The Legendary Roots Crew, A History Boy, 07/10/2013

Today continues from Friday’s post about how Michel Serres conceives of how humans engage with the conditions of their origin, their roots. I deal with the concept of roots in my ecophilosophy manuscript, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly. Environmentalist rhetoric sometimes focusses on roots; less so today, but more frequently in the past. The idea of this rhetoric is that in becoming technological, humanity has forgotten its roots in the natural world, thinking we can use our scientific knowledge to disconnect from nature. But this is a lie, goes the rhetoric, and the only authentic place for humanity is to be rooted in their ecosystems, acting only to maintain delicate ecological balances.

That’s a pretty loaded passage. So I’ll let you know, in short form, where I stand on these ideas as I wrap the ecophilosophy manuscript’s edits this week. I agree with the environmentalist idea that we humans have no idea of the cascading effects our technologies cause on the world in which we still live. And I’m not even talking about climate change. Take the example of our monoculture farming system: it’s had enormous effects on the ecosystems of regions that surround it, and on the honeybee populations that we need as the lowest-cost way to fertilize crops. Even aside from our pesticide and fungicide use, the changes to the ecosystems where monoculture farming is implemented cause complicated effects on the whole region.

I sometimes think of Heidegger as the brilliant thinker
and influential writer whose fundamental mistakes
ruined a lot of good enterprises.
But the talk about authenticity and rootedness becomes dangerous. I discussed Luc Ferry’s critique of environmentalism as inherently totalitarian on Friday, and I presented a paper on it at the 2010 Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in Montréal. His argument definitely has some straw in its joints, as he uses Nazi propaganda about the authentic place of a people in its soil and their pre-war policies of protecting aesthetically pleasing threatened species to tar all environmentalism as fascist. But his earlier book about Heidegger’s philosophy helps give some actual weight to his arguments that, if not openly fascist, then environmentalism is anti-Enlightenment. Heidegger’s thinking about the nature of authenticity (and even what that term meant, depending on what period of his writings you approach, 1927’s Being and Time, the Beitrage era of the 1930s, or his explicit critiques of technology in the 1950s-60s) isn’t something I can encapsulate in a few hundred words of a blog post. But as far as the relevant discussion goes, Heidegger could be said to have advocated leaving Enlightenment humanism behind.

Basically, this means he considered humanism to have popularized the idea that humanity was separate from nature or being, that a human could define themselves entirely on their own power and their own terms. According to Ferry, this attitude revealed a deep truth about human beings, the core of our creative abilities that democratic political institutions, in part, exist to protect. In contrast, Heidegger said such an attitude caused horrible effects, where we stopped paying attention to the genuine complexity of our world, and saw everything in existence only as a resource to exploit. The only antidote to this rapacious behaviour is to re-orient our thinking away from the humanist perspectives that would deny the complexity and value of nature. Ferry said that turning away from humanism means turning away from our freedom.

Though they’re both right, the proper path for thinking on this problem isn’t just splitting the difference. One of my goals in the ecophilosophy manuscript is to figure out how to think in a way that what appears in one framework of reasoning as irreconcilable contradictories can instead be ported into a different framework of reasoning where they can co-exist. In tension, perhaps, but they would co-exist.

Even today, I feel a strange pressure from the way my friends
who still live in Newfoundland revere every word that
tumbles out of Allan Hawco's mouth. While I'm glad my
friend Krystin has had solid work for the past few years, I
find Hawco popularizes the minstrel-like "Goofy Newfie"
stereotypes that have always offended me.
It’s a matter of distinguishing between ecological relationships and personal histories. The ability of humans to emancipate themselves from the conditions of their birth is a relation of an individual to her personal history, at heart an ethical issue. I’m reminded of the complicated relationship I have with my own home province of Newfoundland. Growing up, and especially during the province’s oil boom in the 2000s, I was constantly reminded by the culture that surrounded me that I had a duty, as a Newfoundlander, to be true to my roots and always want to live there. But for personal and professional reasons, I wanted to pursue my writing and university career in Ontario. When I visit St. John’s, I’m even admonished for not having a noticeable Newfoundland accent. I never had one. My distaste for the nationalism of my home was, honestly, one of the factors that pushed me away. 

The lessons of environmentalism and its philosophies could more correctly be called ontological, a matter of the relationships and forces that constitute the physical world itself. I explained the idea above. Ecological science reveals that many of the physical systems we take for granted as stable and unchanging are in fact generated and sustained by ongoing dynamic processes. These processes are resilient most of the time, but can be disrupted catastrophically if some degree of uncommon disturbance pushes them over a threshold. And ecological scientists are incredibly far away from mapping all the critical thresholds that could possibly occur in all the different and various ecosystems on Earth. This labour may take so long, and require such detail of observation that it will never finish. The message of environmentalism is that, where we now know our world to be potentially very fragile and we’re nowhere near comprehensive knowledge of how those fragilities function, we have to be really fucking careful. And in most industrial technology, we’re giants who barely know how to tie our shoelaces.

Stated this way, you can plainly see that these are different problems. But Heidegger’s philosophy merges the ethical with the ontological (his distrust of science as an aspect of technological attitudes toward the world as resources to be managed certainly didn’t help him see the problem with this). Human authenticity is defined as fidelity to an origin. Ferry depicts this as denying that humans should have the power to define themselves as individuals, or rebel against conformity to a society that constricts them. Neither understood that these are separate domains of thought and utterly different problems. 

Working out the solutions to both is the task of contemporary environmental philosophy.

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