Rethinking how we can know the world

Since messy ethics requires ongoing communal conversations among humans and between humans and numerous other-than-human subjects, we will need to know how to include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community.

Much of what we understand about one another and the world rests on what we understand about how truth is arrived at and understood. This is an epistemological study, a philosophical field that deals with ways of knowing. At one point in our communal conversation, questions about truth will undoubtedly arise: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” or “How can you know what the trees are saying to you?”

So how do we include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community? I suggest that we start by taking seriously different ways of knowing our world. For us in the West, it will be a challenge, since, as Thomas Berry puts it, “We have forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance, wherein we share our existence with the animals and with all natural phenomena.”

For some time now, in our Western society, we have tended to give too much emphasis to a discursive mathematico-logic approach to knowing, or what we might more easily label the scientific method. Now, there is nothing wrong with this rational analytic thought processes: we get medicines that keep us healthy because of it! The problem is that we have also tended to exclude other ways of knowing the world.

You could say this exclusion of other ways of knowing the world grew, in large measure, out of the Enlightenment period in Western Europe (the 1700s). We came to believe that anything that could not be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, was illusion. Modern positivism is a philosophical result of this thinking to-the-extreme: it asserts that absolutely nothing is valid or true unless it passes the test of logical mathematical proof. Poetry becomes ‘nice’, but its value is reduced to ‘mere feelings’. Any belief in that which cannot be seen (a God, for instance) becomes a no-no. Indigenous people’s claim to ‘know’ the land through dreams, dance and fasting, is treated as laughable or, at best, politely as ‘quaint’.

This sort of arrogant way of understanding the world has started to change however (albeit slowly). Interestingly enough this shift began when we started to deal seriously with the environmental crisis back in the 1970s.

We began then to realize that despite all our scientific advances, we still know very little of the world around us. After a century of unrestrained chemistry, for example, no one could say how the 100,000 chemicals in common use mix in the ecosphere or how they might be implicated in rising cancer rates, disappearing amphibians, or behavioral disorders. We began to learn that our practical knowledge of particular places is often considerably less than that of the native peoples we displaced.

Moreover, it wasn’t just that we realized that the rational analytic way of knowing  is insufficient, it became clear that this approach, which treats nature as an unaware collection of material ‘stuff’ to be measured, manipulated and utilized for human purposes is actually what has led to disastrous results for our planet.

The truth is that there are multiple orderings of reality and many other ways of knowing it. I love how Isadora Duncan once put it. Considered to be the mother of modern dance in North America, she had to defend the value of dance as special form of understanding reality. She said to doubters: “If I could tell you what it meant, there’d be no point in dancing it.”

Isadora Duncan, mother of modern dance

Now sometimes it’s the other way around: people ignore rational analytic thought processes. Fundamentalist Christian thinkers, for example, are guilty of this when considering the age of Earth to be around 6,000 years. My concern here is not with such silly nonsense that ignores the scientific method. My concern is ethical. I care about how we engage with a larger world full of subjects, not all of whom are human, and if they are, not all are men, white, or citizens from a Western industrialized society.

In the blogs ahead, I’d like to deal with these multiple ways of knowing. It will be clear that in the face of a complex, diverse and relational reality, a far more humble way of knowing it is called for.


Three good works on this issue:

Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988 (my quote from Berry comes from page 2).

David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 (my quote from Isadora Duncan comes from page 95).

Messy ethics: a recap thus far

This is probably a good time to review what we know about messy ethics, based on previous blog entries. We’ve discussed much, but there is still a ways to go, so a short recap now sounds in order.

