Mind over matter? Why we see the living world as we do

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The relationship we have today with the living world is characterised by a separation. Us and it. Yet for much of their 300,000-year history, humans have relied on close cooperation with nature. 

Aware that their survival depended on coexistence with the ecosystems surrounding them they made no obvious distinction between human and non-human beings. Anthropologists refer to this way of seeing the world as animism, the idea that all living beings are interconnected, and share the same spirit or essence. But for us today it is difficult to imagine a relationship of equals with the natural world, we have been conditioned to believe that humans are the main characters in the story of Earth.

Understanding ourselves as distinct from everything around us like many of the systems we take for granted today, has a recent history. Dualisms’ beginnings in 16th century Europe are tied up with the story of modern capitalism, a system which requires a relationship with the earth that allows for extraction and exploitation in order to maintain incessant growth. If everything living were to possess spirit and agency, then even the concept of property is rendered unfathomable. 

Extraction: an oil rig. Photograph: Worksite Ltd.; Unsplash

Rene Descartes became the head of a new philosophical movement designed to forever change the way the West understood itself. He advocated for a fundamental separation between matter, (our body and the living world,) and the mind. Humans had a soul, a consciousness; they could think and feel pain. Everything else was rendered inanimate by science and philosophy. When we see that Descartes used this theory to justify dissecting living animals which he had nailed to a board, we get a glimpse of the destructive implications such a worldview has.

The story of capitalism is one of hierarchy and control. It was the wide acceptance of dualistic principles which allowed for the exploitation, enslavement, colonialization and extraction that came out of the last 500 years. The living world: plants, waters, animals and eventually groups of peoples one by one found themselves stripped of their subjectivity and labelled as other. Martinique writer Aime Cesaire emphasises that colonisation is a process of ‘thingification’, after all to enslave people you need to first dehumanise them. 

Although the violence accompanying dualism is now much less explicit, its principles have become lodged into our day-to-day behaviour. The plants we buy could never be more than ornaments and the food we eat will never have a conscience. Being heirs of dualist ontology manifests itself most clearly in our language where the very notion of ‘the environment’ presupposes the living world to be a passive container in which human history plays out. 

But where capitalism broke down relationships between communities and the natural world, indigenous tribes all around the globe have maintained a dynamic with their surroundings which we can learn much from. Potawatomi scientist and philosopher Robin Kimmerer suggests that a reorganisation of how we name things is the beginning of justice, given those whom her ancestors called relatives were relabelled natural resources. How we choose to call something speaks worlds on how we perceive it, so naming in a way that brings awareness to the significance of what surrounds us could help heal much of the dislocation caused by dualism and radically alter how we treat our planet. 

The Bedamuni people on the island of New Guinea and the Kanaks at nearby New Caledonia reject formal distinctions between humans and plants and animals that Westerners take for granted, and in the process refuse to accept any hierarchies amongst themselves. There is nothing at all like the patriarchal great chain of being that has sat at the heart of Western philosophy, with humans at the top and everything else staggered out below. For the Achuar deep within the Amazon, most of the plants and animals that populate the jungle have souls (wakan) similar to the souls of humans and are therefore classified literally as ‘persons’ (aents) and treated with dignity. 

The Amazon’s Achuar tribe. Photograph: Surya Prakosa; Unsplash

Crucially it is not about projecting human qualities on to non-human beings, rather recognising other species and entities as subjects, seeing the world as a terrain full of intimate connections and kinship. It is difficult to regard those living in a social community beside humans as natural resources or raw materials or the environment. To exploit something you must ultimately first regard it as less human. 

What makes animism special is that often the focus of these communities is on reciprocity and equilibrium, never taking more than the other is willing or able to give, and you must make sure to give back in return. It is telling that scientists estimate 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is to be found in territories stewarded by Indigenous peoples. If we are to slow the damage we are causing to the planet there is a real need to integrate such knowledge into global, national and local efforts. 

How we perceive the world is as much a product of the past as it is a process of the present. The way we experience our relationship with the planet, environment, and all living entities has and will continue to influence our behaviours and actions as a species. Therefore now more than ever it is time for a rethinking. 

Philip Chennery is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador and Operations Team Member at SCRAP Weapons. He is currently pursuing a MA/PgDip in International Studies and Diplomacy.

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