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Anthropology for the Ecozoic

Facing the Ecological Crisis

We are living in an age of anthropogenic ecological crisis marked by unprecedented climate change, the spectre of mass extinction and the disruption of planetary life-support systems. This crisis makes clear that the human-centered ethical frameworks integral to “modern” life, (those that orient conduct, dictate norms, and inform core values) have failed. The task ahead is to reimagine how to inhabit the planet we share with the vast but delicately interconnected community of life within which we are interdependent, and thus to rethink what it means to be human. Given our western scholarly traditions, which continue to treat ethical questions as strictly human in scope, and our political ones, which still equate the good with unfettered economic growth, this is a daunting prospect. Grasping the magnitude and urgency of this task poses a radical challenge to the university system writ large, demanding the examination and reconceptualization of the foundational disciplines we have come to take for granted: ethics; economics; law; political science; even anthropology—the study of what, at base, it means to be human. Through this we aim to develop the conceptual equipment—the ideas and methods—to “ecologize” our ethics, and to train future generations in this form of thinking, that they in turn may guide us toward a habitable future. 

To accomplish this we need to imagine a new narrative for the human and a fresh trajectory for the university. We believe the university system must assume its proper role in guiding us toward what Thomas Berry has called the “Ecozoic”—an era defined by the recognition that human life is only a part of the greater living planetary processes that hold and sustain us[1]. This document lays out a vision for the Anthropology for the Ecozoic (A4E) Network Strategy Center (NSC) of the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) initiative.  Our faculty and PhD students carry out cutting-edge conceptual work that grows out of engaged research. The goal is to radically shift how we think, and act, as a steppingstone to the Ecozoic. This work drives our teaching and leadership-training activities. A4E serves as a fulcrum for alliance-building inside and outside of the academy, as well as for disseminating the Ecozoic vision to the student body and society in general through various creative channels.

The Anthropological Grounding

Anthropology, the study of what it means to be human, has a unique role to play in grounding the Ecozoic vision. More than any other discipline it can critically interrogate this age some refer to as the Anthropocene—the “age of humans,” defined by an unmaking of colossal proportions precipitated by a way of living and an ethos that informs a metaphysics that we can call “modern”.[2] It does so by excavating the evolutionary, historical, political, economic, technoscientific and ideological processes by which human Culture in its modernist expression has become a force of Nature of such magnitude that it now threatens life on Earth. The human species is unique in its capacity for symbolic thought[3].  Symbolic thought, which is best exemplified by human language, refers to the world by creating separate systems of representation. What anthropologists formally define as “Culture” is the product of symbolic thought. The tendency for Culture to become separate from the the natural world from which it emerged is as old as the human species. In societies living in close relation to the living ecological processes in which we are all embedded—societies that understand humans as interdependent and interconnected within the Community of Life—this tendency is kept in check. But in societies in which the links to the living world have become severed, the inherent tendency for Culture to become deracinated runs wild.[4] This is particularly true of Europe and its settler colonies. For centuries now, the “West” has tended toward increasing separation from the rest of the Community of Life (which is only intensified by the predominate dualist modern metaphysic). This broken relationship is what defines the modern condition; it drives our ecological crises.

When anthropology focuses only on Culture as that which makes us distinct it exacerbates this split. But anthropology can also be a creative force in recognizing how Culture is nested within Nature and in this way it can help foster the transition to the Ecozoic. It can do so thanks to its special place in the academy as well as its distinctive approach, which constantly subverts the expectations of the academy. Anthropology, of course, like the other disciplines, grew out of an “enlightenment” age—and now clearly defunct, yet lingering vision of inquiry that sundered the study of matter from the study of mind. Matter, understood as mechanism, was left to the scientists and engineers, and the rest was left to the priests, poets, and philosophers. But anthropology has always, in some way or another, resisted this stark separation: Franz Boas, for example, focused as much on Nature as he did on Culture, and key figures such as Gregory Bateson dedicated their careers to understanding how humans—with their admittedly distinctive minds—form part of the larger “ecology of mind”[5] that extends beyond us.

Anthropology, as a discipline, has a unique method to study the human: ethnography. Ethnography involves a lifelong—and life-changing—commitment to “deep listening.” We have developed a series of practical tools for immersing ourselves in “the field” for extensive periods of time, and we reflect on this immersion with the explicit goal of exploding our foundational, and often taken for granted, metaphysical assumptions, theories and epistemologies. This allows us to attend to the world afresh, to see it with wonder, to continuously remake ourselves in its image, and discover how better to live in the living world in which we are embedded. The goal is to break the intellectual shackles that, to this day, propagate the idea that we humans are separate from the living world that sustains us.

Anthropology is a reflexive science. In addition to grasping diverse ways of living well with the living world it is anthropology’s responsibility to turn the lens back on our modern metaphysic.  Transformation to the Ecozoic must come from a deep understanding of the unquestioned “truths” and ethical underpinnings of this worldview, which, as is becoming increasingly clear, is incompatible with the health of the community of life. These reflections form a necessary foundation for “seeing” different possibilities and for active scholarship to create conditions to prefigure pathways to the Ecozoic.

