Why we need to forget about the environment

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Calls to “protect the environment” ring out across issues as diverse as climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water conservation and chemical contamination. I believe it is time to abandon this type of thinking. Time to forget about the environment and start thinking more about yourself! Your ecological self, that is.

The idea of protecting the environment has two main problems: the concept of “the environment” and the idea that it is something we should “protect”.

The term “the environment” gives the impression of an identifiable thing that exists separate and distinct from ourselves; something that surrounds us, something that we use, but something that always remains an “other”. This is mistaken.

We do not exist as isolated units, surrounded by a separate and external “environment”. We exist within networks of interrelation, engaging with various entities in a dance of co-creation.

Research from the human microbiome project has recently emerged to add new weight to this perspective. The human microbiome refers to all the microorganisms that live on and in the human body (including bacteria, fungi and viruses). Within our bodies, microbial cells outnumber our cells by an astonishing 10-1. The makeup of these microbial communities is not only unique to individuals, it is also constantly changing as different organisms enter and leave our bodies. The fascinating thing here is that these microorganisms are not simply passengers or parasites. Many of them are performing functions essential to our health and wellbeing.

Most of the excitement surrounding the human microbiome centres on the potential for developing new medical diagnoses and treatments. Personally, I am most excited about how such research opens new ways of thinking about who we are. Understanding that I am a teeming mass of microbial life and that these organisms are performing functions essential for my existence, leaves me no choice but to embrace them as a part of my being, part of my “self”.

The argument, however, also extends to other organisms. For example, we need oxygen to survive. Plants produce this oxygen. Therefore we are directly, deeply and fundamentally connected to plants with every breath we take. Our existence is dependent upon theirs. But plants have their own webs of dependencies, with organisms like birds and insects, and also with their own microbiomes. (This is also emerging as an exciting new area of research and an alternative to genetic engineering in the quest for crop plants able to tolerate abiotic stress and climate change.) The microorganisms of the plant microbiome are, of course, then also dependent on their own webs of relations with things like rock minerals and decaying matter. And so it continues ad infinitum. So who am I, really? Where should we draw the boundary around our “self“ in this ecological matrix?

The Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Næss believed that we dramatically underestimate ourselves. He argued that understanding our deep connections to biological communities allows us to expand our concept of self to include them – or to realise what he called our “ecological self”. Our sense of self and feeling of identification naturally expands as we mature – through ego, social, and metaphysical levels. But Næss questioned the missing ecological dimension of this process; that is, our identification with non-human beings, with nature, with our Earth.

According to Næss and the deep ecology movement that followed him, realising our ecological self creates the potential for a radically new way of seeing and being in the world. Currently, environmentally responsible behaviour is seen as something we must be compelled to do, as an altruistic act or a moral duty to benefit an external “other”.

If we expand our concept of self to embrace our ecosystem of interrelations, however, this would be transformed into an act of self-interest. Protecting our self would be protecting the system.

Næss argued that this shift was important because people would no longer need to be compelled by argument, guilt, or punishment to demonstrate care for biological communities. Rather, such care would flow naturally from an expanded sense of self.

While I thoroughly support the value of realising our ecological self, the goal of protection remains problematic.

Calls to protect “the environment” (or even our ecological self) are troubling because they give the impression that there exists some kind of static ideal form we should strive to maintain. In the environmental movement, this ideal is typically a state before human intervention. When we think of the earth from a perspective of evolutionary time, however, we realise that life on earth has been undergoing constant change, with thousands of species lost along the way and every organism co-creating its community. Why is maintaining any particular state therefore seen as ideal? Why are human interactions isolated as unique over this history of hundreds of millions of years? Why should any specific state, let alone that prior to human arrival, demand “protection”? Surely this has nothing to do with “nature” and everything to do with what we value and think is important.

I currently manage an interdisciplinary project examining how philosophers and scientists understand what it means to harm the environment, and how this feeds into regulatory decision-making on emerging technologies (such as biotechnology and nanotechnology). After some research, I started doubting the question’s appropriateness. Reflecting on different perspectives, I realised that there was in fact no static environment external to ourselves that can be objectively harmed by our actions. Rather, there is a co-evolving relationship between ourselves and our ecological communities that can be better or worse depending on what we (within our diverse cultures) value.

I decided we should forget about protecting some imagined static external environment, and focus instead on the dynamic and developmental process of cultivating desirable ecological selves.

What would this mean in concrete terms? We can take food as an example since it represents one of the most fundamental relationships you have with non-human organisms. With every food item you purchase, you are, quite literally, investing in a particular ecological self. You are cultivating a particular set of relations that shape who you are. Now ask, do you like your ecological self? For example, do you know what kinds of pesticides have been used on the plants and how these have affected communities of life? Or what conditions the animals involved have been raised in, attained through, transported by, slaughtered under? Are you happy with owning these realities as a part of your identity? If not, you may want to cultivate an alternative set of relations and invest your money in more desirable systems.

The important shift here is that the question is not about how these things are affecting some external “environment” that you may have to make sacrifices to protect, but rather, how they are shaping who you are and the ecological self you are cultivating through your choices.

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