Conversing with Rattlesnakes: An Introduction to Deep Ecology


Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I Commentary I December 3rd, 2014



Art by Mark Henson



My first experience with the theory of Deep Ecology happened many years before I ever knew about the philosophy or any of its particulars. I had just begun working for a wilderness therapy outfit deep in the blood-red, sandstone heart of Southern Utah, and part of the training for the job required me to read the book "The Anatomy of Peace" by the Arbinger Institute in preparation for a several-day seminar based on the concepts of the book. The book, a staple in the mental health industry, presented a very simple thesis: there are two distinct ways that we see other people, as objects or as people. When we see others as objects, as either a tool to get something we want or as an obstacle in the way of something we want, we essentially dehumanize them and make them "other." When we see others as humans like ourselves, with similar dreams, goals, insecurities, and fears, it becomes impossible to see them as tools or obstacles, and we must fully recognize the humanity in each party. The Arbinger institute uses some specific language to help us understand and implement this theory: when we are seeing others as humans like ourselves, with hopes, dreams, desires, and fears like us, we have a 'heart at peace,' and when we see others as less than ourselves we have a 'heart at war.'

We all objectify others everyday in large or small ways. It can be as simple as insulting someone who inconveniences you while driving or stereotyping someone you see walking down the sidewalk. It is so common and normalized that it's terrifying. This objectification is the first step in creating systems that allow for the terrible realities of slavery, genocide, racism, sexism, and colonialism. You cannot treat someone else with disrespect, violence, and hatred until you first dehumanize them in your mind by making them less than human and thus worthy of your disdain. Ironically, objectification actually dehumanizes you rather than your intended victim, as your victim doesn't lose any of their humanity but it is you that has lost your ability to see another person for who they are. Every day, we make choices to see others as people; or see others as objects. We either have a heart at peace or a heart at war with those who surround us, and whichever approach we choose impacts our world in countless ways.

Although a simple concept, this theory radically altered my view of myself and the world around me. I stayed awake most of that night after the seminar ended, alternating between journaling, star-gazing, praying, and talking to friends on the phone as I struggled to process and comprehend the implications of what I had just learned.

When I headed out the next day to begin my first shift, my head was still reeling with the radical implications of the seminar and book. And this is when I made an alarming discovery. The area of the desert we were occupying just so happened to be a home to rattlesnakes; and quite a few of them. Up to this point in my life, I had approached non-human animals with incredible disrespect and even hatred. I had been taught that humans are the only species with consciousness and value on this planet, and all other animals had existed only to serve us. I had killed many snakes in my life with no hesitation, and was fully prepared to kill many more. On the first night of my shift, I was asked to go round up the rattlesnakes and put them in a mesh bag so they wouldn't be a threat to our students. Simply moving them would not help, because rattlesnakes are territorial and they would return to the area. I asked if I could just kill them, and my co-guide told me that we weren't allowed to. I had never handled venomous snakes with the intention of not harming them, and so my co-guide showed me how to use the forked end of my fire-bow to pick up a fat rattler and place him in a mesh bag. I carried the bag far away from our campsite to hang the bag on a tree, as the procedure was to let him out in the morning, unharmed. As I was hanging the bag on the tree, however, the rope slipped out of my hands and the bag landed on the ground, spilling the rattler out at my feet.

My heart jumped to my throat as the snake coiled around my sandal-clad feet. The adrenalin and cortisol rushing through my veins heightened my senses as I watched him flick the air with his tongue, sway his head around as his beady eyes took in the surroundings, and as his warm, scaly skin skittered across my toes. I stayed frozen for several seconds until he was somewhat relaxed and not laying directly on my feet, and then I leapt to safety. I immediately grabbed a large rock and turned around, ready to dispatch my deadly foe with a meteoric deluge. Right before I released my weapon, however, something stopped me.

"Are you seeing this rattlesnake as a person or as an object?" my conscience asked. "Well, its… it's a rattlesnake...it's not a person" I stammered, lowering my rock slightly. "Does it matter? How has this rattlesnake hurt you? It could have bit you when it was coiled at your feet, but it didn't. Why would you now kill it?" my conscience replied. "I… I don't know. Because I'm scared I guess." "Yes, that's right, you are scared of this rattlesnake; and therefore you want to kill it. But imagine if you responded that way to everyone in your life. Or imagine if other people responded to you in the same manner. That wouldn't be a very fun world to live in now, would it?" my conscience challenged. "I guess you're right, but this is just a snake, it's not a person. It's different, right?" I asked nervously. "Now what exactly do you mean by that, 'It's not a person'? How do you know what this snake is thinking and feeling right now. How do you know this snake isn't a person?" "I… I don't know, I suppose I should ask it" I replied, feeling ashamed. "Yes, I suppose that's a good idea"

"Hullo Mr. Rattlesnake, what are thinking right now?"

