A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s  R e v i e w

 

 

 

Issue 33, August - October 2004

Letting the World Do the Doing1

By Freya Mathews

© all rights reserved

What is nature, and how are we to live with it rather than against it, as ecophilosophers enjoin? My own understanding of nature and of our proper relation to it is ultimately traceable to a metaphysics that could be broadly described as panpsychist, in that it attributes an internal principle, or subjectival dimension, to matter generally. I have explored such a metaphysic elsewhere, and do not propose to detail these studies here.2 My purpose is rather to consider the implications of such a broadly panpsychist premise for specifically environmental approaches to 'nature'.

There have of course been innumerable answers to the question, ‘what is nature?’ (Rolston 1988, Brennan 1998, Seddon 1997). One of the most common has been that 'nature' denotes the domain of physics - either the physical universe in its entirety or the laws that undergird it. In this widest sense, nature will not be of particular interest to environmentalists, since such a nature cannot be threatened, and does not, on the face of it at any rate, stand in need of human protection or conservation. In what sense then is nature understood by environmentalists as in need of defence? It is often assumed that, in speaking about nature, environmentalists are referring to the domain of biology, the realm of living things - forests and swamps, for instance, or plants and animals generally, or wildlife in particular - since it is this biological realm which is clearly under threat from the engines of industry and the appetites of global markets today. However, where the cosmological definition is too wide, this strictly biological definition of nature will usually turn out to be too narrow for environmental purposes, since many environmental battles are fought over inorganic, or only partly organic, features of the environment, such as rivers, dunefields, caves, mountains and rock formations, as well as over organic systems.

What environmentalists in fact usually seem to have in mind, in their references to nature, is parts or aspects of the world which have not been created or unduly modified by human agency. Is this a tenable environmental definition of nature? Implied in the definition is a distinction between the artefactual and the natural. I however, like many others, would immediately question the validity of defining the natural in contrast to the artefactual in this way, on the grounds that, since human beings, as biological organisms, surely belong to nature, and since making things comes to us as naturally as eating and drinking do, our handiwork itself has as much a claim to be considered part of nature as the handiwork of spiders, insects and marine life does (Mathews 1996). Therefore to regard trees and rocks and animals, not to mention webs, hives, termite mounds and coral reefs, as falling within nature, and cars and ships and computers as falling outside it, is to over-simplify the issue.

However, there is a distinction buried within this over-simplification which does, I think, call for further investigation. This is the distinction between what happens when things are allowed to unfold in their own way, or run their own course, and what happens when, under the direction of abstract thought, agents intentionally intervene to change that course of events for the sake of abstractly conceived ends of their own. By ‘abstractly conceived ends’ I mean here not ends discovered through abstraction from the particular but ends constructed through reduction of the actual to a blank slate for the abstractly imagined possible. In this latter sense, abstraction, or as I shall characterize it here, abstractiveness, is a matter of finding one’s starting point for a course of action in the realm of the abstractly conceived or imagined rather than finding it within the reference frame of the actual. From the point of view of this distinction then, nature might be understood as whatever happens when we, or other agents under the direction of abstractive thought, let things be, while artifice is what happens when such agents redirect events towards their own ends. The radical environmental injunction to live with rather than against the grain of nature then translates into an injunction to let things be.

It should be pointed out that the distinction between processes under the direction of abstractive thought and processes which unfold of themselves does not coincide with the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, or even living and non-living ones. That is, it is not a distinction between processes which occur in, or as a function of, consciousness, and processes which occur in, or as a function of, unconscious matter. All things, whether conscious or unconscious, living or non-living, have laws of their own unfolding. In the case of the non-living, these laws may be embodied in the physical and chemical dispositions of the things in question. In the case of living beings, they may reside in biological or instinctual dispositions, which may be described as their immanent telos or conatus.3 Even conscious beings such as humans are imbued with an underlying conatus, an inherent 'law' of self-realization which is not a product of our own reflection or ratiocination, but which already informs our instincts, reflexes, and other spontaneous responses.4

All these processes however, whether in ourselves or in the world, are capable of being re-routed by the interventions of agents under the direction of abstractive thought – which is to say, agents seeking to realize abstractly conceived end-states rather than unthinkingly following their own immediate impulses. Thus inorganic physical processes can be redirected by such intervention; the behaviour of organisms can likewise be so modified; and spontaneous impulses in human beings can be suppressed or sublimated by the interventions of the individuals themselves or by societies. At each level a contrast can be drawn between an undisturbed state of affairs, in which everything unfolds or behaves in accordance with its intrinsic dispositions or an innate conatus, and a state of affairs in which the dispositions of things are diverted by agents to produce end-states which match those agents' abstract ideals or imagined scenarios. The undisturbed unfolding of events may be described as 'natural', according to the present definition, and the intentional re-direction of such a course of events as 'artificial'.

The contrast between the natural and the artificial, drawn this way, though not absolute,5 is, I think, a significant and defensible one for environmentalists. For the primary aim of environmentalists is to protect the biosphere from the depredations of modern civilizations, and it is arguable that when all things are left to realize themselves in their own way, the life process will be assured, at least in the long term. This conclusion is supported by commonsense and evolutionary theory: 'nature knows best' because life has had countless millennia to adjust itself to terrestrial conditions. But in many ecophilosophies, this faith in the capacity of the life process to take care of itself rests on deeper metaphysical foundations, involving an attribution of purpose or intelligence to reality. My own argument for this position rests on a view of the world as constituting on the one hand a subjectival whole (the One) imbued with its own conatus, or impulse towards self-realization, and on the other hand a manifold of relatively self-realizing individuals (the Many), whose conative impulses generally intermesh to further the self-realization of the whole (Mathews 2003).

