The Mirror of the World
Toward a Post-Modern Environmentalism
Saturday, October 29, 2011
We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors. – Solaris, a 2002 Soderbergh film
Environmentalism is generally viewed as the movement designed to help protect and preserve the natural world around us, distinct from the artificial world of homes, neighborhoods, and cities. This is an overly narrow view. Environmentalism needs to be extended to our inner space, our psyches, as well as the external world, if we are to be effective in tackling pressing environmental problems.
Our global environmental crisis continues, but it is a slow-moving crisis and, therefore, not triggering the appropriate reactions. Problems like biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, deforestation, climate change, etc., all take place on the scale of decades, even centuries, which is far too slow for most of us to really care about these issues. And this is why those who self-identify as environmentalists or, more importantly, work actively to improve any of these problems, are generally a small minority of the population.
Complicating matters in recent years is the worst global recession in decades and justified concerns about jobs and our economy, an ongoing “war on terrorism” that distracts from other issues, and the ascendancy of right-wing media in the U.S. and increasingly in other parts of the world that actively campaign against many environmental causes.
What are we to do, then, in order to tackle these slow-moving environmental crises? There are numerous policy and practical recommendations available for all of these problems. I have written fairly extensively, for example, on renewable energy as a major part of the cure for climate change (and peak oil), and many others have offered sensible solutions to all of the environmental challenges we’re facing. Yet none of these major problems is being solved at the pace required – and many are not being solved at all.
What’s missing? It seems to me that we need to change ourselves as much or more than we need to change the world. This essay focuses on a few ideas for the cultural/psychological/spiritual shift that seems necessary for us to solve the environmental challenges we face.
Deep Science “World” used to mean the “universe” in addition to referring to our little blue-green planet. It was the totality, everything. The German philosopher Schopenhauer mused in the 19th Century about “unsnarling the world-knot” – that is, figuring out what the heck all of this is around us. But as our knowledge of the world/universe grew, our vocabulary grew. “Universe” was used throughout the 20th Century to refer to the sum total of planets, stars, nebulas, etc., revealed by our modern telescopes. Nowadays, some use the term “multiverse” rather than universe to refer to the totality, which may include other universes or other dimensions beyond our detection. Brian Greene’s Hidden Reality offers a great overview of this history.
This shift in vocabulary and philosophy is a direct result of the ongoing scientific and mathematical exploration of the reality outside of us. As our knowledge of our surroundings – our environment – has increased, our vocabulary and concepts have evolved. We have grown our worlds by growing ourselves, and vice versa.
The last few centuries have witnessed unprecedented advancements in the study of nature, yielding supercomputers that fit in our palms, space flight, and weapons that can simulate Armageddon if unleashed. But the study of inner space, the human psyche, is an even richer tradition and has been ongoing for millennia. This inner science, or “deep science,” has been most pronounced in the traditions of the East, with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The West has many of its own similar traditions, but it is fair to state that the Eastern traditions have a much longer history and more depth in this regard.
Alan Wallace (Choosing Reality; Hidden Dimensions, and many other books) has written extensively about this deep science, as has Ken Wilber (The Marriage of Sense and Soul; Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and many others). Both are generally Buddhist in orientation, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate their writings and wisdom. Wallace’s point, convincingly made, is that while the West has been successful in terms of growing gross domestic product and in developing technology over the last few centuries, the Eastern traditions have a many thousand-year tradition of turning inward and studying the human psyche. We have much to learn from these traditions, with meditation as our primary tool for personal inquiry. The deep science that Wilber and Wallace write about offers a means for scientific exploration of one’s own mind, conducted through extensive practice and testing.
The Western world has in fact sacrificed inner growth in many ways in order to be so successful at building material wealth. When more than one in ten people in the U.S. is on anti-depressant medication, perhaps as many take anti-anxiety medication, and more than one in a hundred people are incarcerated, it is clear that we, in the iconic civilization of the Western world, have major issues.
There is a growing awareness that this set of problems stems at least in part from our alienation from nature. E. O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” for the human love for nature, for life. We do indeed have an affinity for life itself, in all its grandeur and diversity, even though this affinity is so often sublimated in our highly technological modern culture. Wilson argues, and I strongly agree, that by re-acquainting ourselves with the natural world – hiking, camping, studying life, etc. – we may mitigate many of the inner problems we face, individually and collectively.
