on one of the first fall days after the summer heat dies down. Who does not love to observe a stunning sunrise or sunset over a body of water, even if your stated reason for being there is to catch fish — or shoot ducks. Hey, you might just love your dog or your cat — or like watching the birds.

It might not be macho to admit it, or considered politically correct in a conservative land like Alabama, but that does not make it untrue. I suspect even the governor of Alabama feels it, even if for political reasons he also feels the need to come out in favor of drilling for tar sands crude and building pipelines through wetlands.

Here’s what Wilson had to say on the subject of politics, patriotism and biophilia at a recent gathering devoted to discussing his theories.

“Patriotism, the name we give to the love of one’s country must be redefined to include those things which contribute to the real health, beauty and ecological stability of our homeplaces and to exclude those which do not,” he said. “Patriotism as Biophilia requires that we decide to rejoin the idea of love of one’s country to how well one uses the country. To destroy forest, soils, natural beauty and wildlife in order to swell the gross national product or to provide short term and often spurious jobs, is not patriotism but greed. Real patriotism demands that we weave the competent, patient and disciplined love of our land into our political life and our political institutions.”

Now I don’t want to go off on a partisan rant here, especially since the Democrats in this state don’t seem any more ready to embrace these ideas than the corporate, religious or tea party Republicans. The difference is, over the past three decades, the Republicans have turned anti-science and anti-environmentalism into a winning political strategy. The Democrats have failed to counter those arguments in a way that could gain them power in the voting booth — if only they would stand up and tell the truth and quit trying to play the same political games that made George Wallace, George W. Bush and Karl Rove famous.

A better way to lead would be to create a more engrossing narrative. This has been the subject of many scientific conferences over the past few decades. That is, how to tell a better story about our origins than the one people still cling to from a 2,000 year old book written by Catholic scholars.

“It is time to invent moral reasoning of a new and more powerful kind, to look to the very roots of motivation and understand why, in what circumstances and on which occasions we cherish and protect life,” Wilson has written. “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms …. they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought … I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth.”

So there’s your answer about how to not only pursue the goal that many have of saving the planet or simply cleaning up the local creek. Tell people a better story. Help them feel their natural connection to it. There also lies the secret of electoral victory.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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