Oct 20: Kenneth Worthy Seminar

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October 21, 2014 at 09:17 #15134

Oct 20: Kenneth Worthy Seminar

October 21, 2014 at 09:29 #15135

My analysis after the Kenneth Worthy seminar on Skype:

I though his book Invisible Nature was very interesting to read, with particular chapter 8, whic gave some obtainable solutions to how to solve diffrent ecological crises, and how to change policy etc. Where many others of our lecturers or readings have solutions which in my mind will never work because of bureacratic or legal problems, I found Worthy’s more realistic. Even though some of them were quite complicated when considered, they seemed more plausible than I have heard so far. I think for many of us, especially who are researching policy his book would be helpful.

One of the discussions; about the East and the West made me think though. It seems often that Christianity and the loss of religion in the Westis a precedent for many of our ecological nature. However, as I htought about it, I think that religion is just another tool to dissociate ourselves from nature, and is not actually protecting our environment. Parts of Asia are highly religious, but they also have considerable environmental problems (of course this is also because of Western demand for products; I am aware). However, I think that religion gives us a reason to think we are being good, even though we are not watching out for the environment, mostly because religion is aimed on primarly the family.

In the end this sense of religion takes away the responsibility of the individual; which should be the one in control. Too often we blame other agents from the problems we have. TO come back to chapter 8. Worthy shows great examples of how some of our actians can take in immediate effect, and how we can help start a process of raising awareness and turning around our ecological state. He acknowledges that ti will take ages before we can turn around the damages that are already done, but he gives us hope for today, which is quite important.

October 21, 2014 at 12:59 #15147

Kenneth Worthy seminar 20th of October 2014
Ellen Lindblom

I will reflect on the question posted by Sarah on how to cope with dissociation in my daily life
Without going any further in to it, I really needed this book, it was healing to me. I started to reflect on my own life. What was healing for me in this book were the idea of us humans not separated unity’s but connected with everything in time and space even at a molecular level. We are connected in a web of relationship human and non-human. In an interconnected world with a mental heritage since Plato of separation and rationality we have a long struggle in front of us on multiple scales in space and time, according to Worthy, to change the direction of an unhealthy way of living for humans, animals and ecosystems. I can´t help but wonder (since my thesis interest lies in peasant dominated world in 1900-century Sweden) how much this mental heritage from Plato and onwards through the intensification of the Enlightenment, viewing nature as machine with bits and parts, were a part of the mental image of the world in peasant life? Since one of many solution Worthy is presenting is more organic and locally produced food. Is it with monetary wealth this mental heritage of the west comes into play and the disconnection to “nature” and other beings increases? If so, a large part of the human population on the planet has another metal heritage to lean on. Only two generations back and we in Sweden are closer in connection with nature, being more directly and visible dependent on its circumstances.
Back to me and my life, sitting with my computer mainly alone at home during the days, isolated in the sense of physical experience. I saw allot of resemblance with me and my neighbors life in the description of the fictive Joe. Worthy describes a friction-free living, “gliding over life rather than being enmeshed in it”, we slip by with minimal interaction in urban life. Just the day after I read about Joe my next door neighbor said to me: We do the same thing every night all the families on the street, but in our own houses. Let´s have dinner tighter someday! It is easy, we do it anyway. This statement form my neighbor was in perfectly harmony with what I just read in “Invisible nature”, also in relations to the “less modern” life – communities are living and organizing their life.
To put the relationships first instead of me as an individual and this sentence, “We can start by seeing ourselves more clearly as part of the larger natural world.” (273) is something I take with me from the book. Much of the thoughts in the book were not new for me but a reminder and I think Worthy puts everything I have read here and there together in a good, believable and inspiring way. Somewhere in the book Kenneth Worthy is writing about the void in people’s life, the book is almost an answer to existential issues at the same time as trying to solve the survival questions of our planet. Our actions matters in a seemingly fragmented world. Social fragmentation is underlined by and reinforced by a disconnection to nature. Worthy means that we, as humans, gets spiritual nourishment from nature and not only food, water and oxygen, (P.20.) I regard this aspects as interesting, thus if the conclusion is right that we need “nature” as well as social interactions for spiritual wellbeing, we are way off a healthy road in western society. If you feel connected to the world surrounding you, being part, can the connections, and in extension, how you think of the meaning of life become different?
This year I and my family have moved from the city center and closer to “nature”, a bit more like I am used to during my childhood. I hope I can give my son a feeling for nature and knowledge of how everything is linked together especially when we bike trough the landscape during the shift of seasons. We watch animals and we watch plants change, both the ones we grow and wild ones. When my son sees an insect and don´t like it I explain the importance of some bugs. I hope to give my son a feeling of meaning and connection to everything in the world, in a positive sense, not in a way that everything is in vain, because we sometimes consume goods that are bad for the world as we still are within the destructive system. Education and starting with the younger generation is the way to go to change the disassociation from nature, I think. It is a multi-stage process as Worhty told us, generations ahead. I guess that is my way of coping and focus on relationships of all kind, which also have made me during the years an aware consumer, to the extent that some people now and then thinks I am silly. Trough “Invisible Nature” I have gotten words on my actions – I in some extent already apply in my life.

