Refining the Definition, Developing the Ethos

In order to further develop our definition of ecocentrism and its accompanying ethos/ethic, we critically appropriate and extend the thought of Freya Mathews. Now, while Mathews doesn’t employ the word “ecocentrism” or its synonyms in any recurring or thematized way, she pioneers its theorization in a relatively sustained and methodical (and beautiful) manner, thus providing a framework allowing me to more fully develop it, refine it, and defend it. We may quickly add here that the twenty-first century has witnessed more Earthcentered environmental theory (e.g., Washington and others 2017) and, more broadly, the emergence of a set of thing-focused philosophical currents with ecocentric echoes and potentialities, such as actor-network theory (e.g., Latour 2005), new materialism (e.g., Bennett 2004, 2010; Morrison 2015, 2019), eco-phenomenology (e.g., Wood 2001; Brown and Toadvine 2003), and speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (e.g., Harman 2002, 2018a, 2018b; Meillasoux 2008; Brassier 2009; Bryant 2011; Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011; Bogost 2012; Morton 2017). These exciting epistemic currents provide fertile ground for developing the thinking and practice of thoroughgoing Earth-centeredness and Earth-centered leadership. I occasionally reference some thinkers from this set of engaging discourses (e.g., Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton), but I set aside the task of critically appropriating contemporary thing-centered philosophies for the study of ecocentrism (and eco-centered leadership). Instead, as I say, I focus on Mathews’ pioneering thinking.

While a number of Mathews’ texts might be relevant here (e.g., 1996,1999b, 2003b), I hone in on “Letting the Earth Grow Old: An Ethos of Countermodernity” (1999a), which I think is the richest and most relevant document for our purposes. In the Abstract to the article, she provides the following redefinition of environmentalism, which can also be employed as a formulation for all-encompassing ecocentrism: “the affirmation of the given” (1999a: 119). I articulate the nature, scope, and consequences of ecocentric affirmation as our exposition of the article proceeds. Mathews commences the essay proper by noting that her thinking is informed by a reconception of panpsychism (the belief that psyche or soul/spirit/mind permeates all things): for Mathews, material things are marked by what is variously described as “an internal principle, or subjectival dimension,” “immanent telos,” “laws,” or “conatus” (1999a: 119-121; cf. Mathews 1996, 2003a, 2005). Straightaway, we emphasize that one needn’t unconditionally accept panpsychism as a premise of Earth-centeredness, even though the notion of an internal principle proves to be, at minimum, heuristically useful, and also quite possibly true: left to their own devices, things tend to unfold according to their own internal logic. Mathews ecocentrically emphasizes how this process applies to all entities, biotic and otherwise: “All things, whether conscious or unconscious, living or non-living, have laws of their own unfolding” (1999a: 120). While these “laws” may be more obscurely inscribed in the “physical and chemical dispositions” of the inorganic, they are more perceptible in complex biotic entities like humans, who possess “instincts, reflexes, and other spontaneous responses” (1999a: 121).

We’ll shortly return to this crucial point of unfolding. Before we do so, we note how Mathews seeks to identify the most suitable definition of “nature” - an enterprise that proves to be eminently useful for developing the concept-practice of radical ecocentrism. To begin with, she questions conventional definitions (from the cosmological one, which is too broad, to the biological one, which is too narrow), as well as the standard environmental formulation, i.e., “parts or aspects of the world which have not been created or unduly modified by human agency” (1999a: 120). Mathews responds: “since human beings, as biological organisms, surely belong to nature, and since making things comes to us as naturally as eating and drinking do, our handiwork itself has as much claim to be considered part of nature as the handiwork of spiders, insects and marine life does” (1996: 120). The philosopher therefore questions the classification of “trees and rocks and animals, not to mention webs, hives, termite mounds, and coral reefs, as falling within nature, and cars and ships and fax machines as falling outside it” (1999a: 120).

Mathews therefore introduces here the startling proposition that things like “cars and ships and fax machines” might fall under the remit of “nature.” However, Mathews immediately identifies a crucial distinction between “nature” and its contrary, “artifice” (we recall that I’m replacing this relatively confusing word with “artifact/ual”) - and here we return to the thematic of unfolding: “This is the distinction between what happens when things are allowed to unfold in their own way, or run their own course, and what happens when, under the direction of abstract thought, agents intentionally intervene to change that course of events for the sake of abstractly conceived ends of their own” (1999a: 120). Mathews is thus able to define “nature” as “whatever happens when we, or other agents under the direction of abstract thought, let things be” and “artifice”/the artifactual is “what happens when such agents redirect events towards their own ends” (1999a: 120).

