Ecology as new enlightenment

06-03-2023 01:23 PM
Corine Pelluchon

Enlightenment ideas of scientific rationalism and technological domination have led us to the edge of an abyss. Unless we embrace a new Enlightenment, one that places ecology and care at its core, we will have no way back.

The Enlightenment that took root in eighteenth-century Europe cast aside old norms and held out the promise of a limitless future. Individuals came to believe that they were free to take charge of their destinies and emancipate themselves from the bonds of religion, tradition and nature. Rationality would liberate them from prejudice and scarcity, ushering in a new world of peaceful abundance, equality and universal human rights.

The experience of the twentieth century suggests that this vision, while commendable in many respects, was deeply flawed and bears some responsibility for a train of environmental degradation and industrial-scale murder. And the destructive logic of the false dualism of man and nature continues to threaten our civilisation.

The new Enlightenment would overcome this dualistic perspective, by bringing about a deep reconsideration of our moral duties to animals and future generations and transforming how we inhabit the Earth. Instead of thinking of ourselves as separate from nature, we must recognise that we are embedded in it, and that even our most mundane actions have far-reaching consequences.

Whatever we eat, wherever we live, however, we work, we rely on ecosystems and other living beings. The new Enlightenment would produce a new social contract that reflects an understanding of this dependence, such as by emphasising the protection of the biosphere and delivering environmental justice for all people and animals.

An understanding of our earthly condition, the vulnerability that binds us to other living beings and nature, must be central to the new Enlightenment. Rather than focusing exclusively on human freedom, we must recognise the role that corporeality, passivity, and interdependence play in defining the human condition. Simply put, the new Enlightenment must be based on ecology.

Per its Greek etymology, ecology embodies the rationality (logos) of our earthly dwelling (oikos), which is always a cohabitation with others. Ecology can therefore not be reduced only to environmental considerations, like climate change, biodiversity, or pollution. It also has a social dimension, which demands fairness in the distribution of resources and some changes in the modes of production. And it has an existential dimension, as it demands a deep understanding of ourselves and our place in nature.

Ecology is incompatible with both our unbridled exploitation of the natural world and our failure to recognise our vulnerability and finitude. When paired with instrumental rationality, the denial of our mortal and vulnerable condition, together with our obsession with control, turns ordinary practices of life, working, breeding, governing, into forms of warfare. Unless we fully acknowledge our own limits, it will be impossible to constrain our rights so that they are not a license to do whatever we please.

Concretely, the new Enlightenment should lead us to rethink agriculture and the role that ordinary workers play in the creation of a more caring society. Since the Enlightenment, human progress has conventionally been reduced to technological innovation and urbanisation. The ancient Greek philosophers believed political order originated in the city (polis). Karl Marx disparaged the “idiocy” of rural life in his Communist Manifesto: the proletariat herded history, not sheep. For many other Enlightenment thinkers, too, agricultural workers were a backward class.

Today, however, the moral revolution we need may begin in the village or the fields. While many modern farmers are burdened by debt, long hours, and the effects of unsustainable practices, others have broken out of this system and are cultivating new folkways, for example, by replacing monoculture with diversified and ecosystemic agriculture and moving from intensive livestock production to on-farm models. They are organizing themselves at the local level, selling healthier food, and bringing cooperative ideals to the marketplace. Their efforts have helped to rejuvenate deprived and abandoned regions.

Care includes everything we do to maintain and cultivate our world, including all activities that transform rural and peripheral land, so that we can flourish in it. By showing deep care for nature and for others, those who practice sustainable farming embody the values that must underpin the new Enlightenment: humility, conviviality and solidarity. National governments (and the European Union) should support them, instead of providing massive subsidies to industrial farms.

These farmers, and all those who nourish hope for a more caring world, are the quiet labourers and unseen vanguard of the new Enlightenment. We need their creativity if we are to survive what many are calling a global “polycrisis”, climate change, war, debt defaults, and more, and learn to live well in the twenty-first century.

Corine Pelluchon is professor of Philosophy at the Université Gustave Eiffel. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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