How to get rid of a nightmare?
We need to reject the cosmological background of the prevalent schemes and destroy our faith in poisonous, corroding ‘values’ like progress, development and economic growth.
There’s a need for radical change in our vocabulary and thought patterns. How to get rid of the prevailing schemes of collective practices, of fixed ideas? Peeter Laurits, Hasso Krull, Andrus Laansalu, Margus Ott and Rein Raud discussed this ahead of Biotoopia, the hybrid conference which took place for the first time on 26-28 August 2021 in Viinistu Art Museum.
Peeter Laurits: The climate across the world is getting increasingly weird. There are pandemics. Extinction of species is intensifying, but in our current economic practices everyone is in a hurry to grab what they can. How do we solve this situation? Intuitively, it feels like there are some rather simple solutions available. For the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere we have really good partners in forests and marine plankton. In order to reduce human pressure on ecosystems, we seriously need to lower the speed of our population growth. However, these are unpopular topics and nobody wants to discuss them. Our attitude towards the environment and other life forms is what’s most important. There’s a plethora of complicated issues here. In order to view other life forms as equal partners, we must allow them into our legal sphere. Yet, our legal sphere is built upon proprietary rights. But other life forms of course don’t own anything. In addition, there’s the balance sheet of non-renewable resources in our accounting. On the one hand it’s elementary that it needs to be done. But clean air, for example, is so difficult to quantify that to my knowledge no one has come up with a solid method of putting these things in an Excel sheet.
Hasso Krull: Here I’m reminded of Dieter Helm’s idea of natural capital. Indeed, it seems difficult to quantify the movement of natural forms and masses. On the other hand, since the ideas of economy and economic growth are anthropocentric, we have to start anthropocentrically. If you enter the data on the use of conditioners in a computer, you will know immediately where clean air is very expensive and where it’s cheaper. Of course, we can’t quantify the movement of clean air in the same way, and this exposes the limits of economy. Up to a point, we can express in numbers everything we need for life. But then the horizon emerges, the unavoidable frontier of calculations. If this horizon goes unnoticed, the calculations have no meaning and ultimately they will be only detrimental.
Rein Raud: There are two possibilities to deal with the onslaught of aggressive and simplifying discourse. One is to refute it and the other is to try to adapt to it. We can see what has happened in universities as they have tried to adapt to the neoliberal economic discourse. I think that this proprietary discourse must simply be rejected. By the way, property- and ownership-related terms stem from Indo-European languages. In many other languages people say, ‘it’s by my side’ – that’s a totally different relationship. Later, through historical contacts, the concept of property spread elsewhere, too. For example, the idea that land could belong to one particular person is not typical of human culture in general. It is a feature of one specific human culture, which is now transitioning from the party-phase to the hangover phase, so to speak. The good and great results created by the Indo-European world view and its derivative, capitalism, are coming to an end. Now we are entering the difficult final phase.
I also believe that different centres of power are very aware of the climate process. Even those who are aggressively denying it. The denial is meant for the masses. The concentration of resources aims to provide some people with personal lifeboats in the climate catastrophe and continue with the same lifestyle. But the rest of the world’s population, and I don’t just mean humans, are sent downstream.
Andrus Laansalu: This may be an overgeneralisation, but much of today’s problems are based on the strength of a person’s empathy. Humans are very different in their perception of the suffering of others. Someone who’s socially adequate in every way might not be overly affected by another’s suffering. This doesn’t make them a bad person, but in purely individual sense a person’s decisions are decided by the acuity of their empathy. For instance, is it easy for them to understand that you don’t cut down trees while the birds are nesting? This decision depends on how acutely you perceive the pain inflicted on other creatures by your decision. Empathy has been useful in evolution for creating all kinds of connections with our environment, other humans and beings. Like in domesticating animals. Whereas in wars and difficult situations, where survival is the most important issue, lack of empathy is definitely beneficial to survival.
Margus Ott: It seems to me that because of the climate crisis or ecological crisis there’s a shift occurring in our consciousness, which could be compared to the introduction of nuclear weapons. When we had so many of them that an attack on an enemy would have meant our own destruction. Before that you could fight the enemy by any means necessary, but now you had to be more cautious.
