This interview appears in the issue “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts Part 2″ (Volume 8, Number 2). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
LaDawn: We are beginning our dialogue on Part 2 of “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts,” a two-volume issue in The Arrow Journal. I’m here today with Adam Lobel, and I am LaDawn Haglund, guest editor for this special issue. Hi Adam!
Adam: Good morning, LaDawn!
LaDawn: I wanted to get started by laying the ground: why we’re having this dialogue, what is bringing each of us to the table to discuss the issues raised by these articles and what they evoke for us in terms of learning or developing our ideas, or for moving forward with heart into the world.
Adam: Why don’t we start with you? You’re a busy professor and have a lot going on. Why did you choose to take up this pretty significant task of editing two volumes and taking on this special issue?
LaDawn: First, I want to thank Gabe Dayley, Chief Editor of The Arrow, for asking me what I would take up if I were to do a special issue because, as you know, I’m an educator and I teach my students about issues related to human rights, sustainability, and justice. We explore where we actually are in the world today, factually. One stunning fact that always makes my students nervous is the fact that we’ve crossed four out of nine of our planet’s “safe operating” boundaries (described by Johan Rockström and others): climate, biosphere, land use, and biochemicals, and we’re in the danger zone for just about everything else. It’s a terrifying prospect. As human beings on this planet, we all share these dangers.
But despite the shared heartbreak and terror of what humanity is doing to the planet, not all of us contributed equally to it, as my work in political economy and human rights underscores. In fact, many—in particular Indigenous peoples, displaced and dispossessed communities, and murdered activists—have resisted it for centuries. So, on the one hand, the Anthropocene is a time when humanity is impacting the Earth as a species; but there are also rifts between human beings. As a sociologist, I’ve thought a lot about these rifts and what they have in common with the destruction that we visit on the Earth.
There’s a foundational structural violence in colonial, patriarchal, and capitalist ways of relating to people—acquisitive and destructive dynamics. Several authors in both issues explore the consequences of this structural violence. There’s also a cognitive and cultural violence, which is twofold: faith in human superiority that allows us to cause harm and faith in technology to save us. These two misplaced faiths blind us to the patterns of domination and exploitation themselves. These occur to me as real challenges at this moment in history, and I don’t have answers for why we can’t seem to overcome them. What I wanted to do with this particular volume was to invite others to contribute to the conversation.
I hope our dialogue today can help us think through how we might act differently. I was very excited to have you involved because you have a different training and engagement with the world than I do in my professional life, despite us both being academics and Buddhists. I believe you have a lot to offer in this area. Thank you for your contributions to the volume—your poem and your article—and I’d like to ask you: what brought you to think about these issues?
Adam: I also want to thank Gabe Dayley, The Arrow Journal, and you for all your editorial work, as well as all the other contributors. I think both of these volumes are very diverse, balanced and complete; it’s a powerful package. I was excited to write something for these volumes because this area of ecological practice and responsivity is where my heart and body are; it is at the center of my life right now. I come at this from a few perspectives. One, I’ve spent the last 15 years or so as a Buddhist minister, in a large international community of meditators, who shared an aspiration to have meditation and contemplative experience go beyond the individualistic or personal level to engage society and our relationship with the Earth. However, I’ve resigned from that role and over the last few years, I’ve had the chance to go deeper with the question of what it means to be an ethical, responsive human being on our Earth today.
I’m addressing those questions philosophically and theoretically, using my academic training as a scholar of philosophy and religion. I am also addressing them as somebody who is passionate about and loves the contemplative life, who cares deeply about our understanding of heart and mind. But I also feel, as many do, that spiritual cultivation divorced from geomaterial reality or the karma of our planet is incomplete. There is heartbreak, fear, and an intense longing to join together the contemplative life with social and ecological justice, a sense that they need to be held together in our world. Talk about a rift! A rift or a division that splits the contemplative life from this kind of material and social reality needs to be healed.
A second way that I approach these questions is as an eco-psychologist in that I am working with holding the experience of anxiety, grief, and paralysis as the world continues to burn and flood, and as the slow violence continues to affect the most marginalized human populations, as well as the more-than-human animal species. We’re in pain on a civilizational scale. So I’m curious about what kind of therapeutics responds to that pain, without bypassing, where we’re simply healing ourselves in a neoliberal, individualistic way without attending to the structural and ecological causes. So that’s the question for me—what is a healing that goes beyond just the individual?
The last way in which I come to this question of healing ecological rifts is as an activist. Over the last few years, I’ve become much more involved with direct environmental action, much of it focusing on my immediate bio region here in western Pennsylvania, responding to and trying to resist the petrochemical industry. I’ve been involved with creative forms of protest and resistance, as well as bringing people on direct spiritual journeys and “bearing witness” retreats to petrochemical industries. We go to pipelines, oil wells, and fracking sites, and we immerse our ethical and spiritual life in this geophysical reality. This includes our economy and the history of coloniality and white supremacy that is the context for ecological destruction.
