Two lists

Or in plainer text:

Diversity = Variety, Biodiversity (including gut/diet), Social diversity, Cultural diversity

And is associated with:

Resilience, Flexibility, Creativity, Openness, Life, Growth, Novelty, Change, Evolution, Variation, Expansion, Freedom

Monoculture = Sameness, Industrial agriculture, Social homogeneity, Group think

And is associated with:

Fragility, Rigidity, Brittleness, Monotony, Routine/repetition, Boredom, Control, Death, Insecticide/herbicide/ecocide, Extinction, Narrowness, Dependency, Addiction, Obsession, Totalitarianism, Oppression

Culture wars = a tool to enforce monoculture

Just imagine

Imagination = the capacity to conceive of that which is not actual/actually present to us

To see how things might become different from what has seemed permanent, for good or ill.

Without imagination it is impossible to take seriously the prospect of climate collapse until it happens, or to conceive of the social and other changes that it might bring or that might prevent the worst possible outcome.

Without imagination it is impossible to empathise with others whose lives and circumstances do not resemble our own.

Without imagination it is impossible to think outside our presuppositions, to question our own certainties.

Imagination which can reach beyond the mundane actual connects us to philosophy, art, humanity, mind, to the future and the past.

(Cf. Yuval Noah Harari TED talk on human domination being based on ability to coordinate action in very large numbers flexibly, and the role of fictions like money, nations etc. in this coordination.)

Here’s an irrelevant image, unless you can imagine a connection:

charcoal self-portrait
Charcoal 2022

An ethical digression

[letting the middle P of PPE have an airing]

When I was a newly-arrived undergrad, exposed for the first time to the idea of philosophy and the terms and characters of ethics, ‘consequentialism’, ‘deontology’, JS Mill and Immanuel Kant, I leapt to the glib conclusion that the utilitarians were obviously right and Kant (as I dimly understood him) wrong. How could duty matter more than happiness? How could doing something out of respect for the moral law matter more than the actual effects of your actions? Of course you’d lie to the axe murderer at your door!

But now, decades later, I find the calculations of utility less appealing, and the idea of acting out of a good will seems a stronger, firmer pole for a moral compass. If only consequences matter, not principles, there are so many excuses, so many get-out clauses available to weasel out of responsibility or honour: It doesn’t matter – no one will even know, everyone else does it, or: just one more plastic bottle in the sea causes less harm than the convenience to me… etc. etc.

But duty doesn’t let us off. It is, as Kant has it, categorical, absolute. And, like virtue (the third leg of the ethicist’s stool), it is a matter of who we are, not just what we do and the effects of our actions on the world.

You may say there’s no point in fighting a losing battle against climate change or tyranny. You can’t make any difference as an individual caught in the machine. Take the easy road, make the best of it, make hay while the sun shines. But duty (or virtue) says, ‘not in my name’. My small choices cannot stop the sixth extinction, but if the human species is to leave a world impoverished, I don’t want to be a thoughtless contributor to that end. Just so, citizens protest against the warmongering of their governments, in hope of effecting change of course, but beside hope, in acknowledgement of a moral imperative: this is wrong and I would not be part of it. ‘Duty’ is an old-fashioned word, but I have heard it lately, from the mouths of Earth Protectors, doing their best to preserve and restore ecosystems.

The other word that goes with ‘duty’ is ‘respect’, respect for the moral law, respect for moral agents as ends not means, respect for our own ability to choose, respect which applies absolutely, not just if it makes us (or the sum of us) happier. But when it comes to living together on this finite world, perhaps we need some virtues too – to counter the hubris of ‘treating humanity always as ends not just means’, of being ‘legislators in the kingdom of ends’ (Kant again) – primarily humility, and recognition that we are in not on the world.

We need the habit of respect for the ecosystem; we need not to have to deliberate about whether to buy that, throw that away, eat that, abstain from that. We need a way of living that makes the right things not necessarily easy to do, but easy to choose, because they come naturally. Individually, we need to hone the right instincts and habits; socially and politically, we need to build the right institutions, so that those institutions support and enable, rather than undermining and frustrating, our best intentions.

It takes a village to be human

Further musings on what ‘rewilding ourselves‘ might mean (partly in response to Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass)

Robin Wall Kimmerer contrasts the ways of life of immigrant society in America with those of the indigenous peoples, but here in one of the ‘old countries’, even those of us who lay claim to a British heritage, whose ancestors stayed behind in the ‘old world’, have little in the way of indigenous knowledge, in the sense she means. We live more like our immigrant/emigrant relatives in the US than like any indigenous community.

