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Biospheric Cognition

May 23, 2024

This article was originally posted in the pages of Deep Transformation Network, a Network devoted to the purpose of evolving ecological culture and/or ecological civilization.


If we are going to nurture into being an ecological civilization, or an ecological culture, we’re going to require what in this writing I will call “biospheric cognition”.

Cambridge Cognition offers a limited and insufficient first stab at defining cognition here.:

“Cognition is defined as ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.'” 

This is almost a fully adequate account of cognition, because it includes ‘understanding’ with knowledge. But it fails to give an appropriate place to invention and innovation in thought and understanding — because it doesn’t mention these.

Biospheric Cognition is a radical innovation in human cognition which is emerging now, and could only have emerged and evolved in our time in history. It could not have emerged or evolved in the ancient world, or before modernity, because the sciences which enable biospheric cognition to fully realize itself didn’t exist then.

“The term “biosphere” was coined in 1875 by geologist Eduard Suess, who defined it as the place on Earth’s surface where life dwells.” – Wikipedia, Biosphere

That we live within ecosystems has been well known by traditional people for a very, very long time,  since a time even more ancient than ancient civilizations.  But even the word and concept of ecology is modern. Modern (and postmodern, amodern, etc.) ecology is a particular kind of knowledge and knowing, and it differs from other-than-modern conceptual schemas. But this hardly means that non-modern people lacked ecological insight or wisdom. It was just different in the premodern and nonmodern context.

We now know things about our world which were not possible to know until recently in history. We know how the atmosphere relates to the ecosystems and the biosphere in a very rich and complex way which would not have been possible even two hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago.

Biospheric cognition is cognition which fully and deeply recognizes that all of life, and all beings here within or proximal to Earth’s atmosphere, are participant within and part of the biosphere.  It’s an entirely new development on Earth, and it is only now just beginning to provide a depth of context for our understanding of who and what we living creatures are and where we belong — and how we belong.  Biospheric cognition is an emergent phenomenon which is now emerging and evolving toward a fundamental paradigm shift in human cognition generally.

Biospheric cognition is a radically relational form of cognition which very profoundly alters our capacity for understanding ourselves as wholes within wholes within wholes. (Atoms and molecules are wholes, as are cells and organisms, and so is the biosphere a whole.)  The biosphere is one of the ultimate wholes in which we are embedded, and by far the most important one, which is why I want to say that we are entering the “biospheric era” or “epoch” of human culture, just now. And we have just barely begun to do so. It’s as though we’ve lit a cognitive candle in an otherwise dark cave. The nature of the cave we are in has been dimly lit.  (Hmm. Plato’s cave?)  So we have a hint of what’s happening to us, with us, but only yet a hint. Collectively, that is.

Some individuals have taken their lit candle and used it to find and use lanterns. For these, the cave of the biosphere is pretty brightly lit. They fully understand the very essence of what the biospheric epoch is poised to become, if we can survive this dreadfully stupid moment in human cultural evolution. These people will be our guides, as they offer lanterns when lanterns are most needed. They teach us how to possess our own lantern light with which to illuminate our biospheric context.

Biospheric cognition facilitates biospheric awakening. Biospheric awakening is no less radical a discovery than the discovery that each of us are more like leaves on a common tree, in a common forest, than separate individuals who are isolated and alone. We awaken from the dream of ourselves as separate, and we come to KNOW ourselves as individual expressions of the whole being which is the biosphere itself.  And we’re a lot like leaves on trees, aren’t we (?), in that on deciduous trees there is an annual leaf fall. And we, as individuals, also “fall” eventually. The biosphere is nearly immortal by comparison! It’s (or She’s) been around for an unthinkable span of time, and likely we (the human species) will be around for an unthinkable span moving forward. Unless we really f**k it up.

I began with a dim candle, and some wonderful people, long ago, offered me a lantern. So I’ve been an awake participant in the biosphere for decades now. My identity and the biosphere are so interwoven now that I’m actually going ever more deep into biospheric awareness and awakening, such that I can no longer imagine myself as “just an individual”. My sense of who and what I am is as much, or more, shaped by my identity as the biosphere.  It’s like when a leaf on the tree has that “aha!” moment and realizes that she is the tree, too, and not merely an isolated leaf.  I am the biosphere! And so are you! We all are! But most of the humans are not yet aware of this. Or if they understand it intellectually they don’t yet feel it in their breath and bones — in their hearts.

The time has come to begin to form institutions which seek to facilitate biospheric awakening in all of the world, bringing lanterns of bright awakening to all of us. These will not and cannot be “institutions” of the kind born of the illusion that we’re separate from one another and the natural world. These institutions must be crafted by people who are mostly fully awake to their identity as the biosphere Herself, and who have developed a keen sense of the particulars and details of our biospheric home and nature.  What this means, ultimately, is that instead of being institutions of taking, exploiting, consuming, devouring, oppressing, they must be the opposite of all of this, its very antithesis.

Biospheric cognition, when brightly lit, always places the biosphere first and central. Always. Biospheric cognition is a context in which understanding and meaning take place as the very biosphere itself (Herself) cognizing with and through us, awake or awakening to itself/Herself as us.

* * * * *

Here is a lantern. This is the brightness control knob. Go and play. I love you!

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.