This blog is a summary of my PhD thesis (‘From Respect for Nature to Realisation as Agency in Response to the Ecological Emergency’). I don’t mind if you quote me on this, or even use bits in discussion, but I would ask that you respect that this is my work and not claim it as your own.
The thesis is about the many ways we look at ‘the ecological emergency’, a phrase used by Timothy Morton to describe the ambiguity of emerging from, and urgency within, the ecological situation we have, ourselves, largely created. Are we doomed no matter what we do? Is there no crisis to concern ourselves with? If there is something we can do to mitigate the emergency, should this be couched in ethical terms? Or is it enough that we take a pragmatic stance and decide that there are, for instance, economic grounds for mitigation (this is the predominant view at the moment among those calling for mitigation). While these discussions rumble on, a phenomenon emerges within them: attitudes become increasingly polarised. Instead of discussing the problems themselves, the nature of the ideologies that underlie the different approaches becomes the increasing focus of the debates until the initial reasons for discussion are buried behind a mass of accusations and counter accusations.
What can we do to deal with this phenomenon? If we were on a ship, heading for an iceberg, it would not be sensible to start arguing about whether we should set the chairs in rows or in a large circle. Yet this is the fix we find ourselves in.
In some senses, it was ever thus: it is the trivial, the local, the personal, that trips us up, however big our bigger vision. I want to see, nevertheless, whether there are any ways of viewing our situation that allow us to mitigate this tendency, and, by extension, the ecological emergency itself. The first hypothesis, therefore, is that the very way we conceive of a problem heavily influences how we respond to it, and in philosophical terms, our ideas and beliefs are founded on certain premises that we do well to reflect upon regularly if our responsiveness is to be as sensitive and flexible as it needs to be in a changing world.
I look closely at the threads of the narratives that underlie our approach to our impact on other evolved systems to see how they intertwine and shape a perspective that itself is inclined to replicate and dominate. I look at what it would take to formulate a narrative that points to an experience beyond description, something that cannot be replicated in language or thought but that is necessarily experiential. I explore the idea we have of agency itself, an idea that contains assumptions entrenched in the dominant cultural understanding, that agency involves freedom beyond the interdependencies of our relationships and conditions. I examine the idea of what we might understand as ‘good for’ system, human, non-human, living, non-living, within a revised perception of agency as emerging from our enmeshment.
We are inside the results of interactions – climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, for instance – and they (pollution, radiation, modified food) are inside us. But when we clarify what agency, and therefore what responsibility, we have in this uncharted territory, what emerges is the human capacity for self awareness, something that is both within the mesh and yet able to perceive itself and its enmeshment. It is this ability to perceive ourselves and the systems of our enmeshment that is our agency. The activity of seeing oneself as observer, and also as a network of interactions, acts as a ‘metasystem’ that then interacts with other systems. This parallels Dōgen’s idea of ‘practice realisation’ and so I call this ‘agency as realisation’ with an awareness of the dual meaning of realisation as both ‘making real’ or ‘creating’, and ‘understanding’ or ‘seeing’.
The nature of systems themselves gives us an idea of how to focus our realisation. Systems proceed in a particular, regulated manner, according to physical probabilistic laws, like the laws of thermodynamics. Among these, the most salient is the second law, the idea that systems dissipate as much energy as possible in order to reach a state of entropy. Systems can be seen as processes of energy dissipation and informational exchange. This is not a linear process and systems that have living aspects are incredibly complex energy dissipation systems, developing intricate webs of interrelationships that filter energy in vast and intricate ways.
I propose that we view the process of living systems as graduating the flow of energy so that as much dissipation as possible can take place. This would make certain conditions ‘good for’ this process (conditions that allow this graduated dissipation to take place) and certain conditions ‘bad for’ this process. Conditions that annihilate extensive elements of the interrelationships that allow this graduation to take place (like massive deforestation, desertification, and so on) are, by this count, ‘bad for’ systems. Conditions that block energy, making it unavailable to participate in informational exchanges, unable to be dissipated, are ‘bad for’ systems. Radiation production, the production of plastics and other oil products, the loss of habitats and species, in sum, the loss of a thriving, functioning biodiverse system, is ‘bad for’ those systems and, by the same token, ‘bad for’ humans.
To realise our agency in the context of the ecological emergency, then, is to turn our attention to realising what is ‘good for’ the systems of our enmeshment. What does this mean in practice? It means reviewing and altering how we talk about agency, and about systems, including especially biodiversity. Biodiversity is not a ‘service’, and economic valuing will not encompass the totality of what these systems mean to us and our survival (although because I am a pragmatist, and because the leap of understanding I am recommending is so huge, even viewing biodiversity as a ‘service’ is better than not paying it any attention at all: at least we can begin the discussion with biodiversity in view). As we alter where we focus our attention, that shifts how we relate both to systems (we become less inclined to be involved in systems that involve violence, like so many of our agricultural and manufacturing systems at present) and to the discussion itself. So this returns us to the response to attitude polarisation: instead of bringing the same combative attitude we’ve had towards the biodiverse systems we’ve exploited to the other discussants, we can begin to focus our attention on stepping back from our ideological commitments and we can invite them to do the same.
The focus becomes the way, the manner of our relating, rather than any end point. We will all end up in the same place in the end and our species, in the long run, will also end eventually. It is how we act at each moment, how we realise each moment, that matters. This will create the direction we take, it is the only route to mitigation. Seeing ourselves as enmeshed and becoming aware that this elicits not despair but compassion and humility, it is possible to take a less conditioned, and perhaps even an unconditioned, approach to issues.
We are in a precarious and dangerous situation and that there is an urgency in how we must approach the emergency. Paradoxically, we cannot simply impose or enforce this line of understanding. Instead, we are in the difficult situation of bringing to awareness an understanding of our condition that can only be experienced. Realisation as agency cannot and does not seek to compete as an ideology. It is not an alternative to Christianity or Islam, or even to Scientism or Atheism. It coexists within and beyond them as a practice that has no commitment to an end or goal. It is a way of seeing and a way of being that is deeply rewarding because it elicits love. This is its power. Every moment of realisation is a starburst of understanding, lighting up the mesh in all its tragedy and grace. There are countless instances in each individual human life that offer the opportunity for realisation so even as the mesh tightens, this way of seeing is a chance to loosen the ties that bind us to the current trajectory.