Here’s another vlog I made for my university class, this one on our desire to control, and in some cases kill. I am using Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as an example where alternative paradigms for managing crops have been side-stepped in favour of what she calls ‘biocides’ (DDT). Even today, we see the same desire to control through dangerous insecticides like neonicotinoids. And just like in Carson’s day, these are being created and championed by corporate greed.
I’d like to try something different this blog: a vlog. I recorded this for my university class, but it applies directly to the subject of messy ethics: to whom do we grant universal [ethical] consideration? On what basis? How do we discern among competing considerations? Take a look and let me know your thoughts. ~Simon
It has been 5 years since publishing of Laudato sí, Pope Francis’ encyclical On Care for Our Common Home. Laudato sí is a frank (pun intended), and science-based account of what we humans have done to our common home, having made it “look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS 21).
There is much in it that resonates with the principles of messy ethics. I wish to name 4 things:
It recognizes the messy situation we are in: we have altered the climate, destroyed the quality and quantity of fresh water and brought on biodiversity loss to dangerous proportions. We have wreaked havoc on the quality of human life, especially the lives of those in the global South.
It recognizes the messy responses required: It seeks the common good and inter-generational justice, and it fosters a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.
It recognizes that the problem – and therefore solution – we face is, in many ways, a spiritual one, as Francis calls for humans to an ecological conversion, a spirituality that “proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption… In this way of living, he says, ‘less is more’” (222).
It recognizes our tyrannical or distorted anthropocentrism and related unconcern for other creatures when Francis states, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” (83), adding “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (68).
Recognizing these four aspects marks Laudato sí as a pivotal shift in Catholic thinking on the environment, bringing Catholicism to a more foundational place (in word at least), by aligning the cry of the Earth with the cry of the poor.
However, when it comes to Catholic anthropocentrism, it does not go far enough. While exhorted not to be tyrannical, humans are still ‘stewards’ of all creation (236). Yes it is “a fragile world,” but it was “entrusted by God to human care” (78). He goes on, “Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems (81)”
At one point, he quotes John Paul II: “God [has] given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given … (centesimus annus 115). Notice that Francis did not quote John Paul II when he also wrote about, “the mastery of man over nature created by God and placed at man’s service, …” (Redemptoris missio, 58), or when John Paul II said “Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble ‘master ’and ‘guardian,’ and not as a heedless ‘exploiter’ and ‘destroyer’ (redemptor hominis, 15).
Francis is trying to distance his teaching from that of his predecessors, which is good. It is not enough though. Words matter. And so do facts: bees are far better ‘stewards’ of pollination of the myriad plants who foods we enjoy. Phytoplankton is brilliant as producing oxygen out of carbon dioxide. We suck at it. Detritivores are the real ‘masters’ of decomposition and recycling.
Humans should have no greater a role in the world than to be in awe of it, and, to borrow from the thinking of Sallie McFague, take only our share, clean up after ourselves, and keep the house in good repair. And that’s it! Enough with the noble steward talk! No more anthropocentrism, even if putatively benign.
When Catholics hear “take care of creation,” “you possess a uniqueness” or when they are told they possess a “mastery over nature created by God,” and that nature is “placed at man’s service,” they hear only one thing: “you are above it all.”
Want proof? Forget when we recycle or vote for more bike lanes, that’s easy. When we are told – by the natural world itself – that we cannot fly, or build our houses in a flood plain, or that we cannot cull a wolf herd just because it is eating our calf, or that we must cease eating so much beef asap, because producing it is destroying the habitat of millions of other-than-human subjects, or that we must stop consuming, and so on, we have existential tantrums.
Aldo Leopold, writing in the 1940s had it right when he suggested humans demote themselves to ‘just plain members and citizens’ of the natural world. Albert Schweitzer, writing even earlier, proposed a philosophy of ‘reverence for life,’ an ethic of life widened to universality. And here’s the crux of both these new visions of humans in the world: when conflict happens, we don’t simply get our way as has been the case; we negotiate with the natural world. Schweitzer writes, since all “creatures live at the expense of other creatures” [noting that humans are not exempted from this reality], ethical living demands a constant discernment or weighing of the options.
Still, somehow, some Catholics still have this strong craving to feel unique. Perhaps environmentalist and author Bill McKibben offers them a safe ‘specialness’ the rest of creation can live with. He even calls it a unique ‘superpower’: to choose NOT to do something. He says, “The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing.”
