When I met biologist and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber several years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism. He proposes that science study a very radical yet unexplained phenomenon -- aliveness!  He rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each relentlessly competing with maximum efficiency for supremacy in the laissez-faire market of nature.  (See Weber's fantastic essay on “Enlivenment” for more on this theme.) 

Drawing upon a rich body of scientific research, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently expressive and creative in a struggle to both compete and cooperate. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and adapt to the world -- and change it! -- as they develop their identities.

Except for a few essays and public talks, most of Weber’s writings are available only in his native German.  So it is a thrill that some of his core ideas have now been published in English. Check out his lyrical yet scientifically rigorous book, Biology of Wonder:  Aliveness, Consciousness and the Metamorophosis of Science, just published by New Society Publishers.  (Full disclosure requires me to mention my modest role in helping Andreas improve the “natural English” of his translation of his original German writings.)

Future historians will look back on this book as a landmark that consolidates and explains paradigm-shifting theories and research in the biological sciences. Biology of Wonder explains how political thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Adam Smith have provided a cultural framework that has affected biological inquiry, and how the standard Darwinian biological narrative, for its part, has projected its ideas about natural selection and organisms-as-machines on to our understanding of human societies.  Darwinism and "free markets" have grown up together.

This is now changing, as Weber explains:

Biology, which has made so many efforts to chase emotions from nature since the 19th century, is rediscovering feeling as the foundation of life. Until now researchers, eager to discover the structure and behavior of organisms, had glossed over the problem of an organism’s interior reality. Today, however, biologists are learning innumerable new details about how an organism brings forth itself and its experiences, and are trying not only to dissect but to reimagine developmental pathways. They realize that the more technology allows us to study life on a micro-level, the stronger the evidence of life’s complexity and intelligence becomes.  Organisms are not clocks assembled from discrete, mechanical pieces; rather, they are unities held together by a mighty force: feeling what is good or bad for them.

In the grand narrative of evolution, the idea that feeling, emotions, morality and even spirituality might be consequential has long been dismissed.  Such experiences are generally regarded as trivial sideshows to the main act of the cosmos:  nasty, brutish competition as the inexorable vehicle of evolutionary progress.  Indeed, modern times have virtually combined the idea of "survival of the fittest" with our cultural ideas about the "free market economy." 

On the Need for Silence and Solitude

If you listen closely (turn off that iPhone and stop checking your email!), you can hear a quiet rebellion against the too-muchness of daily life. I'm talking about the over-stimulation of electronic media and the exhaustion that comes from being always connected. This topic has been getting more attention lately, which suggests that perhaps we have hit a saturation point. People want to learn how to unplug – and re-gain some measure of their humanity.

I first became aware of this trend in 2009, when Professor David Levy of the University of Washington came to speak at Amherst College. (See my blog post here. ) Levy is a rare, committed voice of centeredness in the digital cacophony of our time.  An active meditator, he has spent years thinking about how media technologies are contributing to our society-wide attention-deficit disorder.

He points out that we have precious little uncluttered time nowadays. We live in a world overrun with email, Twitter and Facebook messages, always-on smart phones, pagers, text-messaging, and countless other media inputs. Silence and contemplation have disappeared amidst an overwhelming barrage of electronic inputs, both voluntary and force-fed. This has resulted in greater distraction and stress in everyday life, and a diminished capacity for creativity and thoughtfulness.

Many people don't recognise that the commons is not just a thing – a physical element of nature or a resource like the Internet – but a distinct metaphysics and epistemology that challenges some deeply rooted premises of contemporary politics and policy.  James Quilligan probes this territory with a thoughtful piece in the latest issue of Kosmos magazine. In particular, he explores the “social nature of property”and how its individual, atomistic nature in liberal political philosophy is responsible for “its catastrophic impact on the commons.”

The essay is not a quick read, but it is a provocative and penetrating piece about some of the deeply rooted assumptions that shape our understandings of property, individual identity and how government and public policy should behave.  All such discussions must start with John Locke, the great 17th Century philosopher who created the enduring justifications for property rights.

One of Locke's central ideas is that property is inherently about individual rights of ownership and control, which means the right to exclude others and to ignore the larger social and ecological context of those rights, not to mention future generations. This understanding, in turn, entails an understanding of a human being as a dualistic creature, one who has a sovereign mind and a separate and independent material body.  The mind/body dualism is actually the basis for a larger political theory that assigns property rights to individuals (and not larger collectives) and charges governments with recognizing and enforcing those individual rights.

The Economics of Happiness

The larger cultural campaign to fight the huge inefficiencies of global trade and foster re-localization of the economy has gotten a nice boost from a new film, The Economics of Happiness, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture. The film, available as a DVD, describes how “going local” is a powerful way to make our economic lives and culture more stable, eco-friendly and socially benign.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, director of the ISEC, points out the madness that tuna caught off the East Coast of the U.S. is flown to Japan to be packed, and then is shipped back to the U.S. for sale. By the lights of 18th Century economic theorists, this is considered “efficient” and “rational.” Of course, the economics of global trade only work because the vast externalized costs and hidden subsidies are ignored. Companies enjoy huge subsidies to use more energy and technologies to ship more things around the world. The costs of massive unemployment, rural migrations to cities in poor countries, and ecological destruction are “off the books.”

