Reply To: Oct 20: Kenneth Worthy Seminar

Author Replies # Posted on October 22, 2014 at 15:42

This reflection on all reflections so far ended up as a critical comment on some of Worthy’s and your guys’ arguments. I hope that you can still find them constructive – otherwise tell me back 😉

I will start with Ellen and her mindful engagement with the question of how we moderns feel not attached to nature, each other, probably ourselves as well. I know your feeling well and think it’s essential to turn a culture of relatedness over to not only your children but everyone you encounter. At the same time I had a bit stomach ache while reading Worthy’s book because his solutions to a disassociated world-view and lifestyle frame nature as something that has a very essential meaning. I don’t remember if he reflects on that at some point but I would argue the following: if perception and cognition of the world need to be “re-assocatied” to a certain state of human-natural existence, then Worthy asks us to go “back” and “find”, “revive” or whatever “do” with a neglected entity called “nature”. I would argue against that and rather pose a post-modern argument: first, there can be no “healing of the planet” as there is no pure meaning behind the concepts of “humans, “individuals”, “artifices”, “nature”, or the “planet”. I can just quote the comedian George Hardin at this point: “The planet is fine – the people are fucked”. Although it is true that humans have been changing the world tremendously, nobody can claim the absolute truth about the reasons of these changes and the necessary steps against them. Not surprisingly, my argument is based on a post-structuralist ontology in which all identities and knowledge are contingent, fluent and under constant change. This whiy I think that we can not go back or relate to “nature” anymore, at least not to an existence that we left a long while ago. Nor do I believe that we have to move forward and transcended ourselves into a god-like state of complete disassociation from our body or nature. What I would suggest is to accept the openness of socio-natural relationships and scrutinize how individuals and societies constantly reimagine the lives they want to live and the world in which these are situated – always right NOW, in present time. That does not entail ignorance of environmental impacts but rather the opposite: to strongly reassociate people with their consequences but also with the contingency of their and future lives.

I want to move on and agree with Nisa on two points: the way we sometimes try to write environmental history back and always find Aristotle or Plato as the philosophers to blame for the dissociation between mind and body, human and nature. Although I have never been a student of philosophy I have the feeling that it could not have been that easy. Developments of ideas do not follow a straight road, that is my belief – they always happen to be the end of struggles, domination and uprising. Another similar thought I got by reading Worthy’s book is his distinction between “Western” and “Eastern” thought and how one is more prone to wreak havoc on the environment than the other. I don’t want to cite reports about environmental problems in China but rather raise the question that even if there is a “strong group of Eastern thoughts” that turn into practices – why should we assume that they stay the same? Maybe I have already delved too much into poststructuralism but I am so fed up with essentialisations and even more: with the intellectual fights over what “truly” is Western, Eastern, nature, culture and so on. In the very moment people open their mouths to defend their standpoint, ideas and the material world have change everywhere.

This points to an argument of Nisa which I would challenge: it is not the material world that is fundamental to our thoughts or the other way around but through BOTH. The same applies to the question if it should be the multitude of individual actions or a strong societal movement who should contribute to a more livable environment: BOTH are sides of the same coin. I always get a bit frustrated when I see slogans like “What can I or YOU do to save the planet?” but also when rather marxist voices shout that we have to change the mode of production completely because everything else would just maintain an exploitive system. The thing is that I don’t want to wait for every consumer to buy organic products in the supermarket nor do I want to wait until everyone goes on the street to overthrow the old and establish something like green communism. I rather take my shovel and dig up some potatoes I grew and share them with my flatmates or a group during a harvest party.

This goes in line with Kenneth Worthy’s phenomenal approach to the diagnosis and solution of the planet – and the point I found most fulfilling during the reading. You don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that we are probably most detached from the consequences of our actions than any generation or civilization before us. And as long as our brains are rather structured to respond to immediate local threats and direct needs, the best solutions will be the ones which take this “neurological limits” of our subjectivity into account. I write this as someone who studied political science for four years and who has lost almost all faith into large-scale environmental policymaking which can just subsumed under the agenda of one ministry that has to fight for funding and space with others. If you ask me there will never be an “environmental subject”, guided by “environmental policy”, who will turn around the planet. Rather it is a subject that cultivates its relatedness with everything and reflects, deliberates and acts towards that. In fact, if we want free powerful individuals, communities and societies in balance with their more-than-human environment we have to work on very different sites than the classic environmental. Worthy’s suggestions might not be radically new (at least for me who already works in a community garden) but they are, as Nick emphasizes, a good start and give hope.