But there’s a catch with this superpower I would add: we don’t get sidekicks. In fact, if there are any, we are the sidekick to all of Mother Earth!
Sallie McFague. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
Aldo Leopold. “The Land Ethic,” by, pp. 237-264, in A Sand County Almanac. New York: Balantine Books: 1966/1970.
Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer : Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by James Brabazon. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005.
Bill McKibben. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Wildfire: 2019
Have you noticed that bread making is on the rise lately? Apart from toilet paper, flour and yeast appear to be the items most likely out-of-stock in stores. Is this surprising? What if anything does bread-making require? Time. And time is something we have more of these days. Time is being put back on the agenda of life, as our prior fast-paced world of doing, working, consuming, parenting, eating, cooking – and even resting (think power naps!) more is being stifled.
Is this a bad thing? Some economists, who live by the mantra, “Time is an invaluable commodity”1 are far too focused on lost GDP, decaying markets and stalled innovation.
On the other hand, this crisis we are facing could be a glass-half-full scenario for us, a “kairos moment,” as the ancient Greeks used to say: making the most of the time. This can be a time to change our focus away from GDP as a measure of progress, as a way of unshackling ourselves from the vagaries of the soulless market, and less meaningless consumption, and yet all with even greater innovation than previously seen.
Time is not a commodity, or money. Time is life! And what is life about, at least within a messy ethics framework? Living gently within creation, among family and loved ones in community, tending with mercy to those who are suffering, seeking justice for those left behind, and becoming more humble as a species (realizing that we are not in control of this vast beautiful creation). If this sounds familiar, it should be. Jews and Christians will recognize it from their scriptures; according to Micah 6:8, it’s really all God requires of us! 2
To be clear, God did not will this crisis. But I believe God is helping us to use it as a kairos moment. In fact, God’s been helping us on this issue for some time now. The “slow movement,” I suggest, is part of our response to what we in the industrialized North have been hearing within our hearts for some time: put an end to our crazed and unhealthy living. You probably first heard of this movement as “slow food.” Started by an Italian, as a reaction to a McDonald’s opening up in Rome’s revered Piazza di Spagna in 1986, it has since grown into many forms: as “slow parenting,” “slow aging,” “slow consumption,” “slow fashion,” and even “slow professor”!
While not all the same in their expressions, what all these “slow living” movements have in common is a call to change how we live our daily lives, namely: living life at a more natural pace; making sure our actions are sustainable with ties to regional-local means of production and consumption; finding meaning and purpose in all that we do; doing more ourselves and within community; and – of course – doing less.
But how are we to really grasp what ‘less’ means? Pope Francis in Laudato Sí says himself, “less is more” (#222).
I find environmental writer David Orr’s, article called “Slow Knowledge”3 helpful, as he compares the cultures of fast and slow. While he speaks specifically of ‘knowledge’, the lessons to life as we live it are relevant. “Fast knowledge,” always considers more knowledge to be better, and knowledge that is used for our use is better than any knowledge that is merely contemplative. “Fast knowledge” brings us oil spills, unemployment, poor mental health and poverty. In contrast, “slow knowledge” is adjusted to fit a particular ecological and cultural context; it promotes resilience, wisdom, and humility. It tries to avoid problems (before we create them).
Orr puts it this way: “Slow knowledge really isn’t slow at all. It is knowledge acquired and applied as rapidly as humans can comprehend it and put it to consistently good use.” He is really getting at the crux of our problem when he tells us that as a species we do not collectively learn and assimilate new ideas quickly; in fact, the opposite is true:
“A half century after his death, for example, we have scarcely begun to fathom the full meaning of Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolence,…Nearly a century and a half after The Origin of Species, we are still struggling to comprehend the full implications of evolution. And several millennia after Moses and Jesus and Buddha, we are about as spiritually inept as ever.”
It might be humbling for us to hear this, but we humans have not been created to know fast, eat fast, think fast, parent fast, consume fast or live fast – at least all the time, and certainly not at our current evolutionary state. We’re simply not that adept as a species.
But before we get our collective knickers in a twist – as an old Irish friend always reminded me not to do – let’s heed what I think Pope Francis means when he talks about “less” being “more,” in light of Orr’s message. Less is not simply doing without, any more than slow living is slow. A quality of life is implied. Less – and slow living – is living out our daily lives more abundantly, but only as rapidly as we can manage physically, mentally and spiritually. Less – and slow living – has us orient our lives to consistently good use for others in creation.