To affirm the view that nature knows best is not to deny that when things are left to their own devices, the interests of individual organisms and smaller-scale ecosystems might not be subordinated to those of greater ecosystems or the biosphere as a whole: competition, predation and disease may further the ends of the greater systems at the expense of the smaller ones. But by and large, when the Many are following their own innate individual patterns or principles of self-realization, the self-realization of the One is assured. If this is accepted, then to allow the Many to unfold in their own distinctive ways is presumably the surest approach to the protection of life on earth.6

How different is the outcome when agents under the direction of abstractive thought take control of events however. In accordance with their abstract ideas, such agents may make arbitrary interventions: they may kill off a particular species for the sake of its coloured feathers, for instance, or pollute a lake with manufacturing dye for the sake of people who have decided they want purple hair. With our powers of abstractive thought we can conjure up inexhaustible numbers of ways the world could be, ways ranging from the demonic to the absurd and whimsical through to the humanitarian or utopian; and with the same abstractive powers we can, increasingly, devise means for making the actual world conform to our fantasies, at least in the short term.

Historically speaking, abstractive thought has developed hand in hand with civilizations dedicated to the remaking of the world in accordance with variable human interests, values, dreams and conceits. By 'civilization' here I mean that form of social organization that was initially characterized by a settled way of life involving both the building of cities and the practice of agriculture and animal husbandry. The salient feature of civilization as a form of life is, in this context, its refusal to live within the terms of the given, as earlier hunter-gatherer societies had by and large done. Instead, civilized societies sought to change those terms - they strove to re-shape the world to suit their own purposes. They imagined categories of possibility beyond the already manifest - new kinds and classes of things in addition to those already in existence: houses to provide shelter, for instance, and wheels for transport, and animals subdued into pulling the wheeled vehicles, and succulent leafy vegetables growing in neat rows right at the back door of the houses. In order to conceive of these new kinds and classes of things, it was necessary to abstract quite radically from the world as it was, to look beneath the appearances at the underlying structures, and then to imagine ways those structures could be reassembled. This kind of thinking involves a different level of abstraction from that of the hunter imagining a kangaroo roasting on the fire at the day's end. Hunters and gatherers seek to satisfy their material and spiritual needs and desires within the categories of the given. They carefully study all the subtle particularities of life's tides, and learn to swim intelligently with those tides in order to achieve their ends. Civilized societies, in contrast, seek to transcend those particularities - the various vicissitudes of fortune, the reversals of the seasons, the manifold burdens of the flesh - by remaking the world to their own design. Rather than swimming with the tides, they try to uncover the laws of hydrodynamics and gravitation, in the hope of re-orchestrating and maybe even abolishing tides.

At the level of self, latterday civilizations have involved the re-deployment of our instinctual self-realizing energies in the service of socially prescribed ideals of individual selfhood. Our intelligence has been harnessed to abstract self-images and self-stories rather than to the deeper imperatives emanating from our conatus. Instead of letting ourselves be, we compulsively make ourselves over to match external ideals, where this can result in all kinds of aberrations, from neurotic individualism to fanatical collectivism or patriotism.

At the level of both world and self then, civilization tends to induce a preference for the abstractly imagined over the given, and seeks to substitute the possible for the actual. This tendency of civilization has become progressively more pronounced in the modern period, with its repudiation of tradition and its exponentially increasing power to manipulate matter, until it has resulted, today, in the dizzying regime of international capitalism, involving almost incessant, runaway erasure of the actual in favour of the possible, a regime euphemistically going under the name of 'development'.

When human beings are freed from excessively abstract thought however, and restored to their conative nature, then the world is relatively safe from such 'development'. For the conative natures of all beings are, from an environmental point of view, relatively trustworthy, simply because, as I have already noted, all have evolved in concert with one another, with the consequence that their natures are mutually cross-referencing. Self-realization is achieved, at the conative level, within the parameters of the already existent rather than the merely possible, and thus, at a conative level, all beings have a broad interest in maintaining the world as it is.

To recapitulate then, when 'nature' is defined, as it has been here, in contrast with artifice, it is arguable that generally, on the terrestrial scale, though not perhaps in every conceivable circumstance, nature knows best. By this I mean that when things are left to themselves, the biosphere is likely to fare better than it is when things are subject to our arbitrary interventions. There will of course be casualties at the level of individuals and smaller-scale systems when things are left to unfold in their own way, and as beings with a constitutive interest in our own self-preservation and the preservation of our nearest and dearest, we are on occasion called upon to intervene in these unfoldings, just as hunter-gatherers do in the course of their daily lives. Such interventions will not count as arbitrary however, and will be compatible with a general attitude of letting things be, an attitude which renders the overall project of life on earth relatively assured.

2. RETURNING TO NATURE

The trap for environmentalists, in thinking about nature, is to reify it, to conceive of it in terms of things rather than processes. When we think of it in this way, we understand it as consisting of all those things which are not the product of abstract human design: forests, swamps, mountains, oceans, etc. We then contrast nature with the human-made environment, consisting of cities, artefacts, technologies, etc. We make the same mistake in thinking about nature at the level of the self: the natural self is equated with the body, the instincts, intuitions, emotions etc, and this is contrasted with the civilized self, consisting of the controlled rational ego. The environmentalist's defence of nature is accordingly read as a project not only to save existing swamps, forests, etc, but to restore lost ones. Introspectively it is taken to imply a counter-cultural ethos of spontaneity, intuitiveness and instinctuality. From the present point of view, this is a mistaken reading. To 'return to nature' is not to restore a set of lost things or attributes, but rather to allow a certain process to begin anew. This is the process that takes over when we step back, when we cease intervening and making things over in accordance with our own abstract designs. Such a process can recommence anywhere, any time. It is not logically tied to those aspects of the world that we mistakenly reify as nature - the forests, swamps, instincts, bodily functions, etc - but can start to unfold again in the midst of the most intensively urbanized and industrialized environments on earth and in the most controlled and civilized of persons.

