Tackling ethics in an ecological emergence(y): the importance of vigil(ance)

Emergence and emergency don’t just sound the same. They encompass a parallel set of initiatives, the urgent and the critical, the calling for attention, the insistence of vigilance in what is arising into awareness. In thinking about the ecological emergency, which includes climate change and biodiversity loss and all the associated suffering, but also the human reactions which include attitude and ideological polarisation, I eschew an ethical approach. Ethics won’t save us since its grounded in ideology, and ideology leads to polarisation. I believe in this god, you don’t, so our views are fundamentally divided. You’re a hypocrite because you don’t live up to the values you ascribe to. I’m a nihilist because I have no values. So the vitriol spews and we spin into further realms of suffering. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/world/middleeast/israel-palestinian-rap-video.html

In environmental ethics terms, attempts to describe what to do in moral or ethical terms only creates further layers of difficulty. Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships? If you think about it hard enough, though, it becomes clear that we’re not separate from either the air around us, the water we ingest, the land that crops grow on, or the fact that everything that comes out of us stays in the system we are enmeshed in. And that’s not even to begin thinking about attitudes that shape these circumstances, including how we treat one another, other species, and the systems that created and sustain us. Any ‘centrism’ suggests a centre – but the centre has no substance. It’s a mesh!

Garett Hardin used an ethical characterisation of the response to limited resources to defend his account of the ‘lifeboat’ ethic that says we can only protect a few. How easy that is, when you’re in the boat. For the rest of us, primarily impoverished and disenfranchised in the global South (but, as we have recently experienced, also in the global North), we’re at sea. The vast majority of us have little control over how we source the material from which we extract energy to survive – land, farming and forestry, building materials (including highly polluting cement factories), petrochemical companies, pharmaceuticals that take materials and blend them into medicines, transport and communication mechanisms that enable us to eat tropical fruit in the winter in Ireland or buy into currencies that are virtually untraceable. We have little control because we are part of the mesh, the substrate is us. We can only look at it when we take a particular perspective: one of vigilance.

Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility. What she was really talking about was self awareness, awareness of our partisan point of view, vigilance and attention that allowed the conversation to continue despite different and often conflicting interests. This is what we need to learn to do.

If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments. These ways require understanding how we communicate compassionately. We may not be able to do it all the time, we may stumble and fail, but it’s a practice. It’s bringing attention to our own shifting and morphing place in the mesh that allows us to see, to realise, to create enough space to honour that another has come to their point of view for just as many arbitrary reasons as we have. That doesn’t make them wrong and us right. It gives us a place to start seeing what we can do from here.

Island Clearances

Looking west, over the brave waves, he took his voice, and stretched

Out a song in a language as close as possible

To the sea, to mingle with the shingle

Being shunted up along the beach, to explore

round stones, bleached bones, seaweed, fishbreed, egg of flesh and fowl,

Flotsam and jetsam scattered off ships, carried from distant

Places to indifferent spaces; to express

Love of this unplace. The gulls scream, wheeling,

Flocks of oystercatchers, an old movie look, flicker white to black,

Plovers together turn and catch a glint off the winking

Cusp of sun. Opulent tones of ochres purple the open hills.

A landscape

raped and haunted by losses. Glad to see them off, the wind remembers

People, trees, language to him more beautiful than tracery.

Words that held in the tone and tongue-tip the fierce red mosses,

Waterlogged, that don’t hold still long enough for simile. The fierce red

Fox, the ptarmigan, moving, changing colour, hidden.

Looking in the mirror of these words he sees a new

Reflected self, the old words dying with his out breath. The unforgiving

Barrenness of rock draws him like a lodestone to long for an undoing,

Reflesh the old words, end up there, bleached on the wind scattered sand,

There to resound.

Respect means to look again, compassion means with appreciation of suffering

We all suffer from a nagging sense of fear, or anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or loneliness, at some point. To recognise that this is in some sense an illusion brought about by the patterns that contain and occupy us like fractals which then bloom into other possibilities related to the last. Seeing this is not to relegate everything to the realm of myth. If I’m real, so is my experience, and so is yours, so are the fires and floods, pandemics and plastic pollution, corruption and courage that occupy the airwaves and our conversations when we are not thinking about sex, or food, or how to win an argument.

We are certainly the creators of our experience in the sense that we experience what we pay attention to, and that’s a creative act. But of course there is an ‘out there’ to contend with too. To pretend otherwise is to risk the kind of arrogance that drowned King Canute. There must be something that links these two, a line between what is happening, and how we bring it into awareness. It is this ‘how’ that matters.

With just enough effort, and just enough surrender, we can align with the liminal edge that is awareness of existence as it is happening, a respect which is reflective watching, but which is also an opening, like a portal, to love.

