Entirely subconsciously, I started using the work ‘steps’ to describe the stages of the argument and then found that I had expanded them to twelve. Oh, well. Coincidence, I’m afraid.
First step: the prevailing paradigm within which we, humanity, currently operate (the paradigm of the ‘global North’) is dualistic and heirarchical. That is, we think of humanity as separate in quality (having souls, consciousness or other non-material attributes) and this allows us to justify a sense of superiority so that we prioritise human interests over those of the rest of the ecology. This has led to our current ecological crisis.
Second step: the prevailing paradigm has come about as a result of idiosyncracies in the development of human history/culture. In other words, it was not inevitable that the paradigm of the global North became dominant. It just did.
Third step: what we know now about evolutionary science indicates that the two central elements of the paradigm – dualism and heirarchical justification for prioritisation of human interests – are, neither of them, justifiable (sub-step: ironically, it is the development of dualism and hierarchical assumptions that has allowed us to develop scientific thinking – see Descartes, etc, yet this thinking has led us back to the realisation that a mechanistic view of the universe is inadequate).
Fourth step: therefore in order to better reflect our understanding through how we act, and so that we might stop damaging and destroying the ecological context within which we’ve developed and upon which we depend for survival, we need an alternative way of understanding the relationship between our species and the ecological context. We need to uproot the illusion that the world was made for humans.
Fifth step: one way that offers this alternative perspective is to consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we’ve used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response.
Sixth step: looking at our development from an evolutionary/ scientific perspective offers a better explanation for how we have developed and therefore needs to be central to any further response we make. Things simply are the way they are as a result of all that has happened. In this sense, we are no more ‘responsible agents’ than a rock is responsible for its current condition, or even than a plant is. Everything that has happened to take us to this point is perfectly natural and yet was never inevitable. We can ‘wake up’ to that and then see what level of agency we have in this context.
Seventh step: Part of our understanding of ourselves in the context of evolutionary science means accepting that everything, including humans, obeys natural laws as a matter of fact. Evolution has come about by chance developments that have nevertheless obeyed natural laws. Humans have come about in the context of evolution and chance or idiosyncratic opportunities have allowed particular developments to succeed and others not to, but all successful evolutionary developments obey natural laws. One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).
Eighth step: And yet there is a spectrum of response between ourselves, the plant and the rock that can be seen to operate according to the complexity of the available reactions. All processes respond to conditions, exchanging energy and information: it’s just a matter of degree to what extent and how complex this response system is. Consciousness gives us a level of ability to respond that involves an additional potential to influence the feedback processes through observation. We can see that we see and that can change how we respond. Observation or awareness of what we are doing is, in itself, a response.
Ninth step: Observation or awareness of this kind is closely comparable to the Zen practice of mindfulness, or meditation (here I describe parallels with the Soto Zen tradition). The potential for an individual to change the trajectory of his or her individual response to the current ecological crisis lies entirely in their ability to practice observing their own reactions. The very act of observation opens up the possibility of creating biofeedback processes that elicit different sets of responses. (substep: one aspect of this observation may accord further with our scientific knowledge if we can see that life is a dynamic dissipation of energy and that it has evolved at one edge towards complexity and diversity so that more niches have been filled and more energy captured in the process – I’m not sure I can justify this statement). So we can get better at responding to the ecological context by realising how embedded we are and that then may cause us to shift our responses from short-term, immediate gratification to broader consideration of the impact of our activity on all our relationships and contexts. We may see ourselves as embedded within systems, rather than as separate entities. However, there is no formula that says we ought all to do the same thing, or that reponses must be based on principle. This is the anti-meme, or anti-patterned, element to the response that is elicited by this practice.
Tenth step: A major criticism of this approach is that individual activity will not create enough of a shift to change the trajectory of the human-nature relationship. Community and political action is also necessary. But to be consistent with what has been said so far, any community or political activity will have a very different character from ideologically-based activity, being based, instead, on the notion of voluntary elicitation, non-prescriptiveness, and context-based response. The main thrust of any support for communities must be to find ways that communities can see themselves, individually and species-wide, within an ecological context. This may involve considering our activities as reflective of the activities of, not our ‘primate’ selves but of the interrelationship that we embody between virii, bacteria (both ancestral, like mitochondria, and concurrent, like gut-bacteria) and so may have implications for disease control, diet, and so on. It may involve considering the soil not as rock but as microbial ecosystem and systems in general as far more integral to our self-understanding than our current fragmented tendencies allow. It may involve developing technology that biomimics, or considering entire human manufacturing and processing systems as cyclical (cradle to cradle) along the lines proposed by William McDonough.
Eleventh step: Part of the practice of developing this kind of attitude may include becoming aware of the parallels between a evolutionary science-based understanding of our response to the ecological crisis, and the Zen practice of Zazen, Chan, or meditation. The act of watching oneself in the dynamic context of consciousness and ecology brings to light an awareness of the patterns that come into existence in thought and dissipate, the emotions that are triggered by similar patterns of activity. Some of these patterns can be rigidly repetitive and those tend to engender a sense of inescapable fatalism. In Buddhist terms, these rigid patterns are represented by the term, ‘karma’, and the idea of repeating the same reaction to similar sets of stimuli is well known in the behavioural sciences as potentially pathological behaviour (think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for instance). On the other hand, being able to reflect on the repetition of patterns of response itself develops the potential for a loosening of the inevitability of that repetition. Instead of being caught in an endless loop, the possibility emerges to situate the response in a broader context, so that new possibilities are explored and new patterns are created. This mirrors the very process of evolution itself where patterns are frequently subtly altered by the context and respond accordingly. ‘Evolution does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’, as Mark Twain might have said.
Twelfth step: It may also be useful to become aware of the parallels between our understanding of how patterns and relationships work in nature, and the human impact caused by rigid adherence to patterns. As outlined above, all activity, including all human activity, is natural, by definition. Even the most ‘permanent’ form will, at some point, yield to the second law. Yet rigid repetition of patterns occurs both in various contexts in the cosmos (very repetitive patterns and long-lived elements that cannot be broken down into their constituents might be examples here), and in the human situation. Human examples of the creation of rigid patterns include the development of plastics that cannot then be broken down for millenia, or the creation of radioactive waste. Seeing these in the context of understanding Zen teachings can help us to understand why an increasing awareness, a waking up to the impact of the creation of these more permanent, or rigid, forms is adding to the weight of what we must respond to. Seeing ourselves and our impact as impermanent and then working towards that impermanence may provide a more useful model than our current drive to make our mark on the world.