…essay continued from the Introduction.
This essay tries to describe the contemporary situation on our planet from a new perspective. When I use the term "contemporary situation,“ I refer to the many familiar facets of our current multiple crises: environmental decline, biodiversity loss, climate change, North-South conflict, economic inequalities. But I am not referring only to the external or material aspects of these challenges, but also to their more or less hidden, subjective dimensions, which could be subsumed under the term “crisis of sense-making.” To stress the importance of this focus, let me only note that unipolar depression was “ranked as the third leading cause of the global burden of disease in 2004 and is predicted to move into the first place by 2030,” surpassing infectious and heart diseases, and cancer.1
I wish to propose that the multidimensional crises of the current global situation are best understood as a “crisis in global sense-making” that has several, and even contradictory, dimensions. Its aspects range from the threat to the global natural life-support systems from overfishing, deforestation, soil degradation, loss of species and abrupt climate shifts (among many other problems) to the degradation of human support systems for people’s social and psychological lives.
All these single factors cannot be seen in isolation from one another and treated separately. They are aspects of the same problem. The mainstream approach to our manifold dilemmas, however, is to sort out various problems in separate “silos” and then search for specific, single “solutions.” This amounts to the only officially acceptable methodology in established institutions, whether they are educational institutions or public health systems, environmental organisations or international policy bodies. But an analytical approach that separates and externalizes problems to make them technically manageable is precisely why these troubles have arisen in the first place. We are caught in a deadlock.
Therefore, if we hope to make any serious progress, we should first ask what is blocking us. Is there a universal source from which most contemporary dilemmas arise? We should look for common denominators in our thinking or policies that may be responsible so that we can begin to name related problems – and begin to look for a new perspective to face reality. Then perhaps we can develop a new narrative that more accurately describes the world that we live in – and wish to live in.
Beyond the current metaphysics of dead matter
A profound flaw of our civilization, with its multiple crises, could lie in the fact that we deny the world’s deeply creative, poetic and expressive processes, all of them constantly unfolding and bringing forth a multitude of dynamic, interacting relationships. We might have forgotten what it means to be alive. All of the sciences, whether natural, social or economic, try to grasp the world as if it were a dead, mechanical process that could be understood through statistical or cybernetic analyses. Since Descartes’ groundbreaking revolution of separating reality into a hidden, subjective, strictly non-generalisable res cogitans on the one hand – our minds – and a visible malleable, calculable, but dead res extensa on the other – the material world – humankind’s most noble endeavours have focused on separating reality and all its parts into discrete building blocks – atoms and algorithms. This is seen as the most fruitful way to advance human progress.
The scientific rules that are still as valid today as when they were established in the 17th century, require us to treat everything as dead matter. The automatic application of Ockham’s razor has become a lethal weapon transforming every object of interest into an assemblage of non-animated building blocks.2 This tendency has cursed our civilisation with a sort of King Midas touch in reverse. This mythical king transformed any object into gold by the touch of his hands, eventually causing him to starve to death. All things that our civilisation touches with the X-ray vision of the scientific method in effect loses their aliveness. Science has erected a metaphysics of the non-living to analyse the most remarkable aspect of our being in the world, namely our being alive.
Enlightenment 2.0: “Enlivenment”
The common focus that could help us understand the current planetary crisis lies in the idea of "Enlivenment.“ Enlivenment, in a first approach, means getting things, people and oneself to live again – to be more full of life, to become more alive. The idea is at once concerned with the "real life“ of threatened species or ecosystems, or people under attack, and with the "inner life“ of ourselves, representatives of the social species Homo economicus, who incessantly perform more or less necessary tasks and fulfill more or less real needs to maintain the huge machine we call “the economy.”
