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Could We Learn to Be an Animist Society?

Western civilisation is not currently practicing a way of life where the other-than-human are acknowledged for their agency and personhood, and where reciprocal caring and respect for multi-species communities is commonplace. This may be a crucial underlying reason why we continue to significantly contribute to the dire ecological crises we currently face. From this perspective I consider the question, could we learn to be an animist society? By primarily looking at Richard Hardack’s Bad Company: The Corporate Appropriation of Nature, Divinity, and Personhood in U.S. Culture (Hardack 2019) and Deborah Bird Rose’s Connectivity Thinking, Animism, and the Pursuit of Liveliness (Rose 2018), I will explore this inquiry, specifically in the northern hemisphere and in Western cultures, reflecting on how challenging this pursuit could be, given the power structures and dynamics of current political, legal, and economic forces.

Animism is already entangled in modern society in the West, cloaked under different guises, not yet appearing to have reached popular cultural awareness though paradoxically, it is often loosely practiced in plain sight. As I understand it, the distilled term for the large umbrella of this concept called ‘Animism’ relates to experiencing, interpreting, and navigating through a reality where we humans sense and acknowledge the aliveness of this vibrant world, maintaining right relations and respectful connections with everything from rivers, rocks, and trees, to clouds, rain, the wind, and everything in between. Addressing modern animism while separating it from its troubled academic roots is important. For clarity I will provide a brief examination of ‘old animism’ and ‘new animism’ focusing specifically on the latter for this argument. 

Graham Harvey has put together an overview of this subject in his comprehensive work Animism: Respecting the Living World (Harvey, 2017). He reveals early traces of this ‘old animism’ starting in 1708 with the chemist and physician George Stahl who theorized there was a physical element he called anima that lived in all living things while dead objects contained none (Harvey 2017, p. 4). Harvey illuminates David Hume’s work in 1757, which he notes does not actually use the word animism though essentially explains ‘old animism’ succinctly. Distilling Hume’s words to reveal that “…humans attribute to the world around them signs of human-like-ness. This imaginative faculty or tendency is beautiful as poetry, but as religion and philosophy it is absurd, vulgar and ignorant” (Harvey 2017, p. 5). Reflections on early animism also came from James Frazer which further presented this as an unsavory perspective of early indigenous civilizations and their relationships with the world, by referring to them as ‘savages’ with absurd and preposterous views (ibid.). Then in 1871, Edward Tylor, considered the founder of the field of anthropology, brings about this notion of animism that has been most referenced and reflected on since its inception into the realm of academia. Harvey explains, “For Tyler, animism identifies a ‘primitive’ but ubiquitous religious category error, namely ‘the belief in souls or spirits’ …Animism began and continues as a way of trying to make sense of the world, it is a mythopoetic mode of discourse that explains life and events to those not yet fully acculturated to the practice of rationalist science” (Harvey 2017, p. 6f) Tylor’s use of ‘primitive people’ and ‘savages’ while working to define animism reveals some of the key distinctions between ‘old animism’ and ‘new animism’. 

It feels prudent to highlight here that these terms – steeped in supremacy by Western thinkers who’ve traveled this colonial path – perhaps unwittingly provided justifications for systems of oppression that have been perpetuated right up until today. Addressing these connection points and exploring the path of we in the West becoming an animist society seems crucial if we are indeed going to improve our modern narratives, ecological relationships and worldviews. In doing so perhaps we will be better able to move toward an equitable, global more-than-human story.

