The pluriverse and the ecozoic: a convergence of agendas? Towards a pluriversal learning.
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Iván Darío Vargas Roncancio
Leadership for the Ecozoic
This text is about the “modernist ontology of universalism” (Kothari et al 2019: xviii) and two world-making alternatives to this ontology at present, namely the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic. With important differences in terms of their epistemological, geopolitical and value orientations, the convergent elements of these alternatives may offer guidance as we reimagine learning and teaching in our current university systems. The second part of this blog sequence entitled The Pluriverse and the Ecozoic: Divergences and challenges for Pluriversal Learning, will go deeper into the differences between these two projects. Stay tuned!
1. Universalism and the Pluriverse: A perspective
The “modernist ontology of universalism” (Kothari et al 2019: xviii) is based upon a dualist principle that separates human and non-human beings, body and mind, bio and geo, the living and the non-living, among other boundary-making concepts. This “ontology of separation” (Vargas et al 2019) determines how people produce knowledge, how they act, experience the world, relate to one another, and organize collectively. For example, the discipline of physics presupposes the separation between an objective universe and the subjective experience and cultural beliefs of an independent human observer; similarly, the discipline of economics separates markets from the socio-ecosystems where they are actually embedded (Brown and Timmerman 2015), and the same is true for almost all descriptive and normative disciplines of the modern learning/teaching apparatus (e.g. universities). In this regard, anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro suggests that in the modern scientific paradigm one knows something when one is able to see it from the outside, that is, when the world is de-subjectivized and no intentions are attributed to the object of study (e.g. plants, animals, complex tropical ecologies). In contrast, for traditional medicine people (sabedores) in the “Americas”, to know something well is to be able to attribute intentionality to this former object of study, namely when this object is rendered a subject (Viveiros De Castro 2013).
The “modernist ontology of universalism” (Kothariet al 2019: xviii) is based upon a dualist principle that separates human and non-human beings, body and mind, bio and geo, the living and the non-living, among other boundary-making concepts.
In contrast, for traditional medicine people (sabedores) in the “Americas”, to know something well is to be able to attribute intentionality to this former object of study, namely when this object is rendered a subject (Viveiros De Castro 2013).
The modern ontology of universalism, then, is about creating a One World with humans on top of it. The “One World” is a way to highlight two core ideas (Law 2011; Escobar 2018). First, the notion that there is One single world made up of discrete and separable entities rather than interdependencies; and second, the notion that this world can be revealed only by science at the expense of other knowledge systems, or by relegating them to the status of cultural beliefs and myths of non-modern peoples (De la Cadena 2015). Conceived from the perspective of the West, the idea of the One World thus suggests the primacy of one local experience (the West) and system of knowledge (Science) as the veritable source of knowledge of an external world as observed by a particular kind of human: the Western Man. Alternatives to this paradigm are emerging everywhere. The pluriversal alternative, for example, challenges this modernist orientation in favor of a multiplicity of possible worlds or ways of knowing, doing, and being (Kothari et al 2019). Following the Zapatista dictum, the pluriverse can be best described as “a world where many worlds fit” (un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos - Zapatistas 1996), namely a world where many ways of being, doing, and knowing are rendered possible and are put at the service of “healing the web of life” (Escobar 2019).
Following the Zapatista dictum, the pluriverse can be best described as “a world where many worlds fit” (un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos - Zapatistas 1996), namely a world where many ways of being, doing, and knowing are rendered possible and are put at the service of “healing the web of life” (Escobar 2019).
As a generative cradle of alternatives to the ongoing global crisis of climate and justice, the pluriversal project contests universalism without falling into cultural relativism; it proposes that a person’s values, beliefs, and practices should be understood on their own terms rather than through the standards of one's own culture. While cultural relativism seems intuitively desirable from the perspective of any modern society, this notion presupposes the existence of a universal nature that is common to all cultures, namely an external nature shared between different cultural groups, regardless of where these cultures are located or how they represent this seemingly external reality (Ingold 2011). Cultural relativism then presupposes (1) the idea that culture is something separated from nature and/or that these two terms are universal; (2) the idea that nature is, in any case, the passive backdrop of human action; and (3) the idea that the human is the only cognitive and meaning-making self in the cosmos. Conversely, the pluriverse presupposes (1) a relational view of life and the idea that this "naturalist ontology" (Descola 2013), namely the separation of nature and culture, is specific of modern societies rather than universal across time and space; (2) the idea that nonhuman beings such as animals, plants, rivers, mountains and forests are sentient and cognitive; and (3) the idea that the human is part of the web of life and, therefore, only one subject in the community of life (Berry 1999). While the pluriversal project endorses a multiplicity of ways of knowing, it's not only about knowledge creation. It is also about creating new worlds and possibilities, namely different ways of doing, feeling, and being.
