Earth News: More than News of the World
Beginning of the Year Special edition
January 10, 2017
Mosaic of a Complex System: Craig K. Comstock.
As a person of joyful disposition, I thought it would be good to begin the year on a hopeful note, and the series I have been writing is an attempt to do just that. This entry is a particularly good example of something to marvel at, and to put humans in their proper place – not an easy feat!
And remember, to deny the insights of this new science is probably to prove it right!
The Biology of Wonder
This coming revolution in the “natural” sciences first caught my attention when I came across Andreas Weber’s aptly titled new book, The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. Another illuminating read has been Stephen Harrod Buhner’s 2014 book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of the Earth. On how animals fit into the new science, two recent books that have caught my attention just now are Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, and his reviewer, Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
The ways these works dovetail with spirituality – indigenous cosmovisions of Pachamama/Mother Earth, Gaia theory, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, Buddhism, and other traditions that open up a space for the wondrous and consider the possibility of the miraculous – offer us a profound and viable hope, yet again, for a science of radical social transformation.
It is also a stunning and to my mind compelling critique of the limits of Enlightenment thought and of modernity itself, of the putative objectivity, authority, and neutrality of science, and of the human-nature-culture triad that we have misunderstood so badly due to our own arrogance vis-à-vis nonhuman life in all its forms. As Andreas Weber and Hildegard Kurt put the matter in today’s essay:
If reality cannot be objectified, a value-free and neutral science is not possible. Our conception of the world determines how we treat it and how it changes. Accordingly, any position that assumes an objective, timeless, and value-free description of reality or a part of it is a violent self-authorization. Any seemingly neutral and presumably objective attitude cements invisible structures of power. Knowledge is not objective when produced in this manner; it is valid predominantly in the sense that it stabilizes the system from which it arose.
Any knowledge is already an implementation of certain standards of treating the world and each another. The task of living together on this planet therefore requires being attentive not only towards theory, but also toward scientific practice. When does science only produce results to satisfy the inner demands of a knowledge industry? When does it legitimize political, economic, or technological interests? We need to carefully scrutinize all reifications of scientific thinking and refrain from them in order to help science become more an authority that serves the unfolding of aliveness and helps humankind develop a self-understanding as selfhood-in-connection.
Linking science and spirituality more closely to our own and others’ worlds, and seeing these entangled worlds through the lens of poetic objectivity is challenging – and humbling – stuff.
And this essay, excerpted from the summer of 2016 offers a short, eloquent introduction to the new biology of wonder. I’m especially curious to know what those in the sciences think of it. Enjoy!
Spring | Summer 2016
- The current ideology of dead matter, mechanical causality, and the exclusion of experience from descriptions of reality in ecology and economy are responsible for our failure to protect aliveness in our world.
- The challenge of the “Anthropocene” and the end of dualistic enlightenment-style thinking is to install a new “bios” into our concept of reality, putting aliveness, the world as a living process of mutual transforming relationships, subjectivity, and expression, at its center: an “Enlivenment” view.
- The scope of the “Enlivenment” perspective equals the shift in modern physics realizing that any observer is entangled with the system being observed. Biological entanglement happens emotionally and experientially through sharing aliveness with and relating existentially to other living subjects.
- Findings in the life sciences, particularly in biosemiotics, cognition research, and developmental biology, show that it is necessary to view organisms as goal-directed agents, who bring meaning and experience into the world as physically relevant powers.
- We need a “policy of life” as a new political-philosophical attitude to make “deep sustainability” possible. It will supplant the idea of reality as iteration of “empirical facts” by an “empirical subjectivity” of shared aliveness and a “poetic objectivity” of describing and practicing relatedness and mutual transformation.
