4/8/21 DAYLONG DIALOGUE on Ecological Civilization with Jeremy Lent

What ideas could animate an ecological civilization, and how might they take shape in specific strategies? “An ecological civilization would be based on the all-encompassing symbiosis between human society and the natural world,” Jeremy Lent writes in a recent essay in Yes! Magazine. He suggests, quite fascinatingly, that such symbiosis might be embodied in strategies like universal basic income, restorative justice, and steady-state economics.

Join us for a daylong dialogue with Jeremy Lent about this recent essay and the idea of an ecological civilization: Thursday, April 8th, from 9am to 9pm PDT. Drop in whenever you can that day as we write back and forth with Jeremy and with each other about this vision. Participate by adding your questions and reflections that day to the thread below.

Writer Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in June.

There’s so much to think about in this short essay, which I loved reading and thinking with slowly. What I appreciate most is the deep intertwining of social and ecological commitment in this vision, the idea that an ecological civilization could be embodied (and in fact would require) a range of social commitments – universal basic income, LBGTQ rights, restorative justice – that we wouldn’t immediately assume to have a specifically environmental character about them. But Jeremy Lent gives a way of thinking of all such things as in fact ecological by nature, for they would reflect a more expansive commitment to the wellness of diverse beings in society that is just another face of the kind of environmental commitment that an ecological civilization would demand.

One question on my mind has to do with the imagination of the natural world here. What about the more “unfriendly” and even dangerous elements of nature’s design? I’m thinking, for example, about things that grow out of control, weeds, for example, or cancerous cells. Writers like Julie Livingston (in her book Self-Devouring Growth) have in fact made the connection between growth-obsessed economies and cancerous growth, that cancer actually gives us a way of understanding the pathology of obsessive growth. And certainly, from another angle, an image of nature as “red in tooth and claw” has given warrant to so many of the predatory violence of colonialism, slavery, and capitalism.

I think it’s important to recuperate another vision of nature that isn’t constructed to simply justify the rapacious quality of Western industrial capitalism. But should this other vision of nature also accommodate space for, or somehow find a way of making sense of, things that grow out of control, that flourish in imbalance, that find joy in openings for unchecked growth, like weeds and so on?

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Anand, your comment makes me think of the Amazon union drive in Bessemer Alabama which is being voted on today. I think there is a good argument that unions are sound ecological design–they surely constitute a check on the ability for corporation to grow, cancerously, into monopolies. I like this piece for its mix of big picture human and environmental systems thinking, but I wonder about the absence of unions alongside UBI, 'citizen panels, and triple bottom-lines.

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I resonated deeply with the larger guideposts in the article. Given its concise and clear writing, I’d consider sharing with my students and others not yet enmeshed in these themes.

I found myself hungry for specific examples of people “doing the work” – many of the aspirational themes are nearly tangible in their description in this article, yet leave me wondering what evidence of these mycelial networks the reader can begin noticing. I’m chewing on this in my own work.

I also take slight issue with the distancing effect the word “Nature” gives, as if humans can disentangle ourselves from the mesh. (though I get it’s a bit much to unpack “more-than-human” stuff, given the length constraints of this piece). Is there a meaningful – yet approachable – way to capture the push and pull of the ecologies we have stopped noticing? Further, linking to Anand’s response, is there a way to discuss our take/worldview on ecologies beyond just “Nature Tells Us What To Do” (especially when capitalism, etc. pull the imperatives of hierarchy and domination from noticing ecologies)?

I’m generally vibing with the conversation the article seems to open :slight_smile:

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Anand, you raise some important points here.
We need to understand that nature contains both competitive and cooperative elements. Our mainstream story, dominated by Dawkins’ “selfish gene” narrative, tells us that ultimately nature is selfish and competitive, and humans have succeeded by becoming the most powerful in dominating others. In fact, modern evolutionary biology tells us the opposite: each of the major progressions in evolution have been the result of organisms finding new, elevated ways to cooperate with each other. The same is true for humanity: it’s our cooperative drive, enhanced by moral emotions encouraging altruism, generosity and fairness, that differentiate humans from other primates.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore competitiveness in nature: rather, we must recognize that both cooperation and competition are concepts created by humans to establish neat categories. In my view, the best word to describe the elegantly complex interweaving of natural processes that comprise an ecosystem is harmony. In music, harmony arises when different notes sound at the same time in such a way that an emergent, more complex and pleasing sound is produced. The notes aren’t competing or cooperating with each other, but the way in which their differences act upon each other creates a blended experience that is richer, and more beautiful, than any of them alone.