With the term Enlivenment we have found a starting point from which to identify the various neglected areas of reality that are hidden in the blind spot of modernist, scientific thinking. It is not accidental that the term bears so much resemblance to the name of its predecessor concept, the Enlightenment. With the rise of the Enlightenment (which actually took many centuries), the basic assumptions lying at the ground of modern times came into their full dynamism: namely, that the world is understandable on rational grounds; that humans can change it (because we can understand it); and that we not only have the chance, but also the right and obligation to change it to improve the human condition. With the Enlightenment modern humanism was born, a way of thinking and being that has incredibly improved human life and living conditions. But Enlightenment habits of thought – especially the rational and technocratic understanding of human agency – also have a dark side, as famously observed by critics of the "dialectics of enlightenment.“3
As Horkheimer and Adorno, and in their wake many others, argue, Enlightenment ideology brought about not only freedom, but also some of the great totalitarian-technocratic catastrophes of the 20th century. This tradition of thought is to some extent also responsible for the technocratic disasters of the current unsustainability of our planetary ecosystem. The main flaws of the Enlightenment approach – besides its presumption that reality is essentially transparent on its face and open to all – are its reliance on dualisms of thought, rational discourse, and the Newtonian subject-object split. Significantly, the Enlightenmentproject has no use for notions of life, sentience, experience, subjectivity, corporeal embodiment and agency. These concepts are in effect excluded from the Enlightenment view of the world.
I review this familiar history to stress that Enlightenment norms are not arcane historical or philosophical matters, but deep structural principles in modern culture that have a powerful effect in ordering how we perceive, think and act. Our economics, legal systems, government policies and much else are firmly based on Enlightenment principles. There are good reasons why conventional economic and political thought is unable to “solve” our sustainability crisis. It reflects profound errors of understanding about human thought (epistemology), relationships (ontology) and biological functioning.
The idea of Enlivenment is meant as a corrective. It seeks to expand our view of what human beings are as embodied subjects. This notion does not exclude the role of human rationality and agency, but it does connects them with other modes of being, such as our psychological and metabolic relationships with the “more-than-human” world, in both its animated and non-animated aspects.4 Enlivenment links rationality with subjectivity and sentience.
It is quite possible that the grand political goals the Enlightenment inaugurated 250 years ago, which in many areas of the world are still far from being realized, can only be achieved through a shift to the idea of Enlivenment. It just might be possible, for example, that achieving a broader social inclusion in the polity of a state will require a deep "existential recognition“ of all citizens in a state, particularly ethnic minorities. By this, I mean that universal emancipation may require a deeper understanding of the “aliveness” of a person in order to recognize and accept his or her needs. Therefore, the Enlightenmentmight be waiting for “an upgrade” to version 2.0 if it is to make good on its stated claims. This version shall be called Enlivenment.
What is life, and what role do we play in it?
By using the term Enlivenment to reorient ourselves to the planetary crisis, we can begin to focus on a singular deficiency in contemporary thought: a lack of understanding of what life is. We might even say we have forgotten what life means. We are unaware of our most profound reality as living beings. This absentmindedness is an astonishing fact – but it is also a logical outcome of our rational culture. The “meaning of life“ and questions about human purpose, satisfactions and aspirations have long been ignored in biology, in economics and the humanities.
And yet, this notion of “meaning of life” embodies some simple, everyday questions that stand at the center of human experience. It demands that we consider: What do we live for? What are our inner needs as living creatures? What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order? How do we produce things for our immediate needs or the market? How must we create, maintain and earn our livelihoods? My proposal is to shift focus to a new question: What is life, and what role do we play in it?
It was once considered the highest exercise of human cognition and sentience to explore what life means, to debate which relationships create and maintain it, and to ask how to live it. But for at least the past century, talk about these ancient, crucial dimensions of life has been treated as the dusty relics of some obscure graveyard of intellectual history. It may well be that by excluding such talk about life, its meanings, its dimensions and the inner tensions between living agents and their relationships, we have lost the most important reference point to act in a wise and sustainable manner. After all, who would deny that s/he is alive? And yet the existential realities of living are treated as somehow too prosaic or arcane to discuss.
