Animism and the Personhood of Ecosystems

“I am convinced that in the somber decades to come, the end of the world ‘as we know it’ is a distinct possibility…when this time comes (it has already come in my opinion) we will have a lot to learn from people whose world has already ended a long time ago – think of the Amerindians whose world ended five centuries ago, their population having dropped to something like 5% of the pre-Columbian one in 150 years, the Amerindians who nonetheless, have managed to abide, and learned to live in a world which is no longer their world ‘as they knew it.’ We soon will all be Amerindians. Let’s see what they can teach us about matters apocalyptic.” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2014).

If we are to take heed of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s suggestion that we might be able to learn something about ecological sustainability from the life-ways of our ancestors, as well as from the cultures of indigenous peoples around the world, we are inevitably going to bump up against animist worldviews. The term animism derives from the Latin root word anima, meaning soul, and in its scholarly usage refers to the belief that the world is populated by ‘spirits,’ or, to use a more recent term, ‘other-than-human persons.’ For an animist the world is alive, so that rocks, trees, animals, plants, mountains and rivers could all posses personal attributes, desires, fears and needs, just like human beings. From an animist perspective, ecosystems are communities of beings in dialogue, and we are participants too.

Animism was first popularised as a scholarly category by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), who saw the belief in spiritual beings as the very earliest expression of religious thought. Indeed, for Tylor there was little distinction between traditional indigenous religions and the major world religions. Tylor’s version of anthropology, however, was closely wedded to a form of social Darwinism that was particularly popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which saw European (and especially British) culture as the pinnacle of social evolution, and other non-western and indigenous cultures as backward, irrational and misguided. Sadly, such a view distorted Tylor’s perception of the animistic worldview(s) he wrote about in his books, and it wasn’t until much later that scholars began to re-engage with animism without such a dismissive and colonialist attitude.

In his 1960 publication ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View,’ the American anthropologist Alfred Iriving Hallowell (1892-1974) described how for the Ojibwa people of central Canada the world is populated by persons ‘not all of whom are human.’ Hallowell famously gives the example of his conversation with an old Ojibwa man:

‘I once asked an old man: Are all the stones we see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, ‘No!’ But some are’ (Hallowell, 1960)

The old man’s answer to Hallowell’s question had a lasting impact on the anthropologist. The old man’s response suggests that for the Ojibwa people, stones have the capacity for life – their worldview leaves open the possibility that stones, trees, mountains and so on can be persons, and as such ought to be granted the same respect as a human person, just in case. Interactions with features of the landscape, therefore, must be understood as interactions between persons, as relationships.

More recently, scholar of religions Graham Harvey has taken up the themes of Tylor and Hallowell’s work (amongst others), with the formulation of his ‘New Animism.’ New animism differs from Tylor’s ‘old’ animism firstly through not assuming a social Darwinist perspective that sees animism as primitive and irrational, and secondly by shifting its focus away from the somewhat problematic notion of ‘spirits,’ towards the much more encompassing idea of ‘persons.’ Harvey writes:

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable). Animism…is more accurately understood as being concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons” (Harvey, 2005, p. xi).

The underlying relational philosophy of the new animism (which is only ‘new’ to academia), represents the antithesis of the materialistic-industrial-consumer philosophy that has dominated Euro-American attitudes to the environment for the last 200 years, and would seem to offer a route towards the kind of ‘Deep Ecology’ advocated by Arne Naess.

Many in our post-industrial society are likely to feel uncomfortable with the notion of attributing personhood to the various components of our ecosystems, but we can take a hint from the Ojibwa and treat ecology as if it possesses personhood, without necessarily believing that it does. If we were to adopt a relational attitude, and interact with rivers, streams, trees, animals, soils and so on as if they are persons, our behaviours and actions would also necessarily be altered as a consequence. We wouldn’t want to pump sewage into another person, for example, or destroy the home of person, or abuse, misuse or exploit another person. When we think in relationships, we realise that we need to develop good relationships with the other persons in our ecosystem – prosperous, mutually beneficial relationships. Much as in systems thinking, a relational worldview makes us aware of our own interconnected and interdependent relationship with the world around us. So, even if we don’t believe that the tree in our garden is a person, or the river in our village, or the sky above our heads, we can still behave as if they are – our actions can be informed by a relational ecocentric perspective, rather than a purely anthropocentric one.

