It’s All Mercy

Recalling the humble mouse, spiritual mentor Priscilla Stuckey reflects on the independence of success and effort and the predominance of nature’s mercy.

Source: It’s All Mercy

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Non-human Strangers and Climate Refugees

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Conversations about climate change generally focus on human activity, suffering, and solutions. They often include or imply a critique of anthropocentrism, and yet our attention to the seemingly infinite variety of life forms on the planet remains extraordinarily limited and superficial. Earth is not only our home, and humans are not the only climate refugees.

In his recently published book Humankind, Tim Morton argues that we are severed from other forms of life through agriculture and industrialization. He calls it “The Severing,” a Game of Thrones style trope. One aspect of this split is a very passive relationship to animal and plant life. Unless we are directly involved with animals, in agriculture or wildlife management, for example, we simply don’t appreciate the activity, suffering, and creativity of non-human beings. We also tend to view animals as passive. Though animals must be actively adapting to climate change, we don’t generally observe or appreciate their adaptive behavior.

We have also lost our emotional connection to animals, in various ways. Contemporary animal ethics are typically founded on rational, legalistic arguments. Animals should be afforded consideration or rights because they are like us—intelligent, emotional, and self-conscious. But these arguments miss the most basic and common foundation of human ethical behavior. Love.

If reproduction is the key to species survival, and animals form emotional attachments as humans do, then various forms of love are likely a common characteristic of animal life. But is love only reserved for members of our own species? What does it mean that human children love non-human animals? When and why do children stop being fascinated by animals? It seems that society cultivates an interest in and love of animals in children, and then (for no apparent reason) expects adolescents and adults to stop loving and caring for them.

Why do pet-owners love their pets as if they were people? Is it because they engage with them—in person? Anyone who has had a pet has experienced getting to know the pet. We form personal relationships with them. They become part of the family. If we spent more time engaged with non-human animals could we cultivate or reclaim the capacity to love all animals?

We remember the principle “love they neighbor” but often forget the origin and end of this principle is to love the stranger, the “alien.” Surely non-human animals, however strange or alien, are also our neighbors.

Colleagues in academia and beyond have cautioned me, on more than one occasion, against appearing to prioritize animal welfare over human welfare. Focusing on animal rights in impoverished areas, for example, can be interpreted as a challenge to human dignity. Recognizing animals a climate refugees is out of line (out of order), in the midst of multiple and ongoing human refugee crises. This advice is pragmatic and rhetorically savvy, but is it ethically defensible?

A Guardian article recently posted on Environmental Critique gives a moving account of a refugee, Mansour Shoushtari, who occupies himself caring for animals while detained in Manus prison. (He has been waiting four years to be resettled.) While being treated as a less than human stranger, he has retained his humanity, or should I say his sense of solidarity with other animals. Here is an illustrative quote from the Guardian interview:

I asked him: “Do you love animals more than humans?” He smiled once again. He responded in a humorous way: “You’re asking some really tough questions today! The question you ask is similar to asking the question: do you love your father more than your mother? It’s an extremely tough question to answer. I love human beings and I also love animals. But I have a special affection for birds.”

Why should human suffering tacitly give us permission to abuse animals or to shut down conversations about animal welfare? Who among us, well-fed and literate, deserves consideration if sympathy can only be afforded the most downtrodden humans? Can suffering justify suffering? Returning to the subject of love, is there ever a reason not to extend love and compassion to another living creature?

“The Severing” also results in a dark underworld of violence against non-human animals. Factory farming, habitat destruction, and mass murders that are never reported in the evening news. Is there any relationship between human violence against animals, and a general culture of violence? Again Shoushtari offers insight: “It’s love. In my opinion one does not need to give reasons for love. Love is a personal matter, love is an existential state. But in my view if a human being does not love animals they are incapable of loving human beings.” Human beings do love selectively, of course, as do cultures. Sadly, we are not only taught but also encouraged to love selectively, and even to hate.

Love thy neighbor. Love the stranger. Love all living creatures. These are certainly not pragmatic solutions or policy guidelines. But neither pragmatism nor policy should prevent us from questioning and exploring ethical, dare I say moral, principles.

So I do say, impudently, non-human animals are climate refugees, as are plants, and future generations of every kind. And we have no right to destroy their home.

 

Image Source: https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/19/16334652/endangered-species-list-sonoyta-mud-turtle-iiwi-pearl-darter-protection

 

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‘The man who loves ducks’: the refugee saving animals on Manus

From The Guardian
Wednesday 13 September 2017

Mansour Shoushtari is an Iranian refugee held in Australia’s detention system who lives by a simple philosophy that animals have the right to live life well by on Manus Island and

“It’s love. In my opinion one does not need to give reasons for love. Love is a personal matter, love is an existential state. But in my view if a human being does not love animals they are incapable of loving human beings.”

