The ecological era we find ourselves in — whether we like it or not, and whether we recognize it or not — makes it necessary to rethink and revaluate our relationship with nature and technology. The world has entered a new era of rapid and major change. Significant shifts are occurring in global economic power, technology, urban growth and through Earth System changes that pose existential threats to humanity, and our relationship with nature on which human life depends. Given current trajectories, transformation of human societies in some form is inevitable. It is, however, not clear whether global transformations can be navigated to avoid catastrophic collapse and ensure more desirable trajectories of human and non-human life on our planet. Such navigation requires active stewarding of systemic societal and technological change across diverse sectors of society and challenging deeply held assumptions underpinning unequal and degenerative patterns in our relationship with nature. This awareness forces us to think and feel at multiple scales, scales that disorient normative concepts such as present, life, human, nature and future. We are faced with the task of thinking at temporal and spatial scales that are unfamiliar, even overwhelming.
Life is united by symbiosis and implies an overall homeostasis, cohabitation to reinforce the centrality of cooperation from micro to macro levels as vital for life. An implication of the symbiotic relation with life is that our view of the self must be re-evaluated; that humans are autonomous entities having only ‘external’ relationships with other entities or beings. While the Technosphere provides a suitable environment for use, we need to fit our now globalized human patterns of meeting our needs into the life-sustaining, abundance-generating, scale-linking complexity of life as a planetary process. Whereas other organisms appear to reach a balance with nature by biological adaptation, technology, an instrument of culture, is the moving force in the human-nature relationship. New advances in areas such as synthetic biotechnology, genetics and nanotechnology are changing our very nature and nature itself. These emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. As technology is shaping nature, the boundaries between natural and artificial become permeable, enabling new promising perspectives and inventive practices. The impact it has on living systems becomes more expressive and symbiotic relationships with natural systems can be envisioned. Imagining a future in which humans fundamentally reshape the natural world using nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, and climate engineering. If that is what we want …..
The symbiosis between Nature-Humanity-DeepTech puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. But an overall balance of interests (eco-homeostasis) is in the total interest of all life.
The intersection of humanity, nature and technology has always been dynamic, interactive, complex and becoming more problematic. The two primary actors in this relationship that possess agency are humans and nature (i.e., the Earth System and non-human things), and their intersection almost always involves technology. Technology is a product of human culture as conditioned by the nonhuman world. It exists in reciprocity with both natural and social environments, all the while in symbiosis with its human creator. Humankind’s technological development depends on a crude calculus of ever-changing advantages by which people make technological choices—the material world around them and proximate resource endowments, demography, economic conditions, societal beliefs, and so forth. And, one can be sure, no matter what the human choice is, that technological innovation will, in turn, change both natural and social ecologies. The current relationship of humanity, technology, and nature offers a recipe for crises. There are innumerable examples of crises—past, present, and in the imagined future—stemming from this relationship.
The research with students from the Technical University Delft and Wageningen University & Research focusses on the logical foundations of the social, economic, geopolitical, resource and ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving future. The research made me again deeply aware that life is a living system. There is no such thing as separation; nothing exists out of that larger wholeness we all form part of. The reality of life is thus also interdependent and interconnected. Life is network patterns at the scale of individual cells, organs, organisms, communities, ecosystems or the biosphere -and the universe- as a whole. Qualitative aspects of our lives depend on the complex relationships and networks that connect all these aspects into one dynamically transforming whole. These relationships and networks connect our individual and collective future to the health, regeneration and wellbeing of life as a whole. To emphasize that non-human beings have agency to shape each other and us; hence the universe is a rhythm of various objects imprinting themselves on each other.
The qualitative emergent properties that make life worth living and sustain life as a whole are not located within one or many organisms, they are distributed across all of these scales as systemic properties of a living and transforming whole in which every participant counts and we all co-create the future. Living systems are interconnected and interdependent and as living systems grow and evolve, the system diversifies and becomes more complex. This is a universal principle. Each stage of growth and development is regulated by finely tuned systemic boundaries. These systemic boundaries are a living feedback loop for the system to regulate and balance its relationship with itself and the larger systems it forms part of. With this fundamental understanding of the implicate structures or orders of reality we can understand, sensing and working with the system dynamics of life. We move into the heart and experience of the living complexity of life, including our own complexity as part of that.
For me the research is an important step towards addressing the crisis of perception. Realizing our intimate kinship and communion with the process of life as a whole will trigger a shift in consciousness that will enable us to radically improve the quality of our lives and the health of the ecosystems and planet we inhabit. It will change the ways we relate to each other and the rest of the natural world and allow for the emergence of health as a systemic property linking human and planetary health. The continued emergence of self-reflective consciousness and our subjective and inter-subjective (cultural) experience of being living reflections of life’s continuous explorations of novelty depend on maintaining the health and integrity of the biological and ecological basis for our continued evolution.
Again it became very clear that consciousness is so much more than an evolutionary accident or epiphenomenal to biochemical processes in our heads — consciousness is, in fact, fundamentally woven into the universe itself. Some degree of subjectivity is indeed present all the way up and all the way down the evolutionary ladder, from the tiniest quarks to the biggest brains (?). It be wonders me! Consciousness loosely described as a ‘perspective-making, perspective-taking’ system that creates, collects, and organizes deeper, wider, more sophisticated points-of-view as it develops.
What is needed is a fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, ecology, biology, and physics. A perspective to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and technology to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse into the future and become aware of ourselves as a species.
If we aim to sustain humanity’s common future, we need to learn how humanity can become a positive live-sustaining influence on ecosystems everywhere and the planet as a whole. This is the essence of creating a sustainable and regenerative society. By designing our technological, social and economic solutions around the principles of ecology and biology and informed by a systems view of life, we can transform culture, so it becomes a restorative and regenerative force.
To understand and accept the relationships between the human lifespan, past and future generations, and the long-term timescales of Earth and the natural world may feel daunting and intractable. Humanity, though, is nothing if not flexible: throughout our evolution we have adapted and expanded our perspective to embrace all sorts of abstract and complex concepts that exist outside direct experience and memory: morality, peace, charity, freedom, and law — to name but a few. could mark a turning point in our temporal evolution. If we are to thrive beyond the next century, we must transform our relationship with time — to close the gap between the salient experience of the present moment and the far brighter trajectories that could lie ahead.
Working with students and the Poly Crisis & Infinite Futures Debate sessions organized by the University of Northumbria Amsterdam Campus gave me existential hope; preparing the ground and making sure that opportunities for a better world do not pass us by. They look beyond events and superficial fixes to see deeper structures and forces at play, they don’t allow boundaries (either organizational or culturally imposed) to limit their thinking, they make strategic choices that take into account natural and social limits, and they work to create self-reinforcing cycles of innovation — change strategies that mimic how growth occurs in the natural world. Change and hope across generations with the promise of a world that could be more just, wiser and more enlightened. To acknowledge that we are each a link in a chain that stretches across the generations, while having the collective knowledge and capability to improve the world. This may well prove to be the grandest challenge of our time, but it is what we owe to our predecessors and our descendants.