This kind of awareness can become as habitual as the worries and nagging fears, as the addictions and desires, that have previously consumed us – or me. Let me speak for me. I can  see just what is here, and see too how such disparate events as previous experiences and the weather have brought it all to this, and thus both compassionately but also dispassionately disengage until there is no more accumulation of previous experiences and activities based on reacting with rage, jealousy, resentment and greed, but only the kindness of respect, watching. I cannot do much about the torrential rain, or blistering sun, but I can engage in the ecological emergency as an emergence, an opening into the possibility of altering direction to allow every possible opportunity to mitigate suffering to open to me so I can respond. Almost all that happens to us does so as a matter of one damned thing after another in the unique, and largely random, order we experience things. Reflecting on that I can see I, too, emerge in context. Awareness takes me to the edge of this, where there’s a shift, the universe aware of itself here, now, through me. What else can I allow to come through this being me if I respect what is happening now?

Covid – fact checking the fact checkers

Someone sent me this video today. https://odysee.com/@vaccines-covid-nwo:3/JgxEMA02opvp:6. They asked me about my thoughts on this. I’m interested in bodily integrity and rights erosions in the interests of ‘the common good’ so this is a philosophical issue. But obviously this is also a hugely emotive and controversial issue. I’ve gone through the video and the Fact Checker (USA Today) site to see if I can check what’s being claimed.

This is my understanding of Covid-related research to date. 

  1. There has been an increasing recognition of the risks of pandemics on a growing global population. In response, laboratories worldwide, but particularly in nations with highly developed scientific research facilities, have been investing increasingly in the implications of mutation and transmission, response and impact. 
  2. Since all this requires finance, some of the financial risks were taken by drug companies already heavily invested in looking into the profitability of producing a pandemic vaccine which would likely have high usage and therefore reap high profits. 
  3. “A key driver is the media and the economics will follow the hype … investors will respond when they see profit at the end of the process.”  Daszak
  4. The interviewee, David E. Martin, is a national intelligence analyst, founder of https://www.m-cam.com/about-us/ with a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He has a LinkedIn page and seems, to all intents, legit. His claims are as follows: a) the CDC patended the genome of Covid to make a profit and stop others from making a profit; b) therefore either the virus is manmade (in which case its development was illegal – creating a bioweapon is an act of war) or it is natural (in which case patenting it is illegal) and c) research was moved from the US to China, to Wuhan specifically, but the financing was hidden through a series of intermediaries. 
  5.  It’s always worth asking: qui bono? What has he to gain from his analysis of the patenting of Covid? The man he is speaking to in the video is a lawyer from California who has a vested interest, as a lawyer, in creating law cases from which he could profit. Martin, however, doesn’t appear to have any immediate means of benefiting, except perhaps through receiving high levels of publicity. The video has been taken down several times by ‘fact check’ organisations.
  6. The patenting of Covid: the Centre for Disease Control says they did this as ‘defensive patenting’ so no commercial or private company could patent and therefore control access to the genome. They also said that the genome is published on their website. That may or may not be true. I couldn’t find it. I found this: https://github.com/CDCgov/SARS-CoV-2_Sequencing. It makes sense to defensively patent something you’re working on, if what you’re working on is manmade; but if what they patented was a lab-produced genome of  SARS-COV (not SARS-COV2) then i) they’ve patented something to which they would have had access in any case as they came across the natural product (which cannot be patented, because wild creatures cannot be patented) and ii) you run into the issue with why they created a simulacrum of the original virus – sequenced its genome – and then worried about other people doing so when, if it’s natural, there’s nothing to stop them.
  7. As far as research being moved to China, it’s obvious that some research collaboration was taking place between the US and China. This from “Fact Check):  In 2014, the NIH approved a grant to EcoHealth Alliance designated for research into “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The project involved collaborating with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats and the risk of potential transfer to humans. The original five-year grant was reapproved by the Trump administration in July 2019. In total, $3,378,896 in NIH funding was directed from the government to the project.
  8. My conclusion is that no, the vaccine wasn’t created and spread in order to allow companies to profit from the creation of the vaccine. BUT yes, the vaccine may well have escaped from a lab and yes, yes, yes, the pharmaceutical companies who knew that the possibilities of profit would benefit them enormously were no doubt thrilled that there was an outbreak and have profited massively. As far as the vaccine not being a vaccine is concerned, no, I don’t believe that the vaccine is either deliberately harmful to humans or not a vaccine. I do think that it has been developed far more quickly than can allow for a full analysis of its impacts on human health. They simply have not had time, by their own admission, to test for long term effects or rare side effects (as we have seen). Moreover, the lipid nanoparticle into which the RNA fragment is placed in order to inject the vaccine are long chain polymers which, as far as I can understand, originate from the oil industry (long chain polymers are also used to make things like clingfilm, contact lenses, etc, as far as I can discover. These details may be ill expressed but the gist of what I’m saying is that the pharmaceutical and hydrocarbon industries both benefit in this). 

It’s definitely a philosophy, but it’s also a practice

I will, eventually, begin to categorise these posts, although it’s hard to do so with any real accuracy since the boundaries between philosophy, yoga, and my personal musings are not at all obvious to me very much of the time.