In a world already urbanized, 'returning to nature' means not tearing down the cities and factories, and planting woods and gardens in their stead. Such action would merely perpetuate the cycle of making the world over in accordance with abstract designs - albeit in this case ecological designs - and would reinforce the mind-set involved in living against nature. Rather, 'returning to nature' in an urbanized world means allowing this world to go its own way. It means letting the apartment blocks and warehouses and roads grow old. Yes, we shall have to maintain them, since we shall need to continue to use and inhabit them. Inhabitation will also call for adaptation and aesthetic enhancement. But this is compatible with a fundamental attitude of letting be, of acquiescence in the given, and of working within its terms of reference, rather than insisting upon further cycles of demolition and 'redevelopment'. Gradually such a world, left to grow old, rather than erased for the sake of something entirely new, will be absorbed into the larger process of life on earth. Concrete and bricks will become weathered and worn. Moss and ivy may take over the walls. Birds and insects may colonize overhangs and cavities within buildings. Green fingers will open up cracks in pavements. Bright surfaces will fade, acquiring natural patinas. Under the influence of gravity, the hard edges of modern architecture will soften, and imitate the moulded contours of landforms. Given time, everything is touched by the processes of life, and eventually taken over by them, to be fed into the cycle of decay and rebirth. Left to itself, the living world reclaims its own. Things which initially seemed discordant and out of place gradually fall into step with the rest of Creation. Old cars take their place beside old dogs and old trees; antiquity naturalizes even the most jarring of trash.7

When the world is allowed to grow old, when things are retained, or left to unfold in their own way, then it is possible truly to inhabit places, to come to belong to them, in ways that are undreamed of in change-based societies. As years pass, and places retain their identities, they can, if we let them, come to be inscribed with our histories and the histories of our families and communities. They acquire meaning for us as our life experiences are woven into them. Here, on this road going down to the creek, where I walk my dog every week, is the house my great grandfather built. I have a faded photograph of it on lock-up day, sometime late in the 19th century. Around the corner is the store my grandfather ran, and over there is the park in which my parents walked, each evening, holding hands, for sixteen years. Here, alongside it, is the cemetery where I roamed in my gothic youth, looking for the grave of that same great grandfather, keeping trysts in the peppercorn groves, composing poems about roses. And it was along the tree-lined avenue at the edge of this cemetery that I pushed my baby son to creche. Layers and layers of significance accrete as our lives unfold amidst familiar spaces, significance that can for us never be reproduced in any other setting. The setting itself infiltrates our identity. This irreplaceable significance of our own place or places for us binds us to them. We become their natives.

This belonging is reinforced in another way when we let our world - whether urban or rural - grow old. For when the lay-out and structures and constellation of physical features that define a particular place are allowed to endure for a long time, then not only can it become interwoven with our individual and collective identity in a way that binds us to it, but, from a panpsychist point of view, it can come to know us. In time, and only in time, a place can, if we commit to it, come to accept us, open its arms to us, receive us - it agrees to be our place, attentive to us, attuned to us. We become its people. The land, or place, claims its own. It can never receive the casual or expedient sojourner or stranger in such familiar fashion. In this way too then, through time, and the reinhabitation of places that are allowed to be, we become native to our world.8

The self-realization of the biosphere - which is to say, the unfolding of nature on earth - involves a pattern of gradual but continuous change - a pattern of aging and decomposition followed by spontaneous reconstitution into new forms. This is what happens to things when we let them be. Artifice, as here understood, correspondingly consists in any regime of abrupt, wholesale change, change that involves the erasure of one environment, or order of things, and its replacement with an entirely new one. Such regimes generally come about only at the instigation of agents in the grip of abstract ideas or images which they are intent on actualizing irrespective of context - irrespective of what existed before and what surrounds the new 'development'. In this sense an old factory site, overlaid with grime and saturated with heavy metals, but in its cracks and neglected crannies also burgeoning with hardy and creative biological and social forms of life, is more natural than a town planner's lush park stocked with store-bought indigenous plants and subject to wholesale redesign or 'redevelopment' at any time.

I should note here that by making the point that 'nature' in its deeper sense connotes not trees and grass and wildlife, but the processes which occur to any and all things when they are no longer subject to the interventions of agents under the influence of abstractive thought, I am by no means wanting to say that the conservation of trees and grass and wildlife - which is to say, environmentalism in its traditional form - becomes superfluous. Existing ecosystems should, like cities and selves, be allowed to unfold in their own way, free from undue human disturbance. Where such ecosystems have already been modified by the introduction of exotic species however, the application of the principle of letting-be is more complex. One might on the one hand infer that the new and old species should in principle be left to sort the conflict out themselves. To respect nature in this situation may not imply that we should eradicate the exotics and restore the indigenous. It might mean that we should forego interventionist "management" and allow natural processes to reassert themselves, however distressing it might be to watch native plants and animals disappearing under the onslaught of aggressive invaders. Such stepping back is, according to one reading of the principle, the course that would allow for a true "return to nature": some of the original species would presumably decline, and new ones would steal their niches, but as soon as competition had stabilized, speciation would begin again in situ, because we would no longer be intervening to reverse this trend.

However, in situations in which custody has properly been assumed by one party for another, it might seem that a balance needs to be struck between the attitude of letting-be, on the one hand, and due responsibility, on the other. The attitude of letting-be must not be allowed to degenerate, when applied to living systems which have already been annexed into our care, and deprived of their own conativity, into mere neglect, an ethos of letting-die. In the next section I shall suggest modalities of proactivity that would to a degree enable us to protect and preserve not only ourselves but other species and lands in a manner consistent with the principle of letting-be.

A certain stepping back, then, is what is involved in 'returning to nature' in the outer world. At the level of self, making the transition from civilization to a more natural state is no more a matter of trying to reinstate an instinctual, free-and-easy, impulsive regime than returning the world to nature is a matter of restoring lost forests and swamps. To try to transform the tensed, guarded, rationally-minded self of civilized society in this way would only be to perpetuate the process of control - the process of making the self over to match a socially approved ideal. At deeper psychic, and perhaps somatic, levels, such an attempt, with the self-rejection it implies, would presumably only exacerbate the tension to which the self in question is subject. The way for a self-censoring self to 'return to nature' is simply for it to stop altogether the business of attempting to make itself over in accordance with abstract ideals, and surrender instead to what it already is. When we give up being dissatisfied with ourselves, and reconcile ourselves to our 'unnaturalness', our tedious up-tightness, for instance, then, ironically, we start to relax anyway; as we stop forcing ourselves to follow the latest social prescriptions, our own instinctual conatus has a chance to make itself felt again. Gradually we become re-animated with our native will to self-realization.