I think it’s valid to understand our growth-obsessed global economy as one that’s out of harmony with nature, and like cancerous cells, if left unchecked it will destroy the organism in which its embedded. In a healthy ecosystem, you will see fluctuations in dominance between different species, but only within certain parameters. These will only go to extremes when there has been an exogenous disruption in the system, and even then, they will almost always hit a natural boundary and decrease. That’s why natural ecosystems can maintain resilience for millions of years.

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I definitely think strong unions would belong in an ecological civilization. In a system where the triple bottom line is a requirement for the continued existence of a corporate charter, employee representation and power would be vastly increased compared with our current conditions—but there would always be a need for an organized representation of workers as a self-defined group.
For some more specifics on my view of how to restrain the powers of corporations and billionaires, see: Five Ways to Curb the Power of Corporations and Billionaires

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In my experience, there are inspiring examples of groups living into the values and principles of an ecological civilization, but they mostly get ignored by mainstream media because they are a.) too small; b.) their stories don’t attract eyeballs/advertising, c.) their implications are dissonant with the mainstream story.

Just a few disparate example I feel are noteworthy:
Movement Generation
Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative
Sustainable Economies Law Center
East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative
LIFT Economy
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center

Most of these are from the SF Bay Area, where I live. Here’s a challenge to your group: Can you explore your local community, and come up with a similar list of groundbreaking enterprises based on ecological principles? If so, what about developing a project to showcase them, and identify what are their key success factors that can be applied (fractally) elsewhere?

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This is a great challenge. I’m going to begin working on such a list for our milieu here in Baltimore.

Also, here’s an image of other organizations that I see as Eco Civ trailblazers around the world:

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Super helpful. To think concretely in terms of such organizations helps a lot with the most daunting aspect of all this, which is the question of transition, how to begin to move toward something that is so profoundly different from what is happening now on a broad scale. It’s one thing to ask how to do this. It’s another thing to point out, as you do in your essay too, that this is already happening in many small ways in many places, that this is a process already underway. The word process brings to mind for me the process philosophers over at the Institute for Ecological Civilization in southern California, who hail out of an intellectual tradition inspired by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Are they on your radar at all ? Perhaps they’re more of an academic formation.

I’m closely connected with them, and happy to make an introduction if you’re interested!

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This would make sense given your own investment in process thinking, of course! Some colleagues and I attended a Whitehead conference in Claremont a few years ago when we were first exposed to this network. It was fascinating to see how widely into different strains of popular culture the Whiteheadian process philosophy had diffused. Pete Seeger gave a pre-recorded (and posthumous) presentation at the conference!

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Thank you Jeremy! I’m reminded of the book Discordant Harmonies by Daniel Botkin, which I read a long time ago, when I was still a college student, and which made so much sense to me. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is the relationship between beauty and destruction. Our civilization certainly finds destruction beautiful, our media venerate things blowing apart at a spectacular scale. But there’s also the question of whether we can, in our imagination of natural beauty, also accommodate some acceptance of nature’s violence. I want to think of this almost like another principle on the list you make in your essay. Can we think of acceptance as another such principle?

This raises some interesting (and thorny!) questions. The idea of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) has been used extensively to undergird free-market neoliberal capitalism. And I’m very wary of any approach that even comes close to accepting a normative role for violence of any sort—the fascist movements of the early 20th century often justified their violence based on being closer to “the earth.”

What about the violence that clearly occurs in nature, then? I think this is where we have to make a distinction between building a society based on ecological principles and just blindly mimicking nature. Another way of looking at it: this is where the “Civilization” part of “Ecological Civilization” comes into play.

I think it’s useful, when differentiating the principles of an Ecological Civilization from nature-in-the-raw, to build on the evolved moral foundations of humanity as discernible in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands (how we spent 95%+ of our evolved history). These are based on principles such as the Four R’s of indigeneity identified by Native American scholar LaDonna Harris: Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Redistribution. They each refer to different types of obligation that inform a person’s life. Relationship is a kinship obligation, recognizing value not just in family but in “all our relations” including animals, plants, and the living Earth. Responsibility is the community obligation, identifying the imperative to nurture and care for those relations. Reciprocity is a cyclical obligation to balance what is given and taken; and Redistribution is the obligation to share what one possesses—not just material wealth, but one’s skills, time, and energy.

