Epicurious? Living Well and Making Trouble in the Capitolocene
‘Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places’
Sometimes I find the world so exquisitely beautiful it hurts. Shadows cast long on snowy ground, salt laced wind that tangles my hair, the fecund smell of fungi and forests. Lately though that pain has been tinged with solastalgia[ii] as I see the effects of a system so utterly absurd it’s causing the demise of our own life support systems. But I refuse to live my life in ecological despair. In fact I believe it my moral duty to live well under the injustices of capitalism, choosing to focus on community than capital accumulation. But how? How do you live well in the ruins of ecological collapse? How do you remain in love and enchanted with an increasingly industrial world? How do you make trouble striving for justice and renewal when around you the Anthropocene charts new territory in atmospheric and geological change?
Inspired by the concept of frugal or ethical hedonism, my teacher in seeking answers to these questions is the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 - 270 bce). Like many Hellenistic philosophers, Epicurus was interested in the conditions for happiness and living well but unlike his contemporaries he equated happiness with pleasure. He had three particular tenets for happiness and living well: friendship, to which I include cooperation and collectivism; freedom, or what Murray Bookchin has called the dissolution of hierarchy; and contemplation, to which I believe there must be enchantment.
I frame my discursions into living well in the concept and epoch of the capitalocene, a period that Donna Haraway argues has arisen out of the effects of industrialization and European colonial predation. This has resulted in a western socio-legal-economic system that is deeply individualistic, capitalistic and predatory, espousing human exceptionalism (human domination) and ecocidal tendencies in the form of objective rationalism. It is framed by the ontology of modernity, a project which divides man from nature, mind from body through a strong confidence in Cartesian science, a colonial division between the modern ‘west’ and non-modern Indigenous peoples, and a commitment to rationality and a linear path of progress.[iii] My exploration of ‘living well’ is thus aimed to directly challenge the underpinning characteristics of the capitolocene. I don’t aim for instrumental fixes to the capitolocene but rather seek pleasurable responses of living well that challenge its very narratives.
Living well with Epicurus: Friendship and community
Epicurus believed that of all things that contribute to happiness, friendship was the most important. While Epicurus was primarily concerned with friendship as a source of security, for the purposes of my exploration of trouble and living well in the capitolocene, I consider friendship to include cooperation, community and collectivism. This characterisation of friendship I hope challenges the scourge of individualism, a central characteristic of the capitolocene. This promulgates a society driven to continuing economic growth and ongoing capital accumulation from the practice of colonialism and extractivism.
Buen Vivir, a decolonialist Indigenous umbrella movement originating in South America, asserts that well-being is only possible within community. This concept of community includes nature at large and the other-than-human – something that Haraway[iv] agrees with when she asserts that ‘[a]ll earthlings are kin in the deepest sense’. Buen Vivir also rejects the concept of ‘development’, and ‘progress’ including attempted improvements, to the concept such as that of ‘sustainable development’. Buen Vivir challenges reducing everything to a monetary value and commodity and ultimately rejects economic growth as the means of development and the measure of well-being.[v] However, the movement of Buen Vivir recognises that the term is not a static expression, but rather a continually created dynamic expression relational to people and place with cultures and regions having to build their own place specific concept of Buen Vivir. What works for the Yampara people of the Andes - who hold a social and ecological conception of community known as suma qamana - is only possible in the cultural and ecological landscapes of the Andes. What would the conception of living well in community look like for Montreal?
The ecology of freedom
Along with friendship, Epicurus believed that happiness is enhanced in social conditions that provide security and allow for the most freedom or autonomy. He was of the opinion that this would be achieved most readily by withdrawing from public life. While this statement may have been a response particularly motivated by the unstable times in which he lived, this has been shown to be an incorrect assumption and in fact the reverse is true.[vi] Thus, I leave Epicurus in his garden and explore the work of the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, who believed freedom was the dissolution of hierarchy, not only over other human beings, but in relation to the world more generally, bounding the concept of freedom within ecology and rejecting human exceptionalism.[vii]
Bookchin saw hierarchy as a state of consciousness which manifested as a system of command where elites exercised varying degrees of control over subordinate objects, human and the more-than-human. Bookchin compared modern, industrial and capitalist societies to what he called organic societies, where the differences between people and between people and nature was a ‘unity of diversity’ — not a hierarchy. Bookchin believed that freedom had been erroneously equated to free will and autonomous individuality. He thus sought to envision alternative utopic societies in line with organic societies that embedded the human in ecology, recognizing the dynamic balance of nature and the interdependence of living and non-living things. Such societies would replace individualism with community, hierarchy with interdependence, choice with necessity - recognizing we are biologically structured to live with, care for and love our own kind. Bookchin urges us to extirpate the institutions of hierarchy and the hierarchical nature of our internal world arguing not for a ‘retribalisation’ but rather a ‘recommunalisation’ of networked and integrated collectives.
Enchantment in the capitolocene
The last of Epicurus’ conditions for living well was concerned with living a contemplative life in supportive communities, pursuing mind tranquility. As I find my mind is most tranquil however in the places that I love and care for, I have expanded this requirement to include enchantment with place in the hope that it will enliven us to alternatives to the capitolocene and reimagine our role in nature. As Jane Bennett writes, enchantment is necessary to provide an opportunity for a reframing of the ecological crisis, a transformational shift away from the alarming rate of eco-decline where nature is depicted as a set of defeated and exhausted objects to a vibrant earth community living in a reciprocal and balanced relationship.[viii]
But how? The famed biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson wrote ‘[o]ur origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.’[ix] Bennett characterises the process of enchantment as a transfixed, disruptive and spellbound experience, or one of pure presence and a mood of fullness which recognises the interconnectedness of life. In line with Epicurus, Bennett believes it is possible to remain enchanted with a world without the assumption of teleology or transcendental design and poses an ethic that sees the world ‘as a lively and endless flow of molecular events, where matter is animate without necessarily being animated by divine will or intent.’[x]
In conclusion, I return to Rachel Carson: ‘there is no single remedy — no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.’ And this is what I have tried to impress upon you dear fellow being. Making trouble and living well in the capitolocene is a pluralistic endeavor, but such responses as I’ve outlined do well to challenge the features of the Anthropocene and align well with living better lives.
[i] Haraway 2016: 1.
[ii] A term coined to describe the mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.
[iii] Merchant 1995; Gudynas 2011.
[iv] Haraway 2016.
[v] Gudynas 2011.
[vi] Bergsma et al. 2008.
[vii] See Bookchin 1982.
[viii] Bennett 2016.
[ix] Carson 1999.
[x] Bennett 2016: 14.
Bennett, J. (2016) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Bergsma, A., Poot, G. and Liefbroer, A. (2008) ‘Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus’ Journal of Happiness Studies, 9: 397-423.
Bookchin, M. (1982) The Ecology of Freedom, Cheshire Books, Palo Alto CA.
Carson, R. (1999) Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, edited by L. Lear, Beacon Press.
Epicurus (1994) The Epicurus Reader, selected writings and testimonial. Hackett, Indianapolis.
Gudynas, E. (2011) ‘Buen Vivir: Today's tomorrow’, Development, 54(4): 441-447.
Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham.
Merchant, C. (1995) ‘Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative’ in W. Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, W.W.Norton, New York.