This introduction appears in the issue “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts Part 1″ (Volume 8, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
The environmental crises we face today are unprecedented: climate change-fueled droughts, fires, and floods; biodiversity loss and species extinction; deforestation; and contamination of our air, water, and soil. These material crises threaten the very basis of life as we know it on earth—human and non-human—and exacerbate a laundry list of historical and contemporary injustices that differentially impact people based on their racialized, gendered, and geopolitical positionality. Anxiety, grief, and helplessness in the face of these realities affects our individual and collective health and wellbeing. This first installment of two special issues of The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics begins an exploration of these interlocking issues with the objective of “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts.”
This inquiry is framed around the postulate that a shared foundational logic of domination and exploitation—exacerbated by an exaggerated individuality and blindness to our fundamental interconnectedness—drives both ecological crisis and societal conflicts. This logic permeates historically exploitative systems such as colonialism and imperialism, with their logic of supremacy over land and peoples framed as “other”; capitalism, with its logic of materialism, self-interest, class superiority, commodification, and boundless exploitation of material and human resources; racism, with its logic of white supremacy; patriarchy, with its logic of male superiority; and speciesism, with its anthropocentric logic of human superiority.
Each system introduces unique structures—institutions, laws, and rules—that perpetuate injustice. Living in the shadow of these systems, we are encouraged to adopt narrow cultural perspectives that foreground a sense of entitlement to take what is not offered, take more than one’s fair share, take more than can be replenished, and take until it causes hurt. These “takings” accrue disproportionately to dominant actors, creating vast inequities and threatening our collective capacity for robust, empathetic, and interdependent flourishing.
The objective of these two volumes is to penetrate obstacles to our collective self-understanding in ways that could allow us to confront the structural and cultural underpinnings of these challenges and to act with greater care toward ourselves, one another, and the planet. Acknowledging that “society” is not a singular, homogenous entity, an exploration of the beliefs and practices from a diversity of angles is needed to shed light on potential pathways out of our predicament. Why are some societies more able to relax with what is without engaging in massive planetary destruction or rapacious exploitation of each other? What is the ontological root of the disquiet of their more destructive counterparts? How might individuals and communities shift their perspectives and behaviors to ease conflict and promote healing? What is the relationship between individual transformation and structural or cultural change? Each author finds a unique point of entry as they grapple with the immensity of these staggering challenges.
James Rowe and Darcy Mathews write about “death denial”—a particularly Western cultural phenomenon identified by Earnest Becker—as a source of existential fear that fuels polarization and domination. When human beings have an unhealthy relationship with death and dying, time and again they grasp at heroism or “cosmic specialness” to try to avoid “the pain of existential insignificance.” A counterpart of this process is a tendency to imagine “others” (such as animals or people who are different) as inferior, thus perpetuating a whole range of counterproductive and destructive practices, from human supremacy to white supremacy to colonialism. Modern developmentalism discussed by Sarah Osterhoudt carries “echoes” of this kind of thinking: “Developing” countries are framed as places perpetually in crisis, where the (superior) expertise flowing from “privileged academic spaces” and technocrats is needed to diagnose and “solve” the problems of these “others.” Osterhoudt’s “bright spot” ethnography and Rowe and Mathews’ empirical observations on the Coast Salish’s orientation toward death (itself a great example of bright spot ethnography) both illuminate alternatives that clear the blurry vision of supremacist thinking.
The beliefs and practices stemming from Abrahamic religions have also been implicated in domination among human societies and between humans and other life forms.1 An anthropocentric worldview that emphasizes human primacy and divine providence over the fate of the Earth has had a largely negative environmental impact, despite the hypothesized “greening of religion.”2 As Sally Kitch argues,
“The stratified gender structures and cultural imaginaries of a feminized Nature, controlled by an allegedly transcendent masculinity and personified by a male God, lie at the core of the environmental crisis. Those structures shape the value systems and behavior of privileged Euro-American male industrialists and global capitalists who have driven the worst environmental destruction.”