LaDawn: That’s a great segue into one of the first pieces that we have in the second issue, by Heather Williams, “‘If you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this:’ Some Reflections on Catastrophe, Consciousness, and the Right to Home.” I know we both were touched by this piece and the beauty of the narrative. Maybe you could say a little more about how this article relates to, as you just said, really seeing what is happening around us.
Adam: Yeah, I really appreciate this piece, this painful pilgrimage that moves through Southern California, after displacement due to wildfire. In fact, two of my closest friends moved to California, and within three weeks of moving, their beautiful cabin and all of their possessions burned in the Dixie fire. The proximity of these wildfires—if not to our bodies then to people close to us—is really starting to burn. I found the article beautiful because it starts from the fire, but then it moves into a journey of decolonial mapping of this region of California. Williams does an amazing job of tracking the ecological history of water rights and the commitment to agro-logistics—to extracting as much productivity as possible from the soil, forcefully, by rerouting waterways. She attends to that ecology, but it’s always in dialogue with social displacement and cultural forms of racism and xenophobia that map onto these bioregions. Along the way, you learn a lot about how we got to where we are in contemporary Southern California.
LaDawn: Yeah, I liked the way she highlighted how commodification of both land and people undermines life itself, creating these wounds. For example, she talks about the Cupeños, an Indigenous community that was driven out of the area, saying “The loss of home was a wound that yet had not healed.” This really resonated for me: the pain caused by treating people, animals, the environment, and communities in ways that inhibit their survival. Instead, the logic is to protect landowners and agribusiness. I’m drawing here on Karl Polanyi’s idea of “fictitious commodities” in The Great Transformation and the harm caused by commodifying things that should not be commodities.
There is a parallel with this essay and yours, as well as with John Dawsey’s article: the idea that the construction of California (in this case) is a fantasy, and that these communities have been built on wishful thinking. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about that fantasy world?
Adam: Yeah, a good example of that is the kitschy old western Ghost Town that Williams evokes, and the similarity to something like Disneyland: they valorize a pioneering and colonial heritage to draw visitors and tourism. It’s like, “please come share in our collective fantasy,” and reinscribe that fantasy into our world and economy. That collective fantasy, like you said, is not only behind the ecological and social violence, but also right in front of it like a façade. Like these ghost towns where you walk through and the buildings look substantial; but when you step one foot outside of that fantasy its thin surface is revealed. So much of the fantasy that sustains the myth of America is like this thin surface, and it’s getting thinner and thinner—it’s almost transparent at this point.
LaDawn: …the dangerous fantasy of our contemporary world. You evoke this on a different level when you talk about environmentalist fantasies. It’s not just that we’re living in a world where the processes of capitalism hide from us the real damage that accumulation is doing, but that entering a different fantasy won’t reverse that trend. Could you say more about that?
Adam: This is tricky and painful territory that appears in other articles as well. I approach this question about fantasy from the perspective of a meditation instructor, believe it or not. When you’re working with your own or someone else’s mind around meditation, there are very subtle orientations that can trap the mind, leading to a dead end. On the other hand, very slight differences in language, tone and orientation can instead liberate and free the mind. If you’re a meditator, you can have the fantasy of reaching a completely open, peaceful, relaxed state of mind. But in trying to reach that fantasy, you actually block or squelch your own awareness, including its pain and natural brilliance. So fantasy blocks, disrupts or leads us astray.
Something similar happens with environmental fantasies, in which we enter a Romanticism territory: that to be an environmentalist means to cling to a conservative desire for pure, wild nature that has nothing to do with human beings, civilizations, or contamination. With Williams’ article, rather than drive around and talk about how beautiful California is—which it certainly is—we get a much more realistic attention to social and material suffering and its history that’s intertwined with the beauty.
Adrienne Parr uses the phrase “green governmentality” (drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality), where a certain mentality allows subjects to be governable. There’s a way of socializing human beings into a mentality—a way of thinking and perceiving and practicing—that the biopolitical state easily dominates and governs. Green governmentality is a way that our interest in “Greenness,” capital G—like a thriving, beautiful environmental world—can be coopted into a fantasy that allows individuals and institutions to remain dominated and governed by, and productive of, ecological destruction.
Greenwashing is the best example: the destructive fossil fuel industry wants to appear sustainable and green. It claims to lead to thriving communities for humans and ecosystems. That’s a complete deception. So we have to be careful, even on a personal level, that our love of this Earth doesn’t become just a way to sustain comfortable lifestyles or assumptions about what a healthy world is. The question “what is a resilient world?” is much more complex than it first appears. Returning to meditation instruction, we need to avoid these subtle traps and fantasies of what it is to be ecologically wakeful today.
LaDawn: I wanted to quote your essay, because I think it sets the stage for how other articles in the issue ask us to do things differently. You say “…this essay …is an attempt …to unlearn old environmental models, to listen better to the earth today.” What does it mean to “listen better to the earth”?