Enlivenment in Brief
Enlightenment thinking is coming to an end. The “Anthropocene” claims to step beyond the dualism of man-nature opposition. Culture is everywhere. This might be an opportunity for sustainable action: Saving nature becomes a cultural endeavour. However, the salute to anthropocene stewardship masks the silent enclosure of life within technoculture and bioeconomy. Civilization still operates as if reality is about organizing inert, dead matter in efficient ways. It is impossible to achieve sustainability with our prevailing “operating system” for economics, politics, and culture if the underlying “bios” – our unconscious assumption about reality – remains tied to an ideology of dead matter. On a profound level, nature is threatened by ignoring the principles of fertile, imaginative interpenetration, which shape existence. The real opportunity of the “Anthropocene” is to create a new bios for our thinking – an Enlivenment. This means to understand that man and nature pertain to a reality creating embodied processes of transformative relationships, expressive meaning, and true inwardness in biological subjects. The scope of the “Enlivenment” perspective is comparable to the shift in modern physics which realized that any observer is entangled with the system being observed. Biological entanglement happens emotionally and experientially through shared aliveness with other living subjects. The according “policy of life” strives for a civilization in which institutions and economic practices follow the maxim that life shall be. A policy of life struggles to liberate subjects from the colonization by the ideology of dead matter, granting them the right to embodied agency and to meaningful experience. This is not easily achieved, as it requires a deep change in our perception of reality. The “bios” of “Enlivenment” will require a long-term commitment comparable to the struggle for universal human rights….
A ground-breaking new vision of humankind is quickly spreading into the mainstream of our self-understanding. We are no longer standing apart from nature, so the new belief goes: We are enmeshed in it. Some authors even assert that nature and humans are one and the same. This comes not just as a philosophical claim but rather as an empirical realization. The cultural image man has of himself has become a scientific issue. Traces of pesticides, nuclear fallout, and nitrogen fertilizer can be found in the Arctic ice crystals and in the soils of the Amazon. Climate change has proven that humans are inescapably connected to Earth and its systems.
These are the signs of the “Anthropocene,” or, as some call it, the geological “epoch of humankind.” “Anthropocene” was first coined as a geological term by atmospherical chemist Paul Crutzen. He argued that the extent of human domination over the biosphere has abrogated the idea that nature is separate from humans, thus ending the Holocene.
We still need to fully realize that the change in the geologic calendar named by Crutzen has heralded a distinctly new cultural epoch. In this new age, which has just begun, nature and mind are no longer separate. The duality between nature and culture, which stems from Enlightenment thinking, has been overcome, and this is big news. Dualism, which determined our thinking and actions for 250 years, has ended. The Enlightenment is over….
In one respect, we should feel relieved. The split in our thinking that opens between nature conceived as soulless resources and human agents as the rational actors was what started the ongoing environmental catastrophe, which includes global warming and the current “sixth extinction” wave of species loss….
Relief, however, is not due. The reconciliation between humans and nature, which is held by many who favor the Anthropocene viewpoint, takes place as a universal victory of culture, negating the possibility to understand and protect life and aliveness. What is saluted as the end of dualism is a hidden new self-aggrandizement of humankind, an attitude that again threatens to convert nature into a project of cultivation and control. Psychologists call such a situation a “double bind,” that is, to assert something but to do the opposite.
The philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno had pointed out this blind spot 70 years ago when criticizing Enlightenment-style thinking at the time. Horkheimer and Adorno claimed this thinking to be as “totalitarian as any system” and argued that its “untruth” lies in the fact that “the outcome is decided from the beginning. The world-rulership over nature turns against the thinking subject itself.” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote their analysis more in the first half of the last century. But has the situation really changed?
Leading proponents of the Anthropocene still interpret connections as “distinction-and-domination,” and reconnecting with other living beings is performed as a dominance of humans over everything, even over ourselves. If all life is understood as culture, human superiority over nature has not ended. Instead, the human sphere has pervaded nature by a sort of hostile takeover.
Many proponents see the Anthropocene as revolutionary change. But much of its concepts thoroughly clutch to industrial modernism in the image of Homo faber, which controls nature by technical means. Current thinking increasingly emphasises all agency’s artificiality and “createdness.” The “cyborg,” even the “monster,” has become an often-used metaphor to understand our relationship with reality.
Though the bias toward technical control has superficially changed its face, it has endured in the depths, leading to an overall celebration of “hybrid structures” that reflects a profound bias towards the human-created artifact, such as consciousness enhanced by data interfaces, or ecosystems that have multiple roles as species museums and high-yield agricultural fields.
