We converse to become ourselves

I would like to think that what all of us, preservationists and managers alike, are really trying to understand is how to conduct an ecological conversation. We cannot predict or control the exact course of a conversation, nor do we feel any such need - not, at least, if we are looking for a good conversation. Revelations and surprises lend our exchanges much of their savor. We don't want predictability; we want respect, meaning, and coherence. A satisfying conversation is neither rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total surprise we look for a creative tension, a progressive and mutual deepening of insight, a sense that we are getting somewhere worthwhile.

The movement is essential. This is why we find no conclusive resting place in Aldo Leopold's famous dictum. 'A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise' (1970, p. 262).

Integrity and beauty, yes. But in what sense stability? Nature, like us, exists - preserves its integrity - only through continual self-transformation. w Mere preservation would freeze all existence in an unnatural stasis, deny- p ing the creative destruction, the urge toward self-transcendence, at the e world's heart. Scientific management, on the other hand, reduces evolu- a tionary change to arbitrariness by failing to respect the independent F character of the Other, through which all integral change arises. [...]

[C]onsider what it might mean to engage nature in respectful con-2 versation. One can venture a few reasonably straightforward observations.

In any conversation it is, in the first place, perfectly natural to remedy ยก5 one's ignorance by putting cautious questions to the Other. Every ex-o perimental gardening technique, every new industrial process, every different kind of bird feeder is a question put to nature. And, precisely because of the ignorance we are trying to remedy, there is always the possibility that the question itself will prove indelicate or otherwise an occasion for trouble. (My bird feeder was the wrong kind, conducive to the spread of disease. And you can quite reasonably argue that I should have investigated the issues and risks more thoroughly before installing my first feeder.)

In a respectful conversation such lapses are continually being committed and assimilated, becoming the foundation for a deeper, because more knowledgeable, respect. The very fact that we recognize ourselves as putting questions to nature rather than asserting brash control encourages us to anticipate the possible responses of the Other before we act, and to be considerate of the actual response, adjusting ourselves to it, when it comes.

This already touches on a second point: in a conversation we are always compensating for past inadequacies. As every student of language knows, a later word can modify the meaning of earlier words. The past can in this sense be altered and redeemed. We all know the bitter experience of words blurted out unwisely and irretrievably, but we also know the healing effects of confession and penance.

This in turn points us to a crucial third truth. At any given stage of a conversation, there is never a single right or wrong response. We can legitimately take a conversation in any number of healthy directions, each with different shades of meaning and significance.

Moreover, coming up with my response is not a matter of choosing among a range of alternatives already there, already defined by the current state of the exchange. My responsibility is creative; what alternatives exist depends in part on what new alternatives I can bring into being. Gandhi engendered possibilities for nonviolent resistance that were not widely known before his time, and the developers of solar panels gave us new ways to heat our homes. If we have any 'fixed' obligation, it is the obligation not to remain fixed but freely to transcend ourselves.

All conversation, then, is inventive, continually escaping its previous bounds. Unfortunately, our modern consciousness wants to hypostatize nature - to grasp clearly and unambiguously what this 'thing' is so that we can preserve it. But the notorious difficulties in defining what nature is - what we need to preserve - are no accident. There is no such thing as a nature wholly independent of our various acts to preserve (or destroy) it. You cannot define any ecological context over against one of its creatures - least of all over against the human being. If it is true that the creature becomes what it is only by virtue of the context, it is also true that the context becomes what it is only by virtue of the creature.

This can be a hard truth for environmental activists to accept, campaigning as we usually are to save 'it,' whatever 'it' may be. In conversational terms, the Other does not exist independently of the conversation. We cannot seek to preserve 'it,' because there is no 'it' there; we can only seek to preserve the integrity and coherence of the conversation through which both it and we are continually transforming ourselves. Hypostatization is always an insult because it removes the Other from the conversation, making an object of it and denying the living, shape-changing, conversing power within it.

Finally, conversation is always particularizing. I cannot converse with an abstraction or stereotype - a 'democrat' or 'republican,' an 'industrialist' or an 'activist,' or, for that matter, a 'preservationist' or a 'scientific manager.' I can converse only with a specific individual, who puts his own falsifying twist upon every label I apply. Likewise, I cannot converse with a 'wetland' or 'threatened species.' I may indeed think about such abstractions, but this thinking is not a conversation, just as my discoursing upon children is not a conversation with my son.

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