Thursday May 06

Winter 2020

Excerpt: Ecological Thinking and the Crisis of the Earth

Excerpt from Between Earth and Empire:  From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community

Ecological Thinking and the Crisis of the Earth

 by John Clark

“The earth died screaming while I lay dreaming.” – Tom Waits

Facing the Crisis

 

Any competent extraterrestrial reporter sent to cover the latest news from Earth would certainly report that our planet is going through one of the six periods of mass extinction in its entire four and a half billion-year history, and that other major disruptions in the biosphere are interacting to cause a major crisis for terrestrial life. In short, the big story from Planet Earth is that we have entered a period of massive planetary death. Thus, among the various competing terms that have been suggested for the emerging geological era, the most precisely appropriate is the Necrocene, the “new era of death.”[1] Strangely, this rather shocking news is met with either denial or disavowal among the members of our own species, who are living in the very midst of this crisis. The deniers among us simply reject the clear evidence of global ecological crisis. The disavowers, on the other hand, accept the truth of the evidence but fail to undertake actions that are even vaguely proportional to the gravity of our predicament.        

Information on the severity of the ecological crisis has hardly been a well-kept secret. For example, researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and their colleagues have in recent years formulated a conception of “planetary boundaries,” seeking to define the limits in various areas beyond which there is likelihood of ecological disaster. They summarize their findings in three concise articles that are readily available to the public.[2] The authors conclude that “transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems.”[3] The boundaries are identified as lying in the areas of climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, biogeochemical nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, global freshwater use, rate of biodiversity loss, land-system change, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. They find that at least three boundaries had already been passed and that most others are in danger of being transgressed soon. In the most recent article, the authors conclude that “two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity—have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth system into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.”[4]    

The dire implications of the term “a new state” should not be underestimated. Science writer Peter Forbes notes that the November 2017 COP23 Climate Summit in Bonn acknowledged the likelihood that by 2100 global warming will reach a disastrous three degrees centigrade, since there will be a doubling of preindustrial CO2 levels from 280 to 560 parts per million by 2050, and another doubling by 2100. Such conditions will not only be unprecedented in the history of our species, they will mean a return of the planet to the climate of the Cretaceous period of 145-65.95 million years ago. Forbes observes that “in a Cretaceous rerun, there would very likely be no ice at the poles once again, and sea levels would be about 216 feet (66 meters) above current levels.”[5]

While ecologists and eco-activists usually stress the biological basis of global crisis it is important not to neglect the physics of extinction and collapse, which conveys a powerful message. Schramskia, Gattiea, and Brow in “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind,”[6] show that it is illuminating to conceive of the biosphere as a massive chemical battery that has been charged over the history of life on the planet. 

Over the course of three and one-half billion years of evolution “billions of tons of living biomass were stored in forests and other ecosystems and in vast reserves of fossil fuels.” This process has been reversed in the brief and rapidly concluding chapter of human history that we call “civilization.”  The authors point out that the “rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy fuels the human domination of the biosphere” and that because of “the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space.”

The evidence is staggering to anyone capable of taking a geological or Earth-historical perspective. At the beginning of the current era, the Earth “contained ∼1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass,” which existed primarily “in the form of trees in forests.” Over the past two millennia “humans have reduced this by about 45% to ∼550 billion tons of carbon in biomass.” This news seems dire enough, but the authors find another even more striking way of representing our planetary predicament.

They introduce “a new sustainability metric Ω” which represents (on extremely conservative assumptions) “the number of years at current rates of consumption that the global phytomass storage could feed the human race.” They note that in the past 2000 years humanity has reduced this metric Ω by 98.5%. Furthermore, the rate of depletion has been rapidly accelerating since industrialization.  Their graph of this process shows the level of “sustainability,” and thus human survivability, rapidly plummeting toward zero.

In considering the fateful implications of their analysis, the authors describe the biosphere’s tendency toward catastrophe with a degree of understatement befitting their technical and scientific audience. “There is,” they say, “considerable uncertainty in how the biosphere will function as Ω decreases from the present Ω = ∼1,029 y[ears] into an uncharted thermodynamic operating region.”  Yet, the message is clear. What the authors correctly call the project of “domination of the biosphere” is threating us with imminent planetary death, that “inhospitable equilibrium of outer space.” This is the threat, the ultimate threat of the Necrocene, that we must face.

