Re-acquaintance with the Ecological and Sensuous World

Words: Imogen Abandowitz
Images: Rigpa Shedra

January 9, 2021

“The success of the forest is not measured by monotonous growth of trees, but through its capacity to mature and flourish in a state of equilibrium with all that contains and surrounds it.”

Imogen Abandowitz

Today, we almost exclusively participate with other human-beings and with the human-made technologies we have created. It is a dubious situation, given our reciprocity with the various landscapes with which we interact. We still rely on that which is other than ourselves and beyond our own making. The simple premise can often be the case that we are only human when in contact and conviviality, with what is not human. Does this mean to say that we should renounce the complex technology we have created? No, it doesn’t. However, it does imply that perhaps we should reacquaintance ourselves with the sensuous world in which our technologies and various technologies are rooted in. Without the oxygenating breath rotations of the forests; the subtle pull of gravity, or the tumbling river rivulets, we have no distance from our technologies – no way of assessing their limitations and no way to keep ourselves from turning into them. Ultimately as a global community, we are all collectively focused on what is unquantifiable such as human connection, solidarity, and the importance of being nurtured by nature.

The unprecedented nature of 2020 – the ‘Year of the Pandemic’ – had the globe standing at an escarpment while we all watched on in despair at the chaos that unfolded. Collectively, we witnessed the fragility of our world as the once assumed bedrock of our societies crippled under political, economic, medical, social and ecological pressures. Consequently, many people have recognised the necessity to transition to more sustainable ways of being. Yet the thought of such change is daunting, not just from a logistical perspective, but because it requires different ways of addressing multifaceted challenges. The adoption of widespread notions such as, ‘Systems Thinking’ and ‘deep ecological’ approaches have provided food for thought in making this transition. Systems thinking is certainly not a new phenomenon, in fact since the dawn of civilisation, humans have been recognising and contemplating the various elements in their interactions. Capra (1996) determines systems thinking from an ecological standpoint, as a concept of interconnectedness and integrated wholes that are a part of our living systems, rather than assortments of relatively unrelated parts. Indeed, systems thinking, also known as ‘holism’ is at the center of most Eastern cultural and spiritual traditions (Kineman 2017). Vedic philosophy of ancient India is the oldest known example (around 10,000 years ago) of humans thinking holistically.

In the West, the ancient Greek Pythagoreans developed a system based on cosmic whole and harmony through numeration. Notably, Pythagoras is known for pioneering the mathematical and experimental study of music where he discovered that music has mathematical foundations. Among many other breakthroughs, Pythagorean philosophers advanced the belief that the essence of all things are made from numbers and that the universe is sustained by this harmony. Additionally, indigenous populations globally are known for their ability to view people within an ever-greater complex web of life that they live within harmony and respect towards. Systems thinking allows us to perceive our worldview from a level of abstraction; moving us away from the prevalent reductionist worldviews of today that are largely informed by partial, fragmented and compartmentalised thinking (Khisty 2006). Critiqued by Acknoff (1979) systems thinking is not a mystical concept, but rather an offshoot of epistemology that sees the limitations of Newtonian science in apprehending ‘reality’. In sum, systems thinking – compels us to listen to our instincts, explore potentialities and relearn that of which we inherently already know.

So, what if we could expand our perceptions of our individual self to embrace all living beings? Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber, was the first to coin the term ‘Deep Ecology’. As Naess (1989) suggests, “A human is not a thing...but a juncture in a relational system without determined boundaries in space and time.” If we adopt this stance, we can begin to understand the crucial role that humans play in the processes involved in co-creation and co-evolution that shape the world we live in. Naess (1989) wondered if environmentalism would bear fruit from genuine self-love, strengthened through empathy with all beings, and motivated by compassion rather than by moralistic or political agendas. As Maxwell (2008) alludes, deep ecological awareness is spiritual awareness, and it is therefore not surprising that the emerging vision of reality based on deep ecological awareness is congruent with the so-called perennial philosophy of spiritual traditions.

Sterling (2003) states, “The essence of the ecological worldview is connection, that is, concern with the meaning and implication of relation, and the quality of relation.” For this worldview, Spretnak (1991) “encourages us to expand the gestalt, our perception of the whole, in every situation so that we no longer collaborate in the modern project of fragmentation”. The ecological paradigm sees the phenomenal world as consistently regenerating through means of interactions within systems at different levels of existence, with large implications for epistemology, metaphysics, spirituality, politics and ethics. As suggested by Husserl (1960) the real world, in which we situate ourselves, is in fact the very world our sciences strive to fathom. However, the phenomenal world is not a mere “object” nor a certain or complete “datum” from which all subjects and subjective constituents could be drawn away. Rather, it is an interwoven array of sensations and perceptions; a nuanced field of experience lived from many diverse angles.