  • Messy ethics is just that: messy. There is no one way of approaching ethical problems today, no ‘must dos’ (i.e.: must not lie) set in stone, except, perhaps, as general principles; no off-the-shelf manual for doing things (i.e.: the greatest good for the greatest number). Messy ethics takes into account context (global and local; immediate, past, and future), addresses the concerns of other-than-human subjects and not just humans in a complex interconnected world. For this reason, messy ethics assumes a more humble stance on what we can know about reality.
  • Messy ethics is focused on the liberation of all creation, not just justice (in all its forms). Moreover, this is an eco-tethered liberation where we simultaneously consider the voices of not only individual humans and their communities, but the other-than-human subjects as well. All subjects must be allowed to participate as agents of their own freedom from oppression or reckless interference in following their evolutionary impulses.
  • In this manner, the common good becomes a truly universal reckoning, not some anthropocentric calculation: a river, a tree and a human share in a relational mutual obligation of care.
  • Messy ethics calls us to get over paradoxes of our existence – those puzzling aspects of death and life that we spend far too much of our time escaping. In this way, we cease seeking to avoid the suffering that is part of our existence: growing old, dying. That does not mean we accept meaningless suffering, grief brought upon by wrong (either thoughtless or selfish) human interventions. Making this distinction between meaningless and what by contrast would be meaningful suffering actually frees us from worrying about realities we cannot/should not escape (self-limiting, death), and allows us to concentrate on realities we should avoid, such as injustices, infliction of harm.
  • Messy ethics nurtures liberations by seeking out conversations with the larger biotic community always with the goal of reciprocity; negotiation (among all subjects) becomes the means for fostering liberation of all creation.
  • Such a communal conversation is best carried out within and amongt bioregions. All humans have the task of molding ourselves to place (not the other way around). This implies learning how to live well (not better) within ecosystems and the natural economy.
  • Messy ethics follows the principle of a preferential option for the poor. Preference implies putting the needs of those subjects most marginalized before the wishes of those subjects doing not so poorly (in the human world, the rich for instance). With regard to the above communal conversations, messy ethics always asks, “Who is being left behind in negotiations?”

There is more than just ‘ethics’ to the messy ethical approach above though. We also need to reformulate how we know the world (what in philosophy is known as epistemology), and how we understand ourselves and our roles as subjects in the world (what in philosophy is known as ontology). We’ll go into these aspects of messy ethics in the coming blogs.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

In the meantime, you have undoubtedly figured out that pursuing messy ethics will require much work; it is indeed difficult to work with, but the alternatives – using simplified, decontextualized or rigid formulas to decide what is right and good for all subjects, now and in the future – is indefensible in light of the deepening poverty of countless human beings, the destruction of distant and future communities, the extinction of countless species, the acidification of our oceans, and the warming of our atmosphere. This is why I use the metaphor of a crowded train commuter station: rigid decontextualized formulas won’t do the trick. As stated in my November 3 entry, messy ethics is viable not in spite of the “messy” character to it, but because of it.


Eco-tethered liberation & the preferential option for the rich

To counter this uneven playing field, we need to incorporate a preferential option for the poor.

Who is being left behind in negotiations on climate change? This question I asked in the last blog is a crucial question to consider within an eco-tethered liberation framework. Why? More often than not in climate deliberations, actions, even the intentions behind them – no matter how noble – are not carried out in a manner where those most affected have a fair and equal chance of succeeding. Right now, climate deliberations favour us in the global industrialized North.

Returning to the Bolivian situation discussed earlier (and we can include billions of other subjects within the global South), Bolivian subjects bear the brunt of climate change. Our myopic political debates have not considered the peoples, waters, land, flora and fauna of Bolivia.

To counter this uneven playing field, we need to incorporate a preferential option for the poor. Such an option does not mean that the subjects who are poor automatically get their way. It does mean that our stance toward them changes. We shift our attitudes to solidarity with the subjects who are suffering most, while striving to see the issue through their perspective. To do this entails a lot of listening – something that has not been happening at UN COP meetings.

If we listen, however, really listen to all the subjects of the global South most affected by climate change, it is likely we will begin to understand their perspective and realize what our immediate task is: to address the current global preferential option for the rich.


What does the preferential option for the rich look like? Ask yourself who is getting preference in these scenarios:

  • our freedom to drive gas-guzzling SUVs or the right of subsistence farmers in Bangladesh not to lose farmland due to rising seas?
  • profit for (Canadian) mining corporations in South America or the integrity of fragile ecosystems and local Indigenous communities that rely on them?
  • our unfettered consumption of manufactured goods or the drastic reduction of the frequency or intensity of flooding in Guatemala (brought about by climate change)?
  • exemptions from carbon taxes aligned to GHG emissions or African farmers not losing livestock (and livelihoods) to more frequent and longer lasting droughts?
  • mining of semisolid bitumen from Alberta oil sands or the beauty and stability of northern Boreal forests?
  • our deregulated unconstrained capitalist system with continued economic growth or the drastic reduction of the rate of species extinction on Earth (constituting the 6th major extinction in Earth’s history)?

