Toward a Philosophical Foundation for a New Story

As we stand helplessly by, watching the global industrial machine dismantle the world before our eyes, it is important to understand that what is happening has the full sanction of our culture. These destroyers of the Earth are not renegades or monsters, but are ordinary people obediently acting out the directives of the culture of civilization. Those directives are transmitted in many ways, but chiefly through cultural myth (in the anthropological sense), consisting of origin stories, moral tales, and various cultural memes, all of which add up to the Story of the People. The Story of the People is inevitably based upon core assumptions about the nature of reality, who the people are and where they came from, and how they should behave. But what if these core assumptions, and the stories built upon them, are not only dead wrong, but malevolent in their effect? Foundational assumptions are so basic to the way we think that we rarely stop to question them–but maybe we should. Maybe we should look at them very closely, not only to discover error, but to discover the truth that the error has hidden. This is not an academic exercise. If we have any chance at all of preserving the Earth as a home to Life, including human life, this may be how we can do it: by rooting out the false premises and faulty assumptions and replacing them with a worldview that works for all, knowing that all flourishing is mutual. To build the better New Story we all yearn to live in, we must start at the very foundation and build from there something that is both beautiful and true.

     An essential ingredient to the New Story, as I see it, is the concept of holonomy, because it acts as a unifying foundation for so much else within the New Story. Holonomy refers to a fundamental condition or property of the Universe—one of nested interrelatedness. A holon is a self-bounded whole which is part of a larger whole, and which cannot exist independently of that larger whole(or holarchy). Such a holon might be a cell within the human heart. The cell takes its life within the context of the heart, and cannot live separately. The organ of the heart takes its life within the context of organ systems, and these in turn take their life within the context of an entire organism, a living human being. That human takes its life within the context of local, regional, and global ecosystems. The Earth, or Gaia, is itself a self-bounded holon within a larger solar system, and that system is in turn embedded within a galaxy, which is likewise part of something larger still. Everything is connected; everything is interdependent, and there is nothing woo-woo or mystical about this. It is an obvious fact of life. Trouble is, the people of our culture have for thousands of years tried to live in the pretense that humans are separate from everything else– exceptional, sapient, and autonomous- and this lie has led to the Earth Crisis we find ourselves in today. The truth is we are not, and could not possibly be, autonomous. What we are instead is holonomous: interconnected with everything in the world in a vast network of mutual interdependencies.  We are part of something far grander and much more wondrous than a single isolated narcissistic species. Within this larger, grander identity, we are wholly holonomous.


     This new, yet ancient, understanding of the Universe, and our place in it, carries with it some profound implications. All of the interlocking systems, from smallest to largest, depend upon reciprocity. The individual cell depends upon the organ of which it is a part (or holon) for its life, but the organ itself is made up of cells, and requires the contribution of each cell in order to function and have its own being. If a single cell decided it wanted to continue receiving all the benefits of living in the context of the heart, but didn’t want to continue making its usual contribution to the whole, that cell would then become a free-rider. The loss of a single cell would not greatly harm the heart, perhaps slightly damaging to its overall performance. If, however, thousands or millions of cells all went on free-rider status, the heart could suffer major, and possibly terminal, damage. This fact of life applies at all scales, from subatomic particle to galaxy: every holon within every holarchy is required to give back to the system which gives it life at least as much at it takes from that system (and preferably a little bit more, to compensate for free-riders). This is what it takes for any system to function optimally, and the requirement, or responsibility, for each holon to give back to its system at least as much as it takes is known by indigenous people as the Law of Reciprocity. I call it the Law of Holonic Reciprocity simply as a reminder of why it is Law: it is because all systems are holonomous, and require reciprocity to function at their best.

     The Law of Holonic Reciprocity has, in turn, its own inherent implications. One such implication– and a huge one– is that the Universe is moral at its heart; that justice inheres in the very nature of the Universe. This is very far from the scientistic doctrine of a random meaningless Universe—very far indeed. But can that doctrine—based not on scientific fact, but on scientictic ideology—refute the obvious fact of how systems work? Not in an honest way; not that I can see. But let’s leave the ideologues aside for now and consider some of the further implications of a moral Universe.