I am not suggesting here, by the way, that continuing to be repressed and civilized does not itself require effort. Clearly it involves enormous effort. But since this is a form of effort to which we may already be habituated, it is not likely to be as great as the effort that would be required to convert our entire system of response to a more spontaneous, impulsive mode. Nor am I suggesting that the self animated by its own conatus is a passive, nothing-is-worth-the-effort kind of self. Conatus in humans, as in other animals, involves quantities of striving. People will go to great lengths to find food to satisfy their hunger, for instance. They will expend themselves utterly in sexual activity. But these are exertions that the organism wants to perform - the effort is made with rather than against the grain of its innate desire. In this sense it is no effort for the organism to make such an effort, whereas the effort required for an organism to act against its innate tendency, in favour of socially prescribed ideals, for instance, is immense.


At the level of both self and world then, it is never too late to return to nature. No matter how artificial our self or world has become, they can always, at any given moment, become subject again to natural processes, simply by our decision to call a halt to 'development' and 'progress' and 'self improvement', and to allow things to remain as they are, to be retained rather than replaced. In saying this I am not of course intending to ban change altogether, but to insist that change should not disrupt the general unfolding of things. It should not raze the old and superimpose on the space that is left something unrelated to what preceded it. Change should carry us gently and smoothly into the future, respecting the cycles of creation, decay and regeneration. It should grow from within the shell of the given.

It might be objected at this point that the attitude of letting things be that I am recommending here is too passive to be of use to the environment movement, that in the end it amounts to little more than a laissez-faire acquiescence in the political status quo. To dispel this fear, let me explain in a little more detail how such an attitude would, if adopted by a significant proportion of the populace, in its quiet way thoroughly disable the present world-destroying order of capitalism, by systematically negating the following values on which that order rests.

Consumerism. When we embrace those things that are already at hand, we do not seek to replace them with new ones. Such embracing of the given is thus an antidote to the culture of disposability and conspicuous consumption fostered by capitalism. From the viewpoint of letting things be, we would be most pleased, not with our brightest and newest things, but with those that were our oldest and most well-worn, things which had long figured in our lives, and mingled their identity and destiny with ours. 'Keeping up with the Joneses', if it applied at all in the letting-be scenario, would entail having fewer and older things than the Joneses. (Of course it would not apply, since in the new scenario we would not be measuring ourselves against the kind of social expectations personified by the Joneses.) Acquisitiveness, and hence consumerism, melt away in the face of an attitude of letting be.

Commodification. When we value things and places for the meaning that our own lives have invested in them, via our relationship with them, this removes them from the market place. They cannot be replaced by other things and places, even things and places of the same type, since the substitutes will not share our history nor hence be imbued with the same meaning for us. From this point of view, I could no more buy or sell things or places which had become part of the landscape of my life, part of my very identity, than I could buy or sell members of my family. Thus the pool of commodities is continually diminished.

Productivity. When we embrace the world as it is, and are no longer forever seeking to make it better, according to abstract (generally egocentric or anthropocentric) conceptions of the good, then greed is effectively abolished. We no longer crave bigger and better houses, cars, roads, cities, whatever. We are instead attached to what is already given. There is thus no call for ever-increasing productivity.

Progress. When people no longer believe that the world can always be improved, the slate wiped clean and a better world, a better society, inscribed on it, then the ideological rationalization for capitalism viz that it can continue to improve peoples' 'standard of living' indefinitely, collapses.

Efficiency. In late capitalism, efficiency - patently a notion pertaining to means - has acquired an almost fetishistic status. Tools (where this includes all kinds of techniques and procedures as well as implements and technologies) are valued not so much for what they do as for their efficiency, and they are retained only so long as their efficiency is perceived as maximal. When the attitude of letting be is assumed however, tools are valued not merely for their efficiency, but for their meaning. I may continue to use an old plough, or a leaky fountain pen, or a certain laborious method for making dough, simply because this is the plough, or pen, or method, that my mother or grandfather used. Efficiency may still be a consideration, but it will be only one factor determining the means I choose to achieve my ends.

Industry/business. These are the two definitive modalities of capitalism - industriousness and busy-ness - both connoting a certain kind of externally driven, externally focussed, hectic state of doing or acting. Those who are busy and industrious act on the world, they take initiatives and make things happen. When we assume the attitude of letting be however, we let the world do the doing, and we fit in with it. We favour 'inaction', in something like the Taoist sense of this term, which signifies not passivity, but action which is effortless because emanating from our own conatus and meshed with the conatus of other beings rather than driven by external social expectations or ideologies.

Development. When we understand 'development' in terms of the transformation and regeneration that eventually transpires when things are left to grow old, to unfold in their own way, then we will not tolerate the erasure of the given which is the precondition and prelude to 'development' in the capitalist sense ie the replacement of the given by the decontextualized abstractly imagined new.

Profit. If we do elect to let things be, it is on the assumption, as I explained earlier, that nature knows best - that nature, left to itself, conserves itself, does not exhaust itself, but rather replenishes itself, in accordance with the law of birth, decay and rebirth. To sustain itself in this way, nature returns everything to the life cycle, it recycles everything. There is no 'surplus' in this system, and hence no accumulation. The law of return makes nonsense of the notion of 'profit'. 'Profit' in one part of the system merely signals loss and depletion in another part.9

Automation. For the capitalist, labour is merely a means to production; if automation provides a cheaper, more efficient means, it will be preferred. From the viewpoint of letting things be, human labour is, or can be, a vehicle for meaning. Things become significant to us partly as a result of our building, making, repairing or decorating them ourselves. How much more of a presence in our lives is a church - like the Russian Orthodox Church in my neighbourhood - which is built by the hands of the parishioners themselves, over a period of many years, than one which is contracted out to professional builders and erected 'efficiently' in eight weeks. To 'mix our labour' with things is, as Locke said, though with entirely different intent, to make them ours, in a sense analogous to that in which our family is ours. To make things ourselves, or to have them made by the hands of others, then, is in certain respects preferable, from the present point of view, to mechanization of the processes of production.