The rise of bread making at home is a hopeful sign for creation. It is an act we simply cannot do fast. My daughter (a pastry chef and, like others, unemployed), has been baking bread these days cooped up at her home. To be frank, I’ve not seen her this happy and calm for some time. She calls to check in on me and her mother; she is diligent not to infect others should she have the COVID-19 virus; she is careful to live with what she is receiving from the government; and she is offering bread-making-kits for friends and family (complete with instructions, and ingredients!) to those of us who are less bake-savvy. Isn’t this what God requires, and with a little innovation to boot?
The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing many things about our species: our vulnerability to disease is certainly a big one. That we can avoid, or at least lessen, the chance of such viruses spreading among humans is what interests me, but also what we can learn from this moment.
We are suffering greatly as a planet from a virus that crosses the species barrier. That pathogens spread to humans is not new. That they will likely continue to infect humans and at an increasing rate is. What might messy ethics say about this?
Wuhan’s wet market – where wild animals are sold for meat – is said to be the originator of COVID-19, perhaps through infected blood of a wild animal. SARS also came about through similar connections to wild animals. And Ebola in West Africa likely came about by humans eating an infected chimpanzee. Other viruses like HIV/AIDS and MERS also grew out of our proximity to wild animals.
But there seems more to all this than human exploitation of wild animals. In a recent article in the Guardian “Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?” Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL suggests these diseases are brought about increasingly through human destruction of the wild: “these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization, and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”
It’s not so much that natural ecosystems are a threat to us; it’s more that human actions that degrade habitats are increasingly putting wildlife under stress. It’s when we interfere with natural systems, when we erode biodiversity, “we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us,” says Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York in the same article.
A liberationist agenda calls for us to rethink our current exploitation of wild animals for food, research, entertainment, medicine and certainly for trophies. Moreover, it calls us to check our actions that encroach on the habitats of other animals. A further conversation should happen where we learn why some people need to depend on the exploitation of wild animals or the logging of rain forests in the first place. Likely, we’ll see how our life styles are a part of this mess.
Perhaps, with our current slowing down, purchasing less, a new norm of living simpler lives will kick in. Perhaps, our newly-recognized vulnerability to disease will awaken our compassion for those subjects – and that includes the wild animals with whom we should be sharing this planet – who suffer even more in other parts of the world.
I think that’s enough theory for now, don’t you? I’d be good now to see how messy ethics might play out in our interconnected, complex world, especially one suffering from COVID 19!
After all, messy ethics has to be a lived out, experienced ethic, not some theory applied off a shelf. Below is a recap of salient points of this ethic. They do not prescribe any one course of action; the truth will be found in the encounter!
In the meantime, stay home, physically – not socially – self isolate and let me know your thoughts. I welcome comments, ideas and challenges from all readers on the ten conditions for messy ethics (summed up below). Have I missed something? Is something not right?
Messy ethics: ten conditions
Messy ethics is just that, messy: it concerns itself with the global and local; immediate, past, and future, addresses the concerns of other-than-human subjects and not just humans in a complex interconnected world.
Messy ethics is focused on the liberation of all creation, making it eco-tethered.
Messy ethics nurtures liberations by seeking out conversations with the larger biotic community always with the goal of reciprocity, and the method of negotiation.
These communal conversations are best carried out within and among bioregions.
And if our goal is to include the voices and concerns of a diverse Earth community, particularly those whose expressions and anxieties are different from our own,
Messy ethics requires a different understanding of, and approach to, knowing, one that is relational and humble, and inclusive of many ways of knowing alongside rational discourse, such as dance, song, intuition and poetry.
Messy ethics requires a different understanding of who we are as a species: just ordinary members of the larger Earth community, learning how to live well (not better) within ecosystems and the natural economy.
Because of the above,
The common good, a goal of messy ethics, becomes a truly universal reckoning.
Messy ethics follows the principle of a preferential option for the poor, which 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).
Messy ethics calls us to learn to live with the paradoxes of our existence – those puzzling aspects of death and life that we spend far too much of our time trying to escape.
and related to the above,
Messy ethics requires the development of a spirituality of love, joy, humility, patience, forgiveness and inclusivity.
My apologies for the long absence from this blog. There is but one more post – certainly for this introduction to messy ethics – that needs discussion before we can go deeper into messy ethics: messy ethics requires that we all develop and/or deepen a spirituality of love, joy, humility, patience, forgiveness and inclusivity.
