Tag: pragmatism

Fifth three: a more detailed examination of respect and self respect

The relationship between self respect and the environment looks a lot like a psychological question. After all, self -respect looks like something to do with self-esteem, with an idea of how we value ourselves. It looks like it will relate in some way to how we’ve been brought up, and this is a sociological, rather than a philosophical question.

The philosophical aspect of the question is this: what if self-respect is reduced to one part of its meaning: what if we understand self-respect as the ability that consciousness has to observe itself and out of that impartial self reflection, the potential for developing self regard in the positive sense? How might that help us understand self-respect as more than a sociological or a psychological idea? And what if this idea could be linked to the idea that the respect we have for things that we look out at, as it were, also arises as a result of reflective, impartial (or reasoned) understanding?

David Middleton’s idea is that there are three types of self-respect (as opposed to Stephen Darwall’s two kinds). Darwall, and Robin Dillon, wrote extensively about the importance of understanding different kinds of self respect and I want to use their ideas as a foundation so that I can explore what it might mean to take away the moral aspect of respect (the idea that it gives us or anyone else a sense of moral value) and replace this with the idea, from Dogen, that recognising how we interrelate with other species, and, from Sampson and others, how we interrelate as energetic systems, gives us a different sense of recognition respect which is more open ended. There is still the idea of self-respect based on our actions, and this (appraisal, or self-appraisal respect) is hugely important in the context of being motivated and inclined to take one’s activities and involvement in the world seriously. After all, without any sense of having qualities that allow one to contribute positively, one quickly becomes depressed or apathetic. Nevertheless, I want to focus on appraisal respect from a slightly different angle to Middleton and I want to suggest that if we appraise ourselves in the broader context of how freely we are allowing energy to flow through the relationships and systems within which we are enmeshed, then I think we can take our understanding of self-respect to a level that encompasses a much wider range of possibilities, and which incorporates the idea of meditation, or zazen, as a means of allowing both the appraisal, and the loosening of existing matrices, to emerge. We respect ourselves by the act of meditation and we also open up the possibility of being able to respect our activities through meditation, because meditation creates an arena within which we can allow the possibility of different ways of relating to emerge.

I want to compare this with Arne Naess’ idea of self-realisation. I need to do more research into this idea, but I think that the basic concept is quite similar to that which I’m attempting to describe as self-respect. What’s important for Naess, and for me, is that self-respect gives the impetus for activity that expresses respect for the environment. If we don’t have this kind of self-respect, we can’t hope to show authentic respect for nature (I’d argue that we also can’t hope to show authentic respect for one another or the world around us).

What I have to say about Naess too, however, is that I think the self-realisation he talks about is rather restricted by what Maslow called, the heirarchy of needs. It’s far more difficult to develop self-respect when basic needs are not met, and this is an enormous problem in the context of the environmental crisis because when people feel as though they have no control over where to get their next meal, then their ability to reflect on the broader context of their existence dissolves. I don’t think this an insurmountable problem: the whole nature of this thesis is basically concerned with creating a critical mass, and Dogen’s idea that everything becomes enlightened when just one individual gets it, sees the whole picture, sees the interrelationships and has that ‘ah-hah’ moment, is quite positive. Of course we have to work for social justice. And each context demands a particular response (which is why this thesis isn’t concerned with morality. Morality depends on inflexible principles and can actually create the very kinds of disempowering attitudes – despair, guilt, apathy, depression, and so on – that develop when people think that they can’t do enough. Every little act is important. That’s the key. That means that all of us who start thinking about this have to develop a compassion towards ourselves and what is going on, so the fear, and the sense of hopelessness that might threaten to overwhelm us are allowed to flow through as part of the free flow of experience, but that we know that whenever, and however, we can make an effort to step back and encompass our experience using the perspective of respect, we are creating, or practicing, enlightenment.


