Complementing Perceptions Between Nature & Humans

Changing our disposition toward nature from viewing it as a determinate object to acknowledging its intelligent and miraculous aspects may very well change how we, human beings, perceive and treat nature and nonhuman (as well as human) animals. Most of us in the Western world grow through a system of thinking and perceiving that is anthropocentric—that is, centered around values that favor human growth, development, well-being, etc. In a society where our vital needs and non-vital needs (or wants, rather) are met all too easily, and comfort is readily handed out and admired, we live through a notion of superiority: Anything nonhuman (whether animals or the natural environment) becomes a means to our own ends, regardless of the resulting ends faced by the ‘other’ nonhuman things. The comfort we experience is made more abundant if we use these ‘others’. The vast world of nonhuman things become manicured and fabricated for our own usage; ignorance becomes a means for maintaining the numb comfort we strive for relentlessly.

Since we do not know the desires or inclinations of nonhuman animals and nature, we assume that they are objective and determined inasmuch as we are capable of perceiving them. However, since we do know our own human desires and inclinations, and we are able to apply logical, mathematic systems and laws to these ‘others’, we build human life higher and higher and higher on the powerful (yet clumsy) throne in which we rest ourselves shamelessly. We use science increasingly as the tool that digs the graves deeper for nature. Obsessed with human progress, we insist on our reliances on science to make us a softer cushion and a stronger anesthetic to numb any awareness of our actual, more-than-objective experiences; that is, the experiences that bring us down off of our human-created throne and onto the same level of subjectivity as nonhuman animals and nature. It is obvious that science can be a useful tool for predicting natural disasters, curing diseases, etc., but the problem arises when we allow our minds to sink further into an ignorant comfort when we rape nature through science to fulfill our egocentric, excessive desires.

Another problem and cause of this drowning ecological mess we stirred up, is that we increasingly become preoccupied with not only our anthropocentric views as a whole, but our awareness of a sort of ‘individuality’ among ‘other’ human beings. As if it is not enough to have several whole societies with an anthropocentric world view, there is then each of those societies consisting of thousands of millions of people with a high sense of ‘individuality’—separate people with a sense of their own, single, individual desires and inclinations that become the center of their consciousness, action, and world. The society in which they live (more so if it is a Western society) does not discourage this selfish disposition either. Things like consumerism meshes dangerously with technological advances and speedy, massive production to form a giant blanket of overindulgence that ultimately suffocates human, nonhuman, and natural life. Not to mention, there are many more things to be said for the laborious means that become a necessity in the Western mind in order to achieve those coarsely comfortable ends which, notably, repeat tenfold when met. We can associate this with the resources needed to ‘feed’ our obese bellies with the greedy excesses we hunger for mindlessly, and come to the same problems we face today.

In David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, he proposes a sort of reciprocal awareness between humans and nature that may shift our thinking and actions toward a more ecocentric disposition—ecocentrism stands for values that are more centered around nature; this differs from anthropocentrism, which has more human-centered values. Abram explains that humans and all ‘other’ nature should not be seen as separate from one another, but rather as one in the same thing. Instead of focusing on notions of the self (or individual) and labeling all else as “other” to it, he suggests that there is a reciprocity that ties everything together. Everything in the world is then perceived as having a shared “flesh” that is seen as all-encompassing and a shared essence among all things. In this way, there is ideally no hierarchical dominance and, therefore, no anthropocentric values—our “flesh” becomes the “flesh” of the world and perception is, likewise, reciprocated. This differs from the typical Western view because it acknowledges nature as sharing a consciousness similar to our own and a need for respect that is too often associated with only human cognition. Abram suggests that we take the awareness we feel for humans and project it toward (and with) nature: He says, “[…] this stranger who stands here before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I, too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient. Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity […] ?” (67, Abram). A result of this is a fundamental uncovering of all things hidden to come out from underneath the suffocating blanket thrown on them by anthropocentric minds.

It is essential to guide our minds toward an awareness of nonhuman animals and nature that we caged underneath this blanket so that an ecocentric disposition can be reached more tangibly. However, not only do we trap nature for our own selfish usages, but we also trap ourselves and one another. The comfort we strive for individually leads us down an even narrower path congested with excesses—we do not just turn nature into an objective means for our own ends, but we also turn our fellow human beings into step-stools to reach the highest throne attainable. In this way, we are faced with two wars: Humans versus Nature, and Humans versus Humans. The former of these ends up being ‘rape’, while the latter becomes an anthropocentric bloodbath, pulling nature into the game to achieve even higher human ends.

