Sustainable Hedonism

“The goal or object of practice is pleasure.”
(The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (Columbia University Press, 1990), 272.)  Gilles Deleuze

<p>Permaculture farm</p>

Permaculture farm

The majority of the citizens of the industrialized world and even a large number of inhabitants of the United States have come to recognize global warming as a significant problem posed to the continued existence of the species homo sapiens. However, a tremendous political and social inertia remains regarding just what needs to be done about this problem and how to do it. In other words, there is a clear disconnect between our cognitive understanding of the dilemmas posed by global warming and our apparent inability to address those dilemmas practically. This gap between what we know about global warming and what we are actually doing about it can be read as a sign that there is something about our framing of the issue that is itself a part of the problem.

Finding a “solution” to global warming is not just a matter of developing new technologies and the political mandate to implement them. If we are to address the issue seriously, then what needs to be fundamentally reconceived is nothing else and nothing less than the entire relationship between our species and the natural environment. At the heart of the relationship between organism and environment is the experience of pleasure as it arises in co-determining action. In nature, there is nothing more absolutely necessary than the superfluous (e.g., the feathers on a peacock, the spots on a bird, the vibrant colors of a flower, etc.). The activity of pleasure is the exclusive means by which all forms of biological life reproduce themselves. Accordingly, from the properly biological perspective, to say that humanity is in danger of ceasing to exist is really to say that humans are forgetting how to have pleasure.

In order to further examine the practicality and necessity of pleasure for the present moment, I would like to compare two recent approaches taken to the problem of global warming. One finds an interesting juxtaposition between the respective ways in which Al Gore and Michael Pollan address the problem in their lectures posted on the TED website. According to their website, “TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds.” Now it stands as a place on the Internet where ideas are spread through posted recorded talks.   Though these lectures appeared in the same forum, Pollan”s simple perspectival-practice approach contrasts starkly with Gore”s hero-citizen-market approach. Examining the contrast between these strategies allows us to appreciate how the very approach to a problem is itself a part of the problem. This examination also extends our notion of the problem of global warming into the realms of practice, play, and pleasure.

Al Gore”s New Thinking on the Climate Crisis portrays the problem of global warming as a problem of political will. According to Gore, the fact that the media are not adequately conveying the seriousness of the problem stands as a major barrier to action. In particular, political candidates need to be confronted with respect to what they are doing or not doing about the issue. As a response to the mainstream media”s inattentiveness, Gore advocates public organizing efforts to raise awareness in support of policies such as renewable energy, conservation efficiency, and a global transition to a low-carbon economy. Gore”s solutions are political and economic. His approach implies that, while it was our technology that helped to create the problem of global warming, we can take steps to reverse that problem by using technology in a politically and socially unified way.

As a rhetorical supplement to this political strategy, Gore conjures the creation of another hero generation.   According to Gore, we must recognize that with the problem of global warming, “history has presented us with a choice-a planet emergency, a generational mission.” Developing this theme, Gore evokes a series of images: World War II, the end of slavery, women”s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and landing a man on the moon. He says we should receive our opportunity to respond to global warming with profound joy and gratitude-it is an opportunity for us to rise to the challenge, to fight a war… to be heroes. In addition, if we succeed, then “we are the generation about which philharmonic orchestras, and poets and singers, will celebrate by saying they were the ones that found it within themselves to solve this crisis and to lay the basis for a bright and optimistic human future.” Gore concludes: “We need a higher level of consciousness… and that is coming.”

In contrast to Gore”s approach, Pollan advocates a shift in human thinking about the evolutionary location of the species; for Pollan, consciousness is just another tool used for getting along within co-evolutionary species systems. Pollan develops this point by beginning with a “simple” story about the practice of gardening:  