Property. When people honour the world as it is - honour its immanent telos, its capacity to unfold in its own way - they no longer seek to own the world, but rather to belong to it. They belong to their world by being faithful to the things it contains, keeping and tending them and letting the world manifest through them as they endure. The world expresses itself, reveals itself, through the changes it induces in these things, through the lichen on the walls, the cracks in the glaze, the slow, stooping, inevitable return to earth. By continually replacing things we never witness the way the world reclaims its own, so we miss out on knowing it, encountering it. Strangers to the world, we do not belong, we are anything but natives. We comport ourselves as invaders, conquerors, buying up the matter which means nothing to us, and trashing it when we are tired of it. We treat ourselves, our own bodies, in the same way, truculently professing to own them and reluctant to allow them to be reclaimed by the world, reluctant to see the world tenderly revealing itself to us through them, through the fading and crazywork and mute surrender of flesh to gravity. But of course, at the final call, the world claims us anyway, and we go, back into the earth, but no wiser, and a lot lonelier, strangers to the end.

To assume a panpsychist worldview, and to express this worldview via an attitude of letting be, is thus inevitably to extricate oneself, to a significant degree, from the ideological grid of capitalism. It is to begin to shift towards an entirely different form of praxis and of management of the material dimension of life - in other words, to an entirely different 'economics', or way of ensuring the satisfaction of our material wants and needs. Since economics involves a certain engagement, on our part, with the world of matter, an economics with panpsychist presuppositions will obviously differ from an economics based on a mechanistic worldview. For when the material world is viewed as a subject, or as a manifold of subjects, then economics constitutes an opportunity for encounter: the ways in which we utilize matter must not conflict with, but enhance, our intersubjective engagement with it. The basis of an economics structured in accordance with the principle of letting-be will be briefly sketched in the next section.

From a panpsychist perspective, respect for nature, as we have seen, is not a matter of protecting only ecosystems, but all material things, from undue human disturbance, including things that do not usually arouse the concern of environmentalists, even non-anthropocentric environmentalists, such as deep ecologists. This view of nature, and what it is to live with rather than against it, implies an ethos that is far more encompassing than that of the traditional environment movement. It is an ethos as encompassing in fact as the ethos of modernity that it seeks to reverse. For the hallmark of modernity is radical change - in the form of development, control, management, design, intervention, progress, improvement, even salvation. (This is reflected in the very etymology of the word, 'modern', which is derived from 'mode', meaning 'of the present', as in 'a la mode', keeping up with the latest. Modernity is that period which can be characterized in terms of its commitment to the ever-emerging new, its dissatisfaction with the given, its radical discontinuity with the past and its dissociation from tradition.) The ethos of letting be challenges modernity head on, trusting as it does the innate wisdom of things, and eschewing as it does the definitive ambition of modernity, to remake the world in accordance with abstract ideas. From the present point of view, not only is environmentalism, even in its deep-ecological forms, missing the larger metaphysical picture in its approach to modernity; it is also itself deeply entangled or imbued with the modernist ethos in its understanding of its own mission; it needs to extricate its legitimate concern for nature from heroic modernist assumptions about its own world-changing, world-saving role.

I am suggesting that instead of perpetuating this profoundly modernist ethos of changing or saving the world, the environment movement could assume an attitude of letting things be. We could step right outside the presuppositions of modernity, and dare not to try to make things better, at any rate if 'making things better' is a rationalization for continually replacing one regime with another. When we say, 'let's fix the world up - let's pull down these slummy old tenement blocks and build a brand new eco-permacultural-urban-village in their stead’ - we are just as much in the grip of the old ethos of domination and control as the city fathers were. We are rejecting the given in favour of an abstract or imagined alternative of our own - we are refusing to 'let things be' - and it is this hubristic mentality which is the motor of modern civilization and the source of the environmental crisis. In remaining in the grip of the old ethos, in nursing the desire to make things better, we are simply continuing to water the deeper modernist roots of the present predatory economic system.

An ethos which tries to avoid the pitfalls of this mentality will, of course, be an ethos of conservatism rather than radicalism. This conservatism has always been implicit in the environment movement, as plainly betokened by the fact that the term 'conservation' is often regarded as synonymous with 'environmentalism'. However, such conservatism does not imply that the attitude of letting be is aligned with the political right. The political right has historically, of course, been conservative, that is, committed to the given, while the left has been opposed to the given, and committed to the abstract possible or ideal. The historical right however, though conservative, differed from the present position inasmuch as it was socially rather than ontologically motivated - it was at heart a defence of social, political and economic privilege, rather than a defence of the world for its own sake. In other words, the right insisted on the preservation of traditions and institutions because it was through these traditions and institutions that the upper classes retained their privileges. A degree of ontological conservatism - the conservation of architecture and landscapes, for instance - was implicit in this position, but this ontological conservatism was in reality a mere spin-off from a self-interested politics of oppression. The historical left rejected this politics of oppression, and demanded the overthrow - and ongoing readjustment - of the existing social order, in order to end the systematic privileging of the powerful few at the expense of the many. This revolutionary or radical politics however sustained an unremitting antagonism not only to traditions and institutions, but to the world that these traditions and institutions had built, and this legacy has served, in the long run, to legitimate a rapacious contempt for the given in all its social and ontological forms, where this contempt is the hallmark of late capitalist modernity.10

The attitude of letting things be, in contrast, is conservative out of genuine respect for the world, for the capacity of things to unfold in their own way. Its conservatism is ontologically rather than socially motivated, and it extends primarily to material things rather than to cultures, traditions and social institutions. This attitude certainly does not spring from a desire to preserve the privileges of the few, as that of the historical right has done. Indeed, it tends, almost incidentally, towards a de facto form of non-hierarchism, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the accumulation of wealth, as I have explained above. It achieves this 'equalizing' effect, however, without recourse to the radicalism, to the ethos of intervention and overthrow, of the historical left. So, without itself resorting to the ideality of morality, the ethos of letting be reconciles something of the custodial role of the right with something of the moral intent of the left. In this respect it is in fact the reverse image of the market-driven politics which is achieving hegemony in the industrialized world today, and which is also neither of the left nor the right. This latter politics - the new 'economism' - combines the old rightwing investment in the perpetuation of minority privilege, and moral indifference to the suffering of the majority, with the old radicalism of the left, its dissatisfaction with the given, and its dedication to building ever new, ever more extravagant, worlds. In other words, 'economism' has managed to combine the downsides of both the right and the left. In this unholy new regime, nothing is sacred, everything - every being, every object, every place, every institution, every element of culture and society, every relationship - is subject to obliteration or co-optation by a commerce that sustains fewer and fewer. The attitude of letting things be effectively inverts this nightmare and, by stepping outside the game of left and right altogether, inadvertently combines the essence of the upside of each of the old right and left.

