MORE AND MORE WE ARE BECOMING AWARE of the ecological crises looming around us. As our collective awareness grows, we long to make amends, to do our part— to contribute. Alarmed and well meaning, we long to help the planet, to live sustainably, to protect nature and to make our homes and enterprises circular and carbon neutral. To do so we're striving to go green.
But how exactly does one ‘help the planet’? What kind of world are we ‘sustaining’? What does it mean to ‘protect nature’? Is ‘carbon neutral’ really enough? Who says ‘circular’ is the right geometry? How does one truly ‘contribute ecologically’?
What, in fact, should green really mean?
While more and more of us agree that transitioning from grey to green is one of the most pressing endeavours of our times, the legacy of our previous attempts should give us pause.
Ecological crises are not new. Nor are attempts to solve them. From London’s “pea souper” fogs of the 1800’s1, to the American Dust bowls of the 1930’s to the Russian famines of the 1940’s— the crises of the past were as daunting as those of today. After grand mobilizations of country and industry, forests and fields were revived and economies restored1. Yet somehow, rather than reduce ecological degradation, the industry and society that ensued, paved the way for more extensive and destructive crises, and the diminishment of the means to prevent them.
Could it be that our past attempts at green in fact contained an unconscious grain of grey? If so, could it be that our enterprises of today have yet to transcended this deep-set inclination?
All around us we can catch the hint of troubling paradoxes. A forest cut for carbon neutral energy. An electric car charged by coal generated power. An organic vegetable shipped a thousand miles. A natural product wrapped in plastic.
How do we make sense of such combinations of grey and green? What do we make of the concepts that guide them— concepts like ‘net-zero’, ‘zero-waste’ and ‘sustainability’? More importantly, how sound is the ecological world view that underlies them? How can we be sure that our values are aligned with the best interests of the biosphere?
Alas, working for the last decade on the forefront of plastic management, I’ve come to question many of our modern green endeavors.
Maybe you have too.
Investigative journalism has decisively debunked so many of the modern ‘green’ things we once esteemed. From biomass energy2 to palm-oil products3; from industrial recycling4 to oxy-degradeable plastics5, it turns out much of what we were once so sure was green, was in fact a dark shade of grey.
These all-too recent debacles remind us that technology is not an answer in itself— nor great quantities of capital. In fact, critics observe that all too often the combination of both correlate directly with environmental degradation.6 At the very least, these failures are a reminder that discerning what is in the Earth’s interest is not the role of business or of politics. All too often vested interests run deep. Nor is it the domain of scientists. Though their work on understanding our world is essential, their role is not that of discerning moral meaning.
Rather, discerning the meaning of green is the realm of philosophy and, more specifically, of ethics.
But even more so, it is the realm of the forest and the fish— and those of our ancestors who have lived closest to them. After all, if there’s anyone or any ‘thing’, that can teach us about ecological contribution, it is those who have already decisively done so.
Over human history, certain cultures have excelled far more than others at the art of green. Rather than deplete the ecosystems around them, these greening cultures steadily enriched them.
While some cultures subjugated plants and animals, these cultures treated them as kin. While others moved to colonize ever more resources and land, these cultures made a common home with their fellow creatures— and learned from them. As the animals around them thrived, these cultures observed those creatures who had most magnificently mastered their ecological integration. Following their example, these greening cultures steadily grew in wisdom and synced with the cycles of life around them. Steadily they developed an ecological epistemology that enabled human, plant and animal to co-engineer the very conditions for all to thrive.
Growing up in the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün, beside the Yukon river8, I had an early experience of such a culture. Coming from a family of Scottish and German ancestry, I was in awe of even the briefest brush with their fantastically different ways. Alas, as a child of those settling their land, we learned nothing of their language or traditions in school. However, throughout town, glimmers of their culture (totems, stories, games, celebrations) pushed through the blanket of modern life— ways that had enabled the Kwanlin Dün to thrive in the harsh sub-arctic for almost ten thousand years.
Later, with a family of my own, I settled further south in the unceded traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en beside the Bulkley River. Much later, on the other side of the world, I made my home in the ancestral lands of the Igorots— one of the few unconquered indigenous peoples of South East Asia in the modern day Philippines.
I am convinced by these experiences that a comprehensive ecological ethic must implicitly recognize cultures like those of the Wet’suwet’en, the Kwanlin Dün and the Igorots. Over the last centuries, there has been a direct correlation between the degradation of ecosystems and the denigration of indigenous cultures— precisely because the essence of both were utterly unrecognizable to those busy colonizing the land. Just as color blindness is due to deficiencies in the receptors at the back the eye, deficiencies in the world view of the settlers, blinded them to the cultural and ecological devastation they were perpetuating.
Today, such staggering blindness can seem incomprehensible to the children of both settler and settled alike. However, it is important to remember that the modern culture that now touches us all, inherits more than anything, the values and views of its colonizers. Could it be that this blindness remains? Could it be that this is the grain of grey fateing even the best of intentions to denigrate and degrade?
In my time living with Igorots, I glimpsed deep into the depths of my own views and values.
After an expedition, relationship and contract collapsed, I found myself lost in a remote mountain village. Despair got the better of me. My visa expired. Then my passport. I was taken in by the Igorots and given a place to stay. Their valley became my home for five years as I rebuilt my life. I learned their language, heard their stories and danced in their steps. I observed the biodiversity they supported, their sync with the seasons and their fierce love of river and forest. Reminded of the Kwanlin Dün, I observed how their ways of life radically centered on the ecological cycles around them— culture and ecology each enriching the other until the line between the two was indistinguishable.
