Taking the next steps


Today is my conferral day. In Cork. But I am in Mayo. The simple explanation for this is that I cannot afford to go to Cork, to receive the parchment that says I have attained a doctorate. I was upset when I realised I would be unable to attend the conferral ceremony. I’d tried to save money, but I have two teenage kids, and very little in the way of an income, and a couple of weeks ago, I realised that my attempts to keep any funds aside were futile. So I resigned myself to the inevitable sense of defeat and depression that lurks at the edges of my awareness now, and I buoy myself up with the encouraging thought that I did it. I may not receive the applause. I may not get my photo in the paper. No one in the community I live in knows or cares that I went through the process of doctoral research, thesis-writing, submission to deadline, and viva examination. It means nothing to anyone. But in the end, that’s all any achievement is: a phantom. The real impact is in how I live my life, and interact with others, how I find ways to disseminate the results of my research to the many others out there who also care very deeply about how we are living, and the kind of impact we are having.

One thing I’ll be working on, along with looking for work, is organising this blog, and its sister blog, http://www.yogazazen.wordpress.com. I’ll see if I can make it easier to navigate, and I’ll trim some of the longer posts. I will post once a week, but I’ll make sure I archive material that’s older, so there’s room to manoevre, as it were. Please bear with me. I’m working on this without help. I live an isolated, marginalised life, partly because what I deem important isn’t necessarily what the vast majority deem important. But I will keep sending out this tone, this sounding, this cry from the far flung shores of Erris, so that, for those for whom these things matter, the signal will serve as a sign that even here, even alone, even unable to participate, the message is, keep going, the attitude of mindful self-awareness is the key to an enriched and enriching understanding of interrelationship.

So, I rededicate this website to those of you who, like salmon, wriggling against the current, and feeling your way back to your origins, your source. The site will cover the topics of ecological mindfulness, ecologically mindful activity, and realisation as agency. It will include proposals for postdoctoral research, as well as papers and reviews I have submitted for consideration by journals and conferences (and I will note when papers have been accepted for presentation, but I have not been able to attend the conference for lack of funding. I will also note when I have been published, and when I have been able to attend and present).

Publication is not my main ambition, although it would be easier to gain recognition and to take part in philosophical and perhaps political discussion if my thesis, or some version of it, were published. I don’t believe that making objects of our work should be the main focus for thinkers of any stripe. I’m much more interested in disseminating the work and engendering discussion, and, dare I say it, creating a shift in how we view our interrelatedness as individuals, communities, societies, and as a species.

I welcome feedback, although I would deeply appreciate it if you would couch your comments in terms that are mindful, considerate, balanced and show an awareness of the threads of experience and context that have led you to your perspective. I will aim to add a post once a week, on a Friday, so if you’re following this regularly, look out for a post then.

If your interest relates to the practice of yoga as a mindfulness practice, to meditation or to related practices, then please feel free to visit my other site, http://www.yogazazen.wordpress.com

With deep bows, as a sadder but (I hope) a wiser woman, I remain,

your lw

Posted in The Thesis! | Leave a comment

Realising our agency in the Anthropocene



Introduction

 

How we think about our agency is one aspect of the narrative that grounds our sense of self knowledge and self responsibility. This is particularly important in the context of the ecologically catastrophic impact that much of our globalising culture is having at present. This catastrophe includes  biodiversity loss, pollution by plastics, chemical and radioactive waste of ecosystems, bodies of water, soil and air, and the sucking of energy out of non-human and into human systems at an irreplaceable rate, and to the vast detriment of the former.

 

Some understandings of human responsibility are still unreflectively accepted in this context. In particular, there are the three ideas that Paul Taylor’s work, Respect for Nature, illustrates in some detail, and with which I take issue. Taylor’s work is important and ground-breaking for a number of reasons, not least because it dares to create an entire ethic (of respect for nature) from a non-anthropocentric basis. However, I would venture to say that Taylor’s theory did not go far enough in its work to devolve power from the human centre. Taylor (and most environmental ethicists), take moral agency as the underlying condition for a response. Taylor’s moral agent is an idealised version of a responsible human person: she is empirically informed and she can recognize any partiality in her response for what it is. I disagree that this is an accurate, or, in this context, a useful, picture of our human condition. Secondly, however laudable the idea that an ethic is elicited (among reasonable people) might be, I propose that any ethical principle envisages an ideal state of affairs, some harmonious equilibrium in which all relationships are rightly balanced and honoured. The better informed (and the stronger willed) the individual, the more they will approach a perfect ‘respect for nature’ . Yet this means that the ideal response is always out of reach, since no person is ever going to be perfectly fully informed, and, in any event, a harmonious equilibrium cannot be achieved in a moving, dynamic, shifting system which is the expanding universe within which we are enmeshed and involved. Harmony in nature does not exist (Taylor is clear about recognizing this) and the ideal of a harmonious relationship could only exist if there were an ideal person, and that does not exist. Aiming for a relationship that can never be attained, whether in the context of climate change, or in the broader context of the ecological emergency, is problematic.

Instead, therefore, I propose that a more fruitful approach is to take an ethically neutral stance towards the ecological emergency. In investigating what this might mean, I also think we can explore more fruitfully the question of what kind of knowledge we have of our agency, and how this enables (or constrains) our response to the ecological emergency.

In essence, Taylor’s approach relies on the kind of individualistic atomism that, I will seek to show, is no longer viable if we are ‘reality-aware’, in Taylor’s terms. If we take the ideas of evolutionary biology to their logical conclusion then we cannot claim to be unique in terms of our human agency, particularly not in the ‘free will’ sense that we generally take for granted. If we are enmeshed (and I will argue that we are), there is no ‘one’ to do the valuing, or to form the basis for an ‘ideal’ moral agent, since enmeshment is inherently dynamic. Likewise, the idea that we could aim to have an ideal relationship with the environment (or rather our enmeshment, since the inside/outside divide that ‘environment’ implies is not a useful ontological division in this context) pushes our attempts into an unreachable future (and allows for all kinds of permissiveness along the way).

However, from a systems-based perspective, there is still an aspect of our cognitive capacity that we can exercise that better fits the definition of ‘agency’ than the moral agency Taylor defines. This means there is still a response that we can make, though this is not aspirational, since in this revised view we are not striving towards becoming ideal respondents, or seeking to respond in an ideal way. Since our relationship cannot be one of harmony, for the two reasons given above, we do better to explore the ethically neutral relationship with our context (rather than just with Taylor’s ‘wild nature’). However, by exploring what we know about physical systems, we find there are still ways of discerning what is ‘good’ for the systems we are enmeshed in. Although these cannot be captured as principles, since they, too, are dynamic and interactive, there are enough clues from what we know about biophysical systems to provide us with some guidance on how to respond. Our response is not that of the ‘mental’ act preceding a ‘physical’ action. It is a realisation, which is a bio-physical meta-system that comes into play through the effort of direct attention.

These, therefore, are the possibilities I want to explore when considering our knowledge framework when it comes to the ecological catastrophe.  I want to explore the consequences of taking what might follow from this premise to conclusions that are more far-reaching than Taylor’s reading implies because I think this gives us a better foundation for proposing that we can respond to the ecological emergency, and that we can find the basis for a convergence in our response.

First, I spell out the context, taking as the main premise an agreement with the broad understanding of  evolutionary theory. Then I use a systems-based approach to consider a revised idea of human moral agency, and therefore of human responsibility. Finally, I explore an alternative view of ‘the good’ of systems to show that there are ways we can know how to realise agency independent of an ethical response.