 

The Limits of Environmental Thinking

 

It is not only scientists and science writers who have sounded the alarm about ecological crisis in rather clear and not uncertain terms. Recently, The Guardian, a major British newspaper, announced the gravity of the biodiversity crisis in almost alarmist language, saying that the “biological annihilation’ of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way” and that “it threatens the survival of human civilization, with just a short window of time in which to act.”[7] Yet, this seemingly inflammatory article was not at the top of the stories for the day, and if one reads the numerous readers’ replies to it, one finds very little sense of direction about how to respond to this developing global catastrophe. Furthermore, such news somehow quickly fades from the popular consciousness. We might therefore conclude that there is simply not enough good “environmental thinking” going on in today’s world. It might seem that the public is just not prepared to understand adequately the meaning of global ecological crisis, and that it is therefore incapable of facing it with full seriousness. Thus, there are injunctions that we need to work harder on creating good environmental education, so that the public can engage in more effective environmental thinking.

Granted, this would be a very good thing. However, one of the problems with conventional ideas of “environmental thinking” or even “ecological thinking” is that it assumes that correct thinking will in itself have a significant transformative effect, or more to the point, the kind of effect that will be necessary in order to avoid disaster. For example, it is thought to be crucial that climate deniers be convinced that anthropogenic climate change really exists. This is not at all a bad idea, but it almost inevitably ignores the fact that that the vast majority of non-deniers are in a state of disavowal, and that reformed deniers are highly likely to join the ranks of these disavowers. The disavowers are willing to admit that a problem exists, and they may get certain satisfactions out of being on the right side of history, and perhaps even from engaging in various beneficial activities that reduce greenhouse gasses. However, they are not willing to consider, and then actually work diligently for, the kind of deep, fundamental changes in society that will be necessary to change the ecocidal course of history. A basic problem for the problematic of “better environmental thinking” is that the needed transformation cannot result from abstract thought and the understanding of concepts. It can only come from engaged thinking that is an integral part of an engaged participation in transformative social ecological processes. We need therefore to consider how such engagement might begin to take place. But first, we might consider further the implications of our conventional language, concepts, and modes of thinking.

Part of the problem with the appeal to “environmental thinking” is the very idea of the “environment.” The dominant conception of “environment” assumes a certain practical ontology. According to this ontology, there is a world that consists of individual egos surrounded by “environments,” and societies that consist of collections of separate egos, surrounded in turn by larger “environments.” This prevailing conception of the environment is an expression of the binary subject–object thinking that is built into to the dominant social ideology and subject-object feelings and perceptions that are built into the dominant social ethos. Meanings are social, not merely individual. Thus, even when this ontology is not consciously intended, or when it is even abstractly rejected, such a problematic reinforces the pervasive hierarchical dualism that is the deep ideology and sensibility of civilization. Given such problems, explicitly ecological thinking is a great advance over environmental thinking, and a step toward ecological imagining and feeling.

The term “ecology” derives from the Greek terms oikos and logos. It is concerned with the logos, or underlying meaning, truth, and way of the oikos, the local, regional, or planetary household. In its emphasis on the oikos, ecological thinking replaces both the egocentric and the anthropocentric perspective with the perspective of the larger ecological whole. This is a whole that is never a completed or closed totality, but rather a whole that is always in a process of becoming whole. The ecological whole is an ever-becoming-one that is also an ever-becoming-many, a dynamic unity-in-diversity. Ecological thinking is inspired by the quest for the social-ecological equivalent of Hegel’s “concrete universal,” the universal that must always be expressed through the particular and the singular, the regional and the local, the communal and the personal.[8] This implies that we need to contemplate how we fit into the planetary dialectic of developing parts and wholes. Our question here is how we might begin to develop a thought and practice that is in accord with such a truly social-ecological perspective, and that will open a clear pathway out of our planetary crisis.