Although, I cannot speak first hand of Igorot beliefs, I can speak of my own. Awed by their world view, I saw the dire deficiencies of my own for the first time.
Astronomers have long disproved that the Earth is the center of the cosmos. Biologists have long dismissed that humans are the top of life’s tree. Physicists have long shown that man and nature are not in any way separate. Yet, when I observed the Igorot’s comprehensive cosmology beside my own, it became clear that the inertia of these ancient misconceptions zombied on deep in my subconscious as hidden, undead defaults. A centralization and separateness of man rooted my view of the world, permeating everything from my words to my ways.
I came to see that although modern capitalists and communists, neoliberals and socialists may debate their differences, side-by-side the Igorot world-view, their underlying cosmologies were all but the same— a view of the world in which humans are central and separate. And ecosystems are other.
The modern ethics that result from this foundation (laws, sustainability guidelines, UN goals) are thus locked into a view of human interests, human rights, human-timescale and human space. From this view, ‘nature’ is an object at which humans are always at odds. Alas, this ideology, fails to conceive any means for human ecological contribution, nor framework for enrichment9. In this view, the best we can do is reduce our harm, conserve and preserve what remains.
Yet, we long to contribute— to play our part.
To guide our growing planet passion, we must first shatter the mind-forged manacles of antiquated, human-bound cosmology. Only then, can we move on to the deep ecological regeneration that our moment requires.
To do so, there is only one hammer. Long discounted and disparaged, the ancient ecological epistemology of our indigenous ancestors beckons. But to pick it up: recognition— acknowledgment of our cosmological complicity in the ecological degradations of today and the cultural denigrations of the past.
With the shards of these shadows cast into the light, I lay out a new— yet very old— theory of green in the chapters ahead.
In the same way our indigenous brothers and sisters found inspiration and guidance in the example of magnificent creatures, we can be inspired and guided by the example of our common home— planet Earth. Through an examination of the ways in which the Earth transformed a barren planet into a thriving biosphere, we can discern our green way forward.
Rather than an ethics based humanity's limited experience of the Earth, ours can be founded on the Earth’s multi-billion year experience of life.
Rather than an ethics that is restricted to minimizing harm, ours can define the parameters of maximizing our contribution.
Rather than an ethics in which ecosystems are other, ours can apply equally to the processes of humans, plants, animals, and ecosystems.
Then, at last, we can aspire to the great planetary contributions our neighboring organisms and ecosystems are quietly making day in and day out.
I ask the reader to buckle in.
The Earth’s example sets the bar at heights hitherto unimagined by most of us, and will shake the foundations of our modern environmental values. Concepts such as zeroing our waste and negating carbon shall still have their place. And so too shall conserving forests and preserving reefs. However, from an Earthen view, these are not goals to aspire to— but the baselines to begin.
As we shall see, the way forward isn’t so much about fixing our current technologies — nor about inventing new ones. Rather, it is in the humility of seeing clearly our place in the biosphere. Only then, with our fellow creatures as our companions, and the Earth as our guide, can we step into that green world for all, in which we all long to live.
That's was the start.
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1Vanessa Heggie (2016) Over 200 years of deadly London air: smogs, fogs, and pea soupers, the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2016/dec/09/pollution-air-london-smogs-fogs-pea-soupers
2Biomass energy receive initial enthusiasm by industry and even environmentalists as a ‘green’ renewable form of electricity. Produced by burning raw organic material (plant husks, wood, waste organics, etc) instead of petroleum fuels, biomass energy was marketed as transition from coal and petroleum. However, as facilities consumed all the readily accessible organic material, increasing they had to rely on cutting live trees for material. Currently, vast swaths of forests are being cut to sustain electrical generation quotas. Independent researches, having been scarthing in their critique. See the 2014 report: Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal: “Green” Biomass Electricity More Polluting Than Coal: Renewable energy biomass plants are avoiding regulation, burning contaminated fuels, and threatening air quality https://www.pfpi.net/trees-trash-and-toxics-how-biomass-energy-has-become-the-new-coal
3Palm oill was at first lauded as green an alternative to petroleum by-products additives. However, palm oil products and the vast plantations they require have been singularly responsible for the destruction of millions of square kilometers of biodiverse, old growth rain forest in South East Asia. See: Worse than Crude: The Case Against Palm Oil, May 22, 2008, NPR https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90714122
4Current research and public revelations indicates that industrial recycling was introduced by the plastic industry in the 1970’s, explicitly as a means to distract the public from the culpability of corporations in the plastic pollution resulting from their products. See: How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would be Recycled, NPR Investigations, September 11th, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled. See also my essay: Russell Maier (2016) Recycling: The Evil Illusion, https://www.russs.net/recycling
5First invented in the 1970’s oxo-degradeable plastic forms gained renewed interest and application in the early 2000’s as a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. After an effusive launch of oxo-degradeable plastic bags in 2010, the technology garnered increasing criticism until, in 2019 150 organizations, including packaging companies, called for the techology to be banned. See: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee, HSAC review of oxo-degradable plastics, July 2019 and https://www.edie.net/news/5/Government-to-explore-ban-on-oxo-degradable-plastics/
6“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” Slavoj Zizek, As quoted in Capitalist Realism, (2013) Mark Fisher.
7 Based on mellenia of experiential learning, it is a way of knowing that far exceeds even the most rigorous research of modern science.
8The traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün, is a self-governing first nation, in North Western Canada.
9 It is telling that neither the Igorots nor the Kwalin Dun have a concept of ‘nature’ in their language.