Does hierarchy kill nature?

After reading Freya Mathews’ article “A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry”, (see my summary here)  – which I find very inspirational – I feel the need to further investigate some of the paths she’s laying out. Particularly I would like to dig more into her framework for a ‘deeper philosophy’ based on the two concepts conativity and least resistance. However, I also sense some internal contradictions in her arguments. Before addressing her conceptual framework in more detail, I would like to clean up my thoughts, by dealing with these latter.

The thing I can’t quite get to fit, when reading (and hearing) Mathews, is what I perceive as an inherent contradiction in her argumentation. On the one hand, she stresses the problems with modern civilization’s ‘impose and control’ behavior, that “effectively places us ‘outside nature’”, and has made us “ravage the living constituency of the biosphere”. On the other, she professes a “setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.” My point is that Mathews equates the coercive behavior of a collective with negative impact on the environment, while at the same time advocating for population degrowth, in a language that implies large scale coercion on human societies.

This raises two questions. First of all: Can we take for granted that a given society (human or not) which is organised according to hierarchical principles will necessarily have a negative impact on it’s surroundings? In the article “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology” from 1987, Murray Bookchin writes:

“Decentralism, small- scale communities, local autonomy, even mutual aid and communalism are not intrinsically ecological or emancipatory. Few societies were more decentralized than European feudalism, which in fact was structured around small-scale communities, mutual aid, and the communal use of land. Local autonomy was highly prized and autarchy formed the economic key to feudal communities. Yet few societies were more hierarchical.”

Following Bookchin, there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between a society’s degree of authoritarianism, and it’s negative impact on its environments. This brings to mind our current situation, where China – a country which we Westeners like to consider as authoritarian – seems to take the front as a green super power, leaving far behind the US, (formerly?) seen as ‘the leader of the free world’

This bridges to the second question that Mathews’ argument raises, which has to do with “setting a target for human population”. Bookchin writes – rather bluntly – about “the mistakes of the early 1970s with their hoopla about ‘population control’, their latent antifeminism, their elitism, their arrogance, and their ugly authoritarian tendencies”. Again, China comes to mind with its one child policy (1979 – 2015).

Since Mathews subscribes to “targets for human population”, is it fair to count her among the authoritarian, antifeminism, elitist etc. stances, Bookchin is rallying against? That Mathews is concerned with environmental as well as social issues, shines through in her comparison between the impose-and-control mode of our modern times with their extensive use of energy supplies, external to our own life-force, and earlier civilizations’ use of slaves “who have been treated as external to the social corpus”. However, reading Mathews, I haven’t sofar come across any particular spelled out strategy of hers for the implementation of a policy for population degrowth. Her focus seems to be on the ways in which we can educate ourselves to become attentive to nature. The implementation of these educational strategies seems to have to do with small scale endeavours, based in communities or educational institutions. In this way, Mathews’ thinking is leaning more towards panpsychism than ideology critique. Mathews’ panpsychism is inspired by Norwegian deep ecologist Arne Næss, and can be describes as a thinking , “in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For [Mathews], there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems”. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Mathews is building on Næss and through him, Spinoza, but she doesn’t make this connection very explicit, at least not in the text I am referring to here. The problem with Mathews’ argumentation is, as I see it, that she doesn’t manage to apply Spinoza’s thinking to its fullest, and thereby, she lands in some middle ground, where her effort ends in a kind of spiritualistic impasse. And the problem with that, is that in order to have an impact on the current dominant ideas about ecology, nature, climate etc., a vague spiritualism doesn’t speak with a very efficient voice. If I suggest a typical Dane that we solve our current ecological crisis through a ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales, he would probably at its best have a good laugh.

The rhetorics of deep ecology with its insistence on humans’ parasitic abuse of Nature, as well as discussions of invasive species, etc. comes dangerously close to the imagery of right wing populism. The difference being that whereas the latter refers to specific ethnic or religious groups, and use natural science as a repertoire of metaphors for the unwanted ethnic group’s behavior (“jews/muslims multiply like rats”), the former refers to humanity as a whole (“we are a cancer to the planet”), and their reference to natural sciences is literal. What is common to both, is the expression of hatred. Hatred towards the other or to one self. In the end of the day, it’s no wonder that some people have a hard time telling the difference.

An argumentation that would have a much stronger impact is Bookchins assessment, that “throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, [improvements in the quality of life and the status of women] reduced rates of population increase, in some cases leading to negative population growth rates.”

This is a pretty straight forward argument for how people’s taking care of each other can have a positive impact on their environment. Whether intended or not. In this sense, Bookchin seems to be giving a much stronger argument about a possible correlation between how we as humans treat each other and how we treat our surroundings.

To return to the somewhat primitive question in the title, I might conclude by saying that hierarchy does not in it self kill nature, or sustain it for that matter. On the one hand there is the Chinese model of population degrowth, imposed on the population through a top-down, authoritarian strategy and on the other hand there is a, let’s say, Italian or Japanese (non-)strategy based on cultural, socio-economic factors with the consequence that people do not (want to) reproduce. Does welfare lead to sustainable living? Well, in the West we might have a declining population growth, but it wouldn’t make sense to assert that our way of life is sustainable for the planet. In other words: hierarchy or not, welfare or not, at the end of the day, an ecological, economical and social sustainability must be based on cultural sustainability.


Bookchin, M. (1987). Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. In Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, nos. 4-5

Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Mathews, F. (2011) A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. Organization and Environment. Volume: 24 issue: 4, page(s): 364-387

Sharp, H. (2011). Spinoza and the politics of renaturalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Will knowing nature make us better humans? Can A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry give us the answer?

