Liberation Ecology

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Liberation Ecology
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Illustration by Jayesh Sivan

An ecological worldview is one that sees endless possibility

What keeps us creating, as societies, a world that we as individuals abhor, a world violating our deepest values and common sense? Why is poverty deepening and climate chaos quickening even though solutions to each are known? These are the most puzzling, most critical questions of our time.

In large measure, the answer lies in the nature of human perception. Through human eyes there is no unfiltered reality. As creatures of the mind, we form ideas that have enormous power to determine what we can see, what we cannot, and therefore what we believe to be possible. Our ideas shape mental maps that either trap us or free us. Unfortunately, today’s dominant mental map is trapping us in a world none of us wants.

It is a worldview driven by fear of being without. Is core premise is lack: there isn’t enough of anything. We believe that we lack both the goods and goodness necessary to make the now-or-never, planet – wide turn towards sustainability that our times call for.

We can choose, however, to see the world and our place in it through the lens of ecology. Through this very different lens we realize that everything is co – created, moment – to – moment, in relation to all else. As physicist Hans - Peter Durr puts it, “There are no parts, only participants.” This insight, of course lies at the heart both of great wisdom traditions and of the new physics: separateness is an illusion and so too are notions of ‘fixed’ or ‘finished’. Mutually created and ever changing: that’s reality.

So, the essence of the ecological worldview is endless possibility. But, to feel this essence in our bones, we’ve got to empty our minds and our mouths of disempowering messages that compromise our efforts to align ourselves with Nature. Here are five we might start with:

Disempowering message one: We must power down and get used to bleaker lives without fossil fuel.

Even the Worldwatch Institute, which I greatly admire, unwittingly sends the message that deprivation is inevitable if we’re to rescue the planet. Fossil fuels, says an essay in its State of the World, 2008, made all the “material accomplishments [of the modern economy] possible”. And in their textbook, Ecological Economics, environmental thinkers, Herman Daly and Joshua Farley tell us “Fossil fuels freed us from… the fixed flow of energy from the sun.”

But wait. Each day, notes German energy Specialist, Hermann Scheer, the sun provides earth with a daily dose of energy 15000 times greater than the energy humans currently use. The sun is in fact the only energy that is not ‘fixed’ in any practical sense. The energy of the sun is not even ‘renewable’ – it is continually ‘renewing’.  We can’t stop it!

The phrase “fossil fuels freed us” makes it easy to forget that fossil fuels has also trapped us, concentrating power in the hands of those who mobilize its extraction and make the rest of us their dependent ‘customers’. Exxon, recently posted the largest quarterly profits in US history, amounting to almost $1500 per second. And surely our species has learnt by now that concentrated power leads to really bad things: cruelty and suffering among them.

Disempowering message two: We’ve hit Earth’s limits, so we must move from growth to no – growth.

This prescription is everywhere; the much beloved environmentalist Wendell Berry uses some variant of the word ‘limit’ sixty nine times in a recent article.  But it keeps us from asking what, in fact, we have been doing. Is it really growth? Or is it waste and scarcity for many right now and for many more in the future?

At the age of twenty-six, trying to understand how and why hunger could exist in our world, I discovered that our “efficient, modern, productive” food system funnels sixteen pounds of grain and soya into cattle to get back one single – pound steak. At first, I imagined this ratio to be an exception, but I soon realized that such gross inefficiency is the rule. On average, 56% of all energy in the US economy is wasted. Energy expert Amory Lovins calculates that 87% of the fuels energy of US cars is wasted. 40 – 50% of US food ready for harvest is wasted.

Since what we call ‘growth’ is largely waste, let’s call it that! Let’s call it an economics of waste and destruction. Let’s define growth as that which enhances life – as generation and regeneration – and declare that what our planet most needs is more of it.

Disempowering message three: We have to transform our selfish, greedy and materialistic human nature.

The dominant mental map tells us that if we strip away the fluff, humans are nothing but selfish little shoppers. But a moment’s reflection, and now a lot of neuroscience, suggest that we are much more complex creatures.

So let’s agree that humans can be both selflessly giving and cravenly cruel, and drop the debate over the goodness of human nature. Let’s recognize the deep positive needs and capacities in human nature that are waiting to be tapped.

It turns out that co–operation explains our evolutionary success just as much as competition does. We’re hard–wired to enjoy co–operation. A new study reported in Science shows that when two groups are given a chunk of money, one being instructed to spend it on themselves, and the other to spend it on gifts, those who spend it on others report feeling happier. What’s most telling, however, is that the subjects were surprised by the study’s results. Having absorbed the idea that we’re nothing but selfish materialists, we’ve become blind to the joy we experience in giving.

Empathy, too, is hard – wired. Babies cry at the sound of others crying but not at recordings of their own cries. Since such traits reside in virtually in all of us, we don’t have to change human nature to turn our species towards life. (Phew!) We do, however, have to cultivate what I call ‘heart–centred realism’. It starts with a sober look at the grand sweep of human history.

