Month: March 2019
It’s wrong headed to protect Nature with human style rights.
How can the law account for the value of complex, nonhuman entities such as rivers, lakes, forests and ecosystems? At a time of runaway climate change, when the Earth’s biosphere is on the brink of collapse and species extinctions are accelerating, this has become a vital question.
Some theorists argue that there’s a clear historical precedent for what we should do, arising from the struggle for universal human rights. The law and discourse of human rights, commonly traced back to the Enlightenment, has held sway over the sections of the Western public for decades, if not centuries. Perhaps we should take the idea of ‘the human’ as a rights-bearer and extend it to the complex, nonhuman systems that we wish to protect, that we know are deserving of care and concern.
Tempting as it is, this move must be resisted. For one thing, human rights have proven to be exclusionary – even within our own species. Its emergence as a set of legal and moral norms betrays the fact that the white, European, male property-owner is the paradigm case of ‘the human’: others, historically, have had to fight even to be seen as fully capable of bearing rights. International treaties have been required to address the rights of women, children, workers, LGBT people, indigenous communities and others, precisely because such ‘minorities’ were marginalised by the abstract idea of ‘the human’ of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Critics have also suggested that human rights norms are a Trojan horse for neo-imperialism, providing ideological cover for dubious ‘humanitarian’ interventions and capitalist plundering. In theory, human rights are for all humans, but it turns out that some people are more human than others.
Yet maybe there’s something to be salvaged from rights discourse all the same – if we can find a way to deploy the idea of ‘rights’ while decentring ‘the human’. Perhaps we can find ways of understanding ourselves as entangled partners, and sometimes co-sufferers, with nonhuman animals, beings and systems in a ‘more-than-human world’, as the gender scholar Astrida Neimanis at the University of Sydney put it in an article in 2014.
Certain dangers lurk in using human rights to capture the interests of the nonhuman. First, its language and conceptual framing risk blunting attention to the distinctiveness and particularities of such dynamic beings. We risk only having respect for things insofar as they resemble human experience and characteristics.
Secondly, and just as important, is the related danger of diminishing our awareness of the human itself as a variegated mode of being in the world. This danger is already starkly present in the advent of corporate human rights, a development that has distorted the entire international human rights paradigm. At the heart of these developments is a legal conflation of the ‘human’ and the ‘person’ – a merger by which global capital can claim the mantle of humanity in ways that risk harming real, living people. The human right to health, for example, can be cast as a byproduct of big pharma protecting intellectual property monopolies; or the human right to food can be deployed as a justification for agribusiness companies to dominate global food supplies.
So, if we resist the idea of ‘human rights’ for nonhumans, and we carefully distinguish between ‘humanity’ and legal personhood, what is left standing?
There are already ways of thinking about rights that are sensitive to various beings and systems. In a seminal paper from 1972, the legal scholar Christopher Stone asked if trees should have ‘standing’ – that is, if they could claim the necessary status to mount claims at law. His response was to wonder if the law might award ‘river rights’ to rivers, tree rights to trees, or ecosystem rights to ecosystems.
Yet I think it’s important to move beyond Stone’s suggestion, and inch closer to acknowledging the complexity and liveliness of the nonhuman by admitting the porousness of our own boundaries. Perhaps we should not extend outwards from ourselves, so much as question humanity’s entitlement to act as a model. After all, it is a hubristic belief in our own singularity and exceptionalism that’s partly responsible for destroying the planet. One thing seems certain: if the law is to respond to the multiple crises afflicting the Earth, and if rights are to be deployed, we need to get rid of the notion of a rights-bearer who is an active, wilful human subject, set against a passive, acted-upon, nonhuman object. The law, in short, needs to develop a new framework in which the human is entangled and thrown in the midst of a lively materiality – rather than assumed to be the masterful, knowing centre, or the pivot around which everything else turns.
