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Placing the Ecological Crisis in a Broader Context:
The Orphic and the Promethean
The historical prevalence of Promethean characteristics such as dominion and domination has resulted in a dispensation where exclusive pragmatism and habitual perception have steered human actions in directions that have resulted in an unprecedented ecological crisis. Christianity, reductionist science, pragmatic technology, and capitalism have homogenised discursive arenas, making ecological degradation unavoidable as a consequence of Promethean progress. Mechanisms exist that prevent changes toward ecologically sensitive attitudes from rooting and spreading as remedies to ecologically destructive attitudes. Alternative, Orphic attitudes, theories, and movements do exist and they offer something of a response to Promethean attitudes underpinning the ecological crisis. Permaculture offers a down to earth, context-bound approach to establishing Orphic systems, while philosophy in two specific formats are tools to further broaden the context of the ecological crisis.
positive and negative freedom, shapers of discourse, pragmatism and utilitarianism, permaculture, philosophy in the present, philosophy as a way of life.
In the year 1859 the English philosopher, political economist and civil servant John Stuart Mill saw his book On Liberty published. In it he points out the importance of “experiments of living”:
As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.
Mill’s considered position could not be clearer: if you do not hurt anybody else in your endeavours, then you should be free to think and do whatever you like. This is indeed sums up the concept of ‘negative freedom’ or ‘negative liberty’: “One has negative liberty… when there is an absence of external interferences to one’s doing what one wishes – specifically, when there is an absence of external interferences by other people” (Matt Zwolinski, accessed 2018). Mill was concerned that the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – or rather, that the tyranny of those “who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” – was eroding people’s freedoms in the negative sense to which I have just drawn attention. Freedom increasingly was becoming ‘positive freedom’, where “one has the opportunity and ability to do what one wishes” (Zwolinski 2018), but where the opportunities are invariably delineated by institutions or organisations such as the state. I must therefore add that one has positive liberty when one has the opportunity and ability to do what has been deemed as acceptable to do by the State or some other institution, organisation, or dominant societal, political, economic or attitudinal force. Mill’s project in On Liberty was partly to situate the broad concepts of liberty and freedom on a spectrum and thereby emphasise that all liberties and freedoms are not equal – for example, that which a person does ‘freely’ under endorsement from a historically dominant institution (such as State, Church, and economically influential entity) is not the same kind of liberty as the freedom to do whatever one pleases and be left alone so long as one does not injure another person.
It is not my intention to become reflectively engaged in the normative ethical activity of asking whether or not positive liberty is preferable to negative liberty. While it is possible to argue on the one hand that negative freedom is the freedom to starve, and on the other hand that ‘freedoms’ endorsed by specific institutions with clear vested interests and agendas are technically no freedoms at all, the answer perhaps lies in the middle of the two extremes, and this topic as ever remains a fertile one for consideration and discussion. For the initial purpose of this paper, however, I would like to ask, to what extent is it possible to exercise freedom in its negative sense in contemporary society? By contemporary society, I mean specifically the advanced, consumer, competitive, Capitalist, industrial, Democratic, dominion-driven dispensation, an acronym for which is ACID, one I have adopted (and slightly adapted) from the ecophilosopher Karl Hoyer (2012) (who attributes it to Sigmund Kvaloy Setreng). Shortly after a person is born, he or she is given an identity number, national security number, national insurance number, or whatever the barcode-like number is called in the country in which a person is born. This number ‘plugs’ one into a socio-political and economic system where invariably fiat currency intermediates almost all activity, and fiat currency is debt-based and inherent to it is the need to pay back the debt created the moment money is issued (Pittaway 2017: 70-78). This is one reason why in ACID a person will never be allowed to exercise negative liberty: there is always a tax-person, a banker, a bureaucrat, an inspector, an auditor, or any of ACID’s henchmen knocking at the door, so to speak, to keep the cogs of a debt-based economy turning – one is never left alone to do as one likes, free from interference by other people, people who generally represent the ‘interests’ of ‘the system’. These interests (of which economic control is only one) are regurgitated in various forms via the corporate-owned mass media, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman remind one in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (2002: 306): the mass media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”. Various other ‘ACID perpetuation mechanisms’ have been the subjects of scrutiny: Mill (1858) saw them in ‘the dangers of Democracy’, various thinkers saw them in the contradiction that is the closed capitalist core of an allegedly open democracy (Ralph Nadar via Manfred B. Steger 2009, James G. Speth 2008, Peter Barnes via Speth 2008, Gar Alperovitz via Speth 2008, Robert McChesney in Chomsky 1999); Herbert Marcuse (1972) saw them in the expansion of an homogenising one-dimensionality of what he called Advanced Industrial Society (or AIS, which denotes something very similar to ACID), Gilles Deleuze (1992) in disciplinary societies and societies of control, and Thomas Princen (2010) in what he calls ‘traffic control measures’. These Acid perpetuation mechanisms are aspects of a system that forces upon a person a narrow positive freedom but marginalises chances of exercising negative freedom.