The idea of the Anthropocene as an epoch of humankind is giving new force to ideologies of objectification, manipulation, and control, whose true scope hides behind optimism and the “cool” rhetoric of communal eco-technological endeavours and “win–win” situations. In the wake of such marketing, industrialized countries are able to abuse the myth of a reconciliation between nature and technology in order to advance profit-oriented bio-economics, exploit global technology markets, and reify the economic and agrotechnological predominance. As has long been observed, such a move is even exemplified in the very term sustainability: from its origins as an eco-social concept, it has since mutated into a mere advertising catch phrase.
Even the “green economy” is stuck in this attitude. The monetization of nature, and the creation of leveraged financial instruments from “ecosystem services,” has put the green economy on the path toward privatization and scarcity, thereby obscuring the subjective dimension of living nature, and taking away a community’s right to enter into meaningful relationships with their environment.
If we believe that humans and nature can only be reconciled when technology dominates the Earth, and if we could admit presumed reconciliation, because we now have convinced ourselves that nature always carries a cultural stamp, we are prevented from seeing that every material exchange transforms the imaginative space of this world. We still disregard the interior and meaningful dimension of everything alive….
Toward More Aliveness
Most of the problems of our culture have a common origin: We view reality as dead. The economic, political, and educational mainstream see a world made of simple, nonliving building blocks. We can be enhanced – without limit – by analyzing the underlying elements and reconstructing them using technological, economic, or ecological means.
However, scientists increasingly understand reality as a meshwork of mutually transformative and meaningful relationships, which are experienced by subjects. From this vantage point, creativity and poetic expression, which since historical modernity was previously only reserved for the cultural sphere, become fundamental elements of reality.
This approach is not utopian. It is starting to find root in the current revolution of biological thinking, similar to the revolutions in physics roughly 100 years ago through relativity theory and quantum physics. Humans and nature are one, because creative imagination and feeling expression are natural forces – the only way to unite the lone spheres of matter and culture….
To preserve the biosphere, we need to focus our actions on the image of a living reality. We need to conceive a new “bios.” On the most profound level, nature is threatened not only by the disruption of bio-geo-chemical circulation and species balances, but also by ignoring the principles of fertile, imaginative interpenetration, which shape our existence. Traits of this threatened but necessary aliveness are openness, diversity, potentiality, the exchange of gifts, transformation, and the existential paradox of isolation and unity.
Experiencing the world as alive helps us to rethink our relationships to other humans, to other beings, and to matter. We can stop fashioning these connections into a means of exploiting resources. We will only decently survive the Anthropocene by realizing that humans not only pervade nature but consist of something not consciously made by man: a self-organizing aliveness profoundly enmeshed with ecosystems in terms of metabolism and metaphor.
The creative power inherent in reality cannot be turned oﬀ. To misjudge or disregard it, as we have done and continue to do, is dangerous and ultimately destructive for life. Ignoring reality always will generate violent encounters with it. Therefore, the most important task in the Anthropocene is to rethink and regenerate aliveness….
Science as a Practice of Empathy
The scientific community has a crucial task of re-shaping the relationship between humankind and the remainder of creation. Climate change has demonstrated how scientific methods are indispensable in the search for new ecological standards, and these methods have always shown our interrelatedness with nature, even when we believed otherwise.
Meanwhile, throwing more and better scientific techniques to resolve all open questions has proven futile. What we can “know” has structural restrictions – reality is not a closed system. We are giving up the idea of a biology that follows linear and objective laws, like in Newtonian physics. In biology, as analogous to quantum physics, the researcher is entangled with his research subject, although this entanglement is not quantum but experiential. Both are alive and connected in an emotional relationship….
