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Ecological Ethics – How Poetry Can Save Us

February 21, 2016

“All things are deviant predicates of themselves” – Robert Bringhurst

The poet, environmentalist, and thinker Gary Snyder notes that the etymology of ‘ecology’ is rooted in the Greek oikos, or ‘household’. We can think of it as a study of the interactions between the earth and its biomass, and in terms of a philosophy, it is both a sound one, and a correct one. However, when we attempt to graft the word into a political context, we end up running into a problem – from a North American point of view, the terms “ecology” and “politics” have often been mutually exclusive.

However, I’m not convinced that it’s impossible to bridge these concepts. Like any system – whether it’s the active transport of a plant’s vascular system or the coordination of a nation’s governing body – there is a common physics. Both seek to accomplish a similar task, that is, to facilitate nourishment and judicial implements in order to balance to a population. A tree doles out the nutrients it sponges from the earth, just as a government seeks to manage its resources according to quotients of supply and demand. The very premise of ‘supply and demand’ is in itself an appropriation of one of the earth’s most basic life-forms: mycological organisms that use quorum-sensing to determine whether they should reproduce based on available food sources. Nature reflects itself in its variances.

But balance is the key word here. In our earliest social settings – that of tribalism – we always observe a particular cosmological constant, one which ties us intimately to our surroundings: equilibrium, a chthonic law of balance, between the corporeal and mystical experience. Just as the seasons balance themselves according to life and death, birth and rebirth, and hunters learn to take only what they need, so too did they always exist in our mythology a similar give-and-take relationship among the gods and the supernatural. The gods could bestow gifts, and they could take them away, and all of it transpiring according to a spiritual process that maintained both realms. These old ways were central to how we lived our lives and how we saw ourselves in the greater scheme of natural and supernatural forces.

When a thing – or a person – departs from its ‘thing-ness’, when it is severed from its ecological niche, or domesticated, when it extends itself outside of its means, is when we experience imbalance. Our aperture into the natural world, the way in which we are able to access it, constricts. Ecology is substituted for prosthetic ideologies like capitalism and colonialism. And these ideologies are prosthetic, in that they attempt to replace the utility of an organic adaptation with something of diminished function. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this fascination with prostheticism has coincided with a movement away from our own innate potentials, both physically and mentally. Wheels replace legs, digital language replaces oral language, standardized truncations (emojis, text speak) replace the need for expression of real emotions. In a sense, each prosthetic adoption is an affirmation of our separateness from nature. Even if the prosthetic doesn’t fulfill the same efficiency as what it has replaced, it is still valid – maybe even more so – by virtue of being something of our own design, something we created, something that puts us in control of a collective manifest destiny. At the forefront of this colonialism is, has, and continues to tip the balance which is sustained by knowing one’s place in the world.

I don’t mean to suggest true balance negates struggle or conflict. In fact, it finds it necessary. Animals go hungry and starve in the winter seasons. They may catch diseases, or be weeded out by predators and injured. Death, as a catalyst, is a staple component of an eco-system, and it is imperative in any organism to resist change and annihilation – but this resistance is always a noble one, in that it is complicit with its own ending. All life eventually submits to the entropy of decay, and there is a dignity inherent in this certainty.

These alien ideologies – infinite growth, capitalism – are stark contrasts to what I have described as more ancient modes of behaviour exercised today only in isolated pockets where their culture is sufficiently insulated, those defined socially by tribalism and spiritually by animism. But once we are aware of the preexisting gap between modern and ancient approaches to the natural world, the question becomes: how do we return to the old ways? One possibility, I think, is through poetry.

When Gary Snyder said he “[held] the most archaic values on earth” he was talking about the perceptual construct of the myth-teller and shaman, a memory-keeper whose model of behaviour was in line with a natural order. In the five thousand years since modern human’s inception, this model has been subject to mutation – technological prowess, another ideological prosthesis, became an override of traditional politics. The politics of the tribe. These value-systems which practice compassion and gratitude have become more and more endangered. The !Kung of the Kalahari desert, the Yanomami of the Amazon Basin, the Kirati of Nepal – with very few exceptions, globalization has wormed its way into even the most ancient and traditional lifestyles.

A country devoid of a technocracy is, by the reinforcement of global standards, a developing nation, nascent in its capacity to flourish. The irony, of course, is that the paradigm these isolate cultures inhabit is millennia more developed than their industrialized counterparts – the tribe is a continuum mentality. Rites of initiation, which signal the development of an ecological awareness, are intact. And it is fundamentally mimetic, in that it recognizes and derives from its own natural recess, its own ‘place’. The effect is symbiotic. Tribal people experience, both in terms of their social well-being and over-arching raison d’etre, a kind of ecological coherence.

