Research study: aims and methodology

In Chapters 1 and 2, I aim to establish broad issues and themes pertaining to the ecological crisis and its direct physical causes. Due to space constraints, the sub-sections constituting Chapters 1 and 2 will be short and ‘punchy’ and cover a wide range of issues and themes, thereby establishing an extensive backdrop for later chapters. The range of issues and themes will indeed be very wide; some of the issues or themes will often be ones to which entire fields of study are dedicated. Considering that these two chapters will be the first two of a seven-chapter study wherein the main, ‘higher-order’ academic activities will occur after Chapters 1 and 2, it will be impossible in these initial chapters for me to provide anything other than ‘glances’ of phenomena to which my attention was drawn when researching the primary constituents and causes of the ecological crisis. But what these chapters will lack in depth, they will make up for in breadth. They are not meant to be dedicated rigorously to any one issue or theme or the thorough support for any one issue or theme, but rather identify a variety of issues and themes in order to draw attention to the fact that related phenomena of considerable proportions are coalescing into a seriously worrying state of planetary ecology on the one hand, and on the other hand, that a specific systemic human dispensation is causing the ecologically precarious situation. Stated differently (and more figuratively), my intention in Chapter 1 is to support the notion that planet Earth has what Paul Hawken (2007:3) calls “a life-threatening disease”[1] and to reveal some of the symptoms of the ‘disease’, and in Chapter 2 my intention is to identify human industries and systemic mechanisms that have been instrumental in ‘making the patient ill’[2].

Having laid a broad backdrop in Chapter 1 of the nature of the ecological crisis, and in Chapter 2 of the causes of the crisis, I will in Chapter 3 shift focus to some of what I call the ‘attitudinal factors’ that historically have driven the ecological crises. I use the word ‘attitude’[3] (referred to briefly earlier) deliberately in light of observations made by a central thinker whose ideas will feature prominently in this study, namely Pierre Hadot. In The Veil of Isis (2008:91–98) Hadot identifies a dichotomy, namely the Promethean-Orphic dichotomy, and to do so he uses the word ‘attitude’ rather than ‘ideology’ or ‘discourse’:

Orpheus… penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.

This dichotomy will feature heavily in this study, so I will not comment further on it here. I will however point out that the use of the word ‘attitude’ greatly simplifies my task in that I do not have to delve into the question of whether or not certain ecological stances are, for examples, ‘ideological’ or ‘discursive’. In this early light of the Prometheus-Orpheus dichotomy, and in the spirit of simplicity, I can say that in Chapter 3 I will identify Promethean attitudes that ‘drive’ and ‘justify’ the human industries that cause the ecological crisis – I will therefore establish causal links between physical and attitudinal factors and in so doing bring to the forefront some causes of the ecological crisis that are often overlooked by parties concerned with the state of the planet’s ecology. Chapter 3 will be far more ‘traditionally academic’ than Chapters 1 and 2, mainly because the approach I take in Chapter 3 is to analyse what I call ‘shapers of discourse’[4] (which are instrumental in causing the ecological crisis) by collating some of the critical and explanatory commentary from various reputable thinkers who have analysed the shapers of discourse on which I focus in this study. In explaining the modus-operandi of the relevant shapers of discourse on which I focus, I achieve the first goal of critical theory in its broad and narrow senses of the term ‘critical theory’, as commented on by James Bohman[5]:

Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many ‘critical theories’ in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

This information from Bohman about critical theory is of considerable relevance to my aims in this study considering that the shapers of discourse on which I focus in Chapter 3 – namely Christianity, Science, Technology, Capitalism, and to a lesser extent Democracy – are ones I intend to characterise partly by their dominating and domination-‘crazed’ modus operandi, and domination and the valorisation of dominion are central Promethean characteristics that will emerge in Chapter 3. With regard to Bohman’s remarks, my focus in this study will only partly be on factors relating to the domination of human beings, but also heavily on factors related to the domination of the non-human world – so I broaden the first goal of critical theory as Bohman has described it.

In Chapter 4, this aspect of critical theory will continue in a manner that does similar justice to the first aim of critical theory as per Bohman’s comments, especially considering his assertion that critical theory is partly focused on revealing and analysing forms of enslavement: the focus in Chapter 4 will become the workings of various Promethean ‘mechanisms’ that prevent social change, change away from a dispensation whose dominion-focused, Promethean, ecologically-problematic characteristics[6] I aim to reveal in Chapter 3. Chapters 3 and 4 will therefore be very similar methodologically, and both constitute a traditionally academic approach in tune with the first aim of a critical theory as commented on by Bohman, which is to say providing explanatory and descriptive means by which to view oppressive socio-political, economic, and (I will add) anti-ecological apparatuses. This approach will also be in keeping with what Inge Konik (2015:10) refers to as ‘academic transversalism’ in her PhD[7], where transversalism denotes the analysis of “political economy” and “socio-cultural” phenomena with a view toward “philosophical reflection”. In Chapters 3 and 4 I will conduct such an analytical process and begin to offer philosophical reflection on various themes, phenomena, ideas, and so on. In these chapters I will gradually refer back to focal areas (information, themes, ideas, etc.) identified in previous chapters – this process of ‘referring back’ will continue in Chapters 5, 6 and 7 – there will therefore increasingly be a sense of progressive ‘linkages’ between chapters, a sense I will cultivate with the aim of incrementally broadening the general purview of this study.