     The Law of Holonic Reciprocity invites us to look at the world in terms whole systems, and not of single whole systems, but interlocking, interdependent systems of systems—all the way up the scale and all the way down, systems connected to systems connected to systems, from quark to Milky Way. Seeing the world in this way can, and perhaps should, expand our sense of self beyond our isolated individual personalities to include everything that allows us our being: the air we take into our bodies, the trees that respire the oxygen that enriches that air, and which help absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale; the water that keeps us hydrated, including each individual (and individuated) drop, and its immediate source (lake, river, well), but also embracing its source within the water cycle, including sky, cloud, ocean, land, precipitation and evapo-transpiration –all the macro-systems and micro-systems that allow the water cycle to work as it does, and make Life possible. Likewise, every morsel of food we take into our bodies for ongoing sustenance is the product of countless cycles and systems, beginning with the energy of the sun, transformed by photosynthesis into nutrient-rich plants, which may be consumed by us directly, or first passed through the body of another plant eater. Breath passes in and out of us, as does food and water, in ongoing cycles within cycles within cycles. The thing we identify as “me,” the individual, is much more illusory and much less definite than we like to believe. We are, after all, eighty percent bacteria by genetic code, and by weight. Our gallbladders completely reconstitute themselves, replacing every ‘old’ cell with a new one every two days. And every part of our body is going through a similar process of dying and regenerating every day of our lives. Given all this dynamic connection with everything around us–and as far away as the sun, and beyond—we may be due for a new definition of self. And with that new definition, a new morality.

     Most people regard the Golden Rule as a universal axiom about how we should live in the world: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But this is based on the old cultural notion of self and other, subject and object, in a world of discrete autonomous entities and beings. But, as we now see, this is not the way the world really is. Nothing is truly separate from anything else, except perhaps in superficial appearance. Thus the Golden Rule as it now stands makes only superficial sense. A better maxim to live by, a Holonic Golden Rule, might go something like this: Take great care in all that you do, knowing that what you do to the apparent ‘other,’ you are also doing to yourself—both your smaller self and your larger Self, which are inseparable.

     As things stand now within the Old Story, Nature is something quite separate from the human being, and is made up of ‘dead’ matter, and of course is without sentience, intelligence, or volition of any kind. Certain animals may seem to have the appearance of such qualities, but, according to Descartes and his followers, animals are really just machines, automatons, and thus can feel or think or want nothing. These culturally sanctioned perceptions provide self-interested rational actors with a license to do whatever they will with dumb brutes on a dead Earth—and especially in pursuit of wealth creation: a preeminent value within civilization. Certain extreme individuals living within this Old Story have proposed the fool notion that Nature ought to have rights of its own, to help protect it (and the humans that depend upon it) from the most damaging of wealth creation schemes. Of course such a notion is ridiculous on its face: how can something that is dead have rights? Only humans have rights. Right?

     But just suppose that what we call matter, the ‘stuff’ of the Universe, is not dead at all, but is in some sense alive, sentient, and capable of cognition. And in fact there is very good reason to believe that this is actually the case. If these qualities did not inhere in the Universe right from the very beginning, then where did they come from? No one has yet offered a convincing answer to this question. If matter can sense its environment and make choices based on what it senses– and evidence demonstrates that it can, and routinely does– then our world, and the Universe which contains and sustains it, is not dead at all, but is living, intelligent, and volitional. This is the Universe as seen by our wild ancestors–living, sensing, self-directed– and sacred. Mother Earth and Father Sun, the Givers of Life, were revered with humility and gratitude, and regarded as super beings possessed of intelligence, intention, and a unique personhood, with its own characteristics of temperament. We now live in a world where almost nothing is personal; our wild ancestors lived in a world where everything was personal, because they recognized the uniqueness of each and all. If every snowflake that has ever fallen has had its own unique identity—and we are justified to believe this is the case—then why shouldn’t we believe that everything in the Universe, above the size of an atom, is likewise possessed of individuality and personhood? This is not meaningless speculation, but has far-reaching implications in terms of the Rights of Nature.

     If we live in a Universe that has fairness and justice at its very heart, and depends upon the Law of Holonic Reciprocity for its own smooth functioning, then we, the people of civilization, are outlaws .We are free-riders who have declared ourselves exempt from the Law’s requirement of giving back as good as we get to that which gives us our life. The Old Story of our culture has given us permission to take and take and never give anything back, and that is what we have done, to the point of nearly exhausting he Earth’s amazing abundance and resilience. In a world where all flourishing is mutual, and reciprocity is the Law of Life, we have been blood-sucking parasites, fattening ourselves on the lifeblood of our Sacred Mother and the Community of Life. The New Story of holonomy (which is also quite ancient) requires that we change the way we understand the world, and our place in it. Change the story and our behavior must change with it, because we are beings who live by story.