Every few months I find myself circling back to writings by Ivan Illich, the iconoclastic Catholic priest who decried the institutionalization of life and the great promise of “vernacular domains” as a source of regeneration.

I came back to Illich this time via a chapter about him in a book by Trent Schroyer, Beyond Western Economics:  Remembering Other Economic Cultures (Routledge, 2009).  The chapter is easily one of the most illuminating things I’ve read about Illich and his critiques of modernity.

The vernacular domain, as Illich calls it, is the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they should educate themselves, how they should embrace their spirituality, how they should manage the resources they need and love.  Vernacular culture consists of those spaces that exist for self-determination in the broadest sense of the term.  As Schroyer puts it:

Coming to terms with the commons means a willingness to learn a new language and the alien worldview that it makes possible.  That is one of the great lessons that I have gleaned from reading histories of English commons and the enclosure movement. 

I realized this anew upon reading an essay by historian Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” in the December 2010 issue of Radical History Review.  (Alas, the essay is locked behind a paywall, but fortunately, a website called “Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order:  A Collaborative Project” -- which Radical History Review has a hand in – has posted a downloadable pdf version of the essay here.)   

Linebaugh -- the great scholar of the commons and author of The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2006) – has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing that have disappeared.  I was struck by two passages describing the folkways of commoners. The first links “body-snatching” with the commons, a conjunction that made me start.  It turns out that, amidst a civil rebellion in Otmoor, near Oxford, England, in the 1830s, a rallying cry of the commoners was “Damn the body snatchers!” 

Reintegrating Mind, Life and Matter

Why has the international community been unable to bring the full range of commons issues and their representatives into strategic discussions? James Quilligan tackles this question in the spring/summer 2010 issue of Kosmos magazine, "the journal for world citizens creating the new civilization."

Quilligan is an international development expert who is also Chairman for the Secretariat of Global Commons Trust and Chairman for Global Commons Affairs of the international Renewable Energy Organization. His lengthy essay is a challenging but rewarding look at the commons in its broadest sweep in human history and global politics, culture and nature.

A core problem of our time, Quiligan asserts, is that the noosphere (consciousness) has been dissociated from the biosphere (life, nature, biology) and the physiosphere (physical matter). "This imbalance did not emanate from the biophysical world, but in the human mind," he writes, continuing:

"A Stem Cord of a Web of Relationships"

This draft treatise is compiled from notes recorded at Ogallala Commons inaugural Commoners University on June 22-23, 2009 held at Casa La Entereza in Nazareth, Texas. (Sources of the notes were the participants: Andy Wilkinson, Father Ken Keller, Erin Hoelting, Darryl Birkenfeld, Julie Boatright, and Kim Barker.)

I. What is the commons?

Still, the commons is concrete and graspable, both personally and collectively, because the commons is a node: a stem cord of a web of relationships. The commons is a province that serves as a locus of our sustenance, and as a matrix of our wealth (our economy) as well as our symbolization of the universe.

The commons is a narrative, a story that we participate in with all creation, as well as with our past and our future that reveals itself in our unfolding present time. The narrative of the commons is ever new, ever recreating us. In the true articulation (the re-telling) of the commons, we see the proper relationship of all things.

A Paradise Built in Hell

Anyone who sees the world through the lens of economics is likely to see humanity as an unruly mass of selfish individuals clamoring for as much as they can. It’s a dog-eat-dog jungle that is only constrained by the rule of law and government.

How is it possible, then, that human beings are capable of such spontaneous altruism, resourcefulness and joy when faced with disaster? Why, in the midst of earthquakes and fires, do people so intuitively self-organize themselves into communities of mutual aid, opening their hearts to utter strangers and sharing each other’s burdens and joys?

Why, in short, are we so often exemplary people under the most horrific conditions when "normal life" finds us alienated from each other and locked into our self-made shells of grievances, prejudices and human disconnection?

Our Psychic Connections to Nature

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker, "The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth." A pithy tagline meant to point out that human culture must align itself more closely with ecological imperatives. But is that a simple moralistic claim or a scientific, demonstrable fact?

A handful of psychologists are starting to conclude that human consciousness has a deep interconnections with nature — and that interfering with our sense of place and love of nature can cause severe emotional distress.

A few years ago, Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability in Perth, Australia, coined a word to describe a phenomenon that he has seen repeatedly when people’s local natural environments have been damaged or changed — "solastalgia." The word is a combination of the Latin word solacium, which means comfort, and the Greek root algia, which means pain. To him, "solastalgia" means "the pain experienced when there is a recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault." It is "a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home’."

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