Reconstructing Ecologism

If we seek to apply a metamodern perspective, and we seek to stimulate a higher probability of Protopia in the world, what kind of green or ecological political thinking (“ecologism”) makes sense?

To respond to this question, we must zoom in on a more practical one: If all of our economy builds on growth, how can it be made to shrink so that an ecologically sustainable state is reached (so-called degrowth)?

After Deconstruction, Reconstruction Must Follow

Much of my writing focuses on “reconstructing” elements of modern society. For instance, I believe that instead of a welfare state, we should cultivate a so-called listening society—and what Marx and Engels critiqued as “the German ideology” (mainstream, modern, “bourgeois” life) I believe can and should be inverted into what I have only half-jokingly termed the Nordic ideology. This is, I hold, the kind of political thinking and activism that can break out of the ideological bankruptcies and dead-ends of modernity. In a corresponding manner, I have recently suggested that the nation state and the modern legal system can and should be reconstructed.

However, for the reconstruction of modern life to be fully functional and complete, elements of both pre-modern and post-modern thought must also be reconstructed in manners that harmonize with a profound shift of the modern world. That is to say, our deeply shared past must be revisited (pre-modern), and we must find new roles for the many critiques of modern life (post-modern).

  • Among thepre-modern elements to be reconstructed, I have suggested an ironically-sincere stance towards religion, towards ethnic/tribal/national identities, and—in last week’s article—towards the animist or tribal elements of culture: our forgotten but ever-present psychological cradle.
  • But among the post-modernelements of society to be reconstructed we find such things as: gender theory, critiques of inequality and capitalism, critical sociologies of knowledge (how power relations distort truth seeking and speaking in society) and—of course—ecological thinking and activism.

The metamodern dictum is that after (postmodern) deconstruction, reconstruction must follow. How then can an environmental awareness grow that is congruent with metamodernism, leading to Protopia? How can ecologism itself be reconstructed?

Metamodern Ecologism: The Bare Minimum

I have earlier claimed that political metamodernism, properly understood, is “more sustainable than ecologism” by which I mean to say that the defining “green” thinkers of the 20th century (Arne NæssGary Snyder), and the political parties that followed them lacked some key elements necessary to creating a genuinely sustainable society—but that metamodernism has them covered. It is political metamodernism that sees that sustainability (or resilience, or regenerativity) is not possible without huge investments into inner growth, the creation of scientifically driven public institutions, and so forth.

What I have not hitherto addressed is the future of “green” thinking and politics in and of itself. There can be little doubt that green thus far has been a massive failure and disappointment. As the ongoing UN summit in Stockholm reminds us (the 50th anniversary of the UN’s first summit on the topic), very little has changed and precious decades have been lost. All that organizing, all of that protesting, all of that science, all of that scholarship and personal investment, has not turned the tide.

The environmentalist efforts have surely not been for naught, but they have clearly been insufficient—or ineffective. In keeping with the principle of “triple-E” (ecological, equitable, and effective), let us thus ask what a truly effective ecologism might look like.

To begin with, we can simply map out some of the key ecological thinkers and schools of thought on Ken Wilber’s “four quadrants” from his “integral theory”(i.e., if something is subjective, objective, or cultural, or systemic—each gets its own“quadrant”):

Different forms of environmentalist or ecologist thinking/agency mapped onto Ken Wilber’s “four quadrants”.

There is more to such a map than can be discussed here, and the details of it certainly require refinements and revisions. But at the very minimum, it should be noted that a metamodern ecologism can and must be inclusive of the entirety of this map—as has been suggested in the magisterial book, Integral Ecology, by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman. That is to say, the ecologism of the future must span across:

  • Inner transformation and sense of belonging with nature.
  • Objective understanding and behavioral change accordingly.
  • Cultural shifts away from consumer capitalism.
  • Application of “systems perspectives” and redesigning of our flows and feedback cycles throughout the economy.