Right now, the shift in consciousness is happening on an even more general level. Because if earlier it involved mainly relationships between people, societies and states, climate change involves the whole ecosystem. If earlier we could view living beings and nature simply as a resource, as something completely external, then now it is clear that human existence itself too is contained in other species. Humans influence nature on a planetary level. It is becoming increasingly clear that every being’s subjectivity is contained in each other. Another being contains me too.
Another question is, what conclusions we can draw from this, considering our social, political and economic habits. For example, our attitude towards the forest is one of those litmus tests in Estonia. There are some very influential circles for whom the forest is but a resource and who fail to understand why you shouldn’t fell forests if there’s money to be made out of it. But it should also be understandable that if we deforest on such a large scale, we are sawing the branch we’re sitting on.
Raud: There’s a whole bunch of people who seem to be protective of the forest, but whose discourse is still economic, who see the forest as a resource. They say that we shouldn’t fell this much this year, because then we won’t have anything to fell the year after next. For them, too, the forest is ultimately a resource. But the main issue is that the forest should not be considered purely a resource a priori. By the same token we could regard humans as workforce or living cannon fodder. Acknowledging the self-worthiness of the forest or the environment – that it’s valuable even without being a resource for us – is where I see an important distinction.
Krull: I agree with Rein. I’d like to return to empathy for a moment, which Andrus talked about. I think that today empathy is a bit overrated. It is perhaps owing to the individualist ideology, according to which society consists of individuals of whom some are very empathetic, others less so. Indeed, there are psychopaths, or on the contrary, people like Nietzsche, who hold on to a Torino horse and lose their mind, because they can’t tolerate the torment of another being.
However, if we look at this from an anthropological perspective, it’s the schemes of collective practice that determine the behaviour of a society. For example, the Amazonian people are very similar to us individually, there are plenty of people over there also who have absolutely no empathy. In our society they would behave like harvester operators, whose job it is to fell forests, so that someone else could grind it to a pulp. But their schemes of collective practice, and of course the underlying cosmology are completely different from ours. Therefore our behaviours are also different. We should not overestimate people’s individuality or individual initiatives. Humans are herd animals, who only thrive in collectives. Usually people simply behave the way other people do. We are constantly shaping and polishing ourselves, from our appearance to our everyday self-expression, but it is always following others, emulating one or another of our schemes of collective practice, which have been internalised since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. Nonetheless, a larger society may have several of those schemes, so that a person must somehow choose, usually following some close role model. Nowadays our civilization is conflicted and has multiple viewpoints, where some schemes are dominant, and others subjected. By the way, those subjected schemes can be very zesty, they are often easier to spot than those that are considered ‘normal’.
Therefore, it’s about strategies. How can we replace the currently prevalent schemes of collective practice – and even, how can we destroy them, because they will not step aside just like that. It’s all about the means of destruction. The cosmological background of prevalent schemes must be destroyed, the faith in poisonous, corrosive ‘values’ like progress, development and economic growth must be destroyed. And finally, a large part of what we call infrastructure needs to be rearranged, because our hitherto schemes of collective practice have congealed into material objects, they have been cast into them massively, I would even say monumentally. It is very hard to start living differently, when old monuments are in our way everywhere and want to prescribe our next steps, because ‘that’s how it’s always been’, ‘it’s self-evident’ etc.
So, where do we start? I believe that first we need to create new stories, start speaking differently, dispute differently. Next option: to create local versions of living differently. They shouldn’t be complete, suitable for all and universal, but incomplete, meant for one specific location, one collective and one tradition. Only then can others learn from them. The Zapatistas in Mexico have proffered a rather appealing particular model, demanding regional autonomy and collective land ownership and relinquishing any ‘revolutionary’ activities. There’s no need to prescribe anything to others, as is customary in Western democracies – but should someone enquire, it’s well worth giving advice and sharing experiences, because in the long run, it’s only beneficial.
Laansalu: I can see a clear pattern here for a map of cultural evolution of one collective practice. If we take the Old Testament as a starting point, then we see that the tradition which has heavily influenced our culture, has from the beginning been governed by the principle that God made humans to rule over animals. Even if we don’t take that notion too literally, it has been a strong principle influencing our cultural space for millennia. It has been one of the main tropes, our basic rhythm.