I notice that the ads, like some kind of aggressive invading force, have found my websites. I wonder, idly, whether or not there might be any point in moving the whole shebang since other than paying for the privilege of ad-freedom, I can only imagine the situation is going to get worse. Make no mistake: I do not judge Russian Girls for attempting to find Dates, or Mates, even, particuarly if their lives hold little hope for them as things stand. I’m also guilty of having clicked on a potential Amazon Affiliates programme. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to Amazon: I don’t like the model in principle, because it carries all the hallmarks of any organisation that swallows all its smaller potential rivals and closes down interesting little bookshops. Then it fronts the popular, the cheerful, the bright and the branded and allows the niche market, the poets and philosophers (yes, Hello), to wither. Or perhaps it was ever thus. Anyhow, I will not be signing as an affiliate yet. It is part of the condition of being overly thoughtful (a characteristic that combines ill with my other vulnerability – a lack of self-respect) that potential opportunities are prodded and poked and scoured for association with greed, pollution, slavery, explicit cruelty to animals, destruction of fragile habitats , and the like. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much for my ilk to be going along with. Luck has kept me afloat so far but I’m reasonably atraid. After all, even Peter Singer, a huge influence on my undergraduate thinking, has admitted that he does not live as frugally as his philosophy advises. I’m no ideologue, but walking the tightrope between despair and destitution is challenging, particularly when you have involuntary accomplices, dependents who did not have a say in living like this and don’t have any qualms about eating a Big Mac or subscribing to X-Box live. Ah, well. Sun’s out. Must run.

Moving beyond the cultures of the global North: Zen

To understand ourselves and our potential to respond sufficiently intelligently so that the conscious decisions we make about how to live reflect our current understanding, we have to move beyond a dualistic account of ourselves as pitted against nature, at least in terms of our biology. Dealing with the interstice between our understanding of human agency and natural biodiversity requires that we focus instead on how we understand the relationship in cultural terms if we are to see whether alternatives are available. To do this, I will have to move beyond the cultures of the global North, and beyond dualism.

So far, then, I’ve attempted to describe how human agency both emerges from, and yet is firmly located within, nature, or, more accurately, natural biodiversity. I have attempted, too, to show that since decisions on how to live, while only gradually differentiating ourselves from the rest of natural biodiversity, nevertheless provide, through the medium of culture, a means of evaluating our decisions and responses. 

We can only decide what makes sense for humans, since humans are the kinds of things we are. Nevertheless, our (cultural) ability to reflect on our intricately interwoven Naturalness de-centralises the notion that only humans deserve consideration. It is precisely because we are human artifices that we have developed the ability to displace ourselves and see that we are part of a larger unit of interest – non-human Nature – that we can also respond to when considering what kind of life to lead.

In a sense, Taylor was subject to the limitations of his own time: more recent work on the interactions between organisms (Foulkes’ recent paper is a case in point) suggest that the DNA-identified boundaries of living entities are somewhat porous. Indeed, on close examination, it’s clear that “individuals” within the environment, while they have the status of entities in Taylor’s sense of having “good”s of their own, nevertheless also have deeply intricate and intimate relationships between them which require acknowledgment. Thus each living cell is itself consistent of not only one, but, as Grahame Parkes points out, several sub-parts, including mitochondria, whose evolutionary ancestry can be traced back to their independent existence as proto-bacteria. Part of the problem with individualist biocentrism is that it relies on a “human-sized” conception of what matters.

Humans and organisms at human scale are, to human eyes at least, quite evidently individual. No such inevitability exists at the microscopic or microbial level. If a non-anthropocentric approach is to be viable, it must be flexible enough to take into account the very small. It must also take into account the characteristic transience of our experience.

 Human agency requires an extravagant investment in imagination so that we can hold the dual conceptions both of human agency as a self-reflective awareness creating biofeedback systems, and the potential that this feedback offers in its empathetic application beyond the human. Individual living organisms don’t make good loci for conscious consideration. They are too transient, on the whole, and most are microscopic. If we are to include Nature within our sphere of consideration, then we can look for both a more contemporary understanding of non-human living entities that includes their relational character, and a more ancient one to compare it with, like the one painted in the metaphors and images of a particular view of Zen.


The Goulden Rule (arousing compassion for self, respect for natural others)

Natural biodiversity has, to date, been valued only to the extent that it provides a ‘resource service’ to humans, in other words, entirely instrumentally. However, a reflection on this view quickly allows us to understand that clusters of organisms act to achieve their own flourishing within naturally biodiverse systems and that this is entirely independent of whether or not humans value them. What, then, has valuing got to do with biodiversity?

We need to begin to develop a sense of intense curiosity about how the complex interplay of interests within naturally biodiverse systems plays out. In doing this we may, even if through the artifice of culture, come to a point where it becomes natural for our cultural understanding of nature to include an appreciation that it has its own rules of engagement that are not reliant upon human intervention in any sense. In face, deeper reflection still will show, on the contrary, that the whole edifice of human consciousness and human understanding is dependent on the functioning of biodiverse clusters of other organisms, and not the other way around.