"I'm thinking that's a big rock you have in your hands there."
"Oh yeah this, uh, I'm sorry about that," I replied as I lowered my rock to the ground.

"Thank you. You are much more pleasant to talk to when you are not holding big rocks over my head."

"Yes…. I… are you a person?"

"What sort of a question is that? Do you always begin conversations like this?"

"No, I… I've never talked to a rattlesnake before is all."

"Apparently… well, how many have you tried to talk to?"

"You… you are the first."
"You don't say, and how many snakes have you dispatched before trying to talk to us?"

"Um… quite a few, actually."

"And have any of those snakes that you killed attempted to harm you?"
"Well one did… but mostly no."

"Well that's unfortunate. What sort of a person are you anyways, going around killing people who haven't harmed you and who you haven't even tried to communicate with?"

"Um, I'm not sure how to answer that question."

"Well, perhaps you should think about it. I've got lots of time."

"So do I, actually…"

And thus my conversation with the rattlesnake began. We talked about our families and our homes, we talked about God, and we discussed philosophy and the finer points of objectification. At the end of our talk, he let me put him back in the bag, under the agreement that I would place him in the sun so he could soak up the last few hours of sunlight, and that I would take him out of the bag first thing in the morning. I agreed, he climbed into the bag, I hung it on the tree where he requested, and I headed back to camp while preparing some elaborate excuse for why it had taken me several hours to hang a snake bag on a tree.

Throughout that summer, I had many conversations with rattlesnakes. I also met squirrels, lizards, and several species of birds who would share their stories and perspectives with me as I traipsed around the desert. The more time I spent out there, the less afraid I became of the snakes, tarantulas, spiders, and other residents of the desert that shared their land with me. As I became less afraid of the wilderness and all it held, my urge to kill, dominate, and conquer diminished as well. There is no need to kill what one does not fear.

I had, completely by accident, discovered the wisdom of Deep Ecology through my conversation with the rattlesnake. To me, the logic of objectification extended quite naturally to other species, even though the Arbinger Institute had made no such claims. If I could objectify a person with black skin, a woman, or an annoying person at the bus-stop, why could I not then objectify a snake, a tarantula, or a tree? Once I had grasped the concept of having a 'heart at peace' with other humans, it was only natural that I should have the same perspective towards other species and forms of life; for who is to say that rattlesnakes don't have personhood?

Despite the rhetorical nature of that last question, there is a very real answer. It has been the job of scientists and philosophers for centuries to prove that rattlesnakes don't have personhood. Similar to the need to objectify other humans before we can treat them poorly, we also need to objectify other species before we can treat them poorly, and civilization could not exist if we were to actually have a 'heart at peace' towards each other, and towards other species. If humanity were to fully understand and grasp the concepts of objectification and decide to have a 'heart at peace' from here on out, civilization would collapse overnight.

If we were to acknowledge that cows have feelings, thoughts, emotions, dreams, and fears just like us, it would be impossible to treat them in the way that we do. If we were to acknowledge that people from other countries, people with different beliefs than we do, or people with different skin colors have personhood and are just as valuable as us, then it would be impossible to treat them in the way that we do. Our entire culture is built on us having a 'heart at war' with other people and towards other species; it needs us to continually and habitually objectify the world around us in countless ways, thus dehumanizing ourselves from the inside out in the process and furthering the cycle of our own disconnection and alienation.

Of course, I understood none of this at the time, as I was simply enjoying sitting in the sand and talking to a rattlesnake. I didn't realize that I was slowly deconstructing a 12,000-year-old system of oppression and deception, or that I was slowly healing my soul by refusing to engage in systemically abusive patterns which had been passed down to me by my parents and the culture around me.