In Chapter 5 I will begin to explore alternatives to Promethean attitudes and ‘models’, which is to say that I will explore Orphic areas of focus where ecologically sensitivity and ecological respect are either implicit or explicit aspects of the focal area. These alternatives are lesser-encountered in, and are peripheral to, mainstream Promethean dominant discourse, and are perhaps ones that go against the general flavour of orthodox academia, where focal areas tend to be accepted as legitimate mainly when peer-reviewed journals can be referenced to justify the inclusion of the focal areas in further academic ventures[8]. In this regard I will again refer to Konik’s transversal approach, specifically where she comments on the importance of dialogue – dialogue, I must add, between seemingly disparate approaches: she points out that only a “grassroots transversal dialogue is capable of contesting the homogenizing neoliberal monologue in a way that builds social movement alliances bottom up and across the board” (2015:7). The neoliberal monologue to which Konik refers is part-and-parcel of what I more broadly refer to as the realm of the Promethean. It is in Chapter 5 that I will begin to look beyond the realm of the Promethean, and in in so doing I aim to begin to offer to potential interlocutors (in the dialogue referred to by Konik) heterogeneous ideas, connected by their Orphic imperatives or implications, that are potentially useful in “decreasing domination and increasing freedom”, which is the second characteristic of critical theory already identified in this section in the Bohman quotation.

My focus on permaculture in Chapter 6 will be entirely in keeping with the latter characteristic of critical theory – to repeat, where the goal is partly to decrease “domination and increas[e] freedom” – because in Chapter 6 I will aim to highlight permaculture as a flexible design system with ecologically-respectful principles that resonate with some aspects of the focal areas of Chapter 5, principles that at the same time can be applied to foster personal autonomy in a variety of different contexts. I take the liberty of being very reflective in this chapter, specifically in hindsight of several years of living a ‘low-tech’, rustic permaculture lifestyle, one in which my partner and I put to the test some of the principles enumerated by Bill Mollison (the founder and initial primary populariser of permaculture), and by the Permaculture Association of the United Kingdom. I will refer extensively to the main principles and other concepts and observations extracted from Mollison’s seminal text, Permaculture: a designer’s manual (1988), as well as from the Permaculture Association’s website, in order to guide and substantiate my reflective commentary that derives from my personal experiences with permaculture. In this chapter I will also refer back broadly to focal areas that arose in previous chapters of the study.

In Chapter 7 I will consult three well-established philosophers on the question of the role of philosophy, and I will summarise some of the key points, observations and arguments they offer with the aim of exploring these points, observations and arguments in the broad context established in Chapters 1 to 6; and vice versa, in that the broad context established in Chapters 1 to 6 will be ‘orientated’ according to the points, observations and arguments made by these philosophers. The philosophers are Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Pierre Hadot. I take Badiou and Žižek’s contributions to this question of the role of philosophy from a book called Philosophy in the Present (2009) – the book is a transcript of a public discussion[9] between the two thinkers in Vienna, where the theme is the question: “to what extent does philosophy intervene in the present”? (2009:1). My reading and interpretation of their views lead me to the conclusion that the role of philosophy in the present is distinctly aligned with an Orphic process, and is clearly opposed to aspects of the Promethean dispensation as explored in earlier chapters; it is partly my aim to evidence these points in the first half of Chapter 7. The second half is based on the notion of philosophy as a way of life as explored by Pierre Hadot. Right from the outset of Hadot’s exposition of the concept of philosophy as a way of life, it is clear to me that it is thoroughly Orphic in character and explicitly opposed to the Promethean dispensation to which I have just referred, and I aim to substantiate these points in the second half of the chapter. My method should be clear: extract central points from the different texts and orientate them within the context developed in earlier chapters, emphasising resonance and/or opposition to what I call Orphic and Promethean attitudes. Clearly this method is hermeneutic (as it is from Chapter 3 onwards) because it requires interpretation and synthesis of numerous themes, ideas, issues, theories, facts, etc. emerging from earlier outlines and critical analyses of diverse subject matter.

It should be clear that I will be taking a flexible interdisciplinary approach in this study – from the establishing of themes via facts, figures and commentary in Chapters 1 and 2, to critical and philosophical observation and argument in Chapters 3 and 4, to outlines of ‘alternative’ ideas in Chapters 5 and 6 where earlier issues, themes, and phenomena are commented upon and interpreted in light of new information, to the reflective synthesis in Chapter 7. In explanation and justification of this flexible interdisciplinary approach, I refer first to the positive praise given to it by Rosi Braidotti in her book The Posthuman (2013:155): she mentions “a wealth of innovative interdisciplinary scholarship in and across the Humanities” being “an expression of the vitality of this field”. Norwegian ecophilosopher Karl Hoyer (2012:62) provides some insight as to why ‘innovative interdisciplinary scholarship’ is praiseworthy; here he is referring to Nordic ecophilosophy, but his comment is perfectly relevant to interdisciplinarity in its broader forms:

The fundamentals of interdisciplinarity are emphasized in all Nordic ecophilosophy. The bio- and human ecology focus on wholeness, on complexities, and on the complex inter-relations between the diversity of units, that makes the whole both something more and something else than the individual parts. Interdisciplinarity is considered a basic condition for the study and understanding of these complexities.