Understanding ‘new animism’ poses multiple challenges and demands we embrace shifting our perspectives towards a ‘post-Western’ or ‘postcolonialism’ mindset. Nurit Bird-David, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, Alejandro Haber, Tim Ingold, Donna Haraway, and Jane Bennett among many others have attempted to remove the narrow frames with which the colonial/Western ontologies, cosmologies, and dominant worldviews are seen through in order to broaden not only the narrative, but alter our collective perspectives so we may better comprehend ‘new animism’ and how to live through and with a world filled with vibrant, animate beings. We are entrenched in myriad dualisms and practices of ‘hyperseperation’ which Deborah Bird-Rose reveals through a reflection from her contemporary Val Plumwood who identified: 

One of the key problems of the environmental crisis is the West’s cultural pattern of hyperseparation. This term identifies dualisms that are ordered in pairs that oppose each other, and in which one is dominant, the other subordinate. It is a traumatic structure par excellence: a structure of exclusion, hierarchy, and power. Western thought works with numerous dualisms that reinforce each other, with the overall effect (not necessarily intention) of naturalizing patterns that are in fact imposed by human intellect. To name just a few: man/woman, mind/matter, culture/nature, reason/emotion, civilized/savage. Separation, opposition, hierarchy, and the necessity of domination prevail. The nature–culture dualism is integral to the ecological crises we now face: humans and nature are held to be radically, oppositionally, different. Humans are held to be superior to all else (Rose 2018, p. 493f).

The ethnographer Irving Hallowel’s phrase from 1960, ‘other-than-human-person’ proved helpful for better conceptualizing being in right relationship within an animist society. By doing so all ‘persons’ are respected and given due care (Harvey 2017, p. 482). In the conclusion of Harvey’s contribution to this subject he sums up what this could mean for us nicely as he states, “Animism invites a renewed engagement with nature, culture, religion, and science (Harvey 2017, p. 495). 

The ecologist and philosopher David Abram and his slight twist on the ‘other-than-human-person’ phrase ‘more-than-human’ came in 1996 and has for many become the line that is used most frequently these days. His modification comes from the delightful book and engaging book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Abram dances on the precipice of academia, while dabbling frequently outside the realm of peer-review. His writing is accessible, full of wit and rich poetry, contributing a great wealth of work both within academic circles and far beyond in what may best be described here as our collective pop-cultural consciousness.

After gathering a sense of what would be involved in learning to be an animist society and finding the words and language to bring in this animistic perspective of personhood, we arrive at an important challenge posed by Richard Hardack that would suggest it will be quite a difficult road ahead in the West for this transition to happen. He points to how U.S. corporations have taken many of these principles and concepts and co-opted and appropriated this idea of personhood so effectively, that not only are corporations now legally defined as persons, but that in this unfolding process these past few centuries, through crafty corporate legal efforts, we humans have culturally lost some sense of this relationship with personhood ourselves.  Hardack argues:

Corporations have become forms of sovereigns themselves, primarily by acquiring human rights and “personalities” and tethering those qualities to the corporation’s inhuman attributes. Through now credited with personhood, corporations cannot act with univocal intention or possess agency. They are at best simulacra, imitations of human life. But corporations don’t just mimic human behaviors; they chronically challenge and destabilize the status of personhood, and what it means to be a person (Hardack 2019, p251)

This is an important argument and challenge that must be faced as we consider if it is, in fact, possible to learn to be an animist society while corporations are deemed persons. Hardack further elaborates on this notion and its potential consequences by adding:

It therefore becomes critical to track the manifold cultural, aesthetic, legal, and ontological inversions that have allowed corporations to regulate the state. The causes and effects of these inversions affect society at all levels and in all contexts. As one disturbing example, it is now commonplace for many corporations, even those not immediately involved in information technology or social media, to refer to persons as the products rather than the consumers. Virtually all media, which now includes everything from entertainment to politics, serve as a pretext or lure for corporate advertising and manipulation, and a distraction from corporate maneuvering. All these inversions and effects are intimately predicated on the notion that the corporation is now the person (Hardack 2019 p. 252).

