Thinking about what Earth might ask of us, my initial thought is that in order for us to truthfully respond to such an immense and ethical question we need, as individuals and social groups, to understand our current grasp of reality a bit differently. Actually, a lot differently.
Our present western worldview is still grounded in a very mechanistic viewpoint, emerging in the enlightenment era, and gaining a foothold into our collective conception of the universe. This modernist worldview understands matter (anything other than the human species) as passive and separable: Passive in a sense that any stimulus for transformation of matter comes not from mater itself but from an external stimulation that presses upon this matter without ‘it’ having its own agency or ability to act upon the world; And separable in a sense that matter can be broken down in ever smaller pieces that ultimately define its essence.
It is an understanding that completely omits an other-than-human agency and minimizes the intricate interconnections that exist between us all. Unfortunately, understanding nature in this way sets the stage for us humans to see planet Earth as merely an instrument, lifeless and de-animated, encouraging us to see nature as a standing reserve for us to use as we see fit. Earth and her inhabitants become purely ‘natural resources’ for us to harvest.
Feminist materialism on the other hand, takes us in a refreshing and I believe more honest direction that allows us to conceive of our place as human beings in nature more truthfully and dynamically. Rachel Tillman—one of the Center’s recent Minding Nature journal contributors - gets at the crux of this and shares with us new ways to understand ourselves and our relationships with the whole community of life.
In her article, “Toward a New Materialism, Matter as Dynamic”, Rachel contends that we should - instead of continuing to rely on atomistic ideas from Newtonian physics - embrace more fluid and interactive concepts stemming form quantum physics, which does not understand matter as discrete, separate, pre-existing packages that have unchangeable properties. Rather, the underlying notions within quantum physics facilitate us to see all matter (also understood as the non-human other, or nature or all of planet Earth) as entangled.
Such a transformation according to Rachel would lead us to understand our relationship to matter as more about “Intra-action” where dynamic engagement is the rule, setting the stage for a more holistic expression of our absolute entanglement with one another. Where ours and others agency exists only in response to the very entanglement we experience with everything surrounding us. Thus, we become ethically involved with matter automatically, through this “performative relationship.”
This relationship, I believe, speaks to a specific type of conceptual connection. A connection made through the actual process of how one understands and behaves toward the other—connections with non-human others and the places that they and we inhabit, together. And these others, and these places, aren’t mere concepts or objects with which we arbitrarily connect. All the places in which we find ourselves, along with the living and non-living entities inhabiting these places, are connected as we all travel through space (planet Earth) and time (evolution of Earth).
Feminist materialism’s braiding of our entanglements with the rest of nature tips us off that coming to understand our world, our Earth and ourselves, differently—in a way that is much more of an active intra-relationship with our surroundings—enables us to be more imaginative in the ways we engage with our ethics and our politics, taking us beyond the static identity we currently hold dear. If we see Earth as having dynamic agency, imagine the possibilities!
To dive deeper into Rachel Tillman’s engaging story on changing our understanding of reality, please visit her recent Minding Nature article: “Toward a New Materialism, Matter as Dynamic.”