The Eco- and Our Home

The prefix “eco-“, as in ecology and economy, is rooted in the ancient Greek “οἶκος”, translated as “house,” “home,” “shelter,” or “habitation.” Our home, (the home that we all currently share in common: our planet and its biosphere), is the focus of this essay — even as the title is an irreverent and playful response to Stirner’s “The Ego & Its Own.” My aim is to outline our inextricable interconnectedness with our environment and to explore some of the implications. If one seeks “to think of oneself” accurately then one should carefully consider how one relates to the physical reality we all inhabit. That said, I value caring deeply about others beyond their direct relation to myself, but laying out more than a sketch of why is beyond the scope of this essay. I think Albert Einstein put it nicely:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. One experiences oneself, one’s thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of one’s consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

First, though, some kind of descriptive egoism seems obvious to me because of the way our mind-body-environment interfaces function. Discrete individual egos seem to exist. One peers out at the external world from within oneself, deeply confined by the limits of one’s awareness and knowledge. I think a basic descriptive egoism has utility as a frame, but it is also starkly limited and contingent. One’s ego is a fragile phantasm utterly dependent on the continued functioning of critical external systems like our biological human body, our environment, and the dynamic interplay between these systems, as well as the continued functioning and integration of various internal subsystems and aspects of our psyche, our brain’s two hemispheres, etc.

However ephemeral and context-dependent, this basic individualization of consciousness is still deeply relevant. The way in which each individual’s internal cognitive processes are relatively decentralized and relatively disconnected from other individuals is arguably the strongest justification we have for the use of something like markets and prices to reveal our intersubjective evaluations in the face of scarcity. Being able to coordinate effective responses to collective action problems (with as little destructive and wasteful conflict as possible) requires somehow integrating the insights and local knowledge distributed across unique and separated minds. Technologies (ways, techniques, and processes) for facilitating this integration (like maps, language, trade, and social norms) are imperfect but vital.

As far as normative or prescriptive egoism, the points emphasized here may be framed as appeals to some kind of expansive or enlightened self-interest. But since I see value in identifying with and empathizing with radically different lifeforms and consciousnesses outside my own, regardless of notions of “self,” I don’t particularly identify as an egoist. However, I do find approaches that center individual agency valuable, and I aim to explore and integrate some insights and concepts relevant to egoism. I will leave it to self-professed egoists to reconcile these ideas with their egos, if it pleases them. 

To make explicit my ideological sympathies and to specify adjectives for my anarchism: permaculturist and transhumanist are closer to my position. Down to build solarpunk utopian futures now. To shape our changing environment is to shape our changing minds and bodies, and vice versa. I explicitly value and seek universal liberation and biosphere (re)generation, and have a deep concern for long-term future consequences.

While symbolism, vexillology, and aesthetics are not nearly as important as underlying concepts and values, I will nevertheless indulge my ego and briefly mention that I incidentally share with some online egoist anarchists an apparent affinity with some blue-green color (synthesis of transhumanism and permaculture, the diffusion of earth and sky) and the color black (anarchy, soil, space). Were I to literally fly a flag — in order to observe wind patterns of course — I fancy it might feature such colors.

photograph of Earth from lunar orbit, taken on December 24th, 1968

We Live in a Solar System

A perhaps widespread attitude seemingly opposed to egoism (and individualist perspectives more broadly) might be summed up in the memetically potent phrase: “We live in a society.” While this is arguably true to varying degrees depending on the individual, it seems to me that almost everyone already acts like they live in a society. Almost everyone, and certainly everyone engaged in philosophical discussion, structures their actions and behavior around and in relation to other people. Most humans, social apes that we have evolved to be, tend to be viscerally and constantly aware of this on some level.

But the fact that we live on a big rock hurtling through the cold empty vacuum of space seems to be largely ignored by most people most of the time. The breathability of our atmosphere and our entire food web, heterotrophic lifeforms that we are, depends on our autotrophic co-earthlings: photosynthesizing, oxygen-exhaling, lifeforms (plants, algae, many bacteria) that in turn derive their energy from the radiation emitted by an enormous nuclear furnace around which we orbit at the comfortably warm distance of just a few hundred light-seconds. These facts are acknowledged, but rarely centered, their implications left mostly unexamined.

