Let’s Not Try to Save the World

This article was published in Intrepid Ed News on 1 May 2023.

Those who “believe” they have the answers to present urgencies are terribly dangerous.—Donna Haraway

When we try to solve problems, when we see ourselves as change-makers, and when we endeavor to save the world, we play the role of a tinkering celestial watchmaker who holds the universe in their hands. Rather than believe we take action to set in motion changes that will make the world a better place, create action plans, and meet objectives, we would be wise to appreciate that there are some challenges: we are entangled in our worlds, inseparable from these very worlds, and unable to create linear and sequential chain reactions of events. We can, however, leave our marks in noticed and unnoticed places, opening up spaces for emergence and response-ability.[1]

It is little surprise we experience the opposite: a separation from ourselves, each other, and the natural world, given that we so often see the world as made up of things. We see things everywhere. You are reading this article on a thing. In the morning, you drink your coffee (a thing) out of a thing (a mug). Late for an appointment, you search the room frantically, hoping not to forget your things (keys, wallet, sunglasses). We are surrounded by things in our mind’s eye; things as objects, things that are sensed by our senses, things as separate and distinguishable.

In the Western tradition, even ideas are things. Plato used words (eidos) and ideas (also Greek) interchangeably. He claimed that form was the essence of objects, without which the latter would not be what they are. There may be many different kinds of shoes, but at its core, a shoe has an essence that makes it a shoe: its essence is everlasting even though the shoe itself may not be. This is where the word “ideal” comes from. There is an ideal (form) out there that is the essence of the physical, and the physical is the mere (temporary) interpretation of this ideal. The ideal of the shoe precedes the shoe as a physical object, yet both exist beyond the mind: they are out there, separate from the mind.

It is no wonder we experience separation when we see the world as separate. When we see things as separate, as things, we begin to make these things our property. Things are there to be collected: take, grab, or steal, and place them in your pouch, carry them with you to use at your will. Ideals become physical objects in our minds that we manipulate and trade. I have written recently that agency is not something we own, it is relational. We cannot give someone agency. The same holds for power. We do not possess power and we certainly can’t give away power (empower). Knowledge isn’t something that we gain and accumulate either. What we can do is bring about conditions that alter the relationality.

When we understand the world as entangled webs of relationships, as ecstatic (ex-static) flows that know no form, as phenomena rather than permanence, we stop wanting to fill our pouches with things. We stop making lists of things we own. The world (earth) is no longer separate from us, to extract as “the general property of mankind,” in the words of 18th-century jurist William Blackstone. When we are (in) the world rather than separate from it, there is no beginning, end, or middle. We realize we are drops in the oceanand sometimes, for brief and graceful moments, we have that oceanic feeling. In the ocean, where does a drop begin and where does it end? The ocean is never static and, like the world, it can never be held. As it is non-permanent, there is not one ocean, just like there is not one world. What we experience is the world we observe right here—from this perspective—and right now—at this moment.[2]Like the ocean, this world will never be the same world again. There are infinite worlds constantly emerging and disappearing. It is important that we speak about these worlds so we can remember them. Instead, we spend too much time speaking about (other) things.

This is not black or white or an isolated place we get to. We appreciate a Western science that is no longer based on Newtonian mechanics. We open ourselves to different cultures, different perspectives. We connect with our hearts to each other, getting out of our heads. We don’t seek to find enlightenment—that is the ego talking, which leads to separation. We practice and practice some more. Mainly, we tell different stories of becoming. We give ourselves permission to imagine.

Entangled webs of relationships require us to temporarily and playfully disentangle the entangled threads so that we might make sense of the worlds. We cut the threads, unknot them, and let them dangle as we hold them between our index and thumb. These threads, these lines that we create and imagine are of our own making because we made the cuts.[3] They are the models that we use, but they are not Reality. Yet we don’t fall into the post-modernist trap of accepting all realities as relative and of equal value. No, reality is relational, it is a shared experience that changes perpetually because it is not anchored. Objects emerge from their phenomena, as material cut from intra-action and diffraction.

