Ecology, peace, and stories
I spent most of the last six months before starting my Peace Fellowship living in a tent in the northern NSW rainforests. It seemed safer for my physical and mental health to escape the rising COVID cases – and the corresponding lockdowns – in my home city of Melbourne by travelling up north and heading for the forests. This was quite a change from working the 12hr days in front of screens doing academic writing to finish my PhD. Yet, I found that these forests became an important learning environment.
I found unexpectedly grace in surrendering to the constraints and ease of living this simple, close to nature life, during the pandemic times of massive economic and social upheaval. The lack of regular internet or phone connection (you had to walk up to the hill and hold up a phone to get signal) allowed me a much appreciated separation from the constant media pandemic coverage, of which I was a previously a helpless consumer – replacing it with a smaller, vastly more intimate world, in which I was an active co-participant with a myriad of life forms: being constantly barefoot my feet were spontaneously educated in the intricate rainforest micro-topology, with the attendant health benefits from electrically grounding my body… my ears grew slowly attuned to the myriad of bird calls that saturated the area, weaving a rich sonic tapestry… my eyes delighted in the forest’s lush visual delights – glowing fireflies, golden sunsets, lush green undergrowth, with my myopia providing a deeper embodied engagement… in sum I felt my senses expand as they encountered this rich banquet of life, a sumptuous feast so different than the human concrete and asphalt urban world where I had come from.
During all this time the Peace Fellowship was my only planned next step post-PhD, and I waited with my partner to see whether we would be headed to Bangkok in January, since applying in way back in May 2019. But when global COVID dynamics forced the program into being delivered online, we left to the forest for the 18hrs drive back to Melbourne, packing up my house of 8 years and moving out to the small town of Castlemaine, barely 1.5hrs away (very close in the Australian context!). This was near to where I was born, on a block of land adjacent to another beautiful, yet very different forest.
It was from this place that I commenced the Peace Fellowship, joining the zoom calls as the sun sank low behind my screen – knowing that it was simultaneously rising for some of my fellow participants on the other side of the world. It was an immense joy to finally meet with these 18 inspiring other fellows, who had similar long and winding journeys to the program. This feeling was intermingled with a sadness that we were so far apart, with just a slender wafer of glowing pixels connecting our vastly different worlds. Seeing these other faces, many who were so experienced in peace-building and international work, I initially wondered how myself – who had spent so long working for environmental change – could contribute. Luckily as the conversations and classes – and days and weeks – went by, I remembered what I already knew in my head, heart and gut – that true peacebuilding encompassed both our relationships with each other, and the natural world around us.
I found these insights were interwoven between the on-screen Fellowship conversations and my in-person morning forest walks and meditations. Just as this forest was slowly revealing its hidden secrets, written in the language of pawprints, seed-pods, spider webs and bird calls, the on-screen conversations were making visible other more abstract relationships. The latter reminding me that conflicts all around the world ran through both nature and people; that people were killed regularly trying to defend their forests from destruction, not as ‘untouched wilderness’ but instead as these wild places were their pharmacies, food markets and even direct kin. In making peace with nature, we need to simultaneously make peace with each other; for all of us ultimately rely on the natural world for life itself – in Paul Hawken’s words – You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet.
My fellowship conversations also have helped me remember my own privilege – of a (passably!) white heterosexual male in an economically developed Western country. I am far from rich in my own country, but in the top 15% rich worldwide. I have the privilege of walking so freely through this forest every morning, as if the land belonged to me. Although it is a designated National Park, there’s no fence separating its brown soil from that of my property, that according to Australian law, I own exclusively. Yet this land was stolen with considerable violence from the original Indigenous inhabitants people barely two centuries ago, as part of state-sanctioned genocidal campaigns. I ponder this invisible bloodshed while looking out onto this land, that now looks so peaceful, and alluring. Discussing restorative justice in class reminds me to make the tiny step of ‘paying the rent’ – giving a regular contribution to a local indigenous group. But I need to take many more steps.
Unlike many other participants who are bravely juggling the Fellowship with their paid work, I have chosen to allow more space at this time of personal and professional transition and learning. Although it is a tension I sometimes feel acutely that I’m not ‘doing enough’ for positive change. Here the words of peace-pioneer Elise Boulding reassures, and has a profound resonance with me: “For whatever energy I have left, I want to use it in a positive way. I’m here in a way of loving the world. If we were all here in a spirit of loving the world, we’d have a very different world—all living things making room for each other.” She invites us to consider what peace really looks like right here in our local context. In my country so many are materially rich, yet feel a scarcity of spirit, feeding into polarised politics and mindless consumption, under the enabling structures of late capitalism. In the same week as I learnt about Boulding through my on-screen engagement, I took a true wealth quiz in-person, reminding me of viewing abundance holistically.
