Seeing our Water: Our Solutions may lie in Another World

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” 

David Foster Wallace “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”

Tears of Rangi

Most of us – we of the West marinating in our modernity – don’t recognise that we live in a reality that is anything but objective. We see through the lens of culture, upbringing and experience. Dame Anne Salmond writes so well about this. And her latest book, Tears of Rangi: Experiments across Worlds, has been short-listed for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2018.  Dame Anne was interviewed by The British Academy about how she came to write the book here.

It is Māori, far more than Pakeha, who recognise different world views. There is a Pakeha reality (Modernity – te ao Pakeha) and a Māori reality (te ao Māori).  I think most (Pakeha) presume a modern mechanical world because, 400 years ago, there was a revolution of thought in the European West.  Some have argued (like Bruno Latour) that we have never been completely modern (though he was critiqueing scientific faith in modernity and its inability to work in practice because separation between framing an object, and being a subject is simply not possible).

V0017128 A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil

A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog.  Emile-Edouard Mouchy.

At an extreme, the early modern experiments in live vivisection of the (presumably mechanical soulless) dog were never accepted by the general population, and hence they stopped.  But a special case can be made for those Europeans who left the homeland myths of their European villages, and ‘settled’ (in body if not in mind) in a Tabula Rasa land – blank of story, empty of moral implication and devoid of humanity – that could be treated as pure modern ‘resource’ to the colonial mind.

And so we treated it so.  Arguably far more so than would be permitted within the surrounds of their European village.   A free-for-all bonanza without moral implications is very much a part of colonial history in New Zealand (and perhaps all ‘new’ territories), starting with the seals, and continuing today with the exploitation of land, water and fisheries.  They are just things, resources, stocks, money, utility.

The characteristic of the predominantly modern mind is that we don’t necessarily recognise our own cultural lens. We’re not taught to.  Certainly not in the STEM disciplines. And so we don’t even see the lens through which we see. Therefore very few question it, or expose it to the light, let alone acknowledge its existence.  I think ‘we’ (certainly most STEM trained professional Pakeha) are taught not to even consider alternative world views. And so we’ve forgotten that we once held another, far more ‘indigenous’ view from a moral and philosophical perspective. One that was far closer to the Māori reality.

Some of us want to relearn what it is to be ‘indigenous’, native to a place. Some of us are there already, or part way there. Some think it’s about race, when it isn’t at all.

Western-and-Indigenous-World-views.jpgMany of us now believe that the problem we face, environmentally & socially – *and* in the way we ‘manage our home’ (eco – nomy) – are rooted in this Western modern world view that dissects, disintegrates and determines our whole into measured bits – with all the trappings of ‘progress’. And within that locked-in bubble ‘we’ (the professional elite) propose solutions (as technofixes) within that same destructive paradigm, which simply perpetuate our problems.  We shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic while keeping direction and arrogant certainty intact.  We live in the certain controllable world.  All aberrations are just fine tunings of the next technofix epicycle to refine the model and explain the wobble, a new perfectly circular cog to place on the perfectly circular machine.  But dont question the underlying model.   Philosophy is for hippies.


Ptolemaic Astronomy: Earth as Centre of the Universe, anomalies explained by the continued application of ad hoc epicycles.

Read Anne Salmond. I think our salvation is in finding our humanity again *within* a community, a collective sense of something beyond, a history, a place.

I think the solutions lie in re-embracing the indigenous philosophy and past of all cultures, in synthesising a new science, in those feminist environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood & Carolyn Merchant (Merchant takes us back before modernity to the Renaissance) who questioned our Western nature of reality, and why the ‘male’ virtues like objectivity, quantification, utility – all the trappings of reason – have any right to think themselves ‘better’ than ‘female’ & ‘indigenous’ virtues & interrelationships; better than nature, or passion, or care, or belonging, or kaitiakitanga, or whanaungatanga or manaakitanga – those virtues of interaction and right behaviour that are a pattern of most past cultures, not specific to Māori.

Manaakitanga - mycommunities

Within our Western modern mechanical mythology we have rationalised immoral acts (thinking the world an instrument to us, to me, now) and the accumulation of power through measured utility to self for far, far too long. We need to think again. Explore these alternative ideas. Experience those artists like John Berger and anthropologists like James Scott who challenge how we ‘see’ and feel.

I’ve told this story often. I loved land as a child. Wandered over miles with my brother from when he was only four and I was six. Allowed to roam. Sat in stunned awe in Ball’s Clearing – a podocarp/hardwood remnant. Studied forest ecology and forest management because of that …

… and was *never* taught about those feelings. Something clangs as wrong there. It is a discord – a dys-chord – in my education. There is no harmony there.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

About Chris Perley

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3 Responses to Seeing our Water: Our Solutions may lie in Another World

  1. Anne Michelle says:

    Nice : )

  2. Anne Michelle Johal says:

    as I said above : )

  3. bohochick100 says:

    “We shuffle deckchairs on the Titanic” 👏👏 Too right .

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