What Is Erotic Ecology and Can It Help Save the Planet?

For philosopher Albert Camus, it's about moderation—and awareness of one's own aliveness.

Photo Credit: Matsiuk Pavel/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Matter & Desire: An Erotic Ecology, by Andreas Weber (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017).

Neither victim nor hangman: the art of ecological living

“Men are grass”: The meadow is like us, because it is an embodiment of relationship. It is composed of dozens or even hundreds of species, and of what these species create through their interaction with one another. Worms, mites, and other earthly invertebrates are among the participants, as are diverse species of sweet grasses, lungwort, and orchids; primrose, marsh pugs, wild carrots, and cornflowers are part of it, as are ants, beetles, flies, bees, aphids, grasshoppers, blues and coppers, swallowtails, voles, green woodpeckers, and people. They all can only exist in the meadow in a manner befitting their species and behave only according to their inner drives. But at the same time, the bodies of all the beings who compose the meadow have extremely narrow boundaries placed around them by the other participants in the meadow’s existence.

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The “principles of reality” hold light and dark in balance. Our problem is that we too often seek refuge in one side and deny or kill off the other. If a practice of being in relationship involves the creative transformation of the opposing poles that are necessary for that act of transformation, then both poles must equally continue to exist. Only then can they enhance one another and allow reality to be spoken of with greater intensity.

The question of how one pole is transformed by the other thus becomes a question of moderation. How are we to live as both individuals and in relationship? The essential ingredients do not all taste good alone, but they are vital in certain combinations to the production of enjoyable, excitingly delectable dishes. The proper balance of opposites is found when, in the context of some new breakthrough, their contradiction becomes a creative imagination that is understood not as a solution but as a new and beautiful complication in and of itself. This is why the proper balance cannot actually be measured. It can only be recognized in the sparks that set it alight with enlivenment.

So it is a question of proper balance

The meadow offers its answer. And on summer nights such as this one, we are completely enraptured by it. But for our own lives, we must find our own answers.

The concept of moderation is not new. It was a key part of ancient ideas, at a time when philosophy was understood less as an analysis of thought and more as an art of living. And this is also our intention here: Erotic ecology strives for thought that conceives of us not as analyzing machines standing apart from the world, but rather as beings that are in ongoing material exchange with the world, constantly framing this exchange in ways that benefit both ourselves and the surrounding relational network.

Science that attends to this exchange automatically becomes a practice of knowing. And ecological knowing enlarges into an ecological art of living. Erotic ecology would then be an art of living in which existence is enabled by other beings that touch us physically and establish our horizon of meaning. The art of living is the art of being alive, and life is an artistic process. The horizon of this art is, in the words of the French philosopher Michel Onfray, “a life practice that says ‘yes’ to life (and ‘yes’ to all of its contradictions) but ‘no’ to that which destroys it.”

The idea of proper balance and the idea of a practice are paired, for the act of negotiation is foundational to acts of moderation. The proper balance cannot be decided in advance. If it were, then it would not be an act of moderation, but an assertion of principles. Of course, such principles dominate the classical teachings of right action—moral laws such as the “categorical imperative” of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. These are seldom the teachings of an art of living and are rather categories of duty that consider good intentions, but not their outcomes. Acting in moderation means being guided not by principles, but by enlivenment. Enlivenment is also something different from the utilitarian principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” A practice of the art of living must be in a position to make the tragedy of existence into one of its central components without appointing itself judge and jury over the destructive elements. It cannot manage this without the poetry of bodily touch, in the form of both pleasure and pain.

The most significant modern European thinker who tried to come up with a thinking of moderation was Albert Camus. In his view, the shining light of constant birth offsets, but does not repair, the tragedy of creation. Of course, Camus was not an explicitly ecological thinker.

When he died in a car accident in 1960, the environmental crisis was only beginning to slowly seep into human consciousness. In the mind of this French thinker, civilization’s most difficult dilemma was that political movements were using the promise of future salvation to justify brutish violence against people. Since then, economics’ promises of salvation, which have been paid for in the death of the natural world, have enlarged the matter into a metaphysical catastrophe.

Camus does not take sides in this conflict. Nowadays, we would say that he is neither right nor left, neither libertarian nor green. When faced with this choice, Camus foregrounds a deeper question: How do we manage to be “neither victim nor hangman?” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this is the central question of political ecology, more important than any other to the continuance of life on this planet.

Camus attempts to answer it in a way that his contemporaries do not understand. He confronts this question by assigning a different status to reality. For Camus, reality is not an imperfect thing that we human beings must change using technology and utopian ideas. It is rather an imperfect thing whose imperfections turn us into collaborators in an act of joyful creation. This is why Camus is a key figure for the future thought of a global culture of life.

For the idea of moderation, Camus invoked the ancient goddess Nemesis, who punished all dogmatic exuberance. Nowadays, Nemesis manifests herself in the parching heat storms over the Great Plains of Australia, in children’s blank expressions as they fix their eyes on little touchscreens. She is the goddess who does not condemn innovation but will take vengeance for exclusivity and all forms of dogmatic single-mindedness.

All political philosophy begins for Camus with becoming aware of one’s own aliveness. This aliveness is both the everyday integration of inconsistencies and also the opposite of all utopias—in other words, it is the whole of reality. As bodies that bundle together the matter that passes through them with an identity that is at once unchanging and fluid, we life-forms are paragons of moderation: we are moderation—we are living forms that exist in an area bounded by beneficial and destructive elements, in a space of moderate energy input and limited energy output.

In Camus’s understanding, acting in moderation means recognizing that virtue can never be separated from reality without becoming a principle of evil itself. The desire to avoid all bad things becomes a bad thing itself. But not avoiding bad things implies allowing bad things to happen. It is not possible to solve—or rather, to soothe—this dilemma by thinking abstractly or establishing political principles. The only successful way forward is through an act of bodily imagination—through a transformation, which is to say: through the element of poetry. As expressed in the ecological dimension of the Ligurian meadow, acting in moderation means integrating birth and bereavement into a whole that contains both but creates something greater than either. Establishing the proper balance is thereby an enlivening act—an imaginative act, not a bureaucratic one. Establishing the proper balance is an act of transformation. And transformation is imagination.

Andreas Weber is a Berlin-based philosopher, biologist,and writer. He holds degrees in marine biology and cultural studies, and has collaborated with brain researcher and philosopher Francisco Varela. His books in English include: Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics (2013); The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science (2016); and Biopoetics: Towards an Existential Ecology (2016). Weber regularly contributes to major newspapers and magazines, such as National GeographicGEO, and Die Zeit, and has won a number of awards for his writing. He teaches philosophy at Leuphana University, Lüneburg and at the University of Fine Arts, Berlin. Weber has two children, fifteen and seventeen. He lives in Berlin and Italy.