Objects are the representation of our shared understanding[4] A shoe is a shoe because we agree it’s a shoe, because we share this momentary understanding. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari explain that “if I wear shoes on my hands, then their elements will enter into a new relation, resulting in the affect or becoming I seek. . . At each stage of the problem, what needs to be done is not to compare two organs but to place elements or materials in a relation that uproots the organ from its specificity, making it become ‘with’ the other organ” (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 301-302). In other words, objects are the materialization of phenomena as we give them meaning based on our perspectives.[/ref]. Is this a mug or a pencil holder? Is this a water bottle or the particular configuration of molecules? Is this a human or…?

Let us not confuse these separate, dangling, linear threads with Reality. They are workable models we play with for a while to make sense of the world. And that sense is for our own understanding; nothing more.

Let us not believe that we can find solutions to the world’s problems so that we may save the world. It is a hero myth of human exceptionalism. This is, in the words of Bayo Akomolafe, “wanting to create a flattened world of mastery” that keeps the human at the center, the protagonist and villain in a story that relegates the more-than-human world to a backdrop.

Problem-solution thinking—this algorithmic notion of <if…then…>, this Newtonian conceptualization of isolated cause and effect—skates along linearity. It is an arboreal construct of straight lines rather than a rhizomatic mess with no beginning, end, or middle, in which we get lost (again, Deleuze and Guattari). We are not separate and the world is not a thing for us to fix.

When we try to solve problems, regardless of their scale, we pretend we can step back from the world, much like Descartes’s watchmaker[5], who tinkers with mechanics, adjusting one part and replacing another. We tell ourselves that we can set change in motion, that we are independent actors who impact other independent actors as if we could adjust the angle of our stick and the force with which we use it to strike the cue ball (the billiard ball analogy is another used by Descartes). The world becomes our object, our thing to own. If it were so easy as <if…then…> we would sink every ball every time, but we don’t, and it’s not for mechanical reasons (angle, impact, friction), it’s not because there are factors we just forgot to take into account. We fail to sink the balls because the world and our minds are indeterminant and are indeterminately so together. Skill might influence the outcome, but that does not make the process purely mechanical. Even Steve Nash never sank every free throw.

Problem-solution thinking leads us to futurist bets on techno-solutions. At its most extreme, it tricks us into believing that soon enough we will come up with a contraption that will save us, will reverse the damage caused, and will set us free. No longer a deus ex machina but a machina ut deus (machine as god). Is it any wonder AI moves us with such fears and hopes? The religion of Science has a messiah who comes in the form of 1s and 0s.

When we see the world as a set of problems to solve, we expect to witness the impact of our solutions. We act on the world and look over it, observing the pieces we have moved around. Yes, there will be unintended consequences to our actions, but these are unintended only because we did not think to set up the apparatus that would measure them (that is, we didn’t think about where there would be consequences). If we could have measured them—if we’d had the divine foresight—we would have, and the consequences would have been accounted for. Never mind! Unintended consequences are nothing more than new problems to solve.

When we believe we can act on the world by solving its problems, we forget we are entangled in the world, drops in the ocean formed by its currents of time and space. We are not watchmakers. We are not separate. There is no <if…then…> algorithm.

Entangled in the world, responding with (not to) the world, we are not isolated actors. Every performance needs an audience of at least one and both are actors, taking part in the scene, creating affect, alongside the lights, the costumes, the noises from backstage, the temperature of the room, and the cushiness of the seat.

We do not make an impact, like the cue ball impacts the eight-ball, sending it into the side pocket with a thunderous clack. Rather, we leave our marks on everyone/thing, and we too are covered in the marks of others. The marks become part of us, part of the embodiment of our becomings. Nine percent of the genome of what we call humans consists of retroviruses. We are viral and microbial. The physical marks are relational marks. We leave marks in places we may or may not expect.

We respond with the world and so become with the world, all at once. This is a process of possibilities, perhaps of probability densities where not all possibilities are equally possible. This density is full of marks.

