Towards a Sustainable Epistemology

• Nathaniel Larson

A riddle if you would like: Why is the world experiencing so much human induced stress if the vast majority of the people you meet are genuinely well meaning and kind? As with most riddles the answer emerges when the question is asked differently. What is the nature of these well meaning and kind people that allows for the creation of so much stress? Another way to look at it would be; what is the structure and organization, process and pattern, feedback and response, of these individuals psyches and their collective, culture. In short in order to understand the problems the Earth is experiencing we need to understand the epistemology, or way of knowing, of the dominant culture. In attempting to understand one type of epistemology we necessarily understand that there is more then one way of knowing. We understand that how we come to perceive, act, and think is created by our experience and our biological circumstances1. What we see, hear, touch, etc are representations of the actual. Numerous psychological experiments have born out that we see what fits into an existing organization of information. If it doesn’t fit we literally will not see it. I have had several interesting experiences that illustrate this point. A friend and I were entering a vehicle. I stepped in and put my folder on the dashboard. As we were driving I would look out one window, turn my head to the front and see my folder on the dash, turn to the other window, turn back forward and see my folder on the dash etc. This went well enough for me until my friend reported with a start that my folder was on the hood of the car! In my paradigm folders rode inside with passengers and I was unable to see the actual, that the folder was on the hood. This is a simple way to illustrate the complex phenomenon of cognition. It is clear that ordinary waking consciences fits the description above. It is also understood that sometimes information of a different type is allowed through the filter. This new information that does not fit into the pattern of organization of the old, challenges the individual or culture to either create integration or completely reorganize its structure. On the individual level we call this existential crises. On the cultural level we call it revolution2. To return to the riddle; if it is our goal to live in harmony with the Earth we need to understand more than the epistemology of the dominant culture. We must also attempt to understand a new way of knowing; a way of knowing that synchronizes with the pattern of organization of biological systems. In this paper I will attempt to work towards an understanding of these two different epistemologies.

Dominant Epistemology Ecological Epistemology
Environmentalism Deep Ecology
Competition Cooperation
Survival of the Fittest Survival of the Fit
Organisms Mirroring Environment Organisms Co-creating Environment
Genetic Determinism Autopoetic Network
Cartesian Split Embodied Consciences
Linear Causation Non-Linear Dynamics
Objective Observer Enmeshed Observer
Teleological outlook Non-teleological Outlook
Linear Accumulation of Information Reorganization
Pity Compassion

Our relation to the Earth, to Gaia, is fundamental to our understanding of these epistemologies. In the dominant culture we see ourselves as separate from nature and talk about resources and wilderness. We call ecologically enlightened thinking environmentalism. Wilderness is defined as a place where humans and their acts don’t dominate. We are told to leave only footsteps and take only photographs. The majority of human action would not be classified as ‘natural’, in fact the more natural something is the more it is separate from humans. By classifying some places as ‘wilderness’ we allow ourselves to pollute and spoil other places. We see ourselves as something of another kind, something inherently flawed, yet better than nature. Bees and butterflies, oaks and pines, know how to make beauty in nature but humans don’t. I believe an ecological epistemology understands that humans and nature are one and the same, made of the same pattern and fabric. Instead of environmentalism we have Deep Ecology and we talk of communities. Humans are seen as beneficial organisms and functional components of an ecosystems organization.

