Geopolitics and Ecological Spirituality in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The last Airbender gives us a stylistic and colorful look at a fictional world of warring nations together with a sharp focus on the planetary and even cosmic elements. The problems and conflicts of nations are interwoven with the quest of a group of teens or pre-teens as they try and right a world that is on the verge of total domination by one nation. These kids have no problem taking on a nation imposing its will on the rest of the planet, primarily using their powers to manipulate the elements but also teaming up with other nations to mass attacks and engage in war. This American cartoon with a decisively Asian stylistic influence, despite its heavy use of spiritual abstractions and flashy battle scenes, highlights some of the most important aspects of global geopolitics for us to learn today.

The imagined planet we begin on is one populated by four different peoples, each representing one element of nature as they were conceived in ancient times: water, earth, fire, and air. The first three nations are locked to a continent, with the air people being monkish nomads inhabiting mountain-top temples and the water nation having territory at both of the planet’s two poles. Keeping these nations each with their disproportionately weighted qualities from invading other territories and assuming power over them is the avatar, a Dali Lama like character that reincarnates upon death and wields enormous power. The avatar alone can learn the power to “bend” the element of each nation, while a select number of people can learn to bend the element from their own nation of origin. It’s an international system that weaves together martial-national ambition with individual spiritual enlightenment into an icon in such a way that nations can be nations, monks can be monks, merchants can be merchants, farmers can be farmers, etc., while a mechanism exists to keep empires from rising. The avatar is like Buddha and Sun-Zu mixed together, as if attaining enlightenment also granted this single great figure a god-like fighting power.

This scenario is an enchanting thought experiment and I’m tempted to ask: “who are the avatars today?” To quickly answer that question, no individual has that power nor should they. But rather than musing on the avatar as inhabiting a middle-place between this fictional world and the real, what I’d like to turn your attention to the way that international politics and forces of the earth work together in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is particularly effective in making the personal/emotional trials and tribulations that most everyone faces in their life blend together with the grand scale of nations and the problems afflicting each. The disruptions and excesses of individuals, villages, and nations, felt by each other when they come into conflict with friends, our travelers, and other nations are all indicated at the same level and with similar affects gone astray. The difficulties of keeping the crew together and on task, moving toward their goal and not at each other’s throats, etc. are reflected in the deficiencies of nations in maintaining an international balance of power. For instance, the leadership and resilience that water bender Katara learns in rallying the band is reflected in the qualities that the Water nation lacked in beating back the Fire Nation, but have had traditionally: resilience and adaptability.

Isaac Yuen has already pointed out many of these connections in his ekostory of the show, so I’ll just link you to his great piece here: [http://ekostories.com/2012/09/08/avatar-airbender-forces-change/]. And there’s two more pieces on Avatar lying that way.

Our heroes eventually pick a member of each elemental to form the final version of their team, but thanks to the main protagonist, the new Avatar Aang, and his giant flying bison (that’s right) Appa the group itself operates nomadically in their quest to “restore balance” between the nations and reestablish harmony. The absent peoples of the show is the air tribe – not only has the Fire Nation killed them all but Aang in an act of genocide but of the three seasons (Books) of the show the book of air is the only one missing. Seeing as the crew we follow on their adventure is always moving from place to place and they are led by the only airbender Aang, we can say that they represent the missing element themselves: the nomadic opposition to the ascendant empire.

The fire nation is in the midst of a conquest of the rest of the nations, having pacified the Water nation more slowly by capturing its water benders and is in the process of laying siege to the Earth Nation. In the finale to season 2, we are taken brilliantly through the stages of a coup in the vast capital of the Earth Nation, Ba Sing Se, with the rest of the war to be fought in clandestine fashion with sneak attacks by the cobbled together rebels met in past episodes. They will attempt an invasion of the Fire Nation and all those left willing and able to fight are accepted, regardless of nationality (or age), in this teenage (at best) militant resistance force.

It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain the balance of power between nations, and she/he is not restricted by the nation in which he/she was born. In season 3 we are told of a particularly significant recent Avatar who was born in the Fire Nation and grew up best friends with the Fire Lord (king), who also happened to have started the fire nation’s dream for expansion and conquest. He was born in the Fire nation and trained together with the soon to be Fire Lord in adolescence, remaining friends until a turn of events allowed the Fire Lord to cross him and begin his multi-generation plan to spread the Fire nation influence and control over the rest of the planet. This cultural superiority was justified by the time of unprecedented technologically-infused prosperity that had to be “shared”. No culture is judged here in its entirety. The ambition of a nation is to be expected; it was the avatar’s inability to foresee the danger of his expansionist fiend and his untimely death due to a natural disaster that disabled him from preventing it. Luck and lack of precaution by those with power seem to be the holders of blame for the war rather than the Fire Lord alone, should blame need be assigned.

The real strength of the show lies in its planetary perspective of warring nations and their continental territories. When the Fire Nation attacks, the Earth Nation loses the will to fight (falling to authoritarian propaganda, fear tactics, and class dissension), and the Water Nation gives way to eking out an existence as scattered and relatively disempowered tribes, the cause is attributed to a lack of harmony. The guarantor of harmony in the Avatar was simply absent, and, in his youthful anxiety in the face of his destined the role, he hid himself away in a kind of bad faith. A lopsided spike in the forces of the planet results from a similar imbalance in the psyche of the main character. It’s as if the show is saying that, in a world where the planet is fully charted out and populated with regional powers, the burden for the excesses of an erratic nation falls with personal make-up of certain well-placed individuals. While the idea of the Avatar is a product of fantasy, people with intentions toward global stability could be inspired to maintain a similar balance within themselves in their rise to a position of influence on the geopolitical stage.

As we look for answers to the question of how such historical atrocities were able to happen we are invariably led to the decisions of some politicians who either scheme on the behalf of others and interest groups or are motivated by their own ambitions toward power. Granted, some obvious imbalances of power can be identified as causing such horrifying effects, such as when technologies are developed and manipulated for war sooner than others (Europeans, the Fire Nation) or when a glut of natural resources are discovered in regions that damn them to strife or obedient subjugation (the Middle East), and not the aspirations of individuals. There are always forces beyond our control on one side and those that we can influence on the other. What Avatar is telling us is that for those decisions that we can make for situations within our ability to exert influence over, it would be better off for all those considered to make those decisions in a state where we are not ourselves under the grip of one passion at the expense of another.

It is much more difficult for someone to excuse something like the Fire Nation for an act of genocide against the people of the Air Tribe. This is the case of a planetary extinction decided by an individual (the Fire Lord) in order to eliminate the next Avatar and consolidate his power. The people of the Air Tribe did not have a standing military to withstand the threat of invasion on their temples. They led their lives as concerted monks living to pass on their wisdom detached from “worldly concerns”. This mode of living puts them at an obvious disadvantage as they lacked the affect of anger and a strategic instinct for survival, opting instead for the pursuit of knowledge and practices of self-mastery. This deficiency of the Air Tribe does not doom them but is symbolic of a ripped apart world where hyper-aggression has eradicated that which would be the very thing that would prevent domination and empire – understanding and composure.  The self-criticism that the Air Tribe has got in spades doesn’t stop them from being bulldozed by the Fire Nation, but the Fire people are capable of self-criticism too – it was a result of bad luck, a turn of the wind, that the Fire Lord was able to act in the absence of the Avatar.

When such an outside force is felt, one that seeks to destroy merely for the sake of power, expansion, and triumphal cultural superiority, the only way to defeat them is head on with an opposing force. The show understands this and our heroes and heroines use whatever is at their disposal to defeat the Fire Nation. Anger is often the best way to mobilize that force which would fight and topple a domineering force headed your way, but it also can quickly turn into that which it is fighting against, as that other force is using the same affect against you. The self-mastery of such a wide array of affects evidenced in the Avatar’s mastery of all four element bending, so that each one can be drawn on as the situation calls for it, can keep the body (as well as the planet and the nation) from being contaminated by a single force, dominating all of the rest. Although, we are admittedly still within the realm of power and forces with the word “mastery” as in self-mastery and not the tranquility of ascetic contemplation.

Nowhere is this struggle better displayed than in the character of Prince Zukko of the Fire Nation. He begins at the outset of the show with the single goal of finding and killing the avatar to restore his lost honor. His sole goal in life is winning back the favor of his father the Fire Lord. But with some good life coaching from his uncle Iroh (vs. his father) he comes to despise his father for the destruction and fear which he has wrought upon the people of the planet. Due to his transformation and his decision to join the avatar in his quest for peace and “harmony” in season 3, his uncle gives him one last piece of advice: he must disrupt the coronation of his sister Azula and assume the throne to better lead the Fire Nation. It is a change of rule at he highest possible level of political power, with a 180 degree change in policy that is required to seal the transformation and complete the revolution *within* the imperial Fire Nation. Princess Azula took his place as the enemy that the crew fights most often after season 1 and her ruling style is based on fear; she consequently alienated her own friends and servants leading up to her coronation, ending up alone and full of frustrated rage. The Fire Lord himself attempted a jump up from the throne of the Fire Nation to the throne of emperor of the world: the Phoenix King, with new totalitarian symbols and everything.

It is the transformation of Prince Zukko in the later part of the show that demonstrates best the personal/political trajectory of its message. The harmony sought between nations, those great powers set against each other in differing, competing interests is mirrored in the competing emotional drives of the individual and the band of traveling friends. Zukko has a tough time convincing the crew to accept him, being their former enemy number one, but once he does join he helps each of them confront their past demons and clear current barriers. [For the record, Toph didn’t need him. She’s as solid as a rock.]. He is ideally placed to reverse the disastrous policies of three generations of Fire Lords and his internal struggle between the imperial ambition of his father, motivated by aggression, and the advice of his uncle, no slouch in battle himself. Uncle Iroh was once a conquering Fire Nation general himself who turned another leaf after his own son died in battle. The shear force of anger represented by the Fire Nation is an undeniable fact of life; it can be a great ally when unleashed at the right time, but mustn’t be allowed to continue unchecked.

The question of holism in a world of nations fighting geopolitical battles with each other remains. The figurehead of the avatar with its ultimate power to control the elements of the planet/cosmos holds a super-national position with respect to everyone else, and the viewer is led to believe that the avatars are always balanced and harmonious themselves because of their training from the greatest masters of each respective nation. In a world where one elemental people is entirely eradicated, it is hard to see how a balanced avatar could ever arise. The avatar receives not just military training but spiritual training from gurus. They teach them to meditate, that “everything is connected”, and to let go of all worldly desires. After achieving a kind of enlightenment, avatars become “one with the cosmos” or whatever the religious equivalent be in a culture’s spiritual/metaphysical tradition. How could such concepts born of an ascetic eschewing of the material world *also* be the great liberators of military oppression having turned away from such existential commitments? This is not so much a problem within the logic of the show as one for the reality that we face.

The recent actions of Pope Francis could be mentioned when he derides nations and industries for imperiling the life-producing capacities of the planet with carbon emissions resulting in global warming. [http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/21/1300969/-Pope-Francis-Causing-Climate-Change-Is-a-Sin#]

His position as spiritual leader of a large chunk of the believing people around the world puts him in the unique position of letting his voice on such crucial matters. Millennia of entrenched religious practices cultivated from the power of the pastorate have placed someone like this (and other similar religious leaders) in a privileged position to let these global matters be explored by their subjects. The scientific community as well, especially when there is as much consensus as is healthy for an organization of skeptics to have [http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm], has an authoritative voice that is heard when looking for support for creating policy and action. The religious wisdom of the avatar could also be understood as the very forces of the biosphere itself as it responds to the threat of human activity by vanishing until, many thousands of years later, it is time for the life inducing complex ecosystems to emerge again. But let’s not get too confused.

The avatar is shown in various flashback scenes manipulating the very substance of the planet itself in a bid to alter the consequences of other human’s actions. An avatar uses her powers to create an island and isolate her people from a different conquering Lord generations earlier, killing him in the process, and another avatar limits the damage done to a village by a volcano by controlling the elements around it. These are actions performed *on* the earth by a privileged person in the context of human dramas. Such talk invokes geo-engineering – which may become necessary after, or during the time we pull together and put a *gigantic* dent in carbon emissions. But this must be in conjunction with a major effort to severely limit carbon emissions largely resulting from market actors and their allies in nations.

What Avatar: The Last Airbender can teach us is the importance of keeping oneself on an even keel affectively, with the sentiment it provides being extractable onto nations whose actions have a more direct effect on the planet. The cosmic-spiritual aspect of Avatar does a great deal of good in connecting itself to the planetary elements of earth, air, fire, and water – as dated as those natural elements are claiming the status of ’substances’.  This makes Avatar an excellent ecological fantasy – a rare blend of grounded spirituality *and* rough and ready international warfare.

