Archive for April, 2008

A key distinguishing feature of our Western culture is the idea that humans are radically separate from nature and other animals. Generally, our ability to communicate verbally and our ability to reason are the main reasons given to support this argument.

Researchers working on animal communication (National Geographic) could be seen to be challenging this framework of human superiority over other creatures. But their challenge, if present at all, is suspect.

The researchers base their research on human centred notions of intelligence; cognition, abstract thinking and communication, and even brain size. There are other forms of intelligence – the intelligence of the body, the intelligence of the senses, the intelligence of recognising who and what you are (without worry and angst), and of being properly adapted to your environment. On these other forms of intelligence, humans fare rather poorly.

Indeed, there is also the challenge of increasing the hurdle for animal intelligence once animals have “passed” certain tests. It is clear that, for some, evidence of any sort will not sway their view of humans as radically separate from the rest of nature, and other animals.

The challenge of extending moral and ethical standing to other species should not rely on the ability of animals to communicate in ways we can understand. Listen to this researcher: “I thought if he (a parrot) learned to communicate ..”. Guess what: The parrot does communicate – it’s just that we don’t understand.

Perhaps the researchers should be finding out whether humans can communicate in animal ways – can we bark like dogs, or have a sense of smell as subtle as cats, for example. The fact that this sounds absurd, and fanciful, shows how challenging it is to construct a dialogical engagement with other species without adopting a human construct of intelligence.

The charge of anthropomorphism is always an easy one to aim at the concept and practice of inter-species communication. Val Plumwood called it a bullying concept used to “enforce segregated and polarised vocabularies that rob the non-human world of agency and the possibility of speech.”

Isn’t it time we learnt to quieten ourselves, and start to listen to the bigger conversations happening all around us, all the time? Listen to the world around you … you’ll be amazed at what you can hear. Understanding … well that takes a bit longer.

There is much talk, perhaps too much talk, about climate change these days. There is also associated talk about using a lot more renewable energy, as if this will avert or reduce the damage we are doing to the earth.

There is no doubt that renewable energy in its modern forms (solar, wind, wave) will be a necessary part of the future. The danger of emphasising renewables as a solution to our ills is that western civilisation has not been a good steward of cheap, abundant and dirty energy (coal, uranium, oil etc). Why would we be good stewards of abundant, but clean, renewable energy? We seem to miss the point that we can destroy forests and oceans (and ourselves) just as easily with renewable energy as with oil based energy.

What needs to be examined closely is our worldview (our foundational assumptions and metaphysical beliefs) that has resulted in humans being such poor stewards of energy. And why we have used so much energy to expand and extend the reach of the human enterprise with such callous regard for its impact on others (human and non-human).

Perhaps one reason is that we have over emphasized and privileged mental work, and inferiorised, backgrounded and denied the work of the body and the earth. We have substituted abundant but non-renewable pre-historic solar energy for human muscle power. Human labour as a renewable energy source is never talked about these days, even though we have an abundance of people.

We have created a caste of energy slaves, both bodily labour (especially people in poor countries, who make most of our stuff), and the labour of nature (ancient solar energy stored as oil and coal). Some research that I have seen suggests that we have some 80 energy slaves working for us to maintain our modern lifestyle. Perhaps, as Val Plumwood has argued, it is time we restored honour and meaning to physical labour, and to question the dominance, and privileging, of mind work. Perhaps we need to live within the level of (contemporary) solar energy the earth receives.

And it’s time we got rid of some of our slaves.

At this time on earth, we seem to be rushing mindlessly into the abyss. We are now experiencing (or, through denial, failing to experience) symptoms of our discordant and indulgent lifestyles (symptoms such as global warming, species extinctions, extreme poverty, war, terror, mass starvation – should I go on?).

While many may view these symptoms as problems to be solved, there is an alternative view of of symptoms as indicating something to be experienced and felt on a much deeper level. I would like to expound an alternative idea of these symptoms, influenced by the thinking of Robert Romanyshyn.

Rather than our typically modern approach of wanting to evaluate and diagnose the symptoms in order to “cure” them (and cure them quickly), our task, I believe, is to treat the symptoms as a call to listen and give voice to what would otherwise remain silenced, to challenge us in remembering what we have forgotten.

Perhaps the symptoms are revealing that our societies need to listen deeply to what is, at core, an ethical and moral problem (dare I say “spiritual”?), and not a technical problem. That is, it is the way we live on, and our attitudes to, this earth, (our one and only home) and our failure to imagine an alternative to mass industrial society and consumer culture that is the root cause of the symptoms.

While there is much talk of sustainabilty these days, there is little talk of what it means to be human, in an authentic way, in these perilous times. While the end of the world may indeed be nigh, that does not mean we can escape the injunction to live an authentic life, even up to the end. And remember, the end is also a new beginning. So, in a sense, the world does not come to an end.

We need to make visible the pathology of the current age by challenging current dominant values, such as: rationalism; disembodiement; privileging of certain ways of knowing;domination of women, nature and other animals; belief in infinite progress; industrialism; individual privacy; hyper-seperation from the earth; scientism; and many others. We need to challenge the concept of the earth as inanimate, as resource for our use, rather than the knowing the earth as alive with intentionality, meaning and purpose.

It is our industrial way of life, and our industrial way of thinking, that needs to be challenged.

This post takes a quick look at how environmental problems are constructed and viewed, and whether the conventional approach to changing society is up to the task.

Typically environmental problems are constructed through a scientific, technology and policy lens. Such a lens minimises the need for societal wide transformation and adopts a minimalist, incremental and shallow approach, mainly through policy and advocacy (legislative change) or populist campaigns (turn off or change the lights campaigns). It fails to argue for a radical transformation in societal governance, institutions and culture. This approach adopts the mainstream values of dominant society, which are a rationalist, detached and scientific view, often failing to recognise the social, cultural and psychological dimensions of issues.

The shadow side of the rationalist approach is that it reinforces the dominant culture instead of challenging it. We have backgrounded alternative ways of being in the world, based on engagement, connectedness, emotion, relationship and nurturance. It is no accident that these backgrounded values, emanating as they are from the feminine, are hidden or denied by patriarchal approaches. We need to address the anthropocentrism (human-centredness) of western ethics and practice, and the dualisms (mind-body, nature-culture) that create fault-lines and hierarchies in our society.

If the detached observer view of the world dominates, it creates a lens, both literal and metaphorical, through which the world is viewed. This view is one devoid of sensory engagement, or in other words a disembodied one. This is a way of thinking that has taken leave of its senses (literally and figuratively) through the denial of a bodily way of knowing the world (through both the senses and a felt sense). It results in a consciousness that creates a body fit only for amusement (since it does not have a role in knowing the world), a body insatiable in its demand for pleasure, distractions and stimulations. Are our overly rationalistic approaches giving rise to lifestyles (and bodies) that are inherently dangerous to the earth? How can people think of themselves as green, when they have little or no sensory engagement with nature, and the world around them?

What we really need is for people to love and be in the world, and not treat the world as a “resource” for our trivial needs and wants. The world is NOT a resource; it is NOT there to be used (how do you feel when you are used?). It is home for other lives that should have moral and ethical standing. Other lives that have been forgotten, minimised, and trivialised.

Can we work towards a transformation of our (ego) consciousness from one that seeks domination and control, to one based on an engaged planetary consciousness, in awe of the mystery and magic of the universe? We desperately need people to see the world and all other beings with loving eyes.