With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.Continue reading
In Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity (Duke University Press, 2017), David McDermott Hughes draws on his ethnographic work in Trinidad and Tobago to analyze the disregard, apathy, numbness with which most people interact with climate change. He highlights the banality of the complicities that connect people with energy, specifically with hydrocarbons (as he refers to oil, coal, natural gas, and bitumen), and he suggests that a moral response to climate change must redesign relationships with energy and replace complicity with conscience. In lieu of a book review, here are a few summary quotations from the book. Continue reading
It’s worth remembering the following passage from Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
“Fiat ars—pereat mundus” says fascism, expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. (p. 122)
Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938. (Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, Trans.). Harvard University Press, 2002.
The moral of the story is that the simple implosion of politics and aesthetics is equivocal. Smooshing them together isn’t inherently beneficial. The distinction between aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics is crucial. The same holds true for the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, a relationship that just about everybody has thought of in terms of the portmanteau, “aesthethics.” On that note, I’m interested to see how the implosion of the aesthetic and the ethical is figured in the new anthology, Aesth/Ethics in Environmental Change: Hiking through the arts, ecology, religion and ethics of the environment, edited by Sigurd Bergmann, Irmgard Blindow, and Konrad Ott (LIT Verlag 2013).
Carolyn Merchant gives a good summary of the problems with anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics in Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture (Routledge, 2003). She proposes a “new ethic of human partnership with nature” in which humanity and nature are “considered as active agents.”
Self-interested, or egocentric ethics (what is good for the individual is good for society); social-interest, or homocentric ethics (the greatest good for the greatest number); and even earth-centered or ecocentric ethics (all living and nonliving things are morally considerable and have rights) all have problematical implications for a sustainable world. The growth-oriented capitalistic economy from which the egocentric ethic arises and the anthropocentric focus of the utilitarian cost-benefit approach from which the homocentric ethic arises both have negative implications for the environment. On the other hand, the idea that all nonhuman organisms have moral consideration equal to human beings—the ecocentric approach—undercuts the real struggles of the poor and of disadvantaged minorities for a better life. What is called for is a new ethic that arises out of both the needs of nature and the needs of humanity. Both must be considered as active agents. A new ethic of human partnership with nature—is needed, one in which nature is an active subject, not a passive object. (p. 217)
I like that paragraph a lot, but the idea of human partnership with nature seems a little simplistic. Treating nature as an active subject sounds good if you think that there’s something out there called nature with which we humans need to partner up. What if we’ve never been human and nature has never been natural?
I like the idea of an ethics of actors or of active agents, but instead of focusing on a rather anthropocentric sounding partnership between two mega-categories (humans and nature), I would like to see the development of actor-partnership ethics (APE), which would focus on partnerships between any actors (nonhuman, human, and otherwise), so that a tobbaco-flame-pipe-mouth partnership is not occluded by the almighty correlate, human-nature.
People have varying opinions on the Burning Man festival and on Burner culture in general. Every year, when the time comes for the festival, I’m happy to get an earful of those opinions. I’ve found it interesting that most of my students live in a countercultural hotspot (San Francisco), yet they have little or nothing to say about Burning Man. They treat it like it’s just one of the many big arts and music festivals that pervade their cosmopolitan lives. Some folks don’t care, and other folks don’t even know about it. My favorite statement this year comes from a friend’s mother, who asked him, “Why are so many people going to Birmingham?”
For the people who debate the value of Burning Man, the religious implications of the event often take center stage, with some deriding Burning Man as a symptom of civilization’s decline or as a New Age or Pagan festival that threatens the future of biblical values, and some praising the festival for cultivating a countercultural desert spirituality not unlike that of the early Christian church. Here’s a thoughtful article that details the issues in this debate.
I think the festival is neither the decline of civilization nor a spiritual revolution. It’s more banal than that kind of polarizing debate indicates. It’s a diverse festival that has, for the most part, integrated well into mainstream society, hence the opinion of so many of my students: it’s just another arts and music festival. That banality sounds good for Burner culture, making consciousness expansion and personal expression practices of everyday life, not a big deal, not a sensationalized spectacle.
If I were criticizing Burning Man, I would criticize the environmental ethics of the event. Burning Man espouses the Leave No Trace ethic. Maybe it’s better than nothing, but it’s stuck in managerial and recreational models of land use, and I’d hope that Burners can come up with something better than the status quo. What bothers me most about Leave No Trace is that its adherents often claim that they are acting ethically, since they didn’t leave any traces, and that is blatantly false.
There are always traces, marks of our encounters with others. Think of the carbon footprint of Burning Man: the event happens in a desert to which participants drive or fly, and the whole event is predicated upon burning. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t participate, but it does mean that Leave No Trace leaves a lot of ethical responsibilities unaccounted for or ignored. Nothing bothers me more than a clean conscience. I’m against antiseptic morality. Cornel West’s injunction is pertinent here. Don’t deodorize the funk!
A lot of teaching and writing in environmental ethics adopts a geometrical image: the center. The field of environmental ethics began with numerous and varied critiques of anthropocentric values and practices. Here’s how the story often goes: to center on the human is to marginalize the non-human, and developing an ethic that accounts for the moral considerability of non-humans requires an extension of the center from humans to life (biocentrism) or to ecosystems (ecocentrism).
One problem here is that this moral extensionism still starts from the human. It radiates out to include organisms and ecosystems, but it radiates out from the human. An extended anthropocentrism still subordinates nonhumans to humans. How can we develop ethics that account for non-human centers on their own terms?
Some have argued that centrism as such leads to domination and oppression, whereby the center gains superiority over the periphery (e.g., humans exploiting nature or, conversely, misanthropic environmentalisms marginalizing human social issues). Val Plumwood’s critique of hegemonic centrisms is an exemplary case in point. However, privileging acentric systems over against centric systems is an “uncritical reversal” (as Plumwood would say): the acentric is the new center.
The challenge, then, is this: how to think of nonhuman centers on their own terms while subverting any tendencies for centers to become hegemonic centrisms. Anthony Weston provides an excellent articulation of this challenge in “Multicentrism: A Manifesto.” Weston proposes:
a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center—a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No; instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.
Weston adds that this approach to environmental ethics is pluralistic. Most environmental ethics debates about pluralism vs. monism are debates about whether we should have many or one theories. Multicentrism is a realist pluralism, implying a “much more radical and polymorphous pluralism,” for which multiplicity is a feature belonging to the real world, “to things themselves.”
Biocentrism and ecocentrism are too big (“mega-centrisms”), totalizing and assimilating the things themselves. Weston is clear that his vision of pluralistic realism is against environmental holism.
Contra holism, though, multicentrism does not assert a single ecological “whole” that is somehow the single, prior ethical center. The multiverse is more mixed and complexly textured, including both ecological “wholes” and individuals of various sorts and levels—species, organisms, biotic communities—all in flux and flow, and none always or necessarily prior.
What does multicentrism look like in practice?
Multicentrism asks us to “take care” with respect to everything, and the sort of mindfulness thus implied can only be called polymorphous too. […] Imperative is to move from the familiar one-species monologue to a truly multi-polar dialogue. […] What multicentrism adds is the wider and wilder vision: a sustainable, participatory, multivocal philosophical practice—a way back into the Multiverse.
Multicentrism is a kind of centrism to end all centrisms. Given the dangers of centric metaphors, Weston considers a couple alternative names for his position. The first is “multiversalism.” The second is my favorite. It’s a term Weston adopts from Irene Klaver: “ex-centric.”