Perma-circularity and deep personal change: Learning (from) the wisdom of the biosphere’s great cycles

Before I tell you more, in forthcoming posts, about the impressions and lessons I brought back from our second summer trip to the American Southwest, I’d like to kick off this new after-summer season with a somewhat more general post about our necessary quest for deeper wisdom, about nature’s great cycles and about how we might tune into them so as to tap into what they can teach us — with the help of Native traditions that have long known about these things.

Perma-circularity isn’t only about re-engineering the mechanisms of our economy or our society – it’s also about making this re-engineering possible, and even desirable, because we start thinking, living and acting from a deeper understanding of our biosphere’s cycles.

The essential “building blocks” of our material existence, from water to carbon to nitrogen to many other chemicals and minerals, basically cycle around perpetually. Although this simplifies things just a tiny bit, we can say that most fundamental components of life are present in the biosphere in a fixed quantity and that what changes over time – what changes constantly – is the location of those components and the relative amount of them in each location. Industrialization and climate change don’t change the overall amount of water or carbon in the whole Earth system: what they do – oftentimes in an alarming way – is modify the relative amounts of these things in specific places of the Earth system, as well as the speed at which these modifications occur.

That’s what ecologists mean when they say that global warming “perturbs” the water cycle (there’s suddenly too little water in certain areas where lots of people live, and too much of it in the atmosphere in the form of clouds that will transport it elsewhere where it will fall too hard, causing destruction and misery) or that industrial agriculture “disrupts” the nitrogen cycle (the nitrogen gets pulled out of where it’s naturally lodged and crammed into chemical fertilizers that run off with rainwater into streams, rivers and seas where there will suddenly be way too much of it). The same, as many of us know, can be said for the “imbalances” created in the carbon cycle: through combustion of wood, coal, gas and oil from the underground, the soil and the living organic matter where CO2 is usually trapped, too much of it gets abruptly transferred into the atmosphere where it becomes much too concentrated and strongly accentuates the greenhouse effect.

So while a scarcity of water or an excess of nitrogen are certainly experienced for real wherever they occur, they are caused by undue displacement rather than by a disappearance of water or by a new creation of nitrogen. The water and nitrogen cycle still operate – as does the carbon one – but they’re malfunctioning by generating imbalances in other parts of the biosphere’s massive ecosystem. Occasionally the biosphere can adapt, and it has often done so in the past, but currently the velocity and scale of great-cycle disruptions are such that “adaptation” will frequently mean collapse for large ecosystems and social systems, and death for large populations of living species. The cynical can always argue that if abrupt readjustment and mutation is what adaptation means in certain cases, so be it—and if so, by the way, speaking of “malfunctioning” cycles turns out just to be an anthropomorphic error in perspective since the cycle simply is what it is.  Yet, inside many of us humans, a deeper vein of sympathy, empathy and caring resists this cold “adaptation-as-adjustment” stance.

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Gregory Cajete

In his pathbreaking book Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (Kivaki Press, 1993), the Native American scholar Gregory Cajete from the University of New Mexico argues that indigenous Americans cannot be required to literally believe Western science and its often mechanistic and disenchanted way of portraying the biosphere. Whole swaths of ancestral wisdom about how to live in contact with nature, Cajete argues, are marginalized by “science” even though they could be – and, in many Native lifeways, still are – living resources helping us to revere and conserve the cycles of the biosphere, to whose dysfunction the Western scientific worldview has contributed heavily. As argued by two other Native American scholars – Daniel Wildcat from Haskell Indian Nations University in his 2009 book Red Alert! Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge (Fulcrum Publishing) and Thomas Norton-Smith from Kent State in his 2010 opus The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy (SUNY Press) – a deep respect for, and internalization of, the cyclical character of the world as well as the unbroken community between humans, nonhuman living species and the “inanimate” remainder of the biosphere are the cornerstones of any contemporary quest for wisdom that would seek to repair the Earth system’s broken, dysfunctional cycles.

