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Ways of Being Alive by Baptiste Morizot

Dan Ray says we must change our minds to save the world.

Baptiste Morizot is a respected professor of philosophy who howls, if not directly at the moon, then at least at wolves who might be howling at the moon. It’s this sort of unusual inter-species relationship that finds him behaving like a beast in a variety of ways as with muddied face, snow-soaked pants, and panting mouth, he chases the wild creatures through dark forests.

Morizot’s writing frequently depicts him engaging with the nonhuman world in dozens of rugged, adventurous, even mystical ways. So readers of Ways of Being Alive (2022) might be forgiven for occasionally imagining its author crawling on all fours, rooting at clods of earth like an eager bloodhound. Ways of Being Alive often conjures images of this sort – which in some contexts might hint at madness. But if Morizot is mad, the inspired and eloquently expressed ideas in this book suggest that it’s a form of madness to which the rest of us ought to aspire.

A big problem with the way most of us live, at least from the point of view of someone who tracks wolves in the night, is that our modern lifestyles allow us to operate as if nonhuman organisms basically don’t exist. We don’t hear the calls of the birds around us; we don’t notice the ecologies that spring up in our cities; and, most vitally, we don’t sense that our relationships with other organisms – with livestock, with crops, or with wild plants – are relationships at all. If nonhuman organisms receive any consideration, they are seen merely as various means to various ends. Morizot says that “we consider living beings primarily as a backdrop, as a reserve of resources available for production, as a place of healing, or as a prop for emotional and symbolic projection” (p.5).

“How did we accomplish this miracle of blindness to the peoples of the living world?” he asks. “We could hazard here… [that] once living beings were debased ontologically, that is to say considered as endowed with second-order existence, of lesser value and lesser consistency, and thus transformed into ‘things’, human beings discovered that they alone truly existed in the universe” (p.21). So the massive fiction, which we moderns seem to accept unquestioningly, is that in creating civilization, our species erected a pristine, discrete, and independent human habitat, bounded by and against the rest of the world. Everything that fell outside of that habitat’s walls became nature, the wilderness. And as this human habitat grew over centuries and millennia, it came to dominate the globe while pushing everything wild to the margins. Moreover, by fabricating this history, humans rescued themselves from the constraints of living in an ecological web by creating a dualism with ‘nature’ on one side and ‘civilization’ on the other. This intellectual sleight-of-hand seems to explain the source of the ecological crises we currently face: it’s the death throes of the wild ‘others’ of this planet as they lose out to the needs of Homo sapiens.

Not only is this story wrong on historical grounds, according to Morizot, it gets the relationship between global ecology and human life precisely backward. The world’s ecosystems are not subordinate to human civilization, available as a stockpile of resources to be extracted; human civilization is instead subsumed by that ecosystem: we’re just one part of it, and entirely dependent on the relationships within it. In denying that overarching relationship, we also deny our small-scale relationships with other organisms, and we rob ourselves of the opportunity to address the existential crises facing humanity today.

wolf head
Wolf head © Clément Bardot 2021 Creative Commons 4.0

Looming over all Morizot’s work is the approaching wave of catastrophes scientists predict will hit us soon if we continue to operate business as usual. From climate-driven disasters to mass extinctions to global-scale famine, our consumerist way of life is threatened by finite resources and unsustainable practices. But Morizot is emphatic: the threat is not from without – this is not nature exacting revenge on the human world. The threat originates from our way of conceiving ourselves: “If the human collective is only a knot of relations with the environment in which it lives, the limits in the use of this environment are no longer external constraints imposed by a Nature from which we need to emancipate ourselves, but the very lines of our face” (p.231). So Morizot is clear that the only escape from the crises facing global civilization begins with the recognition that we are a part of the ecosystem, and that the strength of any ecosystem depends on the strength of the relationships therein. “The crisis of the bees, the crisis of soil life, the crisis of the Amazon forests as carbon sinks” he writes, profoundly illustrate the importance of interdependent relationships, “because the weakening of one form of life caught in the weave makes the web vibrate all the way to us, and reminds us that we have never been alone” (p.227).

Climate scientists have been warning world leaders about human-driven climate change since the 1970s. Despite scientists and many politicians now having a firm grasp of the cause-effect relationships at the heart of the crisis, little substantial progress toward a sustainable future has been made. This is because traditional ways of framing ecological debates tend to pit conservationism against economics, in what is simply an extension of the dualistic blindness at the core of the problem.

While the seed of the solution seems simple – rejecting modern nature-dualism and embracing interdependencies – practically implementing this understanding is far messier, since ecosystems are almost impossibly complex. This is why Morizot spends his evenings covered in mud, watching wolves through a thermal imager; and his days working with the shepherds whose livelihoods are threatened by those very same wolves. He is not a conservationist, defending the interests of the wolves against all perils; nor is he an agent of profit, sweeping wolves out of humanity’s way. Morizot is instead a diplomat in the service of interdependencies: he serves, for example, the relationship between the wolves and the shepherds. “The diplomat portrayed here does not represent wolves, oceans or nuclear power,” he writes, “but activates the point of view of interdependences”. He argues that an ecological diplomat must move on “to other arrangements of identity and desire which form fluent communities of concern, weaving several species into one place, one time, one fight” (p.210). In other words, defending the ecological system as a whole demands that we strengthen all the relationships that make it up.

The take-away is, to have any hope of addressing the world’s ecological problems, we must, as a species, reject the simplistic philosophy that makes dominating other species and the environment acceptable. In doing so, we will find that our world is far too complicated for formulaic, one-size-fits-all political actions. As Morizot warns, “Moral certainties are for the broad daylight of churches and ministerial offices” (p.189). Messy, dirty, snow-soaked uncertainties need to become the currency of our trade if we are ever to guide humankind into its proper ecological niche, alongside all other niches.

One gets the sense that if an archaeologist centuries from now were to stumble upon Ways of Being Alive (perhaps excavating it out of some abandoned woodland camp), she would say, “So, the ancients did possess the wisdom to understand the problem. And they also possessed the germ of a solution.” The question for us is: will we use them?

© Dan Ray 2024

Dan Ray is a science writer, philosophy reader, and aspiring diplomat based in Burlington, Vermont.

Ways of Being Alive, Baptiste Morizot, 2022, Polity, 290 pages, £17.99 pb, ISBN: 978-1509547210

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