A review of the premise of evolutionary theory: from individualism to systematic reactivity

The first thing we understood from Darwin’s propositional theory about how evolution proceeds is that it does so through gene mutation and natural selection, both of which occur at an individual level:

According to biologists’ current understanding of evolutionary ecology and population genetics, the structure of relationships among species-populations in a natural ecosystem, as well as the size, growth, rate, age distribution, and other characteristics of each population are determined by the workings of natural selection at the level of individual organisms’.

However, more recent research in evolutionary biology shows that living organisms do not, in fact, evolve independently or atomistically. Locating value in individual organisms encounters further difficulties when we consider the time scales of the existence of different organisms. From the human perspective, the most obvious objects of concern are macro-organisms – from earthworms to whales. However, a far greater percentage of living existence, and for a far longer period of time, is in the form of micro-organisms. Indeed, so focused are we on things of the order of our own size that countless species, particularly of micro-organisms, have not yet been identified or classified by humans. Even those that have been identified interact in complex ways, making it difficult to know whether to classify them as individuals, or as interdependent parts of larger organisms. We cannot value them as individuals because they do not fit into the categories we normally use for classification. There are two revisions necessary to the individualistic account of evolution.

 

Moral agency

The second area of revision is our sense of moral agency. Most theories of ethics implicitly agree on  ‘which beings in the world are moral agents’. While I agree that human impact is creating and sustaining the ecological catastrophe, and that being human is unique in important ways, I would like to offer a revision of the idea that the human capacity to ‘exercise the necessary resolve and willpower to carry out … decisions’ is an accurate description of human agency, or even that humans decide and carry out actions in the way that makes sense of us as moral agents.

Part of the uniqueness of being human lies in our capacity to imagine what it would be like if conditions were different. What if, therefore, our ability to imagine different future scenarios, to empathise, and even to be self-aware, arose as chance capacities, as a result of our own evolutionary conditions. It just so happened that we developed these different cognitive capacities, which are based on the physiological make-up of our brains, some of which have survival value. Then we would have to admit that the development of these capacities is in no fundamental sense inherently different from the capacities developed by other organisms. Instead of telling ourselves that our uniqueness lies in our capacity for self-consciousness, and that this gives us an accompanying cause to celebrate our superiority, we might have to simply admit that, however extraordinary our capacities are, they are, in essence, no different from echolocation, photosynthesis or other unique and extraordinary means for organisms to interact with their environment.

However, we have developed a narrative that our cognitive capacities are of a different order from those developed along the evolutionary branches taken by other species. This in turn has led us to pontificate that we have some sort of additional quality, perhaps a soul, or psyche, that is the source, or centre, of our self-valuing, and that, in turn, justifies our sense of ourselves as exclusively moral agents. This has had the unfortunate effect of driving the negative impact of our species on the unsuspecting community of evolved beings and systems within which we find ourselves.

If our agency is not, in fact, of a different kind from the agency of other organisms, then, while there may be evolutionary reasons for us to delimit the application of our sphere of responsibility, there is nothing ‘out there’ to separate us from them, or our sphere from the wider one. We are all of the same stuff. Our agency is on the same continuum as the reactivity of hydrogen with oxygen. We give it a different name because it helps us justify an attitude of exploitation and narrow self-preservation. Unfortunately, this attitude is not sustainable: it undermines the very substance that nurtures it, and therefore it has to go.

For human moral agency to be a completely unique capacity, it would have to be of a different order from the capacities of other organisms. It would have to involve a process that was uniquely independent of the biophysical conditions we have evolved in. If human moral agency is not unique in this way, then what is happening, when we act, is just like what is happening when all other organisms act. We are responding to circumstance and the ideas of resolve and willpower as capacities that we impose independent of circumstance do not come into the equation at all.

The human impact on other organisms and planetary systems has been an unintentional consequence of this attitude. Additionally, it has allowed us to withdraw our attention from particular facets of our relationships. Our cognitive capacities are not inherently superior to those of other organisms, since they were the result of a process of (blind and impartial) evolution that has no hierarchy. Yet we have told ourselves that we are inherently superior, and even that these capacities are unique and distinct, and give us independence from the biophysical conditions we have evolved in. We are neither superior in our agency, nor independent of the biophysical conditions that we evolved in, and understanding this is essential if we are to shift the attitude (over which we do have some control) we take to where we are.

Harmony and utopia

Some end-state of harmony is not a feature either of individuals or of ecosystems. It makes no sense, therefore, to strive for stability when considering either our own state or the state of the systems we are enmeshed in. Again, I am relying on the premise that we, along with all else that is evolving, does so in accordance with scientific laws. These laws are probabilistic, and falsifiable, therefore any explanation they facilitate is only theoretical. However, they are the best description we have for empirical evidence of what is taking place in the universe – they require the least complex explanation, they accord best with the evidence, and their falsifiability allows us to discard any theory we have if evidence disproves it.

We can imagine biophysical systems as nested within wider, physical systems, but consistent with them, in the sense that all systems are processes of energetic informational exchange. This informational exchange is in dynamic interplay, moving (according to the second law) towards entropy, a state where there is less information to exchange, because less organization, and therefore more chaos.

James Ladyman describes the universe as being made up, not of things, but of mathematical relations. Scott Sampson, from a different perspective, talks of a relational universe. There are not distinctly unique interchanges of energy or information. At the purely physical level, one can reduce this to a mathematical metaphor: the interchange is an equation, working itself out, but in doing so, it changes the balance of all other equations which then have to work themselves out, and so on. This process is effectively infinite (at least from a human point of view) and paints a picture of the universe into which our understanding of biophysical systems can be worked. We can think of this interchange as directional, using the ‘big bang’ metaphor: at earlier time, more concentrated exchanges take place, and these become progressively less concentrated. So, in a sense, there is a ‘flow’ to this systematic process.

There is no ideal or harmonious relationship within these systems and the interchanges they involve are dynamic. However, the patterns of existence that maintain themselves for a certain length of time include biophysical systems and one notable feature of biophysical systems is their ability to develop this ‘whirlpool’-like character of systems still further by self-replicating, or reproducing, in order to maintain the pattern.

In reviewing the ideas of the harmoniousness within systems, and the prospects for harmoniousness between humans and other systems (or more accurately, their enmeshment), a further point is that very often we cannot know, with any certainty, the results of anthropogenic impacts. The interrelationships are too complex, or not enough research has been done to establish the effects on the interrelationships of human activity. Responding from the context of being enmeshed is more complicated, and involves more unknowns, therefore, than if human responses could be calculated atomistically. Systematic enmeshment implies that if something acts, reacts or alters its trajectory, then the entire mesh shifts.

Revising the ideas of harmonious relationships requires that we revise, first, the need for an ethical approach, since there is no inherency to ‘the good’ of systems in this broader interpretation. Second, we need to reassess what clues there might be in the conditions we find ourselves in for discerning what kind of responses accord with, and which ones interfere with or obstruct, the ‘flow’ to this systematic process.

We need to make further revisions to an atomistic, individualistic approach. Not only in evolutionary time, but in each instant of our existence, trillions of microbial cells overwhelm the number of human cells in a human body, making it more of a bipedal colony than an isolated individual. As scientists frequently observe, ‘By numbers of cells, a human being has ten times as many bacteria as human cells.’ In addition, even the so-called ‘human genome’ is disproportionately comprised of ancestrally viral fragments, ‘fragments that were vital to evolution of all organisms.’

Single celled organisms, or microbes, do not behave as individual organisms, whether in their entwined relationship with multicellular organisms, or while acting in apparent independence in the soil. This implies that humans cannot claim even at the organic level to be boundaried individuals whose evolutionary trajectory relies solely on mutation of genetic material and natural selection. While it is reasonable to acknowledge the importance of the role of individualistic genetic transference in evolutionary progress, it is unreasonably reductionist to extend an assumption of this importance to a consideration of how living organisms interact, and therefore to how we weigh up organisms’ interests.