In my current research, the question I am asking is how we can create better connections amongst ourselves, and with our environment. And I wonder if there is a link: Would we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment? And vice versa?

To help me frame this question, this article by Australian professor of environmental philosophy Freya Mathews comes in handy:

Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry (find the article as a pre-publication here)

This blogpost is my  short summary of Mathews article.

Mathews writes: “The advent of the notion of biomimicry in design circles and the vision of a second industrial revolution based on it has, … moved us closer to the goal of planetary ecological integrity, closer than the traditional environment movement ever did.” However, she continues, “biomimicry remains vulnerable to co-optation by as powerful an anthropocentric mentality as that which launched the original industrial revolution and ravaged, in our time, the living constituency of the biosphere.” Therefore, Mathews argues, “a deeper philosophy of biomimicry is currently needed”.

Asking for “deeper, necessary principles in nature that in some sense render the design principles enumerated by biomimicry theorists intelligible”, Mathews comes up with two: the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance. According to the principle of conativity, “all living beings and living systems are animated by a will or impulse to maintain and increase their own existence.” Mathews refers to the Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, who “defined conatus as the will wherewith everything strives to persevere in its own existence”. The principle of least resistance has to do with “the very particular manner in which [all living things] pursue their conative ends.” Mathews states that “they do so in a way that involves the least expenditure of effort on their part.” These two principles are intertwined, and form the basis of a stable ecosystem. Why? Because: “Living systems actively strive to persevere in their own existence and they choose to do so, logically enough, in those ways that least deplete their self-energies. These will generally be ways that least provoke resistance from others – ways, in other words, that are most consistent with the conativity of others.”

So, how come we humans have screwed it up so miserably? Mathews argues, that although we are conative beings, we are also “endowed with reflexive awareness”, and therefore, “we can reflect upon our own nature, and, by reflecting upon it, modify it.” Although conativity “will remain our fundamental impulse … the ‘existence’ to which we are dedicated will now be conceptually mediated rather than merely corporeally given”. We are thus able to “choose our ends in accordance with our discursive systems”, and these will inevitably “vary from culture to culture”. Therefore, what we conatively pursue, “may not conform to the principle of least resistance”. And for Mathews this means, that our “ends may clash with the ends of others”.

So, basically what she is saying is, that we human beings are able to reflect, to engage in abstract thinking, and therefore, we can choose to do things that do not match our basic instincts. We are cultural beings, and therefore we are capable of stepping outside the “conative template path laid down by nature”. And this may leads us to “act … in an ‘impose and control’ mode, that effectively places us ‘outside nature'”.

But how can we be sure, on the other hand, that everything a non-human living being does, will always benefit its surroundings? Mathews’ answer would be that beings who fail the principle of least resistance will be wiped out by natural selection. Since they would spend more energy on their survival than they have – and thereby causing more damage to the surroundings than necessary – they wont be able to procreate. According to “a necessity arising from the logical dynamics of evolution”, living systems “evolve an existential disposition that leads them to favour this modality [the path of least resistance]”.

So how does this relate to our current crisis? The keyword for Mathews is energy. Since we, in modern civilization, have gained access to “virtually unlimited supplies of energy”, and “since that power has been derived from external energy supplies, and has not been drawn from our own life-force, we have not been self-depleted or self-decreased by expending it.” In this way, we have avoided “the usual selective consequences of impose-and-control behaviour – only because the energy we have been using to do this has not been our own.”

Our capacity as human beings of reflexivity seems thus to be the cause of the mess we have brought to the planet. But – and here comes the good news – reflexivity is also the key to make it all good again. “As reflexive beings we can grasp the logical force of the conative template laid down by nature and choose to re-conform to it” writes Mathews.

We need to ask the question of “what the life system wants us to want”, as Mathews puts it. This requires that we cultivate “a certain sensitivity to the self-directed patterns-of-unfolding of others”. This adaptation to the conativity of others can take place in two ways. As “a result of deliberation” or “as a result of communicative encounter or exchange”.

Deliberation, Mathews suggest, can go through the methods of science or natural history. However, a thourough insight into the conative tendencies of biological systems requires “a significant expansion of traditional biological and ecological sciences”. The problem is, that “traditional science simply fails to register conativity”, because “its wholesale objectification of natural systems leaves no room for the dimension of self-meaning”. Without the sensitivity towards the self-meaning of other living systems, we will not be able to attune our own ends to theirs.

This is where the second way of adaptation comes into the picture: communicative encounter. “Direct communication” with another living being will allow us to “discover [its] conativity”, and “adapt our own conativity to its”. This communicative encounter “might induce it to disclose us its own sense of self”, which “might be achieved via some form of self-expression or self-revelation intrinsic to that entity”. What would this kind of communicative encounter look like? Mathews gives the example of a possible ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales. The bird or the whale may then “begin to express its sense of itself”, whereafter “cross-species patterns of sound may be created which express but enlarge the musical signatures of both parties.” This will leave both parties “moulded by the encounter”, and our conativity will be “bent towards the conativity of our musical confreres”.

In the last part of the article Mathews discusses how a “bio-synergistic civilization” might be worked out. She mentions a possible inspiration from ‘pre-modern forager societies’, although she doesn’t find it “entirely clear how the bio-synergistic principles of earlier forager societies could be re-invoked in the context of modern mass societies”.

Her suggestions for a possible model includes the use of solar energy, the consumption of bush foods, and “the setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.”

Turning back to my initial question, whether we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment, Mathews’ article doesn’t answer the question fully. But it sets up a necessary conceptual framework, from which I will discuss the question in my next blogpost, coming up!