 

Finding the Way

 

Though it cannot be developed in any detail, the answer that seems most promising is that we must begin to create a well-grounded and multi-dimensional social and political base for the regeneration of human community and the community of life on Earth. This means reorganizing our social world into networks of awakened and caring transformational communities that are dedicated to undertaking whatever actions are necessary to put an end to the Necrocene and initiate a new era characterized by the flourishing of life on Earth. We might call such a new era the Eleutherocene, meaning the era of a liberated humanity and a liberated Earth. In this endeavor, we can find inspiration in the ancient Buddhist concept of appamāda. “Appamāda” is a Pali word (“apramada” in Sanskrit) that conveys the ideas of both “mindfulness” and “care.” The practice of appamāda implies that we must be awakened to the world and all the beings around us, and that in such an awakened state we become capable of responding to and caring for them effectively. In this, it has much in common with concepts in contemporary feminist, and especially ecofeminist, care ethics, which rejects the patriarchal model of an abstract ethics of principles in favor of an approach that non-dualistically recognizes the inseparability of moral rationality, moral sensibility, and moral imagination.[9] It affirms that what we need more than anything is neither environmental thinking, which takes us in the wrong direction, nor even ecological thinking, which takes us only part of the way, but an ethos of appamāda that pervades and shapes both our everyday practice and our social institutions. The practice of care involves attention to the truth of all beings, acceptance of the way of all beings, and responsiveness to the needs of all beings. It also implies engagement in the personal, social, and political practice that is necessary to establish mindful care for all beings in our purview, and for the Earth itself as our overriding priority.

Such an outlook of attentiveness, acceptance and responsiveness helps us discover what we might call the “Four Noble Truths about the Earth.”[10] These truths are that the Earth is suffering, that there is a cause of this suffering, that there is a cure to this suffering, and that there is a way to carry out this cure.[11] As in the case of the ancient Noble Truths, we find that obsessive craving is the cause of this suffering. Such craving has a transhistorical element, it is rooted in our natural being as needing and wanting creatures, but it develops to differing degrees and takes on different qualities in different historical contexts. So, in order to cure our own suffering and that of the Earth, we must come to an understanding of the very particular, historically conditioned, nature of the craving that causes it.

We all have knowledge of its nature at some level. If we cannot express it consciously, we do so through our symptoms and our defense mechanisms. However, to confront our predicament authentically, we must develop a clear, fully-conscious awareness of its nature, and the specific ways that it causes the suffering of the Earth, the suffering of a myriad of other living beings on Earth, the suffering of billions of other human beings, and our own personal suffering. We must understand, for example, how the craving that causes of the suffering of the billion human beings who live in a deprived and dispossessed world of absolute poverty also causes the suffering of another billion who live in a privileged and affluent world of nihilistic egoism.

We must, moreover, understand that the craving that causes so much suffering has, in turn, a cause of its own. This cause is the world in which most of us live, which is best described as the late capitalist, statist, technocratic, patriarchal society of mass consumption. It is this society, as a powerfully functioning yet self-contradictory social whole, that generates a certain form of selfhood that is inclined to obsessive desires, powerful addictions, and sick attachments. As Jason Moore has aptly stated it, the crisis we are facing is above all “capitalogenic,”[12] though this should not lead us to neglect the degree to which it is simultaneously “statogenic,” “technogenic,” and “patriarchogenic.” There is an entire system of production that depends on the generation of such craving to operate successfully (at least in the pre-catastrophic short term). There is an entire system of consumption that feeds such craving. There is an entire culture of consumption that socializes us into believing that a world of obsessive craving is the only one possible, or, if we do not believe that this is true, that socializes us into resigning ourselves in practice to the inevitability of that world, and to living our lives as if we believed that it is true.

As in the case of the ancient Noble Truths, the cure to suffering is not merely knowing the cause of the disease, or even knowing that the cause must be removed. The teaching is that the cure can only be carried out through following the Way, which was called the Noble Eightfold Path. There was no onefold, twofold or threefold path. The cure was not affected by choosing one or more forms of practice that appealed most to one personally, or that seemed to be leading generally in the right direction, or that might “hopefully” have some kind of mysterious “snowball effect.” This would be succumbing to mere whim or superstition. The path consisted of all the forms of practice that were necessary conditions for the radical transformation that was needed. The promise was that if the path is followed “another world is possible.”

Is This the End?

Let is conclude by going back to the beginning. This means “the beginning” in the sense of origins. But it also means the process of “beginning” by returning to the most elementary, simplest, most obvious, and most essential truths. These are the kind of truths that can often be recognized only by those with “beginner’s mind.” If only we could all become, in the deepest sense, “masters of the obvious!”

