Summary of Chapter Three

All the clearing away of chapter two is really a way of creating space for some positive suggestions and that is the work of chapter three: to create a framework for understanding how we can imagine and talk about agency if we see ourselves as enmeshed. And then to see how we can still make decisions – not moral or ethical decisions, mind you, but decisions nonetheless, or at least discernment – about what is ‘good’ (and so what is the right thing to do: I get perilously close to an ethic here but I make every effort to show that I am not talking about ‘good’ in a moral or ethical sense but in a relational, or instrumental sense).

The human capacity for self awareness as something that is both within the mesh and yet able to perceive itself and its enmeshment. This ability to perceive ourselves and the systems of our enmeshment is our agency. This is because the activity of seeing oneself as observer, and also as a network of interactions, acts as a ‘metasystem’ that then interacts with other systems. This parallels Dōgen’s idea of ‘practice realisation’ and so I call this ‘agency as realisation’: realising is making real, or manifesting, or bringing into existence, and it is also understanding, or becoming clear about the connections between, or being clear on. There is quite a mine of literature and thinking on this in the Asian traditions of thought and I refer to those in this section to draw out the idea of agency as realisation but I also refer to the idea of agency in its different sense, in the sense in which we are enmeshed and responding within systems and so are much closer and more intimately linked with systems that are not self aware. Our awareness is only a tiny element of what we are. Our agency, in the sense of our capacity to realise, is quite limited. It requires an effort, work, and perhaps even a certain amount of leisure, to look at things in this way. It’s not always easy and as the pressures increase on us, on other systems, our ability to claim this capacity is squeezed. The emergency is threatening this capacity (and yet it will always be there, because of the kinds of creatures we are).

That is the first point of this chapter. The second is the idea that our understanding of physical systems, and of ourselves as physical systems, gives us an idea of what is ‘good for’ those systems. This is an extension and revision of Taylor’s idea of ‘the good’ of systems so I am heavily beholden to him for the inspiration, but it takes the idea beyond Taylor’s because I am no longer talking about an ethical or a moral ‘good’. I am talking about a relational ‘good for’. Systems themselves proceed in a particular, regulated manner, according to physical probabilistic laws, like the laws of thermodynamics. Among these, the most salient is the second law, the idea that systems dissipate as much energy as possible in order to reach a state of entropy. Living systems can be seen as processes of energy dissipation and informational exchange. These processes are not linear (probabilistic processes never are) and the very complexity of biodiversity develops out of this process. Biodiverse systems graduate the flow of energy so that as much dissipation as possible can take place. ‘Good for’, in this sense, is instrumental, not inherent. By the same token, if energy is blocked and unable to participate in informational exchanges, unable to be dissipated, then conditions are ‘bad for’ systems. Biodiversity loss, the production of plastics, the loss of habitats through desertification and deforestation, are all ‘bad for’ systems by this analysis since systems can no longer graduate the flow of energy either because energy is blocked, or else because it cannot be filtered through systems and is lost. To realise our agency in the context of the ecological emergency, then, is to turn our attention to realising what is ‘good for’ the systems of our enmeshment.

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