“The man who loves ducks.” This phrase describes Mansour Shoushtari with poetic resonance, this is the epithet by which he is known in Manus prison. Shoushtari is a 43-year-old man from Iran who has become a well-known personality in Manus prison. He comes across as someone full of joy and with a sensibility particular to the way children engage with the world.

He is someone whose presence in Manus prison is a paradox; that is, his very being conflicts with the prison in fundamental ways. Shoushtari’s personality projects beauty, he projects tenderness, he projects kindness; his existence is in opposition to the violence of Manus prison, in opposition to the power of the prison, in opposition to the barbarity of the prison.

Four years ago Shoushtari managed to reach Christmas Island but the Australian government exiled him to Manus Island straight after, where he has been detained ever since. He has now been granted refugee status and has been waiting to be resettled in a safe country for years.

Continue reading here.

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Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois

Interstellar enlarges the anthropocentric vision of Contact into a full-blown anthropological myth of human dominion over nature that founds itself upon the primal self-creation of the human. It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film synthesizes vocabularies of popular scientism and deracinated Christian dialectics. The former occurs not only in the immense attention to technical detail evident throughout the film – largely employed to detail memorably elemental planetary settings, as well as to justify its denouement – but also in the plot itself, summarized as the need for humanity to abandon an exhausted Earth and apply itself to the exploration of space. The latter vocabulary provides the motive force of the film, however, contrasting the subtle evil of a deterministic, entropically saturated nature with the overwhelming power of love. Let’s see how this unfolds.

The film begins by contextualizing its setting. Earth is afflicted by a slowly escalating crop blight, the causes of which, curiously, are abstracted from any possible ecological reason. We’re in the domain of a Dying Earth narrative here, not a climate change apocalypse. The difference between the two is that the former isn’t anthropogenic. This matters in Interstellar because it warrants the disdain for earthly caretaking exemplified by engineer/pilot Joseph Cooper’s charismatic go-get-‘em libertarian space cowboy restlessness (contrast Cooper with the protagonist Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast [Peter Weir, 1986], whose strikingly similar personality leads him into tyranny and destruction). It’s not that humans have damaged the planet – thereby implying that humans might be able to learn to adapt or mitigate the damage they have caused – but that planetary conditions ultimately have failed us. “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Cooper later inquires of Brand, surprised.

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Resentfully (“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”), Coop (widowed) works a farm with his stepfather and two children, Tom and Murphy. After encountering the remnants of NASA, Cooper agrees to pilot an exploratory mission to an artificial wormhole discovered in orbit around Saturn. On the other side of this wormhole, Professor John Brand informs him, there are potentially inhabitable planets, as well as three human scouts sent ahead to investigate. There are two options for mission completion: Plan A (Professor Brand will solve an equation he’s been working on, achieving the theoretical grounds for a gravitational theory of propulsion) or Plan B (Cooper and his crew, including the Professor’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand, will endeavor to colonize a viable planet with the cargo of embryos loaded onto their ship, the Endurance).

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Cooper’s departure deeply aggrieves his daughter, Murphy, although Cooper promises to return. In the background of the narrative, there are a series of gravitational anomalies centered on Murphy’s bedroom (e.g., resulting in both the provision of the NASA base coordinates and the scrambling of nearby navigational computers), although no one investigates this thoroughly. The young Murphy wonders if it is a ghost, while Cooper and others dismiss her observations – including the spelling out of the word “STAY” when Cooper informs Murphy of his imminent departure.

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The Endurance enters the wormhole, at which point Dr. Brand apparently makes contact briefly with a mysterious being residing therein. In the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew decide which of the three potential planets to visit first.

Continue reading here.

Note also a reading of Interstellar in Tim Morton’s Humankind, Chapter 5.

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Monsanto Still Trying to Discredit Rachel Carson

The Deafening Criticism Against Silent Spring

The Saturday Evening Post
Published: September 27, 2017

Attacks on Silent Spring and the ideas it put forth are still numerous. Their intentions, however, are sometimes more transparent, like the website http://www.rachelwaswrong.com, which alleges “her extreme rhetoric generated a culture of fear.” The site is run by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is in turn sponsored by corporations from Monsanto to Murray Energy to the Charles Koch Foundation. An article titled “Rachel Carson’s Genocide” in Capitalism Magazine speaks to another side of sensationalism.

 

Read the article here.

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A Neuroscientist Tells Us What Your Dog Is Really Thinking

Introduction adapted from wbur.

