Intimate Ecological Engagement (Part 1)

Here is another piece that I wrote for a school assignment. I plan to expand it—deepening the study of each topic, relating it more to the work that we do in The School of Forest Medicine community, and by bringing in other viewpoints—and to incorporate it into the next book that I write.

Intimate Ecological Engagement and Our Collective Agency in the Face of the Unfathomable (Part 1)

Beginning with an invocation of gratitude, I acknowledge and honor all people, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, beings, and Mother Earth herself who have made this life possible. Gratitude is the foundation of respect, acknowledgment is the beginning of justice, and honor leads to dignity. May we all find the courage to bear witness to all beings, human and nonhuman, who have suffered traumas inflicted by modern western civilization and to those who are being and have been affected by capitalist/industrial and colonial systems of domination and oppression. Having said this I ask: How do we work to change these damage-inflicting patterns, and how do we work for the liberation of all life on this Earth and beyond?

The dominant industrial growth societies of this planet are altering the climate and destroying the bio-systems upon which all life depends. Our current human-centric modes of being make it virtually impossible to properly gauge the effect on and ultimately alter the way we relate to other-than-human beings and our environment. How do we make the necessary personal, cultural, and political changes that will guide and inform the transition from a human-centered way of being to an earth-centered orientation that respects the rights of all forms of life to freely exist and to thrive? If, as is becoming increasingly clear, the health and viability of our species, individually and collectively, is inextricably intertwined with that of every member and component of the Earth community, is it possible for humans to maintain our present orientation to the world?

Finding answers to these questions and more will aid the transition to a new eco-centric era. The answers that we seek will not come in the form of a todo list nor will we find our way out of our current situation while immersed in the old energetic patterns and old ways of being. Only a radical transformation of consciousness—a remembrance of previous modes of being rooted in the present moment—can prepare the fertile ground necessary for the continuing evolutionary unfoldment and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth.

Participating in this transformation which Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning and Thomas Berry the Great Work requires first and foremost deep work on the personal level. If we are to be present to and interact with the world with conscience and with integrity, we must examine our personal and collective relationships to shame, trauma, and modes of being counter to the understanding that all beings deserve dignity and respect. We have all been shaped and influenced by the cultures within which we have been raised, and we navigate our lives guided by many unconscious thought-forms and assumptions about the nature of reality. Even the way we conceive of “Nature” these days is steeped in dualistic thinking. Perhaps we ought to seek nature-culture (1) integration rather than strive for cultural transformation.

As I attempt to illuminate and explore this one small corner of the vast and often overwhelming state of interwoven planetary crises in which we find ourselves enmeshed, I am very aware that the issues involved are incredibly complex. Approaching the inquiry from the perspective of integral ecology, (2) we will explore the roots of western culture’s illusory philosophical detachment from the community of life, philosophical arguments for respecting the subjective experience and agency of nonhuman beings, the possibility of expanding our concept of personhood, different ways that humans can intimately engage with other beings and the role of vulnerability in this process, and the emerging integral mode of consciousness and how it is changing our relationship to and view of the interconnected worlds in which we live.

The Severing, Shame, and Empathy

How can humans achieve solidarity even among themselves if massive parts of their social, psychic and philosophical space have been cordoned off? Like a gigantic, very heavy object such as a black hole, the Severing distorts all the decisions and affinities that humans make. Difficulties of solidarity between humans are therefore also artifacts of repressing and suppressing possibilities of solidarity with nonhumans. (Morton 2017, Introduction)

What does it mean to be human? Where do we draw the boundary line where our individual beingness begins and ends in relation to the world “out there?” Can we be so sure that we are separate entities when our bodies contain just about the same number of bacteria as they do human cells? (Sender, 337-340) How do we distinguish and separate species? Is it a worthy endeavor to make these distinctions or to set a line of demarcation between what we call the living and the non-living? Why is it so important for some of us to believe that humans are the superior species on Earth or that we belong to a superior race? Do our racism, speciesism, and biocentrism share common origins—are they rooted in a fear of the wild, a fear of the other?

During the dawning of the Neolithic Age, around 10,000 BCE along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea when humans living there transitioned from primarily hunting, gathering, and nomadic modes of being to more settled, agrarian lifestyles, a form of consciousness arose which led to a sense of disconnect from the natural world. This dualistic conception instilled a perceived separation from nature and a more rigid distinction between the human and the nonhuman. “The Severing is a foundational, traumatic fissure between…reality (the human-correlated world) and the real (ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere).” (Morton 2017, Introduction). Previous to this and before the more recently emerged modern, mental-rational consciousness, our distant ancestors couldn't conceive of being separate from the ecosystems in which they lived. The plants, animals, rivers, and mountains, though perhaps not seen as co-extensive with humans themselves, were considered kin and were recognized as conscious beings by many cultural groups and still are viewed this way by many indigenous societies. (3) Rooted as they were in the physical and spiritual matrix of the lands where they lived, cultures formed as reflections of the relationships between humans, nonhumans (especially plants and animals), and the land itself.

We live now in a very different age with a completely different orientation informed by radically different modes of cognition, and we clearly can’t go back to the way things used to be. At the same time it is painfully obvious that we also can’t continue operating in the present human-centric manner. So how do we reconcile our recently developed (in the grand scheme of things) individualistic ego consciousness with the hard-to-deny reality that all life is interconnected and mutually interdependent?

