A Return to the Feast
Plumwood’s Animals and Ecology: Towards a Better Integration
We as humans have left the feast early and have rudely forgotten to thank the host. We have been taking from, keeping and ignoring the bio-shperic others we live with.
As fleshy bodies who have walked the earth in our current form for 50,000 years, we have evolved and adapted as every other creature has. We have inhabited spaces with other living animals we have taken of them and they have taken from us. As the newcomers, we have had space made for us by all that has preceded us. Lions and tigers and bears conceded territory for us to build our huts and villages and cities. Wolves and coyotes receded back from us enabling our agricultural expansion into their domain. They have all made space for us. The favour is not being returned.
“I think therefore I am” (Descartes) has enabled a plethora of injustice upon the planet and everything we share it with. This one-sided view of human superiority has negated all that has come before our very short time here. Val Plumwood has proposed a very political strategy rooted in activism of reengaging with the world we live in through Progressive Naturalism. Her rejection of the hyper-separation of humans from nature and culture from nature are rejections I agree with and would argue for. However, I feel Progressive Naturalism can go even further to allow for integration and perhaps even a hyper-integration of the systems of nature, which of course includes us.
There is no culture without nature. Nature is indeed what shapes everything.
Plumwood (P.29) uses the metaphor of hunger and food as rooted in nature but the choice of spaghetti as rooted in culture. One will assume by this metaphor that an Italian person could make this logical cultural choice but spaghetti with tomato sauce has only been eaten in Italy for the past 400 years. Previously, pasta was in Asia and Tomatoes were in the Americas. Culture is fluid, it transforms and is transformative. Culture, like Nature is not static. It does not stay still and wait for us to admire it in a museum; it exists in spite of us and our best efforts to master it.
To continue believing that only human animals have thought, reason, language and culture is to continue living in hostile disregard. The overwhelming evidence to the contrary is mounting up and should be an encouraging sign for us to reengage with the planet and the systems of coevolution we have been enmeshed in for 50,000 years.
California sea otters are the only species of otters who use stones to crack molluscs on their bellies. South African Great White Sharks are the only species to fully breach when hunting seals. Orcas have distinct calls and hunting practices within their matriarchal pods that are not shared by others. Animals have culture and our continual rooting of these discussions within the limiting parameters of human language and reason is defeating the discussion. The discussion is one sided. Why have Koko and Kanzi been taught human sign language? Why are we not learning Western Lowland Gorilla and Bonobo? Perhaps it is time to extend an open hand instead of a closed fist. We should be ready to engage in proper two-way learning.
Plumwood’s hopeful stance (P. 11) that what is happening does not need to continue and is not inevitable is encouraging. Relations of domination are not inevitable. National Parks, Reserves and Marine Parks are just the obvious manifestations of this. Nature does not and should not necessarily mean an absence of human animals. Some of the places furthest from humans are the most affected – The Pacific Gyre is an example, and some of the places closest to humans are the most pristine and sustainable – Curitiba Park. The presence of humans does not and more importantly, should not have to negate sustainability and ethical coexistence. Once the impetus for what is basically a patriarchal mastery of an area, a system or a species is removed, an ethical coexistence can occur.
By removing reason, language and control and by engaging natural process (e.g. allowing rivers to flood instead of damning them), sustainability (giving back to system) and ethical engagement (just because I can doesn’t mean I should) can allow a way forward to Natural Progressiveness.
The hyper-separation Plumwood discusses is indeed a causal factor of colonisation and hence degradation. This massive ‘forgetting’ (P.17) is a closed circuit. It denies the hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary achievement, which we have been a part of for 50,000 years, and thus it allows ourselves to be further separated from it. Imagine if every time we swallowed we remembered and were in respectful gratitude to the shark whose evolutionary swallow mechanism enabled our own? What kind of world could that be? “Biospheric others can be other positive presences and ethical subjects to which we can owe a debt of gratitude, generosity and recognition as prior and enabling ancestors.”(P.16-17)
Imagine if we didn’t ask the question, Should I have done this? After we had done it and caused the problem? Imagine if we asked the question first and then acted accordingly? Plumwood’s decision-making critique (P.17) “For example, crucial biospheric and other services provided by nature and the limits they might impose on human projects are not considered in accounting or decision making. We pay attention to them only after disaster has occurred, and then only to “fix things up.” is an excellent critique of where we currently find ourselves. Jacques Cousteau, before his death, was advocating for no hazardous material to be transported on the oceans. He was asking the question first to which the answer was ‘no’. Exxon, BP and Shell have all shrugged their shoulders and said ‘yes, why not?’