These four aspects must be viewed as co-emergent and mutually dependent: Changes of how we feel about and relate to the environment (as well as “who we are” in terms of personality and what we desire) naturally drives our willingness to find out about ecological limitations and adjust behaviors—those behaviors must in turn be part of larger systemic shifts, but these larger shifts make little sense to us unless corresponding shifts of our culture occur (norms about environmental care, the status of being “green”, access to deep ecology experiences, etc.). For instance, it has been shown by Christine Wamsler and others that more mindfulness (inner development) tends to lead to more climate change adaptive behaviors (objective change). From there on, it is not difficult to see that systems that guide those same behaviors might either strengthen or weaken them, which might in turn shape culture by changing people’s expectations upon one another…

That much has been stated by “integral ecologists” earlier (the folks who believe that one should include all four of Wilber’s quadrants and that most environmentalist settings do not). And, at a very minimum, I suppose a metamodernist or Protopian ecologism could stop here: If it is holistic and sensitive to exploring how inner transformation, shifting discourses, facts and behaviors, and the systems of economy and ecology arise together, it can and will find more numerous, inter-connected, and ultimately potent ways to become effective—not only in the face of climate change, but across all the major ecological crises and thresholds.

However, I would like to go further than that and sketch the philosophical foundations of an ecologism that could truly break through, that could truly create environmental sustainability.

Metamodern Ecologism: Deluxe Version

The deluxe version of metamodern ecologism needs to approach the question of degrowth—an issue popularized some years ago with Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth. However much we make our ecological footprints more efficient and technologically smooth, it is not within the realm of possibility to sustain a still growing population at the levels of consumption of today. Unless the ecological thinking can realistically lead to degrowth (together with certain efficiency gains, of course), it cannot truly achieve its goals. And for that to happen we must imagine not a form of ecologism that would work if everyone adopted it—in such case we might as well imagine simply that everyone stops consuming over their carrying capacity—but one that will work in that it guides our steps towards degrowth even in a reality when people cannot be made to agree with its precepts.

As my friend the researcher Zack Walsh has often pointed out based on his extensive research into the area (multiple sources, long story), it is viable for the average person to roughly live at the same GDP level as people in the US during the 1960s (but with leaner use of those resources, of course).

Another comrade, the entrepreneur Nick Pinkston, has argued—in personal exchanges—that it makes little sense for the economy to develop “counter to the arrow of entropy”. In other words, we know that the world is always falling apart, “entropy”, but that this falling apart also releases energy which can then be used to create new and more complex structures (life feeds on other life it has broken down, etc.), and this is called negative entropy (so, complexity and level of self-organization increase, ironically as a result of everything falling apart). The terms have more specific and technical meanings depending on the contexts and sciences within which they’re used, but that’s what people generally mean when they’re used in conversations.

And this of course applies to the economy: It’s a system that arises from another, wider system (the ecology), and which creates an excess of disorder or chaos in that same system, sometimes to the point of destroying it. Now this is occurring on a global level.

Now, I believe that both my friends are right: We need degrowth, but degrowth would appear to “work against entropy”. When did humans ever decomplexify their economy, other than with their societies coming apart at the seams? If every person (or just the average person) seeks to make a living and command more resources, how on earth can we thereby create the collective emergent property of decreasing the flow of resources?

Suggestion 1: Exchange Economics for Ecology?

The most popular reply to this conundrum is: exchange economics for ecology! There are many versions of this vision. Satish Kumar, founder of the eco Mecca, Schumacher College, famously argued against the fact that the London School of Economics had no department of ecology. By introducing this wider perspective, we would get an understanding of ecological limits built-into our political economy, no?

Now, appealing as this sounds, it should be pointed out that ecology—as a science—is a considerably harsher one than economics. The word sounds nicer, but a quick comparison of textbooks of the subjects reveal that while, yes, economics focuses significantly on competition, ecology does so to a yet greater extent, and also callously studies bifurcation diagrams of populations (which is a nice way of saying, when most die off in a horrible collapse, before they grow back, and repeat), and it also features words like predators and parasites, which are hardly mentioned in economics.

I mention this to point out that ecology, as a science, seems to support the claim that entropy increases, complexity increases, until one day it breaks and crashes. It’s rather economics, not ecology, that imagines a state of sustainable exchanges and flows.

Ecology, as a science, sounds surprisingly little like ecologism or environmentalism, the “green” political ideology. We could blame this on the evils of detached, mechanistic, Cartesian, Western science, of course. Maybe a true science of ecology would be more generous? If other, softer and more spiritual, perspectives were applied, perhaps other visions of ecological community would come to the fore? It has become a popular trope to claim that Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution shapes ecology to this day, never really spoke of competition and struggle. For the record, this is manifestly untrue (go ahead and look at Goodreads quotes, enjoy). To complicate things, Darwin was no crude or reductive theorist—he believed in the importance both of cooperation and competition, in interplay with one another. But even if this trope is wrong and based on wishful thinking, what does it matter? Maybe ecology could be a science based more on cooperation and harmony, and maybe this could then guide our steps towards harmonic relationships with nature? Again, maybe Darwin was also too steeped in Western reductionism?