Adam: First is the recognition of ongoing communication from the Earth, which is not often acknowledged; even climate mutation, wildfires, flooding, loss of habitat, plastic in our ocean, destruction, and the murder of species are modes of communication. The ecosystems that make up our biosphere are talking to us through loss and change. That communication is pervasive, 24/7. You can hear the call and cry of the Earth, all the time, whether through beauty, or disruption and pain. Recognizing that communication is a first step.
Second is learning to attune and listen to that communication, which requires cultivation. Going back to your question about fantasy, it’s so easy to feel like communication from the Earth is only the beauty of an old growth forest or an eagle soaring over our heads and to miss the way that the contamination in a river near us is a mode of communication.
I’ve been leading monthly meditations by the confluence of three rivers in my region, where we sit silently with a river and inquire “what is the river asking from us?” and remain open to communication. That’s not just because the river is beautiful; it’s also because it’s filled with pollutants. It becomes the Ohio River, which is the most polluted river in the country. The fantasy is that to be an environmentalist means to listen only to the beauty of the Earth, or the wonder of wildness, instead of the full range of communication. Many of these articles ask us to listen to the grief and communication from the Earth beyond fantasy; something akin to a Lacanian “Real”—capital R—where communication is a rupture, destabilizing and challenging to us. What about you? What do you think of when you hear me say in this essay to listen better to the Earth or to unlearn old ways of thinking?
LaDawn: As a sociologist, I think about how capitalism is so deeply embedded in our culture; we’re like fish swimming in the water of capitalism. I think of the logics that you’ve been talking about as capitalist logics: green governmentality is just another example of thinking in purportedly “rational” ways about how we’re supposed to dominate the Earth, how our innovative spirit is going to save us, and how self-interested action will serve the greater good. Our action vis-à-vis global challenges is circumscribed by this rationality – that more capitalism is the right or maybe only way to proceed. I’m drawn to deconstruct that rationality, to think of other logics that are purposefully excluded—including the logic of what the Earth is asking, which could be called “environmental logic”—and to consider, again, invoking Polanyi, ways to re-embed our relationships in non-destructive logics.
I’m also curious about what it means to “see” differently. I’m resistant to the idea that we’re just going to start thinking like Indigenous people and suddenly we’ll be saved. I don’t think this is even possible, much less the path forward. But Indigenous ways of being are different from capitalist societies. For me, the question is how we who are swimming in Western waters can see differently. How do we not spiritually bypass the pain that’s here, but actually hear the cries of the Earth? How can we realize that we are “nature protecting itself,” in the words of Casey Camp Horinek? How do we see in that way and act from that place?
This leads us to Keri Iyall Smith’s article, which explores specific ways of being and seeing that Indigenous peoples offer. She rejects capitalist logics and instead puts forward ideas of kinship, reciprocity, and potlatch as counterhegemonic, anti-commodifying, and anti-privatizing. Many Indigenous communities have survived a long history of colonial violence because of the ways of being and seeing that she describes. “Deep reciprocity” fosters respect, relationships, and responsibility to each other, while “cross cutting social circles” support alternatives by immersing people in diverse perspectives and practices. She goes on to say that non-Indigenous people need to “write their own survival narratives.” This raises a question for me: What does it mean for those whose ancestry lies with the colonizers to write our own survival narratives?
Adam: There is a need for a critical moment if we’re engaging with different ways of knowing. In addition to genocides, there have been “epistemicides”—this beautiful and challenging phrase from sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos—the killing of different ways of knowing through the process of colonialism. Only certain ways of knowing are valued scientifically, academically, and in the corporate world, and other modes of knowing and measuring are excluded or eliminated. In this context, how do we listen to the Earth, and how do we listen to something truly other or different?
The critical moment is to recognize the role that otherness often plays in colonialism. I’m thinking about Edward Said’s work around Orientalism. As somebody trained in religious studies, I am wary of how the fantasy of “The East” compared to “The West” has structured thought since the 1950s and 1960s. For a long time, there was a sense of “Oh, ‘the other’ is The East.” The East meant people connected to nature, less individualistic, and more communal, and the world would be wonderful if we could be more “Eastern”! That structurally played the role of “the other” for a long time. Of course, the environmental reality in Asia contains a lot of ecological destruction, for example, deforestation in ancient China. If you genuinely know, listen to, and are in relationship with Eastern traditions and the history of different parts of Asia, it’s incredibly complicated—not just a monolithic thing called The East.
Unfortunately, I think that’s happening again with the claims of Indigenous knowledge and Indigeneity as being the fantasy answer to all of our problems. Instead of the opposition being West versus East, now we hear “colonialism” versus “Indigeneity.” But it fulfills the same structural role, where there is a fantasy of an “other”—call it “Indigenous ways of knowing”—that will solve all of our problems. And what’s interesting is that many of the same attributes that used to be projected onto the East are now projected onto Indigeneity.