My family history (half Welsh, a quarter English and a quarter Scottish) sounds pretty ‘indigenous’ to Britain, but I grew up with one parent whose sense of uprootedness never left her. (Hiraeth they call it in Wales, though, to her regret, she was forbidden that native tongue.) We were foreigners in Yorkshire, where I was born, marked out by non-local accent and vocabulary as ‘posh’. (Though I doubt that those of my forebears who sailed to imperial outposts were classed port-out-starboard home’.) Only when I left Yorkshire did my accent turn out to be a Yorkshire accent after all.

There were a few fragments of earthy indigeneity we absorbed, part of the culture of childhood: collecting conkers, making daisy chains, ‘telling the time’ with dandelion clocks, squeaking a blade of grass held taut between the thumbs (I don’t even have a phrase for that), firing the heads off plantain stems, rubbing our nettle stings with dock leaves, …

In my forgetfulness, lately, on those rare occasions when I’ve been stung by nettles, I’ve thought, when feeling the tingle a day later, that nettles must be getting fiercer or my skin more sensitive with age. But thinking that, was I just forgetting what my younger self knew? – when you get nettled, look for dock leaves to soothe the sting – something I learned so early I can’t remember who taught it to me. And I’m afraid that that forgetting is so deep I can barely remember the look of dock leaves.

It seems likely that younger generations will have even fewer such relics of a childhood embedded in the natural world, as now, being a digital native in a virtual techno-world is more common than any other kind of mother wit.

In childhood, the landscape that caught my breath, and my imagination, was the misty, treeless, sheepy moorland we would pass through on the annual summer pilgrimage to Wales, but that too was a colonised, manmade landscape, though I took it for ‘wild’, a landscape of which I had only a tourist’s experience.

Our British sense of place has long been more a matter of human culture than of ecology; of kingdom, nation and empire, not what grows under our feet. And if we ‘know our place’, what we know is where we belong in a social hierarchy, not how to be part of our local biome. Is this why we tend to express our impoverished sense of nativeness by rejecting the ‘other’, even when we invited ‘them’?

In this class-based society, there is a rootlessness at every level – the (unelected) elite are free to come and go, to move their wealth off-shore, to keep their hands and minds thoroughly clean of the work or knowledge of subsistence, while the rest of us are dispossessed of any intimate relationship to the land by the structures of private property. How far back would we have to go to find anyone living on these islands in anything like the way of an indigenous people, in the ways RWK describes? – the enclosures of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Norman conquest, the Bronze Age?

The counterpart to the indigenous society is not the immigrant society so much as the hierarchical society. Immigration is not the only way to lose one’s roots. We may not have pulled up our roots, to find a better place half way round the world, but they have been eaten away by systemic disruptions, leaving us rootless, precariously attached to the ground.

Rewilding is another way of saying rehoming.

Life in the state of nature is described by Hobbes and imagined by many an apocalyptic movie as nasty, brutish and short. This depends on an image of human nature as inherently competitive and isolated. But if there is anything to the notion of human nature at all, it is surely that humans are naturally social, uniquely cultural, linguistic, sharers of knowledge and practices – forms of life, as Wittgenstein put it, he who challenged the notion of a private language. It takes a village to raise a child, they say. I’d say, it takes a village to be a human being. That is, it takes a community of collaborators who recognise the essential reciprocity of life.

Hobbes thought the solution to the horrors of his imagined ‘state of nature’ was provided by the Leviathan of an absolute State, powerful enough to impose laws on unruly, warlike people, struggling over scarce resources. And we have built an economic hyperobject that is so vast that the networks of connection are practically invisible. The individual nodes in the network can feel isolated, self-sufficient, self-absorbed, each ‘nuclear family’ separate from its neighbours, an atom in a vast anomic array of replaceable parts. This Leviathan seems to have spawned Hobbes’ fragmented world of competitive, disconnected individuals, not cured it, and the presumption of scarcity is embedded in its ideology.

In our alienated system, interdependence and mutuality are hard to grasp. Instead of communities bringing various skills and inclinations together, we seek to create communities out of similarity, to build our sense of self and our politics out of ‘identity’ (which means ‘category’ – of race or gender or sexuality… and the acronyms grow to refine the divisions); instead of functional, practical communities of complementary differences, we create virtual bubbles of agreement and ‘other’ the rest. A sustainable community will need difference – of abilities, even of species.

There’s a connection between unrootedness, disconnection, and the denial of reality expressed in projections of unlimited growth etc., in that unrootedness enables obliviousness. For instance, the modern way of keeping death hidden in hospital rooms, out of sight, out of mind, echoes the way we (media, politics, etc.) try to keep the inevitable end of ‘business as usual’ hidden away. Perhaps a community that accepted death as a shared part of life might do better at facing other realities of finitude.

