Eco-Philosophy: From Gaelic Imaginings to African Realisations (“no trees, no air; no air, no breathing; no breathing, no living!”)

*All photographs by  me.

My environmental journey has been one of the most metamorphic experiences of my life. At first, I imagine that journey as river, its flow gathering steadily and branching off into tributaries that nourish new ideas and perspectives. Then, I liken that winding river to the sinuous body of a snake, periodically shedding its philosophical skin as it grows into something new and more integrated each time. I am always learning, changing. Why do I care about the environment today? Because according to my understanding, I am an environment, and I am part of other environments that are in turn part of a holistic global environment.

In this sense, the eco-philosophical framework I most strongly resonate with is philosophical animism,  and I find myself in agreement with much of Val Plumwood’s writings. Coming to philosophical animism has involved drawing together various aspects of my personal experiences and finding the ethical frameworks that compliment them. However, I have never found a single eco-philosophy that suits me in its entirety, and my approach to philosophical animism is largely based on a collaborative approach to what does and doesn’t work for me from a variety of standpoints. My philosophical animism is one that combines aspects of deep ecology, eco-spirituality/psychology, eco-feminism and indigenous knowledges from both Australian Aboriginal and Afrocentric perspectives.

The deep ecology philosophy is built on an understanding of ecology as a science, but extends ‘deeper’ to include political and spiritual consciousness of our inseparable connection to Earth (Naess 1973; Devall & Sessions 1985). Deep ecology suggests that the living planet is an intricately entangled system where all organisms – regardless of form, autonomy, or capacity – have intrinsic worth and equal claim to pursue life (Sessions & Devall 1985; Luke 2002). Deep ecologists are often accused of being biocentric due to their heavy focus on non-human claims to the environment (Bookchin 1987; Van Wyck 1997). However, I have found this eco-philosophy to actively include human lives and cultures as part of their definition of ‘biodiversity’ (Ambrosius 2005; Drengson 2012). This resonates strongly with me, I have always felt unnecessarily obligated to ‘choose sides’ when it comes to ‘people vs animal’ environmental issues (Nations 1988), an obligation that makes little sense in my worldview.

Nature & Culture together: (From left to right) A Maasai colleague rescues and releases a flap-necked chameleon after learning about reptiles at the local guide school; vocational nature guide students take community children bird-watching; school children incorporate appreciation for wildlife into their studies by using their hand prints and finger painting to connect the human and more-than-human; the Mkuyu Guiding School bush club for children.
All of these projects contribute to both community development and nature conservation by drawing on  cultural ‘ways of knowing’ and lived experiences of more-than-human animals and environment.

My family came from the Isle of Skye many generations ago, bringing with them the strong traditions of our sea and loch dwelling clans-folk. Many of these traditions came from the relationship of the clan to the natural world. Nan told me Gaelic stories about seilchies – seal-like creatures with spiritual mythology. My grandparents – and apparently generations before them – believed that seilchies taught us how to fish sustainably. If a seilchie appeared during a hunt, many fish could be taken, if not it meant that catch should be modest. Stories like this illustrate an intimate understanding of fluctuating ecosystems – the appearance of an oceanic predator likely indicated to my ancestors that fish numbers were abundant at that time. Such eco-spiritual narratives align with deep ecology (and indigenous) principles where an understanding of our connection to complex natural systems take on spiritual consciousness that informs our respectful interaction with other life (Naess 1973; Devall & Sessions 1985; Luke 2002).