October 21, 2014 at 18:01 #15150

Reflection on Kenneth Worthy’s book Invisible Natures and discussion with Kenneth

I think it is good to be honest when writing these reflections; it’s not like we are writing a paper for a journal, right? While I enjoyed reading the book in a sort of a detached way, the philosophy student in me was cringing when I was reading Worthy’s book. Why? First: the assumption that everything we conceive under the title Western can be equated with the birth of philosophical inquiry in ancient Greece is far fetched, historically very weak, unfair towards philosophers (like they wielded that kind of power anyway), yet sadly very common. I asked Kenneth whether we ourselves are risking writing a teleology when writing intellectual history, in other words writing history backwards. It seems like we are writing from the assumption of modern dissociation as Worthy formulates it and trying to follow the strand of this dissociation in canonized philosophy. He answered that he would risk “objectiveness” in order to gain political momentum with his work; I agree with him on this one to some degree, yet I sense two problems with this approach: first is the assumption that ideologies can affect material conditions as easily as he supposes and the second one is that hasty scholarship can simply denigrate past thinkers. For example, how many times have we during our studies heard how Descartes is the milestone when the sharp division of mind and body, subject/object has crystallized in it most obvious form? Who of us would now turn to Descartes or Plato to look for inspiration? Not many, I guess. We have received this very narrow interpretation of history of philosophy, which saddens me, since most of my colleagues will probably not delve deeper into this and will leave this programme with this view of philosophy. Now to the first issue (strange order I know); how can we claim so confidently that ideas transform material conditions? Kenneth himself criticized Lynn White’s approach of explaining grandly how Christianity is to blame for the Western attitude towards nature, without grounding them in the materiality. But I think that most of his book actually does the same; the competitive individualised and stratified society of the Greeks is explained via a hasty explication of competitiveness between various Greek polis. The Middle Ages are as usual dealth with in a veeeery hazy manner; you know, yes the medieval world-view was more organicist, but then comes the Renaissance and colonialism and Enlightenment and we have this separation again as the Greeks. I do not know, I am kind of fed up of these kind of explanations. Also Worthy’s brief mentioning of the relational logic of Eastern philosophy is not convincing, the Hindu school of logic called Nyaya does not differ that much from Aristotle’s syllogistic logic. In the end Worthy’s treatment of everything that is “Eastern” risks being an essentialisation.
So, ideas do not create material conditions, in my opinion, rather the opposite. This is also the reason why I do not believe that consumers’ choice can actually push towards a structural change in economy. We have a very small minority of upper class people who have the knowledge and the income to actually buy organic products, but what about the majority? How can this new green mentality actually cause a structural change? The assumption is that such a demand will be created that it will actually change the mode of production and to me that is so unlikely to happen. I am not being a pessimist, rather I think it is pointless to individualise the responsibility.
Ok, I think I will end my rant now. In the end, I will repeat, I enjoyed the conversation with Worthy, since he really practices his philosophy and he aims to give practical advice not just an overarching theory but I just could not get past the generalisations.

October 22, 2014 at 11:44 #15174

Dear Nisa.
I think I read the book in a different way than you. I agree with the message of the book and then for me allot is forgiven. At the same time I also had some issues about the line from Plato to today. I think Worthy takes a big leap and stretches the reach and impact of Plato’s ideas about rationality and division between things and as you mentioned much (with emphasis on much) have happened since ancient Greece in the worlds of ideas. I don´t think you have to worry about our fellow students though. I don´t think anyone will judge philosophy only in regard to what we have read about Descartes and Plato.
I think ideas and world views have impact on the material world in an interactional way. What you think affects how you act and how you act shapes the world. At the same time how you act and how the world is shaped makes impact on how you think. This is applicable on an individual- as well as a societal scale, I think. The intensified industrialization in China, with its environmental impact, proves that long heritage of thought doesn´t necessarily come in to play at the present on every scale. Hence worlds of ideas doesn´t need to affect all of your actions. Worthy argued on Marias question that this is a western heritage at play in China right now, and not the eastern philosophy, I don´t know what to say about that. Does it mean where ever this negative pattern of compressing “nature” occurs, it is a western heritage?
Of course this “short” book is a generalization of many things, such as the history of ideas, but I think it’s is a good book for its purposes. For what “Invisible nature” is I think the book has great qualities if not for a broader public of non-expertise and maybe even more in an American context?
All the best,