What did the bumble bee and I (as gardener) have in common… both of us were disseminating the genes of one species and not another… and both of us-if I can imagine the bee”s point of view-probably thought we were calling the shots… I had decided what potato I wanted to plant… I had picked my Yukon Gold or Yellow Fin or whatever it was… and that bee no doubt, assumed that it had decided I am going for that apple tree, I am going for that blossom…We have a grammar that suggests that”s who we are-we are sovereign subjects in nature, the bee as well as me… I plant… I weed… but what if that grammar is nothing more than a self-serving conceit? … The bee thinks he or she is in charge but we know better… The bee has been manipulated by that flower-I mean in the Darwinian sense… it (the flower) has evolved a very specific set of traits-color, scent-that has lured that bee in…The bee has been cleverly fooled into taking the nectar, getting some powder on his legs and then off to the next blossom… The bee is not calling the shots…   I realized then that I was not either… I have been seduced by that potato and not another into spreading its genes… what if we looked at us from this point of view… these other species that are working on us… agriculture appeared to me not as an invention, not as a technology but as a co-evolutionary development…

He goes on to add that viewing us and the world from the plants” and animals” points of view:  

…helps us to understand this weird anomaly:
We had this Darwinian revolution: we are just one species among many… evolution is just working on us the same way its working on all the others, we are acted upon as well as acting, we are really in the fabric of life… the weird thing is we have not absorbed this lesson 150 years later-none of us really believes this… we are still Cartesians… We are the children of Descartes, who believe that subjectivity, consciousness sets us apart-that the world is divided into subjects and objects.

Pollan then describes the practice of permaculture at the Polyface Farm in Virginia. Permaculture uses polyculture, the cultivation of multiple species in the same space, in reproduction of the diversity of natural ecosystems. There is a web of intricate connections that allow a diverse population of plant life and animals to survive by giving them food and protection. This practice understands the physiology of species, and by playing into the demands and desires of plants and animals, an abundance of food is created, while healing the earth at the same time. With little more than the technology of fences and the perspectival shift of “looking at us and the world from the plants” or the animals” point of view,” Pollan points to a practice (one of many approaches) that actually heals the earth and creates food by animating nature through playing into the pleasures of species. In Marxist terms, this is a practice to repair “the metabolic rift.” ((Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance¦ disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil¦” Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin, 1992), 637-638.))

In his talk, Gore attempts to use rhetoric to manipulate his audience, and thereby to inspire them into action. He presents an unfinished series of heroic images, and he puts the audience in the position of completing that series. Gore wants the present generation to write another chapter in so-called “culture” by fighting and winning another war. Should this combat succeed, the rewards will be more cultural products-such as hero worship in the form of philharmonic symphonies. By contrast, Pollan conceives of ecological practice as being a simple shift in perspective. Pollan proposes that we simply feel the insights of Darwin in a direct and sensual way and thereby come to understand the earth as it can be animated with little or no technology. This conception of practice does nothing more than reconcile what we say and what we do-in the practice, play, and pleasure of physics, ethics, and hedonism.

Gore is simply reanimating Cartesian thinking, while Pollan is pleading with us to understand desire as a productive force within a symbiotic relationship. There is, quite simply, a fundamental dissimilarity in these approaches that hinges upon the question of how we relate to nature. Are we the self-important species, or do we instead consider our implicit place within diverse ecological systems? ((See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 10, “¦the aparallel evolution of heterogeneous species or transcoding in the becoming wasp of the orchid and the becoming orchid of the wasp.” “¦each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritoralization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further.)) How can we use notions of pleasure in recognizing the difference between necessity and ambition? Nature is a violent, imbalanced, and opportunistic connection of eco-systems, but where in nature do we find avarice? Is it desire that seduces us, that moves us to follow pleasure unique to humans? Is desire part of the “evolutionary manipulation” that we should accept? What does our relation to nature say about subjectivity? Pollan is quite clear here-his aim is to cure humans of the disease of self-importance and to appreciate desire as ecologically productive. ((See Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Columbia University Press, 2007), 93 “No more subjects, but dynamic individuations without subjects, which constitute collective assemblages.))