And a contemporary quest for wisdom is what we need – desperately. I won’t expand, right now, on how modern technology has, despite its stellar achievements, made humanity as a whole unwise. Essentially, this is because the logic of the private market economy doesn’t allow us to replace the economically rational pursuit of efficiency by the much more ecologically rational notion of sufficiency. (On this crucial topic, please urgently consult Thomas Princen’s definitive book from the MIT Press in 2005, entitled The Logic of Sufficiency.) Our lack of wisdom when it comes to protecting the planet’s vital cycles is systemic: we have built – and are perpetuating – a way of producing, selling, consuming and growing that makes us incapable of any kind of wisdom that would contradict the requirements of this system. That’s why we pay a lot of lip service to our purported concern for “sustainability” but, in actual fact, shy away from doing anything except create new technologies that will generate “efficiency gains” and then exploit the lucrative rebound effects that lead to yet more dysfunction in our biosphere’s great cycles.

Yes, our lack of wisdom feels like something we’ve become systemically locked into. Unless, that is, we finally see this fact with clarity and, like the scholars I have just mentioned, start affirming a new system of values and lifeways that will finally make sufficiency – the perma-circular wisdom of intelligent self-limitation – systemically possible, systemically feasible and even systemically desirable. Here is how Gregory Cajete puts it:

“We are all related,” is a metaphor used by the Lakota in their prayers. It is a metaphor whose meaning is shared by all other [American] Indian people. It is a guiding principle of [American] Indian spiritual ecology reflected by every tribe in their perception of Nature. It is a deeply spiritual, ecological and epistemological principle of profound significance. Guided by this metaphysical principle, [American] Indian people acknowledged that all living and non-living entities of Nature have important inherent meanings within the context of human life. Based on this understanding, American Indians symbolically recognized their relationship to plants, animals, stones, trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, and a host of other living entities. Through seeking, making, sharing, and celebrating these natural relationships, they came to perceive themselves as living in a sea of relationships. In each of the places they lived, they learned the subtle, but all-important, language of natural relationship. (Look to the Mountain, pp. 74-75)

This is nothing short of a recipe for value-driven system change. It is revolutionary in its quiet, simple depth. How, Cajete is asking us, are you going to symbolically recognize your relationship to plants, animals, stones, trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, and a host of other living entities, and how are you going to seek, make, share and celebrate these natural relationships so as to come to perceive yourselves as living in a sea of relationships?

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Daniel Wildcat

We can only answer these questions in a credible way if, once we have (as I believe we should) adopted perma-circularity as the unavoidable basis for all and any movement towards genuine sustainability, we then start constructing new epistemological and educational pathways. This is where Cajete’s work as an Indigenous educator and scholar of education – as well as creator of actual Indigenous education curricula (as shown in his 1999 book Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model, also from Kivaki Press) – is truly pathbreaking and inspirational. Along complementary lines, Daniel Wildcat offers what he calls “indigenous realism,” which

affirms patterns and processes beyond our human making – patterns residing in ancient environs, such as wetlands, mountain ranges, prairies, and coastal estuaries and seascapes, and processes emerging in these environs, some of relatively short duration and some extending far beyond directly observable human time frames, such as the processes embodied in the hydrologic cycle, nutrient cycling, and the rock cycle, to name a few. (Red Alert!, pp. 102-103)

Knowledge of these “patterns and processes” and, even more so, a clear intention to keep them from malfunctioning and to correct their disruptions and perturbations, are part and parcel of the newfound wisdom we need. And intention is nothing without attention:

Saving the Earth with indigenous knowledges will require a serious re-examination and reconstruction of the experiential knowledge of Native peoples: it will require getting people out of the physical and metaphysical boxes in which they live and think. In order to live in life-enhancing relations, humankind in industrial and postindustrial societies must move beyond their self-imposed physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual imprisonment. … The Native insight that indigenous knowledges should not be understood as human constructions, but rather as collaborations, is worth emphasizing. Indigenous knowledges in this sense are emergent from the nature-culture nexus. Consequently, indigenous knowledges are a set of relations and relationships situated in our life experiences, which vary as we move through what physicists would call space-time. … Indigenous knowledges are grounded in the human realization that the life that surrounds us can teach us valuable lifeway lessons, if we pay attention to our relationships and interactions with the land, air, water, and other-than-human living beings. (Red Alert!, pp. 49, 73-74 and 74-75)