Ronnie Hawkins commented that there is an unhealthy dependency within current predominant cultural forces in the centres of power, mainly in the global ‘North’, on ‘our left-hemispheric specialization in the abstract and the linguistic, and the signs of right-hemisphere disease (or atrophy?): neglect of a large part of perceptual space (we can plainly see our human takeover of the planet, but we look away from it), anosognosia (we deny that there’s a problem at all), and confabulation (let’s talk about the stock market!)”.

Every living organism lives as though the world centred, if not on itself, at least on its species. One fundamental difference between the human condition and that of other clusters of organisms, then, is that human are extravagant, in the original Latin sense of having wandered from the path of a pursuit of our own needs, to pursuing potential needs, or experimenting with what could become needs, with what are, essentially, ‘wants’ (again, I’m reminded of Larkin: this extravagance is not, in itself, either good or bad. It is simply a matter of fact. Larkin wrote a poem called, Wants which contains the line, ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.’ Quite apart from the wonderful rhythm of the line, the essence of what it expresses is the tension that is brought about by being in one situation, and having the urge to occupy another space (solitude, in this case). This tension is itself a kind of dualism, an awareness of there being other possibilities, and a natural curiosity, developing into a yearning, to be elsewhere.

Paradoxically, it is this very ability to occupy two spaces at once – the present and the conditional, the potential, that gives us the opportunity to practice just those activities that have allowed us to come to exploit or dominate other species. Wendell Berry gives the example of the restraint required when waiting for crops to ripen. This, in turn, gave us myths and legends to explain our place in the world (think, for instance, of the story of Persephone and Ceres as an explanation of winter, and also of the necessity of restraint: what if she had eaten twelve pomegranate pips?) It is the tension between being, as John O’Donohue describes it, and longing to be, or, be-longing, the longing to be a part of a bigger whole. We cannot join this larger unity because we ate the fruit of knowledge, we tell ourselves. The gap between this existence and the tension pulling us towards some unknown future that we can, nevertheless imagine (dream about, or dread) is the emergency: the stem of our ecological crisis. Emergent consciousness has created a distance from which to view the place we occupy in space but that very distance gives us a sense of alienation. We are strangers trapped forever in the possibility that there is something ‘other’ about ourselves. We have called this something a soul to give it an identity, or a mind because we cannot really understand how consciousness could occupy the same space as the physical realm we can quite clearly grasp, and this has allowed us the space to segregate our set of responsibilities, elevating the spirit and denigrating the flesh.

Now, however, it is time to deal with the emergency for what it is, a chimera, a ghost that is not alien at all, but simply the projected emergence of electrico-chemical activity brought about as a result of the kind of response to the web of conditions and relations we have evolved into. The closest practices that this practice parallels is the observational techniques used by Zen practitioners, specifically those described by Dogen Zenji when writing about the practice-enlightenment that comes about in sitting meditation.

What this practice allows is a space in which we can observe the relationship between perceptions and actions. We could call this, with Wendell Berry, “the middle ground” (after all, Buddhism is often called, “the middle way”). Berry outlines six elements that are realised when we take this reflective attitude:

  • We are tiny in relation to the wilderness in which we live.

Zen, paradoxically, by the process of observing the nature of the boundaries between entities and considering them until they dissolve into relationships, concludes that we are not tiny at all: or rather, we are so tiny, that we do not have any meaningful identity at all, except as points of perception that shift and fluctuate in an ocean of arising and dissolving connections. So we are neither tiny, nor huge. We are simply froth on the surface, soon to be reabsorbed;

  • This wilderness is the universe. We depend on it, yet it will kill us at some point.

Yet this wilderness does not exist as a separate realm from us, as points of perception. We are involved in it completely and it is inside us as well as around us (the biomass of microorganisms that coexist within us make up more mass than the DNA of our nuclei which we consider to be the blueprint for our separate selves). It is true that we have a continuum of identity in this regard. I can only pass on my own DNA, or some of it, to another generation: yet the virally derived ancestral RNA that also occupies my genes shapes the primate-derived expression, and so even in this sense, I am not fully separable as a primate, and nor are my offspring, physical or, more complicatedly, the words or art that might postdate me. Can it kill me, then? Undoubtedly, this point of perception, mobile as it is during the course of my biological life, will disappear at the point of death (or as near as makes no difference, I hope). In that sense, I will die. What will kill me is the necessity for energy to disappate, a process that I am a part of as much as any other element in existence. So, yes, this point of view will disappear and the clusters of organisms that located, albeit in shimmering dynamism, never all the same cluster, and never in one place for more than a few microseconds, will fall apart. This point of perception will never exist as a continuum again. This is death, no doubt, and it is brought about by the unfolding of the universe, and so yes, the wilderness will kill me. But I hope that this rather more complex explanation shows that this is not a simple, “them and us” statement. There is more interchange than that. And Zen reflection gives us images and ideas through which we can conceive of the interchange centred on emptiness. The wilderness will also die, in the sense that all energy will eventually dissapate. Nothing about the universe is permanent. This does not create immortality for ourselves but it creates a more integrated sense of the unfolding as being a more intimate affair than if it were just about a struggle to accept death.