So how do we make the leap from ecology to poetry?

First, we have to look at the basic component of both: metaphor. The poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky offers up metaphor as a kind of ontological and epistemological tool which accomplishes its magic through avoidance, by allowing “different wholes [to] occupy the same place”. An attempt to narrow something down to a singular expression only limits that expression. Instead, metaphor opens itself to experiment, to an organic process – it is a comparison between unlike things, an analogical mental activity that focuses the metaphysical and the literal. Metaphor, therefore, becomes an access. Like memory, it seeks to make connections. It strives to link, or to make us aware of the pre-existing links between objects and ideas. It facilitates a bonding between two or more things so that we see them not just as they appear but as they are. Or could be.

What if we embraced the fundamental metaphor? We are the forest. The forest is us.

The writer Paul Shepard once suggested that human beings underwent an epigenetic process of maturation which occurred in stages, each stage representing an activity of bonding. Of these stages, the most significant was a bonding with Nature, a period of sensate curiosity and exploration in which the concept of a self-identity became acquainted and synonymous with the natural world. An individual who had experienced this stage not only acquired a kind of recognition of his or her surroundings, but identified with it in such a way that damaging it would equate to self-mutilation.

Modern living and urbanity does not allow for this experience of bonding, and the handful who are given the opportunity are often only able to experience it superficially. It will occur from time to time with those people whose vocations take them into the deep places of the world – loggers, environmentalists, treeplanters, wilderness guides, and the like. What about the rest of us? A culture incapable, or unwilling, to utilize metaphor as a daily instrument for grounding themselves in a place will instinctively distance itself from that place because the bonding capacity of those metaphors is absent.

The role of poets in an ecological sense is to reestablish these bonds. The philosopher and ecologist David Abram points out that all poets engage in a dissident animism because “the fundamental unit of poetry, metaphor, is a kind of active participation with the interplay of variant things. Metaphor is a kind of perceiving, and this perception requires an isomorphic exchange.” As a primordial and embedded mode of perception, it also “admits to no clear distinctions between that which is animate and that which is inanimate”, which again helps to cast terminal events like clear-cutting, overfishing, oil spills, and carbon emissions in a very awkward spotlight. The damage we incur on nature becomes nothing less than a reflection of a very sick society with a self-annihilation complex – if we are unable to self-identify with our surroundings, then we experience an amputation from our source. Us and It. An affinity towards polarization, rather than the spectrum offered by a perspective rooted in ecology.

The political agenda of North America is endemically one of conquest, and as a result it has also sponsored a culture that has come to identify itself not out of a place but out of an ideology. One which is, in fact, at odds with ‘place’. An ideology founded on its separateness from ‘place’. The Keystone and Northern Gateway oil-pipe expansions are only the most recent reminders of how far governing bodies have strayed from any system of ecological ethics. What is wrong with us runs deeper and more invasive, if only because mutations in culture have reshaped what it means for us to exist harmoniously with our surroundings.

From a Heideggerian perspective, our capacity for being-in-the-world has been limited by this separateness from it – prosthetic ideologies, consumerism, modernity, have all played a role in cordoning off our access to nature. The natural world is anomalous to our day-to-day involvement in events, something exotic and ultimately alienated. Our survival and self-identity are not based on the turning of the seasons or the cycle of the hunt any longer, resources are something to be exploited rather than utilized with respect and renewability. We see ourselves as wardens of the wild places, rather than inhabitants of it, and something is lost in this reversal. We can still enjoy the wild places, can still appreciate and desire and be moved by it, but whatever tied us sympathetically to this environment has been culturally bred out of us. On a macroscopic level, this divisive mentality spawns governments that lack environmental accountability. Not always because they operate out of self-interest, but rather because the regimes we live under consider themselves above, better than, exempt from ecological consequences. And, you know, from a certain point of view, they may be right. The political stage of North America is founded on the principles of a capitalist pipedream. A dream that, by its very nature, has no ‘place’, no mythological history or rites, no recognition of the sacrosanct. It is an austerity religion. It has nothing to lose except profit.

Any hope for progressive, responsible, and lasting change must therefore lie in a philosophy deeply held and diametrically opposed to the one currently clutching the reins. The trouble is, philosophy is slow. The adoption of new ways of thinking (economic, political) must accompany or be simultaneous with a cultural revolution. An interior transformation must precede an exterior one – we are required to first espouse a personal certitude, a personal conversion out of individuated self-interested consumption, by being receptive to an experience of bonding. By remembering the old ways.

The mythologist Mircea Eliade referred to this activity as anamnesis, a kind of recollection, an act of remembering undertaken during the mythic quest. It was the re-acquisition of something that had been forgotten – a kind of knowing that helped to inform of us of our station, both in a social and cosmological context.