Hardack presents an unsettling position that makes learning to be an animist society a daunting task. He devotes much of his argument to illuminating how corporations and their legally binding laws have been formed directly, and indirectly with the help of academics, philosophers and poets who’ve shaped these concepts. In this way we see how tricky it will be to shift this co-opted movement and untangle from the appropriation of some of these animistic concepts that corporations have effectively integrated into modern society. Further reflections from Hardack troublingly display that: 

Similarly,  Jane  Bennett’s  notion  of  enchanted  matter, impersonal affect and heterogeneous/distributive agency could also apply to the same kind of animism that gives corporations the ontological status of persons. To deny the distinction between the living and the non-living can play directly into the absent hands of the corporation. Such theorists sometimes confuse the impersonal, which they tether to a rights discourse, with the egalitarian; the excesses that can mar personal discourses do not warrant their abandonment, but regulation (Hardack 2019, p. 262).

Reading these observations may be unsettling to those who wish to participate in shifting society towards a collective animism. It is revealed through Hardack’s work that in some ways we already have an animist worldview, only it is selective and primarily beneficial to the perpetual growth narrative that colonialism and capitalism have championed for so many generations now. Hardack further exacerbates this outlook, noting “Accumulation and aggregation are usually zero-sum games; the more money, power, sheer mass and ontological privilege corporations have, the less is left to Individuals” (Hardack 2019, p. 277). This would imply that we find ourselves at the mercy of corporations as the consolidation of privilege and power is already near absolute in many ways. Towards the conclusion of his examination Hardack sees that we individuals in the West have relinquished many of our personal rights and communal ways of being in this process. Surrendering them not only to governments, which are often feared by the public and in social/environmental justice circles, but more unsettlingly, to corporations. This, Hardack argues, is more detrimental to our connections to communities, ourselves, and the health of the ecological world we are a part of (Hardack 2019, p. 285). From this viewpoint, the way forward seems not only unclear, but extraordinarily confounding to consider if we could still learn to be an animist society while this corporate representation of personhood persists.

Conversely, there are many other perspectives to take into account and what we’ll be exploring now loops back to the work of Deborah Bird Rose. This is a more encouraging view of how we might find our way toward an animistic society. Starting with Rose’s idea that ecological thinking “takes us away from certainty and into probability. Connectivity entails interdependence and brings us into domains of responsibility, accountability, proximity, ethics, and community. These are domains in which many Indigenous people have been living for millennia. There is much to learn, much to be shared” (Rose 2018, p. 494f). Through learning and sharing we may be able to transform our thinking and living in a way where we can travel a path of connectivity in order to make our way towards becoming an animist society. Rose further shares an optimistic concept of ‘strong animism’ in which:

Bonds of mutual life-giving subtend relationships among individuals and groups, across species; they include a great range of beings, even some landforms. These relationships are the result of creation, and they enmesh beings, including humans, within life-giving bonds that are inclusive, that do not have humans as the focal point or apex, and that are pervaded with an ethics of care and responsibility. This is an ecological ontology in the best possible sense: it is relational, and it articulates patterns and ethics of connectivities, continuities, and responsibilities (Rose 2018, p. 495)

There is significantly more to Rose’s analysis of how we can shift our lives towards greater connectivity and she notes the need for stories to help carry us there. Rose takes great effort to acknowledge the indigenous cultures and societies who have, and continue to practice forms of animistic living. Providing insights that reveal it is through their storytelling that a lot of this way of living is conveyed to past, present, and future generations. What is important for Western civilization is to work towards stories that do the same while being careful not to appropriate these other cultures’ tales in the process. Rose expresses that, “the more ethically responsible step is to examine patterns, and search for connections, by recuperating alternatives from our own stories” (Rose 2018, p. 502). This is great advice. May we heed it and take the necessary steps, no matter how awkward they may be, towards these alternatives to our present dominant detrimental and disconnecting stories.

