Andreas Späth

The personal is ecological

2014-10-13 08:24

Andreas Wilson-Späth

There has long been a tension in the environmental movement over whether the emphasis in trying to fix the world’s ecological problems should be on individuals altering their personal behaviour (e.g. by recycling at home and cycling to work) or on tackling the much grander matter of changing the entire ‘system’ for the better.

I, for one, have usually tended to stress the latter: it matters little how many organic carrots you grow in your permaculture home garden, because if we don’t stop the voracious, resource-hungry, pollution-spewing beast that is industrial capitalism, we’re all going to eco-hell in a hand basket anyway.

In my more reflective moments, I do realise, of course, that these two options are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is a false dichotomy to pit green lifestyle choices against the eco-political as though one could be meaningful without the other. If adopted authentically, the two approaches are organically joined at the hip – one emerges from the other, but embarked on in isolation, both must falter.

There is no such thing as human nature. There is nothing genetically embedded in us from birth that forces us to treat the natural world with disdain or even just thoughtless neglect.

The essence of human existence is individual freedom – freedom to create our own lives by the choices we make. Yes, these choices are constrained by the physical world and the social circumstances we are born into, but we do not have to let destructive cultural norms, fashions and traditions (e.g. the call to consume, waste and pollute conspicuously for the sake of short-term gratification) rule our personal decisions.

While the scientific method is the only way to objective knowledge and science can tell us more and more about how the natural world operates and what impacts our actions have on it, it does not provide us with a way to live our lives. That needs to spring from a personal ethics.

While our human freedom rests in our ability to choose the course of our being, human existence is only possible in a community of equals. I cannot exist without your existence. My humanity is predicated on yours – think uBuntu, for short.

What’s more, humans evidently cannot exist without the natural world, both living and inorganic, which at once provides us with the creative canvass for our decisions and a life-support system.

With our freedom of choice comes a responsibility – call it a moral imperative or simply a need for self-preservation – to make personal decisions that care for our fellow humans and the natural environment, both of which are fundamental to our own existence.

We create our lives through our actions, and whether we take these actions consciously or simply allow them to happen to us as a result of societal pressures, we do have the power to change them.

Collectively we create and constantly reproduce society – the institutions and power relations by which we interact with one another – and collectively we can change it for the better.

Personal choices guided by an ethics of care for others and nature are the fundamental building blocks for any efforts to change the ‘system’. We’ll succumb to our own stupidity, drowning in our own industrial excrement, if we don’t achieve the latter, but any attempt to do so without the former amounts to empty posturing and hot air.

The personal is ecological.

Here endeth today’s pseudo-philosophical rant...

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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