I think a good origin point for this structure of otherness goes back to a dialectic between Western enlightenment, on the one hand—with its qualities of rational, scientific, dominating, measuring, technological dominance—and the Romantic movement on the other—which, going back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, talked about the “noble savage” and an interest in a return to nature. As an extension of the latter, the transcendentalist movement, with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, tried to bring us out into the natural world where wisdom lies. I think this binary between the Enlightenment and the Romantics is what defines Western modernity. In other words, it’s not that the Romantic is outside of Western modernity; it is a driving force of what we think of as Western or European modernity, including colonialism. So the danger—and this is still the critical moment here—is to take care not to project some family rivalry between Enlightenment and Romanticism onto Indigenous ways of knowing. Then we risk saying, “oh, that’s Indigeneity” when actually, it’s just referring to this Romantic tradition.
Having moved through and past the critical moment, then you can truly begin to open and listen to Indigenous communities, philosophers, practices, and ways of knowing, which are diverse. It’s not one thing called “Indigenous knowledge.” We’re talking about a vast, rich diversity of ways of knowing—a Pluriversality, in the words of Ashish Kothari and colleagues. I think what we’ll find when we are willing to pass through the critical moment is real difference in real otherness that is often challenging and that does not fit neatly within either an Enlightenment or a Romantic framework, but authentically opens us to the world in new ways. That could be helpful for the ecological crisis we face.
LaDawn: We should come back to the theme of Pluriversality because that’s a challenging and exciting way to think about potential futures. I want to turn to John Dawsey’s piece because he seems to be trying to see in ways that the Yanomami of Brazil see. He contrasts this with the view of the napë, which are the Western colonizers. The Yanomami are the forest people who engage in practices, sometimes with the use of psychoactive substances, to transcend their bodies and the apparent material reality that they see before them.
One point of contrast is that the napë cannot seem to see what they’re destroying. Dawsey narrates their destructive extraction and commodification of forest materials such as rubber, concluding: “Not believing the forest is alive; nor believing it feels pain, as humans do; unable to hear its laments, or perceive its respiration, or feel its breath; the napë rip out the floor of the forest. Like cannibal specters they devour it, then are haunted by dark rain, and by the fumes that they themselves produce in cities and in the forest.” This is an evocative invitation to see differently, and it raises for me a deep desire to want us to see differently. I’m wondering how this speaks to you.
Adam: It’s palpable when an aspect of our reality suddenly comes into color and you start to feel or see differently—a tree or a forest or another human or even the stars at night. As simple and sometimes naive as that sounds, what I love about this essay is the way that it performs—and performance is key to the discussion—what it means to know the forest is alive. This is distinct from a civilization and economy that are completely ignorant of that “livingness.” I’m thinking of Eduardo Kohn’s amazing anthropological work How Forests Think. Kohn explores the living semiotic network that is the forest in another region of the Amazon rainforest. It’s obvious that something there cannot and should not be destroyed.
Consider another book, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize recently. A phenomenological shift occurred where people became completely aware that trees were alive, sentient, communicative beings—at least for a few days or weeks after reading the book. That tends to fade, but for some period after reading the book people experienced an undeniably true attuning or wakefulness. The napë are ignorant of this living quality and can therefore see everything as a commodity to be destroyed and consumed.
Imagine what it would feel like to take a single hatchet or axe to another living body. You know you’re in a reciprocal negotiation with a forest if you know that cutting down even one tree is taking a life; which doesn’t mean you don’t cut down that tree. Indigenous people also cut down trees and hunt animals, but they’re in a reciprocal, entangled relationship with the forest that’s completely different from hot saws and bulldozers clearing the forest.
LaDawn: This gives depth to the meaning of reciprocity in both Keri lyall Smith’s and David Manuel-Navarrete’s pieces. Western insensitivity contrasts starkly with what the Yanomami are teaching. They see the fictitiousness of a tree being a commodity, and that the commodification of bodies like trees and forests and people actually harms the humanity of the planet. They see humanity in all things: Davi Kopenawa, a seer of the Yanomami, “seeks the forgotten reality lying beneath the skins of those who turn into merchandise – their condition as subjects or living beings… In cities and forests, Kopenawa is appalled by the incapacity of the napë people to see and hear the human in things, or to connect with others, becoming similar to them, while we become other, as part of the living.”
I wanted to ask you how this seeing is similar to Western animism that seeks to reanimate the world, or to the way capitalists animate things, as you insightfully point out in your article. You talk about how things don’t have value in capitalism until they’re “brought to life” through some process—or commodification as I would put it. The Yanomami are also animating the world but there is something very different about that animation. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Adam: There are interesting overlaps between my article and Dawsey’s. One is an uncanny coincidence of the turtle image. In Dawsey’s, the turtle is a way of relating to a car for this Yanomami seer; his experiencing a car as like a turtle gives life to that object, rather than it being just a tool or technology. There’s an extension of humanity and life to the world in which the Yanomami live. Returning to this question of fantasy and even Green governmentality, part of my essay questions how this very beautiful and intuitive way of extending an animist perspective to all of life can also be coopted by dominant forms of capitalism. How does that work? Again, this is subtle: trying to determine what will trap us and what can be transformative or healing.