Yet in the concept of “eco-sin,” Kitch finds a potential seed for moral reorientation toward greater environmental responsibility. Sin is “at its core a form of violence against creatures, ‘the abuse of privilege and power…’”3 Kitch draws our attention to three “foundational eco-sins”—instrumentalism, binarism, and reductionism—which foster the self-serving exploitation of resources and people, dualistic and hierarchical relationships, and simplistic obfuscation of the nature of environmental challenges, respectively. A value system that rejects such “sins” could provide an alternative moral compass to help us navigate toward less destructive, more sustainable futures.
In other contexts, as well, reductive thinking and obfuscation leads us away from transformative engagement with healing social and ecological rifts. As explained by Osterhoudt, the tendency for development practitioners to focus on crisis obscures lessons from places where communities have been able to create meaningful and harmonious lives with nature and each other, “despite the compounding challenges” of the modern world. Jason von Meding similarly makes the case that a good or meaningful life emerges from care for the vulnerable, not simply mastery over vulnerability; and, more deeply, from recognizing vulnerability itself as a source of strength that gives rise to care. He warns against the use of the term “resilience” in disaster prevention work, arguing that not only does it fail to avert disasters; it also hides the reality of a prevailing political economy that exposes too many people to harm while easing the contradictions of predatory, risky forms of capitalism.
The blind spots created by structural imperatives premised on neoliberal priorities are mirrored in academia, as Charles Lee shows. A focus on squeezing as much as possible out of workers, “producing” more with less, and commodifying education (despite being a public good) drives even “woke” people to reify these priorities at the expense of more emancipatory logics that could unite rather than divide. The theme of bringing care, compassion, and contemplative practice to balance heady work in academia, policymaking, or activism runs through several other contributions, as well. Richard Reoch’s review of the memoir Fortune Favors the Brave highlights activist Kiri Westby’s coming-of-age journey as she navigates the tricky space between inner “warriorship” and the harsh outer realities of divisive political dynamics and global conflict. This is difficult work prone to “disembodiment” as Josie Gardner explains, in particular when activists bypass the “inner” spiritual work that would support kinder and more transformative activism, or when spiritual people avoid the “outer” world that in reality is not separate from the path they claim to walk.
These diverse perspectives on the ontology of social and ecological rifts point to a range of alternative ways of thinking and being, as well as suggested practices for “activating” these alternatives, in order to challenge and transform destructive systems and practices. Potential sites of engagement include the spiritual, moral, ethical, emotional, analytical, and political at the bodily, interpersonal, community, ecosystem, and planetary scale.
As Kitch argues,
“the human future on Earth may depend on developing new structures of feeling and new collective moral commitments that reverse the sense of entitlement and hierarchical binary and reductionist thinking that has fueled human exploitations of natural resources and one another. That vital change can, in turn, provide a firmer platform for the actions truly necessary to achieve eco-repair.”
Kitch suggests the utility of the concept of “eco-sin” to help “people internalize the close relationship between environmental harms, for which they take some responsibility, and human harms inflicted by environmental damage and unjust social systems, for which they feel grief and compassion.” This combination of guilt, moral reflection, and feelings of collective responsibility can foster moral sympathy and social change, counteracting the denial and scapegoating that comes from machismo and supremacist thinking.
Osterhoudt’s vision for an alternative praxis starts from a seemingly opposite kind of reimagining. Rather than leveraging the shock value of crises and environmental harm, she suggests that observers learn to attend to “bright spots” where things are “working better than expected.” The methodology of bright spot ethnography not only shifts the analytic frame of what should be studied but also reorients policy recommendations toward what should be emulated rather than avoided. The creation and maintenance of healthy families and communities takes time and work, and these “happy” stories offer much that is compelling and instructive. The pedagogical benefits of such an approach are to offer hope and raise awareness of alternative pathways, rather than overwhelming students and observers with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These benefits were evident in my own “Human Rights and Sustainability in Brazil” study abroad program in 2014, where students met a Brazilian activist their age building houses for landless workers, prompting one to ask, “what am I doing with my life?”, to change her major, and to embark on a different career trajectory. Rather than succumbing to frustration or despair at seeing the injustices of poverty and homelessness, they were inspired to learn from and emulate the good work that could be (and was already being) done.