If we are to recover reliable references points for sustainable living, and so find the wisdom to confront the manifold crises of our time, I will argue in the sections below that we must first look for a fresh account of the principles of existence of living beings. This requires that we carefully reconsider how relationships in the biosphere are organised – and experienced. Are there basic rules how organisms realize their existence? What makes ecological systems sound? What makes the individual experience of a “full life” possible? How is exchange of goods, services and meaning possible without degrading the system? In the following sections, I will work through such questions with the goal of formulating a “policy of Enlivenment”.
These are complicated fields – and rather down-to-earth questions at the same time. Hence we should not be afraid of getting too general. Generations of “experts” in different scientific specialties have given in to such fear and refused to address the mysteries of lived existence. The heritage left by such safe, narrow-gauged thinking has been devastating.
I propose to follow a rather pragmatic focus: First, we have to diagnose why we have an aversion to thinking or talking about life. Then, it is important to consider how a contemporary account of life could be imagined without falling back into essentialist thinking, but rather to open genuinely new windows of thought. Finally, we should try to understand what recent scientific findings reveal about the unfolding of life’s processes – and how this could lead to a new approach that overcomes dualist mode of thinking, our reflexive mental habit of separating resources and natural agents, reason and the physical world, human life and animate nature, and physical bodies and human meaning.
Enlivenment is more than sustainability
If we look back to the last thirty years of sustainability politics, we can observe a lot of progress – the enactment of laws to protect nature, the setting of safety thresholds for toxic materials, the ban on fluorocarbons, and so on. But the basic contradiction remains, that we consume the very biosphere that we are a part of and that we depend upon. From this perspective, we have not been able to come closer to solving the sustainability question; we remain trapped in its underlying, fundamental contradictions.
The different view of sustainability I will develop in this essay, therefore, does not emphasize technical improvement or sound treatment of scarce resources as a priority. Rather, it sees in the goal of “leading a fuller life” the most important stepping stone toward changing our relationships with the animate earth and among ourselves. If we adopt this perspective, we will begin to see that something is sustainable if it enables more life – for myself, for other human individuals involved, for the ecosystem, on a broader cultural level. It is crucial to rediscover the linkage between our inner experience and the “external” natural order.
To understand what “more life” means from the standpoint of a sustainability position, and to help us put human species and the rest of nature on the same plane, I propose that we regard “life as embodied beings” as a common denominator for all living organisms. Life is what we all share. And life is what we all can feel: The emotional experience of feeling our needs and having them satisfied is a direct sign of how well we realize (or fail to realize) our aliveness. The world is a place that is constantly seeking to express its creative powers through a continuous interplay of meaningful relationships. In this scenario of “life as embodied beings,” human beings, as natural creatures, experience the forces and structures of nature as much as other beings. But we humans have our species-specific way of dealing with the openness of nature and the unfolding natural history of freedom – namely, symbolic culture.5
If we treat sustainability as that what makes us vibrant with perspectives of personal growth and development, it gives us an entirely new (and more accurate) field of vision for understanding the challenges we must meet. Or, as Cunningham expressed it: Nobody will be very impressed if you answer the question “How is your marriage?” with “Oh, it’s sustainable.” But everyone would turn his or her head if you replied: “Well, it’s energizing. It makes me feel alive.”6
The Green New Deal as Anthropocenic Economics
The idea behind Enlivenment differs from popular, faddish proposals to design a “green economy” or campaign for a “green new deal.”7 In these proposals, the dualist opposition between human culture and nature and its resources is not even addressed, let alone resolved. If anything, these policy approaches intensify dualist tensions by trying to increase technological efficiency and the objectification of nature.
In this essay, I shall not criticize the “green economy” approach on the basis of its incapacity or inability to incite real change. In truth, this is difficult to judge. Critics point to the “rebound-effect” (or Jevons Paradox), in which increased efficiencies from “green innovation” may decrease the resources used in a given market, but they also free up that money to spend on other things, resulting in massive net increases in economic growth and resource usage. We can see this effect at work in the increased carbon dioxide production caused by “efficient” information technologies and the Internet.