Restoring proper modes of engagement with the Earth community and the necessary cultural forms starts with repairing the philosophical distortion engendered by the Severing because the way we act ecologically is dictated by the way we perceive our relations with the other-than-human, but it is important to recognize that this is not about humans granting rights to other beings. There is a certain level of arrogance encoded in this idea that belies the very human-centric viewpoint from which we are attempting to unwind ourselves. Looking back it may seem silly that at various points in our not-so-distant western industrial past, various people were excluded from the class of humans worthy of basic rights based on gender, race, hierarchical status, and sexual orientation. The justifications for exclusion have always been based on the concept of personhood. If you aren’t a person, you are out of the club. Today the concept of personhood is broadening to include “anything that has being, and who is therefore capable of relating” (Hall 2011, chap. 5, Plant Persons), and someday our descendants may look back and wonder how we ever have thought that plants, animals, and ecosystems were not persons worthy of the same respect and dignity as human persons. (4)

Shame, whose origin is recorded in the story of The Fall from the Book of Genesis, entered the human psycho-social sphere at the same time that our perceived division with nonhumans emerged. We might even consider that our shame and separation from nature are interwoven expressions of the Severing, and as such any attempt to restore proper engagement with the other-than-human ought to include the healing of shame which “typically evokes social withdrawal and avoidance and severs [emphasis mine] interpersonal connections.” (Dorahy 2010, 653) What might this healing look like? Referencing the work of Brené Brown, Steve Safigan writes “that empathy and shame are on opposite ends of a continuum. Shame results in fear, blame (of self or others), and disconnection. Empathy is cultivated by courage, compassion, and connection, and is the most powerful antidote to shame.” (Safigan 2012) Is it possible that developing our capacity for empathy can transform our relationship to shame and help restore a sense of connection with the community of life?

Read Part 2

Endnotes

 1 “In modern thought…‘nature’ only has meaning when set in opposition to human works, whether one chooses to call these ‘culture, ‘society,’ or ‘history,’ to use the language of philosophy and the social sciences, or ‘anthropized space,’ ‘technical mediation,’ or ‘oikumene,’ to use a more specialized terminology. A cosmology in which most plants and animals share all or some of the faculties, behavior, and moral codes ordinarily attributed to human beings is in no sense covered by the criteria of any such opposition.” (Descola, pp. 7-8)

2  “Ecology is typically defined as the study of relationships between organisms and their environments. Although this definition is correct, it does not tell the whole story. More specifically, it does not account for what can be described as integral ecologies—a variety of emerging approaches to ecology that cross disciplinary boundaries in efforts to deeply understand and creatively respond to the complex matters, meanings, and mysteries of relationships that constitute the whole of the Earth community.”. And “learning about integral ecologies is important not solely because it is required for a comprehensive understanding of ecological fields of study. It is also important because of the commitment of integral ecologies to respond to the critical urgency and gravity of current ecological, or more generally, planetary, problems. Humans and the entire Earth community are facing an unprecedented situation that involves many interconnected crises affecting the natural environment, social institutions, and human consciousness, crises such as freshwater scarcity, the mass extinction of species, global climate change, ocean acidification, economic instability, poverty, sexism, racism, alienation, despair, and fragmented knowledge.” (Mickey p. 1 and pg. 2)

3  See Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World and Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

4  New Zealand’s Whanganui River was granted legal personhood in 2012 (Vines 2013), and in April 2008 the “Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH)…presented [a] report: “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants: Moral consideration of plants for their own sake” in order to comply with the “Swiss constitution [which] maintains that the dignity of creatures should be respected.” (Koechlin 2008, 78-79)

References

Berry, Thomas. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Bell Tower. Kindle.

———. 2006. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco: Sierra Club books. Kindle.

Bird‐David, Nurit. 1999. “‘Animism’ Revisited.” Current Anthropology 40 (S1): S91. doi:10.1086/200061. https://resources.ciis.edu:2258/doi/abs/10.1086/200061.

Chaudhuri, Haridas. 1977. The Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Collins English Dictionary. n.d. “Vulnerable definition and meaning.” Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/vulnerable.

Cullinan, Cormac. 2011. 2nd ed. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. Devon, UK: Green Books.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle.

Dorahy, Martin J. 2010. "The Impact of Dissociation, Shame, and Guilt on Interpersonal Relationships in Chronically Traumatized Individuals: A Pilot Study." Journal of Traumatic Stress 23 (5): 653-656. doi:10.1002/jts.20564. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=54591997&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1995. Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser. Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing.

Gebser, Jean. 1985. The Ever-Present Origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Hall, Matthew. 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany: State University of New York Press. Kindle.

Harvey, Graham. 2006. Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Koechlin, Florianne. 2008. "The Dignity of Plants." Plant Signaling & Behavior 4 (1): 78-79. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2634081/.

Mickey, Sam, Sean Kelly, and Adam Robbert, eds. 2017. The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era. Albany : State University of New York Press. Kindle.

Morton, Timothy. 2017. Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Brooklyn: Verso. Kindle.

Plotkin, Bill. 2011 “Inscendence—The Key to the Great Work of Our Time: A Soulcentric View of Thomas Berry’s Work.” In Thomas Berry, Dreamer of the Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism, edited by Laszlo, Ervin and Allan Combs, chap. 5. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Kindle.

Safigan, Steve. 2012. “Shame Resilience Theory.” Accessed 4/9/18. http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/steve-safigan/2012051622128

Sender, Ron, Shai Fuchs, and Ron Milo. "Are we really Vastly Outnumbered? Revisiting the Ratio of Bacterial to Host Cells in Humans." Cell 164 (3): 337-340. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.01.013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2016.01.013.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Vines, Timothy and Bruce, Ven. Alex and Faunce, Thomas Alured, “Planetary Medicine and the Waitangi Tribunal Whanganui River Report: Global Health Law Embracing Ecosystems as Patients” (March 19, 2013). Journal of Law and Medicine 2013; 20: 528-541. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2235935

Weston, Kath. 2017. Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World. Durham: Duke University Press. Kindle.