There is a clear pattern here. Asking ourselves ‘Who is being left behind in negotiations on climate change,’ requires that we also reflect on who is getting preference. And in this case, preference continuously goes to us and our Canadian lifestyle.  

Now before you go challenging me for an ‘either-or’ fallacy (a common error in arguments, suggesting that solutions are only ‘either-or’), I wish to make a case that, in this instance, there might be something to this argument: that we live within a finite world with finite resources, and that there exists an enormous economic disparity between the global North and South can no longer be overlooked. There does not seem room for a ‘both-and’ scenario (the global South grows economically as do we). We can no longer grow.


Check out these resources:

  • Klein, Naomi. The Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate Change. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2014.
  • “Climate Chaos in the South – The Victims’ Story,” Video by National Film Board of Canada, Antwerp: Wereldmediateek, 2010.
  • Eco-tethered liberation: the Bolivian Indigenous Experience

    While much of what I have been describing so far might sound too abstract to be put into practice, the Bolivian peoples offer a more concrete example, I think, of how an eco-tethered liberation might unfold.

    The context

    Bolivia is a landlocked country in the heart of South America. Much of the country relies on seasonal melt from the glaciers capping its high Andean mountains. Yet, with global temperatures rising due to GHG emissions, Bolivia’s glaciers are melting rapidly, leaving one of the poorest countries in South America without sufficient water to meet its daily needs.

    Google Earth image-Huayna Potosi and Zongo Glacier

    Take the 2010 declaration by the Bolivian government at the culmination of the arguably disappointing UN Conference of the Parties (COP) in Cancun, Mexico. Highlighting the lack of attention from the world community to a liberation approach in environmental decision-making, the Bolivian government felt it crucial to underline the necessity of its peoples’ participation in deliberations that directly affect their welfare, as well as the welfare of the land, glaciers, and waters they rely upon:

    Bolivia has participated in these negotiations in good faith and the hope that we could achieve an effective climate deal. We were prepared to compromise on many things, except the lives of our people. Sadly, that is what the world’s richest nations expect us to do.1

    Bolivia Decries Adoption of Copenhagen Accord II without Consensus

    True to the liberative framework, the Bolivians were demanding that they participate as agents in their own freedom from oppression. They sought reciprocity in the negotiations. Yet, for the industrialized countries at the UN gathering, global capitalism was taken as a non-negotiable starting point in all deliberations!

    Speaking to Democracy Now! at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Bolivia’s (then) president Evo Morales named this oppression, stating, “Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity…. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity.”2

    Despite having been sidelined by the industrialized nations, Bolivians have proceeded, as much as they could, as architects and engineers of their own future. In 2010, the Bolivian government recognised the rights of Mother Nature as law within its nation, stating among other principles that “human activities, within the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve a dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent in Mother Earth.”3

    The majority of Bolivians are of Indigenous ancestry. Accompanying this development is the incorporation of the Indigenous philosophical ideas of the peoples of Bolivia, vivir bien, as it is called in Spanish, properly sumaq kawsay in Quechua. Loosely translated, sumaq kawsay means living well, though with the caution of not living better to the detriment of the many others in community.

    Live well, not better

    This concept of living well, not better implies that an individual’s welfare is closely tied to those many others not only in the human community but also within the natural world. Here – not unlike in the cosmological perspective described earlier – nature becomes a subject; human beings as the only source of values are therefore displaced. These Bolivian-Indigenous concepts break down society-nature dualisms. Their view is more biocentric where plants, animals, waters have feelings; they too are citizens.

    The Bolivian project reflects the central point of how we are to understand an eco-tethered liberation: no one liberation can exist in isolation of the liberation of other subjects. Nature has become part of the social world where the other-than-human community enters into political deliberations. Where conflicts between the liberation of human and other-than-human subjects arise, the key is not to circumvent the liberation of the larger biotic community.