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Thomas Norton-Smith

Drawing inspiration from, among others,  luminaries of Native American thought such as Vine Deloria and Donald Fixico, the philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith posits both relatedness and circularity as two of the central – if not the most important – “world-ordering principles” in the Native American view of the cosmos and the world, that is to say, “way[s] American Indians categorize, organize, and order sense experience” (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 57). Concerning relatedness, he has this to say:

World-constructing processes include composition, decomposition, weighting, and ordering, all of which depend on and help determine how our sense experiences – and our worlds—are organized into objects and kinds. … [O]rdering – creating various patterns in sense experience – is a particularly important world-constructing process, especially for Natives who actively search for the newly emergent, previously overlooked, unexpected, and strikingly unusual connections between experiences. We say that creating patterns of relatedness in sense experience is central to the making of the American Indian world. All beings and their interactions in the American Indian world are related and interconnected, so knowing about the world involves actively seeking out newly emerging connections between experiences. [According to] Deloria…, “‘We are all relatives’ when taken as a methodological tool for obtaining knowledge means that we observe the natural world by looking for relationships between various things in it”. (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 58)

For Norton-Smith, this method of looking for patterns of relatedness also implies a wholly different take on what the word “person” means. In Native American thought, humans only become persons if they take moral responsibility for the whole of nature and all the relationship they discover within it. Moreover, there are such things as nonhuman persons: there are plant persons, animal persons and place persons. (The Swiss-Canadian anthropologist Jeremy Narby called to my attention the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a Brazilian anthropologist who has reflected among other things on the fact that, in the Amazon, Indians see jaguars and plants as people.) This immediately extends into the question of the extent to which a creek, a river, a forest, an ocean or even the whole water cycle could be seen to have personality-like or person-like elements of self-coherence and self-belonging. After all, our Western, reductionist systems science speaks of “operational closure” as a defining characteristic of a system: might this not merely be a clumsy way of still accepting some idea of personhood while, at the same time, making it innocuous through mechanistic terminology? (The legitimate fascination of so many Western and Westernized scientists with systems science, with “emergence” and “complexity,” is a pretty sure sign that ancestral intuitions and experiences of interconnection and relatedness are far from defunct.)

Concerning circularity, Norton-Smith reminds us that, in a manner not at all alien to what today’s proponents of permaculture are urging us back towards,

indigenous peoples are very close observers of the natural world and all of the cycles in its workings – seasonal cycles, lunar phases, animal migrations, and the growth of various plants. Indeed, hunter-gatherer societies had to observe, create, and operate in accordance with seasonal patterns, with cyclical patterns imposed on temporal experiences – the ripening of the berries in spring, late summer corn harvests, autumn migrations, and winter hunts – in order to survive. But such seasonal circular orderings are also spatial orderings – harvests and hunts are events in both time and space. As a result, American Indian traditions came to regard cycles and circles as the primary temporal and spatial ordering principle, to develop “tribal philosophies based on the circle,” as Fixico puts it. (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 125)

The utter loss of circular/ cyclical knowledge, awareness, consciousness and responsibility is perhaps the main reason why short-term economic and financial blindness overrides the desire – which every child possesses before we make them acquisitive and mind-focused – to protect and love plant persons, animal persons and “sky people” (as some Native tribes call the clouds). This disconnection from our biosphere’s great cycles and grand circulations is perhaps the principal cause of disasters such as the irreversible poisoning of huge swaths of Alberta due to tar-sands extraction or the drying-up of the Colorado River Delta into a parched, salty desert due to massive dam-building and water diversions. The Colorado River is a living being, perhaps a “person” in the expansive sense championed by Norton-Smith – my own Western mind bends itself out of shape to accept such a statement even as it rings true to my heart and soul. The water cycle is a living being, perhaps an expanded person – and this, I know, ties into the whole debate about James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” and its meaning. (Does he literally mean that Gaia is a person? Does he mean it metaphorically? Does “metaphorical” mean “poetic” or “mythological,” and does either of those words imply a contradiction with “science”?)