With guest host Jane Clayson.

What it’s like to be a dog.   Interview with animal neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy, professor at Emory University’s Computation and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and author of “What It’s Like to Be a Dog –And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience.” (@gberns)

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A dog named “JC” smiles for the camera while his owner holds back. (Benjgibbs/Creative Commons)

Listen and read here.

Sincere thanks to Dirk Felleman at Synthetic Zero for the link.

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We have a new word for that feeling when travel makes everything new

by Liam Heneghan, DePaul University

On a double-decker bus from Dublin airport to Drumcondra early one June morning, a young lad stretched out on the back seat and started to rap. What he lacked in talent he made up for in gusto. I was with a dozen of my students who were travelling from DePaul University in Chicago on a study abroad trip and this was their very first impression of Ireland. I cringed and tried to ignore the atonal reveller. Their response, it turned out, was at odds with mine. ‘That’s American rap!’ one of them chortled. ‘Why is he rapping Kendrick?’ The oddity of the situation entertained them, and they discussed it with a fervour typically reserved for matters of greater significance.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of bringing my students to Ireland – my homeland – is that they pay rapt attention to the little things. This heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place, does not seem to have a name. So I have given it one: allokataplixis (from the Greek allo meaning ‘other’, and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’). In Modern Greek katapliktiko and the related word katataplixie can be used to register astonishment. Admittedly, in Ancient Greek the family of words surrounding kataplêxis sometimes signified ‘terror’ and ‘panic’. It is, however, the note of pure ‘amazement’ and ‘fascination’ present in this word that I want to celebrate in my neologism.

Allokataplixis, as I use the term, is the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveller offers to the places they visit.

For the past five years, I have travelled around Ireland each summer with a bunch of allokataplixic American kids. Almost everything draws them in. In the city, they never choose to stay downstairs on the bus – there’s just too much to see from the upper deck. Marvellous to them also is the slight smell of salt in the air when you arrive in Dublin, the raucousness of seagulls crying overhead, the low-rise and higgledy-piggledy appearance of the city’s architecture, the garrulousness of the people, the little fossils embedded in the bridge that spans the pond in St Stephen’s Green, the 99 Flake ice-cream cones, the inclination of Irish people to traditional music, the almost unfathomable reverence in the west for uilleann pipers, the omnipresence of sheep on hilly tracts of land, the unhealthy deliciousness of Tayto crisps, the intense greenness of the vegetation, the yellowness of the butter, the perennial greyness of the sky, the presence of poets – actual poets – in the streets, Martello towers, walled gardens, the frankness about matters of mortality, the way the elderly habitually cross themselves as their bus lurches past the churches, the vat-loads of tea consumed, the vat-loads of stout consumed, the strangeness of Ireland’s youthful drinkers hailing Budweiser as a premier beer, the national addiction to sweets, the quantity of dog shit left to gently steam in the thoroughfares, the medical acumen of pharmacists in ‘Chemist’ shops, the casual insults that friends sling at one another, the extravagant length of the midsummer’s day, the gorgeousness of the sun setting on the Atlantic viewed from the beaches of the west, the melancholy slopes in County Kerry that were abandoned during the famine. And so on.

There is, of course, so much to learn when any of us visit a place for the first time and it would be easy to assume that information passes in one direction only, from the host nation to its guests. Yet over the years that I’ve been bringing students to Ireland I’ve observed that their thirst for fresh experience is contagious. It oftentimes brings out the best in people. A tourist generally has an eye for the things that, through repetitive familiarity, have become almost invisible to the resident. What is revealed need not always be congenial of course – visitors can make the resident aware of the shortcomings of their home: litter in the streets, poor service, even troubling cultural attitudes such as xenophobia. A tourist can stir within us a recognition of both the delicious strangeness of mundane things and our own unseemly peccadilloes.

This annual migration to Ireland that I take with Hugh Bartling, a climate policy wonk, and our students, is focused primarily on the ecology of our national parks. Unlike the United States, where such parks are often regarded as wilderness areas, in Ireland there is an acknowledgement that even remote landscapes are as much a product of cultural forces as they are of nature. To instil an understanding of the history and resilience of these traditional, cultural landscapes, we prepare our students before they leave by reading a great quantity of Tim Robinson’s work. Over a period of four decades – from the 1970s until his recent departure from Ireland – Robinson walked, mapped and wrote about the west of Ireland with verve and enormous grace. Those who have read his brace of books on the Aran Islands – Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995 ) – or his trilogy on Connemara – Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006), Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008) and Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011 ) – will know the story of his coming to Ireland fairly well. Jaded from the European art scene, Robinson and his partner visited Inis Mór in the 1970s and elected to stay. A local postmistress mentioned that a map of the island would be useful. What began as an index of place names mushroomed over the years into one of the great European literary projects of the last several decades: the work includes maps, books, a Gazetteer, essays and lectures. A central metaphor in Robinson’s body of work is the notion of the fractal – a geometrical pattern that shows the property of self-similarity at various observational scales. Snowflakes and coastlines are examples in nature. Robinson writes that the fractal promises to be a rich ‘source of metaphor and imagery’ in literature and life. He continues: ‘Like all discoveries it surprises us yet again with the unfathomable depth and richness of the natural world; specifically it shows that there is more space, there are more places within a forest … or on a Connemara seashore, than the geometry of common sense allows.’