When discussing the topic of the debt-based economic system I referred to above, interlocutors have often responded in defence of the system by saying that it works, that despite imperfections it is the best system human beings have managed to construct after centuries of ‘progress’ through previous forms of economic activity. They point out that the technology I use, for example the computer I used to type this paper, is all a product of the system and that I should be grateful for it all. Strange then that the imperatives accompanying ACID – expand, consume, ‘progress’, increase, dominate, compete, accelerate, develop, and so on (Pittaway 2017: 80-102) – have led the human species, as well as the ecosystems constituting most of life on planet Earth, to an unprecedented crisis. John B. Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York (2010:155) explain:
It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change. Other ecological crises — such as species extinction, the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty, desertification, deforestation, air pollution, water shortages and pollution, soil degradation, the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions), and a chronic world food crisis – all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived.
“Business as usual” is the domain of ACID, and Foster, Clark and York have identified it as being instrumental in causing the ecological destruction. Considering that business as usual in ACID is quantitatively represented by indices such as GDP, one can again see the link between the business as usual of ACID and ecological destruction in these observations from Joel Kovel (2002: 48):
Capital employs purely quantitative indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) because they are convenient indices of accumulation. Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number, which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification. It is necessary, though, to see thinking in terms of GDP as no mere error, but the actual logic of the reigning power.
Clearly, then, some interlocutors have very narrow definitions in mind when they claim that the contemporary globalised economic system ‘works’ and is ‘the best’ system human beings have been able to create. The computer they tell me to be grateful for, they may not realise, is designed to break after a specific period of time (as is the case with all products of technology made for mass consumption) so that the corporation that produced it can continue accruing massive profits (and also ‘play its part’ in keeping the cogs of the economy turning). This is known as planned obsolescence (Pittaway 2017: 161), something that engineers and scientists are employed to ‘perfect’ despite the obscene ecological impact of a world full of Technology-designed-to-break all the time for the sake of (debt-based) economic activity. Planned obsolescence is typical of the obscene ecological impacts of several large-scale industries now found all over the world and which seem inseparable from the broadly-accepted notions of ‘development’ and ‘democracy’. This links back to what I have said about system-endorsed positive ‘freedoms’, specifically that they are exclusively prescribed by a dominant institution: in the broader context of ACID, freedom is the positive freedom to develop, as Inge Konik (2015: 15-16) points out via Wolfgang Sachs:
…Truman promoted ever increasing production and technological advancement as key to the well-being of all nations, regardless of their economic, political, social and cultural differences, nuances, and dreams. Sachs holds that this was the first time that a “world view” was prescribed in which “all the peoples of the earth were to move along the same track and aspire to only one goal – development”.
