Ecotopia

Bosch, Hieronymus — The Garden of Earthly Delights, central panel — Detai Man eating a strawberry, Man eating a cherry, and a man bending over a fictional fruit

For some time my friend and podcast partner Swedish philosopher Alexander Bard has been advocating the term ecotopia over environmentalism. Rather than go into the political ramifications of this, I’d rather discuss this possible shift from a metaphysical, visionary, point of view. Because of the moral panic related to the coming apocalypse and the general dystopian haze in the air—this may be hard to consider. But what if we began to work on Ecotopia as a positive, constructive, even religious concept — when it comes to looking at the environment?

The problem with environmentalism as an idea, for all its noble aims, is that it easily degenerates into what John Vervaeke has called a ‘pseudo-religious ideology’. We are coerced to ‘believe in’ a few simplistic articles of faith, without needing to practice, study, or courageously put our lives on the line in service of that belief. Environmentalism is reduced to a mediocre complaint: a form of corporate greenwashing on one hand and a social justice tribunal on the other. It tends to degenerates into an adolescent and naive attack on ‘the system’ which is considered to be evil in every way. Environmentalism—as a naive ideology—becomes a superego structure of shallow morality.

At its best environmentalism helps us to consider the fragility of our elemental realities — at worst it is a doomsday cult. ‘Human beings are evil’ a teacher recently told my ten year old daughter. Speak for yourself lady, is my message to her. In her benevolent morality, this well meaning woman has planted a nasty little meme in my daughters nature-loving heart! Don’t children need a constructive principal to balance an environmentalist ethos of doom and gloom? Should we not tell her the purpose of education is to prepare to build something beautiful?

Environmentalism divides the world warring and hostile camps: ‘either you are an environmentalist or you are an evil person’. Certainly, if you don’t care about the elemental richness of our amazing living world and you constantly exploit and degrade it, you are quite simply an asshole. My daughter has reason to be suspicious of certain psychotic and rapacious apes, and I understand why she feels more sympathetic to animals than to her teachers.

However, the natural world is is beyond good/evil categories—it is the beauty of primeval forests and coral reefs but also ebola and cancer. Alexander Bard’s point is, when it comes to ecologies, we need to practice deeps ethics instead of shallow morality—to emit more signal and less noise.

Our job should be constructing an Arc, preparing for the exodus, reconstructing the tower, planning out the new city of Jerusalem—archetypically speaking. The work of humanity has always been to create liberating technologies (tools and architecture) and psycho-technologies (language and meditation) that will move humanity forward towards the promised land. For those who love humanity there is no other choice but to do this. This means we should study the deep past for primordial structures that will carry us into the future. The zen arrow points forward and backwards.

How we think of the future matters. The more profound meaning of ‘afterlife’ is not some imaginary heaven after death, it is the life of our future children. This is what real religion is aiming at — as opposed to dead religious structures. Religion’s primary function is first to save our souls, but then, more interestingly, to help us ‘build the temple and cultivate the garden’ on the inner and outer levels. Primordial religion is directed towards ‘world building’ — and is ecotopian in spirit. That is why religions talk about such things as building the ‘city of God on the hill’ and going to the‘promised land’.

Perhaps we can balance the moral panic about ‘saving the environment’ with the more constructive task of ‘building the Ecotopia’? Of course, saving our our asses is a first step and the apocalypse is an ever-present possibility. But crisis and collapse are inevitable and ordinary, and they provide the movement towards new emergence. And it may be more important to survive a living-dead scenario (the fabled zombie apocalypse) than worry about our inevitable extinction. Furthermore, living fully in the face of death is a more difficult and interesting problem than trying to avoid extinction.Even an apocalypse can be viewed with a constructive spirit—since apocalypse means literally to ‘reveal or uncover’ who we are.

Of course, ecotopia could become just another pseudo religious ideology or marketing strategy. But what I like about the term is that it is a universal and positive concept. Everybody can do ecotopia if they want — including the pimple faced teenaged engineer who spends 18 hours a day creating a machine to clean up all the garbage in the ocean. There may be a qualitative difference between him and the London hipster with a placard. The former is engaged with total single-mindedness and dedication to solving an ecological problem, the latter is out on the streets doing avant guard performance art — nothing wrong with that, but let's not exaggerate the importance of political theatre.