What might this kind of shift in understanding mean for the law and legal practice? It would certainly require courts to be open to a wider field of meaning-making. It would mean ‘hearing’ from multiple communities (human and nonhuman) by relying on the best new science. It would also demand situated, careful enquiry that examines the nuanced interactions making up the dynamics and relationships among the entities in question. Although the law is on the move, embracing the idea of nonhuman legal persons (such as rivers) and showing signs of a more materially sensitive, contextualised awareness, there are, as yet, no clear examples of cases and approaches as radical as is required. Some interesting thought-experiments and developments show promising directions, but there is more radical thinking to be done.
Some might object that such a decentred approach is likely to be more complex and challenging than relying on existing assumptions about the centrality of ‘the human’. That’s certainly true. But such engagement is preferable – more empirically faithful to what’s there – than continuing to elevate the human as the ethical apex of the legal system. The ‘human’ cannot continue to be the sole benchmark against which other beings must be measured in order to count.
In the predatory global order of the 21st century, it seems better not to deploy human rights as a blanket of protection for nonhuman animals and other beings and systems – precisely because such varied partners in the dance of life deserve their own types of entitlement. Thinking in these terms not only does justice to the nonhuman, but could help us reimagine our own state of being in a richer and more open way. Given all that is at stake, nothing less than a radical restorying will do; and laws and rights – for too long tools of human privilege and exceptionalism – need to be re-imagined if they are to play a full role in human-nonhuman struggles for a future worth living.
This essay is co-published with the Center for Humans and Nature as part of their Questions for a Resilient Future series: What happens when we see ourselves as separate from or as a part of nature? You are invited to read more responses to this question and share your own reflections at humansandnature.org.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
We aren’t really in control?
In the interactive choose-your-own-adventure movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), viewers get to puppeteer the main character, Stefan. It starts innocently enough with such things as determining his choice of breakfast cereal, but events quickly take a dark turn, and you might well find yourself dictating how to get rid of his father’s body. But this tampering with Stefan doesn’t go unnoticed: he regularly complains about a sense that someone else is controlling his life, implanting urges in him that aren’t quite his.
While this kind of puppeteering might be amusing in a fictional world, it seems obvious why it would be abhorrent in reality. Such direct control over an autonomous adult’s choices would go against even the mellowest ethical theories.
It’s no surprise, then, that behaviour-changing neurointerventions are contentious. We don’t like losing control over what we do. While libido-diminishing drugs for sex offenders have been in use for decades, our growing ability to tweak brains directly might soon be used to reduce aggression and racial bias, enhance trust, and ultimately modify our values. And while there might be many valid objections to such a prospect, a recurring one is that such interventions can override a person’s choices without engaging their rational capacities. That is, rather than using reason to convince people to change their behaviour themselves, neurointerventions merely turn a hormonal or neural switch on or off, robbing them of control over their life. This seems worrying – or at least evocative of Bandersnatch and other Big Brother-themed dystopias.
But I want to suggest that the loss of control that might be delivered by some neurointerventions is not really the issue because we are never actually in control anyway, even though it might seem that we are. The real issue is that the subjects of these neurointerventions might become alienated from their own thoughts and behaviours.
Let me explain. Think of individuals suffering from alien hand syndrome. Much like Stefan, these are people who – typically after neurosurgery or a stroke – find that one of their hands has started acting of its own volition. In mild instances, the rebellious hand might stroke their face and hair without their knowledge or will. In more macabre ones, it might attempt punching or even strangling them, or someone else.
It is worth remembering, however, that while few of us would unintentionally punch or strangle ourselves, we are all regularly scratching, rubbing, fiddling and adjusting various bits of our bodies without conscious intent or even recollection. What makes an alien hand different is not that it behaves without our intent or knowledge, but that it behaves in ways that do not cohere with other wants or wishes – such as our desire to be able to stop such movements when we want to. In other words, there is a difference between directly controlling our actions, and finding ourselves behaving in ways that do not align with how we want to behave at a particular moment. A sense of coherence – of relative harmony between our beliefs, our desires and our actions – rather than control is what actually matters to us.
We can see this by looking at the nature of our mental lives, and our utter lack of control over them. Even a cursory attempt at introspection will show that thoughts and impulses simply arise in consciousness without will or intent. The source of the contents of our consciousness is always a mystery to us: things just pop into our minds. We can no better predict our next thought than we can predict the next words to come out of a stranger’s mouth. Even to attempt to predict our thoughts is in itself to think, and therefore to change our thoughts.