The development of ACID and economic growth go hand in hand. Economic growth is measured in numbers that increase as the money supply does, numbers such as the GDP index, but in a debt-based fiat currency (i.e. the currency of ACID), as the money supply is increased, so is global debt. Inherent to this phenomenon is an obligation to pay money back (which requires more money expansion/creation, entailing more debt), hence constant expansion of the lucrative industrial activity that has been equated with progress in ACID. This kind of industrial ‘progress’ comes in many forms, for examples, the fossil-fuel industry, the agricultural industry, the meat and fish industries, and so on (see Pittaway 2017: 47-79 for some of the anthropic causes of the ecological crisis), all of which have had devastating consequences for the ecology of the planet. The 2017 Oxfam report on global inequality called ‘An economy of the 99%’ clearly states the consequence of this link between the economic model I have described and the ecological consequences: “Our economic model is based on exploiting our environment and ignoring the limits of what our planet can bear”. Indeed, ecological exploitation must occur for the ‘progress’ and development of this type of economy, a claim substantiated by the simple fact that ecological exploitation continues to accelerate alongside the now global imperative to ‘progress’, grow and develop as per the economic model of ACID. Environmental and political author and activist, George Monibot (2017), of theguardian.com offers support for my contention here with the following: “Growth must go on – it’s the political imperative everywhere, and it’s destroying the Earth. But there’s no way of greening it…”. Founder and president of the Living Economies Forum, David Korsten (2016), adds: “Contrary to the promises of politicians and economists, this growth is not eliminating poverty and creating a better life for all. It is instead creating increasingly grotesque and unsustainable imbalances in our relationship to Earth and to each other.” Considering the opening reference to Mill’s observation about the need for “experiments of living”, wherein he commented that “modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them”, the ecological crisis is perhaps a wake-up call that ACID is a failed experiment which has jeopardised the well-being of the natural systems on which life depends for survival.
Mill’s On Liberty was published the year 1859. It is perhaps an eerie coincidence that in the same year the first commercial oil well went into production in Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA. The world’s population of human beings at that time was one billion. Commercial oil provided the means by which human beings would multiply their population seven-fold in an evolutionary-historical blink of an eye, but it did not provide the motive. The motive can be traced to specific human attitudes, to the kinds of thoughts that human beings entertain about the relationship between themselves and the rest of the world, because what “people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them” (Lynn White Jr. 1967: 11). White identified Christianity, technology, and science as instrumental underpinnings of the attitudes that would after the industrial revolution bring about an anthropological onslaught against nature. I will comment on these ‘shapers of discourse’ in ways the White does not, and I will add capitalism to the list. Christianity, having institutionally dominated the direction of human thought for well over a millennium and having persecuted, oppressed and often obliterated that which was alternative to it, spread the imperative of dominion-over-the-earth, widely eliminating alternative approaches to living and thereby starting the first of the homogenisation projects in the history of Western-dominated civilisation, which via globalisation is now the bulk of human civilisation. Reductionist science continued the project of spreading the dominion imperative, even though eventually it would abandon the notion of God. René Descartes, for example, anticipating the flavour of scientific inquiry as it would develop out of the period of Christian domination, writes in his 1637 Discourse on Method (1972: 119) that he looks forward to the time when the new science will render humans “masters and possessors of nature” – unsurprisingly, Descartes was a devout Christian. Francis Bacon, a figurehead in the scientific arena who happened also to express Christian sentiments, stated that the “secrets of nature are better revealed under the torture of experiments than when they follow their natural course” (Pierre Hadot 2008: 93). In light of these and other similar scientific sentiments, Hadot (2008: 123) states the following:
What we must say, I think, is that with Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, a definitive break… may have taken place, and these scholars discovered the means of progressing in a decisive and definitive way in this project of dominating nature, limiting themselves to the rigorous analysis of what is measurable and quantifiable in sensible phenomena.
Alongside Christianity and science one can place technology and capitalism (which were commented on earlier) as central in the project of delineating the scope of ecologically deleterious positive freedoms available to a citizen of ACID. Christianity, reductionist science, technology and capitalism are ‘shapers of discourse’ that have spread ecologically-problematic attitudes across the globe, attitudes that have ‘steered’ human actions that result in ecologically-problematic outcomes – this is not to say that these shapers of discourse are solely responsible for motivating ecologically problematic human actions, but they are the historically dominant ‘drivers’ of attitudes that have influenced human action over the course of Western history. Regarding technology in ACID, the creation and use of technology are intimately connected with the scientific focus on “what is measurable and quantifiable in sensible phenomena” (Hadot, Ibid) as per the use of instrumental reason identified by Max Horkheimer (1947). Instrumental reason can be thought of as the application of reason for purely and exclusively technical-pragmatic purposes. Horkheimer (2002: 104) does offer a glimpse of the relevance of the pragmatic and instrumental attitude in the context of the ecological crisis: “Modern insensitivity to nature is indeed only a variation of the pragmatic attitude that is typical of Western civilization as a whole”. Martin Heidegger’s analysis of technology (1943) as something essentially entangled with the process of ‘Enframing’ reveals a coterminous attitude toward nature, where nature is reduced to nothing but a ‘standing reserve’ of resources for human use.