3. AGENCY IN A SYNERGISTIC MODE

To many people concerned about the fate of the global environment, the principle of letting-be, as here outlined, may still appear unduly quietistic. How are we to wrest a living from the world without subordinating its ends to ours? How are we to address environmental degradation and the loss of ecosystem integrity caused by human intervention if we simply step back and let things take their course? How are we to defend our world and all its human and other-than-human inhabitants against those with the political will and muscle to oppress them if we merely acquiesce in the given, and decline to take up a posture of resistance? Yes, the attitude of letting-be may represent the deepest challenge that can be issued to the mindset of modernity, but if it does not also prescribe positive modes of agency it must ultimately be self-defeating.

However, the principle of letting-be is not, as it turns out, entirely inconsistent with certain modes of proactivity, including modes of resistance. The modes of proactivity in question are those that work with, rather than against, the grain of the given. By this I mean that there are forms of action that achieve their ends by engaging with pathways of energic flow and communicative influence already at play in the world. An agent in this mode is a kind of metaphysical hitchhiker, catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for her destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker’s communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker’s own plans and those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither hitchhiker nor driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations.

The hitchhiker lets things be in the sense that she does not seek to turn back processes and conative unfoldings already in train. Her mode of proactivity, in seeking her own conative fulfilment, is through engagement with these existing unfoldings. It necessarily follows that the matrix of these unfoldings sets limiting conditions on her agency: she does not entertain ends or means defined outside the reference frame of the already given. This is a mode of agency that I have elsewhere termed synergy (Mathews, 2003). In synergistic mode, the agent can pursue ends of her own, and can even seek to transform the status quo, but not by abstracting from the given, and trying to replace it, holus bolus, with an arbitrary design of her own. She does not seek to erase the given, or contradict it, but by joining her own conativity to its she elicits from it a new response, a spontaneous unfolding in a new direction.

Let’s consider, in briefest outline, how a synergistic mode of agency would operate in the economic, environmental and political contexts foreshadowed in the questions posed at the beginning of this section. These examples of synergistic agency are intended merely to illustrate the manifold possibilities for activity consistent with the principle of letting-be. They are not put forward as themselves a design for an alternative society!

Economics in synergistic mode. Extractive economics, based on the inactivation, the rendering inert, of "natural resources", can readily be reformed along synergistic lines; mutualistic partnership with animate natural processes then replaces the inactivation of those processes, their subordination to our ends. Such synergistic possibilities have already been extensively explored in the literature of alternative economics under the rubric of sustainability. Prime examples of synergy in this context are the alternative energy industries, employing techniques for harnessing energy from renewable sources; wind and sun, for instance, are not diminished or denatured by being temporarily diverted to serve our purposes. Windflows and lightflows are tapped without basic meteorological and solar patterns being fractured. (Water, though a renewable source of energy, is more problematic in this context: diversions and dammings of water often do result in the death of rivers.)

The ecological disposal of "waste" is another example of synergistic praxis. Much of our productive activity could be conceptualised ecologically as accessing elements and energies (“resources”) not otherwise available to ecosystems, then, incidentally to our productive intentions, converting them into forms available for re-use by other species. Like nitrogen-fixing plants, whose metabolism benefits the entire ecological system, the side effects of our productive activities could vastly enhance rather than diminish the biosphere.11

Similarly, primary industries such as agriculture and pastoralism could be organized with a view to their potential for enhancing rather than degrading the environment. Pastoralism has brought water, in the shape of wells, to the arid rangelands of Australia, for instance, and has hence enhanced conditions for wildlife there, though the introduction of exotic grazers and browsers has at the same time in other ways diminished ecosystem integrity. But there is no reason why a pastoral agenda could not bring net benefits to these lands, if pastoralism were conducted on synergistic lines. Provision of water together with the judicious harvesting of certain wild species rather than the husbanding of domestic ones, for instance, could possibly lead both to positive ecological outcomes and to an increase in profitability for pastoralists.12 Similar possibilities are well recognized, though little practised, in agriculture: hedgerows and wildlife corridors restore lost habitat while providing refuge for insectivorous birds and mammals that control crop pests. Even more directly, authorities are now suggesting that farmers be encouraged to produce environmental goods, such as pollen, in addition to traditional crops, as the economic value of environmental goods is finally being recognized and factored into production.13

Environmentalism in synergistic mode. Where ecosystems are disrupted or degraded as a result of human intervention, the principle of letting-be may, on the face of it, seem to require that we step back and allow things to take their own course, even if this entails species loss or ecological damage. In this case however, as noted earlier, the principle of letting-be could degenerate into a rationale for neglect. Is there a third, synergistic way between outright interventionism and mere letting die? Such a way does exist, I believe, and it can be characterized as the way of environmental healing. Healing, in a synergistic sense, would involve not mechanistic intervention - the substitution of new parts or suites of species for old - but the reactivation of a system’s own conative energies. Healing draws upon forces or powers already present within the existing state of things to restore the system in question to dynamic equilibrium. Healing represents a synergistic approach to human as well as to ecological illness and malaise. In the human case, it consists not in the prolongation of life by way of mechanical life support systems in patients whose own conativity is terminally impaired, but rather in the strengthening of conativity - the boosting of the immune system, for instance - in cases where such strengthening is still achievable. In the case of ecosystems, healing might consist in the replenishment of exhausted soils or the removal of exotic organisms to enable the ecosystemic impulse towards biodiversification to be maintained. The wholesale "restoration" of an original suite of species however would constitute interventionism rather than healing.