One implication is that although our star seems poised to eventually expand and burn up all life on this planet, it currently showers us with a relatively consistent and predictable stream of energy. Instead of shaping our built environment in ways that ignore or squander this temporal gift, we could instead shape it to gracefully receive this energy, build homes that passively shelter us and grow gardens that directly and sustainably meet a wide range of our needs. The resilience of our life support systems — our ecological infrastructure — is directly dependent on its functional diversity (adaptability), on how harmoniously interconnected (cooperative or mutualistic) it is, and on how effortlessly (passively) it maintains itself.

I contend that considering this physical reality, this environment, this home that we all inhabit, is at least as important for grounding our philosophical discussion alongside concepts like “society” and “self.” One’s eco-system should be at least as important as one’s ego system — perhaps moreso, considering the latter utterly depends on the former. This is not to draw some imaginary line between humans and the rest of life, as the perhaps problematic word “nature” implies. Nor is it to say that imagining radically different contexts can’t be illuminating or that striving towards radically different possible futures isn’t desirable. This is just part of the recognition that one’s freedom and wellbeing is inextricably interwoven with the freedom and wellbeing of all, and an insistence that our discussion begin where we are.

The Uncommon Commons of Spaceship Earth, Biological Diversity as Morphological Freedom, and the Ongoing Extinction of Uniqueness

Uniqueness, the quality of being distinct and different from others, being the only one of a kind, is something egoists apparently value and/or appeal to. I do not dispute that an individual human mind is unique, and thereby special in perhaps an unquantifiable way. But at the risk of speaking paradoxically, humans are not alone in this uniqueness. I realize that an egoist may object that it is only their own uniqueness that they value, not uniqueness more generally, but considering again how fragile and contingent egos are, this seems short-sighted and unimaginative. I value uniqueness in a more universal sense, and so I want to draw attention to some other expressions of uniqueness.

Compared to what we’ve been able to observe of the cosmos, our planet seems to be quite special, at least apparently uncommon in its capacity to sustain complex life. Earth is like an island surrounded on all sides by the deepest, darkest, coldest of oceans, a tiny oasis amidst a vast empty desert, a refuge from the infinite and deadly vacuum of space, not just to ~8 billion humans, but to the many trillions of individuals of the many millions of different species who live here. And if any of those inhabitants may be considered unique, then it follows that the planet they inhabit is that much more unique too, at least insofar as it hosts such unique inhabitants.

Of these millions of different species, humans have a disproportionately massive impact on the rest. While humans only make up ~0.01% of the total biomass on earth, human-made materials now weigh more than all life on earth combined. In one sense this fact should fill us with hope and inspiration that we have the ability to shape the world, potentially for the better. Unfortunately, much of what we’ve made, by weight, consists of sprawling plains of asphalt and mountainous landfills full of plastic and a wide variety of geologically novel chemicals painstakingly manufactured only to be carelessly discarded, all-too-often to the detriment of other species. It is a shame that humanity’s astonishing creative capacity has been so largely turned to such short-sighted and downright abusive ends.

During our time aboard spaceship earth, and especially lately, humans have made monumental and drastic renovations, often without giving much consideration to the effects on our co-inhabitants. While our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were not immune to short-sighted thinking, (some apparently hunted megafauna to extinction on multiple continents), some of our ancestors also developed lifeways significantly more in harmony with other species. We have much to learn from their successes and failures. And we have many bad habits to unlearn. 