An ethical and political alternative, the pluriversal project therefore stands for a set of practices, knowledge systems and ways of being informed by the principle of “radical interdependence of everything that exists” (Escobar 2018). Examples of these are indigenous ancestral and innovative practices with the land; the emergence of an earth law movement; post-development economies (degrowth, Buen Vivir); the local production of food based on embodied practices of spirituality; care work; healing practices beyond allopathic medicine based on the regeneration of local ecosystems; commons and commoning, and several scientific practices that follow from a commitment to mind-world monism (rather than dualism) such the notion of “embodied mind” in the work of Francisco Varela et al, or the “endosymbiotic theory” of Lynn Margulis, among others. Some of these practices “echo the autopoietic dynamics and creativity of the Earth and the indubitable fact that no living being exists independently of the Earth” (Escobar 2015: 14). Thus, the pluriverse entails modes of praxis, ideas, experiences, cosmovisions, projects, and possibilities at different scales and temporalities that follow a des-centralized, autonomous, experiential and embodied logic. From this vantage point, the pluriverse seeks to bring forth different “ways of worlding” (Kothari et al 2019), namely a meshwork of practices, ways of producing knowledge, doing things, and experiencing ourselves as part of a localized web of life and in the perspective of healing this web. In that sense, the pluriverse has more to do with creating worlds beyond the human (Kohn 2013)—or beyond the culture/nature divide—than with creating knowledge about a world outside of us. How do other-than-human beings contribute to this world-making project?
An ethical and political alternative, the pluriversal project therefore stands for a set of practices, knowledge systems and ways of being informed by the principle of “radical interdependence of everything that exists” (Escobar 2018)
2. The Pluriverse: A project of humans and other-than-human entanglements
Amerindian cosmologies exemplify this way of worlding in the pluriverse. For example, in Amazonia, animals, plants, mountains, and rivers, among other beings, are endowed with a form of interiority or soul with attributes "(…) identical to those of humans, such as reflexive consciousness, intentionality, affective life, and respect for ethical principles” (Descola 2013: 14). In this region, the world is not intrinsically organized through the stable categories of nature and culture since all beings (human and not) share a common interiority concealed underneath the mask of their own bodies. This theory of the self as multiple natures or bodies sharing a common interiority or culture across different kinds of beings, affords a quite different understanding of experience and knowledge as something beyond cultural or human meaning only. Today, indigenous peoples resist the modernist ontology of separation just described when they mobilize on behalf of mountains, rivers, spirits, and forests, arguing that these are sentient beings rather than cultural beliefs, objects or resources to be exploited (Kothari et al 2019). An important ethical claim, the pluriversal project considers human and more-than-human beings as a community of subjects endowed with cognitive abilities, affective life, and even rights. The pluriversal project thus suggests that individual humans as such do not exist, that is, the individual is a modern fiction based on the premise of separation rather than the premise of radical interdependence of all that exists. As we see below, Ecozoic narratives of transformation share some of these principles and orientations.
In this region, the world is not intrinsically organized through the stable categories of nature and culture since all beings (human and not) share a common interiority concealed underneath the mask of their own bodies. This theory of the self as multiple natures or bodies sharing a common interiority or culture across different kinds of beings, affords a quite different understanding of experience and knowledge as something beyond cultural or human meaning only.
3. A Pluriversal Orientation for the Ecozoic?
Just as the decomposition of foliage in the soil feeds new life, we constantly experience the co-emergence and decay of human and other-than-human life. We humans and other-than constantly experience how all beings thrive in mutuality and even fade away relationally. We exist because of these intimate and relentless interdependencies. Other than human collectives such as forests, marsh, deserts, among others, are not to be represented, controlled and protected as discrete parts of an external reality but rather partner-with as agential forces with their own intelligences, political participations, and even legal rights. This is, in my view, one of the central tenets of the Ecozoic today. The Ecozoic is a term originating in conversation between Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme (1992; Berry 1999) that describes a future era distinguished by mutually enhancing relationships between humans and the global community of life. So, it’s about a long-term horizon of change. It’s about the Earth “not (as) a global sameness”, but “as a differentiated unity (that) must be sustained in the integrity and interrelations of its many bioregional modes of expressions” (Berry 2004). This means that the Earth should be “the primary concern of every human institution, profession, program and activity.” (Ibid. See Greene 2014)
Other than human collectives such as forests, marsh, deserts, among others, are not to be represented, controlled and protected as discrete parts of an external reality but rather partner-with as agential forces with their own intelligences, political participations, and even legal rights.