As for the issue of idealistic holisms and realistic political forces, the wonder that springs from holistic contemplation should not be divorced from the planetary and human forces those ideas effect. Avatar does this extremely well. Even when extra-terrestrial phenomena like a solar eclipse and a comet come at key plot points in the narrative, they do so not as transcendent forces from another world but as immanent forces effecting the elemental powers of people on the planet. Planetary-natural and national-political forces intermingle in the narrative seamlessly, as displayed by the threat of Fire nation imperialism and its ecosystem destroying weapons factories. The closest we get to transcendent other-worldly phenomena is when the avatar meditates himself away into the “avatar realm” and there are other problems with having an avatar around. But the avatar is best thought of in relation to one’s own choices, even though a select few people have vastly more power over the masses. There’s no telling what a committed and balanced individual can do, however, especially when taught at an early age with good works of fantasy that they can change the face of the earth.

The Greatest Ekostory Ever Told: The Nausicaä Project

Ekostories

“In a few short centuries, industrial civilization had spread from the western fringes of Eurasia to sprawl across the face of the planet. Plundering the soil of its riches, fouling the air, and remolding life-forms at will, this gargantuan industrial society had already peaked a thousand years after its foundation: Ahead lay abrupt and violent decline.

The cities burned, welling up as clouds of poison in the war remembered as the seven days of fire. The complex and sophisticated technological superstructure was lost; almost all the surface of the earth was transformed into a sterile wasteland.

Industrial civilization was never rebuilt as mankind lived on through the long twilight years…”

– Introduction, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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Earth First?

After arriving at a drag queen house show, I make my way through crowds of pretty young people with beers and spliffs in their hands searching for familiar faces. The house is a notorious communal house where I have met with friends before and besides looking for kicks of stimulation I keep my ears open for leads. Sure enough, one of those familiar faces pops up in the middle of a rolling conversation of radical politics with words like “guerrilla gardens”, “anarchists”, “worker’s unions”, “ecology”, and “capitalism” flowing freely. There will be something to learn here, something to latch onto. Inserting myself in the conversation is done with ease at a party where such behavior is welcome and bodies are mixing like the drinks falling down our throats.

Being in attendance at ’actions’, making the effort to show up to an event billed as a great protest for some righteous cause has an effect that cannot be summarized by whether or not capitalism dies the morning after. There are faces to remember, there is information to collect, there is a milieu to become acquainted with, and a comfortability that comes with it sparking more genuine and less reserved conversations. A general sense becomes shared: something is terribly wrong and we are here to devise a plan. Even if opinions differ greatly from one to the next, this much has been made clear to me by schmoozing with so-called activists: assembling into a greater, more powerful body is a necessary step in the process of social change. The body that assembles in a particular time and place may disperse, fail to achieve its stated goals, or become a mere routine as predictable as the bureaucratic regime that it opposes; but it is in those sites full of charged up bodies who share you’re rage at the state of social affairs, along with its “external” effects on the environment at large, where a conversation can steer you onto a new path increasing the possibilities for projects that would have been inconceivable in isolation. A meet-up spot yes, but in the setting of a heightened feeling of power amongst a sea of others. A fluid mass of which you are only a part that at once puts you on the edge of your senses and expands your capabilities in the face of a terrible threat in both the short and long term.

Ever collecting points of intersection, one has crossed my attention that is too juicy to let drift away. That familiar face from the party indeed does have a lead: a connection pointing towards a future convergence.

Or, in short, I heared about a film screening.

A recent slice of history is documented in the film titled “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” and I learned some eye-opening things about radical politics from very close by my own region. After finishing the documentary I was surprised at how little I knew about Earth First! when much of the action came not only within my short lifetime but was exposed in the national media. With its current attention at a hush, I can understand the need for this documentary as it details the story of a grassroots organization that was building momentum when it became the target of a ruthless campaign by the Oakland Police Department and the FBI.

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Earth First! is a movement that engages in direct action against corporations who threaten life on earth. They are quick to point out on their website that it is not an organization but a non-hierarchical body of people with a shared goal: protecting “Mother Earth” at all costs. The stated claim about Earth First! is that it is a principle of “Biocentrism” around which individuals (explicitly in contrast to members) gather to stop particular practices that usually amount to slowing down loggers, their trucks, and equipment before they cut down trees. This is an instance of bottom-up politics organized not by any individual with any authority but by a common commitment bringing people together for specific events. Simply put, Earth First is a belief, or a set of beliefs, that are simultaneously a tool for pragmatically implementing those beliefs: “It is a belief in biocentrism, that life of the Earth comes first, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action.”.

They boast on their website: “Our front-line, direct action approach to protecting wilderness gets results.” and direct action does indeed get the goods. But is this really only a belief with a will to act brought along with it? It is possible to unpack Biocentrism as well as an ethical commitment to the Earth but this is not my aim. The bigger question lies between the belief and the action: are the actions that Earth First!ers perform faithful to the belief in protecting the life of the Earth? Does the belief too quickly translate into action without acknowledging all of the other beliefs that it carries in tow? Getting excessively reflective can stifle the ethical energy or moral courage by inducing doubt – I know this much (get it?). Given that one understands the stakes of the rapidly collapsing ecosystem planet-wide, the question is more about where and how one’s energy is being directed by the tactics and principles that go along with affiliating oneself with Earth First! But this is just to wet the curiosity. Before tackling these big questions we should look into the story of Earth First! in my own bioregion with special attention paid to their victories, near-misses, and resistance from powerful enemies.

The documentary focuses on the movement to stop logging companies from clear-cutting redwood forests in Northern California, Oregon and Cascadia in general. Roadblocks, tree-sits, confrontations with tractors all are captured on film as we see human bodies standing directly in the way of logging machinery. Initially, the group based its efforts on linking up with the timber workers and together putting a stop to the over-cutting or clear-cutting of forests that completely transformed ecosystems. It seems that the timber companies once logged sustainably (if that is possible) but then after CEO Charles Hurwitz “took over Pacific Lumber Company, raiding the company’s pension plan, selling off its assets, and doubling the logging[sic] in the forest so he could pay back his junk bonds debt.” (take a great big note on that one and file it away for later). Certain tactical rifts began to divide the Earth First!ers as tree-spikers and monkeywrenchers filled trees with spikes that would destroy logging machinery in acts of sabotage. This “ecotage” wasn’t a new practice but ran counter to the method that Bari and crew were going for: joining green activist together with workers to stop managers and bosses from eliminating the old-growth Redwoods. This could have been an exciting development had it gone through, establishing a shining example of how to effectively challenge corporate overproduction with an alliance of righteous activist and worker.

Trees-spiking caused some nasty injuries to timber workers and the alliance was never solidified. The ’hippy’ stereotype took over worker sentiment of the Earth First!ers, only now with the addition of the ’eco-terrorist’ label. Still the group pressed on with protests and blockades that were picking up momentum thanks to a media campaign. And it was working. Judi Bari’s voice was articulate, passionate, and concretely situated in the task at hand; a major example how effective civil disobedience could be when focused in the right direction. With songs and dance that brought a flavor of country and mountain music, she and her ecological comrades sent out a potent message of wilderness preservation. A festive culture of resistance was sprouting up that would be mimicked in the anti-globalization protests through the Occupy movement and other protests today. Nationally televised news stations were reporting on recent developments in the movement and other states beyond the west coast had joined in with conservation actions of there own. The movement would culminate in a mass rally and civil disobedience display where over a thousand people would get arrested in blocking the access to the headwaters forest. This was dubbed ’The Redwood Summer’ and should sound eerily familiar.

But right before the big demonstration in 1990, Judi Bari’s car was blown up by a bomb in Oakland. She was sent to the hospital and upon gaining consciousness arrested as the only suspect for her own car explosion. The Oakland police department figured that she was transporting a bomb to be used for ecological sabotage when she had vocally denounced even tree tampering to harm logging equipment, much less blowing it up. It was a brazen move to simultaneously smear her name as a terrorist and send a chilling message to the movement as a whole: stir-up the populace and we will come down on you, hard. Her pelvis was shattered. She and her friends homes were raided by the FBI. Troves of evidence were ignored and false claims stated before national reporters that even a glance at the images and video of the bombing’s aftermath would have discredited. The affair is detailed by Bari here. The most shocking part of this affair though is the FBI’s holding of a “Bomb School” open to all police officers and attended by Oakland Police Officers. Together they conducting pipe-bomb tests on ordinary cars in a logging site near Eureka, California just a few weeks before the Judi Bari incident. Upon approaching the wreckage in Oakland, with video-recorder in hand, a police man jokingly says something like “…here we go, here’s the final result…”

The case is still I unsolved today. In 2011, the FBI tried to destroy the evidence but was blocked by a California judge. The police and the FBI refuse to take up the case though and the evidence remains buried on a shelf somewhere. Bari gave a testimonial for a lawsuit she filed against the FBI and OPD in which she recounted the entire storyline of her involvement in Earth First! and the bombing incident; the defense asked her no questions. She won over 4 million dollars for her friends and family, but died of cancer before seeing any of it.

With tactics like these deployed against protesters and activists concerned about the negative impact on the environment (or, say, the erosion of any control over who our country bombs, our private security, or who gets to be bailed out with public funds) it’s a wonder that these organizations remain so steadfast in their routines of operation. After clearly being the target of a bombing for getting too big, how do these individuals stay calm and carry on instead of opting for escalation? The motto of Earth First! Reads: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!”, yet there is no more urgent of a time in which to take this seriously, and that means above all critically and with a strategic mind-set. We are constantly reminded by climate scientists that we have but a few years before we do irreversible damage to the Earth and turn a majority of it into an infertile desert. Billions will die. Most species will go extinct. This seems like a perfectly reasonable justification for taking the next step when confronted with an enemy that terrorizes and slanders you. But hold on a minute, what would that look like?

While the health of the Earth most definitely ought to be held consciously in mind in our efforts to change society, there is a disconnect that ecological activists groups ignore when they organize their rallies, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience. The Earth doesn’t speak our language, it could be said. If the Earth’s greater biosystem unleashes certain positive feedback loops then it will be a disaster for every life-form on it including people and their civilizations. And yet, when that old question “what is to be done?” comes up, the options resemble previous campaigns from recent history like the Civil Rights Movement or some form of slight modification to consumer products under the banner of “sustainability” or “green capitalism”. The current mode of we commonly settle into is to protest and make demands that our legislators will turn into laws that, piece by piece, will chip away at the culprits of CO2 emissions until they are gone and a green transition will take place. The rallies can increase in size and we can feel a bit more comfortable in gazing upon how many other people share our commitment, or we can hold onto some inkling of hope by thinking that in assembly our voices are being heard by our representatives. We can cry in outrage, we can form a giant marching mass, and we can pander ever more to those with power, but the Earth doesn’t care. The Earth is heating up and all that matters is ending the release of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere.

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This impasse we are at and the futility of current methods is not a big secret. But what people can’t seem to see yet is that preventing this collapse will require far more than well tread civil disobedience – at least of the kind that generally comes to mind in light of the phrase. The kind of action that would lead to stopping global warming would utterly disfigure the face of civilization. The energy used to move big metal objects through concrete freeways (and the energy required to pull that metal out of the ground and transport that concrete to a construction site in the first place) comes almost entirely from fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources are just simply inadequate to fill the void in the absence of the black liquid fire. See this film on the crisis of civilization and this clear explanation of our energy-fueled, debt-based growth society.

Mass rallies and blockades have an empowering effect. Stepping out of our everyday social roles as (possibly unemployed) workers, family members, or what have you and stepping into the streets strengthens bonds and increases possibilities moving forward. But where are we going? One-time actions seem hardly capable of bringing about the deep structural change that would halt Carbon emissions when people must rely on their cars to get to work, heavy machinery and pesticides are needed to grow our food, and maritime shipping and trucking transport it across the globe. Even if an ugly juggernaut of a pipeline is stopped from being built, the economy that we’ve grown so accustomed to demands amounts of energy that continually rein in on the future health of the Earth. Is putting the Earth first really what would bring about a reorganization of our social infrastructure so as to end this bleak scenario?

Stopping ourselves from carrying out this suicidal quest to dominate the Earth is by all means the end-game for our generation. How that is achieved is not necessarily by heeding the call to act Right Now and with the greatest sense of urgency in Our Great Mother’s defense. Stopping global warming will instead require that we as a civilization look in the mirror and never cease asking the question: “how do we stop ourselves?”

When ways of life conflict within a common place that we cannot escape from, inter-societal conflicts have always arose. With such limited time and a stubborn behemoth of a nation towering over the rest and doing some effective blockading of its own (the US has stifled all international climate resolutions), how can we with good conscience settle for local targets when large systems of power dwarf the actions of any company in particular?

*

Wen Stevenson penned an article in the Nation which began with our current battles around the Keystone XL pipeline before moving on to compare it with the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau popularized the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ in his 1846 essay of the same name. In his lifetime, Thoreau spent a little time in jail for not paying a poll tax, helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and, most radically of all, defended John Brown after his raid on Harper’s Ferry with a company of armed white and black men. With a polarized country shaken by the mounting tension over the question of slavery and a man having taken up arms for a righteous cause, Thoreau rushed to his defense. He gave a speech in front of a large audience just days after the bloody battle and used his renown to argue for the sanity and justness of John Brown. This was a radical author, who built a house by a secluded pond to “live deliberately” and free from the trappings of American industrial life, standing behind his dead friend who took up arms for a principle.