Granting Personhood Status to Ecosystems

An interesting recent development is the gradual granting of personhood status to key ecosystems by some of the world’s governments. For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, known as Te Awa Tupa amongst the indigenous Maori people, was the first river to be granted the legal status of personhood. The Maori people, whose lives are dependent on the river system, and who have always thought of the river as an ancestor, have been fighting for the last 140 years for the river to be treated with the respect that it deserves as an ancestor and living entity, a request that was finally granted on Wednesday 15th March 2017. Gerard Albert, the lead negotiator on behalf of the Whanganui tribe explains:

“We can trace our genalogy to the origins of the universe, and therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”

What this means for the Whanganui River is that, as a legal person, any damage inflicted on it is equivalent to damaging a human being. What if we could do this for our own rivers, forests and mountains? What impact would it have on our relationship with our local ecosystem? Might it help us to achieve the goals laid out by the Paris Climate Agreement? Would it encourage us to behave more responsibly? To change our use of chemical fertilisers, for example, which may leach into the river from farmlands? I think it would.

Within days of the New Zealand government’s decision to grant personhood status to the Whanganui River, a court in Northern India ordered that the sacred River Ganges, and its primary tributary the Yamuna, also be granted the legal status of personhood, as well as glaciers and other ecosystems, precisely so that they can be protected and preserved for the benefit of future generations, and for our global system as whole.

Briefly turning to the theme of folklore, we might be surprised to find that many of our local landscape features have already had their personhood recognised by our ancestors. Bala Lake, just over the Berwyn mountains, for example, is inhabited by the great monster Tegid, and the River Severn was known by the Romans as the goddess Sabrina. What about Afon Rhaeadr, Afon Tanat and Afon Cain? Are these persons too? If so, have we been treating them with the respect they deserve? Could animist principles be a catalyst for the change in thinking required by the Paris Climate Agreement? Perhaps we should consider lobbying to have our rivers and ecosystems recognised as persons, just as the Whanganui tribe have been doing for the last 140 years.

References

Hallowell, A.I. (1960). ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View.’ In G. Harvey (ed) (2002) Readings in Indigenous Religions. London: Continuum. pp. 17-50.

Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Company.

Tylor, E. B. (1930). Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and
Civilization. London: C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014). ‘Who is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?’

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-beings

1,188 total views, 8 views today

Going green

Many people have been attracted to living in Wales by the promise of a greener, less fraught and less material lifestyle. Even if they haven’t thought through the whole sustainability challenge, instinct draws people away from the intensity of urban life towards something a little gentler and potentially more rewarding.

Brynllwyn farm in 1995
Brynllwyn farm in 1995

I have to confess I was one of those people. I was born just over the Welsh border in Shropshire but as I like to say, I came here the long way round. Via Montreal, Reading, Chandigarh, Nairobi and Chimanimani in Zimbabwe before I ended up back in Reading in 1993. Somewhere along the line I had decided that I wanted to live a different kind of life. Closer to nature and less complicated but also by then I had discovered permaculture design, something that had really taken off in Zimbabwe since Bill Mollison had delivered the first African permaculture design course in Botswana back in the ’80’s.

Permaculture is about designing from nature, understanding that the natural world is the template for sustainable systems and also in understanding how deeply unsustainable most modern practices are.

The house in 2006: insluated windows replaced, solar thermal water heating, solar porch and with literally thousands of trees, shrubs and herbs planted all around.
The house in 2006: insluated, windows replaced, solar thermal water heating, solar porch, district biomass central-heat and with literally thousands of trees, shrubs and herbs planted all around.

Coming to Wales for me was more by accident than design. A happy co-incidence shall we say. When I was living in Zimbabwe in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had met a series of people who led me firstly to the opportunity of care-taking a permaculture designed farm and then the chance of applying what we had learned on the first farm to the neighbouring property which had sat derelict fo 10 years or more. It’s a long story and I will spare the details but we opened it up as a traveller’s lodge, in a place that received few visitors but somehow it worked and it still thrives today 25 years later. Heaven Lodge, Chimanimani it is called.

In my time there I kept two cows and grazed them on the land and made cheese from the milk. Local villagers keen to be involved set up their own self-help job schemes and before long the house was stocked with fresh bread, vegetables and we were offering full meals that contained many self grown ingredients to our visitors. The formula worked and the lodge became successful, one of our early visitors was a young outward bound instructor from Shrewsbury and whose first job after school had been at the Challenge Outdoor centre, based at Llanfyllin Workhouse in mid Wales.

narch for science
Global actions are planned in support of the scientific community and the dangers of ignoring the dire climate warnings coming from their research.