Is the Ecozoic connected to the Pluriversal project?
In my view, the Ecozoic is first and foremost a project for the transformation of human-Earth relationships in the face of planetary crisis. To state it in terms of Berry, this crisis stems from the discontinuity between humans and nonhumans and the ensuing bestowal of all rights to humans alone (1999: 4). The task ahead, he insists, is that of re-inventing the human while re-embedding our social and normative systems within the broader community of life. Furthermore, the Ecozoic challenges global narratives of the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000) and we can consider the Ecozoic project as a narrative/praxis that offers great potential for transformation. However, we should not see this as another “universal solution” to the interrelated socio-ecological crisis of our time. Located epistemologically and geographically in the Global North, the Ecozoic narrative/praxis is one alternative in a great mosaic of alternatives to the modernist ontology of universalism today. As an alternative, it has great potential to inspire and get inspired by different ontological and epistemological proposals from different parts of the world, for example, the relational notion of Ubuntu from the African context (Le Grange 2012). The respectful and symmetric integration between some forms of indigenous knowledge and some forms of modern science, the ecologization of disciplines such as economics and law, and the formulation of policy frameworks beyond narratives of nature as a collection of “resources”, among others, are deeply connected to Ecozoic-oriented transformations beyond the Anthropocene. This orientation is akin to the pluriversal project.
The Ecozoic narrative/praxis is one alternative in a great mosaic of alternatives to the modernist ontology of universalism today
4. Comparing Worlding Projects: The Anthropocene and the Pluriverse/Ecozoic
The Ecozoic highlights the idea of the co-emergence of human and nonhuman beings beyond what some call the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000). The Anthropocene can be characterized as the differential human (negative) impacts on Earth’s life support systems and the Earth as a whole. While the Ecozoic signals a global transition towards a new ecological era after the Anthropocene, we can also think of the term “Ecozoic” as a methodology, that is, as a way of encountering these relations of co-emergence in what we do, in what we think, and how we are. What kind of methodology does the Ecozoic offer us? How can an Ecozoic-like methodology help us to go beyond “sustainable development” and “green narratives” of modernity? Solutions are not free of contradictions and the next section highlights some Ecozoic/Pluriversal methodological premises in regards to the issue of learning as one of the epistemological dimensions of the pluriverse. Although we don’t have room to talk about the crucial differences between these two projects, both the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic consider that the transformation of learning and teaching is central to achieve a radical transformation of society beyond the Anthropocene.
While the Ecozoic signals a global transition towards a new ecological era after the Anthropocene, we can also think of the term “Ecozoic” as a methodology, that is, as a way of encountering these relations of co-emergence in what we do, in what we think, and how we are. What kind of methodology does the Ecozoic offer us? How can an Ecozoic-like methodology help us to go beyond “sustainable development” and “green narratives” of modernity?
5. Towards Pluriversal Learning
The Pluriverse and the Ecozoic may offer important lessons for learning and teaching in our university systems today. Some of the converging principles of these two projects in relation to education are:
A. Where learning in the anthropocene promotes a universal logic of separation, the Pluriverse and Ecozoic projects may foster the logics of interdependence. The modern university tends to organize knowledge through compartmentalized disciplines that further separate the human and the nonhuman while devoting energy to one possible way of worlding: the One World. An alternative to this overarching project and with different degrees of commitment, the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic foster a three-fold way of worlding that integrates, (1) the co-production of knowledge (i.e. sciences and systems of knowledge based on rooted epistemologies of indigenous worlds), (2) multiple ways of doing/making, and (3) multiple ways of being and multiple kinds of sentient and cognitive beings. Consistent with the logics of interdependence, the Pluriversity and the Ecozoic can be imagined as a tejido (or a web of webs) of knowledge, practices, and experiences of human and other-than-human beings and worlds, rather than an institution organized around the reproduction of veritable knowledge about a pre-existent world. (See https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/introduction)
The modern university tends to organize knowledge through compartmentalized disciplines that further separate the human and the nonhuman while devoting energy to one possible way of worlding: the One World.