By bringing the lens of our awareness into focus with the rest of the natural world, I believe we can perceive things in an ecocentric light that will allow for the significant change we need. Instead of seeing only human needs as valuable—our health, well-being, desires, development, etc.—we will see intrinsic value in the environment as a whole. This perceiving will, invariably, affect humans’ overall behavior if it is internalized and practiced accordingly. Like any excesses though, I think it is important to not fall too deeply into the excess of idealism. While I agree with majority of Abram’s disposition and ecocentric proposal, I feel that it may not be the best method to make a, more or less, universal change (if such a thing is even possible). Similar to determinism, idealism is capable of stalling change by not always implementing practical means. While it is nearly—if not totally—impossible to persuade the consciousness of all human beings toward an ecocentric disposition, I believe there is something worthy to hang onto regarding a conscious change in perception in favor of the environment that houses all “flesh”. However, I do not think that the whole of science should be dismissed. Perhaps nature (including our human selves) can benefit from some of the advances science has made—just so long as the vulnerable human mind sustains an ecocentric awareness, so as to not fall into the dizzying whirlpool we find ourselves in today.

Social Ecology: Social & Ecological Change

Social ecology (as explained by Murray Bookchin in his essay What is Social Ecology?) asserts that almost all of the vast, disastrous ecological problems are directly related to—and originate from—problems within human societies. Furthermore, attempts to solve these problems cannot begin to be made without first taking sufficient time to understand them with a careful awareness. To do so, we must focus on deep-rooted causes in society instead of only digging at the surface. Similarly, Bookchin also calls for a serious transformation of our spiritual values and dominance-oriented mentalities into what he calls “complementarity”. He explains complementarity as, “[…] we would see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life” (463). An ethics of complementarity advocates human support instead of dominance. In this way, we would foster a respect for nonhuman life which, I believe, can only arise from a human respect for humanity since cultures and societies have evolved from the natural environment and, thus, directly affect it.

In addressing social problems, Bookchin highlights “economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts” (462) as being among the most serious contributors to ecological disconnection. It is important to note that there are numerous other factors that have piled onto this ecological mess we find ourselves struggling in, all of which we should embark upon with communal understanding and action.

Bookchin expresses that nature is ever-changing and evolving. As creatures in nature, humans are also following along this same path which led us to be “highly intelligent” animals. All of our technological, scientific, and, ultimately, social creations have risen as a result of our evolutionary processes within the natural world of humans and non-humans alike. Equipped with a lot of the same functions as nonhuman animals, humans perform with a more intense perception and a more extreme mentality. Therefore, the separation of humans from non-humans is false because they are really just different parts of the same whole. However, although humans are a part of nature, we have used our evolved intellects to create what Bookchin labels a “second nature” within the constructs of what we call our societies. He elaborates on this concept, saying, “Human beings always remain rooted in their biological evolutionary history, which we may call ‘first nature,’ but they produce a characteristically human social nature of their own, which we may call ‘second nature.’ And far from being ‘unnatural,’ human second nature is eminently a creation of organic evolution’s first nature” (466). The distinction between “first nature” and “second nature” (along with the emphasis on human “second nature” as a dominating force) reduces the creative, multi-faceted dimensions of natural evolution into an idle, one-sided wall for humans to climb in order to falsely claim some sort of hierarchical worth. It is crucial for us to be aware of the damaging effects that this ignorant view has on the entirety of humans and non-humans—on the entirety of nature. Equally damaging is the opposite excessive act of reducing humans’ unique place in nature by putting it on the same plane as all animals, ignoring particularities in an effort to evade the social/organic dichotomy and the problems associated with it. This negligent effort does not resolve the ecological problems that we have created, nor does it eliminate the social problems that loom heavily underneath it all.

Broadly speaking, the focus on second nature (as distinct from first nature) accounts for the emergence of human hierarchies and domination. What started for humans as group survival skills, morphed into social dominance tactics when humans drank too heavily from the mind’s intoxicating intellect. An alternate way of thought, as brought on by social ecology, would mend the holes in these ‘other’ ways of thinking by weaving biological nature (or “first nature”) with human nature (or “second nature”) to form one nature.

