- The root of ecological problems
Ecological systems don’t have problems in and of themselves. The problems are also – as I myself took it to be for a long time – not a mere problem of people’s ways of thinking and acting. The problems come into being by our intra-action with the ecological system. This means, that the system effects us in the same way that we effect the system. Taking ourselves as the sole actors in this mess is a limited way of understanding the world. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take responsibility for what we think and do, but it means that we need to learn to understand and to become aware how the system intra-acts with us and how to respond to this.
- Sustainable Lifestyles …
Sustainable lifestyles imply that we take ourselves seriously.
Taking ourselves seriously means taking responsibility for how our individual life choices either sustain or challenge the un-sustainable practices in our society.
- How do we find meaning?
For many of us, materials seem limitless. But limitlessness is meaninglessness. Nature’s boundaries impregnate our life with meaning and a direction to make choices.
- A leaderless movement
Many people on their path of living sustainably don’t consider themselves to be part of a movement, but they strive individually towards a life that is in harmony with the needs and realities of the earth. Moving towards sustainability is a leaderless movement. One in which people take personal responsibility for the earth.
- Capitalism is not the cause of our social and ecological challenges.
It is a symptom. The real problem is in the realm of our ontology – our theory of being.
Our theory of being is based on dualist philosophies: the idea that we are separate beings.
Most humans in history followed a very different theory of being. It can be referred to as relational. Relational ontologies see all beings as relatives. The rivers, the mountains, the owls. Being a relative to everything else, behaviour is fundamentally different.
Next time you see an owl say Hi to your uncle.
- The two faces of (un)sustainability.
Why the climate crises is a human crises.
The climate crises doesn’t exist. Even if temperatures rise up to 4 degrees, life on this planet will still flourish. Though with less humans flourishing. The climate crises is a human crises. It’s a result of what has changed the planet in ways nothing ever has before: the human mind.
In contrast to my dog’s mind, the human mind lets us understand that our life is finite. It also lets us understand that life in itself doesn’t have meaning, despite the meaning we give it. Smart as we are, we therefore invented stories. Like religion and myth. They relieve us of this double-whopper pain that finiteness and meaninglessness bring along. The stories tell us that our true self is immortal. They tell us that we are part of a greater whole that endures our small (in)significant life. Often, these stories are contradictory. And often, they are based on mere beliefs which makes our need to defend them strong. Conflicts result.
The dominating story humanity currently hangs on to goes like this: Technological progress lets us grow infinitely and each one of us can benefit from this growth. Unfortunately, infinite growth is tied to finite resources. Yet, this is the story that has given our lives meaning and helped us to make sense of the world. It unites us in one goal: strive for more and better. But as material growth hits a ceiling, so does our idea of giving this approach meaning. For many of us this story ceases to make sense. The idea of progress itself is starting to crumble. The meaninglessness of our actions contributing to the story reveals itself. Not only that the story doesn’t make us as happy as we hoped it would, it also destroys the planet. The climate crises then shows us that we actually have a crises in drawing meaning from the world as it is. The rise in depression and loneliness might be one indicator for this crises.
Our response to the meaning crises
Our response to the meaning crises is the search for meaning elsewhere. Often, this leads us to a romanticised past and magical thinking. In the past, everything was beautiful and perfect and we lived in harmony with the more than human world. Peace, happiness, harmony. “Früher war alles besser”, as my imaginary grandpa used to say. “Everything was better in the past”. Whereas some want to regress to a pre-modern mode of living, it seems many more attempt to regress to pre-modern times of thinking, when gods and spirits were the way to go. New Age is the age to be. Instead of scientific reasoning and logic, they revive magical thinking*. Instead of god, they have the universe in which are all one. Although the common scientific approach – as we understand and use it thus far – is insufficient to understand the world, magical thinking is not helping either. There are some things we don’t know and probably never can. Leaving us with nothing and thus contributing to our inability to make sense of what’s going on. Whereas magical thinking tries to prove something that likely (most likely / maybe / probably / might / who knows if) does not exists, we do the exact opposite with the problems arising form growth and progress**. We try to un-see something that likely (very likely / for sure / clearly / obviously / everyone knows) DOES exist: the climate crises.