This piece is adapted from an outline of the first chapter of my thesis, however, so it has some clear delineations: it’s definitely philosophy. But the philosophy implies, and creates, a practice. The practice arises out of considering a couple of questions: what are the key aspects of the narratives with which we approach the issue of the ecological emergency? What are the practical implications of focusing on these key narratives?

The first thing is to understand that there is a spectrum of approaches to the ecological emergency. While others have laid these out before (from deep to shallow ecology, for instance, or from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism; from utilitarian to deontology, or from blue-green to red-green), my focus is on how ‘agency’ is envisaged across the literature and from the different points in the spectrum of approaches.

The narratives of how to respond to the ecological emergency, from a philosophical perspective, fall almost entirely into the field of environmental ethics. Here, they depend on various views of how humans are seen to fit within other physical systems and indeed what kinds of responsibilities humans have, and to whom.

Since I am focusing on human agency, I look closely at how the distinction is drawn between the capacities for response that humans have (and their responsibilities for their impacts) and the capacities that other organisms, communities or species have. This leads me to the view that our most developed understanding of how humans fit is summarised by the narrative of enmeshment that Tim Morton has developed and explored. How we view ourselves has implications for how we see our responsibilities, and therefore for how we respond. In other words, seeing ourselves as enmeshed has implications for how we see agency.

I put this in the context of Paul Taylor’s view of human agency because I want to return to the field of environmental ethics so that the thesis I come up with emerges from that field. This is the context from which I approached the issue, and it’s also the most potentially potent area for influencing political or strategic policy. Think of Peter Singer influencing the debate on animal rights, or the way that philosophers (including Singer) have influenced the debate on poverty reduction. I wasn’t interested in developing a thesis that had no practical applicability and the field of practical ethics seemed quite a promising place to begin (it turned out I was wrong about this: practical ethics was not the approach I ended up advocating, but that comes later in the story).

Taylor had written a brilliant, thorough and timely investigation of the question of shifting how we see how humans fit, and indeed how we see other organisms, communities and species. It was as a result of his thinking about other organisms as being somewhat directed towards, or teleological, beings that he realised that not only humans have interests that need to be considered. If we allow that humans have interests to be considered (‘goods’ of their own, in Taylor’s language) then we have to allow that other organisms have interests, and once we allow this, there’s no reason not to consider them. In fact, not to do so would be unjustifiable. They want to live and survive and thrive just like us. We don’t have the right to stop them. So we have to take them into account when we’re deciding how to live.

This was quite a radical proposal (Taylor wasn’t the first, and there were more radical proposals than this, like Leopold’s ‘community of life’ ethic, and Naess’s ‘self-realisation’ ethic) but this was an analytical approach. It was reasoned out. It was a logical extension into ethics from the most recent explanations given to us by the natural sciences.

I was really interested in Taylor’s idea that we see other organisms, communities, etc as having their own interests that they had just as much right to pursue as we did. It set us in context. But I was also curious about how he could claim that we were moral agents if we were just as much evolved beings as everything else. I decided to review how we might understand our agency. I had to set aside the idea that we were ‘moral’ in any sense for the purposes of this review (I came back to it later).

“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating. For to cherish we must see and fondle and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Aldo Leopold

I don’t know if it was Aldo Leopold’s words that first inspired this debate for me: what basis could there possibly be for getting people to curb their actions when those actions were motivated by the urge to see beautiful places, or experience unusual or extreme situations? An image of a line of footprints, then tractors, trailers, concrete laid, spreading across tundra, slicing it into increasingly compressed squares. Perhaps Europeans see it more clearly because we have less room. Particularly those of us living on these islands flung into the Eastern Atlantic, knowing that the edge is very close, that there is not a huge stretch of prarie and beyond that, range upon range of snowcapped peaks.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is the human species, that connaisseur of beauty, that loses most. Most of us will never step on pristine shores that have never felt a human foot. Most of us will come to places that have been marked and emblazoned, even if only virtually, with brandnames, that have been photographed and pawed over in the minds and words of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of eager human others. Does this matter? Many people might say that it makes no difference to them at all. But if you were the first that ever burst into that silent scene, to shift Coleridge’s image marginally, can you even imagine how utterly, extraordinarily humbling and at the same time, stupendous and exhilarating, that would be? It would be like being the exploratory eye at the very forward edge of the wave of curiosity. It would be like going beyond anything anyone had ever been or done before and standing out alone, at the precipice. There would be a sense of loneliness, of course. One can never share these experiences, by definition (unless, of course, one goes in a team, but even then, each sensation is individually felt). Yet there would be a sense of collapsing boundaries, of opening into something utterly new.