After citing America’s most radical author of the 19th century, Stephenson then suddenly turns on him writing “Fortunately, Thoreau – with his explicit endorsement of violence – didn’t get the last word on civil disobedience.” He continues:

“And yet today we face a human crisis as extreme in its way as the one faced by Thoreau. What is the “sane” – and appropriately radical – response to the urgent human crisis of global warming? Is anyone willing to say, “This people must cease to extract fossil fuels, and to unjustly rob today’s children and future generations of a livable planet, whatever the cost”?
It sounds crazy. But just as Thoreau and other radical abolitionists were willing to push the boundaries, so climate activists must be willing to say and do “crazy” and “radical” things – like put their bodies in the way of coal shipments, or demand that universities divest from fossil fuel companies – not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s morally imperative. When the truly sane courses of action – putting a heavy price on carbon, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, massively scaling up clean energy, urgently seeking the necessary global commitments – lie outside the limits of political “realism” and “reasonable” debate, it’s time to ask who has the firmer grip on reality and reason.”

For Stephenson, “radical” action finds its home in human blockades and divestment campaigns and ring of the craziness of a zealous moralist. Yet it is somehow redeemed in a political environment of stagnancy. His radicals operate outside the limits of rational debate and straddle the lines of sanity – all under the umbrella of non-violence.

There is a curious double move going on here. On the one hand, taking radical and passionate action outside of mainstream politics is becoming more acceptable and is granted a more realistic, reasonable quality. On the other hand, its teeth are completely knocked out of it. After going through the extreme dangers of global warming and then the actions of one of countries most beloved literary figures (the kind that sometimes give you hope for a future with the promise of America not wholly intoxicated with greed and conquest still in it), the reader is lead to believe that blockading and divestment are a radical panacea for our climate ills.

Stephenson picked the right topic and the perfect figure to demonstrate the kind of radical action that would actually help transform society “whatever the cost”, but what is lacking is not the moral fanaticism (this country has got that in spades). What is lacking is the courage to challenge the obedience inherent in ‘non-violent civil disobedience’. The risks that go along with the type of disobedience that we see from McKibbon’s climate rallies (“I got arrested at the White House! Take my picture!”) do not exemplify the moral courage to match the situation of our biosphere. A case can be made for the bravery of the blockaders of the Keystone XL, with a victory perhaps propelling the movement into a bigger stage. But without the structural change to the energy and monetary growth demands of the US led global economy, these actions will remain reformist. The last word in the piece is “revolutionaries”, but there is nothing revolutionary about non-violent civil disobedience devoid of the will to follow in John Brown’s footsteps.

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Such a revolutionary movement could potentially be built from the ground up and sustained by local victories. Such actions give us the opportunity to solidify friendships and make new ones that will bolster the drive to a cooler planet. But make no mistake, this kind of sustained movement growth hasn’t been anywhere in sight since Occupy. And like all social movements, a conservationist campaign will confront the strong arm of the powers that be if it actually gets big enough to make the necessary changes to capitalist production.

*

Back at the ‘Who Bombed Judi Bari?’ film screening, I kick back in a big round chair and pass the time before it starts by opening up the book I’m reading and cracking a beer. The book is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘What Is Philosophy?’ and by pure coincidence I’m on a chapter called ‘Geophilosophy’. An older woman, veteran of activism no doubt, notes the author and after I ask if she’s read in any she says: “I don’t read any of that postmodern stuff.” I’m not surprised by this reaction, just disappointed in her. Not wanting to kill my buzz, I just dig right back into it.

I’ll end with some quotes from the chapter:

“Thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object, nor a revolving of one around the other. Rather, thinking takes place in the relationship between territory and the earth.”

“The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace while using one or another of them to deterritorialize territory.”

“In imperial states deterritorialization takes place through transcendence: it tends to develop vertically from on high, according to a celestial component of the earth. The territory has become desert earth, but a celestial Stranger arrives to reestablish the territory or reterritorialize the earth.”

“As concept and as event, revolution is self-referential or enjoys a self-positing that enables it to be apprehended in an immanent enthusiasm without anything in states of affairs or lived experience being able to tone it down, not even the disappointments of reason. Revolution is absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people.”

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The End of Growth

I’ve been making my way through Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth for over a year now and it raises some very pertinent concerns about a Capitalist economy and the energy that sustains it. Thanks to the people over at Occupy Educated, I was intrigued into getting it and has been a good source of alternate analysis to the status quo “everything is fine unless you stir things up” discourse of the mainstream. In seeking a range of economic backing to address worries over the viability of our social order, the peak oil theorists seem to deserve a look, especially considering their popularity.

The question nagging me with the fury of a bee protecting its hive is: “does our economy – whatever that is – need a material increase in energy and speed to keep growing?” And then to follow that up, “without a growth based economy moving goods around with increased efficiency, does the whole system just collapse in spectacular chaos?”

I am convinced that an economy based on the principles of Capitalist organization, as this increasingly global one surely and without question is, demands growth in some form or another. The imperative to make more and more money, to have your money become a means to acquire more money somehow, necessitates a growth based economy when extended outward into the social field as a whole – playing the dominant role in our relationships with one another. Where that growth comes from (commodity exchange, financial securitization, lifelong debt slavery, or just plain old wage slavery) is important in the narrowing down of capital’s function into more specific contexts, but the big problem that must be thought here is this: without some kind of economic growth, do we really get doom and gloom, chaos and destruction, fantastical apocalypse?

Or is that a mere blocking device characteristic of our collective imagination mediated by those in charge of government and the spectacle?

First of all, let’s bring in Heinberg on growth based economies:

…we have created monetary and financial systems that require growth. As long as the economy is growing, that means more money and credit are available, expectations are high, people but more goods, businesses take out more loans, and interest on existing loans can be repaid. But if the economy is not growing, new money isn’t entering the system, and the interest on existing loans cannot be paid; as a result defaults snowball, jobs are lost, incomes fall, and consumer spending contracts – which leads less businesses to take out loans, causing still less new money to enter the economy. This is a self-reinforcing destructive feedback loop that is very difficult to stop once it gets going.

In other words, the existing market economy has no “stable” or “neutral” setting: there is only growth or contraction. (p.6)

If what Heinberg writes is true, then business as usual means the large economies of the world continue steamrolling with capital expansion in a positive feedback loop or it rapidly disintegrates in the opposite direction and we have a depression. This probably the most basic and essential logistical fact of the last 150 years or so of human history. A strategy of continual and material expansion has developed and found its way into the central aspects of society. Without it, we are plunged into uncharted territory; something we cannot predict and have an extremely hard time imagining must take its place. But this exercise in the imagination does take place and for a reason: we are very much culturally aware of this system’s limitations and the cliff that it is bringing us closer and closer to.

The main message to take home about “economic growth” – a phrase uttered repeatedly in high political discourse – is that it needs, requires, demands, and cannot exist without the complementing energy to move around material goods. This has been taken for granted in the last 150 years and we’ve hit a wall. The fossil fuels supplying this energy will not only peak and destroy a growth based economy, they will destroy the non-growth based ecology of the biosphere. A fundamental restructuring of the economy is the only thing that will stop those expecting returns on their investments in a monetary scheme (capitalists) from ruining it for all of the rest of us, most living organisms included.

Skipping ahead in the book, after his more thoroughgoing analysis of the bubble burst of 2008 and how growth and the economy in general cannot return, Heinberg explains the wall we’ve hit:

We have accumulated too many monetary-financial claims on real assets – consisting of energy, food, labor, manufactured products, built infrastructure, and natural resources. Those claims, essentially IOUs, exist in the form of debt and derivatives. Our debt cannot be fully repaid: every dollar saved in the past is owed ever-multiplying returns in the future, yet the planet’s stores of resources are finite ands shrinking. Claims just keep growing while resources keep depleting – and real prices of energy and commodities have begun rising. At some point it will become clear that this vast ocean of outstanding claims will never be honored, and the result could be a tidal wave of defaults and bankruptcies that would sweep away most of the economy. (p.236-7)

What we are experiencing now is this in slow motion. The Fed policies that funnel credit to giant banks hoping that tried-and-true methods will “revive” the economy fail to take the material aspect of energy and resource depletion. The plan so far from our insular elites is to inject more credit into this system from the top to get things moving as they once were – without any fundamental restructuring of wealth or value. This economy is dying and can only die more or less slowly. Considering the violent domineering that militaries have enacted on the behalf of economic growth, I hope it will die quickly and without to much “fuss”.  Transitioning away from the growth-based model might require a slower, steadier work to avoid the confusing shocks that go to the benefit of the military.

The great question that will define our age and also the fate of all subsequent ages so long as they are able to retain an historical memory is: how best can we transition from this devouring monster of a system into another more ecological system? How can we slay these vampire squids and stop the zombie apocalypse? If we cannot answer these question and/or reorganize ourselves against economic growth, the preventable consequences will be horrifying, but very much imaginable.

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The Ecological Thought vs. Gaia Theory

A direct engagement in a response that Tim Morton made to my projected stress onto him about James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and the imminent collapse of the biosphere:

The positive and negative feedback loops that Lovelock uses in his Gaia Theory operate as systemic interactions between objects that accelerate one way or the other. Either they unleash certain objects that wreak havoc on the total of the environment of the Earth and disrupt the balance that Lovelock believes stabilizes the Earth to make it habitable for life, or the feedback loops ‘cancel out’ negatively and balance the objects in the environment. The negative feedbacks have certain objects and the processes in which they are caught up in pushing against each other, working towards a goal of hospitality for life and complexity (life and its mutations into new life forms). These processes of positive and negative feedback are like the difference between unchecked expansion of empires or viruses and the system of checks and balances or the limits that environments pose on the breeding of populations beyond a certain “threshold”.

Positive feedback loops have a potential of spiraling out of control and disrupting the environment to such an extent that most of the living beings cannot cope, for (as Lovelock claims) the loops that have persisted for a few billion years (1/4 of the supposed life of the universe) have altered to such an extent that the biodiversity working its complexifying magic would be seriously stunted: most life and species would die off. This is the terrifying thought that Lovelock is said to have uncovered and I sought out Tim Morton’s advice on, seeing as his ecological thought is so penetrating and formative of my own thought (still in its early stages). His response is two-part and can be found here and here.

Morton sees the holism of Lovelock as a form of Big Modernity on which we project a metaphysics of presence. Not having come to grips with “the nothingness in the phenomenal-thing gap”, we readers are narrowed down into a forced choice and can only resort to our particular decisions or some grand project of modern technological advance. The grand technological fix of the future that humans can make to the biosphere at large would be the only option to maintain the constant presence of Gaia, preserving our ‘more present than thou’ attitude of an existing Reality. It is the only alternative to one’s less significant decisions to drive a car (spilling CO2 into the air) or not when the holism of Gaia Theory is under consideration, or so Morton thinks. Relying on a technological salvation from the apocalypse to save the presence of the Real would be the only thing else one could think of in contrast to the decision to carefully measure one’s individual *carbon footprint* – insignificant considered in isolation. Morton seems to think that the fire and brimstone of Lovelock’s lament over the destruction of the Gaian aspect of the biosphere forces us into an impossible position that leads to cynicism and resignation, due to our (the reader’s) divided powerlessness at such a really existing entity.

This giant entity is an environment as well as a quasi-fiction (he named it after a goddess), and, being a kind of Whole, it is irreducible to the component parts that make it up – swallowing our actions in their individuality (the reader reading alone) up into obscurity. But the problem of the whole remains, only now we can only dream of the potential for a “great future innovation” to save us. The problem I have with this interpretation of Gaia (that terra-ism necessarily follows from such holism) is that Gaia is not considered more real or present than something else but a mere self-organization of matter in a far from equilibrium condition. It doesn’t seek the reality of presence in the way that Nature or the external world in its totality does but simply describes a scenario in which a machine has come to self-regulate given certain conditions, namely, being far from equilibrium. There is a newish science to this phenomenon of self-organization that can be both modeled virtually and observed, as Manuel DeLanda has shown in his impressive works. Gaia is just a localized theory of this science in the planet Earth system.

The feedback loops that Lovelock harps on have indeed stabilized an environment that accommodates life. I have no problem with the usage of a mythical goddess to articulate an argument about a process that one has discovered, but it is in taking this thing as a whole that issues crop up. Lovelock makes a mistake by calling this thing a whole, indeed a direct contrast to the reductionism so often characteristic of scientific inquiry. The process of regulating materials in a systematic way has made life habitable on planet Earth: negative feedback loops have worked wonders in this far from equilibrium situation.

In spite of what Morton says, Lovelock does assert that for humanity to be burdened by the tasks that Gaia does for free would require way more central planning than any previous war and is near impossible. His solution is to embrace nuclear energy with all of its dangers in order to save civilization which he so reveres from carbon emissions. I don’t see civilization as such a thing that needs protection but instead point to a more ecological existence that empires and capitalists spawning from civilization have mostly tarnished. Lovelock is stuck with a desire to keep civilization while simultaneously understanding that it’s own unquenchable desire for growth is what is besieging Gaia. To his credit, he (a scientist) understands the limits of reductionist thinking, the harmonious-primordial-natural past and linear causality; unfortunately, he moves back to holism to explain the self-organization of Gaia. Perhaps there is a way to fuse self-organizing thinking with the ecological thought and not get hung up on Nature, Civilization, or other ‘Wholes’.