Given all this, we should be sceptical of an entirely atomistic approach. However useful it is to think of living organisms, including ourselves, as unique, boundaried entities, especially, for instance, when deciding who will cook dinner, in considering a human condition imaginary of the kind described in the last chapter, it is equally important to recall that we and they are also ‘dissipative structures,’ to use Ilya Prigogine’s term, maintaining a coherent integrity while energy and matter continues to exchange.

Organisms do not evolve in empty space but in relation to other organisms and the systems which contain them, and even in close co-evolution with those systems. We are ourselves examples of such co-evolution. We depend, absolutely and essentially, upon the microbial communities, as well as the non-organic, chemical interchanges, that make up the internal and external context of our existence.

When we change the level at which we reflect on our identity as entities, by considering ourselves as ‘persons’, for instance, then our ability to see ourselves as separate individuals within a world of other separate individuals makes sense. To a degree, of course, it is practically necessary that we perceive ourselves in this way. However, when the stories that we use to make sense of our condition so distort our understanding of our relationship with the context that we are no longer able to recognise ourselves as a part of what is going on, then this perception of becomes an obstruction.

If we are not exclusively, or even statistically significantly, ‘human’ in make-up, there is nothing ‘outside’ this ‘us’ to which we can refer for measurement or scale. It is, therefore, only human cultural systems that create the context within which we measure. They demand a story about our relationship with the world in order to find some way of drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Without a story, there is no culture. Without culture, there is no ‘human’. As Wendell Berry has it, we are not human until and unless we are encultured.

Human violence

Some human cultures have ritualistically noted, and even begged forgiveness for, some of the violent relationships we exist within (including killing to eat, warfare, clearing of land for planting and so on). While philosophers (and academics and thinkers from other disciplines) have questioned the effectiveness and the impact of such rituals, the unacknowledged violence that is so central to the twenty-first century’s globalising consumer culture is markedly different in at least two respects from earlier manifestations of violence in human cultures, and from violence exhibited by other species. In the first place, it remains an opaque, barely examined feature of the current globalising, product-heavy, consumer-creating system and in the second, the scale of the violence and the mindlessness, or lack of attention, with which it is carried out, is of a different order from violence or aggression in other times or in other species.

In the end, other systems will kill (exploit, destroy and pollute) the ones we depend upon, and us, ourselves. We cannot avoid our own end. Yet we have largely failed to grasp the extent to which our own destructiveness has created the conditions that threaten to undo the very fabric upon which our own continuance as human encultured beings depends.

It is the tendency to withdraw attention that is really at the heart of this matter. The violence of humanly encultured systems looks directional, in the sense that there is an apparent level of purpose to it (war to gain land, exercising ideological control to gain power, intensive farming to increase profitability and production, factory worker exploitation for profit) and yet this purpose may be motivated by factors entirely outside human encultured control (fear, hunger, perceived lack of space or security, on the one hand; extravagance, the unintended consequences of synthesising artefacts, on the other). In the context of the culture that enmeshes us, attention, and the awareness to which such attention gives access, is directed away from questioning.

The debate around whether or not human cultural activity is more or less violent than that of any other species or system, then, becomes a question of where, how and why the human system directs attention from the violence and, relatedly, the suffering that it generates. This is also, in effect, a question about the capacity we have, as perceivers within these systems, to redirect attention. We are not mechanistically determined by our enmeshment. We have, for instance, the capacity to realise the condition we are in. This realisation interacts with our enmeshment: it is a response that engenders other responses. We recognise that distraction and withdrawal from paying attention to what we are involved in render us complicit. Therefore we begin to explore the possibilities, however limited, that paying attention offers.

However enormous and difficult to comprehend our level of impact is (radioactive waste and even the layers of non-biodegradable waste products we have laid down in all regions of the globe, from micro-plastics in the oceans to the thin layer of complex hydrocarbons scattered over the poles and high mountain glaciers) it remains true that, at a universal scale, and even in terms of the evolution of systems, the context will outlast us. It is also true, however, that the attitudes we take now influence any potential future systematically. If our realisation of these relationships is subjective, then each point of self-aware perception is a possible generation point for the perceptive system to understand itself. Realisation as agency implies that the act of realisation creates a new narrative, an experience that then becomes a part of, and therefore interacts with, what is going on throughout the mesh.

Agency as realisation

Our agency is not, however, that of individual organisms, but complex systems, pursuing ends at a variety of levels (and sometimes for contradictory goals). Human agency is considered to be unique because we still labour under the illusion that humans make decisions about their lives in a way that other organisms do not. Taylor maintains that ‘moral agents are such because they alone decide how to live’. This is an extremely strong and persistent view, but it relies on the highly questionable Cartesian narrative that the human will is some kind of supra physical entity that can control and direct physiological or physical matter from somewhere else. As I have just attempted to show, if we are entirely enmeshed, human systems are subject to natural laws and processes, and therefore any claim for a directional force that exists outside the mesh is unjustifiable. Instead, I suggest we consider what agency might mean if we take the point of view that we are indeed enmeshed, and that any ability to respond that humans have takes place in the context of interactive, dynamic systems, both intimate with, and at other levels of magnitude from, human enmeshment. When we think we are responding voluntarily, much more often than not, we are actually reacting. This is a very complex process, and is often portrayed as being mechanistic, which it is not. It is not linear, either, or particularly predictable. However, it is as subject to probabilistic laws as everything else in the universe.

Our uniqueness (and we are, certainly, unique in some respects) is our cognitive capacity to self-reflect, to be self-aware, to be able to see ourselves in action (even if there is less we can do about it than we might previously have thought). Plants do not sway in the breeze because they have decided to do so. By the same token, human activity is hugely directed by environmental conditions (temperature, access to shelter and food, security and so forth). If plants sway, so, in some important senses, do humans. Plants, microbes, and other living systems maintain and regenerate an integrated organisation, responding in evolutionarily appropriate ways to the forces, breezes, and other conditions that make up their context. In this sense, plants, microbes and any other living system, exhibit agency – responding, repairing, regenerating as organisational structures – just as humans do. The difference between human and other systems does not lie in their capacity to exercise this potential, but in their capacity to realise that they are exercising it.

Human agency is both the highly complex, but nevertheless consistent, response system to events and conditions within larger dynamic and complex systems. However, there is another aspect to human agency. It is also the cognitive capacity that comes about, sometimes by chance, sometimes through the use of techniques like meditation, that is able to perceive at least some of these processes of response and reaction, as though from a perspective beyond them, and so to see them in action, doing and seeing. Because this capacity takes place within the same biophysical arena, it is interactive: exercising this capacity alters the processes of other systems. This alteration is usually quite subtle but it is nevertheless highly significant, since it interacts throughout the system. This is significant because it is such a unique and profound effect.

The criticism that human agency is ‘determined’, from this perspective, is shown to be false, since the unique aspect of human agency is the capacity to reflect, or realise. In the context of the narratives we tell ourselves, our capacity for realisation is also our capacity to alter the narratives and this, in turn, shifts how we relate. This allows us to see human agency, in the sense of realisation, as a meta-system, driven by the same conditions that drive all systems – energy dissipation – yet able to reflect and so (to a degree) alter them.

