By Lee Myers, AP’19
Nature is often conceptualized as something distinct from the human inhabitants of the planets; it is “the other” and falls into a constituted realm of the human imagination where brushes are overgrown, non-human animals live their lives uninhibited from the encroachment of civilization, and represents an “authentic” element of the Earth. During Arete, 12 students (of widely diverse backgrounds) are brought onto an island in south-east Alaska and are asked to examine the relationship between humans and the natural world. This blog entry is, more or less, my individual thoughts on the work we’ve done throughout the course so far.
My thoughts on the issue start at a locale of social-consciousness. Without espousing an entire philosophical thesis on what exactly is “social-consciousness”, I will leave my definition and usage here: our perceptions of the world and how we reason are influenced by a plethora of social, historical, and political factors that carve up our ideas of the world. Each student in Arete has a social-consciousness attached to them that is wholly unique given that their experiences rests heavily on their own identity, environment, and life experience. Recognizing this, students must also navigate how to relate to each other as well as figure out what the natural world looks like because, as you might imagine, each student has a different idea of what exactly constitutes “Nature.”
Given each students’ individual consciousness, our coursework has us sharing perspectives over a given piece of reading or lecture that gives us an individual perspective of Nature or a brief overview over the ecological and cultural history of Southeast Alaska. For example, we discussed problematic ideological conceptions of wilderness through the writings of William Cronon, briefly explored the Tlingit indigenous history and culture, and are currently examining ecological and socio-economic dynamics with the reintroduction of Sea-Otter populations in the region. Our class discussions have been rich with discussion as we learn about the area surrounding Glacier Bay as well as we try to develop a comprehensive understanding of the natural world.
For me personally, I have found the very concept of Nature to be one that is imaginative and rooted heavily in historic circumstances. Cronon, for example, traces the ideas of wilderness throughout history as something to be initially feared to something to be conserved and protected. He identifies change through ideological forces primarily Romanticism and American Pioneerism. This interpretive and subjective aspect of nature and wilderness suggests to me that there is no metaphysical substance that we can successfully identify as “Nature” or “Wilderness.” The natural world, as a conceptual being, becomes a product of a particular social consciousness and that shapes the attitudes thereof. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to recognize that these concepts are not isolated from us at all and while we can change how we perceive Nature, we cannot fundamentally disconnect ourselves from it. First, by virtue of being an imaginative concept of human ideology. Second, by our very clear impact on wilderness as a finite conceptual being and through our attempts at ecological maintenance. This, for me, establishes the framework in which we ought to conceptualize our relationship with the natural world. There exists a fundamental interconnectedness between humans and the land in which they live and the monumental task set forth from such an interconnectedness deals with how to preserve a world that nurtures ecological diversity whilst simultaneously being conducive to human flourishing.
Lastly, Arete has students participating in a face-to-face democratic experiment wherein the students govern themselves. This runs as a countertrend to institutionalized procedures of current academia where governance of student participants is either partially shared, extremely limited, or non-existent. This cohort has established an organic procedure where each meeting has a nominated facilitator who compiles an agenda of priorities. It functions as an organic needs-based system of community management and prioritizes open communication and transparency in concerns and interests within the student community. Self-governance of a student community not only empowers students to participate in democratic processes, but is, itself, a reorientation of governance priorities that puts the needs of its participants first; this exists as a much needed alternative to existing governing bodies.
In short, the Arete Project develops a series of priorities that existing institutions lack; it helps participants situate themselves firmly in the natural world as well as build the type of space needed to sustain social reform. One can only hope that Arete helps spur other projects geared towards a sustainable and just human presence on this world. It is certainly an experience I found rewarding and one that further solidifies my commitment to seeing equitable justice a reality on this world.
Lee Myers is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. He studies philosophy at Berea College.