The constituents of the ecological crisis (Pittaway 2017: 31-46), the direct physical causes of the crisis (Pittaway 2017: 47-79), the attitudinal causes of the crisis (Pittaway 2017: 80-102), and the perpetuation mechanisms that prevent much needed social change (Pittaway 2017: 103-127) in the direction of ecological sustainability, all constitute an unprecedented problem facing human beings, as well as the countless forms of life that are destroyed in the wake of ACID’s modus operandi. The focal areas of this paper so far depict a dispensation in which the possibility of conducting ‘experiments of living’ is marginal, even negligible, because dominant shapers of discourse paved the way for a global platform characterised by socio-political and economic homogeneity that dictates the extent and limits of ‘freedom’. To be sure, this is a very confined, limited and narrow form of positive freedom – a person will not be left alone, free from interference from other people in this system. Furthermore, this almost all-encompassing system, ACID, which is partly a result of certain problematic attitudes toward nature and simultaneously a perpetuator of those attitudes, is a disaster for the ecology of the planet. Keeping in mind the notions that ACID is perpetuated by various mechanisms, and accordingly that alternatives to ACID (or experiments of living) are thereby marginalised or negated, consider very broadly the philosophical notion of the dialectical process. For my purposes, I will describe a dialectical process very simply (in broadly Hegelian terms) as a process consisting of three parts: a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. A thesis is an idea; in the spirit of simplicity, I will use the example of ‘self’ as a thesis. In this limited example, the antithesis of ‘self’ is ‘other’. A synthesis of the two might be ‘community’. The dialectical process therefore is a model often used to describe how change occurs: change of a concept (self – other – community), a society, or any system. I wish to make only the following point about the dialectical process I have just exemplified: the process requires that the thesis and the antithesis ‘merge’ or ‘combine’ or ‘overlap’ at some point, or else a synthesis cannot be arrived at – in other words, something new cannot emerge. In Hegelian logic the ‘synthesis’ will, in its turn, become a ‘thesis’, and by being ‘negated’ provoke a new antithesis, synthesis, and so on.
It is certainly the case that ‘new things’ have emerged (and continue to emerge) in and from the dispensation of ACID, the system which I have argued is characterised by various traits of the historically-dominant shapers of discourse – Christianity, science, technology, capitalism, and to a lesser extent democracy. But the ‘new things’ to which one is perhaps able to refer are more than likely completely compatible within the confines of consumer capitalism, ‘pragmatic’ technology, and reductionist science – some of the very shapers of discourse that have identified as instrumental in spreading ecologically problematic attitudes. However, I must ask: have any of the dominant system characteristics really changed since the dominion-enforcing reign of Christianity, since the ubiquitous expansion of pragmatic technologies, since the compartmentalising materialism of reductionist science, and since the profit-addiction inherent to capitalism? One might perhaps be able to refer to isolated examples where a considerable change occurred, examples like the end of race-based slavery, or when the right to vote for leaders was granted to all people. However, these remain isolated examples. I have chosen a context of considerable proportions, namely the ecological crisis, as a reminder that systemically nothing has really changed – and by systemically I mean the advanced competitive consumer Capitalist industrial Democratic dominion-‘crazed’ dispensation that continues in the same direction as it has for centuries, albeit at an exponentially accelerated pace – the ecological crisis is a severe reminder of this. The general characteristics of the system remain the same ones that have been ecologically problematic since they became dominant. And, as already pointed out, mechanisms exist that prevent change of the characteristics that I have identified as ecologically problematic.
The relevance of my reference to the dialectical process should now be clear: in ACID, the dialectical process is ‘frozen’ in any large-scale sense via an intricate interconnection of dominant physical and non-physical system components characterised by competition, dominion, utility, and a variety of other characteristics that can be called Promethean (under inspiration from Hadot, 2006). This, of course, is a topic open to discussion and debate, i.e. the topic of the extent to which ‘ACID does dialectic’, so to speak – I clearly espouse support for the view that in any large-scale sense of the concept of dialectic, ACID ‘does not do change’. In Hegelian terms – if these must be adopted – one might say that the system has become so homogenised that any antithesis to a thesis is an antithesis only in name, and that the synthesis (or every synthesis, in succession), has incrementally ‘ironed out’ all genuine antitheses, so that only qualitative homogeneity remains. Or, using the well-known formula for encouraging originality, coined by Edward de Bono (1970), ‘lateral thinking’, in the present encompassing system the only lateral thinking that is tolerated is the kind that does not question the system itself, but merely promises its more efficient operation. In a 2012 BBC interview hosted by Paul Mason, Manuel Castells, author of Rise of the Network Society (2010), offers a glimpse of support for my contention here – that ACID ‘does not do change’ – when he says that “the political institutions are impervious to change”, and of course the political institutions are central in and for ACID. Rosi Braidotti (2013:58) also speaks about the “inertia of established mental habits” in a manner that suggests a stagnation of the dialectical cycle:
I do think that one of the most pointed paradoxes of our era is precisely the tension between the urgency of finding new and alternative modes of political and ethical agency for our technologically mediated world and the inertia of established mental habits on the other.