To Think Like Life

The practice of deep listening central to our field has led many of us to question the disciplinary lines that divide humans from the rest of the sentient world. Following in the footsteps of our fieldwork interlocutors, the kind of listening we do has become “planetary,” attuned to the many kinds of selves, subjects—perhaps even spirits—with whom we share this living Earth. Thinking well in the academy will involve thinking with and like these others, and anthropology provides a robust set of tools to do so.

 

This has implications for the university, where we both model the world we want to inhabit in the future and learn to live with and like the one we live in now. For value is intrinsic to the living world, even if we’ve become soul-blind to it. Max Weber called this condition “disenchantment.”[6] It is marked by the inability to see the means and ends intrinsic to the living world, by deafness to its vital song, by the attempt to extract value instead of taking ludic part in its flourishing. The enemy of this disenchantment is what Gregory Bateson called “play,” which comes of end-directed dynamics when their ends are temporarily suspended. The “playful nip”, he wrote, “denotes the bite, but does not denote what would be denoted by the bite.”[7] Dogs bare their teeth and snap as if they mean it—in order to signal that they don’t. Play is central to life, and all social creatures engage in it; out of the loosening of means and ends something new can emerge. It is from play that novelty and possibility emerge. 

The “higher education crisis” we read so much about might well be reframed in these terms, as a crisis of disenchantment and value extraction. The language and logic of ends, outcomes, service provision and accountability are inimical to thought and can foreclose it; in the name of the community of life they should be met with ludic resistance, for the life of the mind is inseparable from that of the planet. The environmental crisis we face requires more than a targeted response; the ethical imperative is precisely to hold open spaces for play at many scales and across many domains. Forests hold open spaces for play, and so should vibrant democracies and universities.[8]

A4E is in this sense not just a means to an end—a transition to the Ecozoic—but a model for Ecozoic life itself  by emulating the dynamics that allow for a diversity of living thoughts to emerge from complex living systems. That is to say, A4E aims to create an institutional space of “serious play”— relatively free from outside constraints—for the generation and dissemination of ideas, while having as its practical, ethical and political end the task of addressing the defining crises of our times.

As anthropologists we move attentively among worlds; we develop new ways of thinking from this movement; and we strive to bring these together in a renewed understanding of how to live on a shared planet that today is under threat. As such, our task is to create a venue for a variety of thinkers to come together to think freely, both independently and collaboratively, about how to live well within the living world. A4E aims to foster the development of new conceptual idioms through which people from different intellectual traditions—indigenous, activist, artistic, scientific, religious—can learn to speak to each other in ways not reducible to one worldview or another, but instead oriented toward discovering an as-yet-uncharted Ecozoic paradigm. We do this via workshops, visiting scholars in residence, guest speakers, films, art installations, and discussions. As we initiate future anthropologists (and other scholars influenced by anthropology) we are inducting them into this serious game, so that they can eventually guide us to think and act creatively and collectively as we face the myriad of ecological crises, with climate disruption at the center.

The climate crisis, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009)[9] notes, is a problem that involves time. We are caught at the intersection of geological and historical ages, in which the burning of the bodies of ancient fossilized life forms is—over the space of a few short generations—creating problems for a future that exceeds our temporal imagination, constrained as it is by the brevity of our lifespans and election cycles. Against this brevity we need the wisdom of our collective elders—both inside and outside the academy—as well as the voices of our youth, including our students, who will have to live with the effects of our inaction. Our goal as Ecozoic anthropologists, then, is not just to teach our students but to learn from them, and to recognize, in the process, that there are other teachers out there from whom we might all learn.

 

The goal of learning is to find and enact ways to live well; we pursue knowledge in the service of ethics. Ethics invariably requires a vision of the future—the definition of the “good” and its attainment—and so ethical inquiry is always speculative inquiry; and speculation is central to life. As Richard Powers, author of the Pulitzer-winning novel The Understory puts it:

Trees are doing science. Running a billion field tests. They make their conjectures and the living world tells them what works. Life is speculation and speculation is life. What a marvelous word! It means to guess. It also means to mirror.[10]

 

One can push this thinking further: it is not so much that trees do science, but rather that good science—eminently fallible and speculative—“does tree.” The scientific method is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to think like life. But science’s rigorous method constrains its own poesis—its ability to speculate about, to guess at, to imagine, new, more verdant and more harmonious futures. And in this regard, it is in the realm of the Arts that we are freest to imagine the Ecozoic.  It is for this reason that the world of contemporary art has come to stand alongside the university as a speculative space to think the future, and even scientists turn to it for insight. Anthropology, the discipline charged with continually asking what the human is and might be, straddles the arts and the sciences. It is in a privileged position to tack between these in the pursuit of an ecological ethics worthy of our times. Anthropology makes a proper home for Ecozoic thinking, for it is the speculative science best poised to reimagine and reintegrate what it means to be human.

