An interview with philosopher Matthijs Schouten (Staatsbosbeheer / State Forestry Department), BY SANNE BLOEMINK
When we first saw images from space, looking down on Earth, brought to us by astronauts, it changed everything. I interviewed Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers a couple of years ago and he told me the same: “When I saw the earth from space, my whole perspective on the world changed.” When he came back to earth from the international space station, the first thing he told his wife was that he wanted to become a member of the WWF.
When we got the first images from NASA, a lot was already happening. A book had been published in 1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Viewed by environmentalists as the start of the global environmental movement, her book was a huge hit. Carson was an American marine biologist and conservationist who described how agricultural pesticides ended up in the food chain and influence our food and our environment, not only now but also in the far future. This connection seems self-evident now, but no one had realised it at that time. If biologists or ecologists looked at ecological impact, they always looked at the location where things happened. They were not aware that what we do today, here and now, can have a huge impact, both elsewhere and in the far distant future. Silent Spring truly stirred things up, leading to a national ban on DDT and eventually resulting in the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Ten years later, in 1972, the famous Limits to Growth report was released by the Club of Rome. The idea that something was wrong in the world was slowly gaining ground – and we humans were the cause of the problems. I started studying biology in Nijmegen in 1969, and the first sentence I ever heard from a professor, on a Monday morning at our first lecture, was: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in an environmental crisis’. That feeling was pervasive back then. We realised how insignificant and how vulnerable our small blue ball in the black vastness of space actually was. The image of the Earth from space definitely contributed to this novel idea that we are inflicting serious damage on the planet. It was an iconic image. And consider this: the global environmental movement is the biggest secular movement that humanity has ever known. There are environmentalist groups in all countries all over the world.
From then on, the natural sciences focused on a different kind of research. Researchers started looking differently at how humans influence nature and ecosystems. This shift in focus also fundamentally changed philosophy. From the 1970s on, philosophers started to wonder: Why do we humans do what we do? Why do we treat the Earth like this? Why are we exhausting the soil and the sea? Why do we view Earth like a commodity? What socio-economic reasoning is behind this? What kind of technological processes feed it? And most of all, what ethical views are driving this behaviour?
Around the same time, in 1967, Princeton-based medieval historian Lynn Townsend White, Jr. published a very famous article which is still cited today: ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. People started to wonder how it had all come about, questioning the attitude of humans towards nature. Environmental philosophers claim that the human attitude towards nature is influenced by our own history. Where did you grow up, in the city or in the woods or in the Himalayas? Another crucial factor is the cultural context, which brings forth different images of our relationship with nature.
Images of nature are completely different in the West and in the East. As environmental philosophers, we started to research these images and found that the images can be ranked on a scale from very anthropocentric to much more eco-centric. The anthropocentric view says: nature is ours and we dominate it. Humans are at the top of the pyramid, then animals, then plants. Aristotle had already had the same idea; with the advent of Christianity, God was placed above humans, but the rest of the pyramid stayed the same.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, this slowly started to change, bit by bit. We started to feel more like stewards, like conservators of nature. National parks were created; we started to take care of nature a little bit, and then even more in the 1960s and ’70s. Around that time, we realised that we needed to care for nature, so a conservationist viewpoint emerged; this attitude could be religious, but it doesn’t have to be.
In non-Western cultures, we see completely different images of nature. That way of thinking views humans more as nature’s tenants, as an integral part of nature. In these cultures, our position is less arrogant.
The image of the earth from outer space marked the start of a changing perspective on nature and on our relationship with nature – but humans were still at the top of the pyramid. That concept has persisted, and some residual effects still remain. One slogan in the Netherlands in the ’70s, for example, proclaimed that “environmental conservation is self-preservation”: protecting nature is protecting ourselves. In the end, we want to protect nature, but that desire is never entirely altruistic.
Around the same time, a competing image of nature as having an intrinsic value, a value in and of itself, started to resonate more and more. This idea of nature having an independent value, of nature existing for itself, and not only for us. These types of ideas slowly trickled into western culture. While in fact this idea had always been much more self-evident in other non-western cultures.
The dilemma of the ‘New Wilderness’
Let’s look at the dilemma of the Oostvaardersplassen national park in the Netherlands. This natural reserve was actually created by accident, after the Dutch reclaimed an extensive tract of land from the sea. Ecologists claimed that the primal wilderness in the Netherlands had in fact not been forest, but more open, grazed by large herbivores. It was decided that this area could be recreated as this open place; they called it ‘New Wilderness’. They brought in surrogate herbivores and let them become wild; we call this de-domestication. The herbivores were supposed to shape the new landscape. The fact that people were open to this idea had to do with our changing view on nature: the concept that nature is entitled to its own space, that perhaps we should let it become a bit wilder again. At least, this was part of the reason. Another reason that the ‘New Wilderness’ was embraced at that time was that it was much cheaper, since management costs were significantly reduced. Simply put in a couple of wild horses and cows and let them graze all they like. The ‘New Wilderness’ seemed like a beautiful solution.