Healthy, transformative political engagement requires skillful means, whether it occurs in a community, on a university campus, or in a war zone. Though the stakes may vary, the means recommended by several authors to develop interpersonal skills (which are prerequisites for effective institutional or political engagement) are similar: mindfulness, compassion, bravery, and letting go. “Relational healing,” in Gardner’s terminology, requires not only safe spaces to explore our personal and shared pain, but also “‘brave spaces’ where we agree to take ourselves to our edges.” Contemplative practices, as Lee explains, can help us “embody a state of critical equanimity” vis-à-vis unsettling emotions. Reoch, similarly, discusses how Buddhist training prepared Ms. Westby with the skills—softness, humility, and a willingness to be on the spot again and again—that nurtured her capacity as “a warrior for justice and peace.” Several other authors also invoke bravery as a key element of “staying with the trouble” (to borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway).4
Spirituality, as these approaches attest, is an oft-missing element of political action. Lee explicitly applies the Buddhist concept of nonattachment to six methods for challenging the imperatives of an academic capitalism that undermines education as a public good. Gardner’s vision for political engagement is premised on the inseparability of our inner and outer worlds. She views community-based spaces that allow us to connect emotionally—not only with each other but with our own vulnerability—as key to helping us “inhabit our bodies again, heal all that we find there, and recognize them as vessels of the interconnected sacred.” Von Meding similarly encourages us to embrace vulnerability as a site of care as opposed to simply harm-reduction.
Analogous spaces already exist, as evidenced by the Coast Salish’s ritual practices that transform death into an affirmation of life and help them “face and metabolize their fears” (Rowe and Mathews). Melissa Moore’s Karuna Training community is another space where “being heard” and “bearing witness to others’ emotional truths” forms a reciprocal safety net for processing fear, connecting with others, and accessing one’s own internal resources. These spaces strengthen their participants’ capacities to engage with potentially painful social and ecological rifts. A thriving natural world can also be a favorable container for personal growth that supports collective action. In his “Notes from the Field,” David Marshall shows how nature mirrors for us the depth and vastness of our own minds. But more than that: as we slow down to observe the natural world, we may find it observing us in return. This relationship can grow and deepen, in turn activating us to protect this world, just as we protect the other things we love. Indeed, distancing ourselves from the world, as Kira Jade Cooper argues, can give us the false sense that we are exonerated from the harm we cause. The Covid-19 pandemic brought awareness to this disconnection, creating an opportunity to reconnect. She offers a personal practice for breathing healing into all things and extending the web of awareness. Utilizing a similar approach, Moore argues that potentially paralyzing eco-anxiety can be met with openness if we “resource” ourselves by working with the emotions that emerge using a contemplative approach.
There is so much more to be gleaned from the richness of these authors’ contributions than this short introduction can capture. The second issue brings a new set of observations and interventions, as does the excellent work—not fully represented here—of indigenous scholars and practitioners, black ecologists, and post-development scholar-activists.5 The diversity of approaches—in a world where panaceas have always fallen short, and where we desperately need all hands on deck—cannot be molded into one narrative or super-fix to “save” the planet. Instead, they represent bright lights in a “pluriverse” of alternative ways of seeing and being in this “world where many worlds fit.”6 I encourage you to explore each piece for its unique insights and stay tuned for the second installment of this special issue.
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- Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203-1207. ↩
- Bron Taylor, Gretel Van Wieren, and Bernard Daley Zaleha, “Lynn White Jr. and the Greening‐of‐Religion Hypothesis,” Conservation Biology 30, no. 5 (2016): 1000-1009. ↩
- Quoting Ernst M. Conradie, Redeeming Sin? Social Diagnostics amid Ecological Destruction (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017), 19-20. ↩
- Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). ↩
- See, for just a few examples, https://ensia.com/articles/environmental-education-traditional-ecological-knowledge-native-science/, https://www.ienearth.org/, https://ihr.asu.edu/black-ecologies/projects, and http://cup.columbia.edu/book/pluriverse/9788193732984. ↩
- Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta, Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2019). ↩