All proposed “efficiency revolutions” invariably point to nature itself as the supreme model of efficiency. But this model is wrong. Nature is not efficient, as I will discuss below. It is only to a huge extent edible or usable. Living beings are one interrelated, embodied whole, of which humans comprise only a fractional portion. The real flaw of the efficiency approach to sustainability is that nature is still seen as something “outside” that can be used for human means. But nature is not outside of us. It is inside of us – and we are inside of it.
There is a threshold limit for any increase in efficiency, and that limit is the natural imperfection of embodied being – or as the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem calls it, the “necessary imperfection of every creation.” Humans as natural beings will always suffer from deficiencies: They are mortal and full of contradictions – as every organism is. Higher efficiency is not capable of improving upon that. Efficiency as a solution therefore amounts to a “category error” in thinking.
The Enlivenment approach differs from the green economy approach in another key respect: Whereas green economics remain committed to the idea of material “growth” as the best way to improve the conditions of life, Enlivenment approaches recognize that nature does not grow in absolute terms. The “GDP of the biosphere” (if one may be so absurd) has remained constant for a very long time. Nature’s ecology is a steady-state economy. The only factor of nature that grows is the immaterial dimension, which could be called depth of experience: the diversity of natural forms and the variety of ways to experience aliveness.
There is another perspective to the global sustainability question that is widely discussed today: The “Anthropocene hypothesis.” The idea is that we are now living in the “Anthropocene” era, a distinct geological epoch in which human culture has largely overtaken the biogeochemical realities of households; humans can now dominate and control matter, energy streams and the distribution and existence of biological species. Here, the difference between man and nature is claimed to be resolved – but not by recognizing that all living beings and living systems are subject to the same natural dynamics and creative principles (as the Enlivenment idea tries to propose), but by declaring that humans can assert mastery over the whole of inanimate and living nature on earth.
The Anthropocene position shares with the green economy idea the underlying anthropocentric assumption – that we can (or even must) start from a uniquely human standpoint to come to terms with the problems of sustainability. Both regard Darwinistic theories and free-market ideology as the inexorable premises of economic life (a paradigm of thinking that I will discuss in the next chapter). Another difference between both anthropocentric approaches and the Enlivenment approach is their stance towards perfectability. Anthropocenes are strictly utopians in believing that perfect schemes can be achieved; the biocentrism of Enlivenment perspective recognizes, as a matter of theory, the unavoidable messes, shortcomings and efficiency drains that are an inescapable part of biological and human reality, which no cultural or technological improvements can eliminate. (For a more in-depth discussion, see Chapter VI.)
Science becomes reconnected with life
The refusal to study aliveness as a scientific phenomenon, however, is weakening. Today many scientific disciplines that have historically resisted a worldview that could open up space for the primordial human experience of embodied feeling, have begun to search for a way out. Independent of each other, such disciplines as biology, psychology, physics and even economics are rediscovering the phenomenon of the living.
