Tim Hollo’s essay was a delight to find. What a relief to see such important truths voiced in a prominent arena. To point out that the cause of the ecological crisis is culture, not choices; that the crisis will only be averted by undermining and ultimately replacing the dominant culture; that making a tactical choice to endorse the existing culture, in any instance, harms the crucial long-term project of deep cultural change; that among the most damaging aspects of existing culture are its tendencies towards hyper-individualist self-maximising dominion; that this culture is actively created and maintained by those who benefit from it, by marketing and political messaging — these are insights that ecologically aware people commonly hold. But, especially in this era of so-called pragmatism, rarely are they set out explicitly and systematically, as Tim has done. Hopefully Tim’s essay can serve as a reminder for the green movement to step back from time to time and refocus on our underlying task.
Of course, neither the crisis nor the call for cultural change are new. Tim’s essay follows a contemporary tendency to focus on climate change as the issue that now eclipses all others, or as Naomi Klein puts it, “changes everything”, making a cultural shift essential. It is true that climate change is the greatest prudential threat ever to face our civilisation. All other ecological issues have threatened humankind less directly. Klein sees the direct existential threat posed by climate change as an opportunity for cultural change, and she’s probably right — but surely some special effort will be needed to turn a major threat to self-interest into motivation to build a less self-interested culture.
To do this, we will need to reintegrate all the other crushing ecological issues — such as biodiversity loss and habitat loss — back into the public discourse. Whereas once we talked about the global ecological crisis, now we nearly always just talk about climate change. But on the upside, now a whole lot more people are engaged. Perhaps it is time for us to say “now that we’ve got your attention, check out what we’re doing to forests, and marine ecosystems, and wildlife, and …” It is not all about us.
If we’re going to remake culture, it’s probably as well we reflect on why that hasn’t happened before now. It’s not through lack of trying. In response to the excesses of land clearing and agriculture in the Dust Bowl-era of the 1930s US Midwest, Aldo Leopold called for nothing less than the “reorganization of society”1 , later famously elaborating that a proper land ethic “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members and also respect for the community as such.”2 Leopold’s eloquent pleas were heard worldwide, and convinced many, but it was not enough to change the culture.
In the decades that have followed, many voices have been raised and been heard, yet the dominant culture is, if anything, more rabid than ever before. (Would Science magazine today dare publish an article titled “Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”3, as it did in 1967?) These voices have ranged from the purely ethical to the purely prudential. As a rule, the more prudential in focus an issue is, the more open people are to the message, but the less likely the response is to prompt deep cultural change.
Witness the rise of the Deep Ecology movement, with its platform of radical cultural change and its ultimate fall into obscurity in the 1980s and 90s, amid accusations of ecoterrorism. Over the same time period came mass support for green consumerism and the idea that we can avert the crisis by minor behavioural changes such as sorting waste for recycling or turning off unnecessary lighting. Despite (or perhaps because of) its total failure to challenge the deep cultural causes of the crisis, this approach was vastly more popular, and continues to be so as the public grows ever more concerned about the prudential hazard posed by climate change. The desperate inadequacy of this approach has prompted many to throw up their hands and walk away, but perhaps there’s a better way forward.
Tim Hollo’s essay calls for what has been missing until now: the coupling of mass public concern about a prudential hazard with ethical concern about the natural world and fellow humans, and deep cultural change to address the root causes. This is exactly what needs to be done. Yet that, too, has been tried before. Rachel Carson4 made that mixed prudential-ethical call in 1962 — “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”5 — but despite widespread recognition of Carson’s cry for action, not even a decade of youthful social revolution, fuelled by worldview-shattering psychedelic drugs, could cement lasting, meaningful change into the dominant culture.
Why? Was it just the wrong time, the wrong issue, the wrong approach? Is climate change the disaster that will force the issue, and is the green movement the vehicle that will change the culture? I’m with Tim Hollo: it’s our best bet, and Tim’s approach for building change by telling new stories seems much more promising than the old ways of simply demanding change or attacking existing culture. The new stories absolutely can “create a culture more conducive to caring for the environment, rather than buttressing the old culture” of “what’s in it for me?”
Through their prominent role in public discourse, the Australian Greens especially have an opportunity to tell those new stories, and indeed they already do. Tim’s essay is a great elaboration on the virtues of this approach, and the need to maintain it both in policy and, especially, in messaging.
Finally, although Tim focussed on climate change, and I on the broader ecological crisis, it must be remembered that the type of cultural shift being called for will span the Four Pillars. As the new stories grow louder, democracy will be improved and the impulse to violence and exploitation will diminish. This is because, as pointed out in piercing clarity by Australian ecofeminist Val Plumwood6, the mistreatment of the natural world, of women, and of other marginalised demographics share a common cause in the culture of the so-called master subject. The master subject divides the world into a related series of value-laden false dichotomies (dualisms), so positioning the white, male, capitalists as the “Masters of the Universe” and leaving non-Europeans, women, the poor and working classes, and the entire nonhuman world (“the environment”) to be devalued, backgrounded, objectified and denied, through exploitation and violence.