I am convinced of the truth of Lovelock’s theory, especially after reading about the science of self-organized phenomenon in far from equilibrium conditions in Prigogine and Stengers’ ‘Order Out of Chaos’. As a whole, a self-organizing process is able to detach itself from the parts that supposedly make it up – the things that are organized by Gaia. But the part-whole distinction raises up old conceptual formulations that are hard to shed. As something different from the component parts that compose it, Gaia seems to most like a transcendent being external to those parts. This is crucial and hard to fathom: Gaia is only a mythological being, a name standing in for a process that functions as a balancing act. It cannot really lay claim to the whole, but it is still a self-generating process far away from the equilibrium of classical physics and the concepts of the generic philosophical tradition.

We the readers and actors need not defer to some emancipatory future technology or bear the responsibility of global warming on our own personal shoulders, but the processes that Gaia allows must be rigorously defended somehow even if we don’t see clearly what that tract would look like. It makes no practical difference if one sees this as Gaia to be vanguarded or multiple processes that need to be maintained, so long as the bodies are mobilized in a way that life can go on instead of be attacked by its environment. Mythologizing a discovery of science in self-organized activity, an oddity to beings attracted by symmetry and having employed causal reasoning for so long, could be a benefit to the goal of keeping this system life-sustainable or not. A familiar name helps one grow accustomed to an unfamiliar, foreign idea. One way or another, this process is under extreme and abrupt stress and there is little time to reorganize human societies so as to keep the process flowing.

A process. This process will continue to assert itself regardless of what we humans do, but we are severely weakening it, and by weakening this process we will drastically weaken life’s capability to thrive. That there are a few million people scraping out for survival in the polar regions instead of bountiful biodiversity is an awful scenario; I really don’t mind if I have to resort to ethics or vitalist centralism to assert this – we have an obligation to both continue living (this includes non-humans) and to obey the processes of our environment that support our living once we have understood these processes (scientifically or otherwise). Having the means to conceptualize – or just even phenomenologically perceive the self-organization of one’s surroundings intuitively (like “mother earth is provider of us all and must be cared for” or whatever) – how contingent one’s life and each other’s life is on those systemic flows is a legitimate, justified reason to preserve that self-organized stability and not let it cross that threshold. Preventing the irreversible processes that will be unleashed after reaching a 2 degree rise in temperature are an ethical obligation unlike any injustice to the poor, the animals, or the environment because *one* or *we* living creatures cannot exist without the health of Gaia (the self-organization of the biosphere) from the outset. Perhaps using the term “ethics” is inadequate, but it’s the best we’ve got – without it, we humans will allow that which gives us life to dissolve (not disappear), all the while throwing our hands up and saying “oh well, that’s just how it goes!” when we could have stopped it and continued flourishing for who knows how much longer. Fossil fuel consumption is chipping away at the planet’s ability to foster life, it is time we face this fact and act so as to let life prosper again.

This failure to understand and transform our activity in light of Lovelock’s elaboration of Gaia(self-organization in the biosphere) would be an instance of life in self-destruct mode instead a mutually beneficial life-Gaia ecological mode. Life needs no verbal legitimation to persevere, but now we can chose an orientation that will continue life in a more life-favoring way or go into an era of mass death, extinction, and scarcity. Indeed, given the right plan and commitment of certain individuals and the proliferation of this new knowledge of self-organization among the correct population of decision-makers, a plan to continue the comfortable hospitability that our planet has provided us living creatures could be carried through. It is so obviously more desirable, both ecologically and vitalistically, to work towards this outcome that it is not a stretch to say that any elaboration leading towards an outcome incompatible with this self-regulating behavior (given that one understands these Gaian processes) is life-negating nihilism. In short, to disregard Gaia is to disregard that which conditions life – to be ambivalent about the continuation and enjoyment of life.

The apocalypse is on the horizon: the movies, video-games, and literature about zombies and post-apocalypse are on to something. There is a threshold that we cannot cross before catalysts take effect and the planet will be put on an irreversible course that will make our human lives and other animal’s lives a living hell. Yes, we need to act now positively and not in a cynical mode where the terrible event is off in the distance and inevitable, or a preservationist mode where as-yet-unimagined technology is the only thing that can save the Presence of Nature. But we must understand that there is a threshold of temperature rising that we cannot cross for it will create positive feedback loops that will place all of Earth’s creatures in a far less desirable state than the one we have now. A desirable state would be one where life strives with less pushback from from its environment, and the disparity of crossing the threshold and not crossing the threshold is staggering. There are folks who understand this and are trying to stop it like Bill McKibben with his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying Math and David Roberts’ Tedx video in Grist.

This is an strange moment – perhaps the greatest and most epic moment that humans have been placed in: we know that our own stabilized practices will mutilate and impede the existence of life and we can change them – all that is left is to figure out *how to stop these practices*. When it comes to strategizing on actions I am all ears.

It is a comparably few who understand these processes of self-regulation and just how much damage to them is being done. The rapid industrialization of the twentieth century is like the World of the Forms crashing down on the Earth and stratifying it in its own permanent vision of equilibrium – all the while ignoring the fact that the biosphere of Earth operates in a *far from equilibrium situation*. Our human desire for elegant symmetry and equality in our theory could very well cause a mass die off that also could have been prevented by humans. Industrialization has allowed a clever and adaptive species to put the carbon in the ground into the air and, without a radical shift in practice, set this self-organizing system back 100,000 years. This is the basis for an ecological ethics. An ecological ethics must include not just things and bodies – living and non-living – but processes: systems that operate and disparaging scales such as those in far from equilibrium conditions resisting entropy. This is crucial to the continued prosperity of living things either human or non-human for the next 100,000 years.

I’m curious about this difference I have made here between things/objects and processes/systems. I had a twitter battle with Levi Bryant over Object Oriented Ontology (you’ll have to search if you want to find it since I don’t know how to get the conversarion history link – but it would be worth searching @onticologist with @billrosethorn) and its potential inability to think the latter. I don’t want to jump to conclusions but invite more conversation on this subject. This is something Lovelock has internalized about skeptical scientific inquiry: after his initial Gaia Hypothesis buckled under the poignant critique of Richard Dawkins he accepted its defeat and retooled it to make a more robust theory – holism issues aside. Similarly I want to be open to an ontology that is held by such penetrating thinkers as Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Graham Harman. This is far too important a topic to let academic quarrels get in the way and I have always viewed criticism as a positive, life-affirming exercise done between friends and not as polemics.

We need not care about the outcome of the Earth and the life in it. Our thoughts and concerns are infinitely moldable into one form or another. But to take the whatever attitude is to deny that which springs up from what one is (if it is reading this right now): A Life! This is nihilism and it takes many forms along with the thoughts we conjure up in our discourses. It is a topic that needs more attention on its own. As Nietzsche coaches us, and Deleuze constantly reminds us in Nietzsche and Philosophy, to desire nothing is still to desire. We cannot rid ourselves of the will to power of life, and to will nothingness is still to will – perhaps even more intensely. I end with this because when I met Tim Morton on Market Street in San Francisco, a few words of his words still ring true in my mind to this day: nihilism is not something one arrives at but something one must pass through. The good stuff comes after passing through nothingness.

I mentioned earlier the possibility of a joint venture between the ecological thought all this self/process theory. I am becoming more and more convinced that how we deal with the thought of nihility – nothingness – is the great question for this epic problem.

Here’s to a more hopeful future.

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Ecosophy: Guattari’s Eco-logic

“…no one is exempt from playing the game of the ecology of the imaginary!”
-Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies

The ecological crisis which we are in the throws of has no predecessor – it is without precedent. Floods, earthquakes, lightning bolts, and other disasters are found strewn all throughout human history and mythology but this one is of a completely different type that fails to register in the way a storm shocks one into self-preservation. The climate is heating up at a constant rate, the biosphere’s cohesion is deteriorating. Perhaps a disaster is not quite the right way to put it. What we are coming to terms with, when we are not preoccupied by scrambling in a mad race for money, is a doomsday clock whose rhythm cannot be deciphered (for it depends on our continued actions) but can be stopped. There is much anxiety to go around, along with plenty of finger-pointing and utter disbelief from deniers, but one should not pretend to be absolved from mutual catastrophe by attacking beliefs and pinning blame. The special thing about this looming threat is that all are implicated whether or not one believes this or that, lives on this or that continent, or is this or that country; at stake is the fate of our home… which is also *us* if viewed in a certain way. It’s an existential problem in at least two ways: physical existence will be radically and irreparably altered and it fills us with a dread we don’t understand. Placing a discomfort under a category brings relief, but this one is just so foreign and – in a way – so primal. Attuning ourselves to this problem requires a radical shift in our thinking as well as projects and processes – the way we move matter and energy around with consistency. ‘Radical shift’ doesn’t even begin to mark what is required from us nor does ‘Revolution’.

Philosophers can indeed have something to offer in this problem and if you fancy yourself an anti-philosophical critical theorist so much the better. In spite of the flippant dismissal of those ivory tower, arm-chair, head-in-the-clouds thinkers that is oh-so common here in America, I believe that the right books can drastically change our lives materially by inspiring, provoking, and reorganizing concepts that we have and, more importantly, allowing us to see the concepts *we didn’t know that we had*. An idea that sparks one into action can seem like it was there all along. There is a synergy that produces something extra (+1) in what we call philosophical discussion where the whole is more than the sum of its parts and we are pushed to acknowledge beliefs we haven’t attended to, and in turn push past them or stick with them. This does not happen high up in a baroque tower or in an office space (not only) but in our living rooms, dining rooms, and barrooms; though unfortunately it happens mostly in leisure time. There is a straightening in people vertically, a sharpening of focus, an intensity in the face when these matters come up, and after that it becomes difficult to end the conversation well lest there is some concerned effort for all parties to understand each other and reason patiently. It is in these games of competing beliefs where strikes, parries, maneuvers, and tricks are performed with (mostly verbal) gestures that conceptual clarity becomes one’s greatest weapon in opening up others to the effective critique and reexamination of which the great many of us are so deprived. This does not exclude oneself from the act of critique or immunize oneself with a reserve of arguments to wear around like magic armor (*arg*-garments); quite the contrary, dialoguing with an open mind, that is, allowing one’s beliefs to become vulnerable to outsiders and up for contestation provides a space where positions become exchangeable. Internal critique of oneself, auto-critique, not only fashions one’s abilities along with one’s friends but provides a scene of collaboration where something new might come into being.

This creation is desperately needed but cannot be given. There is no easy answer and no savior to fix us up: no messiahs leading the way. It needs to be earned – we are always playing games with tactics and strategies, wins and losses, good and bad players, and with great and small consequences. With a problem as big as the climate we need an effort to match it including a reevaluation of concepts that circulate through our minds quite beyond the control of our supposed “free will”. Viewed from the proper scope to match this problem, the experiences and encounters on a daily basis are systematically integrated with the utmost calculable precision we ever could have imagined. The techno-scientific character of modern life (as in what we’re living now) shows itself not just in the spreadsheets, statistics, and info-graphs but in the flickering lights of advertisements and splendid colors made to attract the interest of the great multitude. These clever designs fueled by the “findings” of psychology and other social sciences are intended to generate revenue for sure, but more important than an immediate cause and effect relationship is the correlation between suggestion and purchase. Statistical population reasoning is the tool to find out what will attract targeted subjects and produce the desired response. Once something makes its way into the spectacle, the hard work is already done.

It’s a battleground out there – for your attention.

An approach to changing our unsustainable state of affairs within these conditions cannot forget that the culture we are dealing with here is the most saturated culture in recorded history and a fairly recent development. This cannot be ignored by an ecological mobilization; ecology is not “Nature” as opposed to culture (thank you Tim Morton), ecology is about relationships and how external conditions and processes influence things. To get to the ecological level of thinking means relearning how to see the world. I am prepared to go all the way with this – so far as to question the idea of world, an idea like nature and God that has been able to cover itself over as thought and ascend into something (even more problematic) called ‘reality’. But before I get ahead of myself it’s time to bring in a work of philosophy by Felix Guattari related to the task.

A strategy that bypasses politics as usual is required of us if the biosphere is to survive; a strategy that isn’t reducible to social-environmental reforms but goes down deeper and spreads far wider than any party or player could take us. The object of concern turns out to be not an object at all but relationships held together by systemic interactions forming a field whose limits only seem to expand or shrink.