Some places will never be fully explored. The heights of the Himalaya will no doubt remain mysterious, at least as long as the climate makes them an arduous adventure (though the climate, we cannot forget, is changing fast). The depths of the sea are hidden to all but a select few. Antarctica now has strictures on it. The Galapagos is expensive – and money is an effective ring-fence for many places that might otherwise attract more populous attention.

Secondly, although we are in an inevitably unsustainable relationship with the world around us (we will all, after all, die, and, in the end, so will the species) nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that we can do something about the kind of relationships we have, both with the world, and, indeed, with one another or even with ourselves. Just because we are going to die does not imply that we make no effort between birth and death to make the experience, whenever possible, marginally less painful for ourselves or, indeed, for those around us (even if most of us usually include in that later only our loved ones).

There might continue to be arguments about the truth or otherwise of climate change for some considerable time to come (make no mistake, I am of the strong opinion that climate change is a fact, and human-engendered), but there is no reasonable way around the notion that the human race is having an exponentially negative effect on biosystems and biodiversity and that a simple mathematical calculation will prove that, given the finite nature of the planet, and our reliance on it in every conceivable way for our survival, continued growth and consumption at increasing levels does not compute.

So, we, humans, are both all in this together, and all in something unsavory together. Can we do anything about it? Determinists or those who deny that we have any degree of freedom can legitimately jump ship at this point: if you don’t believe we have a choice in anything, then you might as well ditch the notion of voluntary action altogether. This is an argument for voluntary action, so it doesn’t apply to you. Everyone else can stay tuned in: we are agents, in a strange sense, but in a sense, nonetheless.

We are not agents in the sense that we conduct and control the flesh within which the mind resides. This is the fallacy that we fell for long ago but against which we must (metaphorically) beat our wings, because metaphors are tricky, dangerous illusions that manipulate and distort our relationship with reality. The best clue to our agency lies in our evolutionary roots. We evolved as survival systems, more or less successfully, along with all the other processes and systems, large and small, that we see either around us or in the fossil record.

We do not choose. We are propelled. Not towards. Away from. Paul Taylor suggests we build our characters and that this makes us virtuous. I think he’s got a point but it is not building – that’s too mechanistic and mechanistic metaphors (as I have said before, and will say again, no doubt) are misleading. Instead, it’s responding, at a very basic level. Our very cells respond to the feedback processes that allow us to watch how we breathe, and to breathe more deeply. This breathing more deeply is itself the result of a series of other strange coincidences and accidents of our personal history and physiology, but it brings about a new direction for us, where we can watch the process of past unfolding into present and into potential futures. So instead of building our characters, perhaps what we do is realise, more and more, and so bring into being a broader, but a looser, set of systematic dynamic connections and relationships, relationships that already exist but which require attention to come into focus. Brought into focus, even metaphorically, they begin to come into the realm, like conscious breathing, of awareness. Imagine an infinite number of infinitely fine threads linking each and every relationship and creating the woven fabric of our own existence. If we cease to think of ourselves as solid constructions in, and separate from, space, this image invites is to see ourselves as holograms through time, gathering and discarding connections as we move, and we are always moving.

Three things that are wrong with the philosophies of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, and three things you can do instead


Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra have made a lot of money telling people to live in the now, and to attract wealth and influence by having positive thoughts that have higher vibrations. There are an awful lot of people who have spent considerable amounts of money buying courses and books in the hope that they, too, will escape some of the misery and poverty that stops them living the life of their dreams. I would like to debunk three of the myths that I think are cynically damaging, since they imply that people who fail to achieve their dreams after following Tolle’s or Chopra’s advice are somehow to blame. They — we — are not. This is why.

First, the injunction to live in the now implies that you are not the product of your genetic, environmental, and chance conditions. Each condition creates the conditions that your brain then remembers reacting to, and that it, as a consequence reacts to now, as best it can, to assure your survival. This means that your current character and situation is a direct result of all the other situations that you have found yourself in (to say that you are separate from those conditions isn’t true either — you are much more enmeshed than that implies — but let’s leave that aside for now).

You are not at fault for being where you are and who you are. In fact, Sam Harris is right to say that you cannot be held responsible at all for what you do — although I’ll come back to that. You are all that has happened to you — in the past. Therefore you are a process emerging from the past. What you can do — what we can all do — is recognise that and — and this is key — recognise it with a particular attitude. If all that happened did so on the basis of chance and determination, then you are like a tangle of enmeshed threads, and compassion is the natural response to seeing this.

We have the peculiar capacity for self awareness that allows us to become entirely present, but that doesn’t mean denying the past. It means taking a different perspective on it, one that elicits the attitude of compassion, or love, which is a rational response to seeing yourself as you are. We can look at what has happened, is happening, and be fully aware of it, but without rejecting it. In totally embracing what has happened, and being aware of what is happening now, you can align yourself with a kinder perspective. That is all you can do. Be kind to yourself by being aware of yourself. This shifts things — but it’s subtle. It requires effort, and practice.