     In a world that thrives on justice, and is meaningfully alive with the subjectivity of personhood and the capacity for knowing and choosing with self-agency and intentionality, the role of the human being changes from ruthless exploiter to caring tender of the Gift. What these principles come down to is a philosophical foundation for the New Story we so urgently need. If enough of us recognize the truth of these ancient but forgotten principles, and incorporate them into our own thinking, perceiving, and being, and insist upon them in public, against the pressures of all the well-worn cultural lies, we can be part of the change we seek. Paradigm shifts don’t come easy, because everyone is invested, to some degree, in the old paradigm. Of course the extreme urgency of our situation requires more than a slight shift to the left; it requires a paradigm somersault. And it has to come from the bottom up. A good place to start seems to be the very foundations of our beliefs about the world, and our place in it.


An Evolving New Vision for Change

An Evolving New Vision for Change

      I have been going to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene for the past twenty years. This year I sensed a real change in mood, and it has got me wondering how widespread this mood swing might be. Last year we had a keynote speaker named Thomas Linzey who talked about how he almost gave up his environmental law practice, he was so discouraged by the end results of his work: a lot of effort for no more than a short delay of one particular insult to the planet. By pointing out the flaws in permit applications or proposals for one sort of desecration or another, he and his team were perfecting the paperwork of corporations, and little else. He and his fellow environmental lawyers were taught to work within the system of the present body of environmental laws and regulations; that was how the game was played and it was the only game in town. Trouble was, it wasn’t working. Well, it was working fine for the despoilers, just as it was intended to. And he had had enough; he was calling it quits. In fact, he had decided to quit answering his phone as he packed up the last boxes in the office he had worked out of for more than a decade. But the phone rang and rang, and in exasperation he picked it up. It was the mayor of a small city in a nearby state who wanted to stop an industrial hog farm that intended to locate just outside of town. Almost no one in town or in the surrounding countryside wanted this stinking, polluting industry anywhere near them, and this included every one of the county commissioners and the city council. What could Linzey do to help them out?

      Probably nothing, he reckoned; probably this big corporate enterprise would have its way, as such powerful entities generally did, and another nice community would be transformed into an industrial sacrifice zone. Long story short, he went about crafting a county ordinance to keep this industrial hog wallow out of this particular Pennsylvania county. The corporation fought this impediment to their business plan, but, for once, the corporation didn’t get its way, and Linzey decided to keep his office doors open after all. And his phone kept ringing, as he did the same kind of work for other municipalities and communities.  In this process he found himself becoming radicalized. He saw that all the laws he had learned to use in defense of Nature were rigged in favor of extractive and exploitative industry. As was the constitution itself. Neither it nor the laws of the land were meant to serve the interests of the people, nor were they designed with ecology in mind. And this is where it started to get interesting in that ballroom packed with fifteen hundred or so environmentalists, because he said we should defy these laws– this whole body of laws–that were bringing the world down around us. Standing ovations are supposed to come at the end, but nobody wanted to wait. These were radical words, but they rang with authority and truth. Every environmentalist who has tried to save some part of the natural world from further degradation knew damn well he was speaking truth. The game was rigged, and every one of us had the bruises to prove it.

     And then he made an even more radical suggestion. He said our approach has been wrong all along. We let the polluters and despoilers frame us into a box, and as long as we remain within the box the bad guys will always win, and the Earth will lose. We need to re-conceptualize the whole process, frame our struggle as a struggle for rights. Community rights, human rights, the right of the people to choose what they want in their lives, and what they do not want. And then he said something that brought us to our feet again. He said we have to rewrite the laws to establish the rights of Nature, to give those rights standing in a court of law. The Rights of Nature: what a bold and seditious idea–and again, absolutely right in principle. But, I thought to myself as I exited this ballroom full of energized eco-activists, how likely is it that these great and true concepts will translate into anything real outside this gathering of the choir? How likely that community rights will ever trump corporate rights in this age of corporate dominance?