But then the solution started raising all kinds of ethical questions. The Oostvaardersplassen park became an overgrazed area housing large animal populations, much larger than people had initially expected. Moreover, the area was fenced in, so the animals were unable to spread out further. As a consequence, the animals were unable to find enough food and started to die off in the winter. At that point, we saw the romantic wilderness image clash with the fences of the Dutch lowlands.
Friction was the result; people don’t want to walk around in nature and see dead animals. Moreover, our space genuinely is limited. We find it barbaric that the animals that we are supposed to take care of are left to fend for themselves. So on the one hand there are claims of barbaric treatment of animals, but on the other hand there are claims that the animals here are truly free. They are free to fall in love, free to have sex, free to do all the things they’re never allowed to do on a farm. On a farm they are taken care of, as long as they keep producing. Here they can lead a free life. But when they starve, we don’t like how that conflicts with our feel-good impression. It makes us feel bad – especially when it comes to horses and cows, animals we view as part of our extended family. We don’t care at all about mice or rats, so we worry very selectively.
In the Parliament of Things, it will be much harder for humans to feel empathy for plants, the landscape or rodents, where there would probably be ample space for farm animals with beautiful eyes, preferably not carnivorous and not poisonous.
But in the end, if we want to move towards a sustainable future, it is imperative that we expand our circle of empathy. Historically, our first circle of empathy was our own clan or tribe. Then we expanded it to include members of our own religion (but only men), then to all humans (but again, only men), then we included women, then non-white people, if they have our religion, then eventually to all people. This progression all took place in Western culture. And now we see that it’s moving further. There is talk about granting rights to nature, trees, rivers, etc. This is new to us, but has always been self-evident for other cultures.
I was in Burma once when my car broke down. I was in the middle of nowhere and had to wait for a whole day. While we were waiting, we suddenly saw a snake. Somebody ran onto the road and I immediately thought, “he is going to kill the snake”. But no: he used the stick to move the snake to the side of the road so that no cars would drive over it. The circle of empathy in Burma has included all living creatures for a long time – not the plants maybe, but at least all animals. In India, there are even marriages between young unmarried girls and trees; this allows the girls to attain married status in society until they get themselves a husband. In the West, we are now slowly moving towards this kind of view.
We have to realise that we are the exception here in the West. We are the only culture that has made the world into a ‘world of things’. We view nature as having no reason. In Christianity, only humans possess an eternal soul. Later, Descartes claimed that mind and matter are only united in humans, and that the rest of the world lacks mind altogether. We made a world of objects. Why? Because we emphasised one way of explaining the world.
In Belgium, a philosopher named Libregt studied the philosophies of the world and compared their different views on nature. He claimed that there are two philosophical systems by which we explain the world, two paradigms, and that we all have both paradigms inside ourselves. Neuroscientists suggest that this distinction may have to do with different sides of the brain.
One paradigm is the rational, cognitive one. We distinguish one thing from another and give them a name; this is how we classify the world. The world can be structured into recognisable entities. This process starts as a baby. ‘That is daddy, that is mommy, and that is you.’ Everything gets a name and an identity. We are constantly making distinctions, marking differences between things, and giving them a name. This comes in handy, because you have to know the difference between fire and water.
We classify, we create hierarchies. And then we ask ourselves: where does it fit in a bigger system? How do things relate to each other? We study the relationships of things in a rational, cognitive way. In the end, in this paradigm, the answer to how everything relates to each other, is: E=mc2. That’s our ultimate answer. Even now, we’re still looking, quite literally, for a formula for everything: a Universal Theory. Once we have found that, we will have explained everything.
The other paradigm is also inside of all of us. When I ask you to describe your lover to me, according to the first paradigm, you might answer: he is 1 meter 75, weighs 63 kilos, resting pulse rate is 62, blood pressure 110 over 90. These are all characteristics we possess that distinguish us from others. But… of course this is not how we describe our lover. When we describe our lover, we describe our relationship with that person. We say, ‘If she smiles, the sun rises’.
We’re using a completely different paradigm, one that a priori includes the relationship. This paradigm doesn’t start with separating and distinguishing, but with what happens to you in interaction with the world. We have no scientific language for this; there is no E=mc2. We see here the language of the poet, of the composer, the artist, of the metaphor, the myth: language that explains the world you are a part of. This is another concept entirely. We all do this in different parts of our lives. The ultimate answer to the question of how everything is related to everything is answered by the world of mysticism. The world in which you are silent. The world where nothing can be said anymore. Deep wonder: this is what we call mysticism. You only feel only a deep sense of unity.