How we understand relationships is an indication of how we will behave towards everything we are related to. In the dominant culture we see the majority of relationships as competition based. Whether we are talking about politics, economics or biology the dominant theme is competition. Resources are seen as the limiting factor. People are encouraged to out compete others in order to succeed. Life is seen as the survival of the fittest. There are tight boundaries that only a few patterns of organization (organisms, species, businesses, etc.) will squeeze through. What is not allowed is forbidden. An ecological epistemology understands that competition is part of a healthy system. It also understands the dominant quality of relationship is cooperation. Cooperation is ubiquitous; it is everywhere we look, in fact it is what we see. Life would not be possible without cooperation. No organisms can survive in isolation. No organism can photosynthesize and decompose. The apple tree flowering in May depends on its pollinators. It also depends on that juneberry flowering in April and the chestnut flowering in June. The apple trees pollinators cannot survive an entire year on two weeks of apple pollen, they require food throughout the year. Most relationships are mutualisms. Just about every plant has associations with fungus and bacteria: the plant fixing carbon in the form of sugar, the bacteria fixing nitrogen and the fungus extracting hard to access minerals and water. Instead of survival of the fittest we have survival of the fit. Broad boundaries with many patterns of organization are allowed. What is not forbidden is allowed. The healthiest social systems embody cooperation. What one person does well another struggles with. Decisions are made with the understanding that everyone carries a piece of the truth and that the outcome will be best when all beings are heard.

Both epistemologies understand that actions have consequences. In the dominant epistemology these consequences are understood to be of a smaller scale than the Earth as a whole. Humans are not capable, it is thought, to affect planetary processes. Organisms are understood to be dependent upon these processes for survival. Organisms mirror the environment. The environment changes and the organism adapts and the species evolves. Natural selection is seen as a slow process whereby ecological and planetary circumstances select aspiring phenotypes. In other words organisms are passive prisoners on spaceship Earth. In an ecological paradigm we understand that organisms have internal coherence and co-create their environment. The Earth itself is seen as one organism living and breathing.34 Its organs are the forests, wetlands, and oceans of the world. By the very act of being alive each organism is creating the conditions conducive to life. For example it is estimated that 40% of the rain that falls on the Amazon basin comes from the forest itself. If we were Martians and we were wondering if life existed on the Earth all we would have to do is study the composition of the Earths atmosphere. Our atmosphere is out of chemical equilibrium. Oxygen is too reactive an element to stay at such a high % in the atmosphere. If it were not for life the Earths atmosphere and oceans would take on entirely different compositions. Organisms are not passive prisoners but co-creators of Gaia and our actions, for better or worse, can and do have planetary consequences.

It is difficult for most people to conceptualize higher order interactions.5 Causation is seen as linear. One thing leads to another. An effect is caused by a cause. You kick a stone and you can predict the stones behavior. Someone once said that if he were to be given the position and velocity of all elements in the universe he could predict all future events.6 This conceptualization leads us to seek the cause of each event (often missing the systemic problems of the system) and to design so as to maximize one yield from a system. An ecological epistemology recognizes that linear causation exists in the universe but that it makes up a very small percentage of all causation. It is understood that the vast majority of systems are non-linear. They are dynamic. If you kick a dog you will not be able to predict its behavior to any level of acceptable certainty. It is the idea that the whole is more then the sum of its parts. No matter how much you know about the parts (you could know every detail) the whole will be unpredictable because the whole emerges from the parts. Gravity emerges from the interaction of two masses; it is not deducible from either mass. The whole displays entirely different patterns than the parts. There is nothing necessarily inherent in the nature of elements7 that we should hold them primary in our epistemology. When we shift our thinking from elements to relationships we shift our behavior. When we see relationships as primary we see elements as part of systems. Systems are more than the sum of the elements because of relationships. Only when elements are seen as primary would a system be designed to maximize one or several variables8. When systems are seen as primary then they are designed to optimize variables.

Separation has been a fundamental component of the dominant cultures epistemology for the last three hundred years. We find it both in how we understand humans and nature (see above), self and other9 as well as mind and body. We call this the Cartesian split after 17th century French philosopher Rena Descartes. The logical moral consequences that would follow such an understanding are vivisection (dissection of living patients) the creation of abstract resting places (heaven and hell), the believe in the ‘objective observer’ that has no affect on its environment, and the tendency to maximize one yield in any design (as opposed to optimizing) with its consequent ‘side effects’. An ecological epistemology understands that humans are made of the same pattern and fabric of nature and that mind is made of the same pattern and fabric of body. Mind emerges from the structure and relationships of the body just as life emerges from the structure and relationships of macromolecules. Biological phenomenon do not transcend physical and chemical phenomenon, they emerge from them. Spirituality and consciousness do not transcend biological phenomenon, they emerge from them. The entire universe is made from the same pattern and fabric. Thou art that.