B. Where learning in the anthropocene promotes development, the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic projects may foster the healing of the web of life. The modern university tends to produce knowledge for the creation of monetary value at the expense of other possible values. The Pluriverse and the Ecozoic are not only webs of webs (of knowledge, practice, and being), but also pathways to heal the web of life on Earth (Escobar 2018). In this sense, knowledge, practice, and being can be at the service of this commitment in any node of the web in which we are located. Thus, the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic could be physically decentralized; epistemologically, ontologically, and value plural; and simultaneously local and global in the scope of their conversations and knowledge practices. This of course entails the re-creation of new languages, values, practices, and tools ranging from speculative research to committed public policy; from inner reflection and transformation to collective conversation and action; from joyful scholarship to local action; from thinking to sowing. Thus, the Pluriversal and Ecozoic ways of worlding might be (or might not be) attentive to complexity, plural values, and different modes of knowledge and being, including the knowledge and modes of being of other-than-human selves such as plants, animals, forests, and rivers.
the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic could be physically decentralized; epistemologically, ontologically, and value plural; and simultaneously local and global in the scope of their conversations and knowledge practices.
C. Where learning in the anthropocene promotes colonialism, the Pluriverse promotes the decolonization of knowledge (Mbembe 2015), minds and territories and the Ecozoic is beginning to incorporate this conversation. The Pluriverse can commit to the co-creation of knowledge as a tool to regenerate socio-ecosystems (i.e. Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge respectfully working in tandem while acknowledging their limits and power asymmetries) and foster autonomous modes of living in local territories. As part of a decolonization project, the pluriverse is de-localized (a web of webs) and should promote knowledge practices to heal the web of life wherever we are. For example, Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2019) suggests a relational concept of health as the “interaction between elements stemming from an entire range of systems (biophysical, economic, political, cultural, environmental, spiritual).” According to this holistic perspective, he defines healing as “an emergent property of the dynamic interaction of the self-organizing networks entailed in these systems, not the result of a few factors” (2019: 3). Probing this perspective, projects such as the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic can contribute to healing “the entire system of relations, not just bodies or ecosystems” as part and parcel of a larger decolonial project (Ibid, 3).
Where learning in the anthropocene promotes colonialism, the Pluriverse promotes the decolonization of knowledge (Mbembe 2015), minds and territories and the Ecozoic is beginning to incorporate this conversation.
6. Provisional conclusion
This text was about two different transformative projects today, namely the Pluriverse and the Ecozoic. Although these projects have different trajectories and political and epistemological orientations, there are important points in common between them. I’ve focused on these commonalities rather than the differences. The “modernist ontology of universalism” is at the root of the ongoing colonization and destruction of ecological and cultural systems throughout the world, among other reasons because it turns life into an object of knowledge and a source of economic value. The “modernist ontology of universalism” shapes everything from worldviews to socio-economic, political, and legal systems by which peoples organize their lives and their relationships with their territories. The idea of a “world where many worlds fit,” or the pluriverse, offers an alternative to the One World ontology of modernity based on separation, anthropocentrism, racism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Ecozoic transformation narratives share some of these principles (e.g. non-anthropocentrism, co-production of knowledge, subjectivity of nonhumans, etc.). Yet, there are important differences between these two projects, which will be the focus of a future text – stay tuned!
Universalist Project Pluriversal Project
Cultural relativism Pluriversality
The Western Man interdependence of all beings
Science alone Co-creation of knowledge
Representation of the One World Ways of worlding (know., pract., being)
Coloniality Descolonization Territories and Minds
One World A world of multiple Worlds
Development Healing/Buen vivir/degrowth
Table: Comparing worlding projects (Note: this comparison does not assume a clear-cut separation)
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Matthew Burke, Dina Spigelski, Daniel Ruiz, and Nicola Laaser for their suggestions and comments.
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 Matthew Burke makes an important point here and I agree with him: “This term (socio-ecosystems) I struggle with although don’t have a simple way to bring these “systems” together. There is also the issue of reductionism, i.e., all society is ecology or all ecology as society. How can or should they remain distinct yet firmly embedded/interconnected/enmeshed?” Personal communication, 2020.  Broadly speaking, we define the word ontology as a set of claims about what the world is, as well as a set of practices through which the world comes into being for a people that is part of it. Epistemology here stands for how people represent the world, for example, through language and/or images.  The notions of knowing, doing, feeling and being together should be taken as ways of creating new worlds and possibilities beyond the dichotomy body/mind. In fact, we could say that there are minds that are distributed across multiple bodies (i.e. forests, plants), and there are also minds that do not need a body at all (i.e. spirits in the context of Amazonian cosmologies).