While the eco-spiritual context (Booth 1999; Lincoln 2000) in which I was raised lends heavy influence to my deep ecology perspectives of earth as both an creative subject with personhood and an integrated life support system mutually called ‘home’ by all inhabitants, there are also strong interwoven eco-feminism themes that hold great weight with me today. Though my grandparents identified as Christians, traditional spiritual influences around the natural world have been passed down through generations of women in my family. Both Father God in Heaven and Mother Goddess on Earth – Dia and Ban-Dia in what little bastardised Scottish Gaelic my grandmother recalled as a second generation Australian – are recognised. As a child, I had a meaningful experience with a sionnach (wild red fox) and remember my grandmother giving thanks to Ban-Dia for sending the sionnach to watch over ‘its sister’. That Earth is understood as ‘mother’ and ‘family’, and that this wisdom is largely passed down through women, resonates with eco-feminist philosophies that consider the feminising of nature as ‘giver and nurturer of life and communities’ (Mies & Shiva 1993; Rocheleau 1995; Swanson 2015). Oppression by androcentric views of domination and conquest overlaps are also significant (Warren 1994; Plumwood 2002). My grandmother often voiced her feelings that “Mother Earth has been dominated by Man” and that “if we want to live, then Mankind ought not to be persecuting their own Mother”.

The ‘Mother as nurturer of life’ dimension to the eco-philosophical context in which I have been raised has manifested in my care of more-than-humans who have been orphaned or injured by human activities and disturbances. (From left to right): Brushtail possum, maned gosling; grey-headed flying fox; owlet nightjar.

Sometimes these eco-philosophies don’t always work for me. For example, though not a philosophical rule many deep ecologists support vegetarianism (Orton 2000), which is something that I have moved away from as I have felt less comfortable with how it fits into my ecological worldview. I do not believe that it is wrong to eat animals, in fact I believe that it is perfectly natural. However, I do believe that humans need to step down from their pedestal and accept the reality of our place in the food chain as potential prey if we wish to exploit this predator-prey relationship as meat-eaters (see Val Plumwood’s account of her crocodile attack and realisation of ‘Being Prey‘; and her argument around how veganism actually further separates humans from the more-than-human world through imposition of human values). Similarly, some eco-feminists are strong proponents of drawing meaning from ‘meat’ as it relates to animal and female oppression comparatively (Gaard 2003; Adams 2004). This is something that I cannot comfortably agree with because it comes across to me as a false dichotomy of woman-as-meat / animal-as-meat drawn from an over simplified attempt at homogenising ecological realities with socially constructed and imposed behaviours. While I can draw similarities between the oppression of women and industrialised farming practices, I cannot find the same dualisms between the oppression of women and the eating of meat in general, as this seems to accuse ‘Mother Nature’ of having imposed an oppressive system upon all life through the predator-prey relationships that are a key feature of healthy, functioning ecologies.

Where both deep ecology and eco-feminism don’t fit well against my attitudes and perspectives, I find that the combination of ecology as a science and inspiration from raw, indigenous worldviews tend to fill in the gaps. There are several indigenous Australian and African perspectives that resonate strongly with me (Lalonde 1993; Mosha 1999; Kelbessa 2002; Glasson et al. 2010; Mawere 2014; see also the work of Deborah Bird Rose and Val Plumwood), many of which deal with concepts of animism where nutrient cycles, death, and realities of humans-as-prey are integrated spiritually and culturally as part of life, alongside an intense relationality with a fully integrated more-than-human community. My own spiritual upbringing includes strong animist themes where animals and trees contain ‘spirit’ (Newton 1996), or energy as I prefer, so these were not difficult ideas to relate to. However, truly facing the concept of a harsh nature and humans-as-prey in Africa has greatly challenged the more romanticised spiritual view of nature that I grew up with. Ironically, these indigenous perspectives have been compromised for most Africans themselves by the imposition of Western colonialism and anthropocentric/biocentric environmentalism upon their social-environmental framework (Mawere 2014).

