Monday, August 31, 2009

Deep Ecology of the Self

I just spend a couple of days solo camping in the Finger Lakes National Forest (NY State rocks!). OK, so it was solo car camping. But still, you know, there might have been a bear or at least a really angry squirrel out there.

The time alone and the hikes got me thinking again about Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos" and his cogent analysis of the dilemma of the self-conscious self. Just to recap from a couple of posts ago: Percy looks at the fundamental problem that all of have - bound in time as self aware beings for whom our own nature, our own core being, must remain forever opaque to ourselves. In response to this problem we have, over time, tried different strategies to deal with the dilemma. In various ways we have tried to create meaning, sense and a lived experience of connection with the world. There is a high feeling in us that reaches out to the Universe we find ourselves born into. From that core experience we have tried, with varying degrees of success, to find union with the world via religion, art and science. But for us "moderns" each approach alone has been found wanting. Each one has led to an inevitable sense of disappointment, both individually and for the culture as a whole.

In a discussion with the friend who led me to this book I began thinking about what might be possible now, at this fecund moment in history. In my book I was arguing for ways that science can reveal a sacred character of human experience. In light of Percy's unpacking of the problem, I think what might be needed, and possible, is an approach which might be called "Deep Ecology of the Self". Deep Ecology is a philosophical approach to setting humanity into its planetary context. It takes the idea that all life has inherent value and that, in light of this value, we must dramatically rethink our approach to human interactions with the rest of the global ecosystem. Links have been drawn between the stance of the Deep Ecology and the philosophy of the 17th century dutch thinker Spinoza with his identification of God with the natural world (that is a very coarse simplification). I include a link to the Wikipage on it Deep Ecology here.

One of the relevant principles of Deep Ecology is the tenet that:

"appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great."
How does this relate to the self and its dilemma? Our problem as moderns is that we are unmoored. Science has shown us the grand scale of the Cosmos and then, supposedly, told us that we don't matter for dog poo in it. Most traditional religions have been trotting behind science trying to understand where traditional scriptural-based beliefs can fit into the intricately woven natural world science uncovered. The self, each of us, falls between the cracks. We are desperate for meaning but denied recourse. Deep ecology tells us that life in its context has inherent value. Without debating the merits of this proposal (which I think we all intuitively feel) you can see how the self might find its proper home with the Universe this world-view recovers. Each one of us is not a master of the Cosmos given the world to do with as we wish (be fruitful and multiply, etc etc). Instead we are of-the-world. Embodied in salt-water tears and the sweet fragrance of our young children's' kisses. No different, no better, no worse than the rest of life.

This approach holds great promise to me even as the mere sketch I provide here. It can hold the truth of science's understanding from astrobiology to genetics to social dynamics. It can hold our deepest spiritual yearnings for connection, place and meaning. It echoes what Stuart Kauffman has written in the Reinvention of the Sacred and it stands alongside all that the movement towards sustainability asks of us.

We have a home. We have a place. We have just forgotten it. Now, as we face the challenges of climate change and resource depletion, we can remember and rebuild self and society to honor both.

Please feel free to share this column with others but please cite the source.
Thank you!


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