 If we hope to engage in authentic ecological thinking, which implies that we engage at the same time in transformative ecological practice, it is essential that we ask the question: What are the deep, fundamental causes of ecological degradation and impending ecological collapse (the causes of suffering, and the systemic causes of these causes)? We often have much less difficulty focusing on the obvious when we examine distant historical epochs. If we look back at the social and ecological destruction at the beginning of civilization, the role of Empire is quite obvious. The imperial system, given both its ultimate ends (the amassing of imperial power and the imposition of a hierarchical system of values glorifying this power) and its adoption of means that were eminently suitable for those ends, was both a human and an ecological catastrophe. The ancient empires initiated massive wars of conquest, enslavement of populations, and rituals of large-scale human sacrifice, while at the same time devastating the natural world, causing the first anthropogenic ecological collapses and widespread desertification. [13] However, it is more difficult for people today to recognize the role of Empire in global social and ecological crisis, even as the cost of denial and disavowal become so much greater. As we now approach the death of Empire, we are confronted with the question of what it will take with it, as it finally succumbs to its fatal condition. We now know the etiology of the disease and have a good idea of the prognosis. We have certainly been given enough hints concerning the nature of the cure. Yet, even if we can follow the diagnosis this far, we usually remain at an impasse in one area: the initiation of treatment.

So, we need return to the question of the determinants of our crisis today. If the “four spheres” mentioned at the beginning is too abstract, we might look at the more specific content of these spheres: concentrated economic power that becomes socially and ideologically dominant; a system of values based not on intrinsic and systemic good, but on the constraints of profit maximization and capital accumulation; the continuing power of an even more primordial system of patriarchal values rooted in aggressiveness, conquest, and domination; a system of mass marketing and manipulation of consciousness that gains increasing power to shape selfhood and character-structure; a centralized nation-state that negates any authentic, participatory democracy; state and corporate bureaucracies that impose an instrumental, manipulative rationality; a culture of commodity-worship that traps people in an alienated world of privatized consumption; forms of nature-denying anti-spirituality in the form of fundamentalist religion; a system of technology that becomes a de facto self-moving and autonomous megamachine; a voraciously appropriating egoic self that is the condensation of all these social realities.

We need to admit to ourselves that the ecological crisis will not be resolved, and global ecological catastrophe will not be avoided, without imminent, far-reaching, and fundamental changes in the four major spheres of social determination: the spheres of the dominant institutions, dominant ethos, dominant ideology and dominant imaginary. Ecological destructiveness is built into the hegemonic structures, operating procedures, and decision-making processes. We need to allow the realization of this fact to penetrate deeply into our being, particularly as we open ourselves up to the deep experience of the tragedies and losses that the system of domination inflicts on humanity and nature. This is called learning solidarity with humanity and nature. We need to allow ourselves to go through the trauma of disillusionment with the dominant system and the dominant reality, so that this can lead to a radical break with that reality. As sages in the great wisdom traditions and guides in traditional vision quests have rightly taught, we need to go through the agony of the Dark Night of the Soul, so that so that we can emerge from its depths as another kind of being. We can emerge as a fully awakened and caring kind of being.

In practical terms, the reversal of the disastrous, ecocidal course of history will require a radical devolution of power through the democratizing of political, economic, and informational systems. It will also require a radical transformation of values (a deep, world-historical cultural revolution) that encompasses a rejection of economistic values, consumer culture, patriarchal values, and the egocentric self. In short, it will require a radical break with the political institutions, the economic institutions, the technological system, the means of communication, the ideology, the imaginary and symbolic expressions, the cultural values, and the forms of selfhood that are now dominant.[14]

To put it differently, it will require the creation of a material, spiritual and practical basis for the liberatory, transformative vision presented by the axial philosophies and religions that emerged two and a half millennia ago, and which, in turn, looked back to the sane, humane and ecologically sound aspects of the indigenous communities that existed over the vast majority of human history.[15] We need to seek the rational core of what ancient societies expressed poetically in such concepts as the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age, and the Dynasty of the Yellow Emperor, that is, the image of a free, cooperative, and ecologically-attuned world that existed before the rise of systems of social domination. We need to be able to express this idea of reason and attunement in nature (called the Logos, the Dharma, or the Dao) in a way that is meaningful for our own age.