The moment that it was made most clear to me that I was not exempt from the ‘rules of nature’ was in Zambia 2014 when I was charged by an elephant. There was nothing that I had specifically done to antagonise the elephant, but her past experiences with poachers and hunters had taught her not to trust bipedal, furless apes or their vehicles. As the matriarch of her herd, she went into defence mode to protect her kin from a perceived predator. Never before have I ever felt so small and fragile. Even in a large, off-road vehicle, I felt vulnerable in the face of this oncoming giant hell-bent on not letting another human being terrorise her herd. On that day, elephants ceased to be the gentle, lumbering half-wit characters of Western imaginations, and instead took on something more real – an identity that conveyed the capacity to remember, to experience trauma and stress, to make decisions based on a sense of responsibility and care towards family, and to not consider humans as sacred, special or untouchable. As far as this elephant was concerned, we were predators and she would give us no special treatment for being human.


The matriarch elephant, just moments before she lowered her head, rolled her trunk up and charged at remarkable speed towards my vehicle.

Since then, I have learnt through conversations with my friends and students in various villages in Zambia and Tanzania that my experience was not unique, nor was it restricted to elephants. People in Africa were prey. There had been a time when indigenous African people lived peacefully with wildlife under this understanding of mutual predator-prey relationships, but that quickly changed with colonisation and the introduction of the Western anthropocentric view of humans and animals. Today, human-wildlife conflict in Africa is a major source of conservation concern, one that does not have a simple, quick, or ideal solution (Clarke 2012). It has called for a serious parking of many of my deep ecology and eco-feminist perspectives to instead adopt the now-necessary, imposed anthropocentric environmentalism techniques sold to disadvantaged Africans by Western conservationists (Adams & McShane 1992; Caminero-Santangelo 2014; Shoreman-Ouimet 2015), integrated with deeply disrupted indigenous attitudes to establish a kind of ‘Afrocentric’ environmentalism (Gottlieb 1996; Verharen 2003; Kgari-Masondo 2015). This continues to have significant influences on my own environmental views – both positive and negative. I have had to bring my more-than-human values and ideals into sharp focus and critique when placed in less privileged contexts than my own. The challenges are immense, but the rewards and sharing of insights are beyond words.

When I think of the environment and the more-than-human, fluidity comes in taking my lessons from nature, and I feel the strongest resonance with the ecological animism philosophies of Val Plumwood (2002, 2012; Rose 2013) in this regard. By not considering myself different or somehow set apart from the more-than-human, I also submit myself to the laws of nature when I consider my interactions with the more-than-human. So for instance, where an animal rights activist and I might agree that factory farming is a horrific violation of basic animal welfare and wellbeing, we probably wouldn’t agree that eating meat is fundamentally wrong or even that it is a matter of ‘rights’, since the concept of ‘rights’ is a human constructed idea that really only has relevance in determining human conduct in human worlds. This was illustrated most clearly to me during a discussion with a Tanzanian environmentalist:

“I do not understand why Wazungu are so upset by eating cattle when even the Cape buffalo is hunted and eaten by lions as part of its natural life experience. If not man, then another animal would eat the cattle. To give rights to cattle is to exempt them from their natural experience in their free-living life. You are saying to the cow, “our human ideals are better and more suitable than what nature determined your lot to be, our ideas for you are above nature and we are above nature to give them to you”.

Wazungu are opposed to hunting animals for food too…even if that is how it is done in nature. Maybe some Wazungu are herbivores like the impala, sure, but will those Wazungu consider themselves to be prey for lions also? No! I see this as nature being rejected by people. Wazungu say they love nature, but they are very unnatural in the way they think we should live.”

The combined influence of the spiritual context in which my grandparents understood the environment with the raw African worlds that I have found myself deeply embedded in have influenced a philosophical animism peppered by deep ecology, eco-feminism, eco-spirituality and an ‘Afrocentric’ hybrid of indigenous and postcolonial perspectives. Having my ecological science training immersed in complex social experiences has had an enormous impact on my framing of my ecological ethics, and I look forward to discovering new eco-philosophies and seeing how they fit into my worldview. For now, I can best sum-up my perspectives by quoting my nature doco-loving grandfather’s common ‘argument’ with the television: “no trees, no air; no air, no breathing; no breathing, no living!”


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