Many decisions are made on behalf of a goal. Goal thinking is ubiquitous in the dominant epistemology. This is referred to as a teleological outlook. Whether we are talking about religion (the second coming), ecology (climax theory), evolution (humans and their refinement), or politics/societal with its drive towards ‘progress’ we see time working towards some goal. This leads us to less than desirable behavior as the end justifies the means. Time is embedded in our language with its three tenses: past, present, and future. This gives us a view on life that is a bit like a movie reel with its still shots merging into a moving picture. We can break up the picture and talk about before and after. In reality there is no reel and there are no breaks. Only now exists. Only process exists. There is no goal there is only being. In ecology there is no ‘climax community’ that nature is working towards. There is only process and the community that exists now has relevance simply because it is. In evolution we are not at the top, we are at the periphery and at the same time the center. All are our brothers and sisters. In religion we are not working towards redemption, redemption is here now! And our societal march of progress is founded on several erroneous assumptions. We are taught in school that all information is cumulative. That we are standing on top of a mountain of compiled information and it is up to us to add to that mountain. All information is of the same kind and fits the same pattern- its accumulation is linear. In an ecological epistemology we recognize that all information is not of the same kind, that some information comes along that does not fit into the existing pattern of understanding, it is of a different kind and it demands attention. The information is either integrated or an entirely new pattern is formed, all of the old information is reorganized and thus becomes entirely new information. As above: at an individual level we call this existential crisis while at the cultural level we call this revolution. The accumulation of information is not linear. There is not one mountain but several hills and you are standing on one of them, you could move to another one or create your own. What I am attempting here is to describe two possible hills and ask you to join me on the one I am calling ‘ecological’.

As the dominant cultures march towards ‘progress’ eats into the twenty-first century many people are questioning its base assumptions. An epistemology founded on separation and competition is being seen for what it is; shallow, arrogant, dangerous and unique to the human species. It has created a culture that is destroying the Earths regenerative capabilities. This epistemology, or way of knowing, is only one of an infinite number of possibilities. It is imperative that each one of us take a look at her/his believe system. We are loaded down with so much cultural baggage that it is hard to get a good vantage to have a look. I hope that this article can help.

  1. We have a ‘front’ and a ‘back’ so we speak of things being ‘in front of ‘ or ‘behind’. We walk on two legs and thus have a perspective on place and time that a raven might find confusing (of course this distinction is blurring with transportation and communication technologies). 

  2. See Thomas Khun ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’. 

  3. See James Lovelock, ‘Ages of Gaia. 

  4. This brings us to the idea of nested systems or fractals. At every level of organization we find the same pattern. This pattern is an individual entity with internal coherence enmeshed within a larger organization that has its own individual identity. Atom-molecule-cell-organ-organism-ecosystem-Earth. In a very real way ‘thou art that’. 

  5. Weather, a conversation, ecological processes, etc. 

  6. The assumption here, among others, is that all elements behave as a rock would behave. That is to say that all elements react only in purely physical or chemical ways. A rock is an unenergized system. The only thing that affects it is force (energy). A dog is an energized system (it eats) so it can be affected by information. The information triggers an already energized system. 

  7. By elements we mean ‘things’. A tree, a car, a cloud etc. 

  8. Such as modern agriculture that produces as simple an ecological system as can be imagined by designing to maximize one yield; corn, wheat, soya etc. 

  9. When we see ourselves as separate from others we can pity them. That is we can shake our heads and feel bad for them not understanding. When we see ourselves as made of the same pattern and fabric as others we can have compassion for them. That is we can say, ‘I to have had feelings of anger, hate and rage and am thankful I didn’t act on them as you did.’ You see all possibilities embedded within you. 

Nathaniel Larson is a father, brother and husband at The Draw, a land-based community on the south shore of Lake Superior, where he does his best to live a life in service to Gaia.