This basic rhythm is deeply rooted and an important part of the reason why we are incapable of regarding nature as equal. It is deeply embedded in our culture, even in the thinking of those people who are not relying on religious positions at all. And it is hard to change this. These hardened positions and models of monotheistic religions, which for centuries have placed humans above animals, are what Hasso refers to as needing to be destroyed. These patterns are so deep and heavy that changing them takes time. But natural inevitability forces us now to think differently from that old tradition of knowing next to nothing about nature. The need for a change in that way of thinking is now rather clear and painful.
Raud: I’d like to return to what Hasso said. I would be careful about using the word ‘destruction’. If at first we destroy something and then allow something else to appear spontaneously in its stead, then historically the new arrival has often been worse than what was destroyed. Instead, we should consider how to replace or reject. We can replace with something that functions better. And I feel that the longer this current process continues the more people understand that the neoliberal discourse – centred on effectiveness and economy – leaves them personally without things they actually desire. As long as the discourse of economic temptation is functioning, people will not see themselves as impoverished by the system, but as future billionaires experiencing temporary adversity.
But there’s also a problem with local communities, and for two reasons. Firstly, I see my own community as globally dispersed. My daily interactions are often with people who are thousands of kilometres away. And the books and texts that I need for my intellectual respiration are not completely from near here. On the other hand, searching for solutions through local communities is somewhat synced with restrictive populist nationalism. We need global solidarity, a Greta Thunbergian global network that would help halt and divert the process of climate change.
Laurits: Hasso is right – people’s behaviour is not guided by what they feel or experience, but rather by all kinds of customs, traditions, habits and laws. Laws are not usually loved, but since they are backed by power structures, people mostly have to abide by them. That’s why I brought in the subject of legal sphere earlier – without revising the legal sphere we cannot normalise our relationship with other life forms at all.
Take landownership, for example. If we could in some way destroy landownership both as a concept and as a practice, then of course it would be followed by the collapse of the entire legal sphere, because it has been built on proprietary rights. Should such a thing collapse all of a sudden, then what would follow is quite easy but very unpleasant to imagine. Therefore, for some time I have been interested in how landownership could be replaced with different practices. The kind that would consider the other participants in all ecosystems.
But the global network and communal practices both exist and are both needed. We are living in a global network which consists of very many societies, structures, unions and kinsmen. I don’t think that the development of local communities would stymie global networking in any way.
Raud: I didn’t think it would. I meant that should transpersonal structures retreat or get accidentally destroyed, and we were left with communities, then it wouldn’t really be a solution. I’m of an opinion that after the disappearance of landownership the remaining communities won’t say, ‘Oh how nice, now we can live without the concept of landownership!’. On the contrary, people will prance around with guns, scrambling to add a little extra to whatever they had before.
Laansalu: From the perspective of legal sphere, we already have laws which ban torture and maltreatment of animals. Still, we saw how difficult it was to ban fur farming. As a practice, it was a cruel treatment of animals in one way or another. And yet politicians found it very hard to decide to end mindless suffering.
We need a transition from utilitarian thinking to understanding that animals are not a resource, but living beings with personalities. The more today’s biology engages in studying animals, the clearer it becomes how complicated animal psychology is. And it is increasingly obvious that human psychology didn’t just independently appear from nowhere. The difference between human and animal consciousness is ever smaller. Legal sphere and its regulation should catch up with that.
Krull: I’d like to return to the subject of destruction again, as there’s been a little misunderstanding here. I said that what need to be destroyed are certain almost mythical concepts that govern the schemes of collective practice: progress, development, economic growth and so on. This absolutely doesn’t mean that the legal sphere or the protection of law should be destroyed. This idea seems absurd to me – why destroy functioning structures, even if they are unstable? We can criticise legal forms, legal decisions can be changed. But big, mythical concepts that govern the schemes of collective practices, cannot be rejected that easily. A nightmare cannot be rejected.
These fixed ideas that govern current schemes of collective practices are basically offers we can’t refuse. These offers are made every day, but the choices we’re given are illusory. Of course it is always tempting to look for compromises, interim solutions, which might postpone the bigger confusion and mitigate the situation. Therefore I like the idea of natural capital. If the forest is natural capital, then we can allow it to grow, and the capital grows by itself. In economic terms, it would also mean continuous economic growth which no financial crisis can instantly derail. True, for this we must relinquish our ongoing cult of the GDP, which doesn’t consider wealth or debt and is therefore hostile to longer periods.