  • We cannot solve the ‘problem’ of our endangered state. It does not have a solution.

The acceptance of death is an enormous task. We are inclined to resist it as a matter of biological fact. Everything about it repels us. Zen practice is entirely engaged in reflecting on this repulsion, the urge to move away from its consideration. By gently pulling ourselves back to the centre of its awareness, we change the quality of our relationship with it: it becomes suitable matter for reflection. The whole illusion that we are permanent has become so pervasive that we have suppressed an engagement with acknowledgment of mortality. It is the most vital and vitalising force we can harness: the fear that threatens to overwhelm us is the very impetus that will drive us towards a more integrated relationship with ourselves and all around us while we have a point of perception.

  • But we can live in harmony, more or less, with our native wilderness. We cannot achieve this harmony simply or easily but it can become, indeed it is, our life’s work.

This follows, too, from Zen practice: there is no nihilism in the contemplation of death. Rather, it is the motivating factor that shows where and how the realm of action is defined. There is only this uncertain moment. No security for any kind of future. Only this space and place in which we can engage with whatever we can do to make the best of what there is. Reflecting on the kind of activity that is available to us within this space, we may come across the insight that there is little we could have done about the point that took us to where we are now. If we consider the image of emergence again, we can imagine ourselves as sleeping creatures, waking to consciousness, but not freed, by consciousness, from the chains of activity, the electro-chemical, the organic, reactions that are bound to operate according to natural laws and the chance encounters that send us on various tangents from the central aim: to keep away death as long as possible. We are not free in any traditional sense, then. That, fortunately or unfortunately, was an illusion (and this is another reason why an ethical approach demands too much of us: we simply don’t have that much freedom). Yet, as Zen itself has illustrated and as countless practitioners have experienced, the very act of reflection itself creates another layer of emergent possibility. The emergency holds within itself the potential for another layer of reflective emergence: the emergence of observation of the very processes that are acknowledged to be inevitable are loosened when we realise that the very act of observation itself creates space for possible responses to open in alternative ways. This process requires huge effort. It is fragile: there are more processes threatening to pull us back into strongly conditioned reactions than there are processes that support our experimenting with alternative responses. Yet these possibilities open with the realisation that reflection sheds light on our reactions to date, showing us how the chains of cause and effect have interacted. It is a fragile tool. Push observational effort too hard and it collapses back into frustration, envy, fear or any other conditioned realm. Fail to practice and the very possibilities are never given space for generation. But find that “middle ground”, and create a consistent effort, and the glimmerings of potential begin to appear.

  • It is not possible for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively: we cannot intend our own good, in the long run, without intending the good of the place

Berry seems in perfect accord with the Zen approach this time. Except that in Zen, it is not “good” that is intended. Compassion arises as a response to the realisation of the conditions we find ourselves in. Meditation on our condition develops the awareness that we are an element of biodiversity, just as biodiversity itself is an element of the energetic unfolding of the universe. Its unfolding is our unfolding. Recognising that we are a subsidiary of it is the agent’s step we must take in order to fulfil our own understanding, and in order to develop the impetus to act with enough richness of intent for the larger wholes: biodiversity, the ecology, Nature, community.

  • ‘To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently practical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world. Practice can only be local’.

The point that Berry makes here is that it is impossible to live without using energy. We are ourselves energetic processes and the requirement for our continuance is that we take in energy. However, the Zen practice of reflecting on cause and effect, of seeing the karmic chains of activity within which we are bound loosening as we watch them open into potentials, possibilities, shows that there are alternatives in how we act on this knowledge. We must eat, but even when the push towards utility is strong, reflection on our intricately bound relationships with what we eat can move us to consider the process of killing and eating as a practice of respect. Dogen writes of respecting even the tools used for eating. The food itself is not sacred in any religious sense, in the sense that it is imbued with any magical ‘otherworldly’ spirit. But it is as caught in the karmic web as we are ourselves, and this enlightened view arouses compassion. We can create the potential for compassion in how we grow and source and kill and prepare the food we eat, and we can extend this to how we relate to all our relationships.