Some people are more grounded in one paradigm, while some are more connected to the other. Libregt says cultures as a whole also use these paradigms for cultural imagery, and differences can also be identified between cultures. The Western world has always seen the first paradigm as the most important, almost as the only paradigm that can describe reality truthfully, the only paradigm that generates truth. In other cultures, the other paradigm has been at least as important as the first one. That means that the process of distinguishing and classifying has been very different between cultures. In other cultures, people see themselves as part of the bigger picture, more focused on relationships instead of distinctions and hierarchies.
In India, there were traditionally three zones of ‘outer areas’ around villages. First there was the shrivan, the forest of prosperity: full of mango and banana trees, a semi-wild forest. That’s the zone where humans are active. Wild plants and animals are allowed to enter as long as they don’t damage humans (and even then they are usually removed, not killed). Then the next zone was the tapovan, forest of ascetics. That’s where people go to become enlightened, living as a hermit or staying in an ashram. The rule here was that humans are allowed to be there as long as they don’t cause damage to the wild plants and animals. You can see the same distinctions in the Netherlands. First we have agricultural land, and then we have nature reserves. But then in India, there is a third zone: the mahavan, or big forest. This is the deep forest where humans are not allowed to enter at all; this forest belonged to itself.
Compare this to a relationship. If you are in a harmonious relationship with a partner, then there is a domain where you can be completely yourself, and you expect your partner to respect that. In between, there are zones where you meet each other. That is a harmonious, balanced partner relationship. That image of the forest in India for me is the image of a harmonious partner relationship. In the Netherlands, we also tried to create a forest that belonged to itself. A couple of forests in the province of Drenthe were designated as mahavans, forests that belonged to themselves. There was lots of publicity; Princess Irene officially closed off the forest, children buried their dreams for the future in a big leaden container in the forest, it was all fantastic. Everybody loved it, including ecologists… until they found out that they weren’t allowed to enter anymore either. That was not how it was supposed to be! After all, the forest did need to be monitored, right? The issue immediately became politicised when politicians wondered how this was possible: how could nature own itself in the Land Registry? Clearly, our concept of nature as a partnership is quite distant in our culture.
Using the first paradigm, we have always placed ourselves outside of the things we try to describe. We distance ourselves. This has brought us progress, technology, advancement, which is all very well and good, but nature and the Earth have paid the price. What I find disconcerting is that what our paradigm has brought the Earth seems very attractive to those other cultures now. What you see is that the traditional images of nature there (in India and China for example) are shifting much more towards images of our paradigm. This worries me.
In China, there is no word for nature. There are three characters: heaven, human and earth; that is everything. There is harmony between earth, human and cosmos. The traditional ideal of Chinese Taoism is to connect to nature like this, but now it is becoming more and more Westernised.
But on the other hand, we see a new movement in China – not just window dressing, I believe – where the old voice of Taoism is emerging again. For a long time, there have been cloistered enclaves of Taoism around Chinese society, like foreign bodies, but now old images of harmony are returning. This is a very important development, a promising counter-movement. We see the same thing happening in India, where a very strong environmental movement is emerging, using old images of the Ganges as mother-goddess, for example. Old Indian images of partnership are also used in the environmental movement there.
I believe it was Gandhi who said: there is an inherent problem with power. People who seek power are looking to fill a hole in the place where their soul should be, while the people who do have a soul are not particularly interested in power. That means that the people who emerge as our leaders are often the soulless ones. It’s an interesting idea. We can in fact see this reflected in the world, and it is a cause for concern. People with power are often not the ones who believe in partnerships and connections; they have other values. It is important that our image of our place in the world is not limited to the cognitive paradigm. Most people say that they are part of nature and we have to take good care of it, but then they go ahead and eat meat, and don’t take good care of nature.
I think we have to experience nature. It’s like the difference between falling in love with a doll or with a real human being. And if we are able to do that, each human being can become a person with power. It is key to take the lead, to take control of your own life. A philosopher in Germany, Schmidt, says that you have to become ecologically smart, to make a connection with the world around you, and then you have to live it. Just do it. That’s when things will change. If you think in terms of participation, then you are already thinking in terms of separation. Instead, you just have to do it and experience nature. You can never change leaders or systems, so you should become your own system. Live according to your own image of the world. When that happens, things will start to resonate. If enough people start resonating, then there will be a true symphony of resonance. If 20 or 25% of the world starts to resonate in a new way, then the paradigm will shift.
I’m optimistic about this. Let’s go out and resonate! I think we need 10% more; we’re almost there. Then the shift will be swift, and the Trumps of this world won’t matter anymore!