    Liberation is inclusive, as “all Bolivians, to join the community of beings comprising Mother Earth, exercise rights under this Act, in a way that is consistent with their individual and collective rights.” Yet, the liberation appears tethered as well: “the exercise of individual rights is limited by the exercise of collective rights in the living systems of Mother Earth.” Negotiation in some form must take place because “any conflict of rights must be resolved in ways that do not irreversibly affect the functionality of living systems.”3

    Bolivians have been telling us that the process of someone living well in this era of climate chaos is ineluctably tied to the welfare of those many others not only in the human community but in the natural world as well. A responsibility to the many others in community becomes the starting point in conversations, which occur at the bioregional level. Yet those many others participating in the conversations are primarily those most affected. And care is given to continuously ask the question, one the Bolivians were asking in 2010: Who is being left behind?


    1Check out the Bolivian Ministry of External Relations Staff press briefing, “Bolivia DecriesAdoption of Copenhagen Accord II without Consensus,” (December 2018),

    2Check out Democracy Now, (17 December, 2009),

    3Pluralnational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia Government of Bolivia, #3. 

    If you want to learn more about the Bolivian vivir bien experience? See Eduardo Gudynas, “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow,” Development 54, no. 4 (2011): 441-447

    Reconciling the liberations of both a person and a river

    So, the ultimate question (for me at least), in an eco-tethered liberation is this: how might we ensure that a single subject’s liberation – and not just between human subjects, but among human subjects and other-than-human subjects (a river, birds for example) – does not impinge on the liberation of an other-than-human subject? More simply put, how do we reconcile the liberations of both a person and a river?

    To figure this out, it helps to understand the different dimensions of liberation. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez* describes 3. The first 2 we have already discussed: the first dimension of liberation is bringing down oppressive unjust structures within society that exploit subjects; the second dimension is where subjects participate in their own flourishing – or as we have discussed in the cosmological sense, subjects are free to follow their evolutionary impulses. (Note: Gutiérrez never applied liberation to any subjects other than humans; in keeping with many theorists, from Leonardo Boff to Stephen Scharper, I am applying this to other-than-human Earth community).

    The trick with these first 2 dimensions above is to ensure that one subject’s liberation does not impinge on the liberation of another. For this, Gutiérrez proposes a third and important dimension of liberation at a communal level: this is a relational dimension of liberation that suggests that my liberation is tied up with yours and the rest of the community. In other words, both social and inner freedom (evolutionary impulses), from oppressive structures are dependent upon the larger communal relationship one experiences with all subjects in creation. 

    Let’s look at an example to see how this works. My favorite comes from Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s book, The Universe Story.** They have us imagine the evolution of two animals, the bison and the horse, as they express self-organizing tendencies, interacting within a prairie ecosystem. There is a communal relationship among two species and the larger community going on here. Berry uses the concept of reciprocity to explain this relationship:

    The bison butted heads for self-protection whereas the horse, which shared the same environment, chose to gallop. Why? It was their self-articulations or evolutionary choices that made them that way. But at the same time, these animals were made within the context of their broader community of beings, or bioregion. In a biological sense, these animals did not enter into a fixed rigid external environment.

    Thank you Russ R

    Berry and Swimme conclude that the animals worked out their existence in relationship with their larger environment. In another sense, the community said to the horse, “you may be a galloping energy” and to the bison, “you may be a ramming energy, but only if you include all of us and all of our concerns and realities in your life project.”

    I love this story because it sums up so well what liberation among a whole community implies: reciprocity. And in the process there is some negotiation going on, as you see above.

    Let’s return to the case in point: the liberations of both a human and a river. The human, in working out her liberation, has a right to water (for thirst, cleaning, energy for example). But the river, in realizing its liberation, has rights too: to flow and remain clean, moreover, its waters must circulate throughout the planet so that they can also benefit other lifeforms on the planet. However (and this is me talking, not Berry), the rights of the river AND the human are both determined (limited if you prefer) in relation to the larger biotic community (communion). No right is absolute.  

    Some of you might have problems with this, but hear me out: first, not all rights are equivalent. As Berry contends, each subject has rights according to its being: a river has river rights, and a human has human rights. Both subjects have to negotiate their rights within a larger biotic community where all rights are taken into account. In this way, a human can work on articulating her liberation, but she must include all of the biotic community and all of its concerns and realities in her life project.