In this revised sense, human agency is the capacity to self-reflect, to become aware of context and interrelationships, to explore and question metaphors, and so to shift relationships. Human cultural systems depend utterly on the fact that agency in the more general sense of response-reaction exists at every level, from the ability of plants to photosynthesize, to the capacity of some systems to live 10,000 years, to the ability of some species to produce 20 million offspring, or regenerate after being put in a blender. In this understanding, we are response processes because we are like, and even because we are reliant upon, other systems, not because we are the species, Homo sapiens.

The difference between response processes across most other systems, and response processes in human systems is that the latter have the unusual additional capacity to reflect on the processes themselves. From a systems-based perspective, the human, encultured ability to avoid threats is general agency, not agency as realisation. However, the capacity for human systems to perceive themselves is agency as realisation, and this capacity gives us the (limited) potential to choose how to respond which sets it apart from other kinds of agency.

If we allow ourselves to view uniquely human agency in the way I have just described, we begin to notice how our activity responds and is responded to in its enmeshment. Not only do we become more sensitive to the feedback processes we are inevitably involved in, but the very process of noticing shifts how we relate, both physiologically, and in the kind of attitude we have to our interrelationships. The systems respond to each other and we can see that, while it would be ambitious to believe this system of reflectiveness could disentangle itself from the system entirely (to exist, a reflection, after all, must be a reflection of something), the reflection itself is not passive. It offers the possibility of actively engaging with other systems, shifting the relationships between them and becoming a force, in itself, for altering the trajectory. It also generates a shift in the framework so the narrative that we use to describe our relationship to the context we are in shifts and this alters our attitude and responses to the relationship.

One example of this is in how we talk about our relationship with other biophysical systems. From viruses to tsunamis, we talk as though the universe was against us. Yet, on reflection, what our language reveals is how keenly we still hanker for a directional agency ‘out there’, even a malignant one, rather than accepting the much more probable scenario that these forces are entirely indifferent to human systems. Within a revised narrative, therefore, there are neither forces that are ‘for’ us, or ‘against’ us. However, there are forces that allow energy to dissipate and matter to cycle, and there are also conditions that create interference, or resistance to these energy flows and matter cycles. So, in a sense, there are still conditions that are good for, and conditions that are less beneficial, or even harmful to, the flow of energy. We might easily find ourselves calling those conditions ‘good for’ or ‘bad for’, if, in the context of the system, they benefit or impede processes of energetic flow.

As soon as we realise the kind of agency we have, we exercise it and it becomes an active process. Because it is a biophysical system itself, it interacts with all the biophysical relationships we are involved in and each is shifted on its trajectory, minutely or profoundly. Each realisation is an opportunity for more possibilities for beneficial exchanges to arise although there are degrees of attention and full realisation requires tremendous effort. This is not the effort of willpower, but the effort of keeping attention on all the interactions one is involved in which requires that trauma, thirst, hunger and other conditions are incorporated and acknowledged but do not overcome this state of watchfulness. Such an effort requires practice, though from the first realisation, the interactions within the system alter and there are more options for new interactions to take place.

The impact of this (as far as we know) uniquely human capacity is potentially as profound as the capacity to synthesise matter into arrangements that can no longer interchange information or energy. Different traditions view this capacity in different ways. The Daoists considered that the ability to self-reflect leads to all kinds of problems. Knowledge of this capacity, combined with failure to exercise it, is irresponsible, yet it is hard work to keep attention on what is going on. Exercising this capacity without  humility, or compassion, is also, potentially problematic and may simply create scorn or indifference. I will explain below how an attitude of compassion and humility is elicited by this process. However, the fuller one’s awareness of one’s condition is, the easier it is to see that one is neither as worthy of reward (hence humility) nor as culpable (hence compassion) as one is led to believe by the narratives of independence and superiority.

We are far more subject to the circumstances we find ourselves in than traditional agency allows, and compassion arises when we realise that all systems respond interdependently, including others that, like us, can suffer. While humans are interdependent with everything else, they are also peripheral. Other, older systems like bacteria and microbes have been maintaining the dissipation of solar energy and cycling matter for long millennia before the creatures that would become human evolved lungs. When we understand and appreciate this, we see that other systems do not rely on us nearly as much as we rely on them. A reasonable response to this realisation is a sense of humility, and empathetic resonance (perhaps as gratitude, or at least appreciation) for older, wider ecosystems, which create the foundations of what allows our existence.

This may make us less inclined to let our attention be as easily distracted by that other uniquely human capacity, the artificial synthesis of material that rigidly fixes energy into conditions that cannot easily interchange information or participate in regulated dissipation. In stepping back from our enmeshment within artificial systems, our awareness extends beyond them, back to the deeper interrelationship with the systems that steward our existence.

We are able to perceive the experiences both as someone involved in them, and as an observer. We can see ourselves as relationships, therefore, but we can also see ourselves as interacting with those relationships through our attention. This idea is useful for visualising the directional flow we can facilitate or obstruct by drawing our attention to conditions, or withdrawing our attention from them.

The ‘good’ of systems

As Sampson points out, the boundaries between the whirlpools and the river are highly permeable although, of course, we experience them as significant. Skin, for example, is a permeable membrane, constantly exchanging matter with the external environment and yet it marks the boundary between the systems that are concentrated around the genetic activity that maps and sustains each organic structure and the wider systems that feed into and dissipate energy from this patterned form. Particularly at microscopic scales, it is difficult to determine with any precision where the organism ends and the external world begins. As Sampson puts it:

Even apparently dense and unyielding things, like rocks, trees, bones and mountains, turn out to be fluid at atomic levels and/or on geologic timescales, their internal make-up shifts like river currents.

 

Biodiverse systems are some of the richest, most complex examples of energy dissipation systems that we have yet come across. This implies that the energetic exchanges that occur in richly biodiverse systems increase the dissipation of energy more effectively than their poorer, simpler counterparts. This matters to human systems because such complex systems reduce the solar gradient by ‘filtering’ energy through the various systems, extracting as much energy as possible to dissipate, leading to a relatively graduated, and therefore relatively more stable, system of informational exchanges. This is the picture of the world, from an energetic point of view, that humans evolved in.

Energy flows are directional, therefore anything that facilitates the tendency to dissipate energy through systems is ‘good for’ that flow in the instrumental sense that it maintains it, although ultimately entropy is not ‘good for’ anything. This does not imply that a simple arithmetic increase in entropy is ‘good for’ us, but since biodiverse systems maintain the graduated flow of energy, they are ‘good for’ human systems. So, if we have an interest in our own survival (and most of us do) we also have an interest in maintaining, restoring or mitigating the damage to biodiverse systems.

Biodiversity is a vanishingly rare occurrence, as far as we can discover so far, but the evolution of biodiverse systems has been a chance affair. It may be argued, therefore, that any system that graduates energetic flow will be good for us but the fact is that we evolved in the very specific context of the milieu of biodiversity that sustains us, and synthesising a system that imitates what we have evolved in, ‘faking’ evolution, cannot capture the complexity, sensitivity or sophistication of the interactions that evolved systems exhibit. Evolved systems are self-supporting, in the sense that all biodiverse systems benefit from the graduating presence of all other biodiverse systems. On a universal scale, this dissipation is neither beneficial nor harmful. But it is ‘good for’ us, in the sense that it forms the foundation for our survival as a culturally sophisticated species and that underpins any other ‘good’ we might decide to value.

From the best descriptions we have of how the universe operates at the moment, the idea that energy is dissipated through systems is widely accepted. Biodiverse richness is ‘good for’ more than humans, therefore. It is good for energetic dissipation within the context of life on the planet, as a whole. This gives us grounds for considering not just what is ‘good for’ human flourishing. To hold energy in states that cannot participate in the flow of energetic dissipation is to hold them outside the exchange of information and flow of cycles of matter that allow graduated dissipation to proceed. All the systems within which we are enmeshed are actively dissipating energy ‘in order to’ return to the relative inertia of non-living existence. It is in this dissipation that we are maintained.