Of course, we can deliberate, and we can respond to thoughts and impulses with further thoughts and impulses until we reach some consistent conclusion. But even such a process is, in a sense, automated: a thought happens to arise at the time and with the weight that it does, which then triggers a cascade of further thoughts. But each of those cascading thoughts itself happens to arise the way that it does without any will, intent or foresight on our part.
To illustrate, consider the experience of responding to this request: think of a number between one and 100.
Pay attention to what that process is like. A number simply comes to mind. Perhaps the number that you settled on arose because it holds a special significance for you – imagine you think of 77, and you are born on 7 July 1977. Suppose that this then creates an urge to think of a different, less self-centred number, and so 52 pops into mind for no seeming reason accompanied by a vague sense that it is satisfactory.
Note how nothing about that process is in any sense consciously directed or willed: 77 happened to pop into your mind, and the thoughts about why 77 came to mind also happened to come to mind at that particular instance. Likewise, the urge to change your chosen number happened to arise and, finally, the number 52 happened to come to mind along with a sense that it is adequate. You might insist that, had you wanted to, you could have chosen a different number. But the point here is that, whether you wanted to or not is not something anyone wills. We do not decide which desires arise in us at a particular instant, including whether we find those desires adequate or not. In terms of the experience of having thoughts and desires, their source is always an introspective mystery, as though each one were implanted in us by some godly Netflix viewer. Which is all to say, we are not in any relevant sense the conscious authors of our mental lives, nor the actions that flow from them.
But if we are not in control of our mental lives, why is it then so distressing when people pathologically ‘lose their minds’? Again, I’d say that the cause for distress in such cases is not actually the loss of control, but the intrusion of alien perceptions, thoughts and impulses. What is in part disturbing about, say, schizophrenia is not that mental content arises unbidden to mind – something we all suffer from – but that specifically intrusive, alien mental content arises that is also unresponsive to other, more rational (though ultimately just as undirected) mental content. As with alien hand syndrome, what is disturbing is not the loss of control but the intrusion of experiences that go against other, more abiding wishes (such as the wish not to be subjected to terrifying hallucinations, and so on).
Returning to Stefan, the source of his suffering then wasn’t that he felt his choices were being ‘made for him’, but that he found himself making choices that were strange to him – choices that he could not immediately make sense of given the usual assortment of things that typically (though still mysteriously) pop into his mind. Again, it’s the alienation from his choices that is troubling, not his lack control over those choices.
If I’m right about this, perhaps the real problem with behaviour-changing neurointerventions isn’t that they might rob us of control, but that they might make us think or act in ways that are alien to what we have so far been, ways that are potentially disturbing both to us and to those who know us well.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
At 80 Mulroney wonders– where have all the great leaders gone?
Is America the best place to chase the American Dream?
So is the Canadian dream much different– it cost us boomers very little to go to university and jobs were waiting for us, just doesn’t seem to be quite that way anymore.
Reading about the extraordinary college admissions scandal in the U.S. this past week, one couldn’t help but be astounded by:
- The amount of money even the richest of the rich think is worth spending to get their kids into School A instead of School B, not to mention being willing to risk jail time for this illegal activity (whoops, they probably didn’t think that was going to happen!).
- The fact that it costs such staggering sums of money to attend these Ivy League and other prestigious schools, compared with receiving a perfectly fine post-secondary education at a more reasonably-priced institution.
- The reminder that such a remarkably elitist system exists in the country to that has branded itself from early days as a meritocracy, where everyone had a chance at the American Dream. Get a good solid public school education, available to everyone, work hard, be conscientious, and the Dream is…
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The value of going unseen
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published March 1, 2019
Reconsidering the value of going unseen and overlooked
The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition)2 Mar 2019AKIKO BUSCH
The aquatic world offers invisibility that is less about being unseen and more about a dilution of self and the sensation of assimilation and adaptation.