This set of conceptions-distinctions is rich and decisive, requiring much unpacking and expanding. First of all, we already briefly discussed “unfolding” in the sense that entities appear to have a certain internal logic of becoming, but here Mathews introduces a further dichotomy: we either intentionally allow things to unfold “in their own way” or we intentionally interfere with them for our own ends. The natural is what occurs when the former takes place, while the artifactual is what occurs when the latter takes place. Mathews judiciously qualifies this distinction by stating that it is “not absolute” (1999a: 121). We may also emphasize here that abstract thinking-practice is not an exclusively human enterprise, a point that is implied by Mathews when she states that “we [humans], or other agents” intentionally allow or intervene. We may recall here the case of capuchin monkeys: when they use suitably sharpstones to crack nuts open, it seems plausible to speculate that the monkeys are displaying abstract thinking-practice rather than simply being guided by their instincts; using Mathews’ lingo: the monkeys artifactually intervene in the natural unfolding of the nuts. These qualifications (i.e., the distinction’s non-absoluteness; its application to non-humans) signal how one shouldn’t rush to the rash conclusion that abstract thinking-practice is an automatically and exclusively problematic or unethical human phenomenon - a point that will be elaborated as we proceed.

Note, too, the word “allowing” and the precept “let things be” in the above quotation: letting-be is fundamental to Mathews’ ecophilosophy and likewise pivotal for the present work. No doubt, “letting-be” initially appears somewhat enigmatic, esoteric, and even “impractical,” so it will be elucidated as we proceed. However, it shall be elucidated in terms of its significance in the context of radical ecocentrism rather than a thoroughgoing retracing, given its long and venerable history in the East and West (Heidegger 1966b, 1971; Schiirmann 1973; Liu 1991; Slingerland 2000; Pezze 2006; Haugeland 2007; Introna 2013; Dallmayr 2014). Deep ecologist Warwick Fox provides the following formulation, prefacing it with the provision that it occurs “within obvious kinds of practical limits,” which shall also be enumerated as we proceed: letting-be “allows all entities (including humans) the freedom to unfold in their own way unhindered by the various forms of human domination" (1989: 6). Eckersley explains how “An ecocentric orientation is . . . concerned with ‘letting things be,’ that is, allowing all beings (human and nonhuman) to unfold in their own way” (1992: 155-156). Meyer-Abich aptly qualifies his formulation in the following way: “When there is no sufficient cause for change, things should be left to their own processes of transformation” (1993: 105). As we proceed, we shall enunciate these “sufficient causes.” The other important point to make from the outset is that, given that letting-be appears to be an “easy” practice -what could be easier than passively allowing things to unfold? - we emphasize its utter difficulty, especially in an increasingly frenetic world (Heidegger 1971: 31; Schiirmann 1973: 104).

Now, we observe how letting-be plays out in Mathews’ differentiation of the natural and artifactual. She contrasts what occurs when abstract thinking deliberately allows things to either naturally unfold or when it intervenes in their unfolding for one’s own ends. The former typically entails flourishing for individuals and ecosystems, while interference is often destructive (more on this point very shortly). Mathews provides some “colorful” examples of the latter case, where humans “kill off a particular species for the sake of its coloured feathers, for instance, or pollute a lake with manufacturing dye for the sake of people who have decided they want purple hair” (1999a: 122).

Given that Mathews focuses on negative examples, one could be forgiven for thinking that intentional intervention - and especially intentional intervention for our own ends - is automatically problematic or unethical. However, we must emphasize that interference can be a positive process according to two basic categories. First of all, there’s the category of intentionally intervening for others, human and otherwise (which is perhaps implied by omission in the passage given earlier). This interventionism tends to occur on behalf of some non-human others during their interactions with other non-human others, typically for the sake of greater ecological integrity, stability, variety, beauty, etc. (one could therefore argue that intervening-for-others is often also in our interests). Examples of this kind of positive interference include human action to prevent noxious weeds from over-running a healthy ecosystem; efforts to halt desertification; breeding programs for endangered species, etc. We intervene in order to halt harmful intervention, so that our intervention aims to allow the intervened to be liberated from the destructive interference and thus allowed to resume with their natural unfolding. Eckersley rightly notes that an ecocentric orientation does not exclude human interference (1992: 57). Hence, even though this other-oriented interference or “other-defense” is “artifice” in Mathews’ sense of the word, it may be regarded as ethical or ethically neutral.

The second category of intervention relates to those interferences designed to meet our individual and collective human ends - but, once again, a further division is required (another distinction that is not absolutely watertight), a division that is not articulated in Mathews’ text. First of all, ethical intervention relates to intentional interference in the unfolding of non-human others in order to meet reasonable human needs-wants, in terms of both material necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter, and so on, and requirements that may be variously called “higher,” “enlightened,” “psycho-spiritual,” etc., such as love, education, and freedom, so that we may individually and collectively survive-flourish (Maslow 1943; cf. Mandel 1986: 15, 25; McLaughlin 1993: 213; Sterba 2010: 184-188; Stober, Brown and Cullen 2013: 12). Fulfilling these basic-higher ends often requires intervention in the unfolding of non-human others, e.g., killing creatures or consuming plants for food; cutting down trees to build homes; killing an animal in self-defense, etc.

