by Ken Burak
The climate problem is all in our heads. Our minds and our perspectives on the environment and our place in it, or as it, are the source of the problem. Surely we must engage in sustainable life practices or adapting new climate realities. Yet until we fundamentally transform our understanding of our place on this planet, we are quite simply doomed. I hope the engineers are hard at work, and I hope their creations make their way to the market so that we can shop for them.
However, it is only a deep philosophical shift, not engineering and not shopping that can promise the change upon which our survival depends. The problem at its root involves the presumption of an artificial division between humanity and the rest of nature—a division that has, of course, no biological basis.
When a room full of people is asked, “If you wanted to go someplace to visit nature, where is the closest place you could go?” one calls out “The Adirondacks.” “The Catskills are closer,” another chimes in. “The Poconos!” “Jacobsburg!” “The trees outside this building!” “This building’s material!” “The air we’re breathing!” Then finally, sometimes after as much as an hour or more: “Us!” Why was that not recognized immediately?
The thickness of the wall that we have created between us and the rest of nature can be measured in the time it takes for humans to recognize their own earthliness. Only when that wall has been collapsed, when we immediately and intuitively feel and know in the core of our being that self-care and care of the earth are not two different paths; when we know that we are the earth just as much as the flowers and the grasses and the air and the lava are, will we stand a fighting chance.
Australian environmental activist John Seed once corrected himself, as though he realized that a perspective he had once held true was not only untrue, but part of the problem he was combating. The statement he corrected was: “I am an activist trying to save the rainforest.” It seemed so obvious. He had introduced himself in that manner both to others and to himself so many times. And then it struck him. “No, I am not an activist trying to save the rainforest. I am the rainforest trying to save itself.” So long as he was an activist trying to save the rainforest, he was positioned as a human trying to save the earth, like a knight trying to save a damsel in distress, bound to her only by chivalry or pride or love.
So the distance between the activist-hero and the earth-victim remained intact, and the disastrous myth of the difference between humanity and the earth remained in force. But, if he was rather the rainforest trying to save itself, then that distance immediately collapsed. He was not a subject trying to save an object. He was a subject trying to save himself. So what is to be done?
We must somehow facilitate the process by which the-earth-as-humans realizes its identity with and as the earth as quickly and as deeply as possible. What does that look like? Philosophy is an excellent tool for starters. Philosophy has, ultimately, one commandment: γνῶθι σεαυτόν “Know Thyself ”. It’s a strange commandment. How could I possibly not already know myself? If I don’t know myself, it must be because I have come to identify with someone or something I, in fact, am not. How is that possible? If I am the earth, how did I come to identify myself with something other than the earth?
There is a history to be scrutinized of the construction of a conception of nature as something other than us, and so of us as something other than nature.But beyond the mental practices of philosophy and history, we will need to engage the earth directly and experientially. Yet, where can that start when so many natural habitats have been stripped bare and replaced with strip malls? Where ever will we find nature? The Adirondacks? Catskills? Poconos? The trees outside this building? Only when we experience our bodies as the bodies of earthly animals: when we realize that we are seeing through the eyes, tasting through the tongues, and hearing through the ears of the earth, will we know that we and the earth are one.
Imagine a biologist’s excitement were she to learn she can see through the eyes, walk with the legs, and breathe with the lungs of an animal. Imagine how powerful it would be if we all realized that we are doing so right now. I do not see the earth. When I see, the earth is seeing itself.
Ken is a professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, where he lives with his wife, Liz, and his two daughters, Hannah and Dhara. When not teaching he tries to get in as much hiking, meditating, yoga, and backpacking as possible. Ken is originally from Philadelphia, but studied in Chicago and Belgium. He really does believe that philosophy can save the world.
(Published in the 2014 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)