Ecology has been tainted by belief in an alleged wisdom of Nature. We see this ideology, above all, represented in the film Avatar. Nature, we are told, is harmonious and is governed by negative feedback loops. Where positive feedback loops refer to some process spinning out of control as in the case of the capitalistic pursuit of surplus-value that always pursues excess, negative feedback loops are governed by self-correcting activities that always seek harmony and balance. Like the thermostat on an air conditioner that turns on the AC whenever the temperature gets too high and shuts off whenever it gets too low, Nature, we say, is homeostatic, seeking a particular balance. This constant pursuit of balance is perhaps cruel, killing off some individual entities so that others might live, but it is a balance nonetheless.
As depicted in Avatar, especially in the theme of the sacred tree, nature is thus a sort of divine Wisdom. There is, we are told, this Wisdom to Nature that always balances things out, returning them to order. And, of course, it is not difficult to detect the neo-liberal ideology of Capitalism at work in this thought. Within neo-liberalism we are not to interfere with markets because markets will always right themselves, being the homeostatic or negative feedback mechanisms that they are. So too when we speak of self-organizing systems. There is a Wisdom to the crowd that necessarily rights itself if left alone. At this point, the narrative becomes predictable. If systems don’t right themselves, then this is because of the hubris of humans that intervene in the Natural ™ dynamics of systems, pushing them out of kilter. We attribute a divine Wisdom to these systems that is corrupted by human intervention, thereby speaking as if humans are something other or outside these systems, corrupting them from without. Just as the Nazi speaks of the Jews as a corrupting outside or alien invader of society that, were they eradicated, would allow society to achieve the organic community that is natural to it, we speak of Nature as this wisdom beset by a parasite that need only to be eradicated to harmoniously balance itself.
Yet, in a Derridean fashion, we must seek the conditions under which Nature is susceptible to such contamination. After all, must not Nature be susceptible to contamination in order to suffer these positive feedback loops? Must there already be something within Nature itself that allows it to run out of kilter in this way? Where has this homeostatic Nature ever existed? Need I cite gamma ray bursts that fry, no doubt, planets pervaded with life? Or what of plagues or periods of high volcanic activity that played such an important role in destroying pre-cambrian life? Or what again, of plagues of locusts or species that manage to get the upper hand, wiping out all sorts of other species? Where has there ever been this Wisdom of Nature that regulates things and that is only beset upon from without. No doubt, at this very moment, there are planets with rich ecosystems being devoured by black holes. And indeed, there are galaxies colliding, destroying the delicate balance of solar systems where life is dependent on being a certain distance from their stars. Their are even rogue planets that travel their aleatory journey throughout galaxies, destroying gravational balances of solar systems that harbor life.
The story of bright ecology is always the same, sad story with us humans: the story of a Providence, as formally articulated in Leibniz’s thesis of the best of all possible worlds, that watches over being and organizes it in the best of all possible ways. If we could only see, as Leibniz argues in The Discourse of Metaphysics, the complete painting, we would see that what appears to be chaos and horror is in fact beautiful order. We seek to inscribe normativity in the fabric of being and trust in a providence of Nature. Meanwhile gamma ray bursts fry planets teaming with life and asteroids pound the earth.
The Wilderness is not a bright ecology, but a black ecology. It is not an ecology that traffics narratives about the special Wisdom of Nature, in a ridiculous belief in the homeostatic essence of Nature, but an ecology that recognizes only relation. That relationality includes trues, distances from the sun, the moon, but also plastics, institutions, groups, the architecture of buildings, cane toads that have migrated to Australia, iPhones, and all the rest. There is no Heideggerian piety about the river prior to the electricity generating damn here. There is only an exploration of relations where humans are treated as being amongst beings, not sovereigns of beings. As Michael puts it,
The sort of ‘wilderness thinking’ I support is not simply based on metaphors but evokes and enacts the literal and empirical sense of the term. Our planet is a vast ecological niche with wild (untamable) processes and entities. And as we emerge from this generative matrix of material-energetic (ecological) potencies we find ourselves thrown into a dark and tangled reality. This sometime obscure, sometimes illuminated field of possibilities (forces and affordances) is literally a wilderness full of objects, flows, agencies, complexes and differential powers. And we are literally animals coping and adapting to these ‘forces’ through whatever means available. We are, as it were, necessary explorers in the wilderness of being. That is to say, being as such – as the totality of distributed beings and the possibility spaces between them – is fundamentally ecological.
The Wilderness is not over there but is what we dwell in. Sometimes a bad grain harvest kicks off the French Revolution. And clearly, for anything that we do, there are all sorts of aleatory results that are unexpected. Indeed, these results are unexpected not simply because of they produce effects that we didn’t expect– as in the cinematic version of I Am Legend –but also because we ourselves are transformed and must adapt to the technologies and cultural institutions we create. “Man” is an empty square or moving target without essence as a result of his/her own productions.
At the heart of black ecology is the idea of Enlightenment. Kant said that Enlightenment consisted in humans rising above their self-imposed immaturity. Part of that immaturity lies in learning how to think for ourselves and no longer relying on the authority of figures such as the Church, Marx, or Adorno. Yet another part of that immaturity lies in our crypto-idealist fantasies where we believe in a divinity of Nature that always acts in the wisest of ways. With black ecology we begin to recognize that our normative identities do not reside in Nature itself, but are active decisions we ourselves make. Like Angel’s character in Angel Heart we come to recognize the norms that we ourselves have legislated, as well as our own culpability in the state of affairs we face. We no longer believe in a Providence of Nature just as we no longer believe in a Providence of Capitalistic markets, but come to recognize our own culpability and freedom. We recognize films like Avatar as the insidious deep ecological fantasies that they are. No one is calling the shots and there’s nothing inherently nice about the wilderness.