Biology in particular is discovering that sentience and felt expression in organisms are not just epiphenomena but rather the way living beings exist in the first place. Scientists like the Harvard embryologists Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, the Copenhagen and Tartu-based theoretical biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer and Kalevi Kull, and science theoretician Elizabeth Fox Keller, are starting to acknowledge that meaning and expressiveness are deeply rooted in the heart of nature. Such eminent biological and systems thinkers as Lynn Margulis, Francisco Varela, Alicia Juarrero, Stuart Kauffman and Gregory Bateson have opened up a picture in which organisms are no longer seen as machines competing with other machines, but rather as a natural phenomenon that “creates” and develops itself in a material way while continuously making and expressing experiences. Being alive, these researchers wish to show, is not a case of cause-and-effect alone, but also a complicated interplay of embodied interest and hence feelings. Brain researchers like Antonio Damasio recently have shown that emotions, not abstract cognition, are the stuff of the mind.8
If we consider all these changes in contemporary biology, a completely different picture of the living world necessarily emerges. We are starting to see that humans do not exist at the exterior or edge of “nature,” but are deeply interwoven into the material, mental and emotional exchange processes that all of the more-than-human world participates in. This is leading biological sciences to a major paradigm change of the sort that physics experienced a century ago. The physical sciences have for a long time been able to show that the separation of an observer (subject) and an observed phenomenon (object) is an artifact of causal-mechanic, linear thought. For quantum physics, there is no locality or temporal chronology. Rather, any event can be connected to any other. The physicist David Bohm has called this the “implicate order” of the cosmos. This view not only calls into question locality and chronology, it blurs the separation of physical and psychological reality. We exist in a space-time that is a continuum of “insides” (meanings) and “outsides” (bodies).
Research into the commons paradigm has demonstrated that any economic activity at its base is not just an exchange of objects and money; it is a rich set of ongoing flows and relationships. So, too, with human relationships with natural ecosystems: humans are constantly engaged in ecological exchanges of gifts that not only distribute material goods and services, but also engender a sense of belonging and commitment, and hence feeling and meaning. Seen from this viewpoint, economic exchange cannot meaningfully distinguish between agents and resources as wholly independent entities; they are both entangled with each other. In the same way, land and its inhabitants cannot be wholly separated, they are mutually dependent. In any given habitat, ecological exchange brings with it reciprocal flows of matter, energy and existential relatedness (“natural gifts”).9
Finally, in their practice artists are discovering that creative processes are able to change perception. Imagination can bring about productive change in oneself and in the world. Echopsychology is able to prove that only by experiencing other beings in a more-than-human-world can we grasp and develop our deepest qualities as human beings10. The new picture of reality that the arts and sciences promise is one of a deeply sentient and meaningful universe. It is poetic – productive of new life forms and ever-new embodied experiences. It is expressive of all the subjective experiences that individuals make. It is a universe where human subjects are no longer separated from other organisms but rather form a meshwork of existential relationships – a quite real “web of life”. This “flesh of the world”, as the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty called it, is possibly best understood as a creative play of overcoming unsolvable paradoxes from moment to moment, no matter the realm – ecology, culture, economics or the arts.11
Seen from this perspective, any policy to foster sustainability acquires a new scope and new metrics of success. Sustainability can be successful only if it enhances the aliveness of human agents, and of nature and society. Thus, it could be enriching to develop more deliberate “policies of enlivenment” – not as a matter of natural laws dictating the order of human society, but as a strategy to honour the manifold embodied needs of sentient individuals in a more-than-human world.
A new narrative of living relationships
It is necessary to explore a new narrative for what life is, for what it is to be alive, for what living systems do, and what their goals are. We need to explore how values are created by the realisation of the living, and how we, as living beings in a living biosphere, can adapt the production needed for our livelihoods to that reality, the only reality we have. Even though this narrative will encompass different areas and disciplines, life is the binding dimension for all of them. As a living being, the human organism integrates and connects diverse fields of existential experience, metabolic exchange and social relationships.
The narrative that I propose is by no means an objectivist account, however – a mechanics or a cybernetics of reality. It will be objective in the sense that poetics is objective: transmitting shared feelings by working in the open dimension of continuous imagination, which is the field of life itself. The narrative of the living that I wish to unfold here will thus strive for "poetic objectivity“ or "poetic precision.“ This is the most appropriate way to describe the living world with its endless unfolding of existential relationships and meanings.