In the Anthropocene, any form of science must consciously incorporate its particular values and interests, as well as explicitly naming them. It must reflect on its inevitable entanglement and creatively work upon it. Instead of producing merely functional knowledge, science should also focus on meaningful orientation, thereby carefully observing the world not from the perspective of a cybernetic system, but also as a meshwork of relationships with the power to bring forth aliveness. Through this, a culture of meaningful connection between humans and the remainder of creation can arise. It can be conceived as an art of embodied consciousness, as an ecological “Art of Living.”…
A policy of life preserves the necessary Enlightenment values – such as individual dignity, justice, and equality – while reconnecting them with their roots that rest in the co-creativity of everything alive. It does not substitute rationality with life but regards it as the quest to unfold a culture that is aware of, and responsible for, the potential imaginative aliveness in all living things.
A policy of life searches for alternatives to the dogma of growth and addiction to consumerism. It does not seek technological control but pursues the creative negotiation between equal participants in an ecosystem that all need to preserve. It strives to promote the experience of aliveness. It creates economic productivity through ecological stability and meaningful actions.
A policy of life strives for the following:
- A global ecological agriculture, which secures yields by enhancing biodiversity and human existential experiences (meaning and joy); which integrates and does not separate.
- An economy that does not support the “use” of resources in a “market” built on “objectivity” and separation but enlarges the possibilities to participate in a shared planetary metabolism of commons economy and is guided by an understanding of economic exchange as the shared household of the biosphere.
- A culture that no longer functions according to the income-generating model of private economics but participates in a cocreative process of production.
- A biology that understands organisms not only as ecosystem-service providers and molecular toolboxes but also as creative subjects, and which sees humans as a metabolic part of a biosphere enmeshed with life and feeling.
- An education that teaches an Art of Living and Connection; that does not follow only a standard of abstract knowledge, functionalistic technology, and “dead world” thought; that reduces valuations and judgements.
- A policy that understands regional administrative entities as self-organizing commons and does not follow rules of universal abstraction and selfish market interests.
- A shared livelihood with other beings in line with the South American creation ethos of “Buen Vivir“ or the idea of “Conviviality“ by Caillé et al., that is, a solidarity of existence with all beings.
- A regenerative transformation of the fractures and contradictions inherent in any connection, creation, and in life itself, in line with a bravery of being and an imaginative practice of aliveness with “manners, grace and style” (Gary Snyder).
A policy of life makes explicit what implicitly keeps us alive while actively nourishing it. It is pluralistic, dialogical, and mediating. It understands reality as a commons in which all beings co-creatively partake. It assumes responsibility for reality and supports us on the way to ourselves, acknowledging that this way is never achieved and can only be laid down by walking. Only when our new loyalty with everything alive becomes our cultural desire, the Anthropocene will truly merit the name of the “time of humankind.”
Every living organism has a rhythm and a connection to the greater world around it. Photo credit: UnderClassRising.
That moment of humble, powerless unknowing where the sadness of an ongoing loss washes through us and we cannot escape into facile solutioneering, is a powerful and necessary moment. It has the power to reach into us deeply enough to wipe away frozen ways of seeing and ingrained patterns of response. It gives us fresh eyes, and it loosens the tentacles of fear that hold us in normality. The ready solution is like a narcotic, diverting attention from the pain without healing the wound.
You may have noticed this narcotic effect, the quick escape into “let’s do something about it.” Of course, in those instances where cause and effect is simple and we know exactly what to do, then the quick escape is the right one. If you have a splinter in your foot, remove the splinter. But most situations are more complicated than that, including the ecological crisis on this planet. In those cases, the habit of rushing to the most convenient, superficially obvious causal agent distracts us from a more meaningful response. It prevents us from looking underneath, and underneath, and underneath.
When we transmit to each other our love of earth, mountain, water, and sea to others, and stir the grief over what has been lost; when we hold ourselves and others in the rawness of it without jumping right away to reflexive postures of solution and blame, we are penetrated deep to the place where commitment lives. We grow in our empathy. We come back to our senses….
Is this “the solution” to climate change? I am not offering it as a solution. Without it, though, no solution, no matter cleverly designed a policy it may be, is going to work.
– Charles Eisenstein, “Of Horseshoe Crabs and Empathy,” Resilience, August 23, 2016
Teaser photo credit: By Blackash at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52493598