    What I am calling an eco-tethered liberation is precisely this articulation of multiple liberations within the larger concerns and reality of the biotic community. Liberation can only be shared within the larger biotic community. Here, the welfare of one subject or groups is entwined with the welfare of other subjects within the same community. Liberation becomes an ongoing process of listening and negotiating ultimately among the whole of creation.

    Just so no one is thinking each subject has to listen and negotiate with an entire planet, it is important to underline that this negotiation should occur bioregionally (an identifiable geographical area of interacting life systems). Berry stressed this, as do Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff in their book, The Tao of Liberation.*** Hathaway and Boff state that humans must learn to “fit ourselves into the ecosystem and natural economy of the particular place, rather than trying to mold the place to suit our personal taste (albeit, presumably, some mutuality of shaping does occur).” This negotiation of liberation, of place and space, is best done at the bioregional level.

    In the next blog, it’s time to look at all we have discussed in light of the climate crisis facing our planet.


    * Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and ed. John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

    ** Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).

    ***The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009)

    An Eco-tethered Liberation Part III

    In the preceding discussions on an eco-tethered liberation, I have taken a broader, more holistic cosmological look at evolution. This way, the liberative goal rests on allowing each subject to follow its evolutionary impulses leading to greater differentiation, subjectivity, and communion.

    It is important at this point to stress what I am not implying here: some rosy poetic harmonious fantasy world where everything is peachy keen.

    Some ecotheologians might be accused of this (for instance, Sallie McFague, who quotes Isaiah 65:25, where “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox”). These authors are not taking into account and, therefore have not fully realizing, the implications of scientific evidence on evolution when generating their ethics (author Lisa Sideris, by the way, does a good job of explaining this: see below*). From a biological view, then, these thinkers tend to downplay or gloss over the dark and negative Darwinian processes of the natural world, such as predation, competition, and disease.

    In the cosmological view of liberation I have put forth, however, animals (humans too) and other organisms still suffer from predation, starvation, and other sometimes gruesome privations. And all this will continue whether at the hands of the human or not.

    Shaking your head? Perhaps the crux of the matter rests on how we understand suffering.

    Diarmuid O’Murchu** (a refreshing faith educator and insightful author by the way) offers a helpful framework in this regard by introducing the concept of paradox. Pain and destruction, like creation, are all part and parcel of existence. This is the paradox of existence we will have to accept. That a wasp generates her offspring by inserting her eggs into an unwilling caterpillar who, after time, serves as the host of the hatching eggs whose larvae then eat the caterpillar from the inside out before flying away, is horrid in our human hearts. We have little control over these dark paradoxes within the cosmic processes, so we’d be better off coming to terms with their reality. We do not have to understand them, and probably never will.

    Braconid wasp Aleiodes indiscretus laying eggs in a caterpillar (Wiki)

    Human induced suffering, however, is a different matter. O’Murchu makes a distinction between the cosmic process discussed above and human processes; he also calls these differences meaningful and meaningless suffering respectively. Meaningless suffering, he maintains, is all too often marred by “wrong human intervention” or human ignorance (you name it, all those generated through greed, fear, lust, hate etc.) and, for this reason, any suffering that arises from such human processes is senseless, holding no meaningful significance. Obviously, this type of suffering must be avoided or eased.

    Ironically, a lot of these meaningless problems in our world are actually generated when we humans start wishing for the paradoxical type of suffering (like death and aging) to ‘just go away’. This is something ecofeminists (feminist thinkers who see parallels between the domination of women and the domination of Earth), have been talking about for some time (see Rosemary Radford Ruether for instance ***).

    When we strive for a pain-free world devoid of depletion and destruction (and some ecofeminists will tell you this is a trait more often found in men than women), more often than not, we set in motion our attempt to control life processes. This controlling action lies at the root of wrong interventions, which lead to meaningless destruction, poverty and marginalization.

    The lesson here is this: while we cannot always make sense of the cosmic processes of destruction and suffering, accepting the paradox underlining this type of suffering might curb our obsessive goals to manipulate the world around us. Another ecofeminist lesson: we are humans who age, wither and die.