And Foster, Clark and York refer to a “prevailing hierarchical social order” with a “commitment to stasis in its fundamental social-property relations” (2010:17), a social order where “those on top have a vested interest in blocking fundamental change” (2010:27).
So at a very superficial level it is possible to agree with the broad concept of ‘the end of history’, a concept attributed mainly to Francis Fukuyama – but only in the sense that the concept highlights an ideological goal attributed to the Promethean and its contemporary manifestation as ACID, rather than as an accurate depiction of the normative (or desirable) ‘positive status’ of ACID (let alone the capacity to put an arbitrary stop to the historical process itself) , which Fukuyama (1992) is clearly in favour of:
Writing in the twentieth century, Hegel’s great interpreter, Alexandre Kojève, asserted intransigently that history had ended because what he called the “universal and homogeneous state” – what we can understand as liberal democracy – definitely solved the question of recognition by replacing the relationship of lordship and bondage with universal and equal recognition. What man had been seeking throughout the course of history – what had driven the prior ‘stages of history’ – was recognition. In the modern world, he finally found it, and was ‘completely satisfied.’ This claim was made seriously by Kojève, and it deserves to be taken seriously by us.
Leaving aside the question, whether this interpretation is compatible with Hegel’s own work (which it arguably is not, considering the difference between Hegel’s ‘logic’ and actual history) Fukuyama does indeed take Kojève’s claim seriously, and espouses support for liberal Democracy, which is the political component of ACID, while I do neither of these things due to the inherently problematic characteristics and mechanisms of ACID I have already briefly outlined. Promethean characteristics, qualities, and attitudes result in actions that marginalise alternatives to the Promethean, and also result in the construction of dominant system ‘mechanisms’ that prevent alternatives from arising. Put differently, the Promethean is like a ruthless dictator, whose ‘success’ is attributable to his or her might and dominance (and who accordingly eliminates opposition), rather than like a meritocratic leader who facilitates any kind of promising system-wide change.
I have argued that the dominant characteristics of ACID are ecologically problematic and that mechanisms exist that prevent social and economic change, hence my claim that ACID is something in which the dialectical wheel is prevented from spinning in any real manner. However, just because ACID ‘does not do dialectic’ does not mean that ‘antitheses’ are not available. I use the word antitheses very loosely here; better for my purposes would be the phrase ‘alternatives’. These alternatives are ones characterised by qualities that would clearly be unfamiliar in the broad arenas of ACID. One example is the Occupy Movement that occurred primarily in the years 2011-12, a movement in which attention was drawn to the rule of what was referred to as the one per cent – the one per cent of the world’s population that owns and controls considerable portions of the world’s wealth and uses it to reap massive profits, usually via socially problematic, ethically problematic, and ecologically problematic means. It is clear that some of the characteristics of the movement are entirely different to those common to ACID, something which Noam Chomsky comments on in a 2012 ‘Democracy Now’ interview hosted by Amy Goodman: the movement “spontaneously created something that doesn’t really exist in the country [i.e. the USA]: communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion… just people doing things and helping each other”. This is an important observation in the context of this study: people cooperating and helping each other, i.e. not competing. The movement offers such glimpses of manifestations of alternative attitudes, alternative attitudes I am convinced are ones that need to be paid attention to when addressing the question of what to do in light of the ecological crisis. Broadly, these alternative attitudes are ones I call Orphic (again under inspiration from Hadot, 2006), and some more examples of Orphic attitudes will be offered below.
