Autonomy in Jem Bendell’s e-s-c-A-p-e Ideology, Chief Si’ahl known as Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe, Climate Chaos, Climate emergency, Cultural Conditioning, Seattle/Washington State, Self-determination, Social Constructs
This is the fifth in the series of my reflections on the “shifts of being” proposed by Jem Bendell in Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (UK/USA 2021).
Jem Bendell uses the word “autonomy” in e-s-c-A-p-e ideology to describe the idea among the modern dominant culture that each of us is the separate autonomous origin of our awareness, values and decisions, and that it is good to become more autonomous (Bendell, p. 133). He asserts that this assumption is false. Instead, our ability to conceptualize, communicate, and perceive stimuli are built on social constructs and conditioning of our culture and upbringing. Even our free will is socially conditioned. We also cannot ignore the influence of human physiology in defining our nature of being.
I am one of those individuals who believe that I have the right to personal autonomy or self-determination, as I prefer to call it. Over the years, I have discovered that achieving self-determination has its limitations based not only on where one lives on this planet, but also on one’s gender, religion, race, income, and social status.
Earlier this year, millions of American women of childbearing age have lost their right to decide when to start a family, the spacing and size of their family, or not to have children at all. More recently in September, Iranian women took to the streets to protest morality police enforcement of hijab rules that endanger the lives of women who dare to expose their hair in public spaces.
Autonomy based on developing one’s own individual self is a more complex concept that I have yet to fully grasp. This emphasis on individualism goes against my own view of our interdependence as a species within the web of life and dependence upon the contributions of others within society. On the other hand, I have learned from living within three distinct cultures—Guyanese (British Caribbean), Brazilian, and American—that social constructs and conditioning of our culture and upbringing do, indeed, influence our self-awareness and vision of the world.
On moving to Fortaleza, Northeast Brazil, in 1987, I had to readjust to an armed police force. I perceived them as a threat to be avoided. At the time, a policeman in my native land Guyana carried only a wooden baton. In time, I discovered that Fortaleza, blessed with beautiful beaches attracting tourists from across Brazil and worldwide, also had a violent underbelly. I learned to be vigilant when walking the streets, on public transport, and in public spaces. Given the number of armed American citizens and the frequency of mass shootings across our nation, I remain vigilant when navigating public spaces.
American gun culture makes no sense to me. Why do we need an armed Militia when America has the world’s most powerful military forces? Therein lies the power of social constructs and cultural conditioning.
Since the idea of autonomy runs deep in our culture, Bendell notes: Being more conscious of our feelings, thoughts and contexts is important to making better-informed choices; being aware of the way culture shapes our thoughts is an important step in that process (p. 134).
Powerful interests who seek to maintain control over female bodies and sell us assault rifles that we do not need are not the only ones shaping and controlling our lives. For over 45 years, ExxonMobil knew the danger to Earth’s climate in burning fossil fuels. Yet the industry continues to this day to control the narrative. People who believe themselves autonomous, Bendell concludes, are less likely to question norms as societies breakdown and are therefore less likely to engage in creative dialogue (p. 134).
When will we humans awaken to the true nature of our being?
The beliefs of the White Man are beyond our understanding, Child of Earth. It is Chief Si’ahl of the Duwamish Tribe who speaks. The White Man called me Seattle. Many moons ago, over 170 years in your time, my people welcomed the first arrivals of White Men at Alki Point in the area you now call West Seattle. We taught them how to survive and thrive on this land.
This we know: The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things connect.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our ancestors. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children that the Earth is our Mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the children of Earth.
This we know: If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.