During my daily morning walks in the forest before the Fellowship sessions, I’m reminded that we know so little about the natural world that is all around us, even in the cracks in cities, or on our bodies, and how this can be injurious for own wellbeing, let alone that of non-humans. When I stand before my favourite tree, I see the intricate, barely visible relationships between insects, plants and birds, that have co-evolved over millennia and are so fragile in the face of human-driven climate change and habitat loss. An unfolding invisible global catastrophe arising from humankind’s systemic violence towards nature. While we were collectively absorbed in the human impacts of COVID last year, the UN estimates that over 50000 species went extinct, and half of the earth’s species may disappear by 2100. But these numbers mean little to people without personal, lived stories to locate and develop our relationship to these living creatures – just as statistics of conflict deaths on the other side of the world fall on our deaf ears. Yet it is vitally important on an intellectual and spiritual level to confront this sobering reality, rather than stay in a state of numbness, as this deep attention is the foundation of action. As Hawken articulates the paradox in Blessed Unrest – If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. Through each Fellowship session I’m meeting and learning about these inspiring people and projects, deepening this paradox, seeing brighter lights amidst darker nights.
This passion thread – of seeking to amplify these positive stories of grassroots change, came through from my years of PhD design-based action-research, where I used participatory photography to document, share, and connect grassroots youth responses to environmental impacts across cities in Bangladesh, China and Australia. Now, spending each Fellowship session sharing conversations, stories, and ideas with changemakers from around the world, I am motivated to develop a social change initiative that continues this thread – planning a global online platform to provide virtual training and support to youth-led environmental peace projects, and through doing so expand their storytelling reach and impact.
As I develop these ideas, and engage with the Fellowship, my father Leong looks down at my screen through his photograph on the back wall, holding a glass of wine and a philosophical expression. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2015, having seen me start my PhD, but not this current learning adventure. He came to Australia on a boat from Malaysia when he was 17, told by his father to study Law in the closest Western country, then return to marry a good Chinese woman. Instead, he studied economics and teaching, and married a somewhat rebellious Anglo-Australian social worker, my mother Wendy. Her more conservative father had co-founded a rotary club years before, which I had myself joined many years later and had been subsequently involved with in its international portfolio, sowing the seeds of my own Peace Fellowship journey.
My dad had a gift for tending gardens and introduced me to the wonders of nature through wading in rockpools near Melbourne as he had done within the mangroves near his hometown of Malacca. My mother loved wild forests and helped me see that to live truly sustainably, necessitated a total revolution of consciousness beyond humanism. In the words of her mentor, Thomas Berry, it was to experience the cosmos as a communion of subjects, rather than collection of objects. The ripples of this silent revolution call for an eco-centric perspective on environmental peace building – going beyond the anthropocentric standpoints of viewing the environment as passive natural resources to be used optimally amongst human actors – instead recognising the intrinsic value, agency, and rights of nature itself from a more-than-human standpoint. I’m honestly not sure of how I will knead this somewhat radical perspective into the dough of my Fellowship project, but perhaps the current baking process of conversations with inspired youth-focused change agents around the world will yield insights!
However, I’ve found such ideas have already been coming to me from a less-intellectual, more earthy perspective. At the same time as I started the Peace Fellowship, I commenced a permaculture course at the local community centre, and have found inspiring synergies with peace-building. Permaculture’s creative principles of caring for the earth and each other align closely with holistic peace principles emphasising our moral imagination, personal and societal transformation fuelled by ‘critical yeast’. By supporting independence from fossil fuels and other global commodities that are key causes for conflict, permaculture fosters peace globally.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. I thank you for your patience in navigating one that has been somewhat less linear, perhaps more like an unfolding, bi-directional spiral, which has in fact mirrored my experiences so far through the journey to, and through this incredible Peace Fellowship. Reflecting on this spiral brings a vivid memory – feeling the warm Bangkok air waft in through the window of a tiny Chulalongkorn University student apartment back in August 2016, when I visited a then-current Peace Fellow friend. I hope and trust that the next uncoiling strand of the spiral will allow me the opportunity to physically share that same balmy Bangkok atmosphere with all my current Peace Fellow colleagues next January, as we see what next part of our peace journey story is revealed.
Michael Chew – Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30