This field is precisely what needs to be put into question: the borders, the shape, the constitution of our setting are due for a rethinking. This problem has been creeping up on us for too long now and it is time to fashion the tools required to relate to our environment, society, others, and ourselves in non-destructive ways. The Three Ecologies by Felix Guattari provides a good place to start on this daunting task (though it is probably already underway on some level) for a number of reasons but uniquely because it is a short and accessible work of around 25 pages. The areas of concern in the project of transforming relationships at a fundamental level (crucially without falling into social utopian planning) are plainly laid out in three easy pieces:

1) The Environment
2) Social Relations
3) Human Subjectivity

The three form no particular shape nor does one stand atop the others in structure, organizing them as a transcendent authority. The division is a practical one and these categories will prove useful in sorting things out in our imagination. The tripartite grouping maintains the inter-connectivity demanded by a planetary ecological crisis, keeping in mind the inseparability of one’s personal and social symbols of attachment and the material environment. The three are linked together in a way that a change in one can only call for a revolutionary change including the others.

“The only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale, provided it brings about an authentic political, social, cultural revolution, reshaping the objectives of the production of both immaterial and material assets.” (p.20)

What Guattari and I are referencing by revolution cannot stop at forces pertaining to the states, nations, or federations for the forces of the earth could care less about the dynamics of political composition. A revolution fit for ecologically sustainable living must not get stuck fighting old targets and adapt like what it opposes: a globalized capitalist class (the 1%) which evades national laws in tax havens and spreads out to wherever it can exploit resources and labor cheaply, making our climate uninhabitable and most people impoverished. Zeroing in on any one of the three points (environment, society, subjectivity – self) to the exclusion of the others limits the potential for transforming our lives and restructuring material processes. The kind of change required to alter relations on a global scale must have a perspective relative to the challenge it faces.

Capitalism is no doubt incompatible with an ecologically responsible existence. The profit motive that quantifies value and captures desire has so successfully integrated with the great outpouring of technological innovations of the last century that the entire global infrastructure now depends on perpetual growth. The assumed good in-itself of “economic growth” has metastasized with the help of a very complex array of cold calculations, mostly done through computers. Growth is believed to be a constant variable by those at society’s helm regardless of the colossal extraction of resources and speedy transport needed to sustain it. This kind of growth is unsustainable on a finite planet and, not only that, it is ruining the lives of the animals inhabiting it presently. The biosphere itself may be damaged beyond repair (beyond repairing itself) by this not-nearly-questioned-enough project of regulated, steady capital growth. A post growth economy will have to be sensitive to the instruments that lock growth into a uniformed march of death: usury, interest-rates, debt-slavery.

Capitalism taps into desire to an even greater extent than desire could be manipulated in the rise of Nationalism, it encourages an expansion of creative outlets and produces subjectivities that may or may not be linked up with national identification. The boundaries always seemed to be pushed outward in the location and exposition of ever new “pop culture” genres and styles to be advertised to the population at large. But these new developments always face the prospect of integration into the social-cultural history in the same way that new technologies tap into resources and integrate them into a synchronized supply lines of economic exchange. The important point is that capitalism is now forced to grow into ever new territories that do not end with material objects or places but extend into the immaterial symbols of the imaginary. The rise of financial capitalism – where money creation by intermediary allocation, investment, and speculation – coincides with the infinite variety of imaginative subjectivities for sale, both have a fictitious element that produces wealth for some with immaterial processes. The demands of capitalist growth produces subjects and demands they be new and inspiring while at once conforming to economic and judicial standards of efficiency.

One must see how value/money and the individual/subject are processes in a much larger ecological game of which capitalism is thoroughly dominating.

“Integrated World Capitalism (IWC), tends to increasingly decenter its sites of power, moving away from structures producing goods and services towards structures producing signs, syntax, and – in particular, through the control which it exercises over the media, advertising, opinion polls, etc. – subjectivity.”

We ignore the subjective dimension at our peril. The individualism in euro-american culture that places the individual body of the person at the forefront of the freedom debate masks a more thoroughgoing control of subjects. There lies a comprehensive field of enticements and fantastic symbols with which one can identify with, and more and more are required to meet the demands of a hyper-s(t)imulated desire. The reactive gesture is to lament and dismiss the corruption of our dear traditional culture, and there is plenty of that to go around, but the opposite track which progressively applauds the diversification of cultural symbols (multi-culturalism) does the work of integration. Increasingly deviant subjectivities and the scenes that support them are acceptable so long as the whole to which they sprang from is not disturbed too much. Both reactive and progressive dimensions push and pull in such fierce polar opposition as to keep the social space for conceiving subjectivities edgy and expansive yet coherent and tame.

As a psychoanalyst, Guattari is sensitive to the subjectification of patients in the discourse of psychiatry. Here science meets subjectivity in a way that treats the subject as an object of study in an institutionalized practice legitimated by the authoritative stamp of the scientific method. The meaning of the subject-object relationship, a distinct understanding of each one without conflation, has never been easy to reach consensus on in any mode of discourse. More of a conceptual problem for philosophers, the distinction is often drawn for the sake of navigating the quandaries of human language, perception, and the external world. The rise of social science has allowed the conceptual difficulties of objectifying peoples to be passed over in light of the immense data and statistical regularity that it has produced. Again, here it is the standard of production and wealth of results that grants the discourse its institutional status. The respectable field of knowledge goes unchallenged when it produces – whether the products be careers, tuition revenue, or a normalized body of knowledge. In short, subjects are treated as objects of various kinds that have already crystallize, preventing a fluid development of newer subjectivities under the guise of scientific authority. But the authority that is invoked by making a science out of the social, and out of the subject, takes ready-made subjectivities for objects unquestioningly.

“I myself have come to regard the apprehension of a psychical fact as inseparable from the assemblage of enunciation that engenders it, both as a fact and as expressive process. There is a kind of relationship of uncertainty between the apprehension of the object and the apprehension of the subject; so that, to articulate them both, one is compelled to make a pseudo-narrative detour through the annals of myth and ritual or through supposedly scientific accounts… I am suggesting that this pseudo-narrative detour deploys repetitions that function, through an infinite variety of rhythms and refrains, as the very supports of existence… It is only through these repetitions that incorporeal Universes of reference, whose singular events punctuate the progress of individual and collective historicity, can be generated and regenerated.”

Combining the subjective dimension with the objective dimension has the strange effect of becoming extra-discursive – from within a discourse, a detour through narrative and into “the very supports of existence”. Guattari writes here of a transcendent authorization claiming to reach into discourse from outside but only first passing through “myth”, “ritual”, and “narrative” which then produce repetitions within discourse. The repetitions come by way of myth and discourse (people talking in a common symbolic frame of reference) whether they admit this narrative component or cover over it; these phantasmic repetitions perform the creation of subjects via cultural events, gatherings, or just things to talk about with one another. This process of repetition within discourse of an extra-discursive organizer from without is what the incorporeal Universe feeds off of, creating a ’world’ of symbols from which a subject can become a part of. The subject is integrated always within this world which at least passes through myth and forms the background of fantasies to which it can repeat: “I am… I am…”.

Guattari is seeking a logic and analysis that will allow for the awakening of new subjectivities by remaining open to singularities that transform material processes attached to the three ecologies. This logic would not be over-concerned with the objects under study, either ignoring the subjective compliment or reducing it to a prefixed, coherent object and dismissing its malleability – the objective scientific attitude. He writes:

“While the logic of discursive sets endeavours to completely delimit its objects, the logic of intensities, or eco-logic, is concerned only with the movement and intensity of evolutive processes. Process, which I oppose here to system or to structure, strives to capture existence in the very act of its constitution, definition, and deterritorialization.”

The eco-logic of intensities is sensitive to ruptures in the three ecological spheres (mental, social, environmental) that show signs of

“expressive subsets that have broken their totalizing frame and have begun to work on their own account… Ecological praxes strive to scout out the potential vectors of subjectification and singularization at each partial existential locus.” (p.30).

The eco-logic or ecology deals with the singularities and intensities reorganizing a raw matter that cannot be treated as objects (raising the problem of excluded subjectivities and where to draw the boundaries of the objects). Singularities are the processes by which matter becomes reconfigured, how stuff is morphed into a completely new and unforeseen orientation. The singularity itself evades representation being a kind of environmental organizer that cannot be found occupying a determinate position, though it is localizable. The singularity does show itself in the way matter and energy flows and interlocks various functions together; emerging narrative worlds are formed in Guattari’s pragmatic categories outlined in three ecologies, complimenting the swirling natural “stuff”. Examples of emergent subjectivities would be found in ’the Proletariat’, ’Brazilian’, or ’Punk’, all formed by singular developments in matter/energy but producing common incorporeal signs of attachment which in turn shape the organization of matter/energy in the potency of those signs.

Eco-logic takes matter as unformed, embracing the changes that matter is constantly undergoing however subtly while giving its expression a chance to *form itself*. Guattari is trying to elaborate a different logic than the one that traditionally passes for a rigorous, objective scientific discourse where objects interact dynamically and fit models of study (natural laws, equations, algorithms, a thorough quantification, etc.), but do not promote the emergent formation of new environmental relationships, social objects, and subjectivities, only reacting to them in detached inquiry. Respecting the singularity would entail allowing for an autonomous self-expression without an immediate interpretation from without. Recent developments that seem to come from “nowhere”, since an explanation was not ready-made to account for them, are most definitely the outcome of these material processes of singularity; but for the singularity to come to fruition in the incorporeal, expressive domains, a discipline carrying along with it an ordered world and a history of its own must not be taken at face-value with regard to this sudden event. Such are the forces that could potentially ’explain away’ a budding singularity, barring the expression required for the formation of an assemblage.

“At the heart of all ecological praxes there is an a-signifying rupture, in which the catalysts of existential change are close at hand, but lack expressive support from the assemblage of enunciation; they therefore remain passive and are in danger of losing their consistency – here are to be found the roots of anxiety, guilt and more generally, psychopathological repetitions.” (P. 30)

Tying this back up with the capitalist organization of matter/energy, Guattari repeatedly emphasizes how global capitalism has spread itself out not just by supply lines, markets, and debt but by monopolizing our imagination – the modes of expression from which one can articulate oneself within discourse.

“Social ecology will have to work towards rebuilding human relations at every level of the socius. It should never lose sight of the fact that capitalist power has become delocalized and deterritorilized, both in extension, by extending its influence over the whole social, economic and cultural life of the planet, and in ’intension’, by infiltrating the most unconscious subjective strata.” (p.33)

Speaking of a globalized capitalism invading every real or imagined territory can make its logic feel like a basic fact of life or an inescapable totality one can only adjust to, rather than a unique logic at work and working very well at self-perpetuation. The point that Guattari is trying to get at and doing his darnedest to make us understand is a different logic (eco-logic) welcoming to a break with dominant systems and cultivating the means to creative expression within a another not-yet-system in the process of generation. These uncultivated potentials are organized by capitalism’s specific organizational power into “tried-and-true” productions found all across the cultural landscape at a personal and social level. Mass-media at the finger-tips of every household via television and, lately, pocket via mobile internet devices grants access to an expanding field of consumer-subjects that fit nicely into the capitalist paradigm. The prevalence of capitalist logic is here represented as one force among many other forces but one that extended itself through contingent historical developments and geostrategic victories.

Alternatives pushing hard against the capitalist logic from within yet unable to stop the advancing onslaught should not be interpreted as the contradictions of that logic converting it into the next stage of the process of history. This Hegelian-Marxist interpretation treats the process history as a science, and a linear one at that. Guattari is giving us an alternative notion of process as a line of flight shooting away from a logic or territory that has not yet become articulate or expressed adequately enough to challenge that which it came from and is trying to oppose. Such an articulation or expression would first need a period of germination – to cultivate a novel form of expression a certain unfolding from within and without interference is necessary to establish the possibility of autonomy. Capitalist logic is well practiced at recycling fringe movements and lines of flight back into itself through the process of accommodation. To counter this process, the content of the flows seeking escape must be allowed to form themselves with aesthetic significance in the social, subjective and environmental domains if a material arrangement is to achieve a clean break in its processual rhythm and flow. “I repeat: the essential thing here is the break-bifurcation, which it is impossible to represent as such, but which nevertheless exudes a phantasm attic of origins…” (p.37).

Capitalist logic is one of perpetual growth accommodating everything that distances itself from it. Guattari is trying to elaborate an eco-logic that operates by detecting intensities as they escalate and allow them to continue escalating in material content by imposing no formal interpretation on the apparently spontaneous surge. Such a intense outgrowth is capable of self-expression, and the three ecological categories Guattari makes use of are not timeless formal constraints but different lenses from which to view shifts and resonances within a complex cultural field.
Scientific practices share with religious dogma an air of authority and certainty (though they differ in many other regards of course!) that satisfies the need to respond to recent unsettling anomalies. However,

“This new ecosophical logic – and I want to emphasize this point – resembles the manner in which an artist may be led to alter his work after the intrusion of some accidental detail, an event-incident that suddenly makes his initial project bifurcate, making it drift far from its previous path, however certain it had once appeared to be.” (p.35).

This is the logic that will inspire a mobilization that will put up a direct challenge to a capitalist logic laying waste to the biosphere. This can be stated because it makes no predictions and gives no guarantees but leaves the practitioner open to transformations on multiple fronts.