The foundations of objectification were much older than I could have imagined, and the implications much more radical than I could ever hope to fully grasp. The Arbinger Institute failed to account for the reason 'why' this phenomenon existed, and I doubt if the authors of the book have ever questioned or explored the origins of objectification. Whether they have or not, plenty of others have, and the study of anthropology has provided some incredible insight into this issue, especially in revealing the simple reality that objectification has not existed for the vast majority of human history. Objectification, that is, the ability to see another living being as an object to be controlled, manipulated, or destroyed, first appears alongside the rise of civilization, around 8,000 years ago. The first slaves, the first militaries, the first subjugation of women (Patriarchy), the first serfs and servants, all appear for the first time in human history shortly after the Neolithic revolution. This, of course, was the dawn of totalitarian agriculture and the moment of the very first objectification of them all: the objectification of a seed. The ability to look at a seed and see not a conscious, autonomous plant fetus, but rather a tool to be forcibly planted, irrigated, fertilized, and harvested for human consumption.

Once Seeds had been objectified, it was only a matter of time until Trees, Goats, Fish, Dogs, and other Humans would fall under the scythe of Empire and civilization. The growth of Empire necessitated a radically altered way of viewing the world that facilitated destruction and unlimited growth, as it is impossible to treat another living being with hatred and violence if you have not first objectified them, dehumanized them, and made them worthy of such abuse. Domestication is an inherently violent and debasing activity, as you are forcibly removing another living creature from their home (the wild) and imprisoning them while making them physically and mentally dependent on you for their survival and happiness. Along with the growth of civilization (domestication and conquest) came the growth of objectification. The first organized militaries appeared around 5000 BCE, and carried out the logic of objectification on a massive scale, as the armies of Sumer clashed with surrounding tribes and massacred other humans on a scale unprecedented in the history of humanity. The taking of slaves and the subjugation of women also marked this era of increasing objectification, as what is so different about enslaving a goat from enslaving another human?

This trend of growth, conquest, domination, and objectification continued unchecked throughout the next several thousand years, as the logic and processes of civilization grew and encompassed the whole of the planet. Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher in the early 20th century, offered his critique of objectification in his essay, "I and Thou" in 1923. Buber posited that there are two ways in which humans see other humans: the I-Thou relationship (seeing another as an equal human) and the I-It relationship (seeing another human as less than human.) His observation is especially poignant when one realizes that Buber was teaching his philosophy of objectification during the rise of Hitler's Germany and he witnessed, firsthand, the devastating effects of the I-It relationship with the German State and the Jewish people.

Buber's philosophy influenced a host of thinkers throughout the world, as it very clearly exposed the logic of Empire for what it was, and illustrated how humans could commit such horrible atrocities such as those seen during World War II. Unfortunately, Buber did not extend his critique of objectification to other species, but left that in the hands of Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, who created the terminology and philosophy of Deep Ecology in the 1980s.

Næss understood that the environmental movement which arose during the latter half of the 19th century had a serious flaw - it was only concerned with protecting the Earth because of its importance to humans, not because other living creatures have a right to exist; thus the distinction between 'Deep' and 'Shallow' Ecology. Næss realized that, as long as arguments for conservation were limited to human utilitarianism, the movement was doomed from the start. His influence helped spark a radical return to the roots of humanity's interactions with the natural world; a resurgence of 'original ecology' that attempted to deconstruct the roots and influence of objectification on our species and our planet.

Deep Ecology undermines the very ideological foundations of our culture and of civilization in general, as it requires a radical departure from the logic and processes of Empire. Deep Ecology calls us to be wholly human as we embrace our own potential to fully engage and connect with other forms of life in a healthy and meaningful way. Deep Ecology requires a profound humility as we acknowledge the emotions, feelings, experiences, and wisdom of other species and other forms of life. Deep Ecology demands resistance; resistance to the dominant ideology of arrogant anthropocentrism, resistance to the dehumanizing effects of objectification, resistance to the daily demands of civilization which wreak havoc on our world and our psyche, and resistance to the myth that humans are the only form of life with any value on this planet.

Deep Ecology is, quite simply, a return to a way of being that our species has known for over two million years, but has only very recently forgotten; and it is imperative that we return to this ancient wisdom if we intend to continue living on this planet. We must all eventually face this reality. Maybe you will discover this wisdom through writings and lectures on Deep Ecology, maybe you will discover it through conversations with friends and mentors, or maybe you will be lucky enough to find your own rattlesnake who is willing to talk and reveal his wisdom to you. Either way, the call of Deep Ecology is present, and requires only that you stop talking long enough to listen to a myriad of voices of life that exist on our planet.