Written by Noah Van Hooser.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
Although looming climate catastrophe has induced a flurry of policy proposals, impassioned punditry, and even occasional existential reorientations, it seems all varieties of environmentalism have not gone quite far enough. All too often, the language of possible ecologies inherits the baggage of reform. It is not that the very ground of our own thinking and being ought to be interpreted and tinkered with, but it is supposedly enough to tweak facets of our average everydayness. Be assured you have sorted your trash in the proper receptacles! Invest in your own reusable cutlery to reduce waste! To be clear: it is not that such efforts are essentially futile or negligible, rather, they fail to interrogate the highest principles a consumer society must hold dear for such reforms to even appear viable as a means of radical change.
Although never explicitly embracing any brand of environmentalism, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger provides a formulation of human beings’ existential situation within their respective environments that aims at establishing a more primordial experience with the natural world. It is through the experience of this “Being,” as Heidegger deems it, which challenges us to rethink the frameworks we originally took as self-evident. Given the dire circumstances of the planet’s future, it seems reasonable to assert that we need a new understanding of what humanity and nature actually are. This new understanding is destined to undermine the previous models of anthropocentric humanism and subject/object duality which have sustained our historical environmentalism. It is precisely these regrettable models that have bolstered a dominator ecology- an understanding of the environment that always remains in the bounds of human organization and domination. But what exactly justifies this ruling framework? Why not assign nature an intrinsic nature independent of our own interests? Heidegger provides guidance on this matter by developing the notion of “dwelling.”
Dwelling captures our primitive state of being-in-the-world. To dwell is for us to always be attending to the beings around us, allowing them to show themselves as they really are. It is this simple recognition of nature as our original abode that can cultivate a special sense of care required to let beings be themselves. This characterization stands in polar opposition to our own technological age and corresponding thinking. Our instrumental, technological kind of thinking treats natural entities as a “standing-reserve,” a readily available supply of things for us to command. We impose unreasonable standards and imperatives in this way by deriving all value from the extent to which something is disposable. The river reveals itself as a place to dump waste, the forest as a producer of wood. This challenging of nature is at the very root of our ecological crises. Instead, we must embrace an intricate twofold of nature’s dynamicity; there is non-dualist responsiveness to the “calling” of nature on the one hand, and the limitless openness nature exhibits to allow for such calling. For Heidegger, this calling signifies that we are destined to have nature reveal itself to us in such-and-such a way. Thus, it is not that we should compel ourselves to cease representation of nature’s presence, as such an ambition is futile and neglects our responsibility to care for interpreting beings. Rather, we ought to avoid the danger of accepting our technological kind of revealing as the only available or sensible one.
Heidegger himself develops an alternative kind of clearing for nature, that of poetic revealing. Poetry itself has a faculty of making beings strange, of removing the glimmering veil of everyday chains of significance to direct attention to them in their mysterious essence. It is simply a mistake to believe that we as rational animals can serve as the ground of everything through our representations. Rationality should not take such a totalizing form that necessarily ends in the exploitation of our environment. Poetry responds to this environment through sensitive and flexible language. The more we make use of certain language in describing our reality, the less we are able to truly hear these terms and understand their referents. A return can be made to words in their most rudimentary elements. It is not poetry as a particular medium of art that Heidegger wishes to designate as our end, but it is with the sense of care a poet takes up in erecting and transmitting their thought. The care is then reflected in the common manner of interpretation; the reader uncovers beings by rigorously thinking through each word, especially those which are seemingly the most simple.
The task for us is to simply let beings be even in the midst of our uncovering them. The uncovering need not be a stringent commanding which already presupposes our role as the substratum for everything, it need not aggressively wrest beings from their home with technical language and thought. Although this turn points to a less strict kind of expression, the primordial experience of unconcealed beings around us has never and will never depend on a static formula. Truth does not lie in our own propositions and conceptualizations of the natural world but serves as the very prerequisite for such intellectual activity. Embracing new environmentalism, then, is to embrace a radical simplicity. It is never a complete resignation, but a gift granted to what we have so radically estranged from ourselves.