Philoso­pher An­dreas We­ber says en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism must be fu­elled by pas­sion and em­pa­thy

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ENVIRONMENT - Sylvia Thomp­son

Every now and again, an aca­demic, an en­trepreneur or even an econ­o­mist comes along to chal­lenge con­ven­tional think­ing. Ger­man bi­ol­o­gist, eco-philoso­pher and au­thor Dr An­dreas We­ber is in this mould. He came to Dublin in July to speak about how only when sci­ence, pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics put the liv­ing world at their heart will it be­come truly sus­tain­able.

Putting the planet at the heart of pol­icy might not sound so ground­break­ing but the key is in the word “heart”. We­ber ar­gues that deal­ing with species de­cline and habi­tat de­struc­tion in a purely ra­tio­nal way will not bring about a deeply sus­tain­able world.

“We are in the sixth wave of ex­tinc­tion [all pre­vi­ous waves of ex­tinc­tion pre­date hu­man life on this planet] and if we fo­cus on the death of species, it will be­come a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy,” he says.

Like many sci­en­tists, We­ber says cli­mate change has proved that hu­mans are “in­escapably con­nected to Earth and its sys­tems”. “Traces of pes­ti­cides, nu­clear fall­out and ni­tro­gen fer­tiliser can be found in the Arc­tic ice crys­tals and in the soils of the Ama­zon,” he says.

How­ever, he sug­gests that this so-called An­thro­pocene era – in which hu­man be­ings dom­i­nate the bio­sphere – calls for a new ap­proach which em­braces the liv­ing pro­cesses of the world in “mu­tu­ally trans­form­ing re­la­tion­ships”.

We­ber is at his most elo­quent – and con­vinc­ing – when he shares sto­ries about his per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion with oth- er crea­tures ei­ther in his na­tive city of Ber­lin or on his world trav­els.

At his talk to the Green Foun­da­tion Ire­land at the Ir­ish School of Ec­u­men­ics at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, he shared an en­counter with nightin­gale song and hon­ey­suckle blos­soms on a quiet street in a down­trod­den part of Ber­lin. “I stood there for a mo­ment in the pres­ence of other selves to­tally able to be them­selves – the per­fume, the sound, the colour – and in that mo­ment, I knew I had found my sum­mer, and it had found me.”

At an­other event, We­ber shared an en­counter with one of the last re­main­ing wolves in Ethiopia. While there, he ex­plained how he sat, watched and looked into the eyes of the wolf, whom he felt looked right back into his eyes, co-wit­ness­ing the loss [ of this species] with him. “We need these kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences. There are part of the essence of be­ing alive,” he says.


As with much philo­soph­i­cal de­bate, We­ber’s writ­ings are full of ref­er­ences to pre­vi­ous philo­soph­i­cal tenets. He ar­gues that it’s time to move be­yond the du­al­is­tic think­ing of the En­light­en­ment, which sep­a­rates mind and body, and in­stead em­brace a mind/body con­nec­tion with the nat­u­ral world in all its fragility and strength. This mu­tual re­la­tion­ship with birds, an­i­mals, flow­ers and even stones, he de­fines as “en­liven­ment”.

In his writ­ings, We­ber min­gles his vast sci­en­tific knowl­edge with a po­etic turn of phrase which draws read­ers into con­nec­tions with the nat­u­ral world.

“There are al­ways two sides: the ma­te­rial, body and em­pir­i­cal side that sci­ence is fas­ci­nated with; and the per­sonal, emo­tional, sub­jec­tive, ex­is­ten­tial ex­pe­ri­ences. We can’t re­duce the process of mu­tual re­la­tion­ships to only one side,” he says.

And in this vein, We­ber ar­gues there is a par­a­digm shift oc­cur­ring in bi­ol­ogy on a par with the the­o­ret­i­cal shift that oc- curred when, 100 years ago, mod­ern physics [quan­tum physics and the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity] re­alised that any ob­server is en­tan­gled with the sys­tem be­ing ob­served.