I truly do believe it is possible that we could learn to be an animist society though in order to do so, the way forward first requires a great deal of stepping backward. Decolonizing our way of thinking and living will be crucial in this process. One of the paths put forward that resonates well with me is by Tim Ingold. He sees that what indigenous cultures have remained connected to has been lost to us in the West, that “these peoples are united not in their beliefs but in a way of being that is alive and open to a world in continuous birth. In this animic ontology, beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships” (Ingold 2006, p. 9). Likewise, Nurit Bird-David emphasizes how there is still a need to untangle from the way ‘old animism’ was presented with its misguided, if not directly offensive interpretations of indigenous people and their ways of thinking and interacting with the world. Which led “the theoreticians to prejudge the attribution of ‘‘personhood’’ to natural objects as empirically unfounded and consequently to direct analytical effort to explaining why people did it and why and how (against all appearances) their ‘‘belief’’ was not a part of their practical knowledge but at best a part of their symbolic representations or a mistaken strategic guess” (Bird-David 1999, p. 68). In addition to this, seeing animism not as just a belief system but rather a way of life also may be key.

I am grateful for these opportunities and challenges presented as we consider if we could learn to be an animist society, it is helpful to take stock in where we find ourselves. Hardack presents his daunting argument which reveals how the West, and specifically U.S. corporations have all but dominated the work of bringing animism into society, just not how it was holistically intended to be practiced. It may be that this will pose one of the greatest obstacles to overcome. I hesitate to put forth any actionable solution to this quandary though I appreciate the efforts made by courageous indigineous and Western groups (led often by youth, and those who are marginalized and oppressed) who stand up to these corporate, often deified, and virtually immortal ‘persons’ with their protests, direct actions, and efforts to stop these machines of perpetual growth. Confronting the oil pipelines, or ‘black snakes’ as they have been named by Native Americans like Winona LaDuke is an encouraging example of this (LaDuke, 2015). We can also shift our perspective and learn differently through efforts and organized actions from such groups like Earth Guardians which: 

Is an intergenerational organization with youth at the forefront that trains diverse youth to be effective leaders in the environmental, climate and social justice movements across the globe – using art, music, storytelling, on the ground projects, civic engagement and legal action to advance solutions to the critical issues we face as a global community” (Earth Guardians, 2018). 

In these and many other ways, and through continued actions that confront, reveal, and challenge the problematic language, rules, regulations, and laws that have allowed for corporations to be deemed ‘persons’ we could also find our way towards learning to embrace more-than-human relationships as an animist society. India, New Zealand, and Bangladesh have recently granted legal personhood to rivers (Willems, Lambooy and Begum, 2021) and more inspiring actions like this are taking place all over the world. This pursuit matters and it can be argued it is part of what hinges on humanity either continuing on this wrecking ball course around the planet or significantly altering the Westernized/Modernity portion of our species frame of mind so that we once again place care and right relations at the forefront with the more-than-human world we are intrinsically a part of.


Bird-David, Nurit (1999) “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology Current Anthropology , Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? (February 1999), pp. S67-S91 The University of Chicago Press

Earth Guardians (2018). Earth Guardians. [online] Earth Guardians. Available at:

Hardack, Richard (2019) Bad Company: The Corporate Appropriation of Nature, Divinity, and Personhood in U.S. Culture British journal of American legal studies, 2019-12-31, Vol.8 (2), p.249-288

Harvey, G. (2017). Animism : respecting the living world. London: Hurst & Company.

Harvey, G. (2017). If Not all Stones Are Alive…: Radical Relationality in Animism Studies. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 11(4), pp.481–497

Ingold, Tim (2006) Rethinking the Animate, Re-animating Thought, Ethnos, 71:1, 9-20

Rose, Deborah Bird (2018) Connectivity Thinking, Animism, and the Pursuit of Liveliness Educational theory, 2017-18, Vol.67 (4), p.491-508 Malden, USA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc

Willems, M., Lambooy, T. and Begum, S. (2021). New Governance Ways Aimed at Protecting Nature for Future Generations: The Cases of Bangladesh, India and New Zealand: Granting Legal Personhood to Rivers. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 690(1), p.012059.

