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Saturday, November 8, 2008


Ecophenomenology or ecological phenomenology calls for originative thinking and an openness to the "laying bare [of] ... essential elements of human experience with the world". It calls "to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present", and to "recover the moral sense of our humanity" by "recover[ing] first the moral sense of nature".. It is also a call to "challenge the astonishing assumption that only utility to industrialized society can justify the existence of anything on the planet",, and an invocation to adopt "a kind of deliberate naivety through which it is possible to encounter a world unencumbered with presuppositions."

In making and responding to these calls, ecological phenomenologists argue that the environmental crisis is equally physical and metaphysical, and that a fundamental re-conceptualisation of human relationships with the natural earth is necessary to help undo the damage stemming from a contemporary western history of separation from and utilitarian valuation and exploitation of the natural world. In doing so, ecological phenomenologists probe beneath western understandings of philosophy, temporality, and teleology, as well as economic, social, and scientific valuations of nature. They seek to reach both through and behind these understandings to touch the primordial encounters which underlie and precede theories about nature, encounters which are embodied, temporal, reciprocal, and pervasive, and which are the foundation of our dwelling on, in, and with the earth. Without them, and without a valuing of them, we do not dwell.

If environmental philosophy is a young field, ecological phenomenology as such is even younger, dating back perhaps two decades to foundational works, most notably Erazim Kohak's The Embers and the Stars (1984) and Neil Evernden's The Natural Alien (1985). Both works offer remarkably similar invocations to an encounter of environmental thought with phenomenology. In a lyrical and deeply personal paean to the "moral sense of nature" (13), Kohak asserts that "[we] must approach nature anew, undertaking no less than a phenomenology of nature as the counterpart of our moral humanity" (22). Evernden directly addresses the vitiation (and the possibility of redemption) of the environmental movement, observing that "[i]f what we are is entailed in the story we create for ourselves, then only a new story will alter us and our actions. ... And if we can side-step the protective barriers of common sense, there is the possibility that we can become fertile ground for a new start, a new story, and a redefining of our place in the world." (141). To both Kohak and Evernden, a phenomenological approach represents more than an alternative: it is a required response to the western preoccupation with techne, to reductively quantitative accounts of nature, and to utility-based valuations of the natural world. Also to both, the encounter of environmental philosophy with phenomenology necessarily has both methodological and epistemological implications for the understanding of the meaning of phenomenology as well as the understanding of the meaning of nature.

If, as Kohak asserts, what is called for is "nothing less than a phenomenology of nature" (22), what forms might such a phenomenology take, and in what modes might its enquiries take shape? What might it be called? In a public lecture in 1975, Joseph Grange pointed out that the emerging way of understanding ecology "ha[d] yet to be structured, organized and given a name" (1977: 136). He proposed 'foundational ecology' (ibid). Kohak suggested that the "radical opening of our life and thought to the world of others, human, animate, inanimate, in the integrity of its otherness and the meaningfulness of its being" (207) might produce an 'ecological ethics' (213). Citing phenomenologist Martin Heidegger and the deep ecologist Michael Zimmerman on the need for a new ethos, Evernden, however, cautioned that 'ethics' is too often reduced to a "behavioural credo" (69), and declaimed that "[t]here is no possibility of an environmental ethic, then, in a society dominated by the technological vision of the world" (69). To Evernden, a phenomenological approach to environment had more in common with Grange's 'foundational ecology' and the 'deep ecology' Arne Naess identified as characterizing a metaphysical shift in ecological consciousness away from anthropocentric perspectives . But like Kohak, however, Evernden stopped short of naming the encounter, focusing instead on its programmatic aspects in affirming that phenomenology "has much to say of the human commitment to the immediate environment and the world at large. ... It may also speak directly to the concerns of the environmental movement ..." . It may be observed, then, that ecological phenomenology grew out of a gap between culture and nature, between action and thought, between techne and a new ethos. Or as David Wood has pointed out in a retrospective essay, out of "the gap between naturalism and phenomenology" (2003: 221).

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