The Faith of a Green Anarchist


The faith of a green anarchist is faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. As the winter solstice is the longest night of the year—the light’s longest absence—it could be understood as one of our High Holy days when this faith is most severely tested and hope may be restored. It is, and must be, an article of faith that the sun will once again rise and that the light will return to nourish us; that, as John Muir wrote, “this is still the morning of creation”.

Many will object and insist that we know the sun will rise and that therefore no faith is required. But that claim relies on the validity of what is likely a false binary between faith and knowledge. It is also a claim to know the future. It is human arrogance. That the sun has, in fact, risen quite consistently in the past provides merely the grounds for confidence, not certainty. It suggests merely that our faith is not of the blind variety.

To push the point a bit further, one might stack up a mountain of books, assemble a stadium of experts, and compile all that we seem to know about gravity, planetary motion, the life cycle of a star, and the rotation of the earth but he or she will nonetheless fall short of certainty. There will remain a gap that knowledge cannot bridge; to get to the other side one can only leap.

The unstated assumption originally pointed out by David Hume is that the law-like regularity of past events will continue uninterrupted into the future. There is no—non-question begging—evidence available to justify that assumption. We do not and cannot know that the future will resemble the past in the ways that would be relevant to this inquiry.

Green anarchist faith may therefore be grounded not in what we know but in an awareness of and sensitivity to our animal limitations; limitations that are not temporary obstacles that we might one day overcome but that are inherent to being corporeal beings. The human mind has access to some aspects of reality but by no means to the whole of reality. David Abram explains:

“Each creature—two-leggeds included—has only a restricted access to the mystery of the real. As a human I may have compiled a great mass of data about the ways of the world, yet in a practical, visceral sense…an earthworm knows far more about the life of the soil than I do, as a swallow knows far more about the wind. To be human is to have very limited access to what is.” [emphasis added] [1]

Furthermore, human language does not and cannot perfectly map or mirror the world. All language use is necessarily imperfect, incomplete, and distorted. With every move, language leaks truth like a worn out bucket and introduces error. The impact of this on our overall knowledge of the world is vast given how much of our beliefs are filtered through language and dependent on the testimony of others.

So our projections and forecasts are always uncertain. To suggest otherwise is to reduce reality to a simple machine—perhaps civilization’s favorite metaphor—where each event follows the next as a matter of course, where the ending is predetermined and wholly predictable, where we have access to the whole of its operations. But if reality must be likened to a machine it is of the black box variety where we have nothing but observed inputs and outputs and very little beyond speculation as to its internal churning. We may at times be able to predict the output but, in ways both better and worse, are regularly mistaken and surprised.

Given the number of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic visions currently in circulation, the fact that we are often mistaken should be understood as a source of hope and encouragement. There are more variables at play than we can possibly be aware of and so our nightmare visions may not come to pass. To give up hope and abandon resistance is to treat humanity as an all-knowing deity rather than as an animal operating with limited knowledge and finite senses.

During this time of year, every day is shorter than the last; darkness claims an ever increasing portion of our existence. The trajectory can be discouraging; we may come to feel estranged from the sun. The winter solstice is the point when that changes; when darkness yields to light and the days gradually grow longer. In this way it is holy.

I have faith that the sun will return and we will again be well.

[1] Abram, David. 2010. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage, p. 217

Flipping Metaphors

Animal liberation activists appropriately scoff at hearing nonhuman animals referred to as “it” rather than “he”, “she”, “they”, or “them”. The shift to pronouns is a small thing to alter one’s language in such a way so as to recognize the fact that animals are subjects rather than objects; that they are different, in morally significant ways, from tables and chairs. It is a significant gesture with real consequences. Using language in this way effectively reminds people that animals are individuals. I say “reminds” because most people know this on some level even if it doesn’t always sufficiently influence their interactions with other animals.

It should be noted that the Associated Press’ Stylebook advises against referring to animals in this way unless the animal in question already has a (human-given) name. A dog named Ringo can be referred to as “he” whereas a no-name deer who dies on the road, perhaps struck by a car, is to be referred to with terms such as “it”, “that”, or “which” (the same way one would refer to the car that struck the deer).