    Obviously, I am concerned here and in my discussion of messy ethics with the human non-genuine, meaningless and exploitative practices. How do we ensure these practices do not occur? Returning to the metaphor of a busy and crowded train station that began this discussion of messy ethics, the answer is not so straightforward when we are dealing with multiple liberations: we now have to ensure that a single subject’s liberation – and now not just between human subjects, but among human subjects and other-than-human subjects (trees, birds) – does not impinge on the liberation of an other-than-human.

    This is the big question. I will need to spend time on in subsequent blogs!

    ~ Simon

    * Lisa H. Sideris, Environmental Ethic, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003)

    ** O’Murchu, Adult Faith, Growing in Wisdom and Understanding (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 134-135.

    *** Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994)

    An Eco-tethered Liberation Part II

    Continuing our discussion of how the entire universe can express liberation, we are looking at what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry suggest are 3 principles or intensions that govern the universe. These principles are differentiation, communion, and subjectivity.

    Differentiation, can also be thought of as increasing diversity or complexity. Some of you might recognize it in biological terms: mutation. However expressed, this principle refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. When the universe burst out in every direction some 13 billion years ago – in what is commonly referred to as the Big Bang – there was an expansive and differentiating force at work. This force embodied the pervasive insistence to create anew, which means no two things are completely alike. To exist, is to exist differently from all else! Diversity in all its forms becomes important. Think how important this intention of the universe is: were it not for differentiation, the universe would be one blob of sameness.

    The principle of communion immediately came into play after the Big Bang when the universe began, as forces pulled the primordial particles together. Communion can also be referred to as interrelatedness, interdependence, or kinship. Biologically, think of it as natural selection. This intention infusing the universe gives all subjects the ability to relate to other subjects or realities. Communion is relational. All in the universe is related or bonded. This bonding enabled the first atomic beings of hydrogen and helium to form. This bonding through gravity helped galaxies to form over billions of years (today there are over one hundred billion galaxies).  This bonding has continued and, eventually, as Berry likes to put it, because of communion, the music of Beethoven also came into being. This bonding, then, plays an important physical and, when you think of it, poetic role for the universe. Berry puts it well: “without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.”*

    From NASA, the galaxy called NGC 3749. It lies over 135 million light-years away.

    Subjectivity is a bit more difficult to grasp at first, because we like to think of the universe as a collection of objects. On the contrary, the universe is filled with structures that exhibit self-organizing dynamics. Think of these dynamics as interior numinous (fancy term for spiritual) factors that are present in all reality. The biological term for this is autopoiesis or even niche creation: this is the self-organization and self-articulation or interiority of all beings. You might also think of it as consciousness. And since all living beings, including humans, emerge out of this single community (from the first non-second of the Big Bang), it is likely that there must have been a consciousness component of the universe even in primitive form from the beginning.

    Here, you might be noticing something: subjectivity connotes a power or spontaneity that each thing has to participate directly in its own flourishing. Where have we heard this definition before? Liberation!

    From a cosmic level, then, we see how, in an analogous way to human self-participation, liberation can apply to all of creation. Each subject follows its evolutionary impulses leading to greater differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. It is not just the human, but the rivers, trees, and animals who ought to be free to follow their own interiority without the domination from political, economic, or social structures. This is what I was referring to in in my earlier blog (What Type of Ethics, Part IV) where we see within ecosystems a complex and diverse community of producers, consumers, decomposers, and detritivores, celebrating a certain form of subjectivity.

    It is important to understand that I am not implying here any romantic notion of reality in life where there is no suffering. I’d like to touch upon that briefly in the next blog entry as I move into what an eco-tethered liberation might mean.

    ~ Simon

    * Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 46.

    An Eco-tethered Liberation Part I

    So far, we’ve established what a messy ethics might generally look like, and why it is liberation and not simply social justice that should be the thrust behind it; we also touched upon why we must seek the liberation of all creation, not just humans. Before dealing with multiple ways of knowing (as I suggested in the last blog), we are first going to have to dig a little deeper into this inclusive understanding of liberation, because, ultimately, I want to explain a new form of liberation, one that is crucial to the functioning of messy ethics: I call this eco-tethered liberation.

    A sign at Ignatian farm in Guelph, Ontario. What speed is Godspeed when liberation of all creation is at stake?