A pathway to the embodiment of our instinctual aliveness is carved out through connecting with our senses and perceptions. By slowing down we are able to heighten our senses and rewire ourselves with the subtleties of feeling. Slowness in its essence draws us inwards and whilst it looks like we are doing less externally, the complexity of our internal experience is expanding. In turn, drawing us towards our inner knowing, deepening our intimacy with ourselves and expanding our perception. In Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ (1962), he states the unfolding of perception as a reciprocal exchange between the living body and the animate world that surrounds us. Different sensations reveal themselves as we surrender into all that is tangibly felt through the body, and instinctively felt through our intuitive animal selves. We become domesticated animals when in ‘civilisation’ and this creates a dissociation from our depths, as well as a disconnection from the depths of the living country we consist of.

French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1985), characterised the event of perception into the term of “participation” to distinguish animistic logic of oral peoples who believe “inanimate” objects participate in each other’s state of existence and influence one another. According to cultural anthropologist Richard Nelson (1983) in his exhaustive study on the ecology of the Koyukon people of North Central Alaska:

Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with the proper respect.

Ecological philosopher David Abram subverts this distance or closeness human-beings have to their animal senses by drawing on the elemental kinship between the human body and the breathing Earth. Abram (2017) elaborates on the sensing body as not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continuously improvising its connection to things and to the world. The body’s actions and engagement are never entirely complete, since they must ceaselessly adapt themselves to a landscape that is itself perpetually changing. When we consider the relationship humans have with nonhuman species in most western modern societies, a dissociation in our animalistic sensations and interconnectedness with the natural world can account for diverse ramifications. If we consider animals within the daily operations of the modern world, it is quite apparent that nonhuman species are at the bottom of the value-system that takes precedents of human beings. This idea that devalues non-human animals has been referred to as ‘speciesism’ by utilitarian, Peter Singer (2009).

Theorists, Greg Garrard (2004) and Mary Midgley (1998), among others, state that the consistent marginalisation of nonhuman species from everyday life has been seen through a capitalist means from the production of meat, exploitation of animals in circuses and zoos to even the domestication of animals for human eccentric value. Animal traits have been predominantly classified as inherently primitive in nature (Garrard 2004: 141). Steve Baker (1996) refers to this dominion system as a power complex of social and political regulation and inherent ‘othering’ of nonhuman species. Urquiza-Haas and Kotrsch (2015) have alluded to nonhuman animals being at large, the most attributed target of humans’ mental states, perhaps because humans seem to be biophilic, that is, to be profoundly fascinated in nature and animals. Pivotally, Abram (2017) suggests that the distancing of this elemental kinship from human’s animal senses and the breathing Earth haa caused an enormous dissociation between human’s and our food system, whether it be animal or plant form. 

Food systems transformation is a crucial element of systems thinking given its undeniable links to climate, biodiversity, migration and the emergent increase in zoonotic diseases. The very system that built the bounty of the super grocer—its flourless efficiency and ability to keep the stocks high and prices down—suddenly seems quite misguided. Rather, our focus should be on the delivery of natural, diverse, regenerative and circular practices that improve health (Capra & Lappé 2018). Furthermore, there is a need to support co-created research and innovation through participatory approaches that bridge food-health systems. Keesing et al. (2020) suggest a need for future research to monitor epidemiological changes in regions where conservation measures are urged compared to sites of reference. An emphasis on the major challenges will be to unravel the multifaceted ways in which other universal anthropogenic trends – such as climate change, nutrient pollution, biotic exchange, armed conflict and economic impacts – interrelate with biodiversity loss and disease, and which of these factors are of most impact on the well-being of humans.

Indeed, links between biodiversity and disease are now sufficiently clear to encourage the urgency of local, regional and global efforts to protect natural ecosystems and their contained biodiversity. The Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems report (2020) by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food suggests a focus towards creating interdisciplinary research and cross-sectoral policies that span traditional issue silos and actively acknowledge the many geographic and cultural contexts that form the world’s food systems. Polan (2006) suggests “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”

The multifaceted challenges within this interwoven web of life, can perhaps be collectively addressed through more connected models of systems thinking, deep ecological approaches and circular economic models. Likewise, the living systems idea suggests a new metaphor; the economy not as a machine but as an actual living breathing forest. Rather than the yield of materials, it is a circulation of materials that allows life to thrive; things grow, they die and then shortly after nutrients are returned to the system to provide food for new life. The success of the forest is not measured by monotonous growth of trees, but through its capacity to mature and flourish in a state of equilibrium with all that contains and surrounds it.


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Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.