I’m drawing on Elizabeth Povinelli, an anthropologist, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian post-colonial philosopher, and Claire Colebrook, an Australian cultural theorist. All three of these theorists point to how animating life, vitality is also one of the driving forces of capitalism. Capitalists, like you said, gaze out over a forest, desert, mountain, or ocean and see what Heidegger would call a “standing reserve”—resources to be extracted, liquidated, turned into profit, and utilized for human thriving. The world, in this “technological enframing,” again to use Heidegger’s language, is simply there to be commodified. In that sense, capitalism has an animating tendency; it brings things to “life” within the global market.
Usually, we think of capitalism as a death machine that destroys everywhere and everything, and that’s kind of true. But the flip side is that capitalism is constantly seeking to animate everything, including our bodies. How do we turn our human bodies into products to be improved, genetically altered, dieted, made healthier, made more Yogic and fit? We become a kind of commodity, which is a way of animating our bodies. The same could be true for our minds, which Mbembe has written about recently. Once you see the pattern of capitalism’s animating function, you can be more critical about simply extending the quality of animacy or life to the world because there’s a way that could just drag everything into more capitalist extractivism and consumption.
In contrast, that which is animated in a non-capitalist animism, like in Dawsey’s article, has its own value. It doesn’t need to be filtered through a capitalist process to create value. The forest as it is, as it has been, has life and value. The ritual life, the performance, and the culture are in a reciprocal and appreciative relationship with all life. That’s a starkly different kind of animacy. Modern environmental neo-animism and neo-paganism risk subtly reinforcing capitalist animism without noticing. When the animacy of the more-than-human world challenges our lifestyle, that’s a good sign, whereas when the animacy simply is another way to preserve our consumerist lifestyles, that’s a sign of danger that we need to question.
LaDawn: That leads to another question about this piece—and more generally, Buddhist and other practices that involve visualization or vision quests. How do we collectively learn to see differently without falling into the trap of bypassing or fantasy? Visualization is, by definition, a journey of the imagination, into fantasy, isn’t it? Do visualization practices like we see with shamanism (in Dawsey’s piece) or as part of Buddhist practice hold a key for seeing beyond the commodified world of capitalism? Not only seeing “the other,” but also seeing a larger container of inseparability? And maybe my question is, do we all need to take mushrooms?
Adam: Yes, the answer is yes. Suddenly we have this resurgence of interest in visionary entheogens like psychedelics or mushrooms or ayahuasca. You have a guy like Michael Pollan write a single book and suddenly everybody wants to be tripping. That’s an interesting phenomenon because it shows that even something as radically altering as psychedelic experience can be appropriated into a mainstream perspective. It’s not a threat to what is familiar, but is an enhancement of what is familiar. A similar mode of appropriation is present in corporate mindfulness. So this question of imagination, imaginal visualization is huge.
Afrofuturism is a great example. This connects to the article by Brooke Lavelle, Abra Vigna, Zack Walsh, and Ed Porter—and the CourageRISE model—because there’s an interest in imagination and sensing alternatives. Afrofuturism questions how we imagine a science fiction future, and to what degree thinking about futures opens up greater possibilities or just projects our own mind further ahead and keeps us further trapped.
My friend Fitzhugh Shaw, who’s in radical food systems studies, has noted that most science fiction analyses of food are very bleak—like the brown, gelatinous cubes in the movie Snowpiercer that are made from cockroaches. The sense is that the way we eat in the future is grotesque and limiting. Why not write science fiction that imagines foods, food systems, and food rituals—as well as the kinship and community structures around food – as a beautiful, regenerative, delicious feast? Why not take this imaginal capacity of our minds to collectively imagine alternatives? Here I would want to make a distinction between sci-fi and imagination on the one hand and fantasy on the other. There is an important role for ritual and other ways of imagining that other worlds are possible. And yet, as I keep coming back to, imagination is also almost instantly dragged back into the capitalist machinery: once there is something that’s imagined it can be commodified for profit. I’m curious from your perspective as a sociologist, how would we avoid this risk of even imagination being commodified? And how do we keep open more rigorous, powerful possibilities of imagination?
LaDawn: That’s an interesting question. One way beautiful things get dragged into the capitalist machinery is through a lack of non-commodified spaces, or ways to interact that don’t involve spending money. Decommodification of public spaces fosters human interaction, invites creativity and play, and equalizes access. Even in contemplative communities, many spaces are commodified: you have to sign up for retreats and pay big bucks to stay at a retreat center. Of course, those places need money to pay their staff and operational costs, but there is a general shortage of decommodified public space in our world.
Our culture also valorizes aggressive, masculine energy—achieving and transforming everything—and offers fewer rewards for slowing down to allow for creativity and mental space. A less aggressive approach would entail creating space for things to emerge in their own time, as with the work of Otto Scharmer, the Presencing Institute, Arawana Hayashi, and others. Their work speaks to that need, that absence we have in our society of spaces simply to “presence,” where we allow our imagination—shared imagination, as well—to see what’s there and let it come instead of always molding it into a commodified form and making it fit into a machine of efficiency.