An Institutional Home for the “Ecozoic”

A4E, dedicated to fostering a transition to the Ecozoic, draws its core mission from the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) initiative co-directed by Peter Brown and Colin Scott. A4E, led by Eduardo Kohn, is the McGill node or Network Strategy Centre (NSC) in the L4E network—providing crucial anthropological insight for rethinking the human. That is to say, modernist understandings of what it means to be human are constrained by assumptions about human distinctiveness that are a barrier to mutual flourishing among beings.

McGill Anthropology is a hub for innovative ethnographic methods where experimental forms of “deep listening” and ecological attunement are being developed through the Critical Media Lab (CML). Furthermore, A4E’s engaged research activities are grounded in the department’s extensive research and pedagogical engagement with Territories of Life, through the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives (CICADA), focusing on many Indigenous and other place-based peoples’ deep connection to land and water and the ecological wisdom emerging therefrom.

Critical Media Lab

Our current anthropogenic ecological crisis is the product of humanity’s increasing estrangement from the living world that holds us. As Kohn has argued in his book How Forests Think,[11] our ability to create domains of linguistic representation partially decoupled from the world to which they refer is the motor behind those processes that sever us from the living world, and one of the reasons why academia—logocentric by nature—has had difficulty envisioning an alternative. There are ways, Kohn argues, to attune ourselves to the sounds, images, signs and gestures that language-based thought often misses. Sensory ethnography is one such tool for the kind of “deep listening” that an ethics in sync with the life of the planet needs. Sensory ethnography is an innovative methodology, often making use of film and sound recording, that recognizes the limitations of human language and discourse in capturing the plenitude of life. Sensory ethnography is central to Ecozoic inquiry, and—as a form of storytelling without words—a vital modality of Ecozoic knowledge dissemination. A4E benefits greatly from its close relationship to McGill’s Critical Media Lab, which is directed by anthropologists and Diana Allan and Lisa Stevenson.

Territories of Life

The empirical foundations for developing an Ecozoic vision in anthropology lie in the globally transformative synergy of engaged research, the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) initiative, and the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives (CICADA) under the rubric of Territories of Life. Territories of Life are territories and areas governed, managed and conserved by custodian Indigenous peoples and local communities. A4E creatively incorporates these efforts in the service of reimagining, what it means to be human.

As a multidisciplinary research centre CICADA is central to this endeavor. It engages the conceptual and practical potential of indigenous peoples’ collective “life projects,” understood as an ethos of the good life, embedded in peoples’ experiences of place. Life projects serve as a counter to modern ideas of progress often falsely claimed to be universal, and they generate alternative ways of living within the living world. Life projects emphasize buen vivir, or “good living,” an ethics that focuses neither on progress nor necessarily only on humans.

Defending local life projects is key to the transition to the Ecozoic. This involves close partnerships with local stakeholders, respecting their knowledge and territorial authority. In the spirit of alliance, it is grounded in learning from and supporting local strategies of political autonomy, resilience and forms of recognition—legal, and otherwise. Fostering the emergence of the Ecozoic requires a radical decolonization of thought. This involves knowledge co-creation, reciprocal learning, and the creation of venues by which the voices of local communities can enter directly into the academy and form a sort of “reverse university”. The goal here is to develop actionable, comprehensive, holistic strategies and solutions. In Anthropology this form of alliance-based inquiry is central to our existing pedagogies and our collaborative research.

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In sum, A4E is a space for robust collaboration inspired by Ecozoic inquiry, teaching and leadership training.  It is a vibrant intellectual community and learning environment that attracts top students, local faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows, activists, and indigenous thinkers, and hosts events that can incorporate the larger university and a wider public. L4E students trained as engaged scholars and leaders in anthropology contribute to the multi- university L4E initiative by bringing to it deep commitments to place in a way that only long-term, field-based ethnography can provide. Grounded in alliances with local stakeholders, willing to allow their forms of thought to be transformed by these, equipped with cutting-edge theory and experimental ethnographic methods, students, faculty, researchers and affiliates of A4E are uniquely prepared to foster a transition to the Ecozoic.

 

[1] Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1992). The universe story. Arkana.

[2] Latour, B. (2012). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.

[3] Deacon, T. W. (1998). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. WW Norton & Company.

[4] Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Univ of California Press.

[5] Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.

[6] Weber, M. (1946). Science as a Vocation. In Science and the Quest for Reality (pp. 382-394). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

[7] Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.  p. 182

[8] This fits with John Henry Newman’s vision of higher education, as developed in The Idea of a University (1873), in which the pursuit of knowledge is not controlled by the ends that authorities might impose upon it.

[9] Chakrabarty, D. (2009). The climate of history: Four theses. Critical inquiry, 35(2), 197-222.

[10] Powers, R. (2018). The overstory: A novel. WW Norton & Company.

[11] Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Univ of California Press.