Really? You might say.
Hear me out.
Remember my earlier reference to a busy commuter station? I wrote:
People have different locations to go to, each with varying abilities and different schedules and urgencies… 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 … that needs to cut a path perpendicular to the main flow just to go to the washroom.
Quite simply, the rules of right and wrong in our world (not just a commuter station) are not always obvious or evident Trying to makes rules for all contingencies is impossible. Globally, our money is tied to unjust economic and social structures that exploit subjects all over; to know and to follow through with the right (just) course of action, is not always clear or easy to us, or even possible for us at all times.
Certainly, patience and humility will be needed. But so will some sort of constant discernment, discussion and negotiation. Consistently discerning the right course of action, or what might further the liberation of all creation, cannot come about with just with the rational analytic thought processes; a spirituality of love, joy and inclusivity, I suggest, is needed to help us (as Richard Rohr likes to put it) not remain addicted to our own way of thinking.
Now, by spirituality, I am not (necessarily) referring to following a religion. Atheists can practice a spirituality of love, joy, humility, patience, forgiveness and inclusivity. In fact, in some aspects, religion can get in the way of helping us develop such a spirituality. Too often, they function on a do-this-or-that-to-be-saved mentality. I love how Richard Rohr refers to this: low-level religion. Low-level religious followers are told to observe strict and narrow moral rules (from which they then judge others), choose sides (implying only their group has all the answers), with the end prize of fueling their ego (look at me I go to church/temple).
No, what I am referring to is the development of a way of being that makes friends with the unknown, the unfamiliar other, being comfortable with not knowing all the answers, a way of being humble that is communally oriented to all of creation.
Such a spirituality should be able to help us see our own darker side before we look – often too easily – at the shadows of others. It is a spirituality that does not let us play the victim, operate from fear, defensiveness or impulsive anger. It has to be a spirituality – and this isn’t easy – that helps us hold on to tensions and paradoxes of our existence that we spoke about in December.
Is there a path to such a spirituality?
There is not one, but many! There are diverse paths within traditional religions themselves: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I find the Franciscan spirituality, as professed by Richard Rohr (https://cac.org/) very helpful. I also find much of Buddhist thinking, as professed by Thich Nhat Hanh, invaluable, as I do Hindu spirituality as professed by Deepak Chopra for that matter.
The path to the spirituality I am talking about may not even be tied to any traditional religion, however (although I bet you’d find it hard to find one that hasn’t at least at its roots some religious elements!). New Age spirituality, I find, is too centred on the self and shallow.
Whichever spiritual route you chose to develop or deepen a way of love, joy, humility, patience, forgiveness and inclusivity, I surmise, if it is at all effective, it will likely be one grounded in a mystical experience of the sacred.
Continuing from the last blog, ‘To know’ is relational; that means we should embrace the past and present of a subject along with her, his, their dreams and desires of a future. It’s not just the past and future. We should embrace the participation from the voices of subjects from the entire globe, which includes the entire natural world (the immensity of this embrace is made easier by the importance given to bioregionalism, where the greater part of the conversation occurs – see blog 20 January).
Since there is this multi-strata to a subject’s story, knowing should occur in chorus with commensurate ways of apprehending reality: through sensory observation, at one level, for example or, in some cases, at an intuitive and even visceral level; the process of knowing uses dance, song, and poetry alongside rational discourse (think of it the way spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault* puts it, as using the mind, the heart and the body!)
To facilitate all these ways of knowing, there is a particular stance toward the subject that is important. This was well discussed by philosophers Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston.** Cheney and Weston are concerned with environmental thinking, in particular, as it is challenging the current relationship between epistemology and ethics. It is forcing us to rethink basic assumptions concerning ethics itself, which makes it helpful in our discussion of messy ethics!
Cheney and Weston put forth a method for genuine means of discovery, one that is being applied by researchers and environmental writers in general: they refer to this method as a stance or “etiquette.”
By way of example, these philosophers relate a story that took place in an animal training facility where academics and the handlers (animal caretakers) of chimpanzees were observed in how they related with the animals. The academics, who were there to observe operations in sign language, were, “psychically intrusive and failed to radiate the intelligence of the handlers.”
In contrast, the handlers “walked in with a soft, acute, 360-degree awareness: they were receptively establishing . . . acknowledgment of and in relationship” with all of the several animals there (hundred pumas, wolves, chimps, spider monkeys and Galapagos tortoises). The handlers’ ways of moving took into account the animals’ own feelings and awareness. They fit into the spaces shaped by the animals’ themselves.