Adam: For me this brings up two important points. One is Sylvia Federici’s writings on re-enchanting the world – also brought up by Manuel-Navarrete in his piece on dominant capitalist logics. The discovery of other reasons and logics is what Federici means by re-enchantment. Imagination, collective ritual, community, and the space for emergence allow re-enchantment that reclaims actual lands from capitalism. Re-enchantment is understood by Federici not simply to mean a way of thinking or a change in consciousness, but communities that are living together differently, exchanging commodities differently, valuing their time, valuing women differently, valuing the Earth differently—materialized.
LaDawn: Let me underscore that: the spaces are material, not just imagination, though they are that as well. Underlying capitalism is the almost sacred law of ownership and private property that interferes with our ability to reclaim spaces and decision-making about how material wealth is distributed, to what end, and following what logic. We know that under capitalism, decision making follows profits. But why is that the logic that we hold in such high esteem? Why not reciprocity? Why not re-enchantment? Why not creating spaces that are decommodified?
Adam: Right, and I think we have concrete examples—I think of Standing Rock where I had the honor to be present, where the land was reclaimed by communities. The encampments were ritualized, in reciprocity with relationships and land, sharing stories and songs. The Zapatistas in Chiapas are another long-standing example of a Pluriversality, of claiming that we can live the way we want, outside the capitalist system. And even the ZAD (Zone to Defend) in France, which I mentioned in my essay, where French farmers, anarchists, activists, and artists took over acres of land where an airport was planned. They said, “no; the way you want to liquidate this ancient farmland, turn it into an airport, and displace people and other beings is unacceptable to us. We’re tired of this endless growth of the capitalist machine.” They occupied the land and then, of course, were forced to live together, grow food, build community, have relationships, and come up with a form of self-governance. Much of what we long for needs actual physical spaces, occupied lands that are decolonized, or at least on the way to being decolonized.
LaDawn: This also brings to mind the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the landless workers movement, which has used a clause in the Brazilian Constitution to reclaim land held as private property that is not “fulfilling a social function,” as George Meszaros describes. Many occupations have followed from this “social logic;” what is land for? Is it just private property, or is it something that communities—not to mention animals—need for life? This represents a shift of consciousness around underlying capitalist assumptions about what property is supposed to be. The Occupy Movements take this analysis directly—to Wall Street, for example—because that is the logic of Wall Street, of capitalism. Occupy is an attempt to disrupt that logic and ask why that is such an esteemed value in society.
Adam: First, I want to acknowledge how challenging this is—I have been in a couple of occupied spaces where the militarized police force defending the fossil fuel industry and capitalist state is unwilling to allow lands to be occupied. It’s often Indigenous people and frontline activists that are imprisoned or murdered. Naomi Klein emphasizes that Blockadia is incredibly challenging, life threatening work, and people die. I was recently in Washington, DC at Indigenous-led protests where numerous Indigenous youth were arrested by the militarized police. So it sounds good, and there have been success stories as we noted, but I also want to raise a note of caution that the capitalist state is increasingly unwilling to allow these occupations.
The second point I want to make is personal: as a white man who benefits from settler colonialism, I notice my own hesitation around questions of private property and decolonization. I want to own the challenge of living in a world where to survive, to have a family, seems to require a commitment to our own private property, bank accounts, and so forth. The shift from the private-property focused capitalist state of enclosure to some kind of commons requires risk, decolonizing our attitudes and practices in deeply challenging ways. It cannot simply be imagined but must be brought into practice, and that threatens many of us.
LaDawn: Fortunately people have actually lived in a multitude of ways; capitalism is the aberration in human history, and people have fought it all along. The resistance isn’t just coming around now. Resistance has existed for more than 500 years of colonialism. Reinstating different logics in governing the world is absolutely challenging, and we’re not flying totally blind. That’s another reason I appreciate the work of the authors we’ve been covering.
Going a bit deeper into this history, Kirsten Mundt’s article contains evocative imagery of the violent colonial past, including slavery. The example of a slave ship, and the ways bodies touch each other, creating or immersing themselves in the reality and the horror, together, is haunting—the shared experience of touching the colonial wound, the wound of slavery. She defines touch “not as a solution to violence, but as a portal for expanding beyond colonially constructed traps of self and other.” Touch here is a method to embody something larger than individual reality. She invokes the courage of staying present with pain. Could you talk about the courage required to stay present with wounds like this?
It also relates to what you said about moving outside of the comfort zone that is created by being in a white, able-bodied, cisgendered form—male, in your case, female in my case. We have the privilege to shield ourselves from some of this pain. What is the benefit of moving into the colonial wound and actually touching it?