It might be asked, however, whether exotic organisms, or feral species generally, can be removed from susceptible environments, or whether their impact on these environments can be diminished, without recourse to strategies that violate the spirit of letting-be. Can such removals or reductions be effected synergistically rather than in the typical dominate-and-control modality of environmental management? Synergistic strategies in this connection will presumably have to mesh the fate of exotics and ferals with the conativities of the ecosystem in which they are located. They will, in other words, have to utilize the resources comprised by exotics and ferals to service the ecosystem. When situations involving exotics and ferals are viewed in this light, it often turns out that removal is not required. As Tim Low reports, “Foreign plants – weeds and crops – now feed and shelter millions of native animals, and even a few native plants. Exotic animals – especially rats, mice and rabbits – feed millions of natives too. A typical bird of prey, parrot or orchard swallowtail now eats foreign food. Many species now rely largely on alien tucker. If Australia’s foreign contingent vanished overnight, many ecosystems would be kicked into chaos.” (Low, 2002, p. 93) “Environmental management” is not necessarily, from this point of view, a matter of trying to reinstate pristinely indigenous biotic regimes but rather of evaluating environments on a case by case basis, identifying the flows – food chains and disease vectors and catalysing factors, for instance – and opening them up or closing them off to one another in ways best calculated to promote the further unfolding of ecosystems. Where a given feral invasion is demonstrably destructive to a particular local environment, and proves intractable in the face of local synergistic measures, the systemic frame of reference can be expanded to include human populations. It is these populations, after all, that are placing the greatest pressure on global ecological systems, and if vital needs of human populations can be satisfied by harvesting exotics or ferals –for food, for instance, or fertilizer – then to that extent exotics or ferals are reintegrated back into the larger system. They supply a demand that would have been made anyway, so that redeploying them to this end prevents further pressure being placed on the larger ecosystem. In other words, the problem of feral invasions can often be solved by us in the simplest of ways: by eating the ferals.

However, to propose this synergistic solution to the problem of feral invasions returns us to the discussion of economics. Environmentalism in a synergistic mode cannot always be grafted onto an economic system that is still organized along dominate-and-control lines. To implement the above synergistic solution to the problem of exotics and ferals in any systematic way would call for major adjustments to our economic arrangements. Our system of production and consumption is rooted in the same kind of agrarian civilization of which the abstractive mentality, which seeks to adapt the world to our needs rather than adapting our needs to the world, is an expression. The abstractive mentality, as outlined earlier, abstracts altogether from the actual in setting its goals: it erases the actual in favour of the abstract possible. It entertains abstract ends as idees fixes, which it pursues regardless of cost or context. Both production and consumption in modern societies follow this pattern. Agricultural centres or manufacturing plants are established on permanent sites to produce specific products that have generally originated abstractly in market researchers’ imaginations and then become fixed in consumers’ expectations. Primary industry insists on producing lamb, for instance, in spite of the fact that the countryside is teeming with feral goats, rabbits and camels; this idée fixe is then imparted to the consumer, who expects lamb for Sunday lunch and will not countenance the idea of roast feral.

Modern producers and consumers are in this sense still agrarian at heart: they decide what will be produced and what will be consumed well in advance of discovering what is actually on offer, what is already available in their local environment. They are makers rather than finders, preferring their own version of reality to reality as it is given. All the infrastructure of production reflects this outlook. Both production and consumption could however be geared along the lines of finding rather than making. Production infrastructure could be designed for assembly and disassembly and hence for mobility as well as for flexibility of output, and consumers could develop a taste for the given, in all its unpredictability, rather than for the ideally prescribed.

Of course, an economics of the given such as this would have to conform to the general or overarching principle of synergy if it were not to become merely another excuse for environmental rip-off. After all, the availability of native forests has not been overlooked by modern societies, and native forests have consequently been consumed to the point of obliteration. The same fate could await not only ferals but native wildlife if the ethos of utilizing the given were followed without caution and due regard for the larger principles of synergy and letting-be.

Politics in a synergistic mode. It was noted in the previous section that if everyone assumed an attitude of letting-be, then the consumerist motor of capitalism would stall and the progressivist thrust of modernity subside. Indeed, ideologies of oppression – oppression on grounds of sex, race, class, age, sexual preference or species membership – would crumble in the face of a generalized respect for the conativity of things. But in reality it is not the case that everyone has assumed, or ever will assume, an attitude of letting-be. On the contrary, modern societies are profoundly committed to taking charge of things, to manipulating the world so that it serves sectorial human interests rather than ends of its own. Wouldn’t following the principle of letting-be, in the context of this political reality, amount merely to leaving everything as it is, abandoning the world to those whose goal is to appropriate and exploit it? In other words, the principle of letting-be seems to afford no possibility for resisting the political status quo, where that status quo is a function of a systematic inversion of letting-be itself. In a political context then, the principle seems self-defeating: in deference to it we are required to step back and allow regimes of cooptation, which obstruct and divert the general unfolding of things, to prevail.

It is important to note here that the principle of letting-be does not apply to ideas, ideologies or discourses in their own right. Our reason for letting things be is that they are imbued with a conativity of their own; left to themselves they take care of themselves and in taking care of themselves they promote the self-realization of the systems that constitute them. Clearly this is so only in the case of embodied things, things that are elements of the concrete, corporeal world. It makes no sense to ask of abstract things – ideas, ideologies, discourses – that they take care of themselves. But when ideas, ideologies, discourses are operative in society – as institutions, customary practices, cultural attitudes – then they are implicated in real, embodied entities. In other words, as we find them in society, ideas, ideologies and discourses are not merely attenuated abstract entities, but ride on the back of actual individual and collective conativities. In addressing discursive aspects of society then, we are engaging with these conativities, and in this sense we are indeed negotiating the concrete, corporeal given. The principle of letting-be accordingly comes into play.

