Going Beyond Paris or Even “Sustainability”: A Meta-Narrative for Sharing the World with Natural Systems

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Going Beyond Paris or Even “Sustainability”: A Meta-Narrative for Sharing the World with Natural Systems

Lit by a camera-trap flash and the glow of urban Mumbai, a leopard prowls the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. (Photo/Steve Winter)

The Paris Climate Talks were a top-down collaboration in the global political sphere, producing a hopeful treaty to reduce carbon emissions. At this moment of global alliances, what is a bottom-up approach that rejoins humans and natural systems? Our anthropocentric mindset that de-values all other life forms, the Cartesian influence that reduces all life to functional objects or resources in the service of human goals and activities– this is the central delusion that propels us towards ecological destruction. A parallel track to the political one and equally important is reflection and deep questioning to gain a more realistic perspective of the human role in the natural world. A shift away from anthropocentrism requires a re-doing of worldview; and how we view the world speaks volumes about how we view ourselves and the intersections of Self and Other.

“Resilience” and “sustainability” are central terms and meta-narratives for imagining and creating a lighter, less destructive human footprint in the arenas of agriculture, urban planning, and elsewhere. These meta-narratives or frames help re-educate us to thinking of systems, longevity, diversity in systems, adaptability, and to ending the fallacy of endless natural resources. Yet more-than-humans are still viewed as “resources”. These terms don’t dispel that fallacy. We need another meta-narrative for creating a shared world with other species, in which others are valued and have inherent worth. To go even farther, this new narrative can highlight the view of the Self as collective, in which others are within us. Post-humanism is a movement within academia that imagines the world beyond anthropocentrism, but these ideas seldom make it to broader audiences or discussions.

Different cultural worldviews contribute to mutual thriving across species, or mutual destruction. In India, parts of Africa, sacred groves are protected due to religious significance and remain areas of high biodiversity and old growth trees. Many indigenous groups view other species as kin, and as having their own cultures. Humans and other species live in a multi-cultural world, and each deserves respect, and especially the species we choose to eat.

What sort of mindset, perspective, worldview equalizes humans and natural systems and emphasizes interconnectedness, such that both can thrive? What mindset recognizes relationships across species, instead of viewing sociality only in the human realm? And what is the appropriate language here? Conservation biologists talk of “coexistence” with elephants, wolves, other large mammals whose lives sit on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, poaching, unwillingness to share landscapes. Is “coexistence” a term that works for re-imagining, re-building relationships to other species? The words we choose at this moment are essential.

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“Coexistence” emphasizes the concept of living in parallel lines, tolerating the presence of the other. This isn’t representative of the inherent interconnectedness within systems. Millions of bacteria inhabit us in mutually beneficial arrangements that are more intertwined than “coexisting.” Half of the oxygen humans breath comes from marine phytoplankton; this is not a parallel living arrangement. Even species that don’t rely on one another for air share commonalities that connect them. Our lives are bound in a mutuality.

A mindset that emphasizes similarities of form or function across humans and non-humans is one possibility. Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describes an AmerIndian worldview in which animals and plants were all once human and still have a human essence, but now wear a cloak of a different kind. He applies this worldview within the discipline of anthropology for an inclusive multi-species approach. Another anthropologist Tim Ingold in Scotland, writes about “correspondence” which is an intermingling of sentience among species. Anthropologist Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory brings non-humans into analysis of systems as actors, agents. The field of political ecology begins to view non-humans in an equal position to humans as agents. Ecologist Ricardo Rozzi proposes we move beyond Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, to bio-culturalism, which “couples human habits, habitats and communities of co-inhabitatants”, or non-humans on the landscape. Rozzi explains that “ethics” comes from ethos, which originally meant “the adobe of an animal.” Our notions of ethics were originally tied to our connections to other species and their habitual ways.

The term “cohabitation” connotes sharing landscapes, sharing home, which is closer to representing interconnectedness. Cohabitation intermixes logos, mythos, and ethics, storying landscapes and seascapes again with meanings, metaphors, narratives of shared histories, shared places. Cohabitation is especially controversial when applied to large carnivores like wolves and leopards. Ecologist Sunetro Ghosal, who studies large cat conservation in India, explores cohabitation. Scientists view leopards as dependent on them to create conservation plans and understand their behavior, which may contribute less to cohabitation, to sharing landscapes than some of the tribal peoples’ views in which leopards are sacred members of their community. They know how to prevent attacks and even know individual leopards and their past experiences, which sometimes explain the reason for a violent episode. The leopards are people, of a sort.

Building relationships to other species, to natural systems is central to this inner way forward. Jane Goodall and many others in her field present how important it is become like the ones they study, to enlist their mimicry, empathy, and become the Other in a sense. The Other is also within us, as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk explains in an alternate view of subjectivity. Our own subjectivity involves having the Other within us. We are not bounded selves, in other words, but are who we are through our relationships, interactions, and holding others within us. These ideas and ways of being need more of a spotlight, more discussion. This is a way forward, re-establishing humans as a positive force on this planet instead of destroying all life forms in our wake.

Let’s study places in the world where humans successfully cohabitate with other species. Cohabitation should be studied in academic institutions, supported with grants by large institutions, and should become a narrative we discuss and perhaps engage with. It’s more radical than coexistence or sustainability, but why not elevate values in this learning curve. Science tends to avoid values, but you can’t learn how to live with others without valuing them.

Elizabeth Oriel

Elizabeth Oriel is a conservation biologist, currently studying positive models of coexistence between humans and marine mammals. Previous research has been focused on animal welfare and climate change adaptation.

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