Agency in the Anthropocene
How much choice do you actually have?
Are you a natural-born killer?
One of the major questions we face as the ecological emergency deepens is whether or not we humans are natural, in the same way that the rest of the biosphere is. If we are natural beings who evolved with everything else, why have we had such a hugely detrimental impact on that biosphere, which also happens to be our home?
This is worth asking because most other living organisms, according to the latest research we have, are recognisably co-evolutes: they (and we) evolve together, and to a large degree (with obvious caveats) in cooperation with one another. (This does not mean cheetahs do not chase antelope, just that when they get faster, so do their prey, and vice versa). Lynn Margulis calls this process of evolution as involving the cooperation of different organelles endosymbiosis.
If humans are natural, then they evolved along with everything else. Many evolutionary biologists, from Roberto Cazzolla Gatti to Janine Benyus, have shown that there are stages to evolution of biosystems that begin with pioneer species, which are less cooperative, more competitive, and shorter lived (think of fireweed in a freshly cleared area of what had been forest). These move on to more complex, dynamic and diverse systems which are more cooperative, and more long lived (like a rainforest). Human activity fits the first model better than the last although, of course, for humans we have the capacity to know this, and that makes things more complicated (Elizabeth Sahtouris has written extensively about this).
Some philosophers, including Richard Watson, metaphorically shrug at the inevitability of our demise:
Yet this jars: our predominant understanding of human choice is that we have a large degree of freedom in how we choose to live. What job we choose, what friends we associate with, the kinds of past-times we decide to pursue in our leisure time, whether or not we have children, whether or not, in a pandemic, we decide to accept lockdown requirements, whether or not we become fully aware of, and respond appropriately, to the ecological emergency. All these, we believe, are freedoms we can exercise. And yet the emergency deepens.
This prompts the question, do we really have no choice about our self-destructiveness, to the point of extinguishing civilization, and all the suffering that this entails?
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”
In philosophy, we can focus on the question of our freedom of choice through the prism of moral agency, that is, our ability to choose to do something that is morally good, or beneficial, or something that is morally bad, or harmful.
Paul Taylor, an environmental ethicist, describes moral agency in his book, Respect for Nature. Putting aside the question of choice, he extends Immanuel Kant’s idea that you should treat an individual (human) as an “end in themselves” rather than as a thing that can be used for other ends (like slaves) or as a unit that can be counted against other units (which is what utilitarianism does). If our agency is the sense in which we are free to choose what to do, then our moral agency is the sense in which we are free to choose to do good, or evil (that is, to mitigate, or inflict, suffering, or deliberate harm or destruction).
Taylor extends what should be treated as an end in itself beyond human creatures, to include any biological entity. He argues that the only reasonable, rational attitude to have towards individual biological entities is respect, in the same way that we grant the dignity of respect to every human individual on the basis that they have their own life goals, or ends, to pursue, and are not there at the behest of anyone else. That, at least, is the theory behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Taylor just increases the circle of consideration beyond humans to include nature, hence the title of his book and the name of his theory: Respect for Nature.
Our understanding of the world has changed, however. We now recognise that evolution is not as simple as Richard Dawkins’ proposal of ‘the selfish gene’ suggests, and in fact is likely to take place in a cooperative, rather than competitive way. Gatti extended Margulis and Sagan’s work on endosymbiosis, the theory that evolution is fundamentally reliant, as a process, on symbiotic relationships, to what he called endo-geno-symbiosis. This is the idea that endogen ‘gene carriers’ share parts of their genome in a symbiotic relationship with their hosts. We do not evolve alone, or selfishly.
The boundary between living and non-living is also much more permeable than it seems. For Daniel Fouke, in his essay, “Humans and the Soil” (Environmental Ethics, 2011), we are co-evolutes not just with the living organisms, but also with their surroundings — the minerals, water, temperature and chemicals in the air — that in turn influence the kind of evolution that takes place. From trees interacting with fungi (described in Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees), to the microflora in our own guts (described in David Quamenn’s The Tangled Tree: a radical new history of life), the line between where one species ends and another begins, or between where the living/non-living boundary lies, is becoming less and less clear. Timothy Morton in Being Ecological, says that things are ‘are much more mashed together than we like to think, and also much more distinct’. This goes all the way from the quantum to quarks, and includes consciousness itself.
We have distinct bodies within our skins, of course, but they are permeable, in constant interchange. We breathe in, eat and drink, sweat, bleed and cry. Without these interactions we, like all other living systems, would die. Mostly, when we consider other species, we do so at roughly our own scale: worms and whales. But countless species of microorganisms remain unidentified by us because we are only beginning to understand that our classification systems break down at the microscopic: single celled organisms, or microbes, do not behave as individual organisms, whether in their entwined relationship with multicellular organisms, or while acting in apparent independence in the soil.
If we are enmeshed in systems, and inseparable from them, then our ability to locate an “I” who chooses what to do becomes dizzyingly tricky. If we are inseparable from our gut flora, from the bacterially derived mitochondria in our cells, from the virally derived portion of our DNA, then who is driving the show?
Sam Harris in Free Will brings this up to the scale of every day consideration: we did not choose to be born, or where, or when, or to whom, or even how, or any of the early things that happened to us, or what the weather is like today, yet those things create the vast majority (or even all) the features that influence what our brains “decide” that we should do. This all leaves us with little to grasp when it comes to considering how we can claim freedom of choice for ourselves.
Pivotal reorientation: looking East
This implies, fellow humans, that we have a problem: we are on a path to self-destruction, and we don’t have the kind of freedom we normally ascribe to ourselves. Does this mean we are on the juggernaut heading for a cliff with no way to press the brakes or turn the wheel? I don’t think so.