What we’re holding our breath for is an anamnesis en masse – an entire nation ‘remembering’ their ecological responsibility. And we may be holding our breaths for some time to come. If philosophy is slow, then so is conversion. Given enough incentive, support, and influence, this conversion might intercede in the public consciousness soon enough for us to flip the switch and turn us around. But it’s a big might.

If I’ve painted the role of the poet as a subversive, then I’m not far off my mark. If poetry – through its ability to express ideas and its divergence with convention – can act as a master-method by which a cultural paradigm redefines its priorities, then metaphor is the weapon we have chosen to wield. Poetry, like memory, can restore the connective reality of our environment, and in this it is characteristically political.

But, a politics is only as useful as its medium.

In 2012 I had the good fortune of attending the Victoria Writer’s Festival on Vancouver Island. Featured was linguist and poet Robert Bringhurst who was part of a panel of other poets and thinkers, including Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, Elizabeth May, and Melanie Siebert. The conversation eventually turned into a discussion about responsibility, and holding one’s self accountable to their own ecology. It was someone in the audience who raised the question of poetry acting as a form of political protest, and Bringhurst’s curt but wistful response has continued to stick with me, both as something prophetic and elegiac:

“Poetry, ultimately, won’t change anything. Poetry can only change someone’s mind if they read it.”

There it is in a nutshell. The tragic paradox. In poetry there are systems of politics and ethics available to us which, at their core, have the generative power to renew the toxic cultural accretions of our society. But modern society has no time for contemplative practice. In fact, technocracy discourages it. Smartphones and Angry Birds feature more prominently in our lives than literature or critical thinking. Poets never had it easy, and these days they’ve never had it tougher. But now, more than ever, its poetic work that’s vital.

We have a lot of work to do.


John A Livingston. Rogue Primate: An Exploration Of Human Domestication; Roberts Rinehart Pub, 1995. Print.

Gary Snyder. Earth House Hold; New Directions, First Edition, June 17 1969. Print.

Jean Liedloff. The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost; Da Capo Press, January 22, 1986. Print.

Jan Zwicky. Wisdom & Metaphor; Gaspereau Press, 2008. Print.

Mircea Eliade. Myth And Reality; Harper & Row, December 30, 1968. Print.

David Abram. “Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician”:, Web.


  1. Walter A.

    Re-establishing our bond with nature, as Mr Mounteer excellently demonstrates, is a possibility that would come into being through metaphors. Metaphor denotes the wholeness, poetry has an incredible function in this regard. Actually after reading this piece, I have searched about the author and found out that he himself is an award-winning poet; his poems truly show the unity of our mind with the environment. I don’t know how to put it, but when our sense of metaphor is corrupted by the popular media, when Angry Birds rule supreme, how will it be possible to be open to the message or call of metaphors? This is a troubling question.

  2. John

    I am not sure if we are really supposed to go back to the old days by discarding all the progress that humankind achieved so far. The ones who want can still find a place in a forest, but lets do not fool ourselves that it is better to die from petty diseases in an ancient way than live in our developed nations.

  3. Anita Brouwer

    This is a mind-blowing essay. I will most certainly read more poetry. I did not realize that poetry could be transformative to this extent. I see clearly that seperation from nature paves the way for catastrophe. Now in our era nature is source for consumtion, something to be exploited… That cannot go on like this.

  4. Martin H.

    Experiencing nature helped me to recover my “bond” to it. I was in the Black Forests in Germany, with a group of friends for a week. I realised something while walking there that I cannot quite put into words. It made me a different person, not an individual anymore, isolated from nature, but part of the whole. I don’t think everybody would react in the same way to the call of nature. Adorno writes excellently about the call of nature in mythology and how deafened we became that we can’t hear it. Sirens. We can’t hear them sing, our ears are plugged. This piece is comparable to Adorno’s. From the same spirit, so to say. I congratulate the author.

  5. Robin Hayfield

    I have been following Mr. Mounteer’s essays since I read his short story about Tree-planting on Uisio. I think his story and this theoretical work are in connection; they tell us, through different media, the same thing. Also I easily called it “the same thing,” it is hard to elaborate upon it. A bond to nature, forgetting of the selfishness and seeing the role of the self in the scale of whole. This is a profound message. I will read some of the works cited in this essay to learn more on the topic. Thank you for this wonderful essay.

  6. Arthur

    I was so happy to come across to this great essay. It puts into words the things that I would never think. It tells something groundbreaking. I am not sure if I get the message straight. But as a person who is afraid of insects, it will be difficult for me to be bonded to nature though!

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