An Ecological Selfie from this summer (2022) in the High Sierra’s in and around Mono Hot Springs

Is Freya Mathews Ontopoetics the Answer to Arne Naess’s Ecological Self?

Environmental philosophers (or ecophilosophers) like Arne Naess and Freya Mathews have argued that in order to change our current disconnected from nature and anthropocentric trajectory, we need to resist the individualism and atomisation of modernity and instead embrace an ‘ecological’ self. Freya Mathews has written about the ecological self in great detail since Naess brought the term into existence though his eco-philosophy (or ecosophy), and over the past 20 years Mathews exploration has led to a concept known as ‘ontopoetics’ which could potentially be a pathway, or practice and answer to the ecological self that Neass originally provided.

This essay, originally presented as a summative essay in my master’s degree program, was an investigations into this exploration of ontopoetics as the potential answer to engaging with this ecological self. This work was done partially through a scholarly personal narrative, which will be the italicized portions of this essay. I also qualitatively navigated this journey leaning into political ecology while examining key contributions to these concepts, theories, and the philosophical inquiry of what an ecological self might be, and how ontopoetics could potentially provide access for people beyond just academia. This subject brings up further questions for me as well. 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 for the millions suffering from systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, or xenophobia. I also wonder if connecting with the ecological self can only be accessed through a regular practices.

A great challenge and task I did my best to also hold on to throughout this journey was the question; could capitalism, settler colonialism, and our global economic systems rationalize functioning the way they have and do if embracing an ecological self became a common practice? In my last essay, Could we Learn to be an Animist Society? (Culhane, 2021) I briefly explored similar ecological and political questions while focusing on animism. Combined with this exploration into the ecological self, this all eventually greatly informed my thesis dissertation project, the three-part podcast Engaged With Ecology. For now, I shall attempt to confine the exploration so as to better illuminate the ecological self, ontopoetics, and my relationship with them.

These words are being written on what is a lovely, late summer day. Autumn is in the air and a light cool breeze is carrying the sounds of robins, squirrels, and buzzing insects into this space presently. It is comfortable and I am feeling the support of a full belly and the welcome hydration from this clean, fresh water in the cup by my side. Knowing there is a sense of stability with this roof over my head and a warm bed here for me tonight fills me with gratitude. On this in breath I’m further taking a moment to reflect on the position of privilege I’m living with as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied male human being. Here in the countryside of Devon, England, the world around me appears to be very close to what I imagine is an idealised, romanticised, Westernised (and White) nearly perfect version of reality. I’ve recently concluded the taught portion of this masters programme, which fits within the boundaries of the environmental humanities, in a cohort of people from various parts of the world, in humble recognition that we are among a tiny fraction of the human population that is able to devote some of our time and energy to such pursuits. It is from this place of acknowledgment that I shall commence this exploration.

Back in the summer of 1987, Arne Neass poured out a heaping dose of rather confusing, though provocative thoughts and ideas that circled around this idea and coinage of the term ‘ecological self’. This is how it was introduced:

Traditionally the maturity of self has been considered to develop through three stages, from ego to social self, comprising the ego, and from there to the metaphysical self, comprising the social self. But nature is then largely left out in the conception of this process. Our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children, and the identification with human living beings, are largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce, perhaps for the first time ever, a concept of ecological self. We may be said to be in, of and for Nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations (Neass 1987, p. 35). 

