The Turbulent Present
The English poet John Donne’s familiar phrase, ‘No man is an island entire of itself’, attests to a profound veracity that bears a special significance during times marked by widespread climate breakdown and biological annihilation, widening socioeconomic inequality, and the erosion of social cohesion amid the hyper-individualism of neoliberal capitalism. The prevalent myth of individuals as isolated atoms encapsulated by the infamous Thatcherite maxim, ‘there is no such thing as society’, is not only ethically and politically problematic but, crucially, ontologically false. From the cellular to the global level, there is no such thing as an ‘individual’ in any absolute sense. All organisms are embroiled in and thoroughly constituted by mosaics of relations with others – human and non-human – without whom we literally could not be. As such, any sorts of rigid boundaries between ‘Self’ and ‘other’ – along national, geographic, racial, gender, species, etc. lines – are not only untenable, but ethically and politically bereft. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a most recent by-product of the unsustainable exploitation of natural ecosystems and species characterising the Capitalocene era, has further – and powerfully — underscored our inextricable interconnectedness with our terrestrial counterparts. It has shown how the actions of one minute organism can set off social, economic, and political shockwaves across the globe. And during times of climate and ecological breakdown, our viral and microbial symbionts might react in increasingly unpredictable ways, as in 2015 when unusual weather conditions in Kazakhstan caused usually friendly bacteria living in the tonsils of saiga antelope to proliferate out of control, killing 200,000 of them within weeks. In this short piece I maintain that the essential task of (re)constructing more liveable worlds within and beyond the turbulent present will require not just fundamental transformations in how we eat, travel, power our homes, and think about work, as the IPCC urges. We need radically different worldviews and ethical-political sensibilities founded on care and respect for our terrestrial kin and the complex natural systems that support us.
Rethinking Self-Other Relations
“The new, hard problem will be to cope with the dawning, intensifying realisation of just how interlocked we are. The old, clung-to notions most of us have held about our special lordship are being deeply undermined…we are shared, rented, occupied” (Lewis 1978).
A central pillar of Western thought rests on the idea that individuals – seen as distinct and separate from one another – come prior to social relations. Western worldviews have also long been based on hierarchical and dualistic constructs of the human-nature relationship, with human ‘subjects’ positioned as categorically separate from and superior to an inert non-human world. The Western logic of dualism — by denying interdependence and casting the ‘other’ (historically non-Western people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and nonhumans) as separate, inferior and therefore sacrificial – has served as the theoretical justification for their exploitation and oppression within colonial, patriarchal and capitalist systems. Within humanism, another dominant feature of the West, nonhumans appear as the most hyper-separated ‘others’, variedly portrayed as soulless, mindless automata lacking agency and intentionality, and reduced to the status of unseeing objects merely seen by human subjects. However, many critical scholars in the posthuman tradition have sought to challenge anthropocentric approaches to agency and its traditional association with rationality. For those like Bruno Latour, agency ought to be conceptualized as the ability to make things happen and alter courses of events outside of oneself. On the basis of this definition, and in light of Capitalocene socio-ecological upheavals, a somewhat paradoxical realisation comes to light: humans (especially the super-rich, who have a substantially larger carbon and environmental footprint than the average citizen) appear as major players, though far from the only entities with the abilities to make big things happen. We are witnessing a world reanimated, populated by all manner of agentic nonhuman persons — superstorms, infectious diseases, greenhouse gases — who move and react powerfully to human actions.
Thus, the Western anthropocentric hyper-separation between purportedly isolated human subjects and inert natural objects appears not only ethically problematic but also ontologically erroneous. Prior to the ‘Self’ and ‘other’ is the ‘we’ as a ‘being-in-common’ of singularities; in other words, the supposedly sovereign ‘Self’ is always already a ‘We’. Insights from complexity theory to numerous indigenous philosophies reveal that it is relationships with our myriad earth kin, from micro-level interactions to macro-level interchanges amongst global socio-ecological systems, that constitute the foundation of existence. Consider the countless microorganisms in our gut that aid digestion and compose part of our skin as the very barrier differentiating the inside (oikos) of the ‘human subject’ from the outside, and the hundreds of thousands of fragments (or traces) of ancient viral DNA integrated with our own. Our DNA, the bacterial symbionts in our cells known as mitochondria, our skin, and all other aspects of our ‘selves’ contain others, just as the wider biosphere now bears traces of us in the form of microplastics found everywhere from rain water to sediments in the deep sea. The thousands of species of microbial symbionts that constitute the human ‘microbiome’ are thought to outnumber human somatic germ cells by a factor of 10, so that the ‘human’ is in reality a thoroughly hybrid entity, a composite of microbial and human cells. Individuals in the pure sense don’t exist; we are all intergenerational achievements constituted by multiplicities of others across vast spatial-temporalities. These dynamic multi-actor entanglements form what the philosopher Timothy Morton aptly refers to as a ‘mesh’ with no absolute centre or delineable edge. There is no ‘outside’, never a time or space where ‘we’ are and others are not; rather, we are precisely through our relations with others.