Because there is a different area of philosophy we can explore which offers us an opening to freedom, and the language of which illuminates our evolutionary self understanding.
Jason Wirth and Graham Parkes are among a cohort of distinguished comparative philosophers (philosophers who compare philosophies from different cultures) whose focus includes the ecological emergency. They and a growing cohort of others have studied how East Asian traditions of thought envision our relationships with nature and with our own awareness. In the Dōgen Zen tradition of thought, the practice of being aware, which is called “practice-realisation” is the embodiment of “buddha nature”. “Buddha nature” has the characteristics of being fully enlightened, of understanding the nature of existence. If we understand the nature of existence, then we manifest the Buddha’s fully aware compassionate understanding of the interdependence of our own awareness co-arising with all else. This state is also the acknowledgment that we can, in this state, release (or at least work to release) the bonds of suffering, which is also the bondage of attachment, or conditioning.
When you compare these two worldviews — the view of us as totally enmeshed, and the view of interdependent co-arising (Thich Nhat Hahn famously used this phrase) — you can see some clear parallels. But we can go further. The philosophical understanding of consciousness is that it is embodied but also able to self-reflect and this capacity gives it additional qualities. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch are among many in the global North to investigate this phenomenon from a philosophical perspective. James Austin shows in Zen and the Brain how different brain states shift not only how we experience the world but how the world unfolds as a consequence of our awareness. While this might sound mysterious, there is something very authentically testable about the hypothesis. What is happening right now? As soon as you ask yourself the question, your mind has the capacity to adopt a more fully aware state.
Moreover this state has been investigated by practitioners and theorists, and Dōgen, among many other Zen masters, has described the elicitation of an attitude in response to this awareness. Paul Taylor said that the rational attitude to take when we understand that biological entities, or organisms, are “ends in themselves” in the same way humans are, is respect.
But understanding the nature of interdependent co-arising elicits a deeper, more fundamental attitude than respect, and one that is referred to often in East Asian traditions: compassion. When we understand that not only humans but all existence experiences suffering as it co-arises, the rational attitude this elicits is compassion.
We do, therefore, have a kind of agency, a kind of freedom. We have the freedom to pay attention to what is going on, both formally, by practicing meditative states of awareness on a zafu, but also informally, by making the effort to be aware of what state we are in, as a practice, or discipline of mind. When we elicit this state of mind, and the compassion that it elicits, then we find options arising into our field of awareness that otherwise would have remained latent, or hidden.
You do not have to be a Buddhist, an atheist, a Christian, Muslim, Jew or any other ideologue to experience awareness, to practice realisation, or to attune to compassion. When you picture someone you love suffering, compassion arises, and this shifts how you act towards them. You are more inclined to explore options that benefit them than you would if you were distracted by having to react quickly to the phone ringing, or a glass breaking. It takes a huge effort to maintain the level of compassionate awareness that they call in Zen the Bodhisattva’s Vow: understanding that the self does not have the boundaries we can see, but that our interrelationship extends infinitely, and that we therefore continue to suffer as long as anything is suffering.
This view of things is very different from the traditional Cartesian narrative that the human will is directed by some sort of homunculus located in a mysterious part of the human psyche, which is somewhere inside, and yet not inside, the brain. If we are entirely enmeshed, this kind of dualism makes no sense. There do seem to be two things going on: if we are entirely enmeshed, how can becoming aware of our enmeshment lift us out of the trap of cause-effect? The answer lies in the nature of human consciousness and is also at the nub of the problem of our being both natural, and self-destructive.
Lucidity in action
If we think ourselves separate from, and particularly superior to, the rest of existence, then we will tend to act on the illusion that we have powers and rights that simply don’t exist. This hubris will be our downfall. If, on the other hand, we work hard at shifting how we see ourselves, and at practicing realisation, or awareness, and eliciting an attitude of compassion, we can, paradoxically, find ourselves acting naturally. We can find that what is good for the systems that created and sustain us emerges into our awareness, and that the compassionate, or loving act, becomes a possibility.
In Zen and Daoist literature, the difference between human and other systems does not lie in their capacity to exercise this potential, but in their capacity to realise that they are exercising it.
The stories we tell ourselves about how we came into being, and what capacities we have, shape those capacities enormously. Changing the story changes the relationship. Human agency is, in a sense, a meta-system, driven by the same conditions that drive all systems — energy dissipation — yet able to reflect and so (to a degree) alter them. It is a system few of us engage with at the moment. It requires effort to practice realising it. Yet it is the potential we have to shift how we relate, and therefore respond, to the ecological emergency. So it is urgent and critical that we wake up to this capacity now.
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Dr Lucy Weir is an independent researcher, writer and facilitator whose emphasis is on philosophy as a practice, particularly in response to the ecological emergency, a phrase that encompasses both the urgent and critical nature of the Anthropocene and our collective inclination to deal with its impacts as though they are happening outside us. Her writing and facilitation focuses on addressing this fragmentary approach.
After a number of years volunteering in the global South, her postgraduate career began under the supervision of the late Emeritus Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Programme. After moving to Ireland, the catalyst for Dr Weir’s further research, encompassing the wider philosophical and social issues of the ecological emergency, was the Corrib gas controversy.
Publications and contributions to publications include Fleeing Vesuvius (FEASTA, 2010), 1001 Ideas that changed the way we think (Quarto, 2013), 1001 quotations to inspire you before you die (Cassell, 2016), Love is Green: compassion as responsibility in the ecological emergency (Vernon, 2019) and Urgent Matters: philosophy as practice in the ecological emergency (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). Information about current and upcoming courses and consultancy work can be found at www.knowyogaireland.com.
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