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The “Horseshoe Bend” in the Colorado River (Arizona)

I am deeply grateful to Native scholars like Cajete, Wildcat and Norton-Smith – along with a host of others – for reaching out in writing and occasionally also in person to the non-Native seekers of meaning, despite what our forefathers have done to theirs. I cannot help but feel that the Colorado River’s deep illness is a direct continuation of the mindset that led Anglo-European colonizers – my ancestors, like it or not – to all but destroy the diversity of native cultures that lived along and around that river. They are still there, luckily – some of them at least; they are surprisingly welcoming though occasionally wary (rightfully so) of us white folks who, even some who’ve lived in the Southwestern USA all their lives, still see a river like the Colorado as a mere resource for filling swimming pools and irrigating cash crops, see a desert like the Sonoran as a barren place in which it might be nice, at best, to hike for a bit, and see a landscape like Monument Valley as a backdrop for commercial films or as “tourist capital.” We descendants of Anglo-European colonists are entirely capable of cultivating a sense of sacredness in landscapes and great cycles – and many do, of course. But our wisdom will remain incomplete as long as we don’t also acknowledge that it is our ancestors’ Anglo-European frame of mind that, with its myths of “frontier,” “progress” and “growth,” has led to the grievous losses whose scars we’re seeing today. All our elaborate geosciences and all our fine knowledge of geomorphology and biogeochemical cycles won’t help us much if we don’t also build a new science of ourselves as participatory beings immersed “in a sea of relationships,” to borrow Cajete’s beautiful expression.

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Participatory beings immersed “in a sea of relationships” …

Sorry folks – but no, we don’t currently have the upper hand in building such a new human science of participatory wisdom. Those who know what it means to live like that, and whom we’ve oppressed for so many shameful centuries, are the ones to whom we must turn for guidance.

We don’t need to all become Native Americans, nor could or should we. All serious Native scholars rightly warn us Westerners sternly against such a naïve, self-illusory move. There are Western traditions of relatedness and cyclicality we can seek inspiration from, perhaps most notably the Druidic tradition from pre-Christian Celtic culture. A caveat, however: these Western sources are much more deeply buried under centuries of rationalistic, reductionist and scientistic – not to mention Christian – scorn for “organismic” and “animistic” nature spiritualities. Our work of recovering a Western wisdom tradition of relatedness and circularity will be just as arduous – only differently so – from the work of Native American scholars as they seek to preserve the elements of a still living tradition from marginalization and destruction. In our case, we pretty much have to resurrect long-dead traditions, and in a context of “identity politics” where traditions, venerable as they might be, can be co-opted by retrograde and even fascist movements – and the Celtic tradition too, alas, has perhaps not entirely escaped this risk – the task is all the more politically delicate.

That’s the main reason why, because all of us so urgently need a perma-circular economy and society, all of us need Native American traditions: not as objects of imitation, not as objects of co-optation, not as resources to be commercialized, but as living critics and “verifiers” of the justness of our own revivals. Native American traditions, as I’ve already emphasized in an earlier post, are certainly not without their own defects and blind spots – no serious Native scholar would deny this – but they have one thing that pre-Christian traditions in the West no longer have: they’re fully alive in that, oppressed and marginalized as they may have become, they nevertheless have an unbroken lineage of worldviews and practices, and of transmission of these worldviews and practices. Gregory Cajete’s efforts to build a specifically Indigenous conception of ecological education for today’s Indigenous people testify to this continuity.

We Europeans and Westerners need to do something similar, but we need critical onlookers. Let us endeavor to revive some of our deeper, more profound — but often largely lost — traditions, but let Native Americans monitor us and warn us, with a critical eye rooted in their own presently living traditions, when we’re infusing our revivals – Celtic or other – with too much Western-ness, with the temptations of domination, patriarchy, acquisitiveness, hierarchy and imperialism that are all too specific to our pathologies and that have, in the past, led us to so woefully destroy nature as well as our own and other Native traditions.

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Irish forest landscape

If we can pull this off with the firm, unflinching “development assistance” provided to us by Native American – and other Native and Indigenous – peoples, perhaps one day not too far in the future we Westerners could, once again, speak of the rivers, the mountains, the forests, the water cycle and the carbon cycle as living beings and perhaps even as “persons.” Far from being a fascist regression, this would be one of the most momentous steps forward that our Western cultures could undertake – with the aid of Native cultures in many ways wiser and richer than ours.

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This blog post is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This allows you to download the text and share it with others as long as you credit me, but you can’t change it in any way or use it commercially. For more information, go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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