As the tsunami of horrible news goes on and on, a few especially large icebergs managed to bob to the surface this week. One in particular proved hard to ignore, as a United Nations report revealed not one single global target has been met in terms of contending with the destruction of the natural world.
In the face of such grim information, what can one book offer?
A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene, published by the University of Regina Press and edited by Heesoon Bai, David Chang and Charles Scott, is a collection of essays. Most are from an academic perspective, and if you can battle your way past words like ontogeny and eudaimonia there are ideas and approaches to making one’s way in an insanely complex world.
It starts with the question: “What does living well look like in the Anthropocene?”
To answer, a variety of academics, poets and activists ponder how to cultivate a set of “eco-virtues,” described as, “a new set of values by which to live, if there is to be hope for us and other species to continue.”
So, what does that mean, exactly? And how do get from where we are to some new, different (better) place?
We human chatterboxes tend to fill the air, as well as the page, with all manner of wordy explanations, methodologies and plans. But sometimes simply shutting up is the answer.
David Chang’s essay, “Worthy of This Mountain Living a Life of Friction Against the Machine,” (excerpted in short below) springs from an experience that Chang had on an Alaskan cruise, when he witnessed the beauty of the landscape.
At the centre of the essay is a thing of blessed silence, Mount Fairweather. Impassive, dignified, magnificent, not uttering a single word. Chang found meaning in his moment of conversion.
“If one strives to live a life worthy of the mountain by challenging the systems that threaten its beauty, one must reform one’s internal habitus, a form of conditioning under the aegis of modern society that prevents us from embracing a life of radical simplicity and deep respect for the earth, while also countering the external channels that reinforce a given way of life.”
Illumination is the word that Chang uses in reaffirming his commitment to what he calls “planetary vitality.” But how do you go about this, especially if you’re living in the midst of a large, loud urban centre? Chang cites a number of big thinkers including Aristotle, Michel Foucault and Shunryu Suzuki, but ultimately his own arguments are quite simple.
In order to live a life of friction against the human-made industrial machine that’s now grinding both us and the rest of the planet into dust, first you have to see it for what it is. As Chang asserts, resistance has to go deeper than simply railing against the exteriors of the thing — it involves remaking the internal landscape of human beings.
In short: in order to change the world, we must first change our minds. Also, our bodies.
We need to peek beneath the surface of our own physical and mental conditioning and understand that we create culture, as much as culture creates us: “Like a fish that does not feel the weight of water... his dispositions are subsumed into common sense — which accepts reality as self-evident and beyond dispute.”
That sounds relatively straightforward, but even simple questions like should I eat meat, drive a car, or have children all carry with them spiderwebs of ethical considerations.
To this end, a reminder from Aristotle proves instructive. “Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by the performing of just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.”
Not just thinking but doing. And without getting self-righteous or preachy about it.
Here, Shunryu Suzuki’s advice on Zen meditation comes in handy. “As long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something.”
Here’s where Chang circles back to the mountain, the sky and the trees that just do the things they normally do without being all self-conscious (read: chatty) about it. Silent communion is one panacea that he offers to provide perspective and access to the bigger picture.
“In essence, I lay my troubles under the sky and take cues from the earth’s inherent wisdom,” he writes. “So what do the sky and the trees say? Nothing! They always respond to my plea with exactly what they already are. The trees keep swaying in the breeze, the sky remains silent in its spaciousness.”
An excerpt from the essay ‘Return to the Mountain’
By David Chang
Having toured the possible hazards of resisting the machine, I may have conjured too grim a picture of ecological work and the demands of living in the Anthropocene. In actual fact, a life dedicated to preserving and enhancing ecological vibrancy brings exuberant rewards. A person moved by the splendour of the earth will find solace in sunshine, in the lapping foam of the ocean’s waves, the lilting cadence of the warbler’s song.
New affinities and associations emerge as one resolves to live life according to ecological values. Naturalist organizations, local garden collectives, community-supported agriculture, cycling coalitions, tool libraries, ecological restoration associations, and animal rescue shelters are a few examples where like-minded people are countering the industrial/consumer impulses by developing local culture and communities of compassion.
Going further, one can experiment with ways to “opt out” of the establishment by going on media fasts (turning off the TV, computer, cell phones) in an effort to reclaim one’s mental space; we can try solitary wilderness retreats to nourish the capacity for silence and awareness, which are under perpetual assault by the modern establishment. Few antidotes to cynicism and apathy are as effective as collaboration with like-minded others, working on realistic goals that reap tangible outcomes.
Since much of the current ecological crisis traces back to those who enjoy a middle-upper-class lifestyle, the onus is on the developed nations, especially those in the West, to curb consumption and to transform the cultural-economic landscape. This requires significant alterations to what we deem as the material requirements of a good life. We will have to dismantle our sense of entitlement as we shift away from heavy industry to local production on a smaller scale. We will have to relinquish material abundance as a symbol of personal achievement and worth and embrace simplicity as personal freedom.
This endeavour will challenge our ingrained habitus while demanding tenacious struggle against social structures. Perils await, as do indescribable rewards. But the practice of countering the machine can itself be a source of fulfillment — for although we shall not always see the fruit of our labour, we can imagine in the heat of our grunt and sweat the royal shape of Mount Fairweather. We can agree with Camus that all is well, that the struggle itself is enough to fill our hearts. Like Sisyphus, we can imagine ourselves happy.
Excerpted from A Book of Ecological Virtues, edited by Heesoon Bai, David Chang and Charles Scott. University of Regina Press (October 2020).
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