The Faith of a Green Anarchist

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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

Veganism as Religious Practice

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It would be an understandable mistake for those who know me to interpret the title of this post as the lead-in to a renunciation of veganism (such recantations have become something of an internet genre) for my relationship with religion has been largely hostile. But this isn’t a renunciation nor is “religious practice” intended as a slur or a trivialization. Indeed, understanding veganism as a religious practice may be a quite compelling rationale for persisting with an unusual lifestyle.

Consider that the most commonplace justification for (ethical) veganism, as far as I can tell, is that by refusing to purchase and consume the remains of animals one is reducing the demand for such products. In turn, lower demand purportedly means that fewer animals will be raised and sent to slaughter. My decision to be vegan saves lives—so the story goes.

But this rationale does not necessarily withstand scrutiny. The market signal sent by one person’s decision to purchase tempeh rather than turkey is too weak to effect the total number of animals killed. It’s not a drop in the bucket, it’s less than that. The economic system is not so fine grained as to register your every move and then subtly adjust an imperceptible amount. Unfortunately, an angel doesn’t get its wings and a chicken is not set free when you decide to go vegan.

Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau effectively makes this point in his 1994 paper “Vegetarianism, Causation, and Ethical Theory” explaining that “philosophers writing about vegetarianism have often shifted subtly from an evaluation of the practices of current factory farming, to the existence of a requirement to refrain from purchasing and eating meat. These are separable issues.” More recently Robert Bass has addressed the problem in front of Yale University’s Animal Ethics Study Group. In 2014 Bass gave a talk titled “What Can One Person Do? Causal Impotence and Dietary Choice.” It should be noted that neither Shafer-Landau nor Bass conclude that eating animal products is morally acceptable, they simply do not offer the same simplistic rationale that is offered by most activists and large animal organizations.

Recognizing this economic fact leaves one searching for a less simplistic reason for his or her decision to maintain a vegan diet. I am tentatively suggesting the possibility that veganism may be appropriately construed as a religious practice and is therefore done both to reflect to others and remind oneself of values that are deemed to be of the utmost important.

Interestingly, this loosely parallels why Jewish people may opt for a kosher diet. In Judaism, God’s laws fall into three categories. Laws regarding diet are categorized as chukim, that is they are laws which seemingly lack a straightforward or self-evident rationale (such as the self-evident value in maintaining a prohibition on the murder of human beings) but rather are observed simply because God commands them (or perhaps based on faith that God’s commands have their own logic even if it’s not self-evident). It reflects one’s devotion outwardly and acts as a reminder for oneself.

It could be said that this has the somewhat unsettling result that veganism is, at best, only indirectly beneficial for nonhuman animals. But this objection reverses the order of things; it confuses cause and effect. It was the recognition that veganism is only indirectly beneficial that prompted this line of thought.

As an aside, understanding veganism in this way has—for better or worse—caused me to be less critical of those who are not vegan and be open to seeing them as capable of making meaningful contributions toward animal liberation. This may be the inevitable result of taking a more honest and more humble assessment of one’s own efforts.

Curious “Creatures”

crea·turecreature walks among us

1.
an animal, especially a nonhuman: the creatures of the woods and fields; a creature from outer space.
2. anything created, whether animate or inanimate.
3. person; human being: She is a charming creature. The driver of a bus is sometimes an irritable creature.
4. an animate being.

I avoid using the word “creature” to refer to the beings whom we share the planet with because it implies creation and hence creationism.   And creationism, in addition to being intellectually bankrupt, is also a rather unsatisfying story when compared with the story currently being told by Darwinian evolution.

But there is another interesting question to ask about the term “creatures” and that is: who is included?

In my experience, “creatures” tends to be used so as to include only animals but plant species are no less a part of creation (if that is the story we are working with).  Why then do dandelions have less of a claim to the label than do Dalmatians?  Perhaps when we speak of our fellow creatures we should include those who, quite literally, are rooted in the soil.  Such a change may make us more open to learning from them.

Yet even limiting “creatures” to members of the biotic community—the community of life—may be too narrow.  Creation includes everything and so every individual (no less difficult a term) is a creature.  Plants are creatures but planets are presumably also creatures.  Leopards and lemurs are creatures but maybe landscapes are too?  Rivers no less than ravens.

Pushing further still, creatures may not need to have resulted from an original act of Creation but perhaps could be the result of more mundane creative acts.  Billiard balls may be said to be unique creatures traversing across terrains of green felt.  The second definition listed above suggests that “creature” can be applied to “anything created, whether animate or inanimate” and so by this standard billiard balls are indeed appropriately described as creatures.  In fact, if we discard creationism, billiard balls may have a better claim to being described as creatures than human being s do.

The objection may be advanced that by employing such an expansive or inclusive definition of the term “creature” that it ceases to be of any practical value for communicating.  If a term applies to everything—rather than picking out particular objects or individuals amongst a larger field—then arguably it isn’t very helpful.  But perhaps the value in such an all-embracing term is rather in calling our attention to the similarities that are found even amongst such a brilliant diversity.  It provokes questions that might not otherwise arise such as how we respectfully engage with other creatures whatever form they might take.  It may draw our attention to the fact that the stuff of billiard balls is no less part of a living earth than the stuff that makes up our own bodies.  There is a significance to that which is unlikely to be discovered if we cannot fathom a single commonality.

A second objection—or more accurately—curiosity might be why someone such as myself who admittedly avoids the word “creature” and will probably continue  to do so would trouble oneself with such questions.

The only answer that I can currently muster in response to this would be that I am hopeful that there are other terms that offer the advantages of the term “creature” without implying creationism.  I would like a term that reinforces our kinship with others and is equally all-embracing (including human others, nonhuman others, and perhaps even inanimate others).  Perhaps that term is “beings” which I tend to use but, in my opinion, is deficient is some way that I cannot quite name.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to save rather than surrender the term “creature” that is not currently clear to me.  In defending his use of the word “spiritual,” prominent atheist Sam Harris insists that “we must reclaim good words and put them to use.”  Harris explains that his fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens “believed that “spiritual” was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism.”

Is “creature” a good word that needs to be reclaimed?  Or is it something we can do without?