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Camden Philosophical Society

Tuesday, January 19, 2021 @ 4:00 pm 6:00 pm

The Camden Philosophical Society will hold another in its series of online discussions at 4 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 19, continuing the thread concerning our relationship to the environment, and the influence of Western thinking, capitalism and consumerism on that relationship. There will be three main readings: the first about the groundbreaking work of Suzanne Simard on communication among trees; the second to get our juices flowing about the nature of us; and the third introducing the application of Hannah Arendt’s vita activa to environmental issues. 

The session will be led by Susan Wright, a former Rockport resident and Camden Philosophical Society member who is now living in Portugal –and again able to participate in our group thanks to the current online nature of our gatherings.  All are welcome to participate in the online discussion via Zoom. Let us know by emailing sarahmiller@usa.net and sewright772@gmail.com if you wish to attend via Zoom. You will receive an invitation on the morning of the meeting.  Click on the “Join Zoom Meeting” link in that invitation at the time of the event.

Susan explains her concept for the discussion and the readings she has selected: “Thank you to everyone who sent me articles to consider for this session and perhaps future ones as well. Just like the highly interactive social ‘neural’ networks of trees and fungi, I find myself naturally motivated to expand into and intertwine with more and more ideas – to connect those ideas as I see patterns emerging –  as I read each article that many of you sent me and those articles that led to other articles and other philosophers and scientists…

Where do we begin to understand ourselves in relation to all other living beings? That task seems hard enough with others of our same species! All I have are questions, no thesis and no conclusions. So, for this meeting, I post those readings that I found most relevant and exciting, with my personal reactions, questions and sometimes doubts that arose in me as I reviewed the pieces

1) “The Social Life of Forests” 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html

In addition to documenting the significant contribution of Suzanne Simard to understanding the communities of forests, the author, Ferris Jabr, references the influence of Darwin, Malthus, Wallace and Adam Smith on Western society’s views of the human species’ place in the world and our behavioral patterns of competition. He describes “our ceaseless conflict for limited resources” and selfishness that, as proposed by Smith and others, produces an efficient market and societal order. But who benefits from this efficiency and order is not clear as our 21st century unfolds with income and social inequality increasingly evident and climate issues severely impacting millions of lives.  The structure of our economic and environmental policies reflect the notion that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive, top of the food chain, and cerebrally superior to other species including all fauna and flora.  However, as reading number two suggests, maybe not and, I think, our own personal experiences tell us so – tells us that we are “neither selfish, nor stupid…”  although perhaps unobservant and ego driven. 

Just on a personal note, when Jabr states the following quote below it is evident he is not a gardener nor has he witnessed the astounding seeding and spreading of new growth throughout a garden or forest. This is plants’ means of movement. And he has certainly never dug a hole and witnessed the amazing web of root systems from plants in another field. “There are more things in heaven and earth  [Jabr] than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Life is astoundingly resilient. 

“Although plants are obviously alive, they are rooted to the earth and mute, and they rarely move on a relatable time scale; they seem more like passive aspects of the environment than agents within it. Western culture, in particular, often consigns plants to a liminal space between object and organism. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes the possibility of plant intelligence and society so intriguing — and so contentious.”

2) “Neither Selfish, nor Stupid: Natural Selection doesn’t Determine Human Nature: We do

Now to the matter of choice and stupidity. Are we innately stupid, as Noble prize winning economist Richard Thaler suggests, or do “we” simply close our ears, eyes and minds to phenomena and views that do not support our world views ?  And if this is so and we make choices that actually harm us economically, physically and/or spiritually, is it perhaps the case that our choices are really ego-driven to reinforce our correctness and specialness as a species?  The author of this article, N. Gabriel Martin, raises a critical point: that our political, social and economic structures reflect what we believe our nature to be, or rather, what we’ve been told we are – inherently selfish and competitive, fighting for top position (competition yields better economic results for the individual than cooperation) but also deeply flawed, as reinforced by religious dogma throughout the centuries.  Are we caught up in some self-fulfilling prophecy? There is something extremely limiting about this perception of ourselves.  Perhaps it is time to re-imagine ourselves as potentially cooperative, much like the flora and fauna have already “learned.”   A wider view of who we are and the ability to choose our path could , in turn, produce the type of social and economic systems that reflect our human nature in totality.  

“Not only is any oversimplifying characterization of human nature or evolutionary mechanisms bound to be a reflection of the theorist’s values, it ignores the ongoing condition of evolution. The most important observation Sartre drew from Nietzsche is that Humanity “is a bridge and not a goal”[4], meaning that we are not done evolving. We are continuously changing in order to find ways to flourish in a continuously changing environment, and that means that our present and our future will inevitably be different from our past. What we are, as Sartre insisted, depends on what we do—on what kind of environment we create and how we respond to the world we find ourselves in.”

This sentiment reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s thought in The Human Condition: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world. . . . It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected.”  

3) “Consuming the World: Hannah Arendt on Politics and The Environment” by Paul Voice https://drive.google.com/file/d/1DKclUKANrlKo-17Jq58l8iNfFqaSnKel/view?usp=sharing

I include this paper because Arendt is often my go-to for a different perspective that comes from her keen ability to think through complex issues.  Her analysis contributes a timeless practicality to all things human.  Because Arendt’s references to this issue are spread across her different works I chose this author Paul Voice who, I believe, interprets and consolidates her work very well on this topic.  I will not say too much on the following points and save more for our discussion on Jan. 19, because I am most interested in your reactions to the following concepts and Arendt’s ideas concerning home and the practical means of change.  

Key concepts include: constrained consumption, unconstrained deliberation and home.  These are subsets of Arendt’s vita activa (labor, work and action), a much larger subject for another time. 

Briefly, consumption for Arendt is the selfish part of us. When we are consuming, we are not interacting in any meaningful way with others. We are not thinking. We are not deliberating. We are not creating.  Also, note her alternate view of the Earth as our home. 

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Other readings of interest, but not required for the discussion, include: 

Plant Consciousness: 

The Gaia Hypothesis: Is the Earth An Organism ? https://aeon.co/essays/the-gaia-hypothesis-reimagined-by-one-of-its-key-sceptics

Enlivenment by Andreas Weber https://drive.google.com/file/d/18rZSBlRNTrj_cmxHjI8eu1fMWuUXbZuU/view?usp=sharing

This last article would perhaps fuel discussions for future sessions as it explores “agency” among living entities. https://aeon.co/essays/the-biological-research-putting-purpose-back-into-life

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