This was my first link to the Mid-Wales dispersed community of creative, independent people who worked in emerging areas like alternative technology, permaculture, renewable energy, co-operatives and all sorts of new and interesting areas I had never before seen as realistic options. I remember saying to myself that would give Wales 6 months, what did I have to lose? I moved to near MachynlIeth in 1994 and have never looked back since. Wales instantly became my home and I recognised the possibilities and potentials of living here and set about realising my own dreams. I consider it an honour and a privilege to live in this amazing country but that does not mean I don’t have my criticisms.

Chickenshack co-operative in 2015, 20 years into the project
Chickenshack co-operative in 2015, 20 years into the project. An evovling community of people exploring new options and still building on the foundations laid in the early years.

Much of Wales, although it looks so beautiful and natural is actually nothing of the sort. It is a landscape laid bare by industrial farming. Heavy sheep stocking levels and the use of nitrate fertilizers to improve pastures has led to much of the natural diversity disappearing. Wetlands and bogs have been drained, forests cleared, soils exposed to give way to a green baize of pasture ideal for fattening stock but at the expense of just about every other living thing.

Don’t believe me? Well look no further than Mid Wales’ own famous naturalist Iolo Williams. When he spoke at the Senedd in Cardiff in 2013 on the launch of the State of Nature report his anger was palpable, pointing the finger at the beaurocrats and legislators who had allowed the decimation of the natural world in Wales to happen almost unabated.

What I have to come to recognise is that we all need to question almost every aspect of our lifestyles and habits and find new and different ways of behaving that benefit both ourselves, our communities and the natural world. The third part is the big one as much of what the western economies have done is to sacrifice the natural world to extract minerals, fossil fuels and to clear the forest for intensive farming. This short-term wealth has come at a great cost and it is now clear that if we carry on this path then only war, eco collapse and worse await around the corner. This is our chance to learn and make this transition to another way of behaving.

view over Chickenshack in 2005
view over Chickenshack in 2005

Chickenshack co-operative was created in 1995 as a permaculture community to explore how we might live together differently and to have a different relationship to the land and resources. Bigger, older properties can be shared, greatly reducing costs, allowing tenants to invest these savings into insulation, renewable energy, planting productive trees, taking care of the land and restoring damaged ecosystems. When you look at this view over the property, even back in 2005 when this picture was taken it is apparent by the sea of green in the centre of the picture that the landscape has already changed significantly.

What was once primarily bare, sheep nibbled grass has given way to a diverse, richer and more mixed landscape. The land holds more water, is more productive and varied in its outputs, it is teaming with birds and wildlife in a way it demonstrably wasn’t 10 years previously and is far more attractive a place to live in. Just imagine the impact if millions of people started to apply these same ideas to their own homes and lives.

Permaculture design has the potential to steer human ideas of development in different and new directions, the possibilities of this reality is what motivates me to get out of bed every day!

Going Green

In 2009, when I first moved to the Llanfyllin area I became involved in a project to renovate and save the old workhouse in Llanfyllin, the very same one my travellers lodge visitor friend had told me about back in Zimbabwe in 1991. One of the many projects I did there involved making a 6 part TV series for BBC Wales called ‘Changing Lives, Going Green.

I saw it as a chance to share some of the insight and inspiration I had gained from my own personal experiences and I started conversations with the production company to try to steer their ideas of what being green was all about towards a more permaculture informed viewpoint. In the end they offered me a part in the show as the host and guide for the chosen family’s green journey.

Filming whilst trading off the needs of the TV people, our guests and our own ideas and convictions was a lot of hard work and ridiculously long hours but we were proud with the resulting series. We had to fight hard not to allow the TV people to trivialize what for us were really serious and important issues and to a large part we just about managed to keep it on the right side of serious whilst being genuinely funny and fun at the same time. All credit to the family we worked with, they were such great sports.

All of this leads me back to Llanfyllin Transition Project and my continuing mission to open up debate and challenge people to see new possibilities where they might otherwise see problems and limitations.

I now live in Llanrhaeadr Ym Mochnant, at Dragons Co-operative, the 4th co-op I have helped found and I am still working hard for permaculture, community and sustainability.

3,098 total views, 10 views today