Robinson, the one-time tourist, became one of the great natural and social historians of that part of the world. Though the work is rightly celebrated, what is not always noted is how Robinson, as an attentive outsider, awakens even his Irish readers to a recognition of the fantastical in the mundane landscapes of the west. Robinson is, in other words, a great writer of allokataplixis.

One does not need, however, to be an outsider or a tourist to be allokataplixic. Is it not the task of most writers to awaken us from the dull, the flat and the average sentiments that can dominate our lives? Many of the Irish writers that my students read before travelling have a knack for noticing the marvellous in the everyday, and of making the quotidian seem wholly other and amazing. Robert Lloyd Praeger, the great naturalist of the last century, is one such writer – as he travelled the rural counties, some of his greatest botanical discoveries were made right outside the guesthouse door. J M Synge, especially in his often-neglected writing on travels in Wicklow, Connemara and Kerry, is another such writer. And James Joyce, that profound naturalist of life’s epiphanic moments, specialised in observing how the ecstatic intrudes – sometimes painfully – into the everyday. My students read the story ‘The Dead’ as an ecological text, for it provides an abiding account of a rupture between Ireland’s supposedly refined east coast and its feral west. At the conclusion, Gabriel Conroy, cuckolded by the ghost of Michael Furey, his wife’s dead boyfriend, takes a melancholic psychological journey across a snowy Ireland to that boy’s grave. Joyce wrote in one of his most celebrated passages that the snow ‘was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.’

I’ll mention just one more recent writer, if only to illustrate that a new generation of allokataplixic writers is emerging: Karl Whitney, author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (2014). In Hidden City, Whitney becomes a visitor to the city of his birth, a tourist of the commonplace. In one brilliant chapter, he inches along beneath the streets of Dublin, following the courses of rivers that have long been paved over. In another, he follows the excrement of the denizens of the city out to the sewage treatment plants and, once treated and refined, follows the liquid discharge out into Dublin Bay. Not since Leopold Bloom defecates so leisurely in an early chapter of Ulysses has urban excrement been so vividly described.

Last year as we crossed the Midlands, we walked out on the boardwalk at Clara Bog in County Offaly, where by chance we met with a local out on his morning constitutional. Tommy was a former worker for Bord na Móna, the Irish semi-state body that oversees the economic development of peat for use as fuel. He is now an enthusiastic conservationist. That my students took such a delight in the bog seemed to ignite something in him. Noticing that one of the students carried a tin whistle, he volunteered to play a couple of reels and so we listened to the blast of a few tunes out on the bog on an ordinary Saturday morning. He said he’d never done anything like it. Allokataplixis is contagious.

I don’t suppose one needs to live a life of perpetual astonishment. After all it’s adaptive to forget. Our daily grind is perhaps easier to endure in a state of mild amnesia. Muscle memory sets in, routine takes over, and one day seems the same as any other. But days go by, the years hum along, and one can careen towards senility without being unduly startled by anything at all. Surely, there are times when we must be released from our moorings and free ourselves up to notice the peculiarities of everyday life. Our greatest writers have, as often as not, lived in a state of astonishment – this is not an easy burden. But in a quieter register and perhaps in an equally instructive way, even the everyday tourist can alert us to the remarkable in our home terrain. When we are ourselves tourists, we notice things. But even in noticing how tourists are alive to their surroundings, might we not learn something from them? Observe the tourists on Dublin’s Grafton Street listening to the buskers, or watch them marvel at the lights on Broadway in New York. Witness them sip their ouzo at the Acropolis or behold them picking their way across the newly minted basalt lava-flow in the Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. They’ve brought their allokataplixis with them.

Thanks to my wife Vassia Pavlogianis for discussions on the Modern Greek words for wonder, and to Dr Sean Kirkland of DePaul University in Chicago for a tutorial on the Ancient Greek etymology.Aeon counter – do not remove

Liam Heneghan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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