Wendell Berry:

I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. They cannot be responsibly advocated alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. 

A vital reminder from Berry that all of us who want to recommend significant social change need to think economically and ecologically

bodies and stones

In Breaking Bread with the Dead, I write about Donna Haraway

There’s a fascinating early chapter in her book on human interaction with pigeons. Of course, that interaction has been conducted largely on human terms, and Haraway wants to create two-way streets where in the past these paths ran only from humans to everything else. How to get the pigeons to participate willingly in such a project is question without an obvious answer, but it’s question that Haraway feels we must ask, a because “staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.” 

But here’s the complication: Who gets included in “each other”? Besides pigeons, I mean. Haraway says explicitly that her human kin are “antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people,” and people who share her commitment to “Make Kin Not Babies.” “Pronatalism in all its powerful guises ought to be in question almost everywhere.” 

I suspect that — to borrow a tripartite distinction from the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander — most people who use that kind of language are fine with their ingroup (“antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people”) and fine with the fargroup (pigeons), but the outgroup? The outgroup that lives in your city and votes in the same elections you do? Maybe not so much. Does the project of making kin extend to that couple down the street from you who have five kids, who attend a big-box evangelical church, and who voted for the wrong person in the last presidential election? And who, moreover, are a little more likely to talk back than pigeons are? (Even assuming that they might be interested in making kin with Donna Haraway, which, let’s face it, is equally unlikely. Presumably they too would be more comfortable with the pigeons.) 

I thought about these issues as I read an excerpt from James Bridle’s new book

A system of laws and protections developed by and for humans, that places human concerns and values at its core, can never fully incorporate the needs and desires of nonhumans. These judicial efforts fall into the same category of error as the mirror test and ape sign language: the attempt to understand and account for nonhuman selfhood through the lens of our own umwelt. The fundamental otherness of the more-than-human world cannot be enfolded into such human-centric systems, any more than we can discuss jurisprudence with an oak tree. 

Legal representation, reckoning, and protection are founded upon human ideas of individuality and identity. They may prove useful when we take up the case of an individual chimp or elephant, or even a whole species, but their limits are clear when we apply them to a river, an ocean, or a forest. A plant has no “identity;” it is simply alive. The waters of the earth have no bounds. This is both ecology’s meaning and its lesson. We cannot split hairs, or rocks, or mycorrhizal roots and say: This thing here is granted personhood, and this thing not. Everything is hitched to everything else.

The enactment of a more-than-human politics calls explicitly for a politics beyond the individual, and beyond the nation-state. It calls for care, rather than legislation, to guide it. 

As regular readers might expect, this call for care, this ecological perspective, resonates powerfully with me. (It also resonates with something I wrote about in another book: Simone Weil’s insistence that if we need a collective declaration of human rights, we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of human obligations.) 

But it is curious to me that many people are willing to entertain this line of thought, are immensely sympathetic to this line of thought, who also affirm that “in relation to the mind the body has no rights”; and that a fetus in the womb is but an insignificant “clump of cells.” I don’t think you can consistently hold all those views. If you are willing to ask, “What do we owe the more-than-human world?” then, I think, you must also be willing to ask, “What do we owe the fetus in the womb? What do we owe our own bodies?” If you’re not asking these questions, then I fear that the other affirmations are empty rhetoric — a make-believe extension of agency to things you can then safely ignore.