I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which human potential is atrophied, and in parenthesis shame is propagated, in a competitive individualistic society; and, on the converse side of this, how pride and sense of self can be cultivated by finding alternative values and working towards them. Two books I’ve read recently have really woven together to help further my thoughts on this topic. Firstly Madge Piercy’s deeply moving utopian sci-fi novel Women on the Edge of Time, which visits a post-anthropocene world, and its inhabitants, and secondly Arne Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom, which brings together a diverse range of his thoughts on his concept of 'deep ecology'. These books both share the belief that reconnecting with the ecosystems which support us will simultaneously foster human development and thriving.
Woman on the Edge of Time
In Woman on the Edge of Time the protagonist, Connie, is able to visit the future village of Mattapoisset, Madge Piercy’s utopian vision, through a kind of telepathy with a woman called Luciente. Geographically it is a region of what was Manhattan, but in this future cities have been deemed a failed model of living, and society has deurbanised into smaller communities, while retaining some technology for specific social goods. It is a kind of devolved, community driven technotopia.
This premise of telepathic time-travel allows Piercy to describe the world in detail from the eyes of a stranger, but also to set her utopian vision against Connie’s own life in the more recognisable present of the novel. In the present Connie has been wrongly incarcerated in an asylum for being mentally unstable and violent after defending herself and her niece. She is beaten, ignored and insulted, while having all of her personal rights and agency taken away. The injustices she is subject to, the degrading treatment she receives, and her personal feelings of shame are set painfully against the possibility this telepathic vision offers of a healthy thriving community.
At first Connie is reluctant to embrace some aspects of this materially modest culture, but starts to imagine how her life might have been if she had been raised in Mattapoisset, and had the opportunity to do meaningful work, after she meets a character called Parra:
‘Parra fascinated her. She could be no more than twenty-one or twenty-two, yet she was serving as people’s judge. Doctor of rivers. She herself could be such a person here. Yes, she would study how to fix the looted landscape, heal rivers choked with filth. Doctor the soil squandered for a quick profit on cash crops. Then she would be useful. She would like herself [...] There’s Consuelo, they’d say, doctor of soil, protector of rivers. Her children would be proud of her. Her lovers would not turn from her, would not die in prison, would not be cut down in the streets.’ (chapter 10)
This passage captures the importance of having meaningful work, and the confidence and sense of self which comes from this. What is most noticeably absent in future Mattapoisset is shame. Connie observes several times the difference in the bearing of the people. For example when at first she mistakes Luciente, her future counterpart, for a man, she realises that she made this assumption on the basis of the way she holds and presents herself, observing how ‘she moved with that air of brisk unself-conscious authority Connie associated with men. Luciente sat down, taking up more space than women ever did. She squatted, she sprawled, she strolled, never thinking about how her body was displayed’. There are also gender and sexuality fluid characters in both time settings of the novel - criminalised and institutionalised in Connie’s world, normal and free in Mattapoisset. Matapoisset places fundamental value on exploring the diversity of people, and the result of this is seen by Connie in the bearing, contentment and self-confidence of the people she encounters, and this acceptance of difference in people is another manifestation of a more planetary sensitivity and humility...
Ecology of Wisdom
The connection of themes between Piercy’s novel and Arne Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom is striking. For Naess individual thriving goes hand in hand with being ecologically in sync with the environment, just as Piercy’s utopia depends on a greater connection with the land, and the healing of damage done to the planet.
In Ecology of Wisdom, Naess lists the ways in which we can move towards this picture of mutual human and planetary health. These are just a few examples:
Try to maintain and increase the sensitivity and appreciation of goods in sufficient supply for all to enjoy.
Try to dwell in situations of intrinsic value and to act rather than being busy.
Appreciate ethnic and cultural differences among people; do not view the differences as threats.
Seek depth and richness of experience rather than intensity.
Appreciate and choose, when possible, meaningful work rather than just making a living.
Lead a complex, not complicated, life, trying to realise as many aspects of positive experiences as possible within each time interval.
Cultivate life in community (Gemeinschaft) rather than in society (Gesellschaft).
Try to protect local ecosystems, not only individual life-forms, and think of one’s own community as part of the ecosystems.
140-141 ‘Lifestyle trends within the Deep Ecology Movement’ in Ecology of Wisdom
I was delighted to find that Naess is deeply inspired by the philosopher Baruch du Spinoza. I studied Spinoza while a philosophy undergraduate, and was also very moved by the joy, optimism and humbled awe of his philosophy, and his belief in the goodness of humanity. For Spinoza faults do not come from our essence, but from our essence being stopped short, and not being able to unfold. Naess quotes:
‘If man, when he contemplates himself, perceives some kind of impotency in himself, it does not come from his understanding himself, but from his power of action being reduced... To the extent that man knows himself with true rationality, to that extent it is assumed that he understands his essence, that is, his power.’ Quoted page 130 in Ecology of Wisdom from Spinoza’s Ethics
Naess brings Spinoza’s ideas into the present, considering the ways in which society inhibits individual flourishing. This passage from an essay called The Place of Joy in a World of Fact particularly resonates on this theme:
One may say, somewhat loosely, that what we now lack in our age of technological age is repose in oneself. The conditions of modern life prevent the full development of the self-respect and self-esteem that are required to reach a stable high degree of ‘acquiescentia in se ipso’ [repose in oneself] (the term alienation incidentally, is related to the opposite of in se, namely, in alio, wherein we repose in something else, something outside ourselves, such as achievement in the eyes of others – we are “other directed” 129 – Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom
As in Connie’s experience, for Naess ‘the conditions of modern life’ prevent the individual from developing self-respect and contentment. Over-stimulation and conflicting lifestyle ambitions keeps our minds distracted and frantic, and prevents a clear sense of purpose and identity from forming. This initiates a negative cycle of shame. People take personal responsibility for the shortcomings of their lives, and for their confusion, and feel it as a lack in themselves, rather than taking a broader picture and challenging the status quo. This keeps people preoccupied with their own personal battles and insecurities, and keeps the cycle of work, and busyness turning.
For Naess, what is so insidious about this is that it keeps us passive. He writes “Lack of self acceptance accounts for much of the passivity displayed by an important sector of the public in environmental conflicts. Many people are on the right side, but few stand up in public in meetings and declare how they, as private citizens, feel about the pollution in their neighbourhoods. They do not have sufficient self-respect, respect for their own feelings, or faith in their own importance”. As well as lacking self-esteem, people feel themselves hypocrites, pulled around by competing desires and ambitions. People are kept in a state of confusion and frustration from not meeting unobtainable, incompatible goals, and this stops us from making clear and considered decisions about the kind of future we would like and taking steps to make it happen.
It is easy to blame marketing and capitalism, but there is another side to shame. It is a commonly encountered opinion, particularly in environmental activist circles, that the world would be better without humans, and further that human nature left unchecked is inherently destructive. What is so refreshing about Spinoza, Naess and Piercy’s respective philosophies is a trust in the fact that we come from the same life source as the delicate eco-systems which support us, and that by reconnecting with this we will find confidence, purpose and identity.
The narrative and impetus of our own and Connie’s government is to curb, control and correct people’s natures, aided by the belief that humans are inherently destructive and selfish, a narrative which breeds shame and mistrust. What is so beautiful about Mattapoisset, Piercy’s imagined society, is that the only structures and systems which have been put in place are there to allow for people to thrive. It is assumed that when people are given space and freedom, their natural inclination will be to contribute to society and help each other, and that the role of any kind of governance is to aid that natural inclination.