Humanly synthesised artifices cannot participate in energetic exchange of information because the molecular structures are locked in non-participative forms (like plastics, or synthesised radioactive isotopes). Likewise, our increasing inroads into habitats destroy evolved and richly biodiverse systems and replace them with systems that are much less diverse (monocultures) or that do not symbiote (cities, where individual trees are planted as decoration but fragmented from the ecosystem they would have evolved with). This creates gaps in the graduation of energetic flow and steepens dissipation, causing other knock-on effects, like systematic collapse. Simpler biophysical systems are much more vulnerable to sharp changes in conditions than richly complex, biodiverse ones, but even richly complex systems are unlikely to be able to sustain themselves if the gradient of energy dissipation becomes too steep.

If we recognise that the systems within which we are enmeshed have conditions that are ‘good for’ them, instrumentally, because they allow energetic dissipation, then we have the beginnings of a response-base from which to direct our agency as realisation. But we still need to establish whether or not agency as realisation can be directed. We may be able to become aware, to some extent, of the vast web of interconnections within which we are enmeshed. We may even be able to hold that awareness, and develop an attitude of compassion and humility in the face of the vast whirlpools of energy that create and sustain us. But we cannot be sure that any awareness we bring to the state we find ourselves in will alter the trajectory of our existence to better either our own systems, and chances of survival, or the systems that maintain us, and theirs.

In this picture, there is no ideal which will allow us to rest or stop having to make the effort to respond to the situation, to realise that our agency is this act of paying attention to see what options emerge. Each state we find ourselves in is dynamic, changing and in all senses impermanent, as the biophysical description I outlined earlier relates. To aim for a particular state is to imply that it is possible to hold one position indefinitely, and that contradicts a fundamental condition of this perspective.

Conclusion

Many cultural narratives, including the dualistic narrative that underpins much of globalising culture, reject the idea that this imperfect, dynamic state is all there is. Yet by adopting the approach to agency I have described, this is the most obvious conclusion: we are in a dynamic state because biophysical systems are dynamic, transient, and impermanent.

There is a difficulty with language that arises in this attempt to describe a self becoming aware that it is not, after all, a self. The non-dualistic idea that we can ‘forget the self’ as a specific perceptual location is notoriously difficult to describe without using esoteric language or imagery. Yet agency as realisation is precisely this activity of stepping back from the relationships and interactions we are all involved in and being able to see them, and ourselves within them, as transitional and dynamic rather than as fixed identities.

The more deeply this process is engaged in, the more a motivation develops to maintain, as far as possible and whenever possible, openness to the insight that this perspective gives. Attention to the autonomous processes, including those of the body, the breath and, of course, any sensations and experiences, including cognitive experience, creates an understanding of the connections and interdependence, the ‘sameness’, of the internal and external, or the self and the other. This capacity for reflection is not cognitive, in the sense of intellectual, but is the raw experience of the network of enmeshment and it generates both beneficial and relaxing sensations, and so offers its own reward, but also empathy as a result of the revelation of interconnectedness. This empathetic sense is not limited to (but includes) the understanding and appreciation of the involvement of all other organisms, human and non-human, in this vast web.

 

This is the motivation to pay close attention to systems of engagement that we have, through cultural narratives that obscure them, or through our own personal trajectories, ignored or denied. The broadest, most prevalent and urgent of these is the ecological emergency.

Realisation as agency requires effort, because paying attention requires effort. Maintaining an attitude of compassion and humility is also effortful: it is remarkably easy to forget and to take credit for events that were due to activities over which we had no control whatsoever. Nevertheless, collecting data, undertaking research, gathering falsifiable information and other associated activities are all acts that require us to pay close attention, as are many artistic, literary, cultural and other more obvious activities like traditional meditation practices that engage full awareness. These activities do not involve coercion, proselytising or the use of force. They are ideologically and ethically neutral. And yet the way that they reflect on unfolding situations gives them importance in the ecological emergency since they create a way of engagement that is itself a system of realisation.

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Thinking the (im)possible


What if the thing we think of as agency, the deliberative system of assessment and decision making, resulting in action, is entirely wrongly conceived? What if, in fact, this mistaken idea we have about what we decide to do is creating, and maintaining, a relationship with the ecological context that is increasingly, and now critically, destructive to the systems we depend upon?

I want to consider agency from a different perspective: agency as realization. Realization itself is not communicated through reasoning or even through language but through pointing towards an experience which must then itself be experienced. This is like experiencing (rather than thinking) impossible possibilities, including the possibility that by experiencing ourselves as explicitly realizing systems, at the time while the realization is happening, enmeshed within implicitly reactive exchanges, our response becomes a part of that dynamic. We become aware of what we are and this shifts everything.

Can we ever again ‘speak the language of nature’ (if we ever did, or if we do not still)? Of course, it depends, both on what we think of as the framework of our experience, within which all else is interpreted. Could this really be possible or would this just imply staring into two mirrors that reflect one another infinitely but never allow us to see outside what they are reflecting? If this is all that happens when we study ourselves, then we are not just enmeshed: we are entrapped. . If we are physiological organisms, then we are also genetically driven to desire more goods, to push back limits, to maximise our capacity to exploit ‘resources’, and so on, and no matter what degree of attention we pay to our activity, the railtracks of our DNA will dictate our direction. If this assessment is right, then being able to recognise our enmeshment is no more than an accidental evolutionary hiccup, and a tragic one at that, since it allows us to watch the uncontrollable acceleration of our demise while strapped to the engine that is driving it.

This is the nihilism that underlies a sense of hopelessness, a sense that there is no point in attempting to reverse or mitigate the effects of our catastrophic impact on the ecological context that supports and nurtures us. We can only gaze, terrified, into the very heart of our own darkness. There is no one to blame, and no Other to rescue us. We face the ultimate absurdity of our own condition, that of a creature doomed by its own nature. There is nothing, even, to fear, since fear would imply that we could do something to react against ourselves, but it is ourselves that are creating the conditions for our own destruction.

Going on a silent retreat, or isolating oneself, taking certain drugs or enduring a situation of extreme trauma, can all allow the fundamental horror of our condition to confront us. There is no escape. At this point, a kind of psychosis can take hold. We cling to anything, even if we know, in our hearts, that it is a lie. We repeat it like a mantra, willing it to be true: God Is! Or we turn the other way and embrace our destructiveness, wreck relationships, exploit to the maximum degree possible our context, rout it because at least, by increasing the pace of the destruction, we may, just for a moment, feel something, while also, of course, increasing the chances of it all being over, sooner.

Are these our choices? Denial, retreat into self delusion that never quite convinces us, but we sound the gong louder, sing the hymn with total force and focus, count the beads, whisper the prayers over and over? Or doomster-laden drives down the fastest lane to destruction, kicking against the petty attempts at civilisation, culture, community or any other endeavour that attempts to build while the ground is crumbling beneath our feet? What else is there? Humour, laughing into the dark, because the situation is wholly absurd and meaningless? The vaccuum that these possibilities create sucks us in and in any attempt to go beyond this level of understanding, we risk, insanity, anger, triviality or the great companion to exhaustive effort: apathy.