Secondly, Tolle says that what we perceive as physical matter is energy vibrating at a particular range of frequencies. Thoughts consist of the same energy vibrating at a higher frequency than matter which is why they cannot be seen or touched. Thoughts have their own range of frequencies, with negative thoughts at the lower end of the scale and positive thoughts at the higher.

How do we know this isn’t true? Because you can’t make a claim about vibrations that bears no relationship to what happens in the only technology we currently have to measure thoughts. You might be able to identify on an ECG graph whether or not a person’s thinking is mostly relaxed or mostly excited, but it would be difficult to tell whether they were thinking about Mona Lisa or Quantum Theory. I’d hazard a guess that it’s nearly impossible for now, and even if we could, there would be no relationship between the quality of your thoughts and higher or lower frequencies.

Physics isn’t my area of specialisation. But it’s not Tolle’s either. The idea that higher vibrations and positive thoughts correlate has absolutely no basis in any scientific empirical study. High frequency waves vibrate more quickly, and these, therefore, include X-rays and gamma rays, both of which damage human cells to the point of fatality, in contrast with waves that vibrate at lower frequency like radio waves which enable us to listen to Bach.

The implications of this second debunking, are, as I’ve tried to explain above, that you cannot change the nature of your thoughts through effort, because you are a product of your own personal history and your thoughts emerge as a result of that. But you can reflect, that is, become aware of what is going on right now, and what you are paying attention to changes when you elicit an attitude of compassion. You don’t change frequency. You change perspective. Other options for action arise when you pay attention to what is happening now, not by raising your vibrations, but by becoming more attentive, and listening for a change.

The third idea is that you can attract wealth and influence, and the implication is that if you don’t, you’re to blame. There are two errors here. Firstly, having enough is important but is not the same as having wealth or fame. Having enough is partly a matter of self perception and learning self compassion is the key there. If you absolutely do not have enough, you need access to the material energy that is the ecological context that created and maintains us. For that, we all need to strive for social and environmental justice. Secondly, if you find it hard to practice self compassion, or if you really don’t have enough, then you are not to blame. You are the result of all that has gone to create your own particular circumstances. You need to connect to others, and they — we — need to connect to you. You need to be listened to, believed, and understood, and supported. Being blamed is not helpful.

When I listen to Tolle or Chopra, I am moved to ask, what motivates you? Are you interested in the revolution we need in how we relate to the world, in the hard work it takes to practice-realisation, and in the Bodhisattva’s vow? Or are you interested in feeding the myths that perpetuate suffering to line your own pockets, through dividing the human from the natural world, and creating an elite by blaming the poor for their own situations?

Trying to explain

The above is the title of a book by Donald Davie. I’m using it here because I’ve been asked a few times recently to a) describe what it is I’m trying to do and b) describe how philosophy as a practice can offer something in our current predicament. With a bow to Collingwood, the key question that has informed my research is how philosophical practice, that is, acting with an awareness, and on the basis of, a conscious reflection on one’s worldview, might offer an effective response to the ecological emergency. By ecological emergency I mean all the impacts of the anthropocene (biodiversity loss, pollution, deforestation and climate change) and also the human attempts to engage with the impacts, including attitude polarisation, technological innovation, social fragmentation, despair and denial.

Bear in mind that what I’m laying out here is a fairly comprehensive worldview, and I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with it. However, what I would like you to do is to take it on its internal consistency. So, for instance, if you believe in God, you might have a difficulty with my atheism. See if you can put that aside, temporarily, at least to see if the theory makes sense, and then see if we can perhaps discuss how the theory might work if God was at the heart of it. Likewise, if you’re a climate change sceptic. I shouldn’t imagine there will be many of those reading this, but if you are able to do so, put to one side your objections to climate change as an orthodoxy, and, if you like, leave that aside, working instead with the rest of the theory. If you’re a creationist, you’re going to struggle with my theory but I still think we have something to say to one another, and I’d encourage you to read on. If you’re right about everything, you have nothing to learn here. Pass by.

There are really three strands to the approach I advocate. Understanding ourselves in context is the first: we’re not apart from the systems, time and place we’re in. That’s obvious for some, but it’s not necessarily intuitive, and nor are the implications. We can feel as though we’re unique beings that could have landed anywhere in space and time and would have been the same. However, a brief reflection on who and what you are reveals that you and I exist precisely because of the genetic, environmental, ecological, climate, cultural and other conditions that brought us to this point. This is true not just of us, of course, and it is not only true of all humans. This is the nature of existence. It is interdependent, and co-arising, and not only did we not choose where and when and how to be, neither did anything or anyone else. This may sound like determinism. It is not. It is a recognition of the arbitrary nature of existence, and of the probabilistic and yet unpredictable laws that, as far as we know, govern this uni (or perhaps multi)verse. I do believe that despite this, we have the capacity for a particular kind of agency, but it’s very different from the kind of agency we’ve traditionally learned we have, and that’s important.

