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Perspectives on Integral Ecology: 1

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Painting in the Dark (interiority), 2005, by Sally Smart
Dear Michael,

Thanks again for agreeing to discuss this always subtle and fascinating subject--integral ecology--with me here on our blog. I am so impressed with the book so far, and I've only made it through the first few chapters! I heard it took you and Sean about ten years to write, and I can see why. You've got a masterpiece on your hands that I hope will see its way very far and wide into the cultural conversation. (Speaking of which, how has it been received so far?)

If all goes well, perhaps we can help that process along a little bit here by starting to highlight some of the richest, most important, and most controversial aspects of the book in our dialogue together. My hope is that we can also help clarify, simplify, and synthesize some of these ideas for an audience of (more or less) sophisticated laypeople. Because if there's one thing Integral Ecology is not, that's casual reading!

I mean, for an 800-page philosophical tome, it's fairly approachable (smile). But part of the challenge here (and I suppose for integral philosophy as a whole) is to find ways to express it as non-technically as possible, because it's definitely much more than a complex and very elegant theory. To my mind, "integral" is really an entire avenue of perception, creativity, and meaning-making; it makes dramatic sense out of so many of the things we're most confused by these days, and so many of the things that are of utmost importance in being able to move forward. In this particular case, I'm referring to all the thorniest questions of ecology, sustainability, capitalism, technology, spirituality, multiculturalism, etc. that are simultaneously arising and crashing into each other in this era of accelerating globalization and planetary change.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves!

First thing's first: I've got to say, when I initially read the introduction to the book, I couldn't help jumping up, running around the office, fist-bumping people, and probably even shouting out "OH YEAH" when I realized you guys were not going to get even ten pages into things without teeing off on two of the really big environmental sacred cows of the last century: the fear of anthropocentrism, and the reluctance to recognize that human beings have a richer, deeper, subtler sort of interiority than the rest of the animal (or plant) kingdom.

This is just the first of many points of serious contention in the environmental world that I'd like to talk about, but it's a significant one. I mean, what self-respecting environmentalist doesn't feel at least a tad uncomfortable at the thought that we human beings are special? We're terrified that in stepping above and outside of nature, we give ourselves license to use and abuse the biosphere for our own utilitarian ends, with little regard for the health or integrity of the natural systems we depend on. And historically, that has often been the case. Hence, the fear that anthropocentrism (a particularly virulent form of hubris, you might say) is at the heart of the problem here. But is it? In what sense are we "one" with the rest of creation, and in what sense are we unique?

In the initial pages of Integral Ecology, you approach these questions from some very interesting angles, including this quotable brain twister:

Ironically, only humans can have an ecological realization of 'oneness' with nature . . . . Thus, ecocentric realization is an anthropocentric experience! (12)

You also point out another ironic inconsistency in one of the most commonly held positions among environmentalists today: that human beings should see ourselves as just one among many equal species -- not special in any way -- while simultaneously holding ourselves morally accountable for the rest of creation in ways that are unique to our species alone.

In a noble effort to protect animals and habitats from anthropogenic destruction, many environmentalists strike anti-anthropocentric and even misanthropic poses. Indeed, some radical environmentalists would prefer that humankind disappear altogether, thereby removing an alleged cancer from the web of life.

This position is confused. The capacity for significant moral evaluation (even the capacity to evaluate human behavior as self-centered) differentiates humans from nonhumans. In fact, environmentalists have an interior depth that allows them to encourage humans to do the morally right thing and limit their rate of reproduction, preserve habitats, and protect nonhuman species. Yet, if humans are merely another animal species, there is nothing morally wrong with displacing other species as a human expression of the universe's drive to maximize reproduction (certainly, neither a biologist nor an environmentalist would morally critique a nonhuman species that maximized its reproduction)...

We depict no other species as immoral when it seeks to maximize its own fitness. If we depict similar human behavior as immoral, we do so because we regard human beings as significantly different from all other known species. The (often tacit) presupposition that only humans are morally responsible for their behavior is a reminder that with the emergence of the human species, something novel, extraordinary, and dangerous occurred on Earth. (12-13)

I'd be curious to hear more about why you and Sean chose to start off Integral Ecology by challenging these popular notions of interiority and anthropocentrism right from the giddyap. "It is clear to us," you write in the next chapter (which is all about this same subject), "that one key to our future as a species lies in reaffirming and exploring interiority." (42) Why is that? From your perspective, what is it about the reaffirmation of interiority that makes it the cornerstone of everything else, the crucial starting point for unfolding the rest of integral ecology?

I'm looking forward to this!


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