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Rethinking Animism

In this thought piece for the Schumacher College blog, Dr Andy Letcher, Senior Lecturer on our Engaged Ecology MA programme, points to a new understanding of animism as a potential way of getting grips with the crises of our current times.

Notwithstanding the dreadful and ongoing toll on human life, the recent corona virus outbreak achieved in a matter of months what thirty years of environmental campaigning has so far failed to do. By forcing us to stop it grounded our aeroplanes, brought the the economy to a halt, and made a noticeable dip in our carbon emissions.

When we talk about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, it seems we still resort to words like ‘control’, ‘contain’ and even ‘eradicate’, a language of domination that many leading edge thinkers see as expressing an attitude to the world that lies at the root of our ecological problems. For if the corona virus outbreak teaches us one thing it is that the other-than-human can’t be so neatly corralled according to human whims. This very desire to control always has unforeseen consequences, and is probably what led to the outbreak in the first place.

Here I suggest we might better adopt another language, the language of animism. ‘Animism’, the term, used to be deployed by Victorian scholars against indigenous worldviews to decry their apparent inability to delineate the living from the non-living, their attribution of aliveness to rocks and rivers, mountains and monsoons, their mistaken view that such things are animated by a plethora of spirits or souls. In the last twenty years, however, there has been a revolution in thought regarding animism, a new understanding emerging from the Study of Religion, Anthropology, Science Studies and Philosophy, that overturns the colonial misunderstandings of previous generations. In animism the world is not necessarily full of souls, but it is full of persons, people, agents, only some of whom are human.

Animists aren’t projecting humanness onto the world. A tree-person is not a human in attenuated form. It is a tree-person, and does what trees do: eats light, lays down lignin to make wood, bends in the wind. But in a world full of people, the trick is to find the right relationship with these other-than-human agents. Perhaps that tree would prefer not to be cut down…

The agency of the corona virus is not in question. It has radically transformed human societies and touched every aspect of our lives. What would happen, then, if we rethink the language we use to engage with the world about us to see the whole as replete with personhood and agency? How might the world be different if we saw the teeming mass of things – the bees, birds and fish and yes, even viruses – not as resources, or environmental capital, or things to be eradicated, but as persons with whom we must broker right relationship? Can we learn to be animists again?

Dr Andy Letcher is Programme Lead on our new Engaged Ecology MA course, which starts January 2021. To find out more about it and to apply visit the postgraduate course page.