What happens if we manage to turn our understanding another way, if we see ourselves as within, and intimately elemental to, the situation we observe? What if we begin to understand that our capacity to understand, to observe, to realize where and what we are, is more than enough to shift our interactions? What if ‘just sitting’ is the strongest response we have? If we go on, through the vaccuum-black horror of nihilism, we find that we are delicately attuned natural systems, just as all natural systems are. We have developed with a capacity to live within those systems. We express autopoeisis, playfulness, creativity, vulnerability, from the moment we are born. We are curious, inventive, imaginative. We elude analysis. This is true not just of humans, of course, but this impermanent, dynamic, shifting animism exists throughout the universe. We are insubstantial, reliant on air, complete in our skins yet utterly interdependent, and with this extraordinary capacity for consciousness, for self-awareness, for realization. Most of our acts are unpremeditated, and even, to use Schelling’s word, unprethinkable. We surprise ourselves, if we take the time to look, with how unpredictable we are. Because consciousness is a quality that has emerged, like a gift, to mirror the universe back onto itself. The greed and yearning we experience to own, to fill the horror-vaccuum with whatever material or energy we can suction up, is the manifestation of our fear of what we are. However, just sitting and going through the realization of this fear reveals it to be a fear of death. We cannot kill death, however hard we try. We must find some way, without lies, without denial, without rage, to embrace, to radically accept death as the shadow that creates form and firmness. To realize is to sit with this acceptance, to embrace and honour ourselves, to recognise but not to exacerbate the flow of energy that both creates and, in the end, disippates us. We are no more destructive or creative than any other force in the universe. We are no more of an anomaly. We are mirrors of the universe and it is the mirror through which we understand ourselves.

This is the illuminating proposition that lies at the heart of realization as action. We do not need guiding sets of principles to know what to do. We need to know what we are doing, what is happening right now. We need to practice bringing our attention back, again and again, to the staying point of focus on the dynamic, moving moment. This is the practical necessity of our condition, and practical necessity precedes ethics, but ethics is an unnecessary complication, pushing the moment away, into an impossible, unachievable, utopian ‘then’. ‘Then’ all will be well. We never get to then but it creates the separation between heaven and earth.

Four hundred years of a narrative that analyses Nature into atomistic parts, classifying separate elements individually, has allowed us to distiguish, and construct, to include, and also to exclude, to the extraordinary technological and numerical advantage of our species. However, this is the same narrative that demands we see ourselves as exclusively possessed of souls, as having advanced to the head of the evolutionary ladder, and therefore as entitled to dominate and subjugate, steward or destroy, any of those we have named and numbered.

It is, therefore, time to review the context, to recognise that we are inside the results of interactions (climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, for instance) and they (pollution, radiation, modified food) are inside us. Instead of pushing the ideal forward, claiming that we are creating something that is to the benefit of all, we need to acknowledge that our so-called ‘progress’ has resulted in fewer and fewer succeeding in sucking more and more energy from the systems we all depend upon, to the extreme detriment of all the rest. We need to sit with, to walk with, this knowledge. To get moving again, we need first to be still. This is not a call for some Romantic return to Paradise. There was no such place, only the richly biodiverse roots of our ancestry did offer us more options, and the impoverished systems we now depend upon require our nurturing.

Just sitting is premoral. Just walking requires no thought about a right way or a wrong way, as long as it is done with the effort of full attention. We can cook, we can garden, we can even drive, speak, do business, and dream with realization. Isn’t it strange that we have had this capacity all along, that we already know how to live, just by watching ourselves, but that we have worked so hard to ignore our knowledge of what is going on? What is this blindness for? Why do we resist the understanding that is being whispered to us with every outbreath, that we belong, that we have the capacity to belong with skill, that it is a matter of practical necessity that we recognise our belonging as a gift, or a curse? The world is screaming at us to wake up. Our own bodies are groaning under the weight of this denial. Nothing that we do now matters, if we refuse to acknowledge the common ground of our experience.

How does realization in action manifest itself? It is a practice, in the sense that it is a way of living. It is also a practice, in the sense of a way of perfecting a skill. We practice watching what we already do, without judgement, without evaluation, or suggesting to ourselves that such and such was right, or wrong, good, or bad. We practice bringing our attention to our actions as we are undertaking them, to our thoughts as they develop and intensify, or dissolve and disappear. We watch our words with curiosity: you think you know what you are going to say, until you begin to listen to yourself speaking, as you speak, and then you begin to realize that what you are saying is a result of myriad threads of immediate and distant circumstances. The sounds coming out of you are echoes of others, reactions to subtle messages, physical and verbal, from your interlocutor, coloured by your sense of well-being (or disease), by your immediate environment, familiar or strange, by whether the sun is shining, or it is raining. All that is happening right now, all that has happened up to now, creates the words you use, the phraseology, the tone, the mannerisms that accompany the words. This, in turn, creates conditions for your respondent. In this infinitely complex set of interactions, it may seem impossible that realizing, in the sense of watching, and observing, understanding by gaining insight through watching, and also, therefore, creating space, the psychological distance of observation, can allow new possibilities to arise, a slight shift in your reactions, a microbeat of reflection before you find the words or activities rearranging themselves, playfully, into different patterns.

It is a matter of scale. We are taught that, in order to alter the ecological catastrophe, in order to respond, we need huge interventions, we need to fire rockets filled with chemicals into the atmosphere to generate clouds that will hammer down rain on drought-ridden regions. We need to understand ourselves from space, or by searching for life on other planets. Perhaps we need these interventions. Perhaps they will emerge as possibilities, even after engaging the effort of realization. But realization itself works on the tiny shifts in the patterns developing in individual human brains. Meditative practices alter the systems within the brain. We are not looking for stasis, or harmony, either internally, within the organisms that we are, nor in Nature, which we can neither ‘restore’ nor live ‘in balance’ with. Instead, we are recognizing dynamism, impermanence, interdependence, and that there is a flow, a way in which energy disippates and matter cycles, that benefits the systems upon which we depend, from the level of interpersonal relationships, to the level of the Earth’s systems (and, perhaps, beyond).

We can synchronise ourselves to the unfolding of these graduated flows of energy, to the pulses of increase, and growth, and decline, including our own demise. This recognition is useful when we are watching for practical, pragmatic responses that enhance the relationship between human and natural systems. Realization allows us to slow down the impact of the exploitative urge by slowing down our interventions, making exploitative activity less profitable. We can create benefits to leaving land undisturbed, to allowing systems to self-regenerate. We can create policies that allow governing bodies to buy up small tracts of land so that would-be exploitative individuals or companies know that they are going to have to deal with legislation, instead of just appropriating vast areas for exploitative operations.

We are not the deliberative creators of change that we have been taught to believe we are. Our agency, our capacity to respond, lies entirely in our capacity to realize, to sit with, to observe, what is going on in and around us, and over which we have no control until and unless we realize our situation. When we consider our relationship with the ecological context, a context that is in critical condition, we do not change the context through confrontation or aggressive tactics that only engender more fear and hatred. Instead, we need to use the effort of paying attention to what and how we act, and this, in turn, allows us to shift. Three attitudes are elicited through realization. A kind of solidarity is created when we become increasingly sensitive to the particular details of our own circumstances, to the pain and suffering we have already endured, and to the pain and suffering that, with a bit of imagination, we recognise as having been endured by all others. We can extend this compassion beyond sentient creatures by understanding that interdependence implies that there is no clear boundary between what is responding and reacting and aware of itself, and what is responding and reacting, and is not aware of itself. We have endured pain and humiliation, simply in our attempts to survive. Given the information we had, we did the best we could. Acknowledging this is liberating: we need not blame ourselves for the impacts we have had, on others, or on the wider ecological context. We may feel deeply saddened by the catastrophic impact these survival attempts have had. However, with the benefit of a hair’s breadth space, the space at the end of the breath, we can see how it might be possible, both because, and in spite of, our situation so far, to feel compassion for the state we are in. Like watching the struggling attempts of ants to regroup after an invasive attack, all our efforts have been to come into accord with the flow of energy and the cycling of matter. When we see this, we may not find we can suddenly free ourselves from addictive patterns, or resolve all the broken features of our relationships. However, we are suddenly and immediately in the only position from which active change can take place and that is a powerful step.

