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Repairing our Relations with the Living World

Here on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, the WSANEC (Saanich) People call this time of year, the Moon of the Child, as it is the first full moon after the winter solstice and thus the beginning of a new year. The living world is slowly rebirthing as the sun returns to us, lengthening and eventually warming the days. As we wait, the Anishinaabe call this the Spirit Moon…honouring the silence and bitter cold of deep winter. They consider it a time for pondering the appropriate place of humans among the living world, often through story and dance. The Celtic/Old English/Germanic name for this full moon is the Wolf Moon, for wolves were considered teachers and storytellers through their howling, expressing their strong sense of communal communication.

Many Western thinkers say we are “between stories.” The modern story has its roots in a machine understanding of the universe and Earth. The universe is considered to move in mechanical ways, like a clock. The Earth is considered dead, passive matter, upon which humans exert their will. Our science is based on taking it apart bit by bit to understand it, and then manipulating it for our own ends.

This world perspective first took shape during the colonial era, which over hundreds of years, spread death to peoples and species around the world. Colonial countries staked their claims by planting their flags on other people’s land, but also terraforming the territories they claimed. They did this according to European conceptions of what it meant to be “civilized” and to have an economy of “efficiency” and “progress.” Other peoples were considered backward with no “real” economy and no real “nation.” Yet, as so many writers are exploring now, the Indigenous peoples encountered by Europeans around the world were often working in harmony with the natural world so that their means of sustenance was not as obvious as clearcutting forests and putting up private property fences for farming and grazing. To Europeans, Indigenous peoples were squandering the wealth around them rather than engaging in careful husbandry.

The book The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh examines the Dutch East India Company who wrested sole control of the Indonesian islands where the nutmeg and mace tree originally grew. As part of the growing spice trade, often used for medicinal as well as culinary purposes, the Dutch wanted to establish a trade monopoly. When the local Banda Islanders would not cooperate, the colonists burned the villages to the ground and either slaughtered the local people or enslaved them, all part of the genocidal purposes of “clearances.” While some Bandanese escaped, their language, customs, and intact ways of living were largely erased.

Yet, as historical accounts describe, to the Banda Islanders, their volcanic islands were sacred and alive. Their stories and songs honored nutmeg and its gifts as well as the overall bounty of their lifeworld. To the Europeans, nutmeg and mace were commodities from an inanimate Earth, their dominant story.

There is another egregious twist in this colonial genocidal story, which has been called the “Great Dying." Nutmeg was so highly prized that the Dutch exported tree stock to many other places, replacing native species with plantation production, cashing in on the value of a crop that fetched astronomical prices. However, once the market became flooded, and the value of spices began to fall, the Dutch then systematically destroyed the trees to restrict supply, a way to increase the price one again. As Ghosh says, “Wars of extermination were precisely biopolitical wars, in which the weaponization of the environment was a critical element of the conflict.”

The Industrial era further expanded this process with the increase of machines, chemicals, and engineering of every kind. The refrains became: of course we want progress, of course we want control, of course we want to win the global competition, of course we want conveniences, of course we want comforts. Yet, it is this rapacious vision that continues - whether billionaires planning to colonize the moon and Mars, the War on Terror to maintain access to oil and gas, or dragnetting and bottom trawling the oceans. This logic has been progressively emptying the world, which Elizabeth Kolbert has called the Sixth Extinction, with most living systems and many species on the precarious ledge of extinction.

While extinctions started in the 1600s, the Dodo bird and passenger pigeons being some of the most famous, we have contributed to a significant loss of biodiversity just in the last 25 years, as the Montreal UN Biodiversity summit in December 2022 sought to address. One million of 8 million global species of animals and plants are now threatened with extinction. Close to 90% of fish stocks are exhausted and current agriculture has led to a 70% loss of biodiversity on land. As the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director stated, “Nature and biodiversity is dying the death of a billion cuts. And humanity is paying the price for betraying its closest friend….We must secure the future of our planetary life support system.” To do this, we must bring the Western, modern, colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal story into question.

The good news is that this dominant story IS beginning to many people feel deeply their alienation from the living world and grieve the losses around them. This is a historic moment. Drawing on the New Physics, we are beginning to understand that we are profoundly related to the living world. What befalls the living world befalls us, as Chief Seattle predicted. We now see the universe as an unbroken wholeness linked by a fabric of moving energy, that flows through us and all living things.