    Let’s be clear: it is the destruction of all creation – not simply humans, certainly those that are poor and/or oppressed – that is at stake. As liberation philosopher Enrique Dussel puts it, we live at the end of a five hundred year-old hegemonic (a fancy term for living under dominance of others) system that has reached “absolute limits,”* the ecological destruction of the planet and the destruction of humanity itself. As a result, he maintains, we find ourselves constantly searching for solutions to problems we have to think about for the first time.

    This is where messy ethics (and, as we will see, eco-tethered liberation) fits in: conventional modes of ethical thinking are not helping us create sustainable and just communities. How we live in our globalized world matters; yet, as we have seen, the right action is not always so obvious.

    It is for this reason that the liberation of each subject becomes vital: each subject (person, toad or tree) must become the author of her/his own story if we are to foster a just and sustainable world; and to make this happen, a communal conversation must take place (hence, multiple ways of knowing). But I am getting ahead of myself.

    At this point, consider that since the environmental crisis sprouts from the same roots of economic, racial, and political oppression, liberation ought to be universal.  The logic that exploits peoples for the sake of a few rich and powerful, is the same logic that destroys ecosystems; in other words, there is a causal relationship between the exploitation of humans (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals where the poor live, as they don’t have the clout to fight us”) and the natural world (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals into the ground, after all it is just matter, an object to be exploited; besides, it has no legal standing”). That’s why I love what ecotheologian Charles Birch writes:

    It is a cock-eyed view that regards ecological liberation as a distraction from the task of liberation of the poor. One cannot be done without the other. It is time to recognize that the liberation movement is finally one movement. It includes women’s liberation, men’s liberation, the liberation of science and technology, animal liberation, plant liberation, and the liberation of the air and the oceans, the forests, deserts, mountains and valleys.**

    So how are we to understand liberation for all creation?

    It’s going to take a few blogs to fully explain this. I only touched upon it in the last one. To be sure, in discussing the impulse for liberation of other-than-human creation, a scientific cosmological perspective is helpful. As I stated in the last blog, the thinking of Thomas Berry is needed, but so is the thinking of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme.

    Here, assuming the form-producing dynamics of evolution to be the same at every place in the universe, Swimme and Berry suggest that three principles or intensions govern the universe.*** The authors identify these as differentiation, communion, and subjectivity. Only when we understand these three governing principles, they maintain, can we begin to understand the cosmology or, as Berry prefers, the story of the universe, which they portray as a cosmogenesis (to denote its constant creation or changing and developing nature).

    While neither Berry nor Swimme ever proposed the word liberation, my contention is that these same principles form a basis for an evolutionary impulse to liberation.

    On the subsequent blogs entries, I will explain these impulses as described by Berry and Swimme, starting with differentiation.

    ~Simon Appolloni

    *Enrique Dussel, Ethics of Liberation: In an Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans.
    Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo and Nelson
    Madonado-Torres (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 39.
    **Peter W.
    Bakken, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Ronald Engel, Ecology, Justice, and Christian Faith: A Critical Guide to the
    Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995), 10.
    ***Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).

    What type of ethics is appropriate for our time? Part IV

    I deliberately speak of “liberation” in this blog and not “social justice.” Moreover, how liberation is understood is unique. This might sound confusing because often the two terms are used interchangeably.

    At one level, liberation, like social justice, implies a freedom from social, political, and/or economic domination or manipulation. However, liberation goes somewhat further in purpose. Important to the liberative process is that the person, or subject, participates as an agent in her or his own freedom from oppression. Think of it like building dwellings for homeless people. While both social justice and liberation principles demand that there be an ethical duty to build a house, liberation principles insist that the people who are to live in the houses participate in its design and construction.

    I said there is a unique understanding of liberation. What is unique about it? The uniqueness is in how we define “subject.” This line of thinking comes from Thomas Berry, the great thinker who has helped many people concerned about the environmental destruction we are creating to re-imagine who we are and what our relationship with the universe ought to be.

    Working from what we understand from the latest science of cosmology, quantum physics and biology, Berry maintains that the universe is “composed of subjects to be communed with, not primarily as objects to be exploited” (See his book, The Great Work, 82). This makes sense when you consider that all things on or of Earth are composed of the same cosmic stuff. We are stardust, sisters and brothers with all creatures, connected not only to the first living cell, but to the supernova whose implosion led to the creation of solar system.