Kimmerer focuses on what she calls the scientific worldview as a feature of the non-indigenous – but I wonder, should it be technology, not science in general, that is emphasised here? Technology, which invokes functionality and means–end thinking, rather than understanding or simple curiosity, and which separates people from each other and from nature, in that it hides the individual’s dependence on other living beings, human and otherwise, behind machinery. (Imagine one man with a tractor as opposed to many with hoes, or a few with horses… .) And, of course, technology can augment social inequality because it can be more or less accessible. The possessor of the hardware or the know-how has power. Without it, we are all more or less the same; we have similar bodies and the same number of hours in a day and our need to collaborate is very clear.

The epitome of the hierarchical, technological, monetary view of the world is provided by those tech billionaires who see a solution to the eco-crisis in colonising other worlds – constructing artificial biospheres to be accessed by space arks, carefully designed and no doubt exclusive in their passenger lists.

If this all sounds a bit Luddite or ‘back-to-the-Stone-Age’, I don’t think it has to be. It is surely not impossible to keep the virtues of technological development, without losing our social and natural connections (connections that even technological society depends on, however veiled they are). Must technology necessarily displace and fragment all the ways in which we can be embedded in our community and ecosystem? Is it technology itself or its effects in combination with the dominant political and economic systems that bring us to this state of unrootedness?  As ever, it is hard, but necessary, to resist the over-simplifying, essentialising, universalising account, which blames one or another single cause for all our ills: ‘human nature’, agriculture, technology, capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and similarly looks for a single solution. It’s bound to be more complicated and knotty than that.

(yes, I know this isn’t really relevant – but ropes and knots are among the technologies it’s hard to do without, and every blog-post should have a picture!)

Ceremony – a fiction

When they came to know that a leaving was imminent, they would start their preparations. An auspicious date would be chosen and invitations sent out to beloved friends and relations. The boatwrights would carve or build the canoe, according to the way of their people.

And a bonfire would be readied on the sands, built of driftwood and thatched with reeds to keep its heart dry until the time came.

The guests would arrive in the days before, walking or riding the old roads. And they would each sit for a while with the honoured elder, speaking or quiet, receiving gifts of memories and wisdom.

At the chosen time, on a day of calm and a night of stars, they would gather on the shore and light the sweet-scented fire. The honoured one would be seated in warmth and comfort, where they could see the horizon and the fire’s flames. And around them there would be singing and laughter and hands to hold. And tears.

And at last, they would bring the parting cup to be taken and drunk with clear eyes.

***

When the fire and the singing had fallen to glowing embers, they would lay the honoured departed in the canoe, and with charcoals from the fire’s hem they would mark their farewells on the hull, in words or images. And a scoop of hot coals would be taken from the last of the bonfire and placed in the well of the canoe, and the bearers would take up the slings lying ready beneath and carry the swaying vessel down, over the shining sand to the shallow fringe of the sea and beyond, until the water could uphold the load, and the canoe, finding a current, drew away from the shore.

Then, in a quiet dawn, the people would look on as the flames of the canoe shrank and merged with the sun’s flame on the sea, and the honoured one rejoined the world. Afterwards, returning to their homes, they carried with them the coals they had taken from the dying fire to write their messages, and placed them in the heart of their own hearths.

Castles in the air

Fantasy castles

built of money and hot air,

ever-rising on fossil fumes –

should their bubbles burst, their flames snuff out,

will they fall to earth,

‘tumbling in turmoil’, as the minstrel* has it?

Or, escaping gravity, ballastless,

rise at last to attain an airless height,

to freeze or burn

in the solar wind?

*Paul Simon, Graceland

Rewilding ourselves

Following on from the last post but one (and heavily informed by my recent reading, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert):

What might rewilding humans, rewilding ourselves, consist of?

Releasing ourselves into the wild?

Releasing the wild in ourselves and in the spaces we inhabit – re-greening the city, re-embodying movement.

But also re-rooting ourselves – re-embedding in our places – reconnecting to the material sources of our subsistence (where ‘material’ means not monetary but physical and living systems).

