Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’

AnalysisIdeas

What if humans aren’t in charge of Earth? A review of Ecocene Politics by Mihnea Tănăsescu (2022)*

Ecocene? Yet another new word to describe the ‘Earth era’ in which humanity currently exists? Is it necessary and desirable, and if so, why? What was/is wrong with Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Chthulucene (apart from having no idea how to pronounce the last one)? That is the first question which Mihnea Tănăsescu sets out to answer in the introduction to Ecocene Politics. After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the other terms, he still considers that:

“A term is needed … that could encapsulate both the centrality of ecological processes and the subordinate role of human agency, as that which provokes but cannot guide the subsequent series of events. Human agency has become the provocateur par excellence, but this does not mean that human agency is in the driving seat, deciding where larger natural processes are leading. If the primary focus is not humans, but ecological processes, then it seems to me that the Ecocene is an apt term.” (pp 10-11) 

Mihnea Tănăsescu

Where does Tănăsescu get his idea that ecological processes, not humans, are in the driving seat? The rest of the book is an exploration of the sources he has experienced in person as well as studied in universities which lead him to this conclusion. They are also sources from which he derives what he calls an ‘ecopolitical ethics’, which supports a politics and practice of mutualism. In chapters 2 and 3 (Volumes Parts I and II) he canvasses the scientific sources for his thinking, drawing on what is now a growing volume of work by historians and philosophers of science which  examines where, when, how and why the current conceptions of what is and is not ‘science’ arose, and what the implications of this are for a politics which recognizes the centrality of ecological processes and the subordinate role of human agency. He traces this to the original wrong turn in thinking about ecology and humans which occurred in European thinking in the 17th century CE – the bifurcation of nature. As he describes it:

“This fundamental operation by which space and nature become identified and operationalized consists in the deceptively simple (but entirely abstract) separation of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities. As Locke explained them, primary qualities are those dealing with “solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number” while the secondary ones with “colors, sounds, tastes” and so on …The key point to understand is that “the distinction between primary and secondary qualities starts from an empirical base … in order to then differentiate between non-perceptual qualities and those subjective qualities which are supposedly derived from the former” … The operation of bifurcation separates supposed realms of qualities based on a fundamental distrust of the only possible kind of experience, i.e. perceptual direct experience. Bifurcation manages to subtract embodied experience from the world and postulates the result of this subtraction as more real than its own basis.” (p 23)

Yes, Tănăsescu is a philosopher and if you had to read the above quote three times to grasp its full meaning – that’s OK. In doing so I thought about examples from my own experience which illustrate the point he is making here. They include my use, when possible, of plant-derived medicines (some of which I make myself) in preference to synthetic drugs produced by the pharmaceutical industry. In the 21st century it is possible to study plants according to their constituent therapeutic components and gain a ‘scientific’ understanding of why and how they work – but this is a valuable addition to, rather than a replacement for, the direct experience of herbalists and patients. This experience is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but is constantly up for review and revisions as internal and external circumstances change. In other words – it is an ecological approach.

In the rest of the chapters, Tănăsescu continues to critique existing dominant concepts of science, nature, space and politics, and unpack the ‘new thinking’ on these subjects. This has (mostly) been developed in the 21st century, as it has become more and more apparent that the business-as-usual approaches developed in the 20th century for managing human societies, and so-called ‘natural resources’ for those societies, have not only failed to deliver Utopian states, they are actually making the conditions of life worse for most living beings, including humans.In reading his problematising of thinking about ‘space’ (meaning Earth places, not outer space), I kept waiting for him to give the same treatment to ‘time’, and even to refer to the fact that in the Maori language (and philosophy) the word for both is the same – takiwā. It is the same word/concept in the Aboriginal languages of Australia, and how this works is unpacked by Tyson Yunkaporta in his 2019 book Sand Talk (pp 44-45). As far as I can tell, from the limited sources I have access to, this way of thinking is common to other First Peoples. These people also had (and in many cases still have) what European-derived philosophy would call an ‘ethics’ of reciprocity and responsibility between and among humans and other-than-humans. This is not merely theoretical. It was and is commonly expressed in practices of restraint, return and gratitude associated with hunting, fishing and harvesting plants. (Robin Wall Kimmerer’s presentation to the 2014 Bioneers conference – Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass – illustrates the key features of this ‘honorable harvest’.)