    In this way, a frog is a subject, as is an ant. But so is a tree and a river. These subjects possess some form of self-organization and self-articulation. In other words, at the cosmic level, liberation entails following evolutionary impulses, which means it therefore applies to all creation.

    If you still think this is odd, consider this biologically: we find within ecosystems a complex and diverse community of producers, consumers, decomposers, and detritivores, celebrating a certain form of subjectivity, all interacting within the boundaries imposed by their physical surroundings. Through time, and by the processes of mutation, niche selection, and natural selection, each member of the community helps shape life: the detritivore (an earthworm, for instance) will ingest, then digest dead organic matter, from which a producer (a plant, for instance) receives nutrients.

    The global environmental destruction we are bringing about is therefore impinging on the subjectivity of all creation. These evolutionary dynamics are being radically altered by our actions: even large consumers such as cheetahs, hippos, and gazelles are no longer evolving in the wild, but through interactions with human structures and actions; their location, size, and populations are in many ways determined by humans.

    So when I say ethics today that ethics necessarily has to be messy, you can begin to see why: we have to seek the liberation of all subjects. And this means we must consider the voices of not only individual humans and their communities, but the other-than-human, whereby these subjects also participate as agents in their own freedom from oppression.

    In short, to the extent possible, liberation must include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community. Messy? You bet! But there is more, ethics today must also include multiple ways of apprehending reality.

    Photo by Skitterphoto on

    What type of ethics is appropriate for our time? Part III

    The preceding posts show that current approaches to ethics are proving ineffective in addressing the deepening poverty of countless human beings, the destruction of distant communities, the extinction of countless species, the acidification of our oceans, and the warming of our atmosphere. Why? Because these problems represent complex and difficult to-resolve circumstances that emerge at both the global and local levels, arising from a number of factors. Put another way, if the problems are messy, shouldn’t the approach fit accordingly?

    Consider the picture of the train station I have been using for these posts. If any of you commute on a daily basis like I do, you will know what this picture represents: people having different locations to go to, each with varying abilities and different schedules and urgencies; some are returning home, others going to work. They are transferring to/from commuter trains to either walkways or local transit entrances. Some are trying to go left to go buy some coffee, while others have to defy the current flow to buy tickets or upload money onto their transit cards. This assumes all people are travelling at the same speed. What about the poor woman with a cane? Inevitably, there is always one poor chap (me, many times!) that needs to cut a path perpendicular to the main flow just to go to the washroom! Messy!

    Photo by Skitterphoto on

    In my experience, even when commuter stations are very well designed (that is, where entrances, exits and locations of facilities are well placed to maximize the smooth flow of traffic) – and I find few are – there are always times when a worker needs to step in to clean spilt coffee, or when someone receives a phone call from home and suddenly needs to reverse direction.

    Hopefully, you see what I mean: ethics should be messy because life today is messy. Sure, you can maximize the greatest flow of people for the greatest good (utilitarianism) through design, but there will be those whose life-needs represent the minority needs. You can legislate definite justices (wheel chair accessible routes) or paths to ease flow, but life happens. Ideally, we would like to find a larger portion of people engaged in self-improvement (trying to do the virtuous thing, like being courteous and patient), and this helps. But on a global scale, this is not (yet?) feasible.

    So, much like the metaphor above, I am proposing a messy ethics, one that has no ‘how-to’ manual. I do not apply this term in a derogatory sense to imply careless reasoning, though. Nor do I suggest that “messy” conveys a system that is chaotic, where “anything goes.” Yet, if messy is understood with its other meanings to convey a process that is complicated and difficult to work with, and lacking in precision, in many ways this characterization is not entirely inaccurate.

    Ethics today will necessarily have to be is complicated, difficult to work with, far more humble in what we can presume to know about the world, and lacking in precision. It will have to be relational and based on the lived realities of the local in communion with the global. IN other words, it is viable not in spite of the “messy” character to it, but because of it.

    What more precisely will a messy ethic look like? This is more complicated to say; and I do not propose to have any one full answer, at least yet. I do know that it involves focusing on liberation rather than justice.

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