Although technology, science, rationality, and other human achievements hold the capacity to inflict drastic ecological damage, it is important to realize that we do not have to renounce all of these things in order to make significant changes. Social ecology acknowledges the potential of these human accomplishments while maintaining an ecological awareness of the effects they have on the whole of nature. Bookchin says, “We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis will transcend them in the form of a creative, self-conscious, and therefore ‘free nature,’ in which human beings intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities […]” (476). Social ecology chooses mindfully from the natural and the social, establishing a more stable middle ground and, therefore, neither choking from over-consumption, nor starving from deprivation.

Also important is the idea that we cannot let ourselves get caught in a stagnant web of ideals. Although things like rhetoric and slogans seem to serve more as cheerleaders on the sidelines than as active players on the field, I believe that they can at least spark an awareness of the ecological problems we face today; however, I do not think that they should be solely relied on as means of change. In my opinion, they hardly even play a role in the overall transformation that needs to take place through social ecology, but I do not find it necessary to dismiss them unless they tranquilize people with idealistic visions that, essentially, evade the social problems that must be addressed. It is not enough to only cultivate individual’s spiritual transformation—these spiritual changes must be mixed collectively with other like-minded people in order to inform larger social and, thus, ecological transformations. In this way, I believe that deep ecology and social ecology could work together toward change—enlightening and educating one another with respect for nature. In order to begin this transformation, it is crucial for individuals to change their outlooks of nature toward a more ecologically-centered view, without neglecting the best of what can be utilized of human accomplishments (respectful of nature).

Furthermore, the domination and the creation of social hierarchies between humans and nature (and of humans by humans) is invariably an issue of which we must make ourselves aware before we can make change. However, more than just being aware of these issues, we should embody a new environmental ethic. I do not think that our ethic should be one that leans too far toward an eco-centric ethic (as proposed by deep ecologists), nor do I think that it should lean too far on the other end toward an anthropocentric ethic. Both of these ethics fall into the cold waters of domination and hierarchy by imposing control over one another, claiming that one is ‘more right’ than the other. In my opinion, these extreme ethical viewpoints are contributing factors to the overall mess of social and ecological problems we face today. An eco-centric ethic may contribute to the problems by evading them in favor of more idealistic visions that ultimately do not leave the confines of the mind’s imaginative fortress, and do not endeavor to pursue tangible active change. Similarly, an anthropocentric ethic may contribute to the problems by ignoring them altogether and focusing only on one part of the natural whole; that is, focusing only on “second nature” (or human nature), while “first nature” (or biological nature) festers into an even bigger blister on human heels, until excess causes it to burst painfully.

Bookchin draws upon a natural and social dichotomy, saying, “In this ‘either/or’ propositional thinking, the social is either separated from the organic, or flippantly reduced to the organic, resulting in an inexplicable dualism at one extreme or a naïve reductionism at the other” (466).

In Mary Mellor’s Ecofeminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist Perspective, she addresses this false dichotomy between eco-centrism and anthropocentrism more directly. I agree with her assertion that we should not try to choose one over the other, and to do so would be to separate humans from nature when really humanity is embedded within nature, along with non-human organisms and creatures. Developing an ethic like this and like that of Bookchin’s complementarity, I believe that social problems can be understood and approached more effectively.

If humans embodied an ethic that respected nature and humanity together, an ethic that discontinued oppressive, violent hierarchies and various forms of dominance, an ethic that embraced the best of reason and of ideals, then I believe we could resolve ecological problems by transforming ourselves spiritually and socially.

One-Dimensionality & False Autonomy

The one-dimensional person’s needs are created and circulated within an advanced industrial society that renders these needs as satisfactory only within itself. This false satisfaction blinds people from questioning further the situation of society in their lives. This advanced society dominates the individuals by satisfying their ‘needs’ using itself as the means to satisfaction. This has brought about our society of production and consumption. Individuals have become tools for the growth and productivity of the political and economic systems which grow stronger at the expense of objectifying and, thus, dehumanizing individuals.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse says, “Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized” (One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse, p.1). These needs that are satisfied within the systems are false in that they are preconditioned and “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice” (5). The false needs that the one-dimensional society imposes on us are in contrast to our true, vital needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The satisfaction of false needs might make the individual happy, but this euphoria they experience is really a “euphoria in unhappiness” (5) since the needs are predetermined and controlled by external forces; thus it is a predetermined happiness that is not chosen by the individual but rather imposed upon him/her as satisfactory. Further explaining these false needs, Marcuse says, “No matter how much such needs may have become the individual’s own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence; no matter how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning—products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression” (5). Our “needs” are integrated into the system, making us have a hard time opposing the system, as it would be an opposition to what we believe are ourselves and our needs, thus entrapping us in a system of, what Marcuse calls, “unfreedom.”