‘Orphic’ areas of focus, to differing degrees, espouse attitudes that are in contrast to the problematic ones I group under the label ‘Promethean’, and I offer these attitudes as suggestions for further exploration as a ‘response’ in the context of the ecological crisis. A certain indulgence on the part of the reader is generally required here: indulgence in the form of a kind of ‘suspension of disbelief’ regarding some of these ‘suggestions’. Without it, the reader would not, for example, give someone like Graham Hancock (whose important work has, despite some striking recent confirmations by other scientists, been largely sidelined by mainstream scientists), a chance to convince her or him. Hancock (1995, 2015) identifies contemporary civilization as one with amnesia, where what is forgotten is a large and crucial chunk of human history where humankind reached a sophisticated level of civilisation with its own knowledge and technology. Despite its sophistication, the civilisation was unable to survive a cataclysm; but there were some survivors and they initiated megalithic stone building projects to convey to future civilisations some important messages from vast antiquity. The Orphic message is clear here: ACID is not the apex of human history (despite what school and university history classes imply), and furthermore, past advanced civilisations have met their demise, suggesting that ACID is not impervious to collapse despite its status of being ‘advanced’. The question of how to best anticipate cataclysmic events arises, and in the case of ACID, the event appears to be a cascading series of ecological collapses induced by human actions; the answers are perhaps to be found in changes to the relationship between human beings and nature, in a direction away from anthropocentrism and towards biocentrism.
In search of Orphic ‘alternatives’, one can look at ‘older cultures’, cultures like the Kogi, the Ik of Uganda, the Najavo, the Hopi, the Cree, Ojibwa and the San (listed by Thom Hartmann in his ‘Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight‘ (1998:154). They all share the attitude of deeply respecting the interconnection of the human and non-human world, and accordingly see human beings as a reciprocal part of nature. These older cultures “are most often cooperators, not dominators”, and “the anthropological record shows that not one culture believed itself to be separate from and superior to nature” (Ibid). One can look at the ‘unnamed movement’ written about by Paul Hawken in his Blessed Unrest (2007), a movement consisting of between one and two million organisations and groups all working toward justice in various spheres, and though disparate, these organisations and groups share the vision of an ecologically, socially, politically, and economically sustainable dispensation. One can look at a non-reductionist scientific model such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance (1991), which proposes that characteristics of a species are shaped by non-physical fields connecting all members of the species rather than purely physical and quantitative genetic processes. One can look at an approach to human economic activity Charles Eisenstein calls ‘sacred economics’ (2011), an approach that is unrecognisable in character, and in social and ecological impact, when compared to the debt-based and growth-focused economic system of contemporary civilisation. One can look at the Zeitgeist Movement, which is characterised by a strong sense of technological and scientific pragmatism, yet manages to align such pragmatism with sustainable approaches to providing for physical needs in a context of finite ‘resources’. One can look at deep ecology, which has the ecological goal of “the protection of the planet and its richness and diversity of life for its own sake” (Naess 2008: 100). All of these examples of Orphic ‘alternatives’ are explored in considerable detail in my PhD study (Pittaway 2017: 128-170). This article serves in part as a broad summary of the research that constitutes the study.