Adam: This is a profound piece. We often think of touching as the contact between a subject and an object, a body reaching out to touch something else in the world—a tree, let’s say—and in that moment, there is connection or contact. When we think of touch free from a subject-object duality, we have a very different phenomenon—the hapticality that Mundt points to. There’s a totalizing logic of subject and object that Mundt is trying to overcome. I can’t help but think of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology; in his last work, The Visible and the Invisible, he talks about the chiasm, which is the simple but beautiful recognition that when we touch, the world also touches back. If I reach out and touch a tree, the tree is touching back. So there’s this chiasm or intertwining, as he calls it.
This chiasmatic relationship with touch is woven into Mundt’s piece in different ways, even though she doesn’t explicitly mention Merleau-Ponty. What does it feel like to have a relationship with touch that isn’t defined by subjects and objects, a hierarchy of known and unknown? In this painful example of the slave ship, which she draws from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, there is a way in which the intimacy of bodies touching each other in one of the most violent possible contexts breaks down our idea of wholeness. I think this is one of the most powerful parts of this essay: touch does not mean wholeness; to touch or to be intertwined in the world, physically, does not mean reaching a harmonious whole, but rather, to touch this impossible grief and violence of colonialism.
When we reconfigure and decolonize touch in this way, it breaks us out of what Mundt calls neoliberal therapeutics. We can see parallels in approaches to Buddhism and mindfulness that focus on healing individual bodies while rendering individuals responsible for the structural violence of capitalism. She gives an incredibly sad example of a Zuni woman who was told that her trauma was her own personal responsibility to heal and fix. That’s an example of neoliberal therapeutics: the idea that to heal the body, to heal trauma is our responsibility as individuals. I completely resist that.
Of course, there’s always a role for individual agency, but we cannot defer the suffering of something like chattel slavery, transatlantic slavery, to individual responsibility for healing. This is such a subtle and important part of this article. The author is a healer who is interested in healing bodies and trauma through touch, but who wants to do so without getting trapped in neoliberal therapeutics. I think this is one of the most, if not the most, important questions for eco-Dharma or ecopsychology, for the future of contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga in our society over the coming decades.
LaDawn: This also evoked for me the path of the bodhisattva. Meditative practice can clearly be McMindfulness, where you seek peace so that you can return to the world of aggression, of producing, being efficient, and visiting harm upon yourself. You give yourself a little corner to regenerate and then go back out and do it again. But actually, the path of the bodhisattva requires stopping long enough to be able to open your heart to the suffering in the world, including your own and that of others, and to recognize the commonality of that suffering. Through that, a sense of compassion can emerge that goes beyond charity to touch a deeper sorrow that we share. Although we don’t all experience it in equal measure, we can touch it, and it’s there. For me, it gives me permission to be broken, as a human, and also to allow other people to be broken. This reminds me of your call to allow the Earth to be broken, too. Nothing is broken, really. It just is. But we can’t always be whole, as you mentioned, and it’s violent to force us to be whole when the system that we’re part of is broken and breaking things.
Adam: Exactly. It’s a violence that we enact on ourselves and on each other to say, we’re supposed to feel whole, we’re supposed to feel resilient and harmonious. There’s interesting work by David Chandler and Julian Reid called Resilient Life about the neoliberal dimension of resilience, which Jason von Meding’s essay in the prior issue also discusses. It’s a word that’s been grabbed by the corporate sector and all sorts of institutions that demand us to be whole, healthy, resilient, functioning, neoliberal subjects, and it’s psychotic. That’s not healing or wholeness. I appreciate the theoretical and healing sophistication of Mundt’s article because it gets at a core question for all of us who care for human bodies and hearts in the midst of radical environmental mutation: what does it mean to take care of ourselves genuinely, to heal each other, to touch ourselves, to touch each other in a way that won’t simply place the burden of 500 years of colonialism onto our personal shoulders, but also allows us to feel alive and healthy and joyous?
Your evocation of the bodhisattva is spot on here: the path of the bodhisattva is to discover the noble heart that doesn’t give up, no matter what, because that heart is not in it for a certain outcome. This is “staying with the trouble” to use Donna Haraway’s phrase. I think it’s helpful here to use Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing’s language of sharing in contamination. The bodhisattva doesn’t just stay aloof and distant, but actually descends into the lowest hells. It is said in Mahāyāna texts that the bodhisattva is willing to descend into a hell realm for a billion years just to alleviate the headache of one person suffering in that realm.
We’re entering into a reality where the fantasy that privileged people get to stay in a protected, gated ecotopia is over. We are going to share in the contamination, breathe in the toxins, feel the heat. That is a sign of being an earthling these days.
LaDawn: Your article doesn’t stop at grief and mourning; it moves into what you call ecopolitics. How does touching the wound as a practice open space for action and activism?
Adam: I’ve been trying to free myself from the logic of application, the idea that first there’s an inner shift in our consciousness and then, second, we apply that to activism. It’s not helpful or accurate to fracture thought from action or changes in consciousness from engagement. It’s not how the world has ever worked. It’s just a concept that we need to drop. Instead, I’m curious about an experience that is engaged yet transforms self-conception and understanding of the world. Our practice is a single existential tissue, a materializing of spirituality, and a willingness to see that wakefulness, freedom, and compassion look like a different Earth, not just new feelings about that Earth.
