Writing by J. Bare. Illustration by Josie Berry.
Stock-still behemoths of bark and sap, adorned with looping vines. Vast spaces cluttered with shed leaves, branches, and stems; decomposing debris, a product of life and of aging. At a glance, completely still. Dig deeper under the low-lying plants, beneath the sturdy stumps. Pulsating at a microscopic level, the root systems of fungi clinging to felled trees reach far beyond themselves to form a network of vitality.
Where mushrooms bind themselves to decaying matter, the web of mycelia continues to expand, its tendrils reaching out like beggars’ hands towards any signs of life. Once linked up, mycelia serve as the director of communications between the connected organisms. A coupling based on mutual aid, the needs of each organism are inscribed in electrical impulses which traverse the lengths of the network. The organisms exchange carbohydrates, nutrients and even provide services like facilitating water intake.
While fascinating in their intricacies, symbiotic relationships within what we term as the ‘natural’ world are far from surprising. The real kicker is what renowned mycologist, Paul Stamets describes as the mycelium's ‘sentience.’
‘[The mycelium] knows that you are there. When you walk across landscapes, it leaps up in the aftermath of your footstep.’
This blatant recognition from another organism which is taxonomically so far removed from human beings challenges the notion that humanity is separate from the environment; a notion which stands as a barrier to furthering environmentalist thought.
This necessary shift in environmentalist thinking came to my attention from a tumblr post by user lezzyharpy. She found that much of the language surrounding ‘energy production and agriculture and human habitation’ positioned humans outside of the environment, through the prioritisation of reducing human ‘impact’ on the environment. The distinction between human and non-human, and thus human and the environment, is an artificial one. Humans do not impact the environment as if operating outside of it. Our impact is produced by working within it. As with all elements of an ecosystem, our impact comes from the interactions within and between the abiotic and biotic spheres of that ecosystem.
The one major aspect that distinguishes human from non-human is the establishment of civil societies. While other animal groups organise themselves in hierarchies, the creation of these structures is driven by biological needs such as procreation and bare survival. On the other hand, human societies are organised around modes of production. And therein lies the reason why human impact on the environment is so pernicious.
Framing environmentalist discourse around reducing human impact positions humanity as inherently oppositional to the environment — humans become "unnatural." This is an ignorant, disingenuous and potentially dangerous understanding of environmentalism. Ecological destruction, pollution and climate change are inherent byproducts of capitalism rather than that of human nature. 100 corporations are responsible for 77% of global carbon emissions. Fossil fuel lobbies throw hundreds of millions of dollars at politicians to halt any attempts to rectify the climate change directly caused by their companies. Forests are burned to the ground to make room for parking lots and shopping centres. The largest polluter in the world — the United States military — consistently serves the interests of capital through its geopolitical interventions. The list of examples stretches a mile long. It all points to capitalism being the driving force behind the climate crisis our generation has been entrusted with.
Not only is environmental disaster a product of capitalism, but so too is the ideological separation of the human and non-human world. This false separation comes from the sense of alienation produced under capitalism. We are alienated from one another as individuals, and alienated from communities not based in commodity consumption due to the reinforcement of individualistic thinking. Likewise, we are alienated from nature. Due to mass urbanisation and industrialisation, there is a lack of accessible green space. As a result, city dwellers in particular become disconnected from nature. This specifically targets members of the urban proletariat, who lack the time and money to access these spaces outside of their local area.
In fact, the rhetoric behind misplacing the blame for climate change onto individuals (that we are the "real" virus) is dangerously close to ecofascist, eugenicist thinking. The overpopulation myth is a hallmark of this ideology. This idea proposes that the artificial scarcity of resources created by capitalism is actually a result of there being too many people for the planet to support. This can be easily disproved by facts like the hoarding of resources by the wealthiest echelons of society. The point, however, is to plant the idea that the solution to the climate crisis is to artificially lower the population. This thought process is backed by eugenicist philosophy and practice, which historically targets marginalised communities, particularly disabled and indigenous people, as well as people of colour in general.
I am not advocating for a "return to nature" a la the idealisation of nature found in artistic and aesthetic movements such as Romanticism or the recent cottagecore subculture. That ideology is rooted in a settler-colonial mentality and enforces the exploitative system of capitalism by ignoring the realities of agricultural workers and rural people. It is also only possible for those privileged enough to turn away from the plight of urban workers, who are constantly fighting to defend their livelihoods.
None of this is to say that we should simply give up and accept the inevitability of the Earth's critical failure. Neither am I advocating for the ahistorical positivity provided by a liberal resignation to the inevitability of progress. Societies regress, and progress is rarely won without a fight. However, we must be optimistic in our fight for socialist revolution, to propel our thoughts and actions towards a better future.
As lezzyharpy pointed out, the language that we use about issues has the potential to impact how we think of them. The re-integration of humans with our surrounding environment is not necessarily physical, but rather philosophical and cultural. Our goal should be to reshape the relationship between humanity and the environment within our minds — to decolonise our thoughts so our actions will follow.
Maybe one day, when the mycelia reach for us, we can reach back.