Insofar as animals are like us in having names they can be referred to in ways like we refer to ourselves—with appropriate pronouns.

Similar to using pronouns for animals, I would recommend deliberately crafting our sentences in such a way so as to recognize (or tacitly assert?) the agency of nonhuman actors including, but not limited, to animals. For example, we may say:

The full moon commanded my attention.

The mountain moved into view.

The sunlight raced to meet the water.

The sky was angry.

In this way, the natural world is thrust into the foreground rather than merely serving as background for an exclusively human drama. It is another way to build reminders into our language; reminders that humans are not alone in the world but share it with others.

It may be objected that such a poetic way of framing things is not always appropriate or desirable. And yet, to dismiss this way of speaking as simply poetic flourish is to miss the point. It is not poetic license that allows us to treat animals as moral subjects. It need not be poetic to attribute agency to nonhuman actors or entities.

In their 2002 book Tree Cultures, Owain Jones and Paul Cloke write:

“once we release ourselves from trying to squeeze all notions of agency through the very human grid of language and thought, the capacity for agency can be redistributed throughout a heterogenous set of actors, including non-human actors.” (p. 7)

We can deliberately define terms in a miserly way so as to highlight our differences from others or we may define terms in ways that highlight our continuities. Either choice can be made in an intellectually defensible way and so pragmatic factors must often guide our choice.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram points out that “[w]e regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than mere metaphors…this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.” (p. 82)

And in Becoming Animal, Abram suggests that “our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods” may have been “originally borrowed from the moody, capricious earth itself.” Meaning that “our image of anger, and livid rage” may be derived from “our ancestral, animal experience of thunderstorms, and the violence of sudden lightening.” “Our sense of emotional release,” may have “been fed not only by the flow of tears but also by our experience of rainfall…our concept of mental clarity…nourished by the visual transparence of the air and the open blue of the sky” (p. 153).

So if metaphors serve to explain something, namely, to explain the unfamiliar in the terms of the familiar, and if we are immediately and intimately familiar with the physical world, our application of certain terms may be most directly and most appropriately applicable to the physical world. And only derivatively (or metaphorically?) applicable to what we may call our “interior” states. The order of explanation has been reversed; the metaphor effectively flipped.

Which is to say that there is a very real sense in which the sky may really be angry and not simply metaphorically so. It may be the case that when I say “I am angry” it is more metaphor than when I say “the sky is angry”. So while I am suggesting this alteration to our way of speaking as something of a stylistic suggestion and as a pragmatic means of spreading certain values, it is not without intellectual justification. We may proceed in good faith.


Many Voices


sea gull

“when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences”  –David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Sitting atop a large rock on the Oregon coast with eyes closed.  The sound of the waves pours into my ears and I imagine the water pouring in close behind it.  The water swirls around my head and cleanses the toxic accumulation of so many human voices.

A healthy frame of mind requires a varied aural diet; a disproporationate number of voices from any one source or any one species can be detrimental.  Listening exclusively to human voices can warp the brain like a piece of old wood and dangerously distort one’s vision.

Humans listening exclusively to other humans have locked themselves into a house of mirrors where they regularly bump into and injure others as they are unable to effectively navigate the terrain.

The voice of the ocean was soothing.

While the ocean was speaking with its waves, birds flew in and out of view.  Their voices were less rhythmic and sometimes sharper than that of the waves.  They announced their presence, caught one’s eye, and departed, perhaps off to visit others.

Even the mussels and the barnacles have voices if one is willing to listen.  Compared to a 5 to 6 foot tall mammal, they are relatively small.  Compared to the ocean, they are relatively quiet.  But by bending at the knee, cupping an ear, and leaning close their collective chorus becomes audible.  They are filtering the ocean water; they are tightening or loosening their grip on the rock beneath them.

Animals and elements can show us the way out of the house of mirrors that is our own creation as well as our own prison.  We have walled ourselves in but their voices are not reflected in the glass and so by listening we can escape into the wider world and join them.  Only then can we begin to heal the broken relationships that result from our absence and neglect.

oregon mussles