Becoming a Relational Being?
Or looking back and trying to understand what an Ecological Self is, how accessible this theory is, and what its relevance and importance might be outside the walls of academia in a time of rapid ecological, political, and social breakdown (A previously unpublished and updated essay from my time at Schumacher College).
As I have previously reflected, environmental philosophers (or ecophilosophers) like Arne Naess and Freya Mathews have argued that in order to change our current anthropocentric trajectory we need to resist the individualism and atomization of modernity and instead embrace an ‘ecological’ or ‘relational’ self. This brings up a lot of questions for me. Specifically, how relevant, important, and accessible is it for those outside of academia to explore these relationships and theories, particularly those struggling to put food on the table or have a roof over their head? Or by the millions who are also suffering from systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, or xenophobia? Can connecting with the ecological self only be accessed through a regular practice? Ultimately, could capitalism, settler colonialism, and our global economic systems rationalize functioning the way they have and do if it became a common practice to work towards becoming a relational being? What place does this have in these troubling times, and how can it be accessed by those forced into migration due to drought, flooding, war, and countless environmental and climate issues?
Is it possible for these theories and similar notions like Colin Campbell has put forward, such as a ’pervious’ or ‘porous’ self to be accessible to human beings? (Campbell, 2021) Or to what extent? These and similar questions have been at the root of these investigations into this notion of an ecological self and what I’m referring to as a Relational Being, which I’ll elaborate on in time. This exploration was initially composed as a scholarly personal narrative, in which I qualitatively navigated through reality as well as leaned into political ecology while examining key contributions to this concept, theory, and philosophical inquiry of what an ecological self might be (or mean). Then it organically transformed into shifting this inquiry towards relational being. My aim is and was to make this exploration as accessible as possible for those outside of academia as well (can’t guarantee I’ll succeed with this!).
Our cohort had been exploring this notion of an ecological self and collectively, we almost universally had a difficult time understanding what exactly an ecological self even means. And we came here at least in part willingly choosing to take on this exploration. As I breakdown this fourth wall of academic essay writing, introducing the context of my positionality and this essays initial inquiry, I recall being confronted by worrying more about a good grade and my deadline, then of the importance of putting together meaningful words that clearly point to my personal, and our global human (and more-than-human)c existential struggles we collectively face and why I feel, and believe these are imperative questions to weave together.
Basically everywhere on this planet that humans reside, there are ecological, political, and social crises unfolding, of which, many can be directly connected to human contributed consequences tied to modernity and capitalism. It is also important to note that it is a very small population of humans in these positions of power and privilege that have perpetrated this way of operating on and with the planet. And yet, most of us are still complicit on so many levels. Massive hurricanes, urban flooding, wildfires, sea acidification, droughts, and more have been conclusively connected to human actions. The anthropocene is a term that has been used to describe this human caused environmental/ecological/geological epoch and shift the world is experiencing though many declare it is unfair or incorrect to use that as a blanket term for why we find ourselves, collectively facing these often very troubling transitions in and on our shared world, especially when it comes to rapid species losses and the portion of humanity most responsible for what is recognized as the sixth mass extinction (Ceballos and Ehrlich, 2018, and Mitchell, 2018).
The global north and what we call Western Civilization contains many of the key human players and cultural practices and systems that are directly contributing to the chaos that is unraveling. Capitalism, settler-colonialism, patriarchal societies, slavery, plantation culture, poverty and homelessness connected to inequality and various systems of oppression, continue. All of which are primarily due to these narratives, worldviews, and beliefs that perpetual growth and endless extraction can continue indefinitely on a finite planet. These issues are instrumental to bring into the picture when looking at how we find ourselves here. In order to have a proper context when examining such theories and ideas I believe mentioning all of this is important for the framework and the lens with which I continue to collaboratively participate in this exploration around ecological selfhood and this concept of relational being.
It seems crucial for other terms besides the anthropocene to be brought into this framework and narrative as well. Terms such as Capitalocene, Plantationocene, and Chthulucene (Haraway, 2015) among others which have been proposed. The anthropocene is a problematic and unfairly simplified blanket term for how we have arrived at this place and is rooted in the dominant Western thought/ideology, circumventing the colonialism that is underneath so much of it (Mitman, 2019).