It is time to re-evaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, writes Akiko Busch
Ayellow tang is loitering to my left. A school of iridescent purple reef fish shines into view. A royal-blue queen angelfish glides out of sight. Despite our proximity, I am beyond the notice of a massive southern stingray sweeping along the seafloor, the drape of its thin pectoral fins following and folding over the ripples of the sand bed. The striped parrotfish are oblivious to me, while the yellowtail damselfish and flurry of silversides couldn’t be less interested. The school of tiny iridescent purple gobies flutters past with utter detachment.
We all know that sensation of life slowing down, of being suspended in time, of being outside the rhythm of ordinary life, but underwater, that is the way things really are. We may all be occupying the same turquoise chamber, but the sense of remove is vast; my amphibian self is alert to both the immeasurable distance from and profound connection to the water world around me. Submerged, I have become a refugee from the visible world.
It’s an excursion that has value at a time when the twin circumstances of the surveillance economy and social media have made visibility our common currency. In the process, these have changed the way we see ourselves, often allowing us to believe that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than by what we do. But when identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diminished, some sense of authority and interiority sacrificed. And it occurs to me that it is time to re-evaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, to reconsider the value of going unseen and overlooked.
Which is why I have signed up for this tutorial in disappearance 12 metres beneath the surface of the deep blue Caribbean Sea. It is a place where we carry ourselves differently. We are there and not. It is not just the shift in gravitational pull, but that the fluid environment is intrinsically more familiar to us. If the composition of our own beings is 60-per-cent liquid, it only makes sense that it is easy to be absorbed, or at least feel absorbed, by the surrounding waters. We recognize the particles in which we are submerged, as though the blood in our own veins has found it possible to flow in congruence with the currents streaming around us. It is not quite a molecular kinship, but close. Underwater, we have a different relationship with our surroundings.
Water magnifies and distorts our perceptions. We are unable to smell. We are unable to speak, and that stills us in some essential way. The human voice is absent, replaced by the sound of breathing, a gentle repetition that induces a further calm. Other sounds are more muffled. Our ears are designed to function in air, and underwater, it is difficult for us to recognize the direction from which sound is coming or to untangle its vibrations. We can hear, but not very well.
Yet, the sense of touch comes alive. The water temperature is in the high 20s, and different sets of skin receptors allow me to read its gentle coolness, its motion, texture, vibration and pressure. Touch is said to be 10 times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and when I move, it is gradual, leisurely, multidirectional, as though my body has dematerialized in some intrinsic way, conforming to the currents as best it can. The aquatic world offers invisibility that is less about being unseen and more about a dilution of self and the sensation of assimilation and adaptation. As odd as it seems, I might even say that being underwater confers a sense of solidarity.
The mammalian dive reflex transforms one’s sense of being. When the body is submerged, the human heart rate slows anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent. Blood circulation slows as well, redirecting flow to the vital organs. With heartbeat and circulation reset, our nervous systems are also recalibrated, and the sense of physical suspension has a psychic corollary. It is why people speak of feeling tranquil, meditative when they are in deep water. It is why human beings in a condition of emotional upset or trauma are sometimes advised to immerse their faces in a bowl of cold water. And why free divers who go into water up to 200 metres for minutes at a time on a single breath speak of feeling serene; without the rhythm of breathing, their sense of time is even further diminished.
That sense of languor extends to one’s thoughts and impressions. Observations come and go unhurried. A plume of anemone waves quietly in the current. A three-foot webbed lavender sea fan flutters almost imperceptibly. A turquoise parrotfish drifts by me. An army of small fairy basslets, violet with brilliant yellow tails, streams beneath me. But each of these organisms has a strategy. The yellow trumpet fish shifts vertically to assume the structure of the stalks of coral surrounding it; or it may align itself with a larger fish shadowing its feeding spot. The rosy hues of the channel crab echo the bejewelled pink patches of crustose algae on which it rests. The del- icate brown rosettes on the skin of a flounder are nearly indistinguishable from the pebbly surface of the seafloor.