The common foundations of oppression in relation to all four pillars can be made use of to address liberation in all four pillars simultaneously. And that’s what Tim’s new stories already do. “We are one, we are many” is crucial in that regard as it tempers the damaging hyper-individualism of mainstream culture without obliterating difference and diversity. It re-values interdependence and relationality, and along with “can’t buy me love” it reaffirms the constructive emotional content of relationships, including respect, empathy, care, compassion, generosity, gratitude, reciprocity and solidarity, counterbalancing the naked calculating egoism of the dominant culture.
Those values connect with our approach to the natural world not only in terms of caring that people aren’t harmed by climate change or other environmental degradation. Equally importantly, the new stories need to unravel the othering and objectification of nature. We must “situate humans ecologically, and nonhumans ethically,” as Val Plumwood put it in a powerful passage worth quoting at length:
“We have reached a point of technological power where such mistakes and blindspots have grave implications for our survival. For this reason alone we must undertake a profound rethinking of rationalist culture and move towards democratic economies and forms of science. The historic task of cultural change is to resolve throughout the dominant culture the distortions of rationalist human/nature dualisms that deny our ecological embodiment and membership of the global ecological community. We must counter those maladaptive forms of reason that radically distance us from the non-human sphere and disguise or disappear our ecological embeddedness and vulnerability, in order to develop a communicative, place-sensitive culture which can situate humans ecologically and nonhumans ethically. Strengthening the democratic and corrective forces means eliminating the radically unequal distribution of power and resources, remembering too that many rational distortions have their source in privileged denial and backgrounding of the fundamental supporting and nurturing roles of excluded and devalued groups, especially women. Challenges to human-centred and rationalist culture and consciousness will not be effective unless they also challenge their bases in current structures of power; the ecological message, no matter how persuasive to people at large, will never change policy while this is made by ruling elites who have a powerful stake in keeping the systems we have to change. Our best hope is to change the basis of democracy so that more fully egalitarian forms of democratic economy and culture can give everyone an equal stake in benefits and an equal risk of adverse consequences. We must aim for fairer inputs in steering the ship, determining its directions in ways that are rational for everyone. We need too structures of working life that encourage us to exercise responsibility and care for one another and for the natural world.”7
Changing our worldview to embrace the reality of our ecological embodiment means a new story: “we are animals, living in ecosystems.” Perhaps this should replace or augment Tim’s “pale blue dot” story. Richard Louv’s “nature deficit disorder” concept, discussed by Tim, makes a start by valuing nature, but is still saddled by the old stories. Nature is spoken of not as a community in which we enjoy relationships with others (human and nonhuman, living and nonliving), but rather as a mere commodity we are to consume for our self-enclosed individual benefit, to get our fill, to correct our deficit. Moreover, by suggesting the experience of simply being “in nature” as the product to be consumed, it positions humans as spectators rather than as participants in nature.
To better situate humans ecologically, the new stories need to emphasise the embodied animality of human persons. This means accepting the personhood of nonhuman animals (or indeed, all embodied beings) and our essential kinship and interdependence with them, and embracing and celebrating the awesome agency of nature’s ecological-evolutionary order which created and nurtures all of us. Equally importantly, as I have argued elsewhere, the ecological worldview needs to be turned into our experiential reality by direct, personal, visceral participation in wild ecological networks of material exchange. The new stories, if they succeed in fostering a view of ourselves as deeply embedded in networks of interdependence and exchange with other beings and the fundamental creative forces of life on Earth, will be seen by many as a spiritual involvement with nature, as Joseph Epes Brown has pointed out:
“Even elements of the environmental movement approach the earth as an object to be preserved, rather than as a spiritual reality to be respected. This misconception may prove to be fateful, for, as Tony Gonnela Frichner of the Onondoga Nation has pointed out, ‘How can you “save the Earth” if you have no spiritual relationship with the Earth? There is an intellectual abstraction about the environment but no visceral participation with the Earth. Non-Indians can’t change the current course of destruction without this connection.'”8
That’s a long, long way from “the art of the possible,” and would be ridiculed by Very Serious People. For many, myself included, the chasm between the dominant worldview and a pro-ecological one seems at times too vast to bridge. Decades of failed attempts seem to support that concern. But Tim Hollo’s essay gives me hope that there is another way: revolutionary yet gradual; radical yet gentle. Thanks, Tim.
J. Baird Callicott, ‘Reply to Norton, re: Aldo Leopold and Pragmatism’ (2011) Environmental Values, 20, 17. ↩
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, (1949, republished Random House 1966), p. 240. ↩
Lynn White, Jr., ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’ (1976) Science, 155 (3767), 1203. ↩
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, (Houghton Mifflin, 1962). ↩
Rachel Carson in ‘The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson’, CBS Television, 1963. ↩
Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routlege, 1993); Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Routlege, 2002). ↩
Val Plumood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Routlege, 2002), p.239. ↩
Joseph Epes Brown, Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions, (Oxford University Press, 2001). ↩