The Messenger: What is Ecological Thought?
Part 1 of N
Midwifing Ecological Thought
In last week’s newsletter 👇🏾 we started talking about midwifing ecosystems. When Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not Socratus, who are writing this newsletter) said he was the midwife of wisdom, he meant that conversations with him would produce a certain kind of thought in others.
Last week’s newsletter:
We (i.e., Socratus) are hoping to midwife ecosystems by evoking a certain kind of thought in those who engage with us. What kind of thought might that be? Let’s call it ecological thought.
What is ecological thought?
Instead of telling the answer, let’s see if we can evoke it. Some years ago, the American writer Ursula le Guin wrote a novella called “The Word for World is Forest.” If you believe the title, the forest is a model for everything, including thought. It’s not the only such model. Perhaps the most influential model for thought is the city, extending our minds with brick and steel. Perhaps we are being romantic, but if the city spawns mechanical thought, the forest is fertile ground for ecological thought.
That ideas comes in both northern and southern versions. From up north, there’s Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Traveling south, but on the other side of the world, there’s Li Bai’s Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain:
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
And finally, we cross over the Himalayas into India, where Tagore articulates that insight so:
To think ecologically isn’t to think about forests but to use forests to think about everything - including forests - like how Frost and Li Bai and Tagore are doing. Pay attention to what Tagore says above:
There’s no such thing as absolute isolation in existence…..through the interpenetration of our being into all objects.
Tagore is thinking ecologically by noticing the interpenetration of those beings with all other beings. When Li Bai says ‘we sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains’ he is allowing himself to be fully interpenetrated by the mountain. Both Frost and Li Bai’s poems use ecology to talk about the fundamentals of human life - what is life’s purpose and how might one walk on that path?
But ecological thought isn’t always ennobling or about raising our consciousness to a higher level. It’s important not to romanticize ecological thought. It’s not only about expressing harmony with nature, but to notice that interpenetration even when it leads to tragedy.
Beyond Ecological Romanticism
We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed millions of victims and has changed the politics and economics of the entire world. What will be the long term impact of the pandemic? Here are two clues, make of them what you will:
Half the population of Europe died in the Black Death and the ensuing labour shortage raised wages for workers.
The lack of immunity to those very diseases among the indigenous populations made it easier for Europeans to conquer the Americas.
The fate of nations is tied to ecology, and the recognition of that fate is also ecological thought. Just we study ecosystems using mechanical models, we should be able to study machines with ecological models. As the temperature heats up, both literally and figuratively, we will see increasing calls for two frameworks:
One assimilating the planet to the machine. Public works to extract carbon, protocols and institutions for sea level rise and managerial solutions for droughts and forest fires and all the biblical tragedies that are bound to affect us.
The other imagines ecological thought writ large, a system that takes the unsustainability of the current regime as an opportunity to bring society and nature back together, that privileges ecology over the economy and puts forward entirely new ways of being human.
These aren’t the only two models. There’s always authoritarian capture (which can be combined with both 1 & 2 to be honest) or system collapse, but those aren’t visions of future flourishing. Vacuum cleaners at a planetary scale aren’t to everyone’s liking, but at least they’re some people’s idea of human ingenuity.
Should machines swallow the planet or should the planet swallow the machine?
North is a relative term. From the standpoint of Bangalore, the woods of Vermont are way up north. Not so much if you live in Vermont :)