The repression of our individuality and our liberty by the false needs society fixes upon us, puts us in a state of servitude. We do not realize that society is repressing our true needs and we, rather, buy into the system. Having our needs preconditioned for us and buying into the already established system, we become rational characters among a civilization of irrationality which we rely on for our own development and satisfaction. Marcuse explains, saying, “…the extent to which his civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced” (9). This existence is one-dimensional as it is integrated within the realm of this society. Marcuse says further, “…the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness” (11).

The liberty we are granted within our society offers us vast choices but it does not allow us to decide “what can be chosen and what is chosen” (7). Marcuse asserts how choices open to us do not decide the level of our freedom, but rather further alienate us, saying, “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation” (7-8). Free choice administered to us within the system does not render us autonomous individuals, instead it prolongs the controlled “unfreedom” that deceives us into believing we are liberated individuals. Things like mass media, advertising, industrial management and our very culture shape a one-dimensional universe which cripples our ability to think and behave in a truly rational and individual manner, and keeps us from attaining a true autonomy. Freedom, for Marcuse, would be a freedom from the economic and political systems, as well as a freedom from the indoctrination of ‘public opinion’ altogether. Freedom from these systems would entail that we would be able to decide what our true needs are, instead of being conditioned to believe that our “false” needs are, in fact, our true ones.

Furthermore, Marcuse critiques what he calls “technological rationality” because of the manner it reduces individuals to just basic functions for consumption and productivity; it does not challenge ends but rather the means to get things in the most efficient, quickest and fastest manner possible. Just as in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”, the main character, Sam, has an apartment full of technological gadgets that, in the end, are flimsy and unreliable, but are used to perform those tasks that are not essential to Sam’s day-to-day life since he is perfectly capable of making coffee and toast, for example, on his own. In this way, technology is rigged toward creating more needs for society which are not necessarily true needs. Instead, Marcuse believes that technology should be aimed at achieving ends that are more productive (instead of obstructive) to experience an autonomy through assisting true human needs.

Marcuse offers a potentiality for liberation through consciousness. He asserts, “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own. The process always replaces one system of preconditioning by another; the optimal goal is the replacement of false needs by true ones, the abandonment of repressive satisfaction” (7). Marcuse sees alienation as a potentiality for a collective self-overcoming through awareness. He is concerned that if we lose sight of being alienated then our social progress would be hindered too, because we would no longer be in conflict with the fact of our alienation. Maintaining opposition of will is important, for Marcuse, and necessary to have progress. We needs to be at odds with ourselves in order to step outside of ourselves and have progress; to be autonomous. In this way, our consciousness and realization of our situation in society would allow us to break through society’s materialistic and idealistic one-dimensional prison, into the liberation of free thought and satisfaction of true needs.

In my opinion, Marcuse gives a very thorough and precise analysis of advanced industrial societies. I heavily agree with his conceptions of true versus false needs within a one-dimensional universe, and that our self-determinations get determined outside of us. Like Marcuse, I believe that our materialistic and idealistic “needs” (or false needs) that are imposed upon us by a one-dimensional society hinder us from being autonomous beings through blinding us from our realization of what true needs are. This gives me an unsettling sense of submission to a society that constantly dominates individuals into thinking they are free insofar as they are consuming and producing endless false needs to prolong the dehumanizing process. I also agree that if individuals were conscious of this process that they would cease to participate in this oppressive system. For example, in the film “Brazil”, Sam attempts to break free from social structures once he becomes aware of how destructive and blinding they really are, and he attempts to find individual happiness in a true autonomy outside of the system. The antagonists in the film were the people who were merely doing their jobs, showing the harm really being done through unawareness, and even ignorance, of alienation. However, Marcuse did not provide realistic solutions to overcome the dilemmas he analyzed. Although I agree that consciousness is a necessary step toward collective autonomy, I would have liked to see more possible solutions.

The creation of false needs that are projected through mass media and advertisements, tie individuals to a system that hinders their thoughts toward a preconditioned one-dimensionality. Our supposed ‘freedom of choice’ is not a freedom at all, but rather a mechanism to bind individuals to a system that ultimately dominates and controls their autonomy by creating materialistic needs that provide the individuals with a so-called “freedom” to choose among material goods, thus giving them a sense of ‘self’ through their possessions; a false sense of ‘self.’ Consciousness of this domination and awareness of what our true needs are provides us with the possibility of liberation that is, otherwise, unattainable in the one-dimensional universe.