Note: This essay was originally meant to be an academic essay, of which boundaries and criteria were in place to keep a certain framework in place though I feel obliged in this moment to impress upon those reading this that we face such dire scenarios with racial and social justice, poverty, homelessness, and so many systems of marginalization and oppression that I was challenged on how to write this in a way that could both qualify it academically, and yet still make it readable and provide accessibility for those outside these privileged walls. I ultimately shelved this writing at the time but brought many elements in to future academic writings and my dissertation project as well.
I have previously discussed the ideas of the Ecological Self and Ontopoetics in Is Freya Mathews Ontopoetics an answer to Arne Naess’s Ecological Self? This essay is more of a reflection and addendum to that piece, as just noted, this was shelved at the time and is only being revisited now (September 2022), and published here for myself and others to further explore this broader inquiry.
Our Engaged Ecology master’s degree cohort at Schumacher College was tasked with trying to make some sense of this notion of an Ecological Self in the Spring of 2021, indeed the entire module was called the Ecological Self. We discussed Neass’ contribution and introduction of the term, exploring the idea to varying degrees of confusion and success though it was helpful to then bring in the work of Freya Mathews who provided a great deal of context in a section from her book, The Ecological Self.
This provided a mapping of what she referred to as the atomistic self which was created through the separation of self/spirit, mind/matter (or world/matter), nature/culture, causing much of the disconnection, dualism, and materialist, reductionist ways of living that have nearly consumed our consciousness since at least the time of Plato on up to and through the age of the enlightenment. She then goes on to show how the cartesian/hobbesian worldview became the dominant cosmology in Western Civilization (Mathews, 1991 p.3-ff). This is where I gather we of the global north and in Western Civilization essentially began a significant almost amnesia like pattern in which we forgot our intrinsic connection to the natural world we are a part of.
As I see it, Freya Mathews exploration of ontopoetics is what could be considered an answer to the very confusing ecological self that Neass originally provided. The reasoning I have moved towards Relational Being in place of an Ecological Self is primarily a way to embrace that it is an action oriented term that also speaks to the greater connectivity and porosity that has been mentioned before. It folds in ontopoetics in a way as well. We are described as human beings, recognized scientifically as part of the animal ‘kingdom’ but rarely seen as integrated animals in a shared ecology in our storytelling, we have often viewed ourselves as above, or separate from this realm. To be a relational being is to re-integrate ourselves and also is meant to be viewed (and used) as a verb, a life way and worldview in which we live through relational be-ing.
Second note: I shall continue to do my best to write from primarily my own experience and understanding as a collaborative exploration through this subjective, ecological self/relational being lens.Embracing it is coming through from my particular positionality. As I attempt to appreciate that if this relational being is in fact a real thing, then it is important to note that the “I” that I have been using all throughout this is not the only author of these words. There is a lot to unpack there and I’m currently working on a chapter in an upcoming book called the Vegetal Turn which is all about collaborative authorship in our creation process with our more-than-human companions. I’m also going to be elaborating on much more of this exploration in a book I’m personally – and collaboratively in that relational being kind of way – working on as well.
So, as we continue from this open place of wonder and even in surrender to the not knowing of this all, I consider how this way of being could be accessible in a world in deep transition? The challenges of accessing this lens are immense. Seeing how I, and so many of us have been steadily disconnected from our relationships with (and as) nature. Being generations removed from a way of life that is intrinsically and intimately connected with all the more-than-human beings of this incredible world can often be a difficult realization to reckon with. To practice and embodied this perspective is perhaps a tall order.
Alas, as we continue to confront these challenges, I recognize that this is an ongoing process of humbly being in relationship with the world around us. In this way, I see that you and I are always in a state of becoming. So often, yearning for a sense of belonging. The invitation then would be for you to try on this garment of becoming a relational being as well and see how it fits and feels.
