One night earlier in November, I visited my childhood home for possibly the last time. There was lots to do, and lots to move. The stress of the to do list laid a filter over what I wanted to pay attention to which was my good bye’s to the trees that I grew up with. I lifted my eyes above the belongings and there above the layer of “stuff” were the trees, holding my childhood home on Earth. I rested in the embrace of their outstretched limbs. I’d known for a long time I’d be saying goodbye to this patch of land that helped raise me, and it makes my heart ache. My solace is that I know these trees are rooted in the same fertile planet as the trees in the yard where I live now. New land but same region. Same sky. Same moon.
Feeling the comfort and care of sinking into a larger embrace of nature, reminded me of an article I wrote five years ago wrangling with the story of our place in nature, and triggered by the term “Anthropocene,” which I find very troubling as an Earthling.
Anthropocene, is a name proposed for our geologic epoch to describe our outsized impact as a species on the form and function of the Earth’s systems. I get the point. We’ve made a huge impact. But Is Anthropocene a good name for our human-nature story? What makes a good name? How have we described our story over time? And what are the alternatives? In the October 2017 issue of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies I explored these questions in a paper called “From Domination to a Caring Ecology: Healing Paradigms and Creative Practices for the Apprenticene.”
I believe the human-nature stories we tell are critically important. The premise of this paradigm worker column is rooted in the idea that, as Donella Meadows says, “Paradigms are the sources of systems.” “Anthropocene” is still commonly used, and it still troubles me, so I thought I’d reflect again on the themes of the paper in a more conversational way, over the course of a series of columns. This month’s column highlights the idea of a “caring ecology”-- what I thought--and still think--are three useful criteria for a good human-nature story. This column touches on the main themes, but the paper is available if you want to read the expanded ideas in the original article.
Our stories about our identity shape our identity. So I believe any good human-nature story should recognize the caring tendencies and potential of humans. Riane Eisler, the founding scholar of Partnership Studies challenges the idea that humans are fated to be selfish and dominating, and her research shows the long and oft ignored history of cooperative partnership cultures across time. Her Cultural Transformation Theory puts societies on a spectrum of domination to partnership.
“Eisler points to a desired future, (and under-represented history), of societies emphasizing partnership. In partnership paradigms, members of a community, family, workplace, or nation care for each other and the environment. Mutual caring is central to the Partnership model and forms one of the pillars of a Caring Ecology.”
2. Integration: We are one
Part of what has caused modern problems from climate to inequity is the illusion of our separateness. We need to acknowledge that our human-nature relationship is as interdependent parts of a larger whole, rather than separable and transactional. This idea is common to modern ecological understanding of humans as part of earth systems, but much of our modern economies and cultures suppress this understanding. This goes hand in hand with dominating systems of oppression, that are built on severing connections between groups or between people and the land. In contrast caring cultures are built on paradigms of interconnectedness.
“In terms of human-nature relationships, Eisler … writes, “Both the mythical and archaeological evidence indicate that perhaps the most notable quality of the pre-dominator mind was its recognition of our oneness with all of nature...””
3. Humans as sub-systems: We are smaller than we think
The third theme of a Caring Ecology acknowledges our place in a natural hierarchy. I imagine a person on the street asked to define partnership would think of equality and not hierarchy. But Eisler’s concept of partnership includes hierarchy as natural as teachers and students, parents and children, employers and employees. She explains, “Partnership societies still have hierarchies, but they are hierarchies of actualization aimed at mutual benefit, instead of hierarchies of power aimed at preservation and harvest of that power for the benefit of the dominant…”
“An ecological view points to our dependence on natural systems, placing us as juniors in the hierarchy. This view … is the third pillar of Caring Ecology criteria.”
This third theme, in particular is what concerns me about the narrative flaws in the term Anthropocene, which I’ll discuss more in part three relating it to themes in folklore. But first in the next column, I’ll compare these caring ecology criteria for a good human-nature story to some of the major human-nature paradigms throughout US history.
Are we love? Are we one? Are we smaller than we think – despite the evidence of our immense impact? I think so, and I think the themes of a caring ecology can make us more effective change agents as well as find our belonging as Earthlings. As I used to tell my children when they were worried, “The Earth is big and round and green and will always hold you.”
Brigham, J. K. (2017). From Domination to a Caring Ecology: Healing Paradigms and Creative Practices for the Apprenticene. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.24926/ijps.v4i3.170
Eisler, R. (1988). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. New York, NY: HarperOne
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. (D. Wright, Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing