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Ecological Embodied Cognition: Making Sense of Environmental Empathy (ColLaboratoire 2020 Proposal)

Updated: Apr 6

The most recent report from the UN on biodiversity states starkly ‘[c]urrent negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (UN, 2019). As the Chair of the IPBES report, Sir Robert Watson, elucidates, ‘transformative change’ is imperative, entailing ‘fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values’ (ibid).


This research aims to explore the possibilities for transforming paradigms, personal goals, and values in relation to biodiversity. The theoretical foundations of this project therefore critique the dominant western paradigm, crystallised by Descartes, in which life, other than human life, becomes ‘effectively lifeless: conceived and thereby enacted as passive and predictably machine-like’, disinherited from the capabilities of perception, intention and communication and subsequently backgrounded and instrumentalised (Sullivan, 2019). Furthermore, ‘paradoxically much rhetoric and practice in contemporary environmental conservation reproduces the pacifying, objectifying, and ultimately mechanising orientation described above’ (Ibid). This is noticeable in practices of carbon or biodiversity off-setting and in policy documents referring solely to ‘nature as resource’ and ‘natural capital’.


An alternative worldview conceives of reality as an ‘enriched materialism in which matter and mind are mutually informing’ (Rose, 2013), a world ‘alive, astir with responsive presences that vastly exceed the human’ (Mathews in Plumwood, 2002). Recent research on trees, as just one example, supports this, documenting the chemical signals they can send to stave off insect attacks, as well as their ability to ‘share’ food for common flourishing, suggesting they are more actively agential and communicative than previously thought (BBC, 2017).


Furthermore, whilst cautioning against essentialising and homogenising, research on cultures who avow the possibility of agency by ‘non-human’ entities’ typically ‘regulat[e] potency through appropriate sharing’ to ensure ‘dynamic abundance is maintained for all’ (Sullivan, 2016), evidenced in the geographical overlap of non-mechanistic ontologies and biodiversity hotspots (ibid). As such, there seems to be a correlation between the ‘ordinary egalitarianisms and cross-species empathies’ of non-mechanistic ontologies and sustainable behaviours (Ibid). We pick up and utilise the term cross-species and environmental empathy, defining it as a skill and ethic of attunement to other-than-human living beings and their needs to build an understanding of the human as embedded in multispecies communities and to initiate pro-ecosocial behaviours.


This project then puts a non-mechanistic and relational ontology into practice - in playful and creative ways. It considers consciously embodied practices but goes further, re-conceiving what it means to be fully human by placing the human self back in its complete natural habitat, embedded in the body but also at home in the world. We refer to this as ‘ecological embodied cognition’ (EEC) and consider this important as reason alone as a form of knowledge ‘has proven ineffectual in bringing about the value shift that our current environmental emergency demands’ (Mathews, 2017). It spans a range of methodologies to account for plural forms of knowledge and so alongside more cognate knowledge includes body techniques, (eco)somatics, conversational and mobile methods, all as nature-based praxis.


Our research questions are:

  1. (How) do interventions founded upon ecological embodied cognition (EEC) enhance environmental empathy?

  2. What are the outcomes of using such EEC-based interventions for the enhancement of environmental empathy?


In this initial project, we focus on human-tree relationships. We will partner with organisations who offer tree walks to advocate for awareness of flora and fauna in Manila, and incorporate additional practices. Research suggests that practices to unify mind and body in proximity to nature can decrease dominating behaviour and increase respectful interaction (Birch, 2012; MLE, 2019) and so one activity will be consciously embodied practices using the breath whilst attending to a specific non-human other in the forest. Other literature suggests perspective-taking increases empathy and prosocial behaviours between humans (Singer and Engert, 2019) and so we will undertake bio-mimicry dance and somatic practices conjoined with cognate knowledge of the species’ abilities and needs to investigate the potential for cross-species empathy. A further activity will be Harding’s Deep Time walk, a ‘poetic-scientific’ walk (Latour, nd) in which participants walk a metre for every million years of the earth’s history, learning about the interconnected evolution of Earthly life forms in a fully experiential, corporeal, intellectual and imaginative manner.


