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.
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.
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.
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.