What is going on here?
Ethics, and the love that precedes it, become primary. Rather than constricting the way to knowledge – as some people might object as being too Pollyanna – they facilitate it.
For one, there is no arrogant inquiry. Limits and inadequacies of knowing were recognized and accepted. This more humble stance contrasts with many ethical frameworks today where we must first know what animals are capable of, and only then decide on that basis and how we are to deal with them ethically.
In their alternative view, Cheney and Weston write, “We will have no idea of what other animals are actually capable – we will not readily understand them – until we already have approached them ethically – that is, until we have offered them the space and time, the occasion, and the acknowledgment necessary to enter into relationship.
In short, ethics – which is always relational – must come first.
Put another way, in contrast to conventional ethics, which have us treat the other-than-human world “as objects of domination and control,” we begin our inquiry of knowing by treating other subjects as valuable in themselves at the outset. There is no burden of proof necessary. All subjects have value, period!
And this stance should not rest just with other-than-human animals, but with other humans (think immigrants who are shunned, Indigenous women who are ignored, and the list continues), and with all of creation: trees and rivers too.
Ethics, and the love that precedes it, become primary. Rather than constricting the way to knowledge – as some people might object as being too Pollyanna – they facilitate it.
If our goal is to include the voices and concerns of a diverse Earth community, particularly those whose expressions and apprehensions are different from our own, there will be much learning (or unlearning) we will have to do.
Consider these 3 points:
We rely too narrowly on rational analytic thought processes to understand our universe, ignoring other diverse ways of knowing.
How we know and what we perceive of the universe is filtered by our own experience and standpoint. We will always need critical reflection and engagement with other subjects on what is perceived.
While I do hold that the universe IS knowable, it is knowable only to a degree. Think of it this way: we can never know parts of the universe separate from the whole any more than we can understand the theme of a musical piece by listening toa musical phrase without the earlier notes (a neat metaphor used by Thomas Berry). And since the whole universe is not available to us to know, we cannot fully know its parts.
So, knowing is limited, always filtered and relational, and comes to us in many varied ways. These points are important to stress since – ultimately – we DO want to know how much we can ever know and whether what we do understand is true.
Let’s start with point #1 above in how it relates to science as a way of knowing. I like how Thomas Berry approaches this subject of science and knowing: he says knowing the universe – or even just Earth – is like listening to a story. Everything tells a story. Yet, with the rational-empirical (only that which you can touch, see, feel, hear) approach alone, we are often unable to feel or understand the stories of the Earth. Berry sees stories coming from the universe as mysteries. Sometimes these mysteries can overwhelm us. Often, they cannot be expressed in human words.
We are having difficulties, though, in hearing and listening to the stories being told to us in the world. Berry puts it this way:
People generally experience an awesome, stupendous presence that cannot be expressed adequately in human words. Since it cannot be expressed in language, people often dance this experience, they express it in music, in art, in the pervasive of the beautiful throughout the whole of daily life, in the laughter of children, in the taste of bread, in the sweetness of an apple. At every moment we are experiencing the overwhelming mystery of existence. It is that simple but that ineffable.*
Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation between Humans and the Earth. Edited by Stephen Dunn, C.P., and Anne Lonergan. Mystic Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1995, page 11.
In other words, it is not just that we cannot know the world fully through science. Science, he maintains, is inadequate in certain aspects of understanding and, therefore, ought not be the only way of knowing the world. The main epistemological issue for Berry is that our scientific preoccupations have left us with a diminished sensitivity to the natural world. The world is also known at the intuitive, aesthetic and affective (think of feelings like love) levels.
This is why increasingly scientists are embracing a larger epistemological paradigm and beginning to experience a personal rapport with the Earth in their work. Take biologists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall who give names to the gorillas and chimpanzees they study (something previously unheard of in the scientific community: apes were given numbers; they were objects). Berry would content that naming these subjects is happening not through some analytic process, but through scientists absorbing their experiences with the natural world into their very being.
In other words, Goodall as a biologist is listening not solely to what her instruments are telling her, but to what she is being told through a deeper and more corporeal level.
There is obviously more going on here. Next blog, I’d like to explore this aspect of knowing – sticking with animals – a little more by looking at affective ways of knowing, namely using love as a starting point for knowing.
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.”
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).