What is “ecosophy’? In his Introduction to Ecosophies of Freedom, Miland Wani gives a good overview of the derivation of the word (a contraction of ecological philosophy, with the emphasis on ‘eco’ – home or household, and ‘sophia’ – knowledge or wisdom). He also covers some of the uses to which it has been put since the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess first defined it as “ a philosophical world-view or system inspired by the conditions of life in the ecosphere.” These include how Naess himself developed the concept, and the version developed by the Christian theologian Raimon Pannikar.
Wani then moves from these ecosophical thinkers to political thinkers and activists whose work may, at a stretch (and I think it is a big stretch), contain elements of ecosophy as defined by Naess. It is certainly not what Gandhi, Tagore and Marx were or are primarily known for, and while elements of respect for ‘Earth wisdom’ may certainly be found in their writings, their contributions to thought and action were primarily to do with humans and their social concerns, not with ‘humans-as-nature’.
Aseem Shrivastava’s chapter (Ecosophy and the Earth: Prelude to a New ‘Kosmology’) is the only one in the book which goes deeply into exploring the concept of ecosophy and adding new dimensions to it. He writes:
“….the earth and all that naturally lives and thrives on her surface is not a creation or an invention of humanity. She vastly pre-exists the historical, evolutionary emergence of humanity, and will likely last immensely longer than humanity will live on earth. Humanity is an expression of nature ….. Nature does not thrive at the behest of humanity, as it sometimes seems to a hubristic intellect.” (pp 122-123)
“Ecosophy …has a definite cosmic dimension overlooked by ecology and environmentalism alike. It is not only heedful of the rhythms of the cosmos as mirrored in the rhythms of the earth (and its seasons and ocean tides), but also takes seriously humanity’s cosmic responsibility of keeping the earth habitable and hospitable [emphasis added] not only for future generations but as much for other creatures in whose possible extinction we may have a potentially criminal role. (p. 126)
He then looks at how one might apply such an ecosophy in one’s own life. I enjoyed his blasts at the ways in which technologies and the technocracy cut individuals off from doing so. (In New Zealand this includes an increase in painful ‘accidents’ involving people injuring themselves by tripping up, banging into things, or stepping in front of cars. Why? Because they are walking while looking at their cellphones instead of what is around them.) But while it is important that individuals think and act ‘ecosophically’, rather than as consumerist automatons, the concept is much more than that – and no one else in this book really addresses what that might be.
I thought it might come into the chapters ‘In Defense of the Land’ by Felix Padel and Malvika Gupta, ‘From Criticism to Creation: Neoliberal Conservation and Alternatives to it’ by Annie James, and ‘Contemplating Nature’s Rights’ by Rushi Shree. These chapters all cover aspects of the destruction of the existing ‘ecosophies’ and related conservation and protection practices of the First Peoples in places conquered and colonised by expanding European capitalist empires, the new forms of colonisation inherent in neoliberal quantifications of ‘natural resources’, and the attempts to do things differently. I would recommend these chapters to anyone new to this subject and in need of a introduction to it. However, none of them develops an ecosophical alternative to current practices, and James even defaults to the Marxist geographer David Harvey’s criticisms of what he calls ‘militant particularisms’ (i.e. people defending their own places and peoples rather than being part of a global/universal push for change). I find Harvey’s view insulting to those people(s) who have sound ecosophical grounds for their localised defence efforts, whether derived from a First Peoples’ cosmovision (as in the opposition to an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, USA), or a new philosophy of life on Earth which is being developed while it is being practised by Earth Uprisings/Les Soulèvements de la Terre in France.
Raúl Zibechi (Territories in Resistance, 2012) was not intending to develop an ecosophy when he documented the similar sorts of ‘territories in resistance’ thinking and action which have occurred in various places in Latin America since the 1990s, but he noticed that in most cases these new initiatives included a cosmic dimension (as outlined in the quote from Shrivastava, above) and he considers that a new paradigm (ecosophy?) is needed to inform both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples Earth/Life defending and enhancing actions. European philosophers of science have been working on developing such new ways of looking at and being in the world in the 21st century, with the most recent example being Ecocene Politics by Mihnea Tănăsescu . (For those interested in the politics and practice of conservation ecology, Chapter 4 in this book, ‘Renovative Practices’ is a really good account – based on the author’s personal experience of engaging in re-wilding projects in Romania – of how to do conservation in non-colonial ways.)
Developing a new paradigm, ecosophy, or whatever you like to call it, is a big job, and will take a lot of time and many conversations between those working on it. As I feel this is important as well as stimulating work, I was disappointed not to find more of it happening in Ecosophies of Freedom.
Nevertheless, most of the chapters which do not deal with the subject specifically are still interesting, and my knowledge of the thinking and practice of Gandhi, and its widespread influence (including to the USA and the Black activist struggles there) has increased accordingly. I really enjoyed Maya Joshi’s well-written chapter ‘And Perchance to Dream: On ‘Other’ Futures in Literature’, which introduced me to books I would not otherwise have heard of, while also giving a very germane ecosophical take on the European classic Frankenstein.
I am not qualified to comment on the chapters which deal with ecosophical interpretations of Hindu and Islamic traditions, thinkers and writers, but hopefully there is something worthwhile there for those who know more than me about these religions. I am better placed to comment on social and political theory and practice, including alternatives to capitalism and colonialism, but I did not get much from the chapters which covered this subject. Partly because I was looking for the ecosophy behind the thinking and not finding it, and partly because the authors take a globalist or universalist approach to human affairs which, from my more ‘Earth-centred’ perspective, no longer makes much sense.
In most current proposals for socio-economic and political change at the global scale (which I agree are necessary and desriable in themselves) I find that there still seems to be insufficient awareness of how and why things have changed for humans since Earth passed 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (in 1988), and what it means that it is still climbing, and is now around 420 ppm. The blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has already caused the global average temperature to rise by 1.2 degrees Celsius, and as readers will be sadly aware, the catastrophic effects caused by even this much global heating have caused death and destruction by fire, water, wind and drought in every part of the world, while in Antarctica and the high mountains of the world the ice is melting….. Earth scientists have named the era we live in the Anthropocene, because these changes are caused by humans burning fossil carbon. Tănăsescu prefers the term Ecocene because it makes reference to the fact that Earth is in charge – not humans.
The human species evolved in favourable climatic conditions, and it is not at all clear if or how it will survive as those conditions become less and less favourable both for human beings and for the many species of plants and animals they depend on for food, shelter, clothing, etc., as these beings are also threatened by a heating Earth. An ecosophy fit for 21st century purpose will have to take into account these changed conditions, which did not exist when Naess coined his use of the word ecosophy in the 1970s, when the climate was still in its stable Holocene state. Earth is now in a period of climate instability, and the philosophy expressed in Ysaye Barnwell’s 1993 song Spiritual
“Cain’t no-one know at sunrise how this day is going to end.
Cain’t no-one know at sunset if the next day will begin…..
….. We look for things to stay the same
But in the twinkling of an eye everything can be changed.”
seems even more relevant now than it did then, when Barnwell applied it to solely human affairs.
I am confident that as the reality of these changed circumstances becomes more apparent, we will see more robust attempts at developing concepts of ecosophy which combine the deeper meanings of Home and Knowledge more fully and powerfully.
Christine Dann is a writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand who has been active in and writing for and about social and environmental movements since the 1970s. She is on the core team of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives. (https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org).
Ecosophies Of Freedom – Published by Kalpavriksh and Earthcare Books. The book is available on the Kalpavriksh website: www.kalpavriksh.org
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