To practice in this way requires a commitment to place, which Tănăsescu touches on, but does not develop. While he rightly says that being local does not necessarily mean being native, he does not expand on what this means, let alone what it can, does (and in the view of Yunkaporta and others) should do to the humans who make that commitment. As the American poet and eco-philosopher Gary Snyder expressed it in 1970: “You should really know what the complete natural world of your region is and what all its interactions are and how you are interacting with it yourself. This is just part of the work of becoming who you are, where you are.” (Snyder, 1980, p 16) In this regard, the two Intermezzos in Ecocene Politics, which deal with aspects of the natural and human history of olive trees in Italy and kauri trees in Aotearoa New Zealand, provide better examples of what it means to be located in a specific takiwā. The industrialization of food production, and global trade in food products, has been bad for olive and kauri trees and all who live with and by them. It has introduced new and damaging pests and diseases, and put stresses on the trees and their groves and forests which they never knew before.

Knowing the natural world around you affords you the possibility of knowing yourself. Pic. Ashish Kothari

The question then is, how can humans make better common cause with their non-human kin, and get back into what Gary Snyder (drawing on Buddhist ethics) would call Right Relationship? How could and should this be applied to relationships among humans themselves? After two chapters which explore the ethical thinking behind making such a shift, Tănăsescu concludes the book with a chapter entitled Mutualism. This draws heavily on the work of the Russian geographer, political thinker and activist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), whose 1902 book Mutual Aid continues to inspire those who are aware of the new sciences of life which emphasize the foundational reality of co-operation and reciprocity to life on Earth, and relegate competition and exploitation to niche roles. Kropotkin applied this thinking to human affairs, so Mutual Aid is also a classic of anarchist thought. But is Mutualism fit for 21st century conditions, which are very different from those of the early 20th century?  Tănăsescu argues that it is, but I do not find the limited examples he gives humans currently engaging in ‘Mutualist’ activities sufficiently robust to be convincing, while his diversion into Maori thinking on the subject of hau (variously interpreted as breath, gift and spirit) neither backs up the case he is trying to make nor (in my view) represents a proper application of this difficult concept. (The Maori equivalents of reciprocal relationships are much better contained in the words whakapapa and utu.) (Stewart, 2021)

The search continues for the right term to describe our developing relationship with Earth, but continuing on the current path of destruction clearly amounts to a compulsive urge for ecocide.

So the hopes that I had when I started reading this book, which were that someone else had worked out what a new ‘Earth-centeed paradigm’ (or world view, philosophy, cosmovision – still looking for the best word) could and should look like, which would save me the trouble of trying to work it out for myself, were not in the end fulfilled. However, I am really glad I read it, and consider that it provides a well-referenced introduction to the subject, which others who are new to it will find very useful. It covers a lot of diverse ground in a slim volume. This is both a strength in terms of introducing new thinking, and a weakness in terms of bringing it all together in a convincing way. In particular, it lacks a proper consideration of the new thinking being produced by First Peoples descendants, such as Kimmerer, Mitchell and Yunkaporta. and its relevance to creating a new paradigm. Also of the thinking of Second Peoples descendants like Gary Snyder and Raúl Zibechi, who know that Western philosophy and science took a significant wrong turn in the 17th century, which has caused and is still causing a lot of trouble, but are also clear that it is not possible to bypass this problem by becoming a ‘fake native’ in one’s theory and practice. Then there are Europeans like David Fleming, who was developing ‘ecocene thinking’ before the term was even invented, and the eco-philosophers associated with the French political ecology review Terrestres.

Those mentioned above are just the strands I know about which are part of developing a new way of thinking – and doing – which combines the best insights from all traditions. This is a process which will take time, and much dialogue. I feel that Tănăsescu knows this at some level, and that when he has spent the necessary time committed to a place and its inhabitants, and has read what the above thinkers have to say about the value (and challenges) of doing so, his next book will be both deeper and more coherent.

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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).

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* The book is available to read on-line or download at Open Book Publishers – see

Ecocene Politics.

You can also watch Tănăsescu discussing the book with Olave Nduwanje in December 2022,

and hear him talking about ‘The Need for ‘Ecocene Politics’ with David Bollier in October 2023.

References

Fleming, David (2106) Surviving the Future, Chelsea Green

Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2020) [2013] Braiding Sweetgrass, Penguin Books

Mitchell, Sherri (2018) Sacred Instructions, North Atlantic Books

Snyder, Gary (1980) The Real Work Interviews and Talks 1964-1979, New Directions

Stewart, Georgina Tuari (2021) Maori Philosophy, Bloomsbury Academic

Yunkaporta, Tyson (2019) Sand Talk, Text Publishing

Zibechi, Raúl (2012) Territories in Resistance, AK Press

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