My fear, however, is that our increasing “technologization” may only exacerbate our separation from nature. Technology is ubiquitous now, particularly personal electronics, and this trend seems very likely to continue rapidly in coming years. I’m no Luddite, to be sure. I love my gadgets (sometimes a little too much, especially my lovely iPhone 4). But I actively seek time in nature free from technology, and see this as a major component of my peace of mind. The marvels of modern technology are exciting, but are easily rivaled by nature’s marvels when we dig a little and start to understand life on our planet.
Mind and Spirit The inner work we need to complete starts with a recognition that we are indeed special. We are the bleeding edge of consciousness in our corner of the universe. We are, as far as we know, the only game in town in terms of higher self-consciousness, technologically adept consciousness. We have, as human beings, achieved what is tantamount to a quantum leap in intelligence and technology when compared to all other species. We are gods unto ourselves. Unfortunately, we are the kind of Greek gods who often do very unwise things and re-enact all manner of petty human dramas.
Our astounding human achievements have been most pronounced in the modern era, which has its roots in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. The advent of the modern era is generally characterized by increasing specialization and the immense amounts of new knowledge that springs from specialization. With specialization comes separation. Most people can’t possibly understand even a small fraction of the totality of human knowledge today. The age of Renaissance men has long been over – there is simply far too much knowledge for any one person to gain even partial mastery. With this specialization we have realized the fruits of technology in all their glory. But the downside has been increasing alienation – from each other, from much of human knowledge, and perhaps most importantly from nature herself.
A post-modern worldview is needed, but not the deconstructive nihilistic post-modernism that has found favor in some quarters. Rather, we need a post-modernism that recognizes our active kinship with all of nature by integrating our humanity seamlessly with the rest of nature. We are indeed special in the degree to which we have evolved great intelligence and the technological fruits of that intelligence, but we are not different in kind from the rest of nature. There is throughout nature a continuum of consciousness, of complexity, and of technology.
Many species use tools, technology, language – though in almost all cases these are much simpler than our human examples. Beavers are master dam-builders, termites master mound-builders, birds master nest-builders. And in a very real sense, the sum of species on our planet created the very livable environment we humans enjoy – with bacteria leading the way in producing oxygen and many other components of our biosphere during the course of planetary evolution.
With respect to language, the more we learn about animal, plant, and microbial communication the more we realize that there is a cacophony of language all around us – we have not heard because we couldn’t understand. We are beginning to understand, however, and this increased awareness of the depth of complexity in non-human species will help create the post-modern worldview we need.
There is a growing awareness that the philosophical positions of the modern worldview are inadequate. The modern worldview evolved in part from Descartes’ dualist view of mind and matter, and later into today’s prevailing materialist worldview, which has generally lopped off the mind/spirit aspect of Descartes’ dualism and left behind only dead matter. Today’s materialists, who dominate the cultural elite in science and philosophy, believe that all things can be explained by explaining the relationships between fundamentally mindless particles that are thought to comprise everything in the universe.
An increasingly popular alternative, however, is the view that mind is very much part of nature from the top to the bottom. It’s all a continuum. In this view, known as panpsychism, all of nature includes mind and matter as complementary aspects in each unit of nature. Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, William James, David Ray Griffin, and David Chalmers are a few of the philosophers in this long tradition.
Panpsychism is just one of many possible routes to a healthy post-modernism, but it is in my view a particularly promising one because it is logically coherent, can explain the available data in many areas of science, and also leads to many interesting new paths for science and philosophy.
Ultimately, science is a process of self-discovery, whether it is inward- or outward-directed. The deep environmentalist, the deep scientist, realizes that the entire universe is our extended body and our extended mind. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis becomes simply an expanded version of self-reflection. As we seek to understand our own world and seek other worlds or even other dimensions, we will with this understanding always end up staring at ourselves in the mirror. This is not a bad thing: Self-reflection is to be encouraged. It is also inevitable because even if we are not consciously self-reflective, we can’t avoid interpreting literally everything about the world around us in terms of its importance to each of us. This is what it means to be a conscious being – we are necessarily self-centered.
This necessary self-centeredness doesn’t, however, have to contain the negative implications this term normally conveys if we expand our sense of self. Through learning, exploration, immersion in life and nature, we expand our sense of self. There are no real limits on this process.
This process of self-expansion and self-reflection could be a powerful cure for the numerous and pressing environmental problems we face on the only habitable part of the universe we currently know: our planet Earth. Let’s get to it.
Tam Hunt is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist based in Santa Barbara.