Clearly lacking in the literature about ecologically sensitive (i.e. Orphic) alternatives is a clear route for transition, and by this I mean a transition from an ecologically problematic dispensation characterised predominantly by Promethean attitudes such as dominion and dominance, to an ecologically sustainable dispensation characterised by Orphic attitudes such as cooperation and interconnection. This is perhaps a common limitation of outlines of systems and ideas alternative to the dominant ones of ACID, and if I were to offer nothing in the form of ‘actionable’ steps toward solutions, then it would be a limitation of this paper as well. However, this is where permaculture becomes an invaluable Orphic addition in the context of the ecological crisis. Permaculture is a design system constituted by twelve design principles, informed by various ecological observations, and motivated by the imperative for human beings to co-exist in a sustainable manner with the non-human world. Considering what I have said about transition, permaculture plays a crucial role because it offers very specific principles that can be applied by an individual, a family, a community, a village, a city, a country… and I dare to suggest even by all the countries constituting the human civilisation. There is, however, no one-size-fits-all way to implement permaculture: in permaculture, every environment is a manifestation of different natural features, and often synthetic features too, that need to be observed, and in which human beings need to interact and make small and slow changes, accepting feedback, valuing the marginal, and so on – these latter clauses are allusions to specific permaculture principles. They are all context specific. Permaculture, I contend, is a context-specific, adaptable, patient, accessible, realistic, down-to-earth, actionable approach to creating Orphic change. It is an embodiment of the awareness of the need to carefully design and construct alternatives to the systems of ACID from the ground up via ecologically respectful means. So when faced with the question of how to transition from ACID to something sustainable and ecologically respectful, the answer is not to be found in something as complicated, idealistic, and perhaps ultimately impotent as voting for a ‘green’ political party (because in practice there is only one party, the business party, as Noam Chomsky once wryly observed in a ‘Newstatesman’ interview hosted by Alyssa McDonald, 2010), but rather in the assembly and use of a compost toilet; in the planting of fruiting trees; in the catching and storing of rain-water; in growing some herbs and edible leaf-crops near the home kitchen; in getting rid of ‘the television’; in purchasing one or two solar panels and one or two deep-cycle batteries and learning how to adapt one’s lighting and (for example) computer-powering needs to this small solar-power setup; in being creative with the ‘waste products’ that usually end up in the bin and making useful items from them; in keeping chickens for the purposes of producing eggs for protein in the diet; in sourcing local fresh produce and meat wherever possible; in learning the edible properties of ‘weeds’ and incorporating ‘weeds’ into one’s diet; and so on. These may seem like small steps, but one need not be part of some bigger social phenomenon, or be rich, or be talented, or well-connected socially, in order to take the steps – and this simplicity is part of what makes permaculture very appealing in the context of the socio-political and economic complications that underpin the ecological crisis. Remembering the opening remarks to this paper about positive and negative freedom, I should point out that permaculture is one of the few arenas in which one can learn how to exercise negative freedom – in the implementation of small, slow, sustainable, synergistic systemic solutions that together add up, with the consequence that the need to depend fully on the homogenised and homogenising systems of ACID is thereby reduced. I am not for a moment suggesting that permaculture can feed the world – perhaps it could, but the world’s seven and a half billion people grew to that number because of the widespread commercialisation of fossil-fuels since the second half of the nineteenth century (when the population of human beings was only one billion), but the fossil-fuel system is now widely acknowledged to be inherently unsustainable – something that uses a finite resource can never exist infinitely, as pointed out by Jared Diamond (2005: 490): “While there has been much discussion about how many big oil and gas fields remain to be discovered, and while coal reserves are believed to be large, the prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and natural gas will last for a few more decades”. If something is inherently unsustainable then it must come to an end, so here I draw obvious attention to the question, then what? And this is when permaculture would likely be turned to – but never in a one-size-fits-all manner, as I have already commented – but it need not be the case that the global fossil fuel systems collapse (or the ecologies of the planet collapse in a manner that cripples ‘business as usual’, whichever occurs first) before permaculture becomes incorporated into broader socio-political and economic endeavours. On smaller scales, if one wishes to conduct small ‘experiments of living’, then permaculture is a great place to start, as it offers numerous options to put ecologically sensitive ideas and attitudes into practice and thereby exercise some level of autonomy in the face of the seemingly overwhelming juggernaut that is ACID.