There are marks we notice, and others we do not. When we change perspectives (our own? of another human’s? of a non-human’s?), we notice new marks while others fade away. How do the city streets seem through the eyes of a tetrachromatic pigeon?

We are not connected to everything. We are connected to an infinite number of things, which are in turn connected to infinite numbers of other things. These connections are the entangled threads of world. Thequestion is not who are we bound up with and in what ways, but rather how do we bind, un-bind, and re-bind bodies that change form as our perspectives change? The pluriverse has no ground on which to stand firm; it is the soil in which rhizomes run and creep.

When we move away from problem-solution detective work, from linear action/reactions that always cause collateral damage (the unintended), we realize that we leave our marks with our tentacular connections and that this is a reciprocal and simultaneous process of knots. We appreciate that we will never be able to solve anything because knots are not straight lines.

Are we trying to solve the climate crisis to preserve our way of living and being—our civilization, our species? Stop global warming, find ways to be carbon-zero, and keep building! Never mind digging up over the homes and soils of non-human life. Never mind the journey that leads us to the Sixth Mass Extinction. What matters is sustainable development[6], we proclaim! Let’s find solutions to make sure we can keep going, just with less mess!

When we are aware that we respond with the world and leave noticed and unnoticed marks, we return time and time again to one fundamental question: how can [I/we] be a good [person/embodiment of life] while becoming with eternally entangled entities[7]? Entangled, we stop playing the role of watchmakers who tinker with the world, fix it, save it, or more accurately, save the world we want to save for ourselves.

We can’t solve crises by ticking them off one by one or even in batches, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept them. We change our perspectives and go back to the roots. We challenge the accepted, we question the unquestioned, and we say this is not the world I want to become with, I choose another.

So this is not a nihilistic call to do nothing and let eco-anxiety submerge us. It is an invitation to gather and share together with other humans, non-human animals, plants… Oh! It is not easy! And there is no machine to fix.

Becoming with the world is to be response-able [with/in/for] the spaces that we create together, spaces that emerge and that allow emergence.

Put concretely, we abandon the belief that we can plan, that we can cause, that we can control. Through our ethics, the choices we make (the worlds we compose and compost, in the words of Donna Haraway), not as independent actors standing above the world, but entangled entities becoming with the worlds. We create spaces together where other living things can thrive. We honor the essence of all living things, recognizing the counter-intuitive dynamism of this essence. The choices we make—which come from our ability to respond—are rooted in the ethics that allow this honoring.

Oh! It is not easy! There is no pill to swallow. There is no quick fix. There is no solution to this problem or that problem. There is only the inner work, where we constantly draw, erase, and re-draw the line between what is inner and outer.

There are only entangled relational threads, knotted and unknotted.


↑1See Donna Haraway
↑2This is what quantum physics describes as superposition.
↑3See Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway.
↑4A shoe is a shoe because we agree it’s a shoe, because we share this momentary understanding. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari explain that “if I wear shoes on my hands, then their elements will enter into a new relation, resulting in the affect or becoming I seek. . . At each stage of the problem, what needs to be done is not to compare two organs but to place elements or materials in a relation that uproots the organ from its specificity, making it become ‘with’ the other organ” (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 301-302). In other words, objects are the materialization of phenomena as we give them meaning based on our perspectives.
↑5Also, and primarily, made famous by 18th century theologian William Paley.
↑6Take the language of SDG Goal 15: Life on Land: use, need, resources, development, sharing of benefits… economistic, anthropocentric, extractive, separationist language. Only 15.5 pretends to consider other species: Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity, and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species. Halting and preventing extinction is wonderful, but what about the lives of all those living things that aren’t threatened? What about creating the conditions for all life to thrive? Do we stop developing only when we are at the point where a species might go extinct, but until then we can push all species ever so close to that line?
↑7§§ The brackets allow us to flow in between forms. Another more fluid approach might be to use Lynn Margulis’s term holobiont—entire beings—to appreciate the relationality of symbiotic assemblages and the non-existence of individuality. Sympoesis and not autopoesis: there is no self-organization of selves, there is only enfolding of life across time and space.

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