An ecocentric view

The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity – then we will treat each other with greater respect. This is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.  David Suzuki

Our ‘normal’ unthinking worldview in the West tends to put humans at the top of a pyramid, with other-than-human species and indeed the earth herself below us and somehow put here for our use, as a resource. This human-centric perspective has not been helped by the Judaeo-Christian idea, deeply embedded in our cultural heritage, that we have somehow been granted by divine decree ‘dominion over the animals’. We are privileged, the story goes, to have an innate moral superiority that means that of course we are ‘above’ the animals that share our home – and therefore can do what we like to them.

We’ve also inherited a Cartesian worldview that separates matter from spirit, nature and the other-than-human species from humans. In addition, in our materialistic culture, nothing is sacred.

We tend to think in hierarchical terms. Depictions of the food chain generally put humans at the top too, now that we’ve removed all the other ‘apex predators’, and the food chain itself does depend on a ‘trophic cascade’ of species. However, we also know that removal of one even minor element in that cascade can cause havoc in the rest of the ecosystem (there are many examples of this available online).

Leaving aside that hierarchy and viewing it horizontally, as it were, an ecosystem is not made up of a unidimensional pyramid, but of a vast web of species and individuals, often overlapping, and each unique and essential: the relationships and interactions between them are crucial to the healthy functioning of the whole web.

And we have now nearly destroyed not only so many species, but the ecosphere itself, and its ability to support life. To my mind, this is connected with the hierarchical view. So from an ecocentric perspective, we urgently have to challenge this anthropocentric model. How would it be if we truly saw this planet’s life as an all-enveloping web; a multidimensional spherical model with no top and no bottom?

And if we saw everything enveloped in and contributing to it as sacred? From a metaphysical perspective, the material web is a reflection of underlying networks of relationship on subtle planes. We could say that everything is relationship; everything is, in its own way, conscious; and everything is sacred.

‘At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing… with which I am not linked.’ (Carl Jung, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

Whether or not we know it, we are constantly in reciprocal relationship with all that lives. We really are all in this together in what Buddhism calls a web of [inter]dependent co-arising; more, we are one another. Of course, this is true on a literal level: we breathe each other’s air, and drink water that has passed through so many others, we eat plants (or animals) that have themselves recycled the elements of earth, water, air and sunlight, as we will in our turn.

We incorporate, for our brief lifetime, atoms that have belonged to someone (in the broadest sense) else; when we die, we will be passing them on. We are also, apparently, more wave than particle – but the waves that travel through us are not ours alone. From a spiritual and psychological perspective, the ecosystem happens on many levels, more and more subtle, as well as on the material level.

How crucial, how critical, this notion of not ever being really separate is; and how different life on this planet would be for every being if we truly realised this, acted as if it were true.

[In] fact, you can understand the ecological crisis that we’re facing as a direct, inevitable consequence of the attitude of humans’ separatism. The idea that we are exceptional and independent and autonomous has created a culture in which these great, teeming, reciprocal communities of living beings became nothing but commodities which we could use with impunity, as if somehow the very cycles of interdependence were no longer something that we had to answer to.
Richard Powers, author of Overstory, in Emergence Magazine

This is not a new – or New Age – idea. There is a very beautiful text from 7th century China known as the Flower Garland Sutra. In it, the universe is described as a vast diamond net in which everything that exists interpenetrates, is utterly interdependent with, everything else. In this ‘Diamond Net of Indra’, everything needs everything else for the health and wellbeing of the whole, and each atom, each speck of dust, affects everything else.

This view is echoed in physics in the ‘butterfly effect’ in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition can affect large, complex systems. The original idea and name was that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas; in other words, the minutest influence on one part of any system can have a huge effect on another part.

We are, of course, also seeing the knock-on effects of destruction of so many parts of the web of being, the ecosystem, in these days of environmental crises.

Indra’s Net in the sutra posits existence as an immense web of diamonds that extends through all space and time. At each intersection is a multifaceted jewel that reflects every other being, every other diamond, in the web. A tug on the web anywhere therefore affects everything else, and the effects ripple out, on and on. In effect, each of us is contained in every other diamond, too.

Arguably, it is our hierarchical human conviction that, because we are now top of the food chain, we as humans have a right to more, and to rights and privileges, that the rest of the web, the other-than-human, and the net or web itself, the more-than-human, don’t have that leads to the very picture of destruction of ecosystems that characterises our 21st century anthropogenic crises.

How different it would be if we adopted this picture of ourselves as one diamond point in the web of life, instead of at the top of a pyramid. This ecocentric view is one that I have devoted my life to, and almost all my work now, as you will see on this site, is in service to aiding this shift from the human-centred to one that sees everything as sacred; one that is earth-centred, that roots us in among the billions of species, the other-than-human, and the more-than-human, where we too belong.

According to theologian Thomas Berry in The Dream of the Earth, the “shamanic personality,” which can understand and speak for other life-forms is essential to our survival. It helps us to break free from our culture’s anthropocentrism and dispel the trance of industrial civilization. The life-giving powers shaping creation from the beginning of time are still present within us, Berry writes. They exist as “deep spontaneities,” accessible through the imagination.” Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life (New Society Publishers 1998)

Note: Once one takes this ecocentric perspective, it becomes harder and harder to justify eating animals (and birds, and fish), both ethically and environmentally. If you are considering taking the step of going plant-based, there is some advice on my as-yet-incomplete vegan website:

Coming soon: how do we live this?