The ballet of marine biota is full of purpose, function and reason, as well as predation, consumption, reproduction and all the familiar activities of everyday life. The speckled patterning of the moray eel is in sync with the colour and texture of the encrusted coral crevices it inhabits. The multicoloured mottled surface of a scorpion fish is indistinguishable from the algae in which it has taken up residence. The dots on the spotted butterfly fish are directional decoys, existing to confuse predators as to where, exactly, their eyes are. Parrotfish secrete a membrane of mucus at night to conceal their odour from nocturnal predators. The blue tang floating to my left is looking for algae to feed on; the spotted butterfly fish is foraging for tiny invertebrates; the threads of fire coral will sting me if I happen to brush up against them; and the yellow-bearded fireworm resting on the floor of the reef is equipped with bristles that will inject me with a painful toxin if I happen to touch it. For all their gaudy displays, each of these is a master of the inconspicuous. Invisibility in the aquatic realm is ordinary, powerful and above all, essential to survival.
Not long afterward, I encounter an immense hawksbill sea turtle scuttling along the sand, grazing on the algae and seagrass in its path, its three-foot carapace and massive spotted legs advancing with an elephantine poise. It makes sense that we take such pleasure in the state of weightlessness. A friend of mine who is a diver speaks of the way she loses herself in increments when submerged, and this little deficit of self suddenly seems key. Perhaps it comes not just from the sensory novelty, that thrill of zero gravity, but from some sensation of having a spirit self, some innate knowledge that it can be a good thing to lose the materiality of everyday life.
The aquatic world is as surreal as anything imagined by Salvador Dali. But the invisible man he painted in 1929, with golden hair made of clouds, legs fashioned by waterfalls and a torso constructed of architectural ruins, was painted during what the artist called his paranoia phase, and reflects a horror of being consumed by one’s surroundings. The artist’s sense of identity was under siege, dissolving, on the verge of being devoured by his environment. It is too bad Dali never made any diving trips in a tropical sea. Or knew anything about the mammalian dive reflex.
Perhaps he would have been more receptive to finding accommodation by the world around him. What would he have made of a basket star that wraps itself in strands of coral? Or a star-shaped sponge? Or one that looks like an orange elephant ear? Or others in the shape of balls and barrels, tubes, vases, ropes? Or worms that present themselves as silvery feather dusters? Or coral that comes in the shape of pencils, leaves, lettuce, knobs, corkscrews, antlers, fingers, candelabra, wires and strings, dinner plates and doorknobs, cacti and cups, brains and buttons, feathers and fans? Would he have persisted in his paranoia? If he had observed such a carnival 12 metres beneath the surface, his invisiphobia might likely have become invisiphilia.
This is not about vanishing so much as some vital rearrangement of weight, substance and space. It is possible for us to associate the limitlessness of the vast blue abyss with freedom. We are affiliated with our surroundings, experiencing inclusion and placement in a wider world. It is not only our sense of space that is under revision here, but also our humanity. The overview effect is the term used in space exploration to define that cognitive shift that astronauts experience when they see the Earth from outer space. Viewing the blue marble from orbit, they re-evaluate life on Earth, reconsidering the significance of regional and national boundaries and our status within them, inevitably reassessing the importance we give ourselves; not surprisingly, when photographs of the Earth as viewed from outer space were first taken in the late 1940s, they signalled a shift in human consciousness.
Immersion in the deep sea seems to offer some corollary, an underview effect perhaps. Although it is a view from beneath rather than from above, from water rather than from space, and an experience of absorption and connection rather than of distance and detachment, it, too, enables us to recalibrate our place in things.
That re-evaluation may be relevant now more than ever. Not because we necessarily should be more discreet, unobtrusive, inconspicuous – though all of these would likely do us good – but because the Earth is warming.
There will be nine billion of us soon. We will have no choice but to reassess our place in things. And part of this may have to do with how we reconsider our identity; how we imagine some reduction in scale; how we consider a different way of being in this world; and how we learn to become constituents in a broader landscape. Our deeply held values about individuality may even become passé. We are, each one of us, less important than we think.
A yellowtail snapper drifts past. A blue parrotfish skims by beneath me. My presence means nothing to them.