Beneath our modern attempts at green lurks a fundamental ontological error that destines even the best environmental intentions to grey.
by Russell Maier & Banayan Angway
THE VIEW OF THE WORLD that has come to inform and guide our modern society is based on the words, ways and wisdom of great human teachers. From philosophers to prophets, emperors to kings, scientists to seers, their insights, dictates and examples have laid out the ways in which we discern good from bad, true from false, right from wrong — and, incidentally, centered our modern ideologies upon fulfilling human needs over those of other organisms. However practical this has been for human society, however successful it has been at achieving the prosperity of human civilization, it has utterly failed to achieve the ecological integration we so long for today. This is particularly clear as we recognize the ecological integration of those cultures that saw the non-human beings around them as kin, elders and teachers. As we saw in our last chapter, the contrast between the ecological enrichment wrought by kincentric culture and the ecological depletion wrought by modern human-centric society is as stark as it is revealing.
Clearly, when it comes to an enriching integration of human living within ecological systems, our human-centric ideologies are fundamentally inadequate.
And, beset with a foundational fallacy.
From Greek stories of human-gods ruling the world, to Roman legends of humans dominating it, western society has put humans upon a pedestal. From early astronomers certain that the sun spun around the earth, to biblical interpretations of man’s dominion over all creation’s creatures1, a belief in the centrality and superiority of humanity has become lodged in the depths of western collective consciousness. Over the centuries, as modern philosophy, religion, ethics and science have evolved, they have built layer upon layer on top of this ancient foundation.
In much the same way that many cities today are built upon the long-forgotten remnants of their ancient fore-bearers, the axioms of man’s exceptionalism have persisted in the depths of our modern ideologies. Even though biologists have long dismissed that humans are the top of life’s tree and astronomers have long disproved that the Earth is the center of the cosmos, the inertia of these ancient beliefs have lurched on as the undead defaults of our modern view of the world.
In this way, despite the prevailing scientific clarity that all Earthen organisms share ancestry and origins, connection and dependence, our modern views of the world have remained rooted in human exceptionalism. Alas, no matter how fiercely modern capitalists and communists, neoliberals and socialists, feminists and fascists may claim their vast differences, their underlying cosmological foundations are all but the same.
No matter the country or the continent, this human-centricism is all too evident in modern society’s denigrations of the homes of other organisms — the cutting of forests for wood, the destruction of reefs for minerals, the draining of marshes for land — that are all justified in the name of human needs and wants.
However, more poignantly, human-centrism can be observed in the very best of our modern environments attempts at green — in particular the language we use to talk about the organisms and ecosystems that we so long to love and protect.
In modern language, there is no word more imbued with the cumbersome weight of ancient metaphysical mistake than that of ‘nature’.
This term, used so poetically by environmentalists to compel conservation and protection of ‘the natural’ world, is alas seeped in human-centrism: an irredeemable division of man and nature, of culture and ecology, society and ecosystem. Upon this stark and fallacious dichotomy modern environmentalism is built — and our prevailing modern meaning of green. Derived from the Middle-English term environ, meaning to circle or surround, ‘the environment’ has come to gather a modern meaning of that which is around us humans, but not that which is us.2
For decades feminists3 and contemporary philosophers4 have observed that the environmental ethics that results from this human-centric foundation (laws, sustainability guidelines, UN goals, etc.) are locked into view of the world from a perspective human-time scale and human space, of human-rights, needs and interests. They pointed out that from this view, ‘nature’ is inevitably objectified: an object with which humanity is ever interacting with — managing, dominating, stewarding — yet never integrating within.
The ‘environmentalism’ that follows, strives to reduce harm, to protect and to conserve the ‘natural’ world that remains — managing and stewarding– but no more. Ontologically it is incapable of imagining any means for human ecological integration or contribution.
After all, how can humans contribute to something that is green and pristine (nature), yet as soon as it is touched or altered by human hands, it is no longer so?
Banayan and I observe that this conclusion is contrary to the lived experience of her people. As we saw in our last chapter, it is the opposite of the experience and legacy of ecological integration of countless other kincentric nations.
Indeed, the word and concept of ‘nature’ only appears in those modern cultures that inherit their views and values from western roots — it is entirely lacking in indigenous kincentric languages.5
Finally, we observe that the effort of conserving and protecting ‘nature’ is doomed to the very fate it aims to avoid. Protecting a particular organism, or conserving part of an ecosystem, in the end, always fails. Given the inextricable interconnection of the biosphere, as the surrounding whole to which a protected part is dependent degrades, inevitably so too will the part.
To move forward into authentic human ecological contribution, we must thus first thoroughly debug and upgrade our modern view of the world.
To do so, the concept of ‘nature’ must crumble like the ancient rusted chain that it is.
Only then, can we shatter the mind forged manacles of antiquated, human-centric cosmology and open the door to the ecological regeneration and enrichment to which our moment calls.
Then, with ancient errors dispelled, we can realign the full power and potential of human intention and imagination, art and science upon discerning the green way forward. Just as kincentric cultures saw the creatures around them as older brothers and sisters, so too can we. Just as these cultures, were able to learn from the masterful ecological integration of their elders, so too can we.
Indeed, as we step out of the shattered shackles of human-centricism, we can at long last see that another great teacher awaits us.
And we have no further to look than our feet.
NEXT: Chapter 7 | The Ways of the Earth
PREVIOUS: Chapter 5 | Another Knowing
WHAT IS THE TRACTATUS AYYEW? The Story
A decade ago, Banayan Angway and Russell Maier; an Igorot wisdom keeper and a western philosopher, joined forces to protect the Chico River in the remote Northern Philippines from an inundation of plastic pollution. Ever since, they have continued to explore the pressing modern relevance of indigenous ecological wisdom. Guided by the Igorot Ayyew eco-ethos, they are publishing a systematic theory of green and grey in the form of a philosophical treatise. The Full Story of the Tractatus Ayyew
1“A tradition of translation [of the word ‘dominion’ in Genesis] has inscribed the dualistic, anthropocentric, and hierarchical cast of Western philosophy and theology into the biblical text. Careful attention to the world of the text, and translations that reflect that world authentically, can open up new (“old”) readings that are more ecologically sound and sensitive.” Theodore Hieber, (2019) Retranslating Genesis 1–2: Reconnecting Biblical Thought and Contemporary Experience, Sage Journals, Vol 70, Issue 3, 2019
2Russell heard a first-hand the account from the former under-secretary of general of the UN, Dr. Robert Muller, who in discussions with UN Secretary General U. Thant during the 1960’s, after debating various words, settled on the term the ‘environment’ (which like the French word environnement had yet to acrue political meaning at the time) as a short-hand for ecological concerns at the time. The term was later used for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm in 1972 and ‘environmentalism’ gained political meaning.
3Carolyn Merchant provided a compelling feminist critique of the connection between ‘nature’ and the feminine, however, failed to arrive at an anthropocentric critique of the concept. (1980), The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Harper & Row
4Timothy Morton, (2007) Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Harvard University Press.
5In Banayan’s Kan’kan’ue language there is no word for ‘nature’. The closest term is ‘batawa’ which denotes the world around without separating people from other beings. This is observation is shared by speakers of other indigenous languages: Seline Meijer, (2017) People and nature blur in the world’s indigenous languages, IUCN — Planet at the Crossroads https://www.huffpost.com/entry/people-and-nature-blur-in_b_12881508