October 22, 2014 at 15:25 #15199
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Reflection on Kenneth Worthy’s seminar and book, October 21, 2014
First of all, I would like to say how glad I am that my fellow colleagues read Worthy’s book, since this great professor played a very important role in my life. I would have probably not applied to this master program if it wasn’t for his course “Intro to World Environmental History” back in 2012 at UC Santa Cruz. At that time, the idea that dissociation from Nature was the reason for our current ecological crisis was very new to me. After reading Merchant, Midgley and Plumwood, Ken’s book does not seem very innovative anymore, but rather repetitive just like my colleagues Ellen and Nisa have expressed.
Still, I think there is something special about “Invisible Nature” thanks to the psychological analysis Worthy makes of our disconnection from nature and its harmful effects. Basing his argument on the famous Milgram’s experiments of the early 1960s, Ken astutely points out that when Nature is not part of our lives anymore, we’re so much more prone to harm it, forgetting that it even exists. I can totally relate to this. On days of disconnection, when I spend hours reading books and typing on a computer keyboard, I tend to be careless of what I eat and of how I spend energy. Spending our lives with human artifacts makes us less attentive towards our bodies and consequently towards Nature in general. That’s why I agree that spending more time outdoors, hiking in the woods, camping in the mountains, really helps us caring. (I am not blaming urban life though, which presents a lot of nice features, and I don’t believe we should drastically oppose culture to nature). In his relevant psychological analysis, Worthy draws on the research of Dr. Israel Orbach who presented an interesting explanation for suicides -namely that an individual is more prone to hurt himself if he has been disconnected from his own body. Besides, it’s interesting that Ken suggests some practical ways to reconnect with Nature in chapter 8, just as Nick underlines, although most of his ideas are not new either, they are practical and easy to adopt, even though our individual choices might not change the global issue as Nisa argues.
Despite Worthy’s relevant psychological analysis of our ecological crisis, I admire Nisa’s honesty since I too start to feel “fed up” about the oversimplification many scholars make about Western mentality being the culprit of our self-destructive society. I totally agree with Nisa when she writes that it appears too simple to accuse Plato and Descartes and all the other “rationalist” philosophers. Like Nisa says, most of us might get out of the master program labeling them as the bad guys. I’m pretty sure that their thinking was more complex that what scholars like Merchant assume in the case of Francis Bacon for example. Actually, in the setting of my thesis research I am currently reading a book about the birth of the organic farming movement in California, “There is a Garden in the Mind” by philosopher Paul A. Lee, in which Lee discusses the divide between two opposite worldviews: the vitalist and the physicalist. Interestingly, Lee points out that Isaac Newton, often labeled as a physicalist, surprisingly wrote many alchemical papers: “all of Newton’s alchemical writings were deemed unscientific by the members of the syndicate responsible for editing his papers when they were given to the University of Cambridge by Newton’s family who held onto them until the 19th century. The alchemical and theological papers of Newton, what could be called his covert vitalist side, were returned to the family as of no value and were offered at auction in 1936” (Lee, 2013:72). I believe this example is extremely illustrative of the not-so-satisfying theory of Western thinking as the ultimate culprit of our self-destructiveness because of a sharp mind-matter divide. I join Ellen when she wonders: “did 19th century Swedish peasants really consider Nature as a machine?”. If the rationalist mind is possibly at the source of many abuses, we should be careful not to oversimplify the writings of deceased scholars neither the worldviews of previous generations in order to strengthen one’s theory. This is one thing we took from Benjamin Martin’s course. If I somewhat agree that dissociative thinking is at the root of our problem, I certainly embrace the idea that we should put life back into matter. Paul Lee in this sense is very helpful when he writes about the importance of spirituality – and of the faith in the fact that the soil is a living organism and that plants are conscious beings influenced by higher forces than human domestication – within the organic movement. Believing in Nature’s inner sacred life fosters a healthier relationship towards the food we grow.
To conclude, what I would deem to be at the core of the problem is the fact that our minds, constantly absorbed in thoughts, prevent us from simply being here now in Oneness with the rest of the universe. Because we lost this original ability shared by the plant and animal kingdoms of simply existing, we tend to picture our selves secluded from the rest of the world, as Worthy suggests. Our reality becomes solely based on thoughts. When the mind eventually stops his frenetic dance, then we can start being Nature again, instead of discussing it. Cogito Ergo Sum definitely needs to be questioned, whatever his author really meant by it.

October 22, 2014 at 15:42 #15205

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.