He ar­gues that Dar­win­ism and neo-Dar­win­ism, with its em­pha­sis on scarcity, com­pe­ti­tion, ef­fi­ciency and sur­vival has dom­i­nated bi­ol­ogy up un­til re­cently. But, now, a new ap­proach to bi­ol­ogy (ex­plored in bio-semi­otics, cog­ni­tion and de­vel­op­men­tal bi­ol­ogy for ex­am­ple) em­braces an in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness where both the first and third per­son ex­pe­ri­ences mat­ter.

“Life is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing how it is to be mat­ter and to be alive is al­ways about be­ing mat­ter. Our whole re­al­ity – what we can know – is based on feel­ings and par­tic­i­pat­ing with oth­ers,” he says. For ex­am­ple, we now know that we share our bod­ies with a mul­ti­tude of bac­te­ria. Sim­i­larly, we share the air we breathe into our lungs with other liv­ing or­gan­isms at all times.

So, We­ber ar­gues that we need a new “pol­icy of life” so that sus­tain­abil­ity no longer means pro­tect­ing the other but cul­ti­vat­ing our­selves. For this deep sus­tain­abil­ity to be­come a re­al­ity, We­ber says we need a global eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture which en­hances bio­di­ver­sity and hu­man ex­is­ten­tial ex­pe­ri­ences. We also need an econ­omy guided by an eco­nomic ex­change in the shared “house­hold” of the bio­sphere, a bi­ol­ogy that un­der­stands or­gan­isms not only as ecosys­tem-ser­vice providers but also cre­ative sub­jects that hu­mans are a meta­bolic part of and an ed­u­ca­tion which teaches the art of liv­ing and con­nec­tion.

And there’s much more too that We­ber wishes for in this age of the An­thro­pocene which you can read in his books, The Bi­ol­ogy of Won­der: Alive­ness, Feel­ing and the Meta­mor­pho­sis of Sci­ence and Mat­ter and De­sire: An Erotic Ecol­ogy. But, charis­matic and charm­ing as this eco-philoso­pher is in per­son, he is not with­out his crit­ics.

Speak­ing at the afore­men­tioned event in Dublin, Dr Cathri­ona Rus­sell, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, said that to “re­ori­ent our­selves to­wards what we love may not be enough to pre­vent [en­vi­ron­men­tal] de­struc­tion”. “In our cur­rent era of post-fact, post-truth, it is the le­gal and moral obli­ga­tions where en­vi­ron­men­tal ethics will hold the line. We are forced to re­visit what it is to be a hu­man agent in the con­text of our de­pleted en­vi­ron­ment,” says Rus­sell.

Dr John Fee­han, a ge­ol­o­gist, botanist and en­vi­ron­men­tal philoso­pher who also spoke at the Dublin con­fer­ence ar­gues that we have a ca­pac­ity to have an “alert pres­ence” with the nat­u­ral world. “The hu­man jour­ney of un­der­stand­ing is a spir­i­tual jour­ney in par­al­lel with every plant and an­i­mal – whose pres­ence in our lives we are largely blind to.” Fee­han en­cour­ages us “to en­rich our en­counter with place where our feet walk every day”.

Speak­ing to The Ir­ish Times af­ter We­ber’s talk, Prof Pat Br­ere­ton, a lec­turer in the school of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Dublin City Univer­sity and au­thor of En­vi­ron­men­tal Ethics and Film, ar­gues that if we don’t have a love of na­ture, we can’t con­nect with it and pro­tect it.

“I think we all need to have the cel­e­bra­tory and utopian mo­ments in na­ture that We­ber talks about. We need new ways of vi­su­al­is­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment to keep it in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion be­cause [ul­ti­mately] if we don’t have a planet, we won’t sur­vive.”

Traces of pes­ti­cides, nu­clear fall­out and ni­tro­gen fer­tiliser can be found in the Arc­tic ice crys­tals and in the soils of the Ama­zon

An­dreas We­ber: There are two sides: the ma­te­rial, em­pir­i­cal side that sci­ence is fas­ci­nated with; and the per­sonal, sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences

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