It would appear Neass is pointing towards a way of being that reconnects our experience as humans in a relational way and as John Seed points out in his review of the ecological self, “Ideas only engage one part of our mind in cognition. We also need ecological feelings and actions as well as ideas to nurture a maturing ecological identity in a place” (Seed 2006, p. 98). Seed further elaborates on Naess’ contribution to both deep ecology and this pursuit of an ecological self in sharing how the development of “The Council of All Beings” (co-created by Seed, Naess, Joanna Macy, and Pat Flemming) is a set of experiential deep ecology processes, ceremonies and rituals that help us to expand our identification in the way that Naess describes. “Community therapy to develop deep awareness of our ecological self” is a good way of thinking about this work. (Seed 2006, p. 99) I found one more piece of Seeds reflection very insightful that speaks to an action or a practice that can bring about our ecological self and notes this is not just a current dilemma, he notes, “that the tendency to disconnect from the natural world might not be just a modern phenomenon as I had assumed. The fact that indigenous people invariably practice such ceremonies, speaks of the human tendency to forget who we really are and wander off into socially constructed identities. Why else would we need to regularly and powerfully remind ourselves that we are part of the web of life? (Seed 2006, p 100). In this recognition it seems clear that there is a practice, process, or even set of rituals and/or ceremonies that may be needed in order to develop an ongoing connection with an individual and collective ecological self.

I feel it important to elaborate on something in relation to indigenous practices and beliefs here that came to my attention when first reading Naess’ article where he introduces the concept of an ecological self, he relates a case study and shares that, “The Lapps of Arctic Norway have been hurt by interference with a river for the purpose of hydroelectricity. In court, accused of illegal demonstration at the river, one Lapp said that the part of the river in question was ‘part of himself’. This kind of spontaneous answer is not uncommon among people. They have not heard about the philosophy of the wider and deeper self, but they talk spontaneously as if they had” (Naess 1987, p. 37). This statement feels presumptuous and problematic in negating that perhaps the Lapps people already have a cosmology and ontological notion similar to his term the ecological self. To say it came out spontaneously does not sit well with me. While I do not know anything of the Lapps of Arctic Norway beyond what Naess provided here, I have studied and been in relationships with people in the United States (from various indigenous sovereign nations within it), and specifically what comes to mind is the Lakota and their words ‘Wankan Tanka’, which translates essentially to ‘great spirit’,  and ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’, which has been translated as ‘we are all related’ or ‘all my relations’. And as Justin de Leon notes in Lakota Experiences of (in) security Cosmology and Ontological Security, “This complete unity of all reality is represented in how the Lakota view Wankan Tanka. The Lakota traditionally internalize the presence of the celestial in their everyday lives, causing them to revere and treat all matters of life as sacred…This wholeness is central to Lakota life – that reality is bound by a sacred reciprocity, a balance achieved through a series of interrelationships. Being one with the universe leads to harmony and security” (de Leon 2018, p.40f). These two expressions and beliefs combined feel quite close to what Naess is pointing to with the idea of a wider and deeper, or ecological self. I bring this in as an acknowledgment that settler colonialism and modern Western culture and academia proposing notions like an ecological self as a new concept is questionable. I may be missing the nuances and differences of what Naess proposes with an ecological self and what Wankan Tanka and Mitakuye Oyasin represent but I feel further inclined to share one more excerpt from de Leon which again notes their similarities: 

Cosmology creates the conceptual and ethical scaffolding in which the Lakota process and react to daily life. The worldviews represented in Lakota experiences of security are all linked to cosmic, stellar theology – an identifiable pre-given essence. For example, mitakuye oyasin is based upon the belief that all comes from the same source, the same cosmic energy – the Nagila. This, in turn, is informed by Lakota cosmology of unity and coherence between the stellar and the earthly. Cosmology dictates the practical values and assumptions that shape how life is lived and how emotions and security are understood in the first place. “Mitakuye oyasin is in no way regarded as a normative proposition, but as a statement of simple fact whose falsity is so completely unthinkable that it may rightly be regarded as an aspect of tra- ditional Lakota common sense,” asserts Beier (2003, 104). (de Leon 2018, p.42)

What is referred to here as traditional Lakota common sense in comparison to how Naess describes one of the Lapps of Arctic Norway describing the river as a part of himself as a spontaneous answer is unfortunate, disrespectful, and sadly, one of the ways we in the West have contributed to the erasure or invalidation of pre-colonial peoples and cultures. If we loop back around to Naess’ original introduction to the term ecological self, and bring in J. Baird Callicot’s Note’s on ‘Self-realization’ paper, I see a close comparison in Mitakuye oyasin, Wankan Tanka, and the ecological self, as Callicot describes: 

