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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


MEYER, Susan. Environmental identity in the Age of Man: New perspectives on Toorbos. Part 2. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.4-2, pp.1150-1163. ISSN 2224-7912.

The film version of Dalene Matthee's novel Toorbos (2003; translated by the author as Dreamforest, 2004) was released in 2019. Media interest in the film has drawn new attention to the novel. Rereading Toorbos in our era of growing dismay about the environmental crises all around us knocks the wind out of one and affirms the current relevance of the novel. The Age of Man, or the Anthropocene, refers to a geological epoch in which the earth is believed to reach critical tipping points due to increasing human influence. This could lead to rapid and irreversible change and could make life on earth impossible (Kotzé 2014). In Part 1 of this study, published in the September 2020 issue of this journal, I introduced Susan Clayton and Susan Opotow's ideas about identity and the environment. Clayton emphasises that identity is both a product and a force, an assortment of beliefs about the self that serve as a motivator of particular ways of interacting with the world. A strong environmental identity, as a motivating force, can have significant effect on personal, social and political behaviour (Clayton 2003:46). Furthermore, environmental conflicts can be neither understood nor constructively resolved unless we recognise the ways in which they reflect individual and group identities (Clayton & Opotow 2003:19). Environmental identity is described as a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman natural environment (based on history, emotional attachment or similarity) that affects the ways in which we perceive the world and respond to our surroundings; a belief that the environment is important to us and an important part of who we are (Clayton 2003:45-46). According to Clayton and Opotow (2003:10), environmental identity occurs on a continuum with minimal levels of social influence on the one end, and strong levels on the other. This scale for assessing individual differences in environmental identity is based on the reality that environmental identities inevitably contain a social component, but the degree of social influence varies for different individuals or groups (Clayton & Opotow 2003:10). The first aim of the study was to engage theoretically with the concept of environmental identity, and to underscore the importance of this principle for environmentally oriented thinking, in the context of global concern about the existential crisis humankind faces when the planet's ability to provide is depleted. Now, in Part 2, Clayton and Opotow's ideas about environmental identity serve as a theoretical framework for an ecocritical rereading of Toorbos. The aim of this part of the study is to put Clayton and Opotow's theoretical instrument to the test. Their model of environmental identity is illustrated and its value is tested by means of an analysis of the two main characters in Toorbos. Since Karoliena Kapp and Johannes Stander grew up in the same forest environment, they share a socio-economic and cultural background, but they do not seem to agree on the role of the forest in understanding themselves or their plans for the future. In fact, when scrutinised in terms of Clayton and Opotow's model, Karoliena and Johannes appear to be differently positioned on the continuum regarding environmental identity types. Karoliena finds herself on that side of the scale where a personal sense of connection to the natural surroundings - here the Knysna environment of the 1930s - strongly comes to the fore. Karolina lives the life of an individualist, with little interest in social ways or conventions; her direct and deliberate contact with the forest defines her life. While interaction with nature comes natural for her, social communication requires extra effort; the trees are cherished as giants of wisdom in whom she confides and where she finds knowledge about life and herself. Karoliena is intently attuned to the voices of the forest. She is dismayed at the silencing of these voices as large areas and mountainsides are stripped of their natural vegetation in preparation for plantations. Johannes' attunement to social factors and influences positions him quite a distance from her on Clayton and Opotow's scale. On his side of the scale social activities and commitment largely influence environmental identity; individual-mindedness and contact with the natural environment move to the periphery of attention. Johannes finds confirmation of his success as a businessman and leader of the Knysna community in the highest social circles. The preferences and opinions prevalent in these circles provide the basis for his relationship with Karoliena. He values her beauty and intelligence, qualities that contribute to his social status, more than her individuality and her affection for the trees, frogs and birds of the forest. The political realities of the time and the economic progress of the town are priorities; he fullyfavours plans for the removal of the trees in Knysna's streets to make place for lamp poles and tarred roads. He finds it impossible to understand or accommodate Karoliena's consternation about decisions such as these. Her disregard for all social expectations in direct contrast to voicing strong opinions about the intrinsic value nature has and the important role that interaction with the natural surroundings plays in her life, altogether puzzles Johannes. While this increasingly frustrates him, Karoliena considers his social-mindedness as restrictive and unaccommodating, not allowing her to be the person she is. Commitment to Johannes means denial of herself, a person whose individuality is so deeply rooted in her environmental identity. The greatest frustration in their relationship can be attributed to their respective efforts to maintain their different environmental identities. Due to the different levels of social influence on Karoliena and Johannes, she eventually has to leave him. Toorbos illustrates the effect of differences in environmental identity even among people who have the same background. It sheds light on the irreconcilability of people who are influenced in different ways by society. The conclusion regarding the powerful effect environmental identity issues may have on environmental behaviour and beliefs can be transferred from Toorbos to the broader present-day situation. The snippet of the South African reality depicted in Toorbos may create an awareness of environmental identity, and of the important implications it has for full comprehension and constructive ways of handling environmental conflicts in the Age of Man.

Keywords : Anthropocene; environmental identity; Toorbos (Dreamforest); Dalene Matthee; environmental attitude and behaviour; Susan Clayton; Susan Opotow.

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