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 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.

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 II

Photo by Skitterphoto on

The preceding blog entry reveals the inadequacies of conventional modes of ethical thought today. Within the reality of a complex interconnected world, simple, reductionist formulas (like utilitarian’s ‘greatest good for the greatest number’), rigid or decontextualized procedures (like deontology – who wouldn’t lie to save someone’s life), deny justice to countless subjects, endless communities and ecosystems. Even the concept of justice, while generally understood at the abstract level, when applied at a concrete local level, could mean adversity for countless other subjects.

No longer can we ignore what is right and good for other-than human subjects (more on that later), future generations, and subjects at the other end of the globe.

Take the concept of ‘common good’ a prominent principle of Catholic social teaching as an example. This principle refers to the ‘sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily’ (to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1906,which is really something Pope John XXIII wrote in 1961 in Mater et Magistra). What does the common good even suggest when the projected rate if biodiversity loss is human caused and so massive in proportion to normal species extinction rates, that it constitutes the 6th major extinction in Earth’s history?

In short, humanity is being faced with problems that seem to defy easy characterization, let alone clear solutions. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’.

So what are we to do? Certainly doing business as usual won’t help. We cannot separate events from context, the local from global, nor – and this is the big one – the other-than human subjects (toads, giraffes, trees and rivers) from human subjects. An ethic appropriate for our time will have to embrace all these realities.

An ethic I am promoting to do this is what I am calling ‘messy ethics’, one that is complicated, difficult to work with, far more humble in what we can presume we know about the world, and lacking in precision. I will unpack what messy ethics consists of in the next blog.

~Simon Appolloni