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The future is… an ecosystem

Eco-centrism as a fundament of political decision-making

While working from home, I am taking more walks than I ever have. I am probably not alone in this. Small strolls around the block usually, to get out of that suffocating house for just a second. During these walks, I started noticing things in my neighborhood I have never noticed before. I discovered that my neighbors right around the corner have a pretty cool-looking roof terrace, there are oddly colorful ducks in a pond nearby, and in autumn it’s a fun challenge to try and notice as many mushrooms as possible. They tend to appear everywhere. If you are paying attention, of course. This ability to notice the unnoticed might be exactly what we need if we want our politics to be able to tackle climate crises. We might need to give a political voice to the unheard.

At the start of the pandemic, back when some of us naively thought a quick lockdown would be enough to stop the Coronavirus from spreading, pictures of wild animals in urbanized areas would regularly appear on my Twitter-feed. “Nature is healing”, the captions read, “we are the virus.” Figures suggest that smog-levels in China are decreasing, as big parts of mobility and industries came to a halt.  When COVID disappears however, polluting processes are picked up again and CO2-emissions start to return to business as usual. Leading one to presume that we are only able to make room to “let nature heal” when we are locked in a quarantine.

Ever since the industrial revolution (and probably even before that), people designated nature as an infinite resource, to be exploited, mixed with our labor, and sold as a commodity on the market. This mode of production comes at the expense of natural areas and biodiversity. Some scholars argue that this has resulted in a new geographical era: the Anthropocene, or the human-era. Consequences of man-made industries and their waste have irreversibly affected and altered some earthly processes. International trade and mass-production shape life on earth and simultaneously deform it. This is all known, of course. Climate change is widely recognized as a problem. Calls for mitigation and adaptation are widespread and there seems to be a willingness to change. If only we knew how.

Our political understanding is lacking a strong ecological fundament. We can barely imagine what it is like to live in a sustainable society. I argue this might be because the only voices we are used to hearing are those of fellow people. Our society is centered around making live better for humans, while placing non-humans on the background, or use them as tools, resources, and commodities. We need to be able to take the lives of non-humans into account too. Not only as an amenity but as actors. This ecological worldview is gaining attention as more and more writers, scholars, artists, and activists are recognizing the need for a fundamentally different politics. A turn from egocentrism to eco-centrism if you will.

A Copernican Revolution

Copernicus has proven that the sun is not revolving around the earth, but that it is the other way around. The earth, we learned, is not at the center of the solar system and it revolutionized our ways of thinking. Half-jokingly, French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour argues that we could use another one of these Copernican Revolutions. This time, we must learn that human beings are not at the center of the universe. For years, we held the assumption that the natural world is either a background to cultural and industrial expansion, or a recreational landscape. Complex problems like global climate change and bio-diversity loss make it painfully clear that Nature as a resource is finite and we are at risk of losing it.

Latour uses the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to untangle complex social processes. Simply stated, ANT sees all actors as being in relation with each other in networked processes. The group of actors does not merely consist of people. All things can have effects and relations in the network, and so all things can be actors: trees, animals, speed bumps, books. This inclusion of non-human actors can make theorizing messy and hard. But at the very least, it will bring us some interesting stories and point out some important problems that are often overlooked. By following the actors, we might learn that situations that are usually called ‘social’ are co-constructed by lots of material things like desks, computers, offices, watercoolers, and reports. Many of us are not used to thinking in this way, but the objects surrounding us and the contexts we are in have always shaped us. After all, as I am writing this article, a very non-human virus is recreating social meeting places and daily practices. ANT places these non-human actors in the same spotlight as us and shows us how all actors contribute to the play.

If we perceive humans and non-humans on equal footing, we start seeing that natural and cultural processes become part of a complex ecosystem. It is no use to distinguish between the nature and culture anymore. Nuclear disasters might have the same long-lasting effects as volcanic eruptions. Likewise, an important political decision might be blocked due to a book the president read yesterday, as well as his gut flora. The pollution caused by a city’s cars and industries might be worsened by shrinkage of the nearby forest. A new road somewhere might contribute to nature-conservation projects as well as to nature-destroying tourism. The fish market might help seagulls to flourish. The city is an ecosystem.

More than individuals – networks! 

By now you might see me as some hippy stating that we must become “one with nature”. But that is not my point. My point is that we already are! Our technological, social, industrial processes are deeply entangled with the so-called natural world. And we have the changing climate to prove it! People are not destroying nature, we are nature.