The idea that we’re enmeshed to the point of being interdependent and co-arising, to use the Buddhist terms, is not a difficult idea, but it subtly shifts our understanding of our relationship to self, other and the more-than-human world. We do not own our victories or our defeats and failures in the ways that we have traditionally understood. We do not have free will either, in the traditional sense. How could we, if we come about in context, entirely enmeshed, in Tim Morton’s phrase? There have been some controversial, but increasingly accepted, experiments to show that our brains make decisions before the prefrontal cortex area where conscious ‘choice’ takes place begins to fire. We are born, grow up in a context unique to ourselves, experience particular and subtly different care and education, go on to make choices based on the characteristics that develop out of that combination of genetic and environmental heritage which in turn, puts us into different contexts from someone who may in many or even almost all respects have had an identical experience. Successes tend to build a worldview of success, and failures a worldview of failure. Committing a crime that involves a demonstrable lack of empathy can sometimes be traced back to early emotional disconnection. Causes and effects are complicated, however, because they are complex. All kinds of chance happenings can shift the balance. This happens not just to individuals, of course, but to societies and cultures and ultimately, in a global context, to predominant understandings of the world, which become the worldview most of whose adherents unreflectively accept without question.

Questioning, and raising awareness of what we tend to take for granted, is the job of philosophers. But being aware of what we are, and revisiting the question when new information comes to light, is something we all do all the time. Awareness is one aspect of consciousness – if you like, you could characterise it as consciousness that is conscious of itself. That we humans have evolved with the capacity for this kind of consciousness is fairly incontrovertible. It’s probably an evolutionary advantage. It’s our ability to know that we are here, now. It may have come about as a result of the chance happenings of evolution that meant our survival became increasingly dependent on our capacity for problem solving. And problem solving was helped by knowing more about the world and our relationship to it. If so, it is a kind of accident of evolution, since evolution itself has no direction. It is a blind process of experimentation at the physical level, of a systematic patterning of matter to distribute energy.

The second is that there are things which are good for the systems, big and small, of which we make up our infinitesimal, but to each of us, entirely relevant and important, part. My metaphor of a galaxy comes from Scott Sampson’s work on explaining how things maintain their existence in spite of an overarching move, obeying the second law of thermodynamics, towards entropy. His essay here https://www.edge.org/responses/what-is-your-dangerous-idea describes how the ‘purpose’ of life is to distribute energy, which is a neat explanation, when you think about it. He describes universal energy as analogous to a river in which there are whirlpools which both take in and release energy and yet maintain the pattern of their existence. I took this idea, along with the ideas from Paul Taylor who developed a theory of respect for nature, which he based on Kant’s idea that we treat persons as ends in themselves, and moved the context to a systems-based understanding of what we are. This led me to conclude that we are systems (albeit we have boundaries at our skins, and in our self conception, nevertheless these are porous and shift through time) and thus interdependent. And that systems have conditions that maintain them, and those that cause them to either dissipate energy too quickly, like a Catherine wheel, and burn out, or develop obstructions within the system that interfere with the dissipation of energy, and cause the system to fragment and collapse. If we can say that some things are ‘good’ for systems, including ecosystems, and including us, then we can say that some things are harmful, or ‘bad’ for systems (including us).

Shifting the Locus of Freedom

The third imaginary that requires re-examination if we are to make the shift from illusory control to effective response is to revisit in what sense we might claim to be free to choose. This means reviewing our sense of “moral agency”. Paul Taylor, following Kant, suggested that our agency is the sense in which we are free to choose what to do. Our moral agency is therefore the sense in which we are free to choose to do good, or evil (that is, to benefit, or to inflict harm).  This gives a person, and indeed a moral agent, a considerable amount of liberty: she can choose to act or not to act, and she can do so based on choosing what to value or not to value. 

Yet none of those acts are freely chosen if, as described above, we are entirely enmeshed in circumstances over which we have had no control, from what bugs bit us to who tucked us up in bed, and how. In practice, if these influences are the precursors for subsequent decisions made by brain states always reliant on memory for what they pay attention to, then our liberty is, in practice, considerably constrained. Sam Harris would say that it is constrained to the point of being almost entirely illusory, and I am inclined, given our enmeshment, to agree. 

The ‘moral’ element of our actions cannot survive this shift any better than the agent can. If we came to be where we are as a result of circumstances over which we have or had no control, we cannot be said to have moral responsibility for our subsequent reactions. Shifting the narrative on moral agency, and on free will, is radical and controversial to say the least. 

Yet we still have an ability to respond, a responsibility, if we recognise the role of awareness, of the “self knowing itself”. Our agency comes into being when we practice paying attention to this awareness. We realise, and thus release ourselves from the bonds of the action, reaction, cause, effect, that have brought us to this precise moment. We are looking out at, but also from within, the issues to be considered, but it is precisely this capacity we have to understand, or realise this explicit implicitness that allows us to develop a clearer idea of our role in the ecological emergency.