Several eco-thinkers recognize the inevitability and necessity of harmful intervention (indeed, even sometimes its benefits for harmed species). I cite several eco-thinkers to demonstrate how rigorous environmental thought is realistic and practical rather than idealistic and impractical (which is one of the objections to ecocentrism, further discussed later). To begin with, Albert Schweitzer, famous for his investigations into the historical Jesus but also a pioneering biocentrist, observes: “The necessity to damage and destroy life is imposed upon me” (1974: 387 cited/translated by Meyer-Abich 1993: 71). We also note how deep-ecology founder Arne Naess cites the notion of biological egalitarianism and immediately adds an “in principle” caveat: “The ‘in principle’ clause is inserted because any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression” (1973: 95). With remarkable nuance and profundity, eminent eco-theorist Kenneth E. Goodpaster states: “We must eat. . . . We must have knowledge. . . . We must protect ourselves from predation and disease, and sometimes this involves killing (though not always). The regulative character of the moral consideration . . . asks ... for sensitivity and awareness, not for suicide” (1978: 324). White nicely references human and non-human requirements in the following remark: “A man [sic] has a right to build a house, and a right to kill living things - vegetable or animal - to eat, just as a coyote has a right to dig a den and to kill to eat” but this right should not be “impinging on the ability of our [non-human] companions to satisfy their needs” (1978: 107). Prominent eco-philosopher Holmes Kolston III powerfully reminds us that “violent death of the hunted means life to the hunter. . . . |N|utrient materials and energy flow from one life stream to another. . . . The pains of the prey are matched by the pleasures of the predator” (1992: 253). Rolston goes on to identify advantages of predation even for the eaten, in terms of population regulation, gaining skills in avoiding predation, and so on; hence, as counter-intuitive as it may appear, “Being eaten is not always a bad thing, even from the perspective of the prey species” (1992: 253).

And so, the principle of letting-be is not absolutistic, instead allowing for the attainment of requirements such as eating, defending, and so on. Indeed, Mathews herself makes this point: “as beings with a constitutive interest in our own self-preservation and the preservation of our nearest and dearest, we are on occasion called upon to intervene in these unfoldings, just as hunter-gatherers do in the course of their daily lives” (1999a: 123).

Then there are the interventions that are questionable or unethical: they’re connected to the satisfaction of gratuitous human desires, i.e., those ends that are not directly related to human survival-flourishing, from the extremely ambitious (such as obtaining obscene wealth or power) to the apparently trivial (such as the examples provided by Mathews). However, as noted earlier, in “Letting the Earth Grow Old,” Mathews does not explicitly posit the crucial distinction between reasonable needs-wants and unreasonable ones - a distinction that clarifies the fact that some human ends and their attainment via abstract thought-action are ethical or ethically neutral, while others are unethical and destructive.

This discussion of allowing and intervening leads logically to the gist or essence of a radically Earth-centered ethic/ethos. Its basic framework has already been provided by Eckersley, but we insert a necessary clause, given that we are here advancing an expansive ecocentrism: “When faced with a choice . . . those who adopt an ecocentric perspective will seek to choose the course that will minimize such harm and maximize the opportunity of the widest range of organisms [and non-organisms] and communities - including ourselves — to flourish in their/our own way” (1992: 57).

So far, we have discussed intentional kinds of interventions, but we should also register a further category: unintentional interference. This category is not discussed by Mathews in her article, but it’s another important distinction, and it further qualifies the principle and practice ofletting-be. Unintentional intrusion is the set of interferences caused by the fact that we are material beings co-existing and competing with other material beings (organic and otherwise). To begin with, we concur with environmental law scholar, Douglas M. Johnston, in recognizing that “human ‘interaction’ with nature, by any definition, is unavoidable” (2006: 395). Meyer-Abich also states the obvious (being so obvious that it remains obfuscated) when he remarks that “other living beings in the world are not only around us, but with us” (1993: 1) - and, I would add, within us. So when we humans go about living (working, washing, traveling, etc.) we unavoidably violate and destroy countless other entities. Once again, we reference some eco-thinkers in this regard. Schweitzer refers to the act of walking along a path and killing countless figures underfoot (1974: 387 cited/ translated by Meyer-Abich 1993: 71). Ecotheologian Jay McDaniel explains: “life inevitably involves the taking of other life. Every time we wash our faces we kill billions of bacteria” (1990: 66; cf. Manolopoulos 2009: 119). Unintentional, unavoidable destruction is intimately bound up with corporeal existence; it is thus ethically neutral rather than unethical. Of course, as we humans become more ecocentrically attuned, recognizing how our materiality affects the world, we become more aware of our intentional and unintentional impacts on other entities, so we attempt to live less destructively - to “walk gently [or at least more gently] through this world,” as the Buddha is said to have uttered.

