A Transition Imagination toward Relationality
Elizabeth A. Lange
In Charlene Spretnak’s seminal 2011 book Relational Reality, she calls for a comprehensive transformation, not only for climate justice but for human survival. For her, this means:
“a transformation of a grand scale, as many of the most basic assumptions of the centuries-old modern worldview are being radically corrected, expanded, or replaced entirely. In many respects, it feels as if the blinders are coming off that had conditioned modern societies to overlook…or aggressively replace…the profound significance of the relational dimension of life and living” (p. 6, 7).
Stories carry our basic understandings and assumptions about reality. Many of our old stories, particularly of mechanism and separation, are now changing. The science story of the cosmos where we could only see individual stars and galaxies floating alone in black space, a lifeless clockwork universe, is giving away to new images from the Hubble and now James Webb telescopes which show the filaments or energy pathways that connect all galaxies and stars. These energy fields are like superfine nets where the lines and knots are floating and moving, impacting each other constantly. This has been generating a new cosmological story, which we can call “Relationality” (see Lange et al., 2021). In this story, the universe is an unbroken wholeness in flowing movement that replaces what we have previously thought of space and time. As systems scientist and philosopher, Ervin Laszlo, says, “The world according to cutting edge science, is not an ensemble of bits and pieces of matter” in empty space but what he calls a “plenum, space filled with vibrations and forces of various kinds, some known, such as electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear fields, and others yet to be defined” (2017, p. 13). This has had a variety of scientific names such as the grand unified field, the zeropoint field, the universal quantum field, or the implicate order. Matter takes form from certain clusters of vibrations and then sinks back into the energy field. Matter is how these vibrations appear and are expressed.
This has been leading to a new ontological story that moves away from the reductionism and atomism of conventional science and social science toward an alive cosmology of holism and a participatory ontology. If we think of the