Raud: My opposition to the word ‘destruction’ didn’t mean in any way that the idea of progress, economic growth or GDP should be preserved, but if something is destroyed then what’s left is an empty space. If we want to get rid of the idea of progress, a nightmare or something else, we must be able to replace them with something that would help hold the world together. That would also function in a way that people would see that they have given up something but it hasn’t made their life worse. Only in very extreme circumstances, like in Estonia in 1989, can hundreds of thousands of people gather together at the Song Festival Grounds and say that they’re prepared to eat potato peels. In fact, everyone was thinking that when we become independent, we quickly become much richer.
Laansalu: The vocabulary we use when we speak about something will determine which attitudes we’ll have or how we’ll resolve things. Destruction as a term draws attitudes and connotations which might not be right. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we used a lot of military vocabulary, like how we are fighting the virus. When we start using military language to describe this process, we lose sight of the actual natural background and we are left with a heroic conflict between a negative and a positive side. If we use natural scientific vocabulary, we will reach an understanding that if we destroy the living environment of animals, then we also increase the possibility of virus transmission. That vocabulary brings us a deeper understanding of nature. But if we use military vocabulary, we exclude the possibility of understanding nature. In that respect, the word ‘destroy’ sounds dangerous and should be avoided. On the other hand, I completely understand why Hasso uses it.
Ott: It is a general strategical issue that the choice of rhetoric and methods depends on context. We need both a radical rhetoric of disruption and an evolutionary idea. The two are not mutually exclusive – on the one side we have a radical utopia and on the other a proposal for evolutionary programmes. Without a radical utopia we sink into the realm of no alternatives. But without evolutionary proposals it remains a simple throwaway.
Krull: Margus says what I want to say. Alternatives that work or could work exist already in such abundance that it is difficult to grasp them. However, the malignant mythical concepts are always in the way. Should they be destroyed, rejected, replaced or removed – we may phrase it in many ways, but basically they will have to be gotten rid of. A space must become available for alternatives that is not simply a scrapheap next to mainstream.
By the way, let me remind you of a small historical fact. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB was not destroyed, it was simply ‘rejected’. Now there’s a system in operation in Russia, which Masha Gessen has aptly called the Mafia State. I don’t think it is only a Russian idiosyncrasy, a global mafia state could also be possible.
Laurits: Since these are serious and radical changes in thought patterns, we might look at how we could realise those changes even now. Do you see that potential in art, for example? I mean art in the widest sense, not just generically, but all the way to situational practices.
Laansalu: I see the role of arts mostly in those aspects where the arts engage in borderline experiments. This kind of hybrid of science and art. For instance, art that tries to invent new types of textiles. To grow materials for fabrics out of creatures similar to mycelia. In other words, they are trying to integrate new knowledge in order to make different objects and there you don’t necessarily need to aim for meaningful art. Rather, it’s art which concentrates on doing and which in the process of that doing creates new things. Finding meaning is not strictly culture-based in this case, it endeavours to embrace the different modes of being of other beings, it moves outside language. If all goes well, this can lead to an effect often seen in pop music – there are some radical bands, radical composers who come up with new techniques, new moves. At first they are on the fringes. After a while, pop music starts using them, integrating them into a general wave of mainstream-oriented pop music. I see this line of development in art, too. The art that tries to experiment with new types of materials and thinking may find solutions through experimental objects which approach nature in a new way.
Ott: If we follow Deleuze and Guattari, who posit that art creates affects and precepts, then art does have a remarkable role in staging and generating new ways of being. And the creation of new stories and myths that Hasso mentioned also falls under this. Scientists have been talking about climate change for a long time, but it’s not registering with people. Art can certainly offer ways in which the topic could sink in.
Raud: We are talking about art and thinking experimental contemporary art. But pop culture plays a very important role. For instance, the green turn or bio turn, which has occurred in science fiction, has significantly changed the readers’ habits and mindsets. A Netflix series might point to alternative lifestyles, show the functioning of new values and make it cool in a way that would be impossible for other channels. Here I would welcome the blurring which is actually happening between traditional high culture and pop culture.