In order to understand the implications of this shift in our perspective concerning our relationship to nature, it is helpful to recall some of the concepts of Epicurean philosophy. For Epicurus, time seems to be integral to his notion of pleasure-the ability to sustain life without anxiety.   The philosopher offers two types of pleasure: kinetic and katastematic. ((Don Fowler and Peta Fowler, “Introduction,” Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford”s World Classics (Oxford University Press, 1999), xxii.))   Katastematic pleasure is sustainable, pleasure at rest. Kinetic pleasure is the movement of fulfilling a desire. Epicurus advocates the katastematic pleasure of equilibrium-enjoyed when desire is satisfied and pain is absent- over the kinetic pleasure of a stimulus. Thus, pleasure is involved in moving from the sensible to the thinkable in the briefest manner of time. This aesthetics moves away from the judgment of good or bad and towards the valuation of intensities. The goal of this practice is the animation of life, the animation of pleasure for the satisfying of desire. Pleasure is not a gratuitous stopgap measure of the fulfilling of lack, but the counter actualization of mixtures and movements of sense and thought that resist myth and moral code. ((See Appendix, The Logic of Sense, “Lucretius and the Simulacrum,” an article by Gilles Deleuze originally titled “Lucretius and Naturalism” and published in 1960, eight years prior to Logic of Sense.))

It is also worth recalling that Lucretius, the later Epicurean, makes no distinction between living things in his discussions of will. Voluntas (will) for Lucretius is the freedom of all living beings to follow where pleasure leads. ((On the Nature of the Nature of Things,” lines 251-292, trans. Don Fowler in Don Fowler, Lucretius On Atomic Motion: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura Book II Lines 1-332 (Oxford University Press, 2002).)) For humanity to enter into these systems at the same level of all living beings, humanity will have to accept consciousness in the Pollanian sense, as a co-evolutionary tool. To understand things from, not only the bee”s point of view, but the apple tree”s as well.

What are the implications of declaring the pleasure of a sustainable state superior to that of the pleasure of a stimulus? We arrive at an awareness of natural motion and the cycle of deviation-which is connected to an Epicurean ethical theory-in that human beings see that they themselves are a part of this motion. Human pleasure is then no longer thought to require being apart from nature, but only acting in, through, and as nature. The Epicureans went the furthest in exposing false infinities as myth, to posit a cleavage in the cause/effect relation and to expound on these notions as naturalism. The Epicurean thinking of plurality arranges Epicurus” absence of pain as pleasure-not asceticism but an active production of the absence of pain. How does this Epicurean concept of pleasure relate to current approaches toward the ecological crisis?

At first glance, permaculture and symbiotic farming seem to be limitations upon what we conventionally think of as the pursuit of pleasure, because these systems of farming are based upon the idea that animals are hardwired to follow their pleasure. This dimension of necessity in the following of pleasure has no place within the post-Cartesian, subjective understanding of the word. However, the Epicurean conception of pleasure values chiefly a resistance to over-pleasure or the voluntary action not to move. Lucretius implies that nine times out of ten, a living being will act according to the living being that he is-but that tenth instance is the voluntary action not to move. ((Fowler, Lucretius On Atomic Motion, 418-419.)) Thus, in Epicurean philosophy, the necessary and the voluntary are not opposed but are simply different aspects of the same movement. If the ecological crisis is one of behavior, then the very inertia of humanity that we bemoan with respect to our inability to confront the ecological crisis should instead be reconceived as a form of resistance to the destructive practices that created the crisis in the first place. This inertia presents us with the possibility for a pause-a hesitation-in our action. Such a pause in action might very well be the most immediately practical thing that we can do.

To enact such a pause in our actions would be to use human consciousness as Pollan suggests-in a manner entirely similar to the way the lima bean releases bio-chemicals to summon other mites to defend against spider mites. In this view, a plant”s biochemistry and human consciousness are both posited as co-evolutionary tools and neither is superior to the other.

Pollan claims that his goal is to tell stories that help us to feel Darwin”s insights viscerally. Pollan recognizes the troublesome nature of the separation of sensible pleasure from political discourse. By pausing to pursue (or not pursue) our natural desires, we simultaneously move away from the largely ineffectual political practice of merely repeating what everyone already knows. The Epicurean notion of the pause helps us to understand that actions should not be opposed to politics-growing a garden becomes just as important as starting a blog.  

In an editorial for The New York Times, Michael Pollan has provocatively asked “Why Bother” addressing global warming? In response to this question, he writes, “But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden, to bother. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.” ((Michael Pollan, “Why Bother?” The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008; Michael Pollan, “Why Bother?” Internet; available from; accessed 10 September, 2008.)) Pollan”s approach to global warming is that of reconciling gardening, physics, and ethics within an apolitical practice of sustainable hedonism.

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