As preliminary as it may be, the aforementioned discussion of unfolding, allowing, and interfering goes some way toward demonstrating how letting-be is not totalizing in the hyper-literalistic sense of the absolute cessation of intervention: not only is this physically impossible due to our corporeality, but some intentional interference is positively good, both for ourselves and for non-human others.

We now turn to Mathews’ brilliant articulation of one of the implications and imperatives of an ecocentric ethos ofletting-be: she urges us to intentionally allow the artificial to unfold naturally — a process she calls “returning to nature” but could just as well be dubbed “turning to ecocentrism.” Rigorously and poetically, Mathews states: ‘“returning to nature’ in an urbanised world means allowing this world to go its own way. It means letting the apartment blocks and warehouses and roads grow old” (1999a: 124). She adds: “Things which initially seemed discordant and out of place gradually fall into step with the rest of Creation. Old cars take their place beside old dogs and old trees; antiquity naturalises even the most jarring of trash” (1999a: 124). Letting-i>e means letting-^nw-o/rf.

Moving way beyond the biocentrists and nominal ecocentrists, Mathews passionately includes built environments and manufactured objects in her schema. Earth-centeredness not only protects ecosystems “but all material things, from undue human disturbance, including things that do not usually arouse the concern of environmentalists, even non-anthropocentric environmentalists, such as deep ecologists” (1999a: 132; cf. Eckersley 1992: 40). So Mathews’ inclusion of buildings and fax machines and cars is a crucial advancement, surpassing life-centeredness, which, by comparison, now appears rather restricted and restricting. Mathews expands “the boundaries of the community” (Leopold) to such an extent that there is no longer any hierarchical division between “community” and “non-community.”

At this point in “Letting the Earth Grow Old,” Mathews admirably acknowledges that our inhabitation of the urbanized world often requires certain interventions (maintenance, aesthetic enhancement, etc.), emphasizing that such inhabitational intervention “is compatible with a fundamental attitude of letting be, of acquiescence in the given, and of working within its terms of reference, rather than insisting upon further cycles of demolition and ‘redevelopment’” (1999a: 124). This is another important, rich, and nuanced statement. For instance, I read/interpret “fundamental” as “crucial” but not “absolute” or “total”; I read/interpret “working within [the given’s] terms of reference” in terms of precepts like intervening for the sake of non-human others and for our own needs (but not destructive wants).

In this regard, while Mathews rightly criticizes “redevelopment” with vigor, we should not fall into the trap of completely demonizing it. Some construction and reconstruction are permitted and even ethical. First of all, sometimes demolition of the old is an ethical imperative, such as when a building’s structural integrity is compromised or when it’s been constructed with dangerous materials like asbestos. “Old roads” that have become unsafe due to deterioration will require repair or replacement. Furthermore, construction is a particularly noble endeavor whenever what is constructed is socially necessary (housing, schools, hospitals, and so on). Then there’s the process of the renovation of “old warehouses” and the restoration of “old cars”: this practice contributes to their structural integrity and ongoing unfolding, as well as their re-beautification -though we ecocentrists also adore the rundown and weather-beaten. There’s even the contemporary trend of simultaneously letting-grow-old and restoring: old rust-covered vehicles lovingly receive protective coats to ensure that they endure over time in their existing, weathered states (Bolig 2016). And so, there are certainly cases when development and redevelopment in their various forms are necessary, ethical, and beautifying.

We should also insert at this point how letting-be applies - should also apply - to ourselves, individually, and collectively. Mathews’ words have proven eerily prophetic: “Instead of letting ourselves be, we compulsively make ourselves over to match external ideals, where this can result in all kinds of aberrations, from neurotic individualism to fanatical collectivism or patriotism” (1999a: 122-123). Mathews also notes how we humans “treat ourselves, our own bodies, in the same way, truculently professing to own them and reluctant to allow them to be reclaimed by the world, reluctant to see the world tenderly revealing itself to us through them” (1999a: 129-130).

And so, Earth-centered praxis involves a variety of diverging but ultimately non-contradictory - indeed, complementary — actions, from allowing to intervening; Eckersley sums up these actions well: “Humans are just as entitled to live and blossom as any other species, and this inevitably necessitates some killing of, suffering by, and interference with, the lives and habitats of other species. . . . [T]hose who adopt an ecocentric perspective . . . will minimize such harm and maximize the opportunity of the widest range of organisms and communities” (1992: 57). Earth-centeredness is a skillful interplay between this maximizing and minimizing.

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