LaDawn: There’s a quote in your piece that I love, “The non-natural ecopolitical spiritualities to come might listen to, attend to, and attune to the teaching of a concrete turtle shell as much as attuning to the moon, an old growth forest, or a raven.” I think that captures well this sense that detaching from the pain of the world is not actually helpful.
Adam: That quote helps get to the heart of my essay. I think we are entering into, or maybe have always been in, an age where we have as much to learn from a giant Royal Dutch Shell petrochemical plant as we do from the beautiful forest and the Ohio River that the Shell cracker plant is destroying. If we’re only listening to the moon, mountains, coyotes, or wolves and we’re not listening to fracking sites and oil spills, we’re only hearing half the story of Earth. Going back to the Casey Camp-Horinek quote: to say we are “nature protecting itself” can get very profound. We have to recognize that the whole thing is nature. If we want to talk about nature, which I don’t think we do—it has to include the Shell cracker plant, cities and slums, the destruction of fisheries. The whole thing is a play of nature and we have to attune and listen to the complete story, not just one part of it.
LaDawn: David Manuel-Navarette’s piece brings in a similar element of wanting to include “the whole story.” But in spaces like academia, rational thought is valorized while emotions and relationality are swept aside. He, like Lavelle and colleagues, discusses strategies for retraining ourselves to be more relational. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how bringing together the heart and the mind can re-enchant the world and foster action.
Adam: Manuel-Navarrete’s piece is really brave for an academic to open this embodied “thinking heart, feeling mind” (senti-pensar) quality, and recognize that the logics of scientistic enframing often exclude our hearts. He refers to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s spiritual warrior as someone brave enough to let their heart be broken. The willingness to feel and let our heart be broken for Manuel-Navarrete does seem, almost naturally, to lead to action by facing ourselves and re-enchanting the world, by respecting the sacred and going beyond what the intellect can grasp.
LaDawn: Courage is part of that, and a theme that comes up in many pieces, for example Lavelle and colleagues’s CourageRISE model. Despite the social and ecological rifts we’ve been discussing, “resistance to injustice, unfettered joy, and the spirit of kinship are ever present. The hallmarks of humanity—creativity, cooperation, and compassion—abound.” This work emphasizes that structural change without these cultural shifts and embodiment is not going to work very well. This piece was my first exposure to this model; it’s exciting to think of people participating in this process!
Adam: I’ve had a chance to go through a training that CourageRISE offered, and Brooke Lavelle has become a friend. They have developed a true community of practice with a research dimension through the Mind and Life Institute and a spiritual practice in the sense of a personal journey of transformation that is relational. The sense of kinship, community, and relationality is the core of what Courage does. The RISE model is one of the most concrete examples of positive steps forward coming from these articles. How could we weave together communities, transformation, and experience? Well, here’s one answer: use these steps of the RISE. They’re very skillful.
The RISE model can be understood as something like Otto Sharmer’s Theory U model in the sense of a journey that a group could go through to enact beautiful new worlds. It also is similar to the acronym RAIN in the mindfulness community, which is a personal process working with difficult emotions. RISE allows a collectivity, and maybe even a whole civilization, to go through a journey of transformation. “R” is to reveal truths, “I” is to invest in healing, “S” is to sense alternatives, and “E” is to enact beloved community. It’s a very succinct map that comes from significant experience, research and reflection, and trial and error; it’s very promising! I hope that the readers really spend time with this piece.
LaDawn: They have a website for their work—courageofcare.org—where people can learn more, get involved, or even participate in a training.
I want to thank you, Adam, for taking the time to talk with me! It has been a delight. I hope that we can have more conversations in the future on these topics, bringing in broader perspectives beyond ours.
Adam: Thank you. I look forward to further dialogue. And, again, much appreciation for all the authors and their contributions, and for your efforts in bringing it all together. May this time of speaking, writing, and reflecting be of benefit to the more-than-human world and to the sacredness of this Earth.
LaDawn Haglund is a sociologist, professor, and researcher of human rights, social and environmental justice, and socially transformative processes. Her research analyzing the social and political dimensions of sustainability and environmental governance has received support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the Brazilian Fulbright Commission. Her teaching focuses on guiding students to bring their intelligence, compassion, and bravery to confront the structural and cultural violence that perpetuates injustice in our world. She also serves as a meditation instructor and has practiced Buddhism for more than 30 years.
Adam Lobel (Ph.D) served as a teacher (acharya) in the Shambhala tradition from 2005-2018. He leads ecodharma workshops called “Silent Transformations,” teaches in the Ecosattva Training, is a GreenFaith fellow, and is active in ecological and social justice movements. Adam teaches a critical style of contemplative training that seeks to avoid enclosure in neoliberal mindfulness while still disclosing effortless awareness. (See his full bio on page 56, following his article in this issue.)
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