The Dutch otter is going strong and even the wolf is making a comeback. Dutch Birds are quite lucky as they are all recognized as a protected species. But what if the bees, the trees, or the seas need protection too? Who is going to be the voice for these voiceless? To truly represent and protect the cute and cool individual animals that fit well on pictures and children’s songs, we need to protect the less visible organisms too. We need to protect their whole habitat, and the ecosystems they are part of. The focus on animals as individuals stems from a long history of armchair atomization of biology, economy, and sociology. Animals (that includes us!) are never merely individuals and conserving species will always necessitate a broader focus on the context individuals are located in. Individuals are never alone in acting; they contribute to a never-ending actor-network.

<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European_grey_wolf_in_Prague_zoo.jpg">[1]</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0">CC BY 2.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons
The European wolf. Source: Katerina Hlavata, 10 February 2015

We must realize that it is often very hard and somewhat nonsensical to save an animal outside of its habitat. Although zoos like to boast that they contribute to the preservation of wildlife by conserving it in neat cages, logically the preferred option should be to protect them inside their own habitats. Metaphorically speaking, when the flood comes, it is useless to collect pairs of animals and put them on an ark (looking at you, Noah). Not only because we must prioritize preventing the flood from occurring. But because ecosystems and the organisms in it usually evolve in complex symbioses, so that any decision about life of animals should not be detached from its context.  When one part of the system is altered, it has effects on the whole.

This mistaken sense of individuality is beautifully shown by mushrooms. On the surface they might look like individual organisms, but in fact these are merely the fruits of extensive fungi. Through mycorrhizal networks underground and spores in the air, they can expand over large areas. They fulfill an important ecological function, as they digest dead plants and produce fertile soil. Sometimes, trees even rely on fungal networks to connect to other trees and relocate nutrients. Leading some to call this ecological infrastructure the ‘Internet of the forest’. Forests, as well as cities, are indeed interconnected. In her 2015 work The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing follows the Matsutake-mushroom to show the natural and cultural entanglements that connect mushrooms, mushroom-pickers, industrialists, nature-conservatists and researchers. Researching these extensive entanglements can help us better understand a networked world. It might help us turn our focus from an individual, human centered one towards the larger ecosystem we find ourselves in.

Picture of a mushroom on a tree by Johannes Havn (pexels.com)
Interconnected mushrooms creating a ecological infrastructure

Eco-centric planning

Eco-centrism as a new way of thinking helps us construct a new fundament of decision-making. As soon as an issue arises, a planner usually likes to hear the opinions of all stakeholders to get to a solution. During this political process it is important to really listen to what these stakeholders have to say – they might surprise you! Sometimes a group’s interests are not what you think. When we start to see that non-human actors might also be important to consider as stakeholders, this room for surprise is an important one. Some animals, like Canada geese, might be surprisingly well quipped to live alongside suburban settlements. Streets and buildings (also actors!) may have some unwanted consequences themselves. At times, new actors might suddenly pop up where you did not expect them. Like mushrooms, for example.

It is a challenge to properly represent the true interests of these unheard citizens. They will not show up at a city council meeting. Others have to speak for them, without falling into an anthropocentric attitude. Scientists who are specialized in an animal or ecosystem can help to bring their interests to light. Artists too, might be able to teach us other ways of seeing, and to fantasize about the preferences of non-humans. A collaboration of scientists and artists called Embassy of the North Sea aims to do exactly this. They use Latour’s philosophy to fantasize what the political voice of the North Sea might sound like, and they try to make the interests of the North Sea heard. While designing the spatial environment, we need projects like these to discover valuable narratives that are overlooked. We need our spatial planning to try and be eco-centric.

Sometimes, animals and greenery are represented well in planning. But I cannot shake the impression that this relationship of planner with nature is usually one of either/or: we either build for people, or we plan for nature. Urban greenery might be used as an amenity for citizens, but why shouldn’t these small bits of plant-life not have intrinsic importance? Dutch river infrastructure since 1986 could serve as a directory example: instead of land reclamation and heightening dikes, they started making room for the river. What if we took this manner of rethinking as an example, and started making room for plants, animals, and mushrooms?

An eco-centrist worldview might help finding ways of not only leaving room for more natural actors, but of even living with nature. We only need to recognize the ecosystem we already share. With humans and non-humans taking stage side-by-side, an eco-centric worldview is not at all anti-human. We have a right to be here, but we do have to learn how to share space, soil, and air. With our minds on the right place, this should not be so hard. We are not the virus, but some of our worldviews might be.

Book to tip

 Do you want to dive deeper into the topic? Then I can suggest you this book:

‘The hidden life of trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World’ (2016) by Peter Wohlleben

This article was first published in the December edition: ‘The future is…’ (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 02 –  December 2020).

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1 COMMENT

  1. Nice article Jos! I completely agree. Another book tip if you’re interested in this topic:

    ‘the nature of nature, why we need the wild’ by Enric Sala (2020).

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