Krull: Nowadays, in art we can demand autonomy for all new movements, new ways of thinking and even new life forms. In art it is possible to try out new forms of community, which are sorely needed for future coexistence. Therefore, art is key.
Raud: I’d also add that in today’s society, art is one of those spheres that has been delegated the right to be free, so to speak. An artist is forgiven for not fully following the social canon or principles of economic effectiveness. Of course, the neoliberal cultural politics tries to reduce art to an aspect of the entertainment industry, but at least till now resistance to this has been generally legitimate. Art is the sphere towards which a person who wants to be free naturally gravitates or shifts. And the communities that are born out of that are probably more viable with respect to the prospective solution than those that are born based on local, territorial or ethnic differentiation.
Krull: I’d still posit that local, territorial or ethnic communities cannot be cast aside. I’d prefer a model here which was proposed by Arturo Escobar – a pluriverse or a world which always contains many worlds.
Raud: I agree with that, of course. I’m pleased that there are so many different local societies and unions of local active people which collectively and through common efforts help to develop various aspects of local life. But I always want to see potential dangers, too. For instance, the fact that people can join discussions on Facebook and attack all kinds of old institutions. This has led to Trump supporters and the Capitol rioters, local conservatives or communities in Poland that have declared themselves rainbow-free.
Krull: If local communities – territorial or ethnic – acquire the hue described by Rein, it is because the nightmare hasn’t been gotten rid of. It’s always there, always haunting. Someone may believe that they don’t acknowledge such mythical fancies as progress and economic growth, but in reality those phenomena are obtruding on us from every angle, paralyzing everyone. That’s why the passions on the internet are often very unpleasant, hostile towards everyone else – they are carried by unacknowledged burdens, which people cannot talk about.
The autonomy of a community means that humans and all non-humans connected with them live in their own ways, as they wish, without interruptions. This is not introversion, because on the other hand a community is determined by its relations with other communities, or the relations of humans with other beings within their own community. The best thing would be a community that doesn’t have an identity, that doesn’t define itself by any identifying discourse. A community could be defined by its external relationships.
Laurits: I think that good examples of communities that don’t define themselves through relationships outside their neighbouring communities are natural communities from mycorrhizal networks to all kinds of associations in the forests, fields and meadows. And we need to learn to communicate with these communities in a different way, and also more intensively. What changes this might bring to our own communities, we don’t know yet, but I think that this communication is necessary.
Laansalu: To use Hasso’s wording, this issue is reduced to the question, how could people understand that we need to interact with non-humans. The needs of those non-humans must also be taken seriously. Humans have not done much of that to date, but it’s a fundamental issue – how to understand the needs of non-humans and take them into consideration.
Krull: I think humans used to do it quite a lot in the past. And here lies the conflict between the animistic and contemporary natural ontology. Naturalism excludes non-humans from the communication process, they are only considered as raw material which has to be exploited. Animistic ontology keeps non-humans continuously in focus as independent beings. They are interacted with daily, in a way it also keeps the human community together. I see the current situation as an ontological mistake, which is why I don’t use military but rather martial terminology. War and militarism are two different things. If two ontological attunements simply don’t fit together, if there’s always conflict between them, then a certain martial situation is inevitable. In Estonia, the debate around forestry has been called the Forest War, and I think rightly so.
Laansalu: The earlier period, where non-humans were taken into consideration, was largely based on the human understanding that those non-humans are a danger. Humans had to include in their stories behaviour strategies for co-existing with all those non-humans without getting killed. Today, humans can step on all of those non-humans. And I guess now humans are starting to realise that by so doing they are trampling on themselves, too. However, the balance of power is very different now and the new dialogue with non-humans has to be founded on new grounds.
Ott: Human society’s period of autonomy was a transitional modern illusion or party, like Rein said. But now we have a situation where this illusion of omnipotence is over.
Raud: The form of being that we are now seeking is hitherto non-existent, because all former ways of thinking have exhausted themselves. Now we have before us a field of many offers or alternatives on how to proceed. I don’t know whether they would work globally. It is probable that a synthesis of them might work, a new reality risen out of a dialogue and contact between them. We can only hope that it has time to happen, that we are on a precipice, that it will come and we won’t burn the whole world down before that.