A huge portion of the ongoing waste, pollution, and destruction of ecological networks today is often either directly orchestrated or indirectly incentivized by states and other power structures. Relationships of domination and constraint exacerbate human tendencies towards shortsighted and careless interactions with the complex network of lifeforms surrounding us. Thanks to a combination of widespread negligence and concentrated malevolence, the current rate of extinction of species is estimated to be about 100 to 1000 times higher than the background rate, an ongoing mass extinction event sometimes called the Anthropocene Extinction

The ongoing deforestation of the Amazon, where ancient forest gardens are being bulldozed and burned to make way for soy monocrop and beef cattle agriculture, is just one vivid example of a place where this mass extinction is particularly sharp. These hyper-bio-diverse rainforests provide many valuable ecosystem services, just a few of which include sequestering carbon, helping to seed regular rainfall through evapotranspiration, and helping to prevent flooding and erosion by holding water in tree trunks and roots. People in Indigenous communities have sustainably thrived and cultivated an abundance of food, medicine, and materials in this interconnected network of rainforest ecosystems for thousands of years.

Not only might this wanton ecological destruction trigger a tipping point that changes Amazonia from a net carbon sink to a net generator of atmospheric carbon, potentially catastrophically accelerating climate change, every single species lost to extinction represents the loss of an entire evolutionary lineage of accumulated local knowledge, the loss of a finely-tuned biological technology. 

Every single species lost to extinction is a form of being, an active expression of morphological freedom, a declaration of uniqueness spoken over millennia, silenced. Not only does this loss mean the squandered possibility of potential cures for diseases, but it means a tangible loss of freedom for everyone, the choice to sustainably interact for mutual benefit with this unique species lost forever. This extreme loss of biodiversity — this loss of uniqueness — is an ongoing and horrific tragedy that we should try to slow down, stop, and ultimately reverse.

What’s happening to the Amazon is unfortunately also happening to various degrees all across spaceship Earth. Extremely short-sighted and wasteful “development,” often forcibly imposed by states and other power structures, alongside our collective failure to learn from and value our fellow earthlings, is destroying the habitat of other species as well as our own. It need not be so.

Directly stopping ecocide in the immediate term requires physical defense and strategically effective direct action by the people whose land and lifeways are threatened. Total liberation and the complete reversal of ecocide will ultimately require abolishing the state, capitalism, and all power structures wherever they are found. This is no small task and not something to take lightly. However, one small and relatively low-risk (yet still deeply radical) way of acting in solidarity with these efforts is to boycott products that are currently produced via exploitation and ecological destruction. 

Even this is far easier said than done, and cannot merely consist of checking the labels on the stuff we buy. Rather than mindlessly consuming the products of a violent and wasteful system that obscures and externalizes their true costs, we must rediscover our own capacity as producers ourselves. Not as producers of endless plains of asphalt and toxic streams of “disposable” plastic packaging, but rather as dynamically adapting co-producers of conditions in which life can thrive.

Garden or Die; Alliances with Plants

So long as we cannot directly feed on sunlight, we are dependent on our autotrophic co-earthlings. We must develop symbiotic relationships with plants, become their partners alongside fungi and bacteria, and learn to care for their needs so that they can continue meeting ours.

It is possible to build comfortable habitats for humans without annihilating the habitats of other species. It is possible to practice intensive horticulture in ways that not only outcompete industrial monocrop agriculture in terms of yield per acre, but that also increases the health and biodiversity of local ecosystems. “Permaculture” describes an essential part of any strategy aimed at keeping our home planet habitable. Permaculture is necessary both in the short term, to avoid the worst of the catastrophes that humanity has already set in motion, and in the long term, if we are to have any hope of sowing the growth of life beyond this finite planet, of spreading consciousness and agency across the emptiness of the cosmos.

As humans, we have a choice. We can continue on the path of destroying the biosphere for the short-term benefit of a privileged few, intentionally blinding ourselves to the harm our actions cause to those just out of our sight. Or we can build passive homes and cultivate abundant gardens that meet our needs without harming anyone, that instead promote the freedom and flourishing of all. 

We can shape our changing selves and we can shape our changing world. We must strive to look beyond the narrow confines of our human egos and cooperate to take care of the planet we all share in common, our home.

Pale Blue Dot – photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (the Earth appears as a blueish white speck)

I’d like to close this essay with some words by Carl Sagan,

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

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Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory