The Forest of Ecological Thought
Some years ago, the American writer Ursula le Guin wrote a novella called “The Word for World is Forest.” Here’s Wikipedia on the book:
The novel carries strongly anti-colonial and anti-militaristic overtones, driven partly by Le Guin's negative reaction to the Vietnam War. It also explores themes of sensitivity to the environment, and of connections between language and culture. It shares the theme of dreaming with Le Guin's novel The Lathe of Heaven, and the metaphor of the forest as a consciousness with the story "Vaster than Empires and More Slow".
Just as the city is a model for human consciousness, extending our minds with brick and steel, so too is the forest. Perhaps I am being romantic, but if the city spawns mechanical thought, the forest is fertile ground for ecological thought. Tagore articulates that insight so:
Ecological thought isn’t thought that takes forests and other ecosystems as its object. That’s only one function of ecological thought. Instead, pay attention to what Tagore says above:
There’s no such thing as absolute isolation in existence…..through the interpenetration of our being into all objects.
That is ecological thought, i.e., thought that ecologizes whatever it studies by noticing the interpenetration of those beings with all other beings. Just we study ecosystems using mechanical models, we should be able to study machines with ecological models.
But how? I don’t know. Yet. We are going to need it soon.
As the temperature heats up, both literally and figuratively, we will see increasing calls for two civilizational frameworks.
One assimilating the planet to the machine - a system that subsumes decarbonization within an extensive regime of planetary control. Public works to extract carbon, protocols and institutions for sea level rise and managerial solutions for droughts and forest fires and all the biblical tragedies that are bound to affect us.
The other imagines ecological thought writ large, a system that takes the collapse of the current regime as an opportunity to bring society and nature back together, that privileges ecology over the economy and puts forward entirely new ways of being human.
These aren’t the only two models. There’s always authoritarian capture (which can be combined with both 1 & 2 to be honest) or system collapse, but those aren’t visions of future flourishing. Vacuum cleaners at a planetary scale aren’t to everyone’s liking, but they’re some people’s idea of human ingenuity at planetary scale.
Should machines swallow the planet or should the planet swallow the machine?