Segue into Non-Western Worlds
Other ways of viewing and relating to the nonhuman world have long pre-existed, persist alongside of, and will come after Western-Capitalist modernity. Much anthropological research has revealed that many Indigenous peoples, from Brazilian Amazonians to the Alaskan Koyukon and Australian Aboriginals, exhibit relational ontologies. This a way of perceiving the world wherein persons always exist in-relation – with their kin, ancestors, communities, the nonhuman world”; and, crucially, for many indigenous peoples, nonhuman entities are no mere mindless automata but are seen as agential, knowing, and feeling. Moreover, an ethics based on “reciprocity, respect, sustainability and spiritual-material interconnection” echoes throughout Indigenous philosophies across the globe. For instance, for the Navajo – a Native American people of the Southwestern US – the concept of Hózhó is central, which denotes ’right relations of the world’, including human and nonhuman beings. Human and nonhuman kin are, as Donna Haraway observes in her seminal work Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, “of the world as its storied and dynamic substance, not in the world as a container” (p. 91). A key ethical responsibility upheld in daily social life is to honour and maintain ‘right relations’ with the human and nonhuman kin we share our terrestrial existence with. For the Yolŋu, an Aboriginal people in Northeastern Arnhem Land, Northern Australia, our relations with others are intimately tied to the places that we co-inhabit, wherein we are not merely on but of the land or country; the latter, crucially, doesn’t entail the territorial notion of a ‘homeland’. Rather, as Sandie Suchet-Pearson and fellow researchers working with the Yolŋu observe, country encompasses “humans as well as waters, seas and all that is tangible and non-tangible and which become together in a mutually caring and multidirectional manner to create and nurture a homeland” (p. 186). The land, other human and nonhuman persons are never for you in the sense of something to be owned or exploited at will, but with you as kin.
Ethically Inhabiting the ‘Now’ with Our Terrestrial Kin
Binaries between Self/other, Society/nature, etc. and the idea of the nonhuman world as a separate realm there for our taking remain firmly embedded within dominant approaches to contemporary ecological crises. Discourses around ‘sustainable development’ propagated by influential bodies like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) continue to reinforce notions of ‘Nature’ and other species as mere resources with only instrumental value. In other words, we ought to protect them largely because they are essential for human continuity. In order to respond adequately and ethically to the sweeping spatial-temporal reconfigurations wrought by a global pandemic, climate and ecological breakdown, we will need to radically rethink how we relate to others and conceptualise the collective ‘we’. We need a new stories that value the myriad terrestrial kin with whom we always intra-are as more than mere means to our ends, and as entities with their own valid ways of knowing and being in the world. And, following Rosemary-Claire Collard and fellow researchers in their wonderful work, A Manifesto for Abundant Futures, we must also reckon with past “discursive-material processes of annihilation, displacement, and replacement” driven by imperial capitalism that have led to our current state of ‘ruination and ecological impoverishment’ (p. 323). Then we might collectively come to grips with how to ‘make kin’ with our terrestrial counterparts amidst damaged and reconfigured landscapes, building a world “literally filled to the brim with different creatures” (p. 323). And we already have a plethora of alternative ways of being to draw inspiration from – namely the world’s myriad indigenous traditions, many of whom see human and nonhuman worlds as interactive and indivisible, and are guided by ethics of care, attentiveness and respect for our co-terrestrials. Their existence serves as a testament to the enduring possibility of other ways of living and being. This is not to say that there will no longer be contradictions or conflicts amongst Earth’s inhabitants. There is no perfection or purity to be had, for as Haraway reminds us, there can be “no guarantee or the expectation of harmony with those who are not oneself” (p. 98). Rather, the messy politics of ‘living together’ requires respectful and careful navigation, and continual attempts to account for as many voices as possible.
Image: Louise Potiki Bryan / Internet