One aspect of this shift is seeing the Earth increasingly as animate, populated by sentient species. As Suzanne Simard shares in her 2021 book Finding the Mother Tree, what we don’t see which is so amazing is the underground mycorrhizal fungal networks where mature trees feed the seedlings that are shaded, struggling for nutrients, or fighting disease or infestation. These trees send chemical messages through this network to warn and protect other tree species as well as exchange other resources. Challenging many existing tree management practices, she says, “the trees have shown me their perceptiveness and responsiveness, connections and conversations. …I discovered that they are in a web of interdependence, linked by a system of underground channels, where they perceive and connect and relate with an ancient intricacy and wisdom that can no longer be denied.” It was Simard’s research that helped inform the first Avatar movie, despite its issues.

Sentience is the ability to feel or sense the world and thus to have experiences that shape actions as well as reactions. Jane Goodall says in her 2011 book Whales and Dolphins, “Whales and dolphins are ancient and wonderful sapient and sentient beings. How would we be judged by our great, great grandchildren and all unborn generations if, knowing what we do, we do not fight to prevent their extinction?” Whales, for instance, are understood to have complex behaviours, emotions, tool use, and in many cases, cultures.

How does regarding the living world as sentient, shift our way of thinking? Further, how might our way of being, including our actions change? For instance, on December 5, 2022, Port Townsend in the American state of Washington, signed a Proclamation declaring rights for the small, critically endangered group of Southern Resident Orca whales of Puget Sound. It declares that they have a right to life, free and safe passage, adequate natural food, and freedom from conditions causing physical or mental harm, including habitat degradation from noise, pollution and contamination. It recognizes our human interconnectedness. Many other towns and cities are following suit. It is one symbolic step toward legal protections that will have more teeth.

Many living beings and elements, such as rivers, are now being granted personhood. Says National Geographic writer, Chloe Berge, the Magpie River (Mutehekau Shipu) in Quebec has been granted legal personhood, a strategy used by Indigenous peoples to protect land and water sacred to them. The river has nine rights…including the right to flow, maintain biodiversity, be free from pollution, and the right to sue. Other rivers, such as the Klamath River in the USA, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and the Amazon River in Colombia have been given personhood. The implication is that non-extractive economies must be generated in order to protect these vital waterways, reversing centuries of colonial practice. It draws on ancient Indigenous law and practices of guardianship, guardians who advocate on behalf of other living beings as necessary. As Queen’s university law professor Lindsay Borrows says, this is a law of personhood written on paper…the goal is to write this on people’s hearts.

Just as the forest works as a connected unit to maintain life, whales and dolphins are sentient, and rivers are persons, renown scientist James Lovelock found that all the systems of the Earth work synergistically to maintain the conditions for life, now called Gaia Theory. Together with the help of microbiologist Lynn Margulis, they found that all the interactions between organic and inorganic matter on Earth regulate favourable conditions for the biosphere to persist within a stable, habitable range. It is a self-regulating living system. Lovelock did not suggest that Earth is alive or sentient, but he did say that the reactive atmospheric gases of oxygen and methane, needed for life to exist, are the signature of a life-sustaining planet, which radiates an infrared signal. He described this as an “unceasing song of life…audible to anyone with a receiver, even from outside the solar system.” Initially dismissed, he eventually received many awards for his research and entry into the Royal Society.

Science and other disciplines are dramatically changing their stories, leading us into a new era. Yet, currently, we are in a liminal zone. We have not yet left the old stories and we only see glimmers of the new stories. Given existing research, Charles Eisenstein offers some hints of where the new stories may be leading us:

· we are not separate selves but nodes of relationship connected to all that exists;

· we are not independent and separate but relational beings;

· our drive is not to maximize rational self-interest but express our gifts in meaningful ways for the betterment of the living world;

· living beings are not in competition with each other for scarce resources but work cooperatively to fulfil their unique role and function in the greater whole;

· rather than trying to control natural forces, humans can participate and communicate in an intimate way to the unfolding of Life;

· the world is not inert or passive but one of emergent creative intelligence;

· rather than measuring quantitatively we assess qualitatively;

· technology ought not to be about control and mastery but partnership with and service to Life;

· rather than a perception of scarcity ought to be a perception of abundance;

· matter is not separate from spirit but they are integrally connected; and

· consciousness is not restricted to humans but goes all the way down.

This new year, we have the opportunity to shift our stories toward an enhanced comprehension of the living world. We can repair our human relationship with the natural world, hopefully before it is too late. We can rethink each and every action we take in order to consider the impact on other living beings. At the very least, we can choose nonharming actions. At the most, we can harmonize with the workings of natural systems in ways that regenerate and restore Life. This way of thinking is exciting, as it is leading to a global web of flourishing that is redesigning the very fundamentals of living, in many humble places.


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