We are emerging into, and we are in relationship within, a set of profoundly threatening global circumstances. Underpinning this emergence (which, in its urgency, is best described as an emergency) is the interactive relationship between our beliefs (our personal understanding of the cultural, biological, and other circumstances that make up our context) and the narratives (including the myths that religion, technology, the media, and so on, repeat) that shape or challenge those beliefs. A particularly problematic aspect of this interaction is that attitudes are becoming more divergent among precisely those who are most carefully considering the responses we could make to what is emerging. In philosophical terms, this divergence manifests itself as debate between, for instance, continental and analytical approaches, or, within the debate on ecological catastrophes, between, for instance, doomsters and deniers. Within environmental ethics, instead of considering how to create a coherent response to the emergency, the focus remains competitive, argumentative, combative. This is a kind of complicity with the emergency, a kind of fuelling of an already dangerously inflamed situation. That is what this thesis addresses.
The first key idea I review is the idea that we have of moral agency. To do this, I focus on the work of a particular philosopher, Paul Taylor, whose ‘Respect for Nature’ hones in on the properties of moral agency, but who is also a radically egalitarian biocentrist, a perspective that is interesting in its own right. I extend Taylor’s agency within the context that he develops the idea and, in doing so, I find that the kind of agency we think we have dissolves into reaction, or responsiveness. I then consider the idea that agency could be moral and, again, because the centre of value, the agent, no longer has any substance in this larger understanding of evolutionary biology, the idea that the agent could be moral has no standing. However, I discover that there is one sense in which we still respond actively to the context, and that is in paying attention, becoming aware or, as I put it, realising. Realisation has two meanings and I exploit this ambiguity: by paying attention to the context, we both create a different kind of consciousness, a metasystem that interacts and reshapes all other systems (however minimally) within which it is contextualised, and we understand, or have a richer insight into, that context. This echoes, in some important senses, the work of Dōgen and other non-dualists.
The next major revision of our understanding that I think is required, and that arises from a materialist (or more accurately, a structural realist) view of existence, is the insight that, even without a moral basis for action, or a set of ethical principles to guide us, there are still inherent aspects of processes and systems that are ‘good for’, and therefore also those that are ‘bad for’, the systems we depend upon (and hence, for us). For instance, systems that block or obstruct the interchange of informational flow so that energy cannot gradually dissipate are ‘bad for’ the systems we depend upon (think radioactive waste, plastics). Systems that increase the flow so that there is a sudden drop in gradient are also ‘bad for’ the systems we depend upon (think deforestation, desertification through agriculture, overpopulation and any other systematic use of energy that sucks sustenance from all other systems until they collapse). Systems that graduate the flow of energetic dissipation – richly biodiverse systems, for instance, or systems that mimic biodiverse interrelationships – are ‘good for’ the systems we depend upon.
So, too, we can reflect on the way that we interact. We have only this narrow band of awareness that allows us to step beyond cause and effect, beyond inevitable reactivity and a space to consider our response, but this narrow band is all we need, just as the narrow band of atmosphere that rings this planet is broad enough to contain all the possibilities for all the lives of all who have ever evolved here. The way that we engage can also graduate the flow, through careful attention to our own interactions, to how we respond to our own thoughts, words, and emotions. This aspect of realisation, this mindfulness, gives us a way, in the sense of a practice, that has the potential to minimise conflict and the aggressive, combative kinds of interactions that will only increase the urgency of the situation. Realising the manner – the way – of our engagement is the only response we can actually consciously control and it takes great effort, but it is also instant, and it elicits deep compassion, humility and forgiveness. This is the paradox and ambiguity of the practice of realisation as agency: it is philosophy, the love of wisdom, and the wisdom of love, as a practice, both in the sense of a way of doing, and also in the sense of repetitive action in order to become more skilled at living in the a responsive, responsible, rich and rewarding way.