      Yesterday, a year after this keynote speech, I got a partial, preliminary answer to my question, when I attended a panel discussion titled “From Theory to Practice: Oregon community Rights Groups take on Corporations.” Seems these panelists were as stirred as I had been by Linzey’s keynote address, but they had spent the intervening year attempting to implement, and make real, the elegant concept of community rights. Three adjoining Willamette Valley counties were represented: Josephine, Lane, and Benton, and each panelist addressed the process they have been pursuing, the obstacles in their way, and a likely timeline for getting their initiatives on a ballot for public vote. The details and technicalities of the process got kind of a once-over-lightly treatment, and this suited me just fine, because I was here for the big picture, a Gestalt or feeling sense of what this community rights movement might mean for a recklessly abused and endangered planet. And what I came away with was a sense that the battle for a livable Earth hasn’t been lost yet, and that the warriors in this fight are re-energized, their fighting spirits renewed by this shift in strategy, which, if fully realized, would amount to a paradigm shift within society itself.

     Fighting fragmented, piecemeal battles, one small issue at a time, as environmentalists have been doing since at least the original Earth Day, was a losing proposition for Life and the Earth. You only have to look around you to see that this approach to environmental protection has failed, and will continue to fail until the earth itself fails. As the reality of this failure becomes ever more obvious and manifest in the world around us, a sense of futility and despair begins to settle over the human spirit, replacing vibrant vitality with a soul-deadening sense of imminent doom. None of the speakers used these exact words, but this gives a sense of how discouraged some of them had become. One speaker in particular, the President of Community Rights Lane County, expressed how her own sense of despair, accrued over years of environmental activism, had been replaced by a new sense of meaning to her activism and her life. She mentioned going to Democracy School and to a workshop by Paul Cienfuegos and how these provided a much needed re-education as to the ways of the world. But more than anything, what has re-energized her fighting spirit is the re-framing the battle as an issue of rights: the rights of Nature; human rights; community rights.

     Corporations–a legal fiction–now have more rights than human beings, human communities, or the natural world. And that is as wrong as can be. Framing the issue in this way gives us a conceptually powerful new tool to work with—a tool that could ultimately lead to a culture-wide paradigm shift. Or, as one of the attendees put it in the Q and A at the end—not a paradigm shift, but a paradigm somersault. The somersault, he went on to explain, is how salmon swimming upstream make it from a lower level to a higher level. They use the power of the stream flowing against them, in a kind of salmon jujitsu, to further their upriver journey. People applauded this suggestion and the image it invoked of not being overwhelmed by great power, but using it to catapult the cause of Life to a higher level.

     An underlying theme of this panel discussion was the power inherent in the people—people power, power in numbers, but not under the old top-down paradigm of hierarchy and patriarchy. The new movement, a rights and justice movement, would be self-organizing: not top-down but bottom-up.

     All of this feels to me like more than a change in mood or tactic, and my sampling is not restricted to a single day at one particular conference. Two weeks before, in mid-February, I attended a symposium in Corvallis titled “Transformation without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet.” This was another gathering of activists, and the first keynote of the day featured Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist who bid on gas leases in Utah, never intending to pay for them, in order to disrupt this selling off of public lands to corporate frackers. The sale itself was later found to be illegal, but Tim DeChristopher was the only involved party to go to jail, serving out a sentence of two years. The jail time evidently didn’t teach him the lesson it was meant to, because he rejoined society more radicalized than ever, as was evident in what he had to say at this event.

     Like Thomas Linzey, Tim DeChristopher sees the mainstream environmental movement as a failure. The large non-governmental organization (NGO) model of environmental action has been co-opted and/or sold out to the DC consensus, and in any case these capitalist-friendly organizations are not saving the planet from the corporate looting and pillaging they ostensibly exist to oppose. But the focus of Tim’s talk was specifically on the NGOs fighting climate disruption—like 350.0rg—and his advice was to walk away from groups like this, and put whatever environment muscle we might have elsewhere. And where exactly did he have in mind as an alternative? Grassroots groups who put their bodies on the line; indigenous groups like Idle No More and Lakota Blockade; groups without the beltway connection or a major orientation toward fundraising; groups who know damn well they are fighting for their lives and the lives of their grandchildren.  Grassroots. Bottom-up. Committed in deed as well as in word. And forget the kinds of compromises it takes to stay friends with the corporate elite. No more sitting across tables in suits. The stakes are too high to keep playing that losing game. Align with the people whose sweat-stained sleeves are rolled up, the ones with dirt under their nails.

     It has to be a rights and justice movement, broad in scope, inclusive, and bottom-up. DeChristopher doesn’t tell us how; that would be top-down. What he and Linzey offer instead is a larger vision of how we might change course. The rest is up to us.