What is an ecological approach to being in the world? In the context of ‘The Shallow and the Deep’ article Self-realization is a relational conception of the self and, more importantly, an experience of oneself in relational terms. One is and one experiences oneself to be a ‘knot in the biospherical net of intrinsic relations.’ Or better: as a node or nexus in a skein of internal socio-environmental relations. One experiences ‘the beauty and complexity of nature [as] continuous with [one]sel[f].’ (Callicott 2017, p. 239)

In the exploration of how to access this ecological self, I will bring in the research of António Carvalho who explored meditation, affect, and ecosphy’s place in connecting with an ecological self, noting: 

“The development of a new somatic mode of attention rescues practitioners from the endless cycle of mind wandering, resulting in an increasing awareness of sensations. This attunement to embodied experience is often described by resorting to natural images and metaphors. The meditative body is progressively porous to the sensate and the more-than-human. As Thrift (2000, 49) suggests, contemplative practices ‘expand the bio-political domain’ and indicate that the world has not been ‘dis- enchanted’: ‘(…) the mystical qualities of the world remain in place. Assured by a whole series of body practices, some old and some new, these practices have produced an expansion of awareness of present time’ (Thrift 2000, 35). Meditative practices of the self bring forth vitalist forms of affect, turning participants porous to sensations and energies (Carvalho 2017, p. 9)

Recognising the ecological self is an action, a state of motion and fluidity, in concert with and in relation to other aspects of our combined, shared ecology. This points similarly to the work of Michel Foucault and the philosophy of a technology of the self where he calls upon us to take care of the self, basing some of this methodology from a neoplatonic curriculum. He  states that, “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Foucault, 1982). Taking account of this, while not being explicitly related to ecological self exploration, we can see how there are many approaches to even beginning to make sense of what a ‘self’ is. 

Colin Campbell provides a different notion of self and an ecological self, he speaks to the ‘pervious self’ and this idea that porosity is not a foregone conclusion but rather an ongoing process where we actively allow the ‘other’ in. That we can be a “self of kinship”(Campbell, 2021). In a lecture he gave our cohort he spoke to the untangling we must do with such narratives as referring to parts of nature as ‘resources’ which he proclaimed is one of the ultimate displacements from our inextricably connected relationship with and as a part of nature. I like how he put it, “We are nature, naturing”. By objectifying nature as an ‘other’ we become complicit and perpetuate the current collective narrative. We have turned life forces other than humans into commodities. In addition to this, he pointed to how at the core of our current mythic narrative there is this ‘affect ambient anxiety’ where we value ourselves through a lens of productivity, combined with so many of us living largely in a world with too much artificial light, drivin by stimulation, this is detrimentally shaping our behaviours, actions, and reality. We must deconstruct ourselves from the narrative, this ideology, and these beliefs. (Campbell, 2021)

This leads me into what Donald Rothberg illuminates in the Crisis of Modernity and the Emergence of Socially engaged Spirituality, providing a similar perspective to what Campbell spoke to when he points out that, “The idea of a “socially engaged” spirituality is that of developing spiritual qualities or virtues in the context of full involvement in social, political, and communal life. To embody such a spirituality is to approach and express “spirit,” the “sacred,” or “God,” not through separation from the “world,” from the spheres of family, but in the midst of embeddedness and activity in these spheres” (Rothberg 1993, p. 105).