Taylor advocated a process that considered what (human) moral agents owe everything else. Since I have suggested that the locus of action lies in practicing realisation, it is to a reflection on perspective that I will move next. Thomas Nagle famously and correctly noted that it is impossible to adopt the perspective of another organism. We do not know what it is like to be a bat because we could only ever have a human view, and more, an individual, enmeshed self-continuum view, thrown into the ring of bathood. 

Yet we are part of, and inherently enmeshed in, the same systems, if from a different angle, as bats and their co-evolutes. On top of which, as Mary Midgley has pointed out, we don’t need to be grass to know when grass needs water: we just need to take a look at the state it is in. 

If humans have one clear evolutionary advantage that is equivalent to bat’s echolocation, (and it may well not be unique to humans), it is the complexity of our communication which includes stories, and the key to stories is that they ask, “what if?”. Instead of focusing on our free will, and positing that we of all species alone decide how to live, we could shift narratives and say that self-reflection is itself the key factor in locating where our agency, or freedom, lies. Much of the common sense notion of free will, or agency, in this sense, relies on the old dualistic myth of a homunculus in the ethereal world of consciousness directing the gears of the bones and sinews to elicit action. This myth prevails, damagingly, but we need to explore, to feel our way, so that we update it without leaving the culture reeling in shock or entrenched in rejection. For this, we can again look to the literature of East Asian thought but also to the embodiment of philosophical practices, like meditative awareness practices, and yoga.

Little is known about the culture within which Yoga actually started although it represents, in some senses, a highly systematised set of techniques and practices that have rudimentary or parallel equivalents in many other cultures around the world. In the Northern plains of the Indus Valley, between the rivers of the now extinct Saraswati and the Indus, there developed one of the most advanced ancient civilisations that lasted for at least two thousand years. This was the context, but the thread that runs through the almost unimaginably long and complex history of yoga is its concern with the internal world. The practices that yogis used to access their sense of a fundamental point from which to view existence were just that, practices. The philosophy that emerges as a result of later examinations of these practices is often contradictory (dualist vs non-dual, polytheistic, monotheistic and atheistic) which is why one is so often redirected to the practice in a kind of anti-intellectualism.

My interest is in how my own philosophical perspective can elicit a yoga practice that allows me to respond to what is going on right now, this ecological emergency in which I find myself, and which is also an emerging awareness of my own fragmentation, which I need to deal with by becoming more open to an awareness of how I change my own perception of the interactions that tend to make me want to blame and judge, but which can only be effectively dealt with as emerging from my own conditions. Through this journal, I’m encountering people who are interested in both the yoga and the philosophical practice (which are not separable, really) and this is a very interesting experience, to meet people virtually whose focus is sometimes almost parallel, and sometimes wildly different from mine. It’s a huge challenge to attempt to articulate this, and time keeps eating up my days with trivia and a gnawing doubt. But I’ll press on.


Written September 2001

Aftermath: the word was repeated endlessly after September 11th. It means consequences – literally “following with” – from the old German “events after the mowing”. What will follow this grim harvest? A harvest (old Germanic again, “the feast of fall”) of what sowing? “As ye sow, so also shall ye reap”. But this is a trap – of language, of culture – however mobile. Our beliefs are shaped by where and when we are, and how we speak, our language, our access to knowledge of the world. We cannot be held wholly accountable for this, or for how we live, surely, since it is so much a product, a function of the time, and the physiological and geo-political space we occupy. Even if we climb clear enough just to observe – a rare feat – we are still held within the expectations of our cultural and moral peers. We can be odd, different or unexpected, we can even be rank outsiders, but we are never free completely of the pins of birth or the ties of when, where and how our formative years were conducted. And nor can “they”, whoever we mean when we use that word. 

A few days after that day, it was the autumn equinox, a traditional time for celebration, here in this northern hemisphere, of gathering in what was sown in the spring. Metaphors take on a life of their own, of course, and give an air of predictability to what could never have been predicted. Language is all metaphor, stories lodged in cultural meaning, so we fool ourselves if we think we can ever speak neutrally. An ‘urban’ (or rather ‘internet’) ‘legend’ circulated that Nostradamus predicted the fall of the twin towers. This was revealed, with a little research (unfortunately not undertaken by those reporting on that week’s Sunday Show) to be a hoax. It fitted the mood, though, that prank, tipping the scales ever more heavily in favour of an inevitable reaction, the deep animal urge to slash back, to see it all in black and white, their tribe versus ours, to kill and maim the evil killers and maimers, to fulfil “what is written”, calling down Armageddon and ending them for once and for all. 

We here in Ireland watched and sighed, appalled and hurting too. We waited silently for what would be next. We had no choice, it seems, but to acquiesce, despite the rhetoric that all decisions would be democratic. America, its nostrils stinging from the fumes and fury, the horror and the grief lived and re-lived in the minds and on the screens of the nation, would not be unmoved. Forces and resources, reservists and governments funds, and language, all was mobilised. The battle is now waiting to be won. Can it ever be won? What are we fighting for? Peace? How can one fight for that?