There have indeed been some important theoretical advancements in this direction of seeing a more cooperative mechanism of evolution: The ornithologist Richard Plum’s Evolution of Beauty elegantly weaves in the feminist insight that females have selected aesthetically for males across species, and that this has led to a veritable explosion of color and beauty in birds that simply cannot be accounted for by “survival fitness” (which is entirely congruent with Darwin as well as with how chaos theory works).

But that does not take anything away from the fact that ecology studies populations and individuals locked in a struggle for survival, and that this spirit can and would pervade any perspective based on ecology—to a yet higher degree than today’s economics-based perspective. Fundamentally, economics is about competition and trade, ecology about competition and death. Life and death are locked in a dance—that’s what entropy is all about. Although Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics is an impressive and promising start for creating resilient economies, it still suffers from this division of the world into “bad” economics and “good” ecology—failing to account for the fact that ecology studies yet grimmer processes, where collapse is entirely normal.

So: If relying on ecology does not resolve the conundrum of how degrowth can be achieved, what can?

Suggestion 2: Emergence of Layers of Feedback Cycles

The second path, and the one I think is congruent with metamodernism, is to differentiate between different layers of emergence, and to seek to achieve a new and higher level of increasing complexity while it feeds upon and decreases the lower layer. As such:

  • On the one hand, complexity keeps increasing, but shifts gear into new dynamics where new flows of exchanges account for the increasing complexity.
  • On the other hand, activity is divested from the exchanges of lower level of complexity, and this economy thereby experiences degrowth.

Let me flesh that out a bit further.

We need, basically, to decrease the amount of things and energy that people exchange. However, that says very little about the amount of information, emotions, and meaning that people exchange.

Could then, the exchange of information—of cultural, social, and emotions capital, of inner growth, knowledge, and meaning—come to supplant our exchange of material goods and services to a degree such that these naturally begin to decline?

On the face of it, the prospect seems implausible, I’ll grant you that. Has such a thing ever occurred in the past?

Well, I believe that such a thing is already occurring at another level right now. Consider the two layers of emergence: the ecological systems and the economic systems that have emerged within them.

The economic systems have greater complexity and intensity than the ecological ones. They grow as parasites on the ecological ones. In fact, up until now, the ecological systems were continually increasing their complexity, until they gave rise to a new layer, which started to decrease their complexity by feeding off it. Up until now, ecology was a growth economy—now it is experiencing degrowth! Thus, the human economy is already a degrowth mechanism, just on the layer of emergence below it.

An ecologism that truly works towards achieving degrowth is thus one that brings about the form of emergence of flows that grow as a parasite on the material economy, de facto shrinking it.

There are both exhilarating and frightening prospects as to what this new and higher layer may entail—but to see what it is, we must answer the question:

  • What is to the material economy as the material economy is to the ecological systemsupon which it feeds?

It would be something that so captures human attention and engagement that the exchange of material goods becomes less pertinent to us—some more direct path to eliciting qualia, emotions, or subjective states in us.

This horizon waits to be explored—it could include, of course, virtual worlds, electronic brain stimulations, new religious experiences, transcendent practices, purpose-giving life missions, ecstatic love or sex, local companionship in solarpunk communities, therapies that grant a profound sense of safety, and learning optimized for in a manner that makes it so consuming that we needn’t seek rewards in ever new things and travel destinations… Likely it is not one of these things, but a whole world of more abstracted goods and services that leave behind the “trade” logic of capitalism and enter into a more “cooperate” and “play” logic of pure emotional and intellectual exchange. We may be seeing early hints of such a dynamic in the rise of NFTs: right now, a fairly crude market but one that creates the potential to invent and exchange just about any token of perceived value.

Now—I am not claiming that this impulse towards “whatever is to the economy as the economy is to ecology” entirely supplants conventional environmentalism, bioregionalism, etc. Nor do I claim that back to nature idealism should stand back in favor or a pro-tech and pro-science thrust to invent our way out of our ecological troubles. I claim that such an impulse would be congruent with the “law” of increasing entropy and is thus a missing centerpiece of holistic and metamodern green movements.

Also, a metamodern ecologism would care about the lives of animals and seek to reduce animal suffering—and that means seeking to develop not only the dynamics of our economy, but of the ecological systems themselves.

Basically, it’s about looking deeper inside, and there entering into a creative dialogue with Gaia.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.