Complex ‘inter-relations between the diversity of units’ and the whole being ‘both something more and something else than the individual parts’ are phrases that do not fit in the quantitative, reductionist, mechanistic and mechanising, dominating frameworks I explore in Chapter 4 as partly characterising the Promethean. The interdisciplinary approach I am describing and justifying here, in light of Hoyer’s observations, therefore seems to me to be an appropriate methodology due to its opposition to Promethean characteristics.

Continuing in my justification and explanation of the interdisciplinary methodology I employ in this study, I refer to Inge Konik’s PhD-thesis (2015:9), where she highlights the views of Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell:

…Connell identifies academic insularity as a major impediment. Connell proposes that sociology should expand its horizons, for instance by including work on the relation between economics and cultural transformation… Connell stresses that for sociology to remain strong, ‘it must address major questions about the social world now coming into existence’…

Connell is of course commenting from within the academic sociological arena, but her remarks are relevant well beyond that realm. A brief look at the contents page of this study will reveal ‘major questions about the social world now coming into existence’; a further look at the headings of sub-sections will show linkages between ecological degradation and economic (industrial) activity; between economics, religion, Science and Technology; between economics and politics; between philosophy and ecology; and so on. Considering that my focus in this study is partly the dominant, “established model of humanity” or “humanity as it has been historically constituted” [10], then the following observations on interdisciplinarity from Konik (who refers to several other thinkers in the following quotation) are extremely relevant to my methodology:

An inherent danger too, pointed out by the Marxist author J. D. Bernal, is that the social sciences can be ‘reduced almost to impotence through the fear that they might be used to analyse and alter the economic and political bases of capitalism’. The environmental sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York argue in direct reference to Bernal’s work, that the critical political potential of the social sciences often is neutralized by these sciences being ‘seriously circumscribed by and often directly subservient to the established order of power.’ This is all the more reason for transversal alliance building between different academic disciplines. (Ibid)

‘The established order of power’ clearly resonates with the concepts of the ‘the established model of humanity’ and ‘humanity as it has been historically constituted’ – concepts I will discuss extensively in Chapter 7, specifically with a view to showing that these concepts broadly demarcate the arenas from which the (Promethean) attitudinal causes of the ecological crisis emerge. A flexible interdisciplinary approach is therefore a suitable one considering that I aim partly to challenge aspects of the established order of power, and explore alternatives to it.

Overall, I aim to establish a broad explanatory framework in which the physical and attitudinal causes of the ecological crisis are identified, and in which the attitudinal factors are critically orientated; a framework in which the perpetuation mechanisms of the ecologically-problematic dispensation are identified and critically orientated; a framework in which examples of alternatives (and permaculture is here included alongside the focal areas of Chapter 5) to the problematic phenomena are identified; and a framework in which the role of philosophy is contextualised in light of the themes, issues and information that arise throughout earlier parts of the research process. In this manner I aspire to be part of the ‘transversal alliance’ referred to by Connell.

[1] Some of Hawken’s work is considered in Chapter 5, sub-section 5.3.

[2] Lovelock (2009:46-47) also uses the ‘sick patient’ analogy in The vanishing face of Gaia: a final warning.

[3] I comment on my preference of the word ‘attitude’ over the word ‘ideology’ in the section of this study called ‘Comments on some central terms’

[4] I give a brief indication of what I mean by discourse in the section called ‘Comments on some central terms’.

[5] accessed 6 February 2017

[6] …and by corollary, socially-problematic characteristics as well.

[7] Konik’s study is called ‘Whither South Africa – neoliberalism or an embodied communitarian indigenous ethic’. As the title suggests, Konik problematises the contemporary status quo, which she identifies as dominated by the hegemony of neoliberalism. My work in this study resonates with hers in identifying socio-political, economic and ecological ‘ills’ and in exploring alternatives in an attempt to provide an approach toward remedy. In this manner, both Konik and I are working within the broad realm of critical theory as already described by Bohman in this section.

[8] In this section I soon comment, by way of Konik and the academic to whom she refers (namely, Connell), on academic insularity in a manner that is very relevant here.

[9] ‘Discussion’ is here perhaps misleading. ‘Presentation’ would be better. I say so because each philosopher presents their ideas in more-or-less a monologue format – first Badiou, followed by Žižek. The transcript of Badiou’s work is 48 pages, followed by 23 pages of Žižek’s reply to the topic. A ‘discussion’ then ensues – the entire discussion is 27 pages and involves approximately 3 ‘responses’ from each philosopher.

[10] These phrases are of central importance in Chapter 7.