Epicurious? Living Well and Making Trouble in the Capitalocene
Text & Photography by Emille Boulot
‘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’
i. Donna Haraway
Sometimes I find the world so exquisitely beautiful it hurts. Shadows casted 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 that is causing the demise of our own life support systems. But I refuse to live my life in ecological despair. In fact, I believe it is my moral duty to live well under the injustices of capitalism, choosing instead to focus on community rather 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 strive for justice and renewal when all around you, the Anthropocene charts new territory in atmospheric and geological change?
Inspired by the concept of frugal or ethical hedonism, in seeking answers to these questions, my teacher is the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC). Like many Hellenistic philosophers, Epicurus was interested in the conditions for happiness and wellbeing, but unlike his contemporaries, he equated happiness with pleasure. He had three particular tenets for happiness and living well: 1) friendship, within which I include cooperation and collectivism; 2) freedom, or what Murray Bookchin calls “the dissolution of hierarchy”; and 3) contemplation, for which I believe enchantment is imperative.
I frame my discussion about living well in the concept of the capitalocene, an epoch that Donna Haraway argues has arisen from the effects of industrialization and European colonialism. 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. It is 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 capitalocene. I don’t intend for instrumental fixes to the capitalocene, but rather I 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 capitalocene, I consider friendship to include cooperation, community, and collectivism. I hope this characterisation of friendship challenges the scourge of individualism, a central characteristic of the capitalocene.
This promulgates a society driven by ongoing economic growth and capital accumulation through the practice of colonialism and extractivism.
Buen Vivir, a decolonialisation indigenous umbrella movement originating in South America, asserts that well-being is only possible from within community. This concept of community includes nature at large and the non-human–something that Haraway agrees with when she asserts that “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense” [iv]. Buen Vivir also rejects the concept of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ including attempted improvements such as the concept of ‘sustainable development’. Buen Vivir challenges the reduction of everything to monetary value and as a commodity, and ultimately rejects the notion of economic growth as the means of development and measure of well-being [v].
However, the movement of Buen Vivir recognises that the term is not a static expression, but rather a continually recreated dynamic expression, relating people with cultures and regions, thus having to build their own place-specific concept of Buen Vivir. For example, 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. So, 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 manifested in a system of command where elites exercised varying degrees of control over subordinate beings–human and non-human. Bookchin compared modern, industrial, and capitalist societies to what he termed ‘organic societies’, where the differences among 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 utopian societies in line with organic societies that embedded the human within ecology, recognizing the dynamic balance of nature as well as 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 then, to eliminate 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 capitalocene
The last of Epicurus’ conditions for living well was concerned with living a contemplative life in supportive communities, pursuing tranquility of the mind. Finding my mind to be most tranquil 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 with alternatives to the capitalocene and to 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 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? As, famed biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson wrote, “Our 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] Additionally, Jane Bennett characterises the process of enchantment as a transfixed, disruptive, and spellbound experience, or one of pure presence with a mood of fullness that 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, posing 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 words from Rachel Carson:
“here 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, my dear fellow being. Making trouble and living well in the capitalocene is a pluralistic endeavor, but such responses such as those I’ve outlined ably to challenge the features of the Anthropocene, aligning well with better living.