German stamp celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Martin Buber, 1978
German stamp celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Martin Buber, 1978

What if the way we relate to our environment is flawed in its very conception? Do we look at the natural and built world as an other, or as an extension of ourselves? Or should we look at it as we look at an other person perhaps, as the Romans did, seeing a genius or spirit in both people and places – the genius loci? But then, if we should relate to our environment as another person, it is how we really see other people that becomes the first question to ask.

Martin Buber’s existentialist philosophy gives us some clues as how to relate to both other people and to our environment. For Buber, we only become ourselves in relation to both other persons and to our environment. When it comes to relating to other persons, Buber introduced two models, one the I-it model, and the second the I-You model.

In the I-it model, the other person is seen as an object outside of ourselves, onto which we can project our own meanings and views. This approach leads to the other person being seen as separate, someone who we can attempt to control according to our own perceived requirements rather than their own, which we have not understood as we have not fully entered in a process of understanding who they are and what they may need or want. Seeing the other as an expression of my own ‘I’ will lead to us seeing the other and the world as merely a projection of ourselves.

In the I-You model, the other person is related to through an encounter based on dialogue, and through this two-way dialogue meanings and views about each other are discovered by both of us. This approach has as a fundamental tenet the view that we are ultimately interlinked and not separate beings, so what is important is what arises in our encounter rather than what we think we bring to this encounter before it actually happens. In this way of relating, as the premise is that we are interlinked, we place ourselves in both our own shoes but also in the shoes of the other person, and what becomes important is what we create together in our encounter. It is an open feedback system of relating rather than a closed system of imposing ourselves on the other. Inclusion rather than exclusion. For Buber, what is important is to attempt, via dialogue, to understand the otherness of the other, rather than seeing them as a mirror of ourselves. This can extend beyond how we relate to others, to how we relate to our environment, to the physical world even. Louis Kahn’s advice to architects when designing buildings was to pay attention to ‘what the building wants to be’. He would enter into an imaginary dialogue with the elements of construction, such as with a brick:

”If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says to you, ‘I like an Arch.’ And if you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an Arch.’ And it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use.” (From the 2003 documentary ‘My Architect: A Son’s Journey by Nathaniel Kahn’)

In some ways, the ancient Roman belief in the genius in another person or place is compatible with Buber’s proposed I-you mode of relating. The genius is always understood to be other, and it requires respect and recognition, although it may stop short of being able to actively engage in a two-way dialogue. If the Romans could find equivalence between the genius of people and the genius of places, can we begin to propose an equivalence between Buber’s proposed I-you mode of inter-relational dialogue between people with the way we relate to our environment?

What if we started to treat the environment as another person that is worthy of a two-way dialogue with us? Maybe it’s time we stopped seeing the environment as an object that is subservient to our needs, but as an interlinked and unseparable part of us that is at the very least worthy of the respect we give to our own selves. Paraphrasing Louis Kahn:

“It’s important, you see, that you honor the environment you inhabit”.

Further reading:
I and Thou (Bloomsbury Revelations)

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