The view of ourselves I have illustrated here depends on a post-Darwinian view of nature. This means that events are interconnected, rather than unique or discrete, and that rather than laws being absolute and universal, natural laws are probabalistic, and hence, always to some degree open to unpredictability, themselves impermanent, and dynamic. We humans, within this paradigm, offer a responsiveness that straddles the interactions going on in and around us, and our capacity to observe them. ‘Now’ is not a moment but a wavering boundary, just as realization is not agency in the traditional sense of a determination and ability to act. Realization is grasping the entire trajectory, all at once, and in doing so, loosening its inevitable progression, causing it to waver and open into a shifting set of alternatives, as wide as the realization itself. Our agency depends, therefore, on the effort we are prepared to make to pay attention, to observe, and to open, through shifts in language and in focus, to shifts in how we interact.

What we attend to is – and has to be – based on what we already do. We begin to see the grounds, and the framework, that shape what we include in consideration now. We cannot help but tell a story to ourselves about what and why certain elements of our context are worthy of inclusion in our consideration, while others are not. We interpret evidence, weigh up interests, establish policies and rules, based on what is worth considering. This is how we develop an ethic, a code by which to live. However, developing this ethic is both futile and unnecessary. Rules, and legislation, can be ethically neutral, can be purely pragmatic. We can have practical rules for what to include based not on what we value in a moral sense, but on what we take into consideration by constantly reflecting and adjusting our conceptual model with our experiential or empirical knowledge. There is a kind of ‘reflective equilibrium’ to this process, but with an awareness that this blaancing of concept and experience is ever shifting on a fulcrum that is in motion, so we cannot rest with ‘this is always right, here’, and need to learn to make case by case assessments, just as they arise, through realization of all that is involved. Only through realization can we develop the kind of flexibility needed in our response.

What we pay attention to is both what we are interested in, in the positive sense, and what we are obliged to consider because it forces itself on our attention. But when we realize our situation, everything becomes interesting, including the soil, rocks, trees, buildings, microbes and everything else. The field of ethology only developed after the Second World War which means that we only recently began considering other animals worthy of study as complex organisms with behavioural patterns that were not just mechanistic responses but highly developed evolutionarily appropriate, non-linear patterns. We were wrong to treat women and slaves as non-humans. The lesson from this is that we need to widen our consideration of what is interesting. There is not ‘final criterion’ for including a category within our interests. Self interest is universal interest. Consideration, attention and realization can (and must) be paid at least in recognition of the interdependence of systems, but this can happen in an ethically neutral fashion. We do not need to seek to justify our attention with reference to the value of ecosystems, and so on. This will always depend on the context of our own value scheme. We are necessarily constrained in what we value by our status as humans. However, this does not preclude us from considering systems and it is this broadening of our consideration that seems to me so vital as an exercise in extending our capacity to respond to the current predicament, particularly given the idea that it is only through attention, awareness or realization that we are agents.

So far, I have mostly talked about the first sense of realization: realization as insight, or understanding. But realization also means ‘to make real’, to actualise (in Zen terms). It has a dual function and the second function is the full manifestation of human agency. What is made real through bringing to attention is the set of relationships that are then brought to awareness but since the act of bringing them to awareness acts as a metasystem, then the act of realization is also the capacity to shift this set of relationships by overviewing them. realization is not passive just as consideration is not passive. It requires the holding of a situation or condition in awareness. If we ask ourselves what kind of creatures we are now, with this insight in mind, we must take responsibility for shifting the system of our enmeshment, and so, for co-creating our reality. Many myths, many stories attest to a recognition of this co-creation. Perhaps it is time for us to unearth these stories, and to somehow find a way of reconciling science and art, human and Nature, through narratives that thread between them.

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An aside: Gamanrad and Fir Bolg at the boundaries between myth and history


Just as an aside, I wanted to write something about why I named this site Gamanrad. Firstly, of course, it’s a word that rolls around the mouth. I’ve always liked a hard G and the repetition of two same-sounding ‘a’s is satisfying, somehow. OK, whimsy apart, here is the slightly embellished account of the Gamanrad and their place in Irish, and, in particular, in Erris history (and, for reasons only a very few might understand, I include reference to the Fir Bolg, now the name of a beer obtainable in Cork):

The Fir Bolg were the Men (people, one hopes) of the Bags, Spears of Boats, a prehistoric, semi-mythical tribe who came to Ireland perhaps as long ago as 5000-4000BC (these dates are wild guesses). What did they carry in those bags? Perhaps the indication is that they were travelling people, and they carried what they had with them, from place to place. Perhaps their name is an indication of their bravery. I imagine the name being a reference to how lightly they lived on the land. They were overcome by those who came with more, whose energy use, though still miniscule by our bloated standards, was more demanding. From hunter-gatherers, then, to pastoralists, perhaps.

The Fir Bolg were overcome by the Tuatha de Danann (spelling varies, usually translated as ‘the people of Devon’), who landed in southwest England, among other places, but probably came from central Europe, perhaps the Iberian peninsula, or perhaps originated from much further East than that. The stories about them suggest they were tenacious, tough, and as unforgiving as the conditions they had endured to get to the islands of Ireland and Britain. The group divided into three, one of which stayed in Devon and founded a cultural hub there, possibly incorporating the culture that created Stonehenge. The second landed in south-west Scotland, in the region of Galloway. a distinctly beautiful and rugged area (my own ancestors come from here!) where they erected stone circles.

The third came here, to Erris, in north-west Mayo where they came to be known as the Gamanrad, and although they were as able to defend themselves as any crusaders, they came, primarily, as pastoralists, to herd, and they brought the calves (the name Gamanrad means the people of the calves), which, along with the native deer, they walked from pasture to pasture. They lived very well in Erris for at least a millennia, and they developed a rich cultural heritage here of tombs, songs, stories, but of these only the ragged threads remain, rewoven, subsequently, into myths and these simplified and in many cases prettified for children’s stories.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Fir Bolg took to their boats and sailed east. They got as far as Greece but there, they were enslaved. It may be that their name came from their time there: they were forced labourers, and carried bags of mortar or rocks for building work. The really interesting thing is that the same group of people returned to Ireland after a couple of generations in slavery (how many? I have no idea: enough to have only stories, but not enough to have lost the maps and directions to make the difficult journey). They returned to Ireland, where they found very few people (the Gamanrad had maintained themselves so sustainably that they had not thought to extend their range), and so the Fir Bolg are credited with having created the five provinces of Ireland.

Personally, however, I’m inclined to think that the Gamanrad were more influential than is given credit for: it is their myths that shaped the narratives of how people understood themselves in relation to one another and the land. Many of their myths cross the threshold between animism and polytheism. They understood the interconnectedness of all things (as early peoples had to do, perforce) and they developed a way of seeing from the perspectives of other animals, states of being (like waves, or rocks) and the courses of the stars. There is much to be learned from this light-stepping people whose mark on the land is limited to underground tombs, and the circles of stones that directed their ritual appreciation of the sun and seasons.