When I heard the news (remember? Where were you?) I first recalled transatlantic ties. Mine are more western or west coast – Los Angeles, Colorado, Seattle – on the whole. Except my step-grandmother, very old now, who kept us all together as a relatively close and loving extended family for many years while I was growing up, in Scotland, and who now lives on Manhattan Island. My sister in Colorado rang, still mesmerised by grief and anger. “One minute we were just sitting here, fat, happy Americans. Now all that’s gone.” I baulked at what, to me, was such delusion. Fat and happy, yes, but at whose expense? My reactions, like hers, were governed by where I am, and why. By choices made on the backs of other choices, drawing us increasingly apart. 

Reactions to 9/11 in the global North spread across a spectrum and I don’t know how much choice any of us have on where our views emerge. At one end is the view that the attack was in some sense understandable, that violence begets violence and something as selectively defined as “terrorism” can never be wiped out as long as injustices remain. And yet, even among these, there is a sense that the twin towers attack was monstrous theatre, a strike at the beating heart of a free and freedom-loving city, in the land, and within sight of the Statue, of Liberty. Even the most liberal of democrats accepts that a response is necessary and must be swift, and strong. At the other end is the view that the perpetrators and anyone in any way associated, including but not limited to their kith and kin, their clans, tribes, and even compatriots, should be razed from the face of the Earth, obliterated, all vestiges destroyed. This gut reaction is fed by media reports of poignant final moments looped and served as evidence and it becomes increasingly hard to counter. We cannot live, it is said, in a world menaced by tyrants and fanatics. We would never do a thing like this ourselves and we will rid the planet of these scum because it’s us against them, our culture, with its stalwart commitment to rights and life and freedom, versus their grimly oppressive dogma that leads to totalitarianism and death. 

The grey area where nuance plays out is muffled in the slanging match: is there a positive alternative? Is there a way to talk about the way we talk about what’s going on that offers some hope for our being able to come to terms with what we are, and do, that addresses causes as well as consequences? My sister is appalled that I’m dragging my feet in not whole-heartedly applauding the American Way. War, or What? She slams the phone down on me. I root for peace and reconciliation but it feels weak, a failure, and our relationship will take long months to heal, and may never. Yet the only thing left for me to do is to do nothing, to wait, a negation of the clamour for action. The world keeps turning. The bombs keep falling. The refugees carry their children, hollow-eyed. 

Two parallel situations spring to mind. In the first, a man, a good friend, living in the west of Ireland, begins binge-drinking again, despite a long, arduous abstinence, and attendance at AA. He declares to us one night what we already know: he’s gay. We still love you, we exclaim, half-embarrassed, half-annoyed. What can we do? It’s still outside the spectrum of acceptable behaviour here and would kill his elderly parents, he says, and we believe him. It’s likely to get him badly beaten up if it comes out in the local town, particularly if he declares it while he’s drunk, as he’s likely to do. He can’t leave – he’s his parents’ carer. There is no outlet, no chance of a relationship, no alternative that he can see. So he drinks himself into oblivion until, broke and hungover, five days later, he’s back on the wagon again. 

The second is the state of relations between Ireland, Northern, and Republic of. Sometimes this is cooperative, but all too often there is open hostility or even just blank lack of acknowledgment. How much choice do we have to react to one another like this? Bound by class, culture, emotional and educational experiences, is it inevitable that we are driven by the urge to be of this tribe, and not of that? Most astonishingly, and depressingly, I have noted this suspicion and dislike within the yoga communities on each side. 

The spectrum of debate ranges from an open-door policy where no one is refused entry and there is free passage between organisational membership in either jurisdiction to a justification of discrimination based on differing professional criteria and a commitment to the integrity of differing systems. Both make some sense. Each has a problem. Openness could mean dilution of identity, while discrimination can quickly become negative, especially if it is the result of subjective assessments which, in small communities, are often personality-based. Any over-arching body is always and only the sum of its human parts. 

We are often subject to the mantra, in the world of yoga and the broader world of therapeutic practice, that we are entirely responsible for our actions, and the reactions that we elicit from others, and from the wider world, can be traced back to how we have behaved initially. This, I suggest, requires reflection. There is perhaps only one position on the spectrum open to any one of us at each particular moment, and we land up there for reasons that are multifarious and complex, including such bizarre and random influences as the weather, and whether we’re in love. But there’s a way of standing outside ourselves that is key to yoga practice, and that is the practice of self awareness, shining the light on what state we’re in before committing to a place on the wheel of opinion. Each time we do this, we open to more fluidity and flexibility in our responses. We may not be infinitely supple but nor are we rigidly tied to the view that first appears. Not to recognise this is as duplicitous and disingenuous, in fact, as irresponsible, as believing that not seeing the faces of dying Afghani children implies that those faces do not exist.