Certainly, there are times to go out on the street to protest tyranny, especially if you live in Hong Kong or Tehran or other such places. But in relatively peaceful countries like France and Canada, this is time for constructive thinking and doing. Late capitalist neo-liberal societies have their horrors, but the problem is more with obesity and narcissism than hunger or privation. Let’s celebrate the abundance of what we have and try to enjoy solving the intractable problems, and quit whining and complaining. Remember: life itself is truly impossible and miraculous in its abundance and horrors; there is no end to its miracles or its pain. And we don’t know what heavens or hells we are capable of creating.

It's been obvious for a long time that we need to move beyond the late capitalism paradigm and the welfare state, and move into more co-operative, smart, sustainable livings modes. Alexander Bard has also suggested that this involves imploitation rather than exploitation. The traditional person always knew how to imploit: which means cultivate inner resources rather than exhaust and exploit outer ones.

The best metaphor is a garden. A garden is both complex and very basic. It requires care and meditation above all, and if it is well cultivated it grows in numinous beauty. There is something inexhaustible in a garden, even within the finite walls—or maybe because of them. The tiny insect on a drop of water becomes a whole universe of meaning in a garden. Small is beautiful (and powerful).

Ancient men and women lived for millenia in a sustainable relationship of imploiation with the outer and inner world. Even if his or her life was brutal and violent, he or she can still teach us the meaning of sustainability, worship, and the dream-like divinity of all things. Furthermore, there is unlimited conviviality to be found in basic primordial activities like sharing food, telling stories, and dancing around a fire. The future is a return to origins, but not a regression.

How to do this? This requires study and meditation, the return to a deep religious world view — however unfashionable that sounds. This doesn’t mean we should be nostalgic for ‘iron age hierarchies’ or primitive tribes, but rather get with the auto-poetic emergence of small schools, think tanks, monasteries, and movements of collective and constructive goodwill based around sustainable non-rivalrous economics.

The various collective intelligence labs that are emerging of late are building the ecotopia, consciously or not. Their ideal size, which is the number of people who can maintain a living relationship has been said to be the Dunbar number of 157. This might also be the number of the average temple or church congregation. The more we study this primordial group, the sociont, the more we see how essential a small congregation is. Every person has a vital and archetypal place and role there: the protector, the shaman, the warrior, the jester, the priestess, the grandmother, the farmer, the scholar, etc all have a home.

Only the symbiotic intelligence (Daniel Schmachtenberger’s term) of a proper team, tribe, or sociont, in right relation to a higher principle, can solve our various existential problems — especially as we try to build the so-called ‘machine intelligence’—the modern God.

We have a choice today. We can fritter away our lives engaging in various forms of social and political pornography—be spectators and parasites, sleepwalking through a world that is beautiful and terrible beyond the wildest imagination — or create an ecotopia together.

In every mythology the hero begins the journey in a no-mans-land, he then falls into a hellish underworld, and through heroic struggle emerges in a promises land. If we don’t have a vision of the promised land, or engage in that existential struggle, we are bound to get stuck in the underworld. And we need a guide and chariot to get through. The constructive effort has to be to build the modern chariot. It doesn’t actually matter if we get there, the joy is in the endless journey towards greater and deeper being.

The God Thor could bring down mountains with his hammer but had none of the power of the modern imbecile with an iphone his pocket. However, perennial wisdom tells us that all of our power adds up to a pile of ashes without a transcendent notion about how to make the earth a garden of conviviality.

Joni Mitchell expressed the hippy dream when she said we have to ‘get back to the garden’. But she was wrong. We have to cultivate and deepen and work within the already-present-garden, through the cultivation of spiritual depth and intelligence. The future, metaphysically speaking, is God. It is the promised land. It always has been and it always will be. Whether we en-world that future is up to us and the help of our most divine friends.

Put it this way: in terms of the environment and most of our other big problems, we need a renaissance rather than revolution. A renaissance is superior to a revolution because it is based on faith and renewal rather than fury and destruction. There are times to tear down the system and there are times to let it die of its own accord — which seems to be the present one.

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Rebel Wisdom Articles by Andrew Sweeny
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Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.