Potential outcomes include a reframing of human/nonhuman relations for postmodern societies, re-membering shared lineages and Earthian forms as ones of ‘hybridity, continuity and kinship’ (Plumwood, 2002) which overlap with knowledges beyond the academy, including local, folk and indigenous knowledges. Other potential outcomes include enhanced empathy of a specific group of stakeholders towards the environment or a particular species’ needs with a transformation towards more sustainable and respectful use of other-than-human beings. That is, we aim to contribute to the movement from the age of the Anthropocene to the more equitable age and ethics of the Symbiocene, defined as ‘living together for mutual benefit’ (Albrecht, 2015).


In order to measure enhancement of empathy across species, a mixed methods approach will be utilised. Qualitatively, we will undertake narrative and thematic analysis of ethnographic observations and participants’ creative written work. Quantitatively, we will adapt the Compassion Scale and Compassion Love Scale (Elices et al. 2016) in line with cross-species relations (n.b. empathy is defined as a component of compassion). These scales will be used as measurements of self-reporting questionnaires on issues of attitude, feeling and also behaviour and actions related to the more-than-human world.


Aligned with this we see an additional prospective effect as not only enhancing the well-being of other species but also of the human way of being. The orientation of EEC interventions aim at multidimensional relations reversing the alienating and dislocating tendencies of modernity ‘where one’s own body, feelings, social and natural environment are perceived as external, detached, unresponsive, namely mute’ (Rosa, 2016). That is, it endeavors to cultivate the interrelated and integral relations of the self to the self, the self to other human selves, and of human selves to other-than-human selves.


These aims and potential outcomes are particularly relevant to the Philippines. Filipino environmental groups are increasingly valuing alternative worldviews including those of indigenous groups to collaborate against extinctions (see Tamaraw Conservation Programme). Moreover, deforestation remains a significant issue in the Philippines and one of the approaches to contribute to the mitigation of climate change and increasing carbon stock is crafting urban forestry programs (FMB, 2009). Tree walks as a movement to educate people about the importance of urban biodiversity is a potent strategy to gather advocates in protection and conserving the forests. Improving such practices, by integrating ecological embodied cognition practice, could lead to a more holistic understanding of human-nonhuman relations and ‘becoming-with’ the environment in ways needed for the 21st century.




Bibliography


Albrecht, G., (2015) ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’ https://glennaalbrecht.com/2015/12/17/exiting-the-anthropocene-and-entering-the-symbiocene.


Birch, T.H. (1993), 'Moral Considerability and Universal Consideration', Environmental Ethics, 15, pp.313-332.


Elices, M. et al. (2017) ‘Compassion and self-compassion: Construct and measurement’, Mindfulness and Compassion,2, pp.34.40.

Forest Management Bureau (FMB). (2009). Philippines Forestry Outlook Study, Asia Pacific Forestry Outlook Study Working Paper Series, UN FAO, http://www.fao.org/3/am255e/am255e00.pdf [26 Feb 2020]

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Mind Life Institute, (2019) The phenomenological epoché as practice (documentary) Contemplative Science Symposium, Mind and Life Europe, Munich, 27 Oct 2019, https://www.mindandlife-europe.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ICP_2nd_Workshop_of_Contemplative_Phenomenology_V4.pdf.


Plumwood, V., (2002) Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London: Routledge).


Rosa, H. (2016) Resonance - A Sociology of the Relationship to the World, (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag). Presented and translated by Michel Bitbol at Contemplative Science Symposium, Mind and Life Europe (Munich, 27 Oct 2019).


Rose, D.B., (2013), 'Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: Attentive Inter-actions in the Sentient World', Environmental Humanities, 3, pp. 93-109.


Singer, T. and Engert, V, (2019), ‘It matters what you practice: differential training effects on subjective experience,behavior, brain and body in the ReSource Project’, Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, pp.151-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.12.005 [5 Feb 2020].


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