Something else needs mentioning here: as I said above, the push to reduce potentials towards a single option is strong. One of the most severe constraints is judgment. However, there are many serious conditional constraints, for very many people, including hunger and extreme poverty. When these conditions constrain, judgments harden the options into narrower and narrower possibilities. As Caroline Lucas said, we have to find solutions individually and locally, and on a “case by case basis”. Again, without the prejudgments of ethical dictates, this is a more flexible, more fluid attitude. The effort required is all the effort we can give, no more or less. While this is not clear, in the sense that a rule is clear, nevertheless, it is very particular to our own conditions. The Golden Rule does not apply since your condition and mine are never parallel. Nevertheless the impetus remains to do as much as possible to create an enlarged frame of reference, as often as possible, and with a commitment to continue to practice the reflective, meditative state that creates the space for potential to open. We can adjust our activities as the balance shifts. Practice-enlightenment puts us in a position to realise our activities within the interconnections that contain and create us, using the lodestone of respect.

  • ‘If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.’

Neither human good nor natural good are ideals we can strive towards. Instead, practice-enlightenment extravagantly enlarges the space within which we can imagine ways of living that allow us to encompass the human within the natural world, as both unfold.

We may need to work to repair relationships. In particular, there are biodiverse ecosystems that require our respect and active reparation even if our reliance as a species on their continuance is not clear. Biodiversity itself is part of the condition of our existence and any instance of it, particularly where it has evolved independently of human interference, indicates that we are ignorant of our connections and relationships, and so ought to pay particular attention to respecting it.

We and it – wilderness, nature, the other, the community – are not separate, nor are we entirely separable. Our systems depend upon and nuture other systems. An appreciation of our naturalness is a necessary part of any cultivation of the necessary attitude towards the environment which will allow us to emerge from this emergency mature enough to take responsibility for our role in the demise of natural biodiversity.

Fundamentally, as Stephen Jay Gould recognises, what we need to arouse in ourselves is a sense of compassion, but for our own state, and also for the relational state we are in with other species, and finally, for the fragile state in which the biodiverse systems are that have been affected by our impact:

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even […] the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts.

(S. J. Gould, Unenchanted Evening: 40).

I disagree with Gould about the Golden Rule, and I disagree that all depictions of nature, sentimentalised, anthropomorphised, treated with pornographic intimacy, on television programmes and in films, is either beneficial or justifiable or serves to create room for nature in human hearts that experience nature so vicariously. Yet the general point still stands: some sense of close connection of what we live within – the extraordinary abilities of plant roots to source nutrition in the soil, the lives of cells, the migratory patterns of birds – is the only impetus strong enough to motivate a change of heart. To hope that this could develop among human beings who are struggling for justice, against poverty, in slum conditions, where escapism through addiction or violence is the norm, may seem to be extraordinarily unrealistic. Yet, as I will propose below, the human animal is strongly predisposed to develop the capacity for love, of self or other, human and non-human. It is on this predisposition that the emergence from the ecological emergency can gain a foothold, given half a chance.

Introduction to Chapter Two

”Humans’ actions, regardless of their effect on other organisms, are natural and perfectly acceptable … we should be allowed to live out our ‘evolutionary potential to [our own destruction] because this is ‘nature’s way”


Watson, R.,quoted in Keller, D. (Ed.): 15




In discussing the background to environmental ethics, the last chapter sought to give an account of Paul Taylor’s biocentric outlook. The first chapter, then, was a clarifying, informative, over-viewing, scene-setting chapter. This chapter is focussed on how to address some of the problems that discussion brought up.

The second general issue that arose is that attempts to describe the issues in moral or ethical terms have created further layers of difficulty for dealing with the issues. This, the problem with ethical approaches, is another problem we will tackle in this chapter.

As I detailed in Chapter One, Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships?

Most controversially, Garett Hardin used this ethical characterisation of the response to defend his account of how we ought to react to the ecological crisis by limiting the sphere of moral duty to those within the “lifeboat” of the global North. This excludes the human majority upon whom the crisis is likely to have most impact and who have least control over material resources. Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility.

If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments.


Thoughts towards chapter two


“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating. For to cherish we must see and fondle and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Aldo Leopold

I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.

Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.

Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).

There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.

So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.

We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.

We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.