Third Note: I feel awkward in writing this, but I do not wish to pull an Arne Naess here and claim that I am coining a term or phrase with Relational Being. Nevertheless, I do wish for it to become more commonplace. Using this combination of words, relational + being is not an attempt to circumvent the ontologies and practices of numerous indigenous beliefs and cultures from around the world who have been living in mindful relationships with the world at large since time immemorial. Ideally my hope is that this can exist in tandem with traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The term ‘relational being’ is an attempt to succinctly describe who (or what) we are and especially for those of us who are products of modernity to have a language that hopefully makes sense and provides a guiding light towards remembrance. Much like what James Lovelock helped bring forth with GAIA theory and what Schumacher College further brought into awareness through the Holistic Science programme which studies our world in ways that embrace the sensorial feedback as much as the quantitative and reductionists methodologies to better understand and interpret reality. These can be accessible pathways for those of us who have come by this honestly through our severed cultural heritage ties.
It is increasingly important to acknowledge where I and we are complicit in the perpetuation of systems of marginalization and oppression, and at times appropriation as well. When I was initially writing this from within the hallowed halls of academia, I felt obliged, no, I felt that it was my responsibility at the very least to illuminate and acknowledge the myriad injustices of our world, both human and more-than-human, and frame my explorations from my position within the myriad crises, taking ownership, as best I could for perpetuating these practices and behaviors that are long overdue for the compost heap. Especially when it comes to white supremacy/superiority, human supremacy, and the whole neoliberal agenda that dominates the Western Hemisphere and global north’s world view. This shit has got to change.
It is baffling to consider how this Westernized perspective, modernity, the age of enlightenment, this atomistic self, and the patriarchal, settler colonial, neo-liberal, perpetual growth and extractivist way of living has maintained its hold on our imaginations for so long. The mind/body and culture/nature separation station on the linear train of humanity’s storyline needs to be closed down and left to compost as well. I am grateful for the actions so many are taking on to make this so.
Likewise, I cannot personally, with any level of success separate academics and politics, or spirituality and politics and of course, this goes for religion and politics, too. Everything is political and when we are avoiding or neglecting this it feels as though it is only through a willingness, consciously or not, to accept the status quo and be complicit in denying the storyline (story-curve? Story-swirl? Story-circle?) we are on which maintains dualism, marginalization, and oppression at so many levels. That does not sit well with me and I look forward to its transformation.
The first nations and indigenous people who have experienced the atrocities of colonization through human and cultural genocide have suffered the loss, or dwindling embers of their belief systems and worldviews for too long. I give thanks for their resilience, resistance, and perseverance as they continue to their ways of living that are essentially a relational way of being.
It is my understanding, partially informed by these notions of an ecological, pervious/porous self, and relational being that there is a strong, generationally built up delusion that the majority of us living in what is known as the global North and Western Civilization are actually separate from nature and a primal, indigenous version of ourselves. Surely it is apparent that we are quite pervious, and that separation is blurry when you really take a close gander at it. So may we welcome back this relational way of being.
To humbly surrender to the truth that we are always and forever in relationship with the world around us is a gift. This is what I am trying to confront in as simple terms as possible. This is an ongoing collaborative journey of living and breathing into the present, paying attention and moving through pathways of remembrance. Thank you for your participation in this as well. It can be a mighty messy, awkward, challenging journey we’re in the midst of! And I know I’m going to mess up and continue to fail spectacularly along the way. Surely this writing can be picked apart and lambasted for some of what might be considered audacious perspectives shared. But I will continue to trust that each act and effort towards confronting, acknowledging, grieving, and healing from this collective amnesia that we of Western Civilization and modernity have experienced will help us to amplify the narrative, mythology, and reality that I know so many among us yearn for.
Campbell, C. (2021). The Southern African Tradition. Schumacher College, Lecture.
Ceballos, G. and Ehrlich, P.R. (2018). The misunderstood sixth mass extinction. Science, 360(6393), pp.1080.2-1081.
Haraway, D. (2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, 6(1), pp.159–165.
Mathews, F. (1991) Ecological Self. S.L.:Routledge
Mitchell, A. (2018). Revitalizing laws, (re)-making treaties, dismantling violence: Indigenous resurgence against “the sixth mass extinction.” Social & Cultural Geography, pp.1–16.
Mitman, G. (2019). Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing Reflect on the Plantationocene. [online] Edge Effects. Available at: https://edgeeffects.net/haraway-tsing-plantationocene/Naess, A. (1987). ‘Self-realization: an ecological approach to being in the world.’ The Trumpeter 4(3): pp.35-42.