Clearly, a ‘working dichotomy’ has been foregrounded: a dichotomy between ecologically-problematic attitudes and ecologically-respectful attitudes; a dichotomy between the Promethean and the Orphic. The Promethean, due to its characterisation in part by dominance, its focus on having dominion over all of the non-human world, and a variety of other characteristics, has marginalised the Orphic, whose various characteristics have made it easy to be dominated (this is perhaps a criticism of the Orphic). It is with the dichotomy between the Promethean and the Orphic in mind, as well as with the broad context of the ecological crisis, that I turn to philosophical ‘contributions’ that shed important light in context of the ecological crisis. The first is a text called Philosophy in the Present (2009), in which Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek offer their answers to the question of the role of philosophy in the present, and both philosophers make it perfectly clear that philosophy occurs when faced with incommensurability, or in other words, when insurmountable barriers to dialogue are encountered: Žižek explicitly says that philosophy is not a dialogue (2009:50). There is relevance here to the difficulty of ‘dialogue’, or the inherent dichotomy, between Promethean agents and Orphic activists. Other characteristics of philosophy Badiou and Žižek identify are the following: philosophy is the creation of new problems; philosophy is a process of cutting through particulars to reach the universal; philosophy occurs when faced with incommensurability, mutual exclusivity, and paradoxical relations; philosophy is the creation of new problems; philosophy changes the concepts of the debate; philosophy occurs when one lacks the certainty of ‘being at home’, philosophy occurs when faced with internal foreignness, and the breakdown of organic society; philosophy is the Elucidation of choice; philosophy sheds light on the distance between power and truths; philosophy occurs in light of the redefinition of human nature; philosophy is singularity participating in universality; philosophy does not occur in the confines of preconceived ideas of human nature, the confines of humanity as it has been historically constituted, or the confines of the established model of humanity; philosophy occurs alongside the ‘transformation of life’. Each of these focal areas opens up possibilities for insight on various aspects of the ecological crisis (Pittaway 2017: 216-237). For example, “humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined” is a phrase that Badiou (2009: 74-75) uses in the following: “Each time that philosophy confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity”. I have already suggested that various shapers of discourse have dominated historically: the attitudes of domination and dominion partly characterise them, propelling their dominance and dominion, and via their dominance and dominion, they homogenised the historical playing field, resulting in ACID, the Promethean writ large. In other words, the Promethean ‘model of humanity’ is “humanity as it has been historically constituted” (Ibid). And Badiou makes it clear that when philosophy confines itself to, conserves, spreads, or consolidates humanity as it has been historically constituted, it diminishes and suppresses itself. An obvious route, then, toward practicing philosophy in a manner where it is not diminished or suppressed, is to broaden focus and bring (incommensurable, dichotomized) alternatives ‘into the mix’, so to speak. In other words, the historically dominant Promethean may be positioned against the marginalized Orphic. Accordingly, the dialectical wheel can turn properly: the dominant theses of the Promethean will be posed against the ‘antitheses’ (I prefer ‘alternative ideas’) of the Orphic, and synthesis can potentially occur. I therefore contend that this ‘version’ of philosophy can play an important role in any process with the goal of comprehending the problems constituting the ecological crisis, and in seeking potential solutions to it.
The second text of interest to the issue of the role of philosophy in the context of the ecological crisis is Hadot’s essay “Philosophy as a way of life”, and to a lesser extent, “The sage and the world”. Both essays appear in the book called Philosophy as a way of life (1995), and “The sage and the world” certainly leads thematically into “Philosophy as a way of life”. The purview here is mostly different from that in Philosophy in the Present, with the occasional overlapping implication. Hadot traces the notion of philosophy as a way of life as it was ‘approached’ in ancient times – an approach that I contend is of considerable value in the context of the ecological crisis. For example, Hadot (1995: 254) quotes Bergson to convey the character of ‘habitual perception’:
Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.
This is one manner of perception where human beings retain knowledge which may contribute to our action upon things, and Hadot (Ibid) refers to it as “utilitarian perception”. I do not suggest that utilitarian perception is ‘bad’, because certainly everyday pragmatism is necessary in the pursuit of food, shelter, a variety other material needs, and in the operation of ‘utilities’, etc. But the Bergson quote does suggest an exclusive pragmatism, and this is the realm of the Promethean, where the ‘objects’ of nature are valued only for their instrumental value and not their inherent value – and ACID is the contemporary ‘manifestation’ or embodiment of this hegemonic realm. The concept of philosophy as a way of life nurtures a form of perception where the inherent value of extant things is foregrounded, where human attitudes align with an ecologically respectful ‘cosmic consciousness’, and where human actions accordingly are aligned with qualities of the Orphic. For example, Hadot (1995: 206-212) says of the practice of philosophy as a way of life that “the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole”. Perhaps the following from Hadot (1995: 273) perfectly sums up the Orphic character of philosophy as a way of life, while foregrounding the theme of interconnection and downplaying exclusively utilitarian tendencies that earlier in this paper I attributed to the ecologically problematic modus operandi of ACID:
Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of belonging to a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.
By exploring philosophy in the ‘formats’ I have just outlined, and by broadening the context of the ecological crisis via reference to Promethean shapers of discourse and Orphic attitudes, I hope to be able to offer some additional components of a conceptual framework that can be used to approach and address the worrying issue of the ecological crisis, a crisis which hitherto has clearly not been adequately addressed considering the extent to which it is daily exacerbated.
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