We can ask, under what conditions has humanity shown its capacity to inflict harm on others? From slavery to the holocaust, to Abu Ghraib, the evidence seems strong on a few counts: concentrated power and anonymity invariable bring forth the worst in human beings, including our capacity for unspeakable cruelty. Fortunately, with the observation in mind, we know how to build life–enhancing societies. We can replace harm–causing conditions with their opposites. We can generate and guard these norms and riles that continually disperse power and that dissolve anonymity via real community.

Disempowering message four: Though we bristle at rules and limits of any kind, we must impose tough regulations anyway for the sake of the planet.

But wait. Maybe it’s endless choice that makes people feel crazy. Boundaries, spoken and unspoken, give our lives meaning, shape, and a sense of shared purpose connecting us to others – think the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, or marriage vows.

We can celebrate that Nature offers non–arbitrary, infallible guidelines. The consequences of breaking them don’t have to be guessed or debated; they are experienced. As we align with them, we have something real to count on.

We could also appreciate that new social rules, aligned both with Nature’s non–arbitrary laws and with our own nature, will take shape and spread quickly if they ring true to us and if we feel engaged in their shaping.

Consider San Francisco’s bill banning plastic bags from the city’s grocery stores and pharmacies. It means millions fewer plastic bags used in the city each month. Soon after the bill was passed, other cities – including Boston, Phoenix and Portland, Oregon – began planning similar bans. San Fracisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who pushed the measure, reported that Paris and London called, too. “We sparked a wildfire of common sense”, he noted.

Disempowering message five: There’s no time for bottom – up engagement of people for real democracy. We need action by those at the top who can make things happen fast.

This framing may be the gravest mistake one could make, for, as Al Gore now puts it, “In order to solve the environmental crisis we’ve got to solve the democracy crisis.”

Our problems are simply too complex, interconnected and pervasive to be solved from on high: they require the ingenuity and exuberant engagement of billions of us. So I would argue that the environmental crisis is the crisis of democracy. And our unraveling ecology could be just the wake – up call we need to being moving us from our dangerous, failing notion of democracy as something done to us or for us. Now is the moment to replace this ‘thin democracy’ with a very different, emergent ‘living democracy’ – a way of life, a set of values aligned with the best in human nature: our need for fairness, our enjoyment of co – operation, and our capacity for mutual accountability as doers rather than whiners.

Living democracy assumes that these values apply in all the realms of life: politics, economics, education, criminal justice, family life, and on and on. In the political realm, it means removing the power of concentrated wealth within our political system and infusing the voices of citizens. It means ‘publicly held government’ – imagine that – which many have given up on. But today, in three US states, voluntary public financing of elections is working for all statewide offices. In Arizona and Maine, over 80% of state legislators have now run ‘clean’ – meaning completely free of big private racking.

The impact is stunning, and is captured in the story of my new superhero, Deborah Simpson. In 2000, Simpson was a single mother with a high – school education working as a waitress in Auburn, Maine. Friends saw leadership qualities in her and suggested she run for office. She demurred, believing she had neither the money nor that name needed. “We have Clean Elections in Maine,” her friend explained. “All you need is five bucks each from fifty people to get on the ballot.”

Simpson has now been re–elected four times and is co – chair of the judiciary committee for the state of Maine.

Removing the power of money opens the door to a much wider pool of leadership. It also means our representatives can listen to the concerns of their constituents rather than those of their underwriters.

In the US, there’s a bipartisan campaign for voluntary public financing called, its name derived from a liberating fact: it would cost each American just six dollars, paid through taxes, to publicly fund campaigns for all national offices. What a bargain!

To succeed, we can begin to think of our efforts as co–creating an ecology of democracy. As we truly inhabit an ecological overview, we realize that in Nature there are no central commands: there is ongoing give and take. Animal – behavior experts used to think that, among animals, a dominant leader made decisions for the whole herd. But they’re discovering it just doesn’t work that way. For instance, herds of red deer, native to Britain, move only when 60% of the adults have stood up; whooper swans of northern Europe ‘vote’ by moving their heads, and African buffalo, by the direction of the females’ gaze.

Scientists also conclude that this sort of animal ‘democracy’ carries a tangible survival edge over top – down direction. Perhaps it’s the same way in human societies: the more inclusive the decision – making process is, the more information is weighed and thus, typically, the better the decision.

So, in every aspect of our work – from the generation of use of energy to the ending of hunger – let us peer though the lens of ecology, asking: how does my action generate new, sustainable relationships of empowerment? That is the core question of living democracy.

For the environmental crisis is fundamentally a democracy crisis, and we can let ecology itself show us the way through. Rejecting disempowering messages still embedded in a mechanical worldview, we can begin to find our power. Shifting the emphasis from Nature’s constraining limits to Nature’s exquisite laws, we can move from lack of possibility.

This article is published with permission from Resurgence Magazine, UK.


Frances Moore Lappé is the author of many books including “Diet for a Small Planet”. She is the founding Principal of the Small Planet Institute and was named James Beard Foundation’s 2008 Humanitarian of the Year.