October 23, 2014 at 13:38 #15215

First of all I would like to apologise to everyone for my late reply; as you all probably know I was busy with an event yesterday.
Ok, second: wow, thanks to everyone for your replies to my rant that was written when I was in quite a bitter mood but I still do stand behind my words but would rephrase them now probably haha

Sarah I’m very interested in the unpublished, “unknown” sides of thinkers; I know it’s not popular in postmodern theory to think about biographies and it’s just the text that matters, but as the case of Newton shows, we have to think about his preoccupation with the occult to actually understand him. Or another example, Worthy mentions Copernicus revolution, when he posited the heliocentrical system and how that affected that the universe lost its centre. But I’ve read a book by Koyré where he discusses how it was Copernicus’s neoplatonic belief in the Sun as the embodiment of the Idea of good and beauty that made him think about the Sun as something else than a celestial body accompanying the Earth. So, Copernicus was in a phenomenal relation with the Sun and even though this intentionality with the Sun might not have been scientific, it is valid as a relation. But for example when I look at the sunset, it does seem to me that the Sun is circling around the Earth and it is still a valid experience, even if I know it’s false. Now, a lot of you mention phenomenology of the natural world and I think that it is a valid mental experiment to try and relate to a certain object, say a pencil and try to see how you relate to the pencil, whether you can see it as something other than just a tool, how do you know it’s the same pencil when you turn it around etc. To me that is a phenomenal experience I just don’t see how I might feel this other kind of relation that many of you obviously do feel, this feeling of Oneness (on a side note, Freud has interesting points on this, he calls it “the oceanic feeling”). But here I go again with the class; there cannot be an authentic, primordial relation to Nature, it’s just not happening, the relations are mediated by social constrains.
Michael, I don’t understand how you digging potatos is related to what I said. If I understand you correctly, you do not purchase organic because you plant your own potatos and you also with your example show that you can provide food for yourself and show you do not need big structural changes in order to be food secure? I have a feeling I’m missing something here. I respect people who plant their own potatos but I also respect people who don’t want to plant their own potatos, there is just too much romanticizing of this relation to earth and getting your hands in the mud etc.

October 23, 2014 at 13:44 #15216

Oh and Sarah I’m intrigued by your statement “To conclude, what I would deem to be at the core of the problem is the fact that our minds, constantly absorbed in thoughts, prevent us from simply being here now”; to me it seems that I am most present with and in the world when I am thinking. And also such a statement kind of implies that being absorbed in thoughts is somehow separated from the bodily experience. Or am I getting this wrong?

October 24, 2014 at 06:43 #15217

From Maria: I find Nik’s discussion about the role of religion for our environmental awareness and the actions we take or not take, interesting. Although it seems more or less obvious that it is probably part of the modern human intellectual to consume. With modern I mean from the time we could communicate and have mental ideas of who and why we are and how everything around us was created. I agree that religion could have a tendency to make us less prone to take actions ourselves instead of trusting something else to take the responsibilities. He comments that “Western demand for products” is an important fact for the environmental destruction, but I do not think that the Asian people are less prone to buy if they have the opportunity, unfortunately.
Worthy is admirable in his positive attitude to the possibilities to change our behavior for a more sustainable result before it is too late- He talks about a “multi stage” process, in which there is the result from short-term actions, that are directly rewarded, and then the long-term process that will take generations to give any results. He explained to my opinion that it then will be too late, that giving up is the worst we can do and that the techno-rational view of science somehow is to blame. To some degree I also approve his idea, but think that we NEED science and science need to involve the humanities to solve and discuss together. But still, generations from now, even with small progress, it will be too late for the Earth to support an overcrowded and highly unequal society. Maybe, when the filthy rich and environmental ignorant people cannot buy clean air, clean water, nontoxic water etc, they at least realize the problem.

October 29, 2014 at 01:06 #15261
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Reply from Sarah
Thank you Nisa and Michael for your very interesting posts. I am getting so much out of your reflections, and I do agree that Ken’s book is not flawless. But it’s a good book to get California kids to question the system, if I may say.
Thank you Nisa for bringing Koyre into the debate. I think you’re right, whatever we do we can’t get rid of the phenomenal experience. That’s what makes us humans probably.
On the debate about potatoes: I’m not sure if that solves the ecological crisis, but for me gardening makes me happy and that constitutes an end in itself (to feel happy). So I’ll keep doing it, not as an activist activity but because it brings sense in my life to create life.
To reply to your question Nisa, I guess that when absorbed with my thoughts I am somehow disconnected from the bodily experience just as you say, and unable to embrace the Oneness with the rest of the universe. That might sound very Buddhist but that’s my perception of things. Thinking too much is not healthy! 🙂 But I’m glad for you if thinking makes you feel grounded and connected. Everyone has a different approach to reality and I guess we should respect that 100%.
Thank you again everyone for the very rich debate. It enabled me to realize that I have grown a lot in my understanding of environmental history since Ken’s course back in 2012.

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