It’s noteworthy that there is no acceptance of violence (natural or human) in these principles—rather a focus on nurturing, care, and reciprocity. Of course, this is just a tiny toe-dip into a large subject, but wanted to at least give a you a sense of where I’m coming from on this issue.

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These are great questions. I’m curious as to how these questions come up in your own work @cat and I like that you describe them as mycelial. I am also wrestling with “nature.” I avoided it for a long time. But I’m coming around to the idea that it has a necessary place, as a placeholder at least. You’re probably familiar with the Biomimicry Institute, for example, whose database of non-human design ideas is called “Ask Nature.” It strikes me that it works here precisely because it’s interested in the push and pull of the relationship with the non-human. And that’s also what @jeremylent is getting at here, what happens when we open ourselves to ways of living and organizing life that we might share with far more societies than our human ones. I really like the idea of pluralizing such principles of a common condition as much as possible. How long would this list potentially be, if we could add thoughtfully to it?

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Thank you, @jeremylent, for sharing and discussing your fascinating notion of the ecological civilization here! There are so many interesting biological metaphors to ruminate on (rumination being yet another biological metaphor that we borrow from cows, goats, etc.). What a synthetic analysis too, bringing together ideas of eco-mimicry and the circular economy, concerns about social justice and multispecies rights, and critiques of (natural) capitalism.

As I read through your essay, I was struck by the mimetic relationship between your argument (about a mimetic relationship between natural ecology and society) and the organization of the text itself, in which every new section seemed to repeat the section prior, fractally, recursively, such that each design principle embodied and then built upon the previous one. Not only was it a pleasure to read, but it posed the question of which forms of writing, reading, and speaking are best adapted to an ecological civilization(s)—that is, what are its communicational media? This question, I think, returns to your argument about the need to “peer beyond the day-to-day crises capturing our attention,” past the surface manifestations of this deep ecological system. Your use of the word “attention” makes me curious what mechanisms are responsible for our sense of collective (or “global,” as you say) distraction? And how should we respond to/resist them? How, in other words, do we effect a “transformation in the way we make sense of the world”?

Some un/related comments and questions:

  1. Like @anand, your work evoked to me Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, and it also reminded me of Georges Canguilhem’s vitalism, especially when you discuss the “life-affirming.” I wonder what he might have to say about this kind of super-organismal vitalism, and how that might aid us in thinking through the question several here have raised about the normal and the pathological (vis-a-vis biological vs. economic growth).

  2. I’d also like to echo @cat and @anand’s interest in nature imaginaries and their moral authority for our culture(s)/civilization(s). In my own research on biomimicry, I find that notions of Indigenous design epistemologies and their timelessness (described here as “immemorial”) hover quite close to nature in ways that scholars like Carolyn Merchant and Shepard Krech have found concerning (and Johannes Fabian, too, in a not-so-different register).

  3. To add to the conversation about examples, I remember that Arturo Escobar’s book Designs for the Pluriverse is chockablock with examples of “autonomous design” today.

  4. Lastly, in such an encyclopedic argument about ecological civilization, I was surprised (and pleased maybe?) to not see the increasingly popular concept of the Anthropocene! Was this intentional (and if so, how come?), or was this an issue with length (as @cat acknowledged in her post)?

Jeremy, it’s been so wonderful to dialogue with you, thank you for your own spirit of generosity and reciprocity in engaging with us today! I find your answer to this question very interesting, with regard to the “civilization” side of things. Especially because there are many ways to practice this thing called civilization.

Most of my own research has been based in south India, especially rural south India. I’ve delved into, and written about, south Indian ideas of agrarian civility, dating back to medieval times, that take up the cultivator as a paragon of moral virtue, that find in agrarian life a different form of civilized conduct, definitely opposed to an idea of wild and violent peripheries.

I share this because it strikes me that there is so much at stake in this question of opening up “civilization” and finding the cultural and imaginative resources to insist that it can in fact be profoundly otherwise, that it has been profoundly otherwise. Many such traditions bear resources with which to build very different moral ecologies. Here are some verses for example from one 18th century south Indian Tamil-language drama set in the countryside, the Mukkutal Pallu:

Craning for the bank, the lotus
touches the stalks
of the green ginger

And the ginger there brushes
the yellow throat – softly
touches – that turmeric

Which mingles with the bent stalks of the
red rice paddy standing
there, the red rice

Lending a hand to the red sugarcane –
so lives the Sivalamangai
southern bank country

Mutual aid and symbiosis!

I love it, Anand!

I look forward to further dialogue with you in the future!

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Our civilization’s challenge is to transition from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene.

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