Notes, acknowledgements and references
I can’t recall now where I first heard the name Gamanrad/ Gamhanradh but my husband, Joseph, is very interested in local, particularly oral, history, and he first told me the story of the myth of Flidias, and of the great battle that took place on the coast near Belderra, where there was a ‘lake of blood’. I run along the headland very close to the mound which is said to be entirely composed of the skulls that are all that remain of the hacked off heads of those who were slaughtered in that battle.
Flidias, with beautiful hair, had a white cow. I had just returned from oral testimony collection among the Dinka among whom cattle are reverentially respected, in Turkana, and I had bought a gift of a painting of a Turkana woman milking a white cow that hangs over our bed. I liked the links. I contacted
Padraig Ó Macháin, Professor and Head of Modern Irish at UCC. He sent me a link to a paper by
Margaret Dobbs, ‘Who were the Gamanrad?’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 83 (1953)
I also read extracts from
A. H. Leary, ‘The Heroic Legends of Ireland’
James McKillop, ‘Dictionary of Celtic Mythology’
Prof Ruairí Ó hUiginn has just published a paper entitled, ‘The Gamhanradh’ which I have not yet managed to get a hold of, but hope to read soon

Posted in beer, biodiversity, Cork, early Irish history, Erris, Fir Bolg, Gamanrad, mythology, pastoralism | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

We need to update the epistemic sphere


We need to update the epistemic sphere to include the information that scientists have now provided that makes clear the human impact on the rest of the biosphere. Information that makes it clear that we have a shared global commons, shared not just with other humans, but with everything that exists on this planet. Denial, refusal to draw conclusions and accept whatever is going to happen as a direct result of our collective impact, is worth investigating, but it is nothing more sophisticated than denial, however well articulated. Of course, ideally we’d be doing something about it, but if we’re still in denial, let’s investigate the denial.

 

Humans are not exceptional on the planet. We are not in control of the biosphere and it does not, and never did, belong to us, as a species, and certainly not as nations. If we chose to continue to see ourselves in this relationship with what is around us, we are simply going to reap the harvest of such delusion. We do not own it. We do not control it. We can’t control it because we’re embedded in it (albeit at a very surface, late stage, and can easily, or fairly easily, be shrugged off). We depend on it. We are part of the very complex feedback systems and processes of the whole but it’s nought but arrogance to suggest that we will lead it to where we want it to go.

 

We are too many, a species in population explosion. We cannot be sustained by the systems upon which we depend at the population levels we currently exist in, and which projections indicate will rise further. We are rapacious, but we are not unlike other species in this regard. Numbers will fall. The population will crash. There’s no doubt about it.

 

We don’t have to just enjoy it while we can, though. We can also make the best of it that we can. If we can get a better perspective on our situation as a not particularly significant, though notably extravagant, and thus emergent, species then we can begin to approach the problem of continuing human survival and even ask whether or not this is something we want to pursue. When we actually get clear a perception of our relationship with the ecosphere, we will have a greater survival advantage. Whether or not this will be enough to ensure the survival of those aspects of our species that we have cultivated -linguistic artistry, art, culture, scientific, musical and even physical achievements about which we are so proud – is open to question. Whether or not the development of such extravagant emergence, considering its cost, was justified, is not something we can take responsibility for. Still, it might be a good question now that we have an awareness of it.

 

We’re odd creatures, really: abstract thinkers, wandering about extravagantly in our febrile imaginations, creating technologies that ultimately turned out to be the harbingers of our own destruction, fighting for different ideologies even as the globe groans under the weight of our overpopulous, overconsuming swarm. With all the tools – empathy, foresight, abstract thought, opposable thumbs – to get ourselves out of the crisis we’ve created, we nevertheless chose to focus on the trivia. Was it easier, somehow?

 

How does our human ability to cohere into groups and communities dictate what we believe, so we can make a mutual arrangement to understand a common meaning for ‘money’, or ‘justice’? Could we exploit this mutual mindplay so that a different set of common ‘wholes’ become commonly accepted, like understanding ourselves not as a species, but as a cluster of species (viral, bacterial, fungal, primate) within clusters of processes (ingestion, digestion, excretion, inhalation, exhalation) all of which affect us, and all of which we affect?

 

When whoever remains turns back to reexamine this period, if they still have the cultural skills (reading, the preservation of knowledge through the written word, the requisite leisure, education, and so on) will they wonder at the lack of effort made during our era to preserve those characteristics that count: generosity, patience, self-restraint? Will they forgive us? I don’t suppose they have much choice. But we do, don’t we? We can choose, now, simply through the practice of self-reflective awareness (as well as the continuing development of scientific knowledge, weighing its ecological impact and working towards cradle to cradle technologies) how to respond, even if the window of our options is growing smaller even as I write.

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Updating: current stage of research


I hope to update this blog today and tomorrow with what is currently the status of my research. I’ve developed a few ideas since finishing my PhD and would like to set these out for discussion. On the one hand, I would like to conduct various research projects, and I will either do these independently, or as part of an institution (which would be better financially, and probably in terms of how valid the research is seen to be, although there is no direct correlation). Secondly, I would like to find other ways of exploring, comparing and connecting some of the ideas I have already described. I hope to do this for two different audiences: firstly, for an audience of philosophers, because I think there is much work to be done on bridging the gaps in discussion between those who affiliate themselves to the different, and sometimes conflicting, philosophical schools of thought, or approaches. Secondly, however, I would like to make the research accessible for those with no philosophical training or background. To that end, I am in the process of reviewing what I’ve written, and doing some research to extend and explore how the ideas might be developed and modified, and then preparing some papers to encompass how this process is evolving. If someone happens to stumble across this, and feels like engaging in discussion on the papers, as they appear here, then I would be grateful for the opportunity to clarify any issues that arise.

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Let us just indulge ourselves in idealism for a moment.


Let us just indulge in idealism for a moment (in a purely hypothetical experiment). If people took full responsibility as a result of realising their agency, in the way that I have described, we would have no need for government, nor any need for a monetary system.
We would not see one another as separate individuals, and therefore we would not focus on defending ourselves (physically, psychologically) against one another. We would not concern ourselves with being unable to understand others’ views, or other ideologies, since we would realise that these emerge from context, and we could easily imagine that we, in a different set of conditions, might have arrived at these values. Nevertheless, given that we would be in the habit of discerning between narratives inherited as a result of particular context, and the ‘good’ of systems as seen from a rationally and scientifically enlightened approach, we would come to an overarching consensus on what kinds of activity to support and facilitate.
We would spend more of our time exploring freedom, ideas, and creativity, given the time and resources freed up from defence. We would concern ourselves with facilitating the lives of others and exploring how to develop deeper and more significant relationships, and less time contemplating how to pre-empt an attach from another. We would delve deeper into health indices (since the energy we would have available would allow us to spend more time on this kind of activity) and explore communication in far more creative ways.
Dealing with our impermanence would become a key feature of our world, and perhaps we could come to understand, and to live more fully, as we set out to embrace, the different stages of grief that a full realisation of death entails. We could come to relate to possessions and belongings in a completely different way, creating and sharing for the sake of well-being and self-expression, rather than for trade. We could, in summary, release ourselves from the repetitive cycles of suffering that characterise societies in so many ways. Being deeply aware and present to our own existence and its intimately relational nature would naturally lead to the end of wars, and of famines. It would end research for profitability, and create opportunities for research purely for the benefits of systems. Manipulation by advertising or propaganda would end: people would be far too secure in their own sense of themselves to feel the anxiety that advertising relies upon. A deep understanding that there is no ‘I’ in ‘this body’ separate from ‘you’ in ‘that body’ would change how we thought and experienced emotion. All talents would be expressed as gifts and available to benefit all. This would not imply that people could not, or would not want to, be alone: it would be perfectly normal and safe for individuals to spend as much time alone as with others. The pressure to conform to norms would be utterly eradicated. The full capacity of realisation would awaken everyone to the deeply enriching experience of being aware at each moment.
I am not an idealist, however.

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