Our response to the climate crises
Our response to the climate crises is to take the whole thing and to divide it in small, technocratic pieces. This way, we can ignore the root cause and deal with something that seems manageable, controllable, known. But the climate crises is multi-dimensional: the atmosphere, the biosphere and the microsphere all suffer at the same time. They are entangled and enforce each other. It’s very likely that all three have to be addressed at the same time to improve. Mechanical solutions that address only part of the problem might lead to even further problems. This has been seen again and agin, it’s what makes a complex system complex. We have no control of the side effects and often no idea about the tale risks.
By focusing on partial endeavours, we can hold on to our meaning making: technology will fix it. We don’t have to question our way of living and being. We hold on to the illusion that we don’t need to change, pretending that infinite growth is no problem, that we don’t need a new meaning, because we can always have new technology. Some belief this. Many don’t. It’s dawning on us that it is an illusion. But by holding on to the idea pf progress, we also pretend that there is no need to question our way of being and thinking. That the root cause is merely physical and not meta-physical. That the meta-physical doesn’t need revision.
A response to the human crises
When we recognise that the climate crises is actually a human crises, we can systematically search for possibilities of meaning and sense making. Many of us do this already on an individual level. But it is not an individual endeavour. It is a human endeavour that should be guided and be central to political and public discourse. A first step to do this is to acknowledge and to become aware that there actually is a meaning crises. To acknowledge that the physical is intertwined with the meta-physical. That our actions are guided by the stories that we belief. It’s where the physical meets the meta-physical. Where the psychological meets the practical. Where the individual meets the collective. It’s a possibility for humanity to stir us in a new direction.
More practically, this means that we face reality as it is – climate change and all – and find useful ways to respond to it. Some might say that this is what we are doing already. But it’s not. The political and psychological effort we take to NOT act accordingly is huge. We are busy talking, theorising, making plans about how to respond to the climate crises. Instead of actually doing something, we waste our time and energy on outdated ideas. (1) The Age of Enlightenment has offered us mechanical solutions. Yet, despite ideas of green growth, we have not been able to prove yet, that more and forward can be achieved without an increase in resources. (2) Before Enlightenment – to speak simplistically – we had god. Yet, despite having beliefs, god hasn’t shown her face to us.
Both responses are based on old ways of thinking. It is likely that we can find meaning in this world unrelated to materiality or magical thinking. But to get there, we have to first stop pretending that the current course makes sense. What the new story will be, no one can know.
* This does not mean that spiritual phenomena don’t exist. Or that a greater power doesn’t exist. Fact is: we don’t know. Or at least I don’t.
**Progress can be understood in many ways. For example progress in ways of teaching. The way I use progress here, I refer to the common conception of progress tied to technological progress and it’s economic benefits.
- Context over content
We live in a complex world, which means that it’s full of ambiguity, contradiction and paradoxes. In order to understand the relations between these seemingly opposites, logic is not helpful. Logic – as we use it – is the idea that effect follows cause, that a definite right and wrong answer exists, that the only reason for ambiguity is a lack of knowledge and understanding. Instead of logical thought, we can use dialectical thinking, instead of decontextualising, we can view opposites embedded in a meaningful whole in which each element is only itself in relation to the other and therefore constantly changing and rearranging itself. A fly is only annoying when it’s in our face.
- Why personal choices matter
By asking the most personal question like:
where to we buy? What do we buy? what do we eat? How do we treat others? How do we treat our belonging?
We are tied to the biggest questions. They tie us to the economic, political, social and ecological order of our whole planet. For example: Veganism is not the answer. Eating dairy and meat is not the cause of our problems. It is merely a symptom revealing how the world is organized, which incentives are given, how economical goals mess with other aspiration (like ending hunger or mitigating climate change). But if veganism is the entry point to asking what we can do to change the causes, it is the perfect answer.
What we do is within our control. The personal is the political.
- What Changed?
For thousands of years, people were as familiar with insects, rivers, plants, animals and the soil as we are today with brands, apps and Netflix shows. All living beings were seen as interconnected and sharing the same essence or spirit. This way of seeing the world is called animism. For the Stoics, God and matter were synonymous. Not just beings, but matter itself was divine.
With Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the father of modern science, this changed. Bacon called for the domination of nature. And Descartes – clever as he was – realised that we can only justify to dominate nature, if it was rendered lifeless. He sliced humans and the rest of the world into two. This came to be known as dualism. And his theory of matter came to be known as a mechanical philosophy.
This view allowed us to objectify everything non-human (beings and matter) and even other humans. It also allowed us to think of nature as something external. And because it’s external, we can exploit, destroy and marginalise her.