“ – a nascent subjectivity
– a constantly mutating socius
– an environment in the process of being reinvented” (p.45)

This eco-logic’s openness to singularities and withholding of preconceptions puts one in the position of uncomfortable bafflement, lest finding oneself immersed in the process of singularization and so profoundly morphing relations with the social, subjective and environment. Far from being indecipherable, the rift, crack, break, bifurcation, or singularity is given expression in active involvement as the actor changes along with it.

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Nausicaa: Eco-Warrior of Life

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa: Of the Valley of the Wind is a cautionary tale of environmental devastation and mass death set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. But it is much more than that. Nausicaa herself wrestles with some of the traps of nihilism in hallucinatory dream sequences on her quest to foster the will to live in a world of crisis. She is a quick and assertive warrior princess in battle, but her concerns call out much farther than the battle at hand and point towards the lives of non-human creatures and the greater environment which she admires and has a deep connection to.

Human folly is in full display on this manga adventure, and Nausicaa’s ultimate task is to fight a mystical order of thought plaguing humans and preventing a ecological social existence affirming life. There are god-warriors, telepathy, and weird spirit battles in dream-space, but the real demon in this fantasy story is a bad mixture of despotism, technological abuse, and misplaced hope in a ‘pure world’ coming from imperial human societies. Nausicaa instinctively feels that the greatest danger lies not with the enemy on the battlefield or any single environmental threat to civilization (as many in the story do) but a certain kind of morality carried over from the past clouding our judgement in times of war, crisis, and rapid environmental change. Intuition factors in heavily in moving her adventure along, but there is much that she learns from recalling her bio-lab experiments, applying them with the latest developments in the unfolding story. With much to learn at the outset, Nausicaa’s bid to rid her world of tyranny and mass death will depend on courage and conviction, but also an open-minded curiosity. Nausicaa’s is a life-affirming tale that is ultimately an attack on sickly values of the past clinging to the present and spreading death to the lives lived now.

Nausicaa is Hayao Miyazaki’s first story and was his most painful to write. It took him 12 years on and off to finish the manga, struggling to find a path to take for the characters to fit into. The manga was wildly popular in Japan but, due to the success of his other movies, has been largely and unfortunately overlooked in America. The Nausicaa movie debuted in 1984 setting off a long movie career with Studio Ghibli that has made him famous around the world. But the Nausicaa manga, completed in the ten years that followed the movie’s release, contains such dense and profound ideas that are barely scratched in the movie, let alone his other movies. Certain questions became troubling to him upon hearing the environmentalist response to the movie and he couldn’t find the words to express them. In a telling interview he says:

“So, after the movie, I told myself that I would approach the problem more seriously to continue the manga, but once I started, there were so many things I couldn’t understand. From the beginning to the end, I ended up writing with a whole lot of things I couldn’t understand.”

The story started writing itself as Miyazaki brought himself to the limits of religious and conceptual problems he didn’t really want to get into. He didn’t feel adequately equipped to deal with them, but did feel compelled to continue the story and finish it with more depth than the movie could handle.

“(I was disgusted with) not only environmental problems, but also where humans were going. Mostly, the way Japan was. And I was most disgusted with the way I was at that time.”

This unplanned and scattered writing exercise in Nausicaa led Miyazaki into some very perplexing scenarios between mythological creatures and imagined technologies centered around the idea of life at scales large and small. The story is of such grandeur that religious concepts found their way in but without any dogma moving it forward besides the simple maxim that ’life is good and should thrive’. Life’s mutilation comes by way of ideas here – ideas belied by ancient technology, which, in this imagined future, are plaguing the individual lives struggling to thrive on a weakened planet. These ideas are relics of a past age that have crossed a vast historical distance and do the most to keep society subjugated as if under the spell of another world. The will to live is kept in check by the empires and their priests spreading needless death but also weakening the environment, further catalyzing death and despair.

Miyazaki’s reflections on the work will factor in later on, but let’s venture into the story first.

We are put on a continent controlled by two unfriendly empires (the theocratic Dorok Empire and the ruthless Torumekia Empire) warring over the remaining territories of a land besieged by ‘the sea of corruption’. The sea of corruption is actually a gigantic forest that humans cannot breathe inside of without masks due to a toxic mist called the ‘miasma’, and even then there are ill-tempered insects that will attack at the slightest provokation. The flora and fauna of these forests are drawn beautifully by Miyazaki and the biodiversity is staggering. The general human consensus is that these forests sprang up as a punishment to human corruption or for disobeying the teachings of the various religions we glimpse in the story. The doctrines of these peoples are mostly obstacles in Nausicaa’s quest and she will always judge their merit by their capacity to foster life and its prosperity. The priestly class reinforces the notion of original sin and human hubris to keep the populace fixated on the afterlife. Hope is directed outward and into the future to counter balance the despair felt in the present, but also to capture the minds of the masses and control territories for the respective empires. In the grips of a world on the brink of collapse, the religious teachings reflect the distress of the people and that distress makes them vulnerable to whatever will bring security and hope, no matter the oppression and death it brings along with it.

The original intuition of the elders from the valley of the wind and Nausicaa herself (thanks to her own personal bio-chemistry experiments) is that the forests are actually a response by the ecosystem to the acceleration of changes to the soil, climate, etc. from previous ages of rapid human industrial-technological production. They are thought to be a cleansing force of nature in a kind of quick response to the rise of technological innovation and resource exploitation from the ancient civilizations of old (or, the 20th century to today). The earth became a wasteland in a very short span as did the forests appear so suddenly, so they seem to be an ecological balancing response to the sudden change in the landscape of the earth. The sprawling activity of life in the forests lends to this hypothesis, as well as the different levels of the forest where matter is transformed from toxic for humans to breathable without masks, but by the end we are in a much more tangled web of nature-human-civilization inter-activity.

The forests are the home to giant hard-shelled worms called “Ohmus” which protect the forests. They attack entire cities and civilizations in a fit of rage during great events called the “daikaisho”, where the Ohmu corpses emit spores that eventually become the beginnings of a new forest or the colloquial ’sea of corruption’. Naturally, these Ohmus are feared by the people trying to eek out a living in the world that remains and the emperors play on those plebeian fears to further their imperial expansion. Nausicaa stands in stark contrast as a princess from an autonomous peripheral state that only wishes to survive near the forest without disturbing its ecosystem. She has a deep respect for the giant Ohmus of destruction, often attacking with a blind rage compared to them and even communicating with them telepathically. According to the initial intuition of Nausicaa and her adventurous companions she meets up with but always eventually departs from, the Ohmus fulfill a role of spreading the forest and annihilating human settlements in their path to rewrite the wrongs of human exploitation of resources for the sake of the greater planet’s well-being. As the legend goes, these purges have been happening for the past few thousand years, but people’s memories are short and they do not see the big picture while they continue to try and regrow their civilizations after each cyclical “daikaisho”. The Ohmus are then merely performing their age old part in the continual cleansing of the pure earth from the impure humans.

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This world-view turns out to be wrong. But Nausicaa’s instinctual appreciation for all forms of life and grief for the death of all living beings beyond the respective purity or corruption of any particular living being puts her in a disposition essentially beyond good and evil or purity and corruption. Her care for all living things, to the point of joining the massing Ohmus on a campaign to sprout up another society-crushing forest, situates her in a favorable position (being a venerated princess helps too) to be an ecological mediator. The spectacular event of the daikaisho brings forth the most intensified spawning of life in this world, and Nausicaa’s intuition disposes her to merge with this outburst of biological migration. This is not done in the name of a grand “harmony” or “balance” of Nature; it is done in the name life. Life not in general or as a whole, but life in each particular instance of its assertion in struggle, mutation, and survival. She says of an especially powerful telepathic friend:

“But you have placed yourself within the flow of life… whereas I find myself involved with every individual living thing.” (V.3, 241)

Her compassion, which can only be called ecological, is pre-human (or post-human if you must) but very much involved with human affairs so as to fight the hegemonic royal families from leading the masses into slaughter. The power-lust of these death-defying, eternity obsessed rulers produces not just human suffering but massive and abrupt changes in the ecosystem which cause devastation to existing life-forms.

Taking up her quest in the name of all life regardless of the class or species will run Nausicaa up against the necessity of death and the cycles of destruction and rebirth, potentially thwarting the very purpose of her project. The goal of eradicting ancient values with a flavor of eternity and purism that are still clinging to civilization eventually emerges from Nausicaa’s love of all living things in their particularity. The specters of the past haunt the present by claiming to hold the technological key to a purified planet, without the hazardous forests or daikaishos, instilling a false hope and keeping people in the grips of dogmatism and empire.

Nausicaa’s adventure is one of war (she kills people in the heat of battle), but it is also one of education: she must learn the secrets of history from the different elders, priests, and monks she comes in contact with to understand the current situation. The wisdom she gains along the way is often at odds with her intuitions and she must decide what ancient teachings to absorb and which to resist. Nausicaa always begins with the immediacy of preserving life and stopping bloodshed, from there the complexities of death, nothingness, hope, and despair are consistently hurled at her by spirits and the preserved wisdom of the “holy ones”. The sentimental connection to every individual life is here not one argument among many but the vehicle moving Nausicaa into the middle of great conflicts as a sometimes warrior, sometimes mediator. As she learns about history and witnesses these great events, her baseline will to live is sharpened to detect the subtle resignations and resentments of the dated wisdoms plaguing humanity. Some of the passed on wisdom helps her understand the situation better and some must be casted off for being “covered in sarcomata and filth” (V.4, 248); so her intuition guides her in selecting the healthy lessons from the decrepit. The eventuality of death in all life is a persistent argument pushed on Nausicaa to get her to stop her quest, and how she deals with non-being, nothingness, and chaos is her mode of overcoming the master-ideas of the past making slaves out of the present (via a fixation on a pure future).

Now that we’re sufficiently primed for the heady (or, rather, heavy) weight of the themes and ideas in Nausicaa, we can get a bit more into the details of the story. This is such a good story that I feel like I need to retell it, giving pause for these profound ideas we so urgently need to sink in in our world.

In the ancient days of old, humanity flourished with technologies since lost to the current period. Suddenly “god-warriors” appeared and razed everything in what is commonly referred to as ’the seven days of fire’; in a sort of reversal of the seven days it took God to create the world in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This time it was to end it. The preface to the book reads:

“Plundering the soil of its riches, fouling the air, and remolding life-forms at its will, this gargantuan industrial society had already peaked one-thousand years after its foundation: ahead lay abrupt and violent decline… The complex and sophisticated technological superstructure was lost; almost all of the earth was transformed into a sterile wasteland. Industrial civilization was never rebuilt…”

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After the seven days of fire the toxic forests emerged thwarting the attempts to rebuild a more complex civilization, repeatedly triggering the daikaisho that sends the Ohmus and other fearsome insects into human settlements expanding the forest. The war between the Doroks and the Torumekians is where we begin the story after three daikaisho tidal waves have already taken place (4X post-apocalypse!), and Nausicaa’s autonomous nation of the Valley of the Wind must go to war on the side of the Torumekians to honor a treaty. The great battles on the front never really go into full swing though, members of the Torumekian royal family are perpetually plotting against each other (the “viper’s den”) and the Doroks bring on environmental catastrophe in an attempt to harness the Ohmus rage as a weapon. This of course creates more problems for both sides, crippling their militaries and displacing most civilians. The Dorok scientists have conducted experiments growing their own mold and Ohmus artificially from the miasma. The proposed biological weapon soon grows out of control triggering another daikaisho bringing death and despair to all of the nations and cities. The scale of death is hard to overstate, the casualties the war would have inflicted are dwarfed by the mutated mold spreading out across the settled lands.

The insects of the forest sense the artificial mold’s threat to the planet and perform their “role” of eating it. This kills the insects along with the mold (they eat each other) as the two symbiotically form the beginnings of the next forest. Nausicaa laments the death of the insects wondering why they have to die to pay for the folly of human bio-chemical meddling. Since the mold was grown by the human Doroks, she believes that the insects are sacrificing themselves to stop the out-of-control experiment from contaminating the Earth. In her grief, Nausicaa is led to believe (by a demon of nothingness no less) that this big scene was preordained by greater forces to cleanse the Earth in the purposefully recurring cycle of the daikaisho. The figure of the corpse demon speaks to Nausicaa of the necessity of death and the futility of becoming attached to a particular life that will die someday anyways. The dark thoughts that bear down on Nausicaa are of the seemingly inevitable death of great creatures at the service of a cursed humanity. The sacrifice is not being shared equally.

Her guilt over the sacrifice of the Ohmu for her own species’ impurity is intensified by her commitment to all living things. As a human she feels partially responsible for the fate of the Ohmus, after all, they died to protect the Earth from the wildly mutating mold – the brash technological manipulation of bio-weapons. But it is the thought of the necessity of such acts and the necessity of a purging force that sends her into despair: is human sin forever in need of a cleansing sacrifice from other more beautiful creatures? Is the unending cycle of death and violence a fact of human nature whose effects on the planet and other beings can only be mitigated by Malthusian catastrophes?

