Tag: ecological emergency

Update on thesis outline: twelve steps…

 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.

Thesis outline: Reality tells us what we need to do: responding to the ecological emergency

There are a lot of us questioning current approaches to the ecological crisis. None, so far, have succeeded in altering the trajectory towards climate chaos, biodiversity destruction and mass extinction, pollution and other symptoms of the crisis.

My own view is that externalising the problem is the problem. This thesis is therefore an attempt to show how we might understand philosophy as a personal practice, what that practice might involve, and how we might combine Zen and the scientific method to understand what we realise through the activity of practice.

Practice in this context is the active process of self-reflection, along with an objective consideration of ourselves as natural, evolved beings. This process of observation creates a feedback loop that can involve compassionate non attachment emerging as a response to the realisation of respect, interdependently with self-respect.
There is no soul beyond activity, soul is animus, movement is all we are and the activity of observation is also movement, the movement into reflection.

Self respect is the activity of becoming compassionate for the state we are in. Self respect is all the agency we have. It is the capacity to realise interdependencies, to understand them, and for layers of feedback to emerge.

Emergent information flows shift the possibilities for responding. We can be motivated to act, without attachment to the outcome, in observing our interactions. This is all we can do: observe and see how observation changes things. Our activities, taking place with this awareness, incline us towards compassion: we are pitifully entangled. So is everything.

It is a huge effort to step back, observe and allow the cycles of matter and energy that make up the biodiverse ecology of which we are a part to flow freely. It will bring us no glory. We cannot control what it will change. Yet it is all we can do to reduce suffering. Reducing suffering is responding to the ecological emergency. It is also responding to ourselves.

Naturally Biodiverse Clusters are Social Constructs, too

‘Naturally Biodiverse Clusters’ are as much a social construct as any other culturally relative concept. They depend on the cultural history that has developed and allowed the flourishing of the scientific method, and ultimately, of the understandings of evolutionary biology. By recognising that we are reliant on the living energy systems beyond human culture for our own survival, we come to the realisation that it has been through suppression of the drives to excessive use and mindless self-satisfaction that we have come to have a culture, and therefore, in this sense, to cultivate, both ourselves and the naturally biodiverse clusters that are our source of identity.

Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud. “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”

The age of extravagance is, in this sense, over. ‘No!’ shout the NaySayers: we will go on adapting the physical world to our needs indefinitely. We have been to the Moon. We may be able to live in a space station, or on another planet. The Universe has more than enough physical material for our need into the most far imagined future.

But this attitude of continuing exploitation fails to take into account that we are, beneath the primate surface, NBCs. Perceiving the environment as a resource to be exploited, whether that environment be the planet, or some larger context, we lose sight of the interdependence of our identity with other species and with relationships to other, living and non-living, aspects of existence.

While it may be possible that some small percentage of the species could generate enough of an artificial environment to continue to exist elsewhere, the issue stands out starkly: at what cost to the cultural development of the species? By the very same token that we are reliant for our flourishing on an acknowledgement of the interdependencies we are enmeshed within.

It is an illusion that exploitation has allowed us all to flourish and succeed. There is evidence to show that exploitation only ever helped a few and, proportionately, a smaller few as time went on, not that it is the answer to the kinds of questions that the current emergency raises. While Garrett Hardin reaches the opposite conclusion through a dualistic approach, if we can accept the findings that modern evolutionary biology, we must also realise how inadequate attempts to restrict the sphere of consideration are going to be (not to mention the findings of Elinor Ostrom that directly contradict, using empirical data, the theoretical assumptions made by Hardin).


There are various obvious limitations to this discussion, some of which I am aware of. Firstly, while I discuss some of the reasons why it is preferable to move the centre of consideration from humans to an ‘allocentric’ or non-anthropocentric perspective, I do not defend this from the point of view of an ethical position. This is because I have moved, recently, from considering the problem as one of environmental ethics – a position that I seek to show creates more problems than it resolves – to a position of pragmatism. I do, of course, give space to a discussion on the move from an ethical to a pragmatic position. In the same vein, there is extensive material relating to the relationship between inherent worth, inherent value, intrinsic worth, intrinsic value or any combination of the above, and moral considerability. when I began this work, I relied largely on the work undertaken in the 1970s by Richard Routely, amongst others. Their position was that the relationship between a locus of value and its moral considerability is, if not a logical, at least a rational one. This has been the focus of the thinking of several writers and I have little to add, except to say that the pragmatic position I take also posits a rational relationship between the act of responding to understanding and information, and the act of understanding from a non-dualistic position.

I don’t defend in any detail the idea that there is an environmental crisis being played out on the planet, nor that human impact is largely responsible for this impact. While these are contested issues for a considerable proportion of the population, I think that empirical evidence can either be accepted or rejected and I am not interested in continuing that particular discussion. The one area I do investigate in detail is the relationship between agents, on the one hand, and what Paul Taylor called “patients”, on the other.

The significance of my own argument is that it continues the attempt, made by several writers (notably Graham Parkes, but going as far back as Arne Naess, and including Callicott and Ames, among others) to consider philosophical foundations for proposing an alteration in the attitude of the human species to its relationship with the non-human world. The first attempt was to reverse some of the standard thinking on locus of value, and to address some of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the human response to the environmental crisis through approaching the problem as an ethical one. I argued that if the current programme of attempting to resolve the crisis of biodiversity and habitat loss, pollution, and so on, is centred on what is of value to humans alone, then there is no strong reason for considering organisms which are not directly of value to humans and their plans. This means that while an environmental ethic can be developed which will attempt to save the pandas, because they’re pretty, or allow for the reintroduction of sea eagles, because they’re noble, there will be no attempt to analyse the soil and learn about how systems work for their own sakes. More strongly there will be no reason to allow parts of the world to remain completely free of human intervention. There will be no reason to attempt to restore biotic systems because they are rare, or unique (unless scientific curiosity gives a reason). There will be no reason to respect or treat with care biological entities which one comes across. It will not matter, unless it is seen to matter to human interests (in other words there may still be arguments made for not treating some sentient creatures like machines, since the ill-treatment of fellow sentients may have an effect on the moral development and behaviour of human to human interactions, as Jeremy Bentham memorably argued). The approach that centres its justification for how humanity relates to the non-human world on the grounds of what is of interest to the human species will, in the end, backfire as an attitudinal stance, since not enough will be required of the species to mitigate the impact of activities that have been damaging to biosystems to date, and not enough is required, from this point of view, to solve the difficulties that this attitude will continue to create. The difficulty is how to create a strong enough impetus untangle the level at which we treat one another and other species as ends in themselves from the level at which we see ourselves as moral agents, with all the privileges and demands that such a perspective gives us.