And here we are finally brought around to Freya Mathews’ wonderful contributions to this subject. In her book The Ecological Self, she starts early with this description of where modern western thought has come to:

Such, at any rate, has been the presupposition of our thinking, of western thought in general, and of our philosophy in particular: that the world is made up of a plurality of discrete individual substances: the world has been viewed, since classical times, as an array of individual objects which are logically mutually independent but bound in a web of causal ties. That this individualistic bias is merely a contingency of our culture is evidenced by the fact that in many human cultures it has been transcended: ideological, or perhaps experiential, factors have inclined these cultures to a flow view of things—the familiar eastern view of the world as a unity in which the appearances of plurality and diversity are no more than ripples on the surface of an oceanic continuum. (Mathews 1991, p. 1)

And so Mathews’ work continued developing eventually into this realm of ontopoetics, where she presents the idea of accessing an ecological self through an enchanting process which is the closest form of describing our relationship with the natural world in magical terms. Or as Mathews puts it, ontopoetics, “seeks to call forth the communicative potential of reality, devising forms of address conducive to communicative encounter. One form such address might take is the time-honored one, prominent in many religious and spiritual traditions, of invocation. To invoke the world is to ask it to manifest its self-meanings to us” (Matthews 2017, p. 224). There is an importance placed on ontopoetics as an ongoing practice. Mathews impresses on us that, “To engage in ontopoetics it is necessary first to open one’s mind to the possibility that reality is not only relational in its structure, in an ecological sense, but also potentially communicative and responsive to us” (Matthews 2017, p. 223f). Further noting “Each time the world arranges itself with poetic intent, each time it manifests in the poetic image of our invocation, it is as if it presents itself to us for the very first time” (Matthews 2017, p. 225).

What Mathews does in delivering these exciting ideas around ontopoetics, it seems reasonable to conclude that this could in fact provide a pathway to access one’s own greater ecological self, individually, and in larger group contexts. Mathews shares that onopoetics and the “Invocation in the present sense may be practiced privately or collectively. Contemporary examples of collective invocational practices include those involved in bioregional rituals—ceremonies or festivals enacted to celebrate place or landscape or local ecologies” (Matthews 2017, p. 225). 

In my own experiences throughout my life I have practiced varying degrees of this theory while admittedly being unaware of what the philosophical terms/concepts were. By this I mean to say much like with animism, I practiced forms of it throughout my life and it wasn’t until deep personal and academic explorations more recently that I was able to learn what contributions to these ideas and theories there were. Similarly, in just this past term, I created a ritual, which I didn’t recognise as such until recently, of going to the River Dart every day to do what is called around these parts as a ‘wild swim’, it was a daily practice that involved the same rhythms and routines and while I wasn’t quite thinking of it as such, I was creating ontopoetic invocations as well. And nature and the world around me was indeed responding through numerous interactions with the river itself, the trees nearby, and various birds and animals as well. In my recent research I was pleased to find others in academia actually exploring ontopoetics and connecting with rivers through an article entitled: River Connections…Voicing Rivers through Ontopoetics: A Co-operative Inquiry (Kurio and Reason, 2021), I was so excited in fact that I reached out to one of the lead authors, Jacqueline Kurio and am now in communication with them about more of their research. I will be continuing that communication and hope to find ways to potentially collaborate as well, or at the very least, have it inform my own explorations with the River Dart and our ontopoetic journey together.

In this exploration of the ecological self, as introduced by Arne Naess, I have attempted to elaborate on and clarify to some degree this notion and theory through various other scholars and philosophers and then bring the focus onto ontopoetics brought forth by Freya Mathews as the potential answer to accessing this ecological self. I feel these ideas require a great deal more elaboration and exploration to be better understood and accessible for an average reader, I personally am still working to understand and comprehend the ethics and philosophy that surrounds this subject. Especially when it comes to non-Western thought and the idea that other cultures and peoples have quite likely already deeply explored these concepts and have been practicing them since time immemorial. I conclude with the surrendering thought that there is still a great deal of work for me to do in this exploration. As much as I can grasp what the ecological self is, and ontopoetics as a pathway and practice for accessing it goes, I am in support of it and grateful for the contributions all have put forth thus far.


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