We will then be able to face the difficult and demanding truth that we are nearing the end of that world-historical Fall we call Civilization. The question is whether we can emerge from an age of nihilism and resignation and give birth to a new era of creative and regenerative action. We must ask whether there is still hope that the historic Fall and all the suffering that it has entailed can be redeemed, a hope expressed classically in the Latin exclamation “Felix Culpa!” or “Blessed Fall!” The question is whether it is an ultimate Fall into the abyss of planetary death and devastation, or a provisional Fall that culminates in a rebirth, in a “true resurrection of humanity-in-nature.” Through such a rebirth, we would learn again to celebrate ourselves, our communities, the Earth, and the entire Cosmos as Natura naturata and Natura naturans, as wonders of creation and creativity.


John Clark is Director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology and Professor Emeritus at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he taught philosophy and environmental studies for many years.  Between Eartha and Empire is available from PM Press at www.pmpress.org.


[1] This would focus quite logically on the fact that the current “new era of death” follows an era called the “Cenozoic,” meaning the “new era of life” (literally, of “animals”). The current era is a radical break with the Cenozoic but is continuous with developments in the brief epoch called the “Holocene” (its meaning is the rather non-controversial concept of “entirely recent”).

[2]Johan Rockström et al. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” in Nature 461 (Sept. 2009): 472 –75. Johan Rockström et al. “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” in Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (2009), online at https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/; and a recent update, Will Stefens et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet” in Science (13 Feb 2015): Vol. 347, No. 6223 (Feb. 13, 2015); online at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/1259855.full, in which there is a new focus on five planetary boundaries that have “strong regional operating scales.” The delineation of areas in which boundaries are located was also revised slightly.

[3] Rockström et al. (2009)

[4] Stefens et al. (2015)

[5] Peter Forbes, “We are heading for a New Cretaceous, not for a new normal” in Aeon (Oct. 29, 2018); online at https://aeon.co/ideas/we-are-heading-for-a-new-cretaceous-not-for-a-new-normal?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=3d7448ad70-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_10_29_12_28&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-3d7448ad70-68704457

[6] John R. Schramskia, David K. Gattiea, and James H. Brow, “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112, No. 31 (August 4, 2015): 9511–9517; online at https://www.pnas.org/content/112/31/9511.

[7] Damian Carrington, “Earth's sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn,” in The Guardian (July 10, 2017); online at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn.

[8] Ecofeminist theorist Vandana Shiva, who has contributed much to this quest, states at the beginning of her analysis of “Earth Democracy,” that it “connects the particular to the universal, the diverse to the common, and the local to the global.” Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005), p. 1.

[9] The most advanced form is materialist ecofeminism, which situates the ethical most explicitly in real-world practice and everyday life. It shows that the most significant sphere of ethical practice today, and our model in many ways for social-ecological transformation, remains the caring labor of women and indigenous people around the world. See Ariel Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx, and the Postmodern (London: Zed Books 2017).

[10] “Truth” should not be taken in the sense of “object of belief,” but rather in the sense of a “truth-process” that encompasses both understanding and engagement.

[11] By “suffering” is meant damage to the good of a being and interference with the flourishing of that being. Suffering is manifested in all dimensions of a being’s existence. The ancient teaching pointed out that the subjective manifestation of suffering is a feeling of pervasive dissatisfaction with the world. Accordingly, the Earth’s objective suffering is manifested subjectively (within the Earth’s self-conscious dimensions or “organs of consciousness”) through an ethos of anxiety and depression and through a nihilistic sensibility and ideology.

[12] See, for example, Jason W. Moore, “The Myth of the ‘Human Enterprise’: The Anthropos and Capitalogenic Change” in World-Ecological Imaginations: Power and Production in the Web of Life (Oct. 30, 2016); online at https://jasonwmoore.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-myth-of-the-human-enterprise-the-anthropos-and-capitalogenic-change/.

[13] This story is summarized concisely in Clive Ponting, “Destruction and Survival” in A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 67-86, though perhaps no one has summarized it more succinctly than the anarchist Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “Ozymandias.”

 

[14] As subsequent chapters will show, we find powerful evidence of progress in this direction in the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, in the Democratic Autonomy movement in Rojava, and in indigenous movements in Bolivia and elsewhere.

[15] Even if we trace “human history” back only to the advanced artwork of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, dated to as early as about 35,000 years ago.

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