Globalisation and financialisation have led to negligence or ignorance of our place in the biosphere. We have come to imagine our human world as a detached (virtual?) layer, sliding like silk, weightless, frictionless, over the planet’s grittiness. We rarely need to understand or even think about the complexities that underlie our lives, except those of the getting and spending of money. Anything you might need or want is available anywhere, anytime, as long as you have the cash. And any problem is presumed to be solvable with enough money, the universal solvent, the perfect lubricant. (And anything that can’t be, that falls outwith the realm of money, is thereby ruled out – in the world of supply and demand, demand is only expressible in terms of spending; if I have no money to spare, my ‘demands’ are invisible, if the thing ‘demanded’ is not marketable, it too is invisible.) This unanchored worldview will tend to lead to oversimplistic ‘solutions’ to narrowly constrained problems, ignoring the real interconnections that cause unintended consequences.

This is not new: consider the colonial powers’ presumptions that overriding natural boundaries was harmless, indeed, desirable, that taking livestock or crops around the world for our own convenience, would not adversely affect their new environment – rabbits and cats to Australia, etc. But this disruption is ever more all-pervasive in our click-and-collect lives. Blithely, unthinkingly, we and our consumer goods travel the world, breaking links or making new ones, slicing up habitats with ‘development’ and roads or transporting invasive hitchhikers into long-established ecosystems.

Consumer society trains us in a kind of mass attention-deficit disorder – adverts, news stories, fashion – what’s the next big thing we need to see, to get, to know, to wear…? Social media exacerbate this – swipe swipe swipe – keeping your hands and eyes occupied with ever more quickly changing stimuli, changing but also more or less the same – a canalised flow of repeating images, catering to a directed and tailored gaze. And when it comes to our homes, we are supposed to strive to get on the housing ladder where, in spite of the mantra, ‘location, location, location’, the goal is always to move up, move on. Don’t put down roots, don’t plan for the long-term care of this home, this ground; it’s only a step on the way to a bigger, better, more expensive property – property, not place. That is, we don’t live in homes so much as invest in a market (if we are lucky enough to take that first step up from the rootlessness of renting).

But this unending stream of busy-ness, consumption and acquisition is paradoxically passive – we receive the products of a system we are largely oblivious of and which we do not control. Our principal form of agency is purchase/consumption of things, ideas, media. (NB, when the consumer carousel screeches to a halt because of a pandemic, it seems that some people find the time to look harder at their lives and to want a different way to be…)

When speed and convenience are the order of the day, they enable or even enforce lack of thought, lack of sustained, deep attention. Think of the difference between walking through a natural landscape – where you might need to pick a careful path or choose to stop and look at a beetle or the sky or any number of unexpected things – and driving along a motorway, where the path is smooth and stopping is only allowed in an emergency. Or the difference between ordering online with a click and going to the shops on the bus, or even growing/making what you need yourself. Between ‘just-eat’-ing a take-away, guaranteed to be the same wherever in the world you are, versus local food cooked to a recipe developed over generations to suit the particulars of soil and season.

The rooted, the slow, the repeated being in a place, the walk to school, the tending of the garden – such things allow for, or rather demand, observation of details, of changes large or small, with time of year or time of day. (Compare the ‘city break’, flitting in and out, ‘doing’ a tourist destination in a day.)

Sustainability needs to include sustainability of thought, of feeling, of attention –

So: walk – give yourself time to be in the world

Be still – give yourself time to listen

Draw – give yourself time to look

Write – give yourself time to think

Plant a seed or a tree and take time to see how it grows

Rewilding ourselves means existing actively, engaging with our places, being transported by our own limbs and moved by our experiences of the uncurated, the unedited, the unmarketed, the undomesticated, the unfiltered world. And learning from those experiences – learning how we depend on and affect the more-than-human world, how we subsist in its webs and how easily we can disrupt them if we’re not careful.

Releasing ourselves into the wild means escaping from a worldview, a technology of being, an abstraction, a myth of freedom as disconnection, as carelessness, as self-containment, as indifference, as anyplace, floating like a Sim in an artificial, domesticated nowhere; it means stepping into the reality of connection, of mutuality, of uncontrollability, in this place, on this ground, among these living others.

Books worth reading

(PS there’s more on this chain of thought in a later post)

the worm in the apple

Revisiting an old image, I made this linocut:

the worm in the apple (artist’s proof)

which led me to compose a little list poem:

a maze – an apple – a rind – a wind – a skein – a skin – asking – a plea – a leap

escape the maze

Getting the lettering right was a bit of a struggle, what with mirroring letters for the linocut and then turning the lino while working on it and finding some of them now looked ‘right’ (i.e. wrong!) because they look the same when mirrored or rotated. That is, the rotation ‘undoes’ the mirroring, if you lose track of which way is up. It was clearly beyond me after a while, hence the backwards s. But that little squiggle gave me the title, which then seemed to apply as well to the whole image as to the s typo.

Happy accidents (and not a total non sequitur from my last post).