Environmental giving is radical philanthropy

19 08 2010

My friend Fred Garnett says often that we need an ecological epistemology. I didn’t know quite what he meant, apart from understanding it literally: That we need a way of knowing which is rooted in ecological thinking. Or, we need ways of organising our knowing with a shared horizon of understanding that is ecological not eco-illogical. Epistemology is about our wisdom at root, and the way it manifests and evolves in words, images, narratives, categories, conversations, institutional priorities and education. I’ve been looking out for examples to make my understanding of this idea more concrete. Here’s one example for now: Philanthrophy.

Philanthropy means love of mankind, or generosity towards your fellow people. Another term in the same domain is Corporate Social Responsibility. Our terminologies about giving are all about our own species. Yes, it’s true that donkey sanctuaries are among the most popular charitable causes, but it could also be argued that from this perspective pets have become individuated and anthropomorphised. Animal philanthrophy is about giving to honorary humans, the animals given special sympathy exactly because they have been treated so abjectly.  It is very rare for people to give (especially those with money to give) to a system, especially a system that isn’t led or epitomised by a human figure (or honorary human). On the other hand, when people don’t have wealth to give but time, or love, or ideas, and especially when they are embedded in a ‘challenge community’ or an ecosystem, they are more likely to give to that whole system (rather than to an individual).

I’ve been questioning a lot of people about their attitudes to philanthropy, about what they think are priority causes. The majority don’t immediately think in terms of  ‘environmental philanthropy’. Some really struggle with the concept, seeing it as an oxymoron, that by focusing on ecology you favour something abstract or inhuman over direct humanitarian action. I’ve thought very hard about the root causes of humanitarian crises (extreme poverty, disease, destruction of communities, war, crime and disease). I think they can all be traced to environmental causes, or in other words, an ecocidal attitude embedded in our system. These lead to resource scarcity (and its corollary, unequal consumption), environmental disasters, a toxic overload and disconnection from an ecologically rooted culture. I want to see more giving (of money, time, ideas, love etc) that tackles those causes, otherwise we will be bankrupted by appeals for aid for worse and worse environmental disasters as each month passes. For that to happen, we have to think differently about what giving means.


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