Charles response to Johnson and O’brien

Here’s my response to the Johnson and O’brien articles. Looking forward to chatting about them.

-Charles Carlin

Ecopsychology is an intellectual project concerned with connecting human psychological health and well-being to more-than-human relationships. Andy Fisher, author of Radical Ecopsychology, describes it as an effort to “turn the psyche inside out” (Fisher 2013, 9). Fisher frames ecopsychology as beginning from loss. He writes, “our experience is of absence, of lack, of relationships that aren’t” (p.41), and that our challenge is to recover “from the trauma of feeling separated from the rest of life” (p. 52). Efforts to reestablish relationship with nonhuman others, places, or landscapes are then existential as much as they are technical. Viewed through the lens of ecopsychology, both Johnson and Obrien’s articles can be read as relationship narratives, efforts to find meaning through the cultivation of more-than-human relationships. This relationship narrative is central to O’brien’s essay and I suggest that it could be further incorporated into Johnson’s critique in order to better influence biomimicry rather than largely dismissing it.

O’brien specifically casts her argument in an existential tone. For the O-odham walkers, diabetes is more than a medical issue, it is one of culture and place. The native foods they choose to eat are better for them in a technical sense—slow glucose-release, high fiber—but equally important is the idea that the foods are “good for the land and good for our souls” (O’Brien 2007, 91 quoting Gary Nabhan). By framing their efforts in terms of land and soul, she argues that the foods can not be reduced to their individual nutritional properties. She also makes the argument that establishing a soulful relationship with their food web upsets both corporate and linear versions of time. It mingles the spiritual and profane, evokes ancestors and imagines futures. Whereas corporate time is present focused, this alien time should be better understood as cyclical or perhaps hermeneutic. The ancestors and their traditions are evoked in present choices with an eye towards cultivating the future of the community.

This sense of soulful relationship and reciprocity is missing from the advocates of biomimicry. Johnson argues that instead of offering a way to reimagine the relationship between humans and our many others, biomimicry too often reinforces the idea of nature ‘as a warehouse’ (Johnson 2010, 187). By mining the capacities of others, such as lobsters’ ability to track chemical signals, biomimicry enables producers to extract their capacities as technologies without attending to the relationship between producer, lobster, and the economic system through which their relationship is mediated. Rather than seeing nature as a storehouse of wisdom and technology, Johnson instead argues that nature should be seen as deeply ambivalent, not thought of as “right or optimal”(p. 191), and that we instead focus on a social interrogation of what appears to be a new mode of production. I agree that this sort of social and political inquiry is needed, but I hesitate to abandon biomimicry’s project of working through the alienation from nature that many do experience.

While Johnson is clearly skeptical about Benyus’ goal of repairing “our connection to the earth” (p. 183), I believe it can be read more generously. Many scholars working in the posthuman and postcolonial tradition are deeply suspicious of “declensionist” narratives that sees a more or less progressive decline in ecological conditions since the agricultural revoultion. Bruce Braun, who Johnson sometimes publishes with, has argued that mourning for a lost edenic nature is a defining psychic quality of modernity (2002). While much violence has been done in the name of ‘nature,’ it is hard to argue against the basic truth of the declensionist narrative (Taylor 2013). Instead of reading Benyus’ story as some sort of colonial nostalgia, it could instead be read through the lens of ecopsycholgy as a yearning for relationship and connection. Benyus clearly failed to think through the political-economic repercussions of her business partnerships, but focusing too directly on the political-economic critique too easily leads to an outright dismissal of biomimicry.

Instead, what if we took Benyus at her word that biomimicry is intended to repair this felt rupture with the earth? In that case, we might still look to the lobster for innovation, but we would also be compelled to further consider the quality of relationship being fostered by the inquiry. Just as GMO foods provide an answer to only one part of the food crisis, we would then see that mining the lobster for its technical prowess produces a similarly limited result. However, whereas Johnson seems to see biomimicry as an extension of the capitalist mode of production into new realms, we might be better equipped to hold onto the productive potential of biomimicry while critiquing those parts of it that undermine its capacity to cultivate the experience of connection. Robotic lobsters and GMO wheat do little to cultivate a sense of living in and through the world. Native foods and kidney bean leaves, however, may speak more directly to what I see as a genuine desire for relationship with our more-than-human kin.

Here, one could tweak Benyus’ argument and Johnson’s critique. It is impossible to go back to an edenic nature that never existed. However, nature—human and otherwise—does not need to be thought of as deeply ambivalent. Instead, biomimicry, seen through ecopsychology, may be one way to answer the question, “what sorts of natures do we want to create?” Attending to the soulful quality of the relationship, as O’brien’s travelers do, would allow an inquiry to attend to the critique of capitalist modes of production but also cast the story in a more experimental tone, challenging Benyus and Johnson’s readers to imagine a story for biomimicry that nurtures the very real desire that many have to feel a more direct connection with the world that sustains them.’

References.

Braun, Bruce. 2002. The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. U of Minnesota Press.
Fisher, Andy. 2013. Radical Ecopsychology, Second Edition: Psychology in the Service of Life. Kindle. SUNY Press.
Johnson, E. 2010. “Reinventing Biological Life, Reinventing ‘the Human.’” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 10 (2): 177–93.
O’Brien, Susie. 2007. “SURVIVAL STRATEGIES FOR GLOBAL TIMES.” Interventions 9 (1): 83–98.
Taylor, Bron. 2013. “‘It’s Not All about Us’: Reflections on the State of American Environmental History.” Journal of American History 100 (1): 140–44.

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