By asking the questions first we are opening a door that has always been shut. The positioning of human superiority in the realm of these debates has not enabled a full understanding and acknowledgement of our engagement with and our integrated involvement with nature. We are having this discussion with ourselves behind glass and no one else and nothing else we share the planet with has been invited. Plumwood asserts quite accurately that nature’s agency is unrecognised (P.17). This denial of agency and the unrecognised and unseen labour of nature in keeping the system we live in healthy is catastrophic in its ability to completely disregard all that came before and all that currently keeps us alive. The 450,000,000-year history of the sharks’ presence in our oceans is what has formed what the ocean is and what lives in it today. Sharks’ labour in keeping the ocean clean of sick and injured marine life is not openly acknowledged and thus makes it easy to continue to ignore. Indifference can be the ultimate act of hostility.
Plumwood’s 3 types of strategies are an interesting framework to use when looking at the world with us humans in it. It is a way of pulling back the curtain and looking at the wizard(s) in action. Human and non-humans have shaped and continue to shape the planet and by continuing in a narrative of hyper-separation we are not allowing for a proper ethical integration of human and non-human cooperation.
Naturalizing 1 (deceptive naturalness)
I understand this to be National Parks and Marine Reserves. I support wholeheartedly both of these initiatives and hope they increase and spread. In 2007 the most unlikely candidate to propose the largest marine reserve in history did just that – George W. Bush signed off on Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, recently re-named The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific, and Barrack Obama has just expanded it thereby making it off-limits to development and commercial fishing. It is three times the state of California.
Over-Humanising 2 (deceptive humanness)
I understand this to be places like landscaped ponds and gardens or glow in the dark bunnies or genetically modified seeds and food. By holding up the human-centred transformational effects, we are denying the underlying agency of the biospheric other at work.
Naturalizing 2 (deceptive naturalness)
By this I understand Bill Gammage’s book “the Greatest Estate on Earth” to be a perfect example. While colonial and post-colonial thought saw Australia as wild and empty (terra nullius) Gammage has shown that the land was completely under the stewardship of Aborigines who cleared land, created fire breaks and even transferred fish to other locales. Though from the outside eye, it looks completely untouched, it is in fact shaped and managed through a cooperative system of humans and non-humans. Another example of this I saw first hand in the Solomon Islands where the lagoon around the place I was staying was full of turtles and giant clams. I assumed they were part of the natural marinescape but was informed that the turtles and clams were brought there from other lagoons further ashore. The turtles decided to stay, the clams had no choice. All of them seemed to fit there.
Bill Gammage’s work emphasises how much we look but how little we see. This work is a revelation in that something, which we just assumed for 200 years, has been seen as completely false. It changes everything and asks us to re-examine and question. This is exactly what we need to do on a much larger scale. What answers are we constantly being given without noticing? What does it mean when we see non-human others engaging in pet keeping such as baboons with kidnapped puppies? What does it mean when we see that dogs have evolved to look at us in a different direction than they do everything else? What does it mean when animals adopt their prey instead of eating it? These video clips and vox pops are all much more than workplace distractions we watch on YouTube, they are a congregating area for humans to try to engage with and co-evolve with non-human others.
I cannot believe it is an accident that aside from porn, animal clips on YouTube are the most watched on the Internet. We are hungry for a connection that is there but somehow intangible.
All three of these frameworks acknowledge the combined labour and agency of human and non-human bioshperic others. This is us on the planet.
Plumwood’s article is successful at giving us an alternative view of the typically cynical post modernist view. It is optimistic, empowering and important. As long as humans and our language, reason and uncriticised dominance are the focal point of the discussion, the discussion is mired in separation. A new dialogue of two-way learning needs to be opened up in earnest to acknowledge the agency, labour and legacy of bioshperic others. We need to ask the proper questions of ourselves before we can ask the others in a true sense of ethical openness, acknowledgment and respect. Maybe then we will be able to listen.