So what is the advocate of letting-be to do in the face of institutions and practices that contradict her principle? Once again she must try to hitch a ride with the very forces that offend her, giving them their due as (possibly distorted) instances of conativity, but trying, by engagement, to induce them to flow towards a place of true conative increase rather than diminishment. So, for instance, confronted with sexist discourse, the advocate of letting-be will not confront but nor will she merely acquiesce. She will try to use sexism to transcend sexism. To the extent that sexism is legitimated by an ethos of masculine superiority, she might represent masculinity as an ideal of worthiness rather than of violence, so that men will measure up as most masculine, most manly, not when they are abusing women but when they are most respectful of them. Similarly with racism. Our advocate of letting-be might try to transform the ideal of white superiority into an ideal of justice, equality and reason, the liberal virtues of the Western enlightenment, so that people will never qualify as more white than when they are respecting the rights of others. Militaristic impulses can be harnessed to the goals of peace by converting military forces into peace-keeping forces, thereby putting courage, valour and strategic acumen to good use. When conflicts between parties of different ideological or religious persuasion break out, one party can seek peaceful resolution by appealing to the ideological or religious terms of reference of the other. (So, for instance, in current conflicts between the modern West and certain strains of Islam, the West could find resources within the sacred literature of Islam itself to query the grounds of Islamic antagonism and enjoin Islamic good will.) Anthropocentric attitudes can be recruited to the cause of the environment via a demonstration that what sets humanity above and apart from the rest of life is our human capacity for awareness of metaphysical unity. In the very act of affirming our human superiority then, we are at the same time acknowledging our unity, our kinship, with all of Creation, and our consequent responsibility for it.

Faced with the devastating environmental and social impacts of corporate capitalism and contemporary global markets, the advocate of letting-be might search for the essence of capitalism and find it in the liberal tenet of freedom – the right of everyone to pursue their own good in their own way subject only to a minimal requirement that their doing so not extinguish the like right of others. She notices the isomorphism between this principle of freedom and her own principle of letting-be. Instead of opposing this freedom, out of disgust for the havoc it wreaks on the environment and on the fabric of society, she expands its scope: truly to follow through on liberalism, she points out, is to let everything, human and other-than-human alike, work out its own good in its own way – in other words, to let everything be. How is she to convince liberals that not only human beings but all things are entitled to work out their own good in their own way? She will have to persuade them to change their metaphysical premise. And how is she to accomplish this? By couching her argument within her opponents’ terms of reference. If, as is generally the case, liberals' terms of reference are rationalist, then she must demonstrate rationally that a change of metaphysical premise is needed. She must out-reason, out-argue, the proponents of reason and argument.

The advocate of letting-be thus takes the world as she finds it – ecologically degraded, infested with ferals, rife with prejudicial attitudes, desecrated by commerce. She doesn’t change the world. But by intelligently engaging with it as it is, rather than contradicting it, and by seeking synergistically to extend and enlarge the conativities she encounters there, she allows the world to change itself.

Synergy in this sense is, again, comparable to the Taoist notion of inaction, wu wei. Inaction, as was noted earlier, is not mere inactivity, but activity that is undertaken with rather than against the grain of conativity, whether this be the conativity of self or world. One who is committed to inaction in this sense seeks to overcome oppression, disturbance and malaise not by confronting them head on, in the name of utopian norms, but by attuning and joining herself to ambient conativites, to the conative dynamics of self increase. Although this synergistic modality can be articulated discursively – as it has been here – it can operate nondiscursively. It is called forth not by discursive deliberation but by encounter with the dynamics of a psychically activated world.

4. DISCOVERING THE TAO IN AUSTRALIA

The position that I have outlined in this paper is then basically a Taoist one. Nature, according to my definition, is more or less equivalent to the Tao: it is the wise way the world unfolds when left to its own devices. The Taoism of Lao Tzu does not announce itself as panpsychist, but clearly a world animated by the Tao is one which is possessed of some intelligent inner principle, a principle that can be trusted to guide us into the deepest channels of life.

It is not my place to comment in detail here on the affinities between the broadly Taoist attitude of letting be and certain fundamental characteristics of Aboriginal thought. Suffice it to say that Aboriginal cultures evince a powerful engagement with the given that ensures their continuity with their own past but also their flexibility in the face of an almost unimaginable scale of externally imposed change. For while not craving the possible and the ideal, they exhibit a genius for accommodating the new once it has become actual. One of the flashpoints in the evolution of my own thinking occurred when a non-indigenous friend who had married into an Aboriginal family in the far north-west of Australia told me about an elder there who included motorboats in his Dreaming stories. Years later I happened to find myself living for a while in the very community to which the old man - by now deceased - had belonged, and I was enchanted by the way in which the people in this community refused nothing. They accepted - though they never craved - anything and everything that drifted their way, all the trappings and junk of modern civilization. But in the process of accepting this tawdry stuff, they also uncannily Aboriginalized it, so that it assumed an entirely different significance in the context of their community from its intended significance within the framework of a capitalist culture. Somehow, through this affectionate trust in the given, the everyday was rendered numinously spiritual, and the spiritual unpretentiously everyday.

Mary Graham has declared that one of the most taken-for-granted assumptions of Aboriginal thought is that spirit is real; another is that land is all there is (Graham 1992). That is to say, spirit has a status, in Aboriginal thought, as incontestable as that of energy and matter; and, since there is no heaven and hell, and since theories and ideas, however dazzling, are not real, land is ultimately the only thing that exists. If 'land' is expanded to encompass the concrete given - all that is actual in a physical sense - then I think that the attitude of letting be follows from these twin premises: spirit animates the given rather than existing in the realm of the abstract, so we connect with spirit by engaging - and not unnecessarily interfering - with the given. By embracing the given even in its most adulterated forms, we reinhabit our own contemporary, mundane reality in the same kind of profound way that traditional Aboriginal peoples inhabited their reality, the still edenic land.

Aboriginal peoples learned to inhabit the real rather than escaping into the ideal by remaining attuned to the wisdom that this peaceful old land imparts to those who pay attention to it. I believe that my own early glimpses of this way of living came to me not in the first instance through explicit Aboriginal influences - though these influences later helped to bring it to consciousness - but through the opportunities for such attentiveness that were vouchsafed me as a child. Born into this intimately companionable land that has for so long been singing along, humming along, with its human inhabitants, non-Aboriginal Australians might also, if we collectively pause to feel the resonance of the endlessly poetic communiques that surround us, rediscover, in a contemporary context, some of the fundamental aspects of the Aboriginal relation to the world.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

 

 

 e m u s e c u r r e n t  g o o d  o i l    a r c h i v e

©Australian Humanities Review all rights reserved.

http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/copyright.html for copyright notice.