Nature, in the enlivening perspective, is not a causal-mechanic object but a relational network between subjects who have individual interests to stay alive, grow and unfold. Enlivenment means to push biological thinking beyond the objectivist paradigm in which it is now imprisoned, and to emulate the shift that physics made 100 years ago when it moved beyond Newtonian thinking. To end the Newtonian approach to the biosphere, other organsims, ourselves as embodied beings and the whole of ecological and economical exchange processes, will mean to acknowledge that we, as human observers, are as alive and expressive as the other organisms and ecosystems that we are observing. Such a biology is emphatically non-reductionist. Its main goal is to understand how freedom can arise and yet be anchored in a material, living world.
My argument here is in line with evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson’s recent cultural turn – in which he distanced himself from Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” position – in stating that we need a “second Enlightenment.”12 If natural processes inevitably yield subjectivity, meaning and feeling, our science, and our science-based policy and economy, must take these lived dimensions into account. What is needed is an “Enlivenment” as a “second Enlightenment” – a new stage of cultural evolution that can safeguard our scientific (and democratic) ideals of common access to knowledge and the powers connected with it – while at the same time validating personal experience that is felt and subjective: the defining essence of embodied experience. The Enlivenment that I envision includes other animate beings, which, after all, share the same capacities for embodied experiences and “worldmaking.”
Enlivenment therefore is not just another naturalist account to describe ourselves and our world that can then automatically dictate specific policies or economic solutions. The reflection I propose isindeed naturalist – but it offers a “wild naturalism” in the sense of David Abram, a naturalism that is based on the idea of nature as an unfolding process of ever-growing freedom and creativity paradoxically linked to material and embodied processes. The biosphere is alive in the sense that it does not only obey the rules of deterministic or stochastic interactions of particles, molecules, atoms, fields and waves. The biosphere is also very much about producing agency, expression, and meaning.
1 Deborah Wan (2012): “Foreword”. In: Depression: A global Crisis. World Federation for Mental Health, World Mental Health Day October 10, 2012, p. 2.
2 Ockham’s razor is a scientific principle of parsimony stating that among competing explanations the one that makes the simplest and fewest assumptions is the most trustworthy one to choose.
3 See Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno (1983): Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp.
4 For this term see David Abram (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World. New York: Pantheon.
5 For an in-depth approach to this question from a biopoetical point of view see Andreas Weber (2001): “Cognition as Expression. On the autopoietic foundations of an aesthetic theory of nature”, see Sign System Studies 29(1): 153-168; id. (2007): Alles fühlt. Mensch, Natur und die Revolution der Lebenswissenschaften. Berlin: Berlin Verlag; id. (2010): “The Book of Desire: Towards a Biological Poetics”. Biosemiotics 4(2): 32-58; id. (2012): “There is no outside. A Biological Corollary for Poetic Space”. In Silver Rattasepp, Tyler Bennett, eds.: Gatherings in Biosemiotics. Tartu Semiotics Library 11. Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 225-226.
6 Storm Cunningham (2008): reWealth!: Stake Your Claim in the $2 Trillion reDevelopment Trend That's Renewing the World. Washington: McGraw Hill.
7 Ralf Fücks (2013): Intelligent wachsen: Die grüne Revolution. München: Hanser; Thomas L. Friedman (2010): Was zu tun ist: Eine Agenda für das 21. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp; see also Andreas Weber (2008): Biokapital. Die Versöhnung von Ökonomie, Natur und Menschlichkeit. Berlin: Berlin-Verlag.
8 Gregory Bateson (1972): Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine. Francisco J. Varela, Evan T. Thompson, Eleanor Rosch (1993): The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press; Stuart Kauffman (1996): At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Amer Chemical Society; Lynn Margulis (1999): Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books; Alicia Juarero (1999): Dynamics in Action. Internal Behaviour as a Complex System, Cambridge: MIT Press; Antonio Damasio (2000):The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace; Andreas Weber & Francisco J. Varela (2002): "Life after Kant. Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality“. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1: 97-125.
9 Lewis Hyde (2007): The Gift. Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Random House.
10 Abram (1996), op. cit.
11 Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964): Le visible et l’invisible. Paris: Gallimard.
12 Edward O. Wilson (2012): The Social Conquest of the Earth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!