An alternative interpretation does not come around for a few hundred pages, and Nausicaa, under the spell of the demon of nothingness and despair, plunges herself into the charge of the Ohmus to become a part of the renewal process. Luckily she is preserved and uncovered by her friends, or else the purity-corruption paradigm would persist and the end of her story would be a Christ-like sacrifice! Instead we are treated to some trippy dream sequences on the edge of the abyss, a vibrant, breathable miasma forest, and even catching a glimpse of the way the world “should” be (as it was in the days before the seven days of fire). After a long talk, she decides to come back and resume her journey. The clincher comes when looking at the ’pure world’ but then retreating from it: she knows that it would become corrupted all the same if it was inhabited.

“How wonderful it would be to live here with everyone, free of the miasma. But if people found out now, they would begin to believe that they are the masters of the world. They would eat up this newly born, fragile land and do the same thing all over again. In a thousand years or more, you’ll spread and grow. And if we can survive, become a little smarter, then maybe we can come join you here.” (V.3 near the end)

What she rejects is the ’quick fix’: no distant land is going to save us and no single event can purify us. Both world and humanity, when either is seen as strictly pure or corrupt, lead us into a kind of vicious circle where the sins of people need to be corrected in a pure world, and when a world becomes foul from the contact with the immortals a sweeping destruction is all that can fix it. The playing out of the humans-world distinction logically with absolute valuations (good/evil) brings us into a kind of nihilistic despair: the cycles, loops, and pulses of life start to look like a contamination, a parasite, a disease. As humanity pushes the boundaries beyond the limits of its world, the disparity takes on a moral standard where disproportionate growth necessitates repentance and shame. This standard polarizes the relationship world/humanity into one of a struggle where when one gains the other must lose. Can such a problem be avoided with coexistence of the two, or is it by virtue of the split into world/human that such a will to dominate arises?

Life always evolves in relation and with respect to its food source, explorable geography and terrain, energy inputs, and long history of evolution. An acceleration of growth, a surge of technological creativity in an isolated species will become proud and treat itself as the center of the world. A firm place of certitude is asserted and a supreme confidence makes one an exemplar: human concern becomes the center of the universe. From this place of positivity, the ergo sum – “therefore I am”, of Descartes, everything else can be clumped into, well, everything else: the world. Preserving the supreme importance of humanity and the individual while technological progress spikes ends up limiting the engagement people could have with other non-human beings. Marveling at our own accomplishments tends to limit our relatability to other forms of life and the processes from which we came as well as live alongside presently. The growth of one class or one species in isolation will look like the spreading of a contagion across a map made to represent the world. The world will look like an empty space to be filled by the imperial expansion of an individual force covering it over. Worlds labeled either good or bad, here or there, past, present, or future are in congruence with a will to dominate. ’The World’ and ’Nature’ can surely be invoked to inspire this being-with quality of life, but the almost universally overlooked effect of setting up an omnipresent whole is in the contrasting observant subject. A cosmic-mystical convolution involving a play of ’within-outside’ between man and Nature ensues. These matters of belief and existence warrant much more detail. For now let’s continue along like Miyazaki: unsure where the journey will take us but with a committed sense that something is very wrong with the wanton slaughter and extinction of lives and life-forms.

Somewhere in-between an ecological improvement of humanity and an acceptance of the Earths limits lies Nausicaa’s newfound sensibility: a world, the planet cannot be mastered. Progress necessarily comes via integration, not domination. This is the ecological ethos problematizing the conception of world as an empty background on which to populate, occupy, colonize. Even the impulse to conquer and subsume itself fits into a scheme of checks and balances involving other entities and impulses colliding, resisting, or swerving themselves. The difficult task is to identify which impulses and their modes promote life and which degenerate. Life proceeds by its own volition, neither pure nor corrupt and from neither inside nor outside the world. In one of the more mystical lines of the story, Nausicaa says: “Every life-form, no matter how small, contains the outside universe within its internal universe”, (V.4, 181) making havoc on our security of inner self and problematizing the world as a thing outside us.

Setting her sights on the two crippled empires still trying to battle it out for supremacy after the daikaisho, Nausicaa embarks again to convince the Doroks not to invade Torumekia. She flies off on her glider-jet which allows for her to travel alone riding the wind even as she has been gaining quite the following. A tribe of people have begun calling her their goddess and doing whatever she asks of them! A similar thing happens when she confronts the Dorok emperor and learns of the secret weapon they have been incubating: the god-warrior. A remnant from the initial seven days of fire that enflamed the world and destroyed the advanced technological civilization, the god-warrior has massively destructive powers. It wakes up to Nausicaa battling the Dorok emperor on an airship and promptly believes her to be his mother. She seems to have this infectious influence on everything and her reputation is starting grow as a savior. With the emperor dead with partial thanks to a coup d’état, the Dorok people come to believe Nausicaa to be there new great leader who will show them the way to the promised land and away from this land of suffering.

Miyazaki here expressed his own feeling of being propped up as a intellectual-spiritual leader especially by the environmentalists after gaining immense fame across Japan:

“If we take the (existence of) god as a premise, we can explain the world by that. But I can’t do that. And yet, I stepped into the area I didn’t want to get into, such as humans and life.
I can manage to understand the world as conflicts and contradictions among humans, but I find myself not being satisfied with that level (of explanation).
Then I have nothing I can say with confidence.
My head gets dizzy by just thinking what would you do if you are called “mama” by a God Warrior with such a destructive power. So, Nausicaa’s perplexity is just my own perplexity.”

After much success, Miyazaki still felt obliged to continue the story of Nausicaa, but he had written himself into a corner. The simple but pervasive environmentalist interpretation of harmony with corrupt(able) humans and sacred nature which many took home from the Nausicaa movie did not satisfy him, so he continued the story along lines he could not plan ahead of. The religious undertones in the story were unexplored territory but seemed the only way to explain the difficulties confronting so many displaced and routinely repressed people now functioning without their royal head of state. So suddenly Nausicaa is an icon of hope that is expected to lead the people to prosperity. She is treated as a holy leader but has little concern for religion herself, she merely wants to put an end to the war and death threatening human societies but also the Earth and its ability to produce life. This lead Miyazaki into the treacherous land of religion, but insofar as life can be considered sacred without doctrine, he treats religion in a negative way, as an impediment to life and its flourishing.

The life-affirming ethos of Nausicaa can easily be misinterpreted as a crusade gaining followers, and Miyazaki wrote this into the story. The basic will to live that Miyazaki is trying to express can be obscured and deified by falling into religious traps of puritanical values or in the divine right of persistent rulership. In elevating a value into eternity, the immortalization of an ethical commitment, we are led astray, but not without leaving a detrimental footprint on the “impure world of appearances” during lift-off. These desires for transcendence can come right back down into the grounded things of phenomenal experience, but then things get really confusing:

“Many things in a human’s mind which are said to be meaningful, you might call them attributes such as various thoughts or beliefs, I think they might actually exist in nature…
We get confused because we get various worldly desires. But I’m afraid that I feel if we want to go beyond such desires and go somewhere pure, we might reach somewhere such as an ordinary stone or water drops. But in the moment we put these kinds of thoughts into words, everything becomes a disreputable religion. I can not possibly write (these kinds of thoughts), I haven’t reached such a stage or anything…”

Not having achieved a high enough stage is I think a blessing rather than a curse when considering the result of Miyazaki’s labors in the Nausicaa storyline. Struggling mightily with concepts life, humans, and god in a fantasy world without “enlightenment” has given us a tale of ecological appreciation with cautionary note on its possible dogmatic capture. Going beyond worldly desires, transcending the ordinary, and reaching out to the pure leads (as an uncomfortable Miyazaki reminds us) right back to the objects we act with – the things that both compose us and are all around us. Communicating these paradoxical thoughts between each other always runs the risk of establishing a hierarchy of belief where super-worldly values create subjects out of lives. So the last parts of Nausicaa go into some very foreign territory that must pay very close attention to the shadows of life: death and nihilism.

Rejecting both the all powerful god and the human conflict explanations of history, Miyazaki/Nausicaa is left with a strange hybrid ’god-warrior’ obeying his/her every command wreaking havoc when not attended to. A perplexing problem indeed.

Moreover, this god-warrior is a representation of what becomes Nausicaa’s next self-appointed task: eliminating technologies, accompanied by their out-dated values, that do not belong in this world. Wielding a fire-power unseen for thousands of years she now travels off to the Dorok capital of Shuwa where a single “crypt” stores the technologies of the ancients. The crypt is guarded and preserved by loyal servants who hold it as the last shining hope to recreate the world as it once was in its grandeur; an idealized past free of suffering that will come back so long as its technologies are kept hidden from danger, sealed away and waiting for the perfect moment. The god-warrior itself is of that lost world still lingering on and trying to control the course of history. Nausicaa being the warm life-lover she is bonds with her giant monster-child, awakening in him his role as an “arbitrator”. They will fly off to Shuwa city and the crypt to bury these trans-world technologies and “return them to the darkness from which they came.”

Nausicaa takes two trips inside the crypt, but the first is a mirage paradise land housing all of the things worth preserving from the old world: art, science, philosophy, and all of the splendors humans created in the days before the seven days of fire. Here she squares off with an eternal, shape-shifting machine being (a “heedra”) of the old world in a sort of dialogue battle. This creature lords over the plantation equipped with servants and workers, convinced that this place must be maintained for the sake of all things humanly good. The cunning heedra nearly breaks Nausicaa’s conviction, using an argument regarding the purity-pollution of worlds and/or people to convince her to give up. It says:

“Everyone believes they alone will not err. Yet none can escape from the cycle wherein karma gives birth to karma, sorrow to sorrow. This garden is a place where all chains can be severed.”

This purified zone, where all the greatest achievements of mankind are stored is outside of the unceasing cycle of violence. The heedra makes the case that since the humans currently inhabiting the planet cannot tolerate the purity of this zone, having become accustomed to the toxic world with its miasma forests and daikaisho, any plan of Nausicaa’s to will fail for the uncorrectable flaws of human exposure to the polluted world. The fatalistic notion of the cyclical repetition of history within in the binaries of good and evil is used as a weapon to deter her, but in a flash of insight she says: “Tell me more!! I’ve always felt that we blind ourselves by looking at the world simply in terms of “purity” and “corruption.”” It is in the middle of this battle of wits that she comes to realize the most vital piece of the historical puzzle: the forests (seas of corruption) are neither a punishment from god nor a environmental response to the fouling of the planet but a synthetic creation of scientists from the old world. In the grips of despair and near extinction, scientists tampered with organisms to spawn the rapid-growth forests in a bid to replenish the earth and recreate human civilization as it once was. They fitted out people and the other animals to endure the toxic air as well, allowing for a transitional period from which a new world purified from the toxicity by the artificial forests could develop. In the grips of despair at the future prospects for humanity, the grand plan of the ancients was to remake their own world, which they knew was becoming fouled, with the artificial ecosystem of the miasma forests. It’s a more rapid way of transitioning from the undesired (corrupt) state to the pure one by meticulous intervention in the ecosystem to give those people hope for the future.

Nausicaa will reject this project for its purism; going farther than disagreement and choosing to fight back. The ancients have tampered with the future and bought along with them their values no longer fit for the present. That these lives have been artificially manipulated by ancients does not make them any less precious, but they must be able to exist autonomously and by their own volition. Nausicaa says on p.181-2 (V.4): “Our lives are like the wind… or like sounds. We came into being, resonate with each other… then fade away… A life is a life, regardless of how it comes into being.” The designs of the past, the traditional goals and purpose-generating projects might outlive their world and obscure the tasks of those living. Life must be allowed to die for its next evolution to flourish. A way of life that crystalizes, preserving itself in the purity of eternity (thereby breaching the life-death evolutionary cycle and persisting unchanged through history) will inevitably go against life – resisting change, it will shed the biological need to adapt. The hope that made the old world bearable can be a source of death and despair in this world when their conditions contrast so greatly.

Setting her sights on the container of the ancient technology spewing out, Nausicaa brings the god-warrior to the crypt who blasts a hole open for her. Inside she speaks with the voices of the ancients through the “holy text” that entire lineages of clerics spend deciphering and guarding. In one of the greatest dialogues ever written, Miyazaki lays it all out. Nausicaa’s debate-battle with the crypt stands out in my mind as one of the greatest elucidations of the problem of the value of civilization/humanity and its implications for an ecological ethos. The crypt comes out in the form of a crowd of holographic people who speak of “purification”, “atonement”, and “despair”. They ask for the continued preservation of their crypt with its ancient knowledge and technology until the world becomes “pure” enough for them to live in. Nausicaa shuts off their illusion with a loud “NAY!” (bold). “Why!?” she goes on,

“Because no matter how much knowledge and technology you have, you will still need slaves to do the work for you the morning you replace the world!?
Our bodies may have been artificially transformed, but our lives will always be our own! Life survives by the power of life…
To live is to change… But you[emphasis] cannot change You have only the plan that was built into you. Because you deny death.” (V.4, p.246)

The crypt then takes its counter-shot. It possesses the body of a fool (tagging along with the emperor of Torumekia) and paints a grave picture of the ancient time when the planet was being polluted:

“Poisoned air. Punishing sunlight. Parched earth. New illnesses coming into being every day. Death was everywhere… We decided to trust everything to the future.”

“I do not doubt,” replies Nausicaa,

“that you were created out of idealism and a sense of purpose in an age of despair. Why didn’t those men realize that both purity and corruption are the very stuff of life? Suffering and tragedy and folly will not disappear in a purified world. They are a part of humanity… Because you were created as an artificial god of purity, you have become the ugliest creature of all, never knowing what it means to be alive.” (V.4, p.247)

The crypt that represents the ancient civilization in its splendor brought all of its religions sprouting up in that desperate time – when the world was seemingly attacking humanity and driving it to extinction – into one place, under one plan. To give themselves hope, they took everything most valued and formed the crypt while bio-engineering all the animals to withstand the pollution until their pure world returned after the miasma forests fulfilled their role. On the brink of collapse, humanity saved itself by scientifically manipulating the organisms and the ecosystem. Nausicaa does not feel hatred for that gasp for survival, the people then were merely doing what they must do to continue living into the future; the problem is that the values of this civilization, this desire for hope was born out of a time of despair that tainted it. Their desire grasped onto survival and, with the help of the technological advances of that era, they did survive in a cocoon. But the desperation traveled along with them, closed off from the environment and the integration that would have altered the people’s disposition. The values and temperament of those people were sealed away in the crypt along with all of the stored knowledge of science, art, and philosophy and could not undergo any change, which, as Nausicaa reminds us, is necessary for life. The over-valuation of hope and a focus on a ideal picture of the future became solidified and static: like a corpse on life-support staying alive until heaven is realized on Earth.

This trans-world ’valuation’ as I have been broadly calling it, along with some technologies has seeped out of the crypt and has been put into use by the Dorok empire as a means to keep the royal family alive indefinitely and pacify the populace. Nausicaa breaks the curse by sicing the god-warrior on the crypt and ends its dream of rebuilding the world according to the wishes of the ancients (who, to remind you, are really more like us in the 21st century). From now on, humanity will have to manage its own survival in a hostile world without the assurance of the ancient’s carefully crafted plan controlling the environment. But does this seal humanity’s fate to extinction?

The crypt responds to Nausicaa with a stern and fearsome “you cannot escape the hardening disease. You have no future. Without me, humanity will surely become extinct.” To which Nausicaa replies: “That is for the planet to decide.” This is a conundrum from Miyazaki that is worth a long pause, where does the ultimate value of life reside: the species, the singular living body, or the planet it evolved on? Will it ever come to this demanding choice or is the question wrong? We humans evolved into this species and became so through conditions allowing for reproductive isolation, one mode of life branched off and held together. But would it be against life to not do everything in our power to continue our existence? Even if that existence required life-denying purism that blocks change (and so a necessary force of life itself: mutation) and a relationship to things ecologically, alive or otherwise? Just how vital is preservation when life cannot actualize its potential in struggle, joy, and flux?

Nausicaa leaves the fate of humans up to the planet in the name of the lives living now, in the present, vs. the certitude of keeping humanity alive indefinitely – into the future. The crypt repsponds in bold: “That is nihilism!! Nothingness!!” Nausicaa affirms again the oft repeated statement in the story: “All things are born from darkness and all things return to darkness” (V.4, p.249-250). Death being essential to life is the paradox that the ancients tried to overcome in creating the crypt. They sought to extend the light that is the life of humanity forever and not lose the great accomplishments compiled over their generations. Nausicaa is seen by them as a nihilist for actively destroying such feats of civilization. It’s not that she doesn’t care about anything, or that she believes that their is no meaningful anchor to existence; Nausicaa sentiment is misunderstood by focusing only on her willingness to destroy. She most definitely has an ethics but not a human morality (interpreting people, their souls, or the world as essentially good or bad): her belief is in the preciousness of life – the will-to-live in every instance.

This ethics of life goes beyond humans and their societies but does not exclude them. A foreign belief that flies in the face of received wisdom will appear to the devout as a cancer, a terror, evil – a dangerous nothingness. But there comes a time to think bigger, Nausicaa has merely broadened the scope. Humans and their preserved history should not survive at all costs, rearranging and “enhancing” the world to fit their needs or “progressing” into societies more ideal than before. In this self-congratulatory, narrow-mindedness, we could be changing the planet – the biosphere – into a place where life can no longer thrive, where living things do not excel and relate with one another in an ecosystem but are pulled along by mechanisms extraneous to life. The maxim repeated throughout Nausicaa forming the bedrock of its ethical statement is “life survives by the power of life”, or, life is essentially self-generating. All living beings are born and all living things die and this inescapable death, the riskiness of living, must be affirmed – lest one being in its unchecked expansion ruin it for the rest.

Nausicaa’s personality is quite contagious. Nearly everyone she comes into contact with begins to adopt her advice and admire her will. By the end of the series, she is communicating telepathically with the masses of dispossessed people as she flies over them alone in her wind-riding jet-glider. She speaks for something common to us all but going beyond us as well; a beyond that does not eternalize or transcend life but a striving-beyond that recognizes the limits death and nothingness give it. Life is a good thing and should fly as far as it can in the fullness of its endeavoring, but it must be by its own power autonomously. There is no contradiction in being of an ecosystem respectfully and proceeding under one’s own power: not when one’s finitude is a precondition for one’s excellence and other lives may continue under their own power.

We are all living creatures born of the raw materials of the planet and organized by certain processes that we only are beginning to understand. Though science, Philosophy, and Art are in a sense pinnacles of human achievement, Nausicaa’s intuition for life is accessible to anyone and everyone so long as they are alive.

Though I tried to write this piece without a definitive plan as Miyazaki wrote Nauiscaa, certain influences where crucial to forming this interpretation:

Nietzsche’s reevaluation of all values, especially Deleuze’s commentary in ’Nietzsche and Philosophy’

James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory

Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ ’Order Out of Chaos’

I used the Viz Communications four volume publication of Hayao Miyazaki’s ’Nausicaa: Of the Valley of the Wind’, Perfect Collection.

Here is the interview that Miyazaki did with Yom.

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Worldly Angst: Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought

There is no more pressing concern that can be addressed right now than global warming. Think about it. Our planet has the very rare quality of having just the right temperature for H2O to abound in three different states of matter. We earthlings are a privileged bunch. Thinking beyond earth and into stars, galaxies, and other planets inspires wonder (or wonder inspires thinking towards the sky), but, also, right here on this planet matter/energy has found a way to loop and grow and evolve into what we call life. Writing and speaking this way can stop us in our tracks and make us stare out in astonishment, but it also can provide cover against seeing what is right in front of us and forget where we are. Where we are historically is in the funky position of being unable to think past certain concepts stringing us along a ruinous path; ruinous for us and our environment. But I contend that part of solution is blurring the lines between ‘us’ and ‘environment’. Thinking about ecology instead of Nature is to think a forward moving coexistence instead of a detachment.

Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) presents a way to rethink our notions of ’nature’, ’life’, and even ’world’ in a way that allows us to respond to the breakdowns in complex systems honestly and think through them both realistically and fantastically. His ’Eco Thought’ is timely in that it wrests Nature from its status as a “place over yonder” one can ignore by
resuming Cultural pursuits or visit on a hike in the woods and injects it directly into us. It is timeless in that it does the critical-textual work of marking out the beginning of a new era.

We never achieved a break from Nature as human beings in civilization but conceptually and in language. Blending and bewildering conceptual oppositions like Nature-Culture flows seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph for Morton, spreading virally throughout the book. Indeed, his concept of the ’mesh’ blurs even matter and life in a non-vitalism making room for the terrifying inside us and outside of us. What we call life is just matter/energy flowing in an interconnected mesh, “[t]his flow has been ongoing since DNA started its random mutations. Evolution is mutagenic. It isn’t linear or progressive.” (p.43) Eliminating our secure position as humans or even life-forms and unsettling our false pretenses to independence from “the rest” puts our ideas into extreme doubt. This isn’t to convince you that you are not alive but that you, I, and we are not the culmination of anything in time but instead a presently contained mutation with no end.

This can feel like one big negation of reality, and Morton even writes: “Negativity might even be more ecological than positivity is. A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think.” (p.16) Yet this profoundly weird nothing that follows us along subverting all attempts at transcendence and identification is not to “put us in our place” in bare existence. It is to reject the distance implied in delineating place to show that everything is interconnected but not in a completed whole. The holes found everywhere in the w-hole prevent a world from asserting itself. No safe haven is given by taking sides in the traditional divisions used to clarify problems of the being of the world like Mind and Matter. The strangeness of connectivity without coherence undermines all efforts to make sense of the world by carving it up into well-ordered sections. Negation has gone viral; the hole is quickly found in both areas.

“The ecological crisis makes us aware of how interdependent everything is. This has resulted in a creepy sensation that there is literally no world anymore. We have gained Google Earth but lost the world. “World” here means a location, a background, against which our actions become significant.” (p.31)

Its as if globalization and our dominance of the planet has left no where to go – no setting or stage from which one can say “this is where I am”. Sweeping the basis for meaning away can be a dreadful thought, and Morton’s only consolation “to the tear in the real [is]… [i]f it has always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?” (p.31) His concept of the mesh accommodates differences in time and location; it is only in this historical moment when the planet is under domination by such a concentrated system that we feel the anxiety of losing our home.

Thinking past this loss of world and coming up with new concepts for this purpose means leaving behind the world as a container and even the universe of physicists. The act of creating concepts is a philosophical exercise in the vein of Delueze and Guattari and the ecological thought is precisely a conceptual way of imagining a mode of being within language that gets through a physical-ecological problem. This involves mystical and spiritual revival but in a way that does not imagine other more perfect worlds, ordering them with respect to our mortal inferiority. Heck, it doesn’t even encourage the reader to focus on the real world exactly:

“…what we think of as “imagination” is just an after-image, an extrapolation we make when we notice people using language… do we have a sense of *world* in our heads, a background against which we can operate?” (p.88)

The Wittgensteinian move is to recognizing the limitations of language and get us to think the world beyond it without bringing along the messy metaphysics carried over from language, but Morton contends that even the world is stuck within those linguistic limits. The difference of conceptual relations spills into reality whether we discourse or not: cleaning up our language and speaking of the world outside of it will do us no good. We’d do better to think in terms of ecology, instead of forms of *life*.

Ecology evokes environment, life, and science so that we are encouraged to internalize the methods of scientific inquiry yet also avoid miring ourselves too much in its technical terminology. The mesh permits their inter-connectivity without ordering them centrally or referring a word to its ’thing out there’ identically. If we are going to properly deal with the climate we need sound, trustworthy science to compliment a radical shift in (for lack of a better word) consciousness through concepts. This is the difficult work of thinking the tangled concepts in a style that paves the way for an ecological existence. This existence is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety but this need not and cannot result in the desperate groping for a harmony that we mistakenly perceive to have lost.

The rapid firing of conceptual distinctions and mind-numbing dodging and weaving in Morton’s book does well in mirroring the swirling confusion of the crisis gripping our planet. It also makes the arguments hard to follow. He makes the paradoxical character of these ideas explicit: “[a]lthough there is no absolute, definite “inside” or “outside” of beings, we cannot get along without these concepts either. The mesh is highly paradoxical.” (p.39) Another big concept of his is ’the strange stranger’ in which “there is no way to maintain the strangeness of things.” (p.41) But Morton scores a clear hit by concentrating on Capitalism and its co-optive logic. The distortion that Capitalism employs in the commodifying of everything from sexual bodies to food production proliferates without individual assent and even encourages rage against itself – as long as dissent can be useful in making a sale. The disorienting groundlessness of ecological philosophy is one particularly poignant method of isolating the ideology putting us all at risk in Capitalism. It gives us a more sharpened mind for evading the snares of Capitalist logic, which thrives on individualizing terror. That terror exists beyond any of us humans and beyond the world, yet Capitalism thrives by enclosing it within individual minds. An ecological mind doesn’t reactively leap into a communal-nationalist passion in its rejection of individuals though. This remains attached to the concept by simplifying the negation. The ecological thought utilizes the form of radical collectives rather than communities of abstraction.

“So along with the political radicalisms that seek to create new forms of collectivities out of the crisis of climate disruption, there must also be a rigorous and remorseless theoretical radicalism that opens our minds to where we are, about the fact that we’re here.” (p.104)

At the same time, the void of intense personal practices found in the likes of meditation are never fully divorced in the mushy interconnection of the mesh. They even allow us to organize ourselves otherwise than the stable routines demanded on us by Capitalism. Individuals joined together in collectives exert a form of relating to each other that is neither Individualist nor Holistic.

Morton’s ecological thought (but is it his anymore?) is an honest work of the thought needed to act responsibly towards not just people but things. Things like chemicals, trees, mountains, etc. are given better treatment by ecological thinking than by a domineering Nature one must repeatedly affirm they are a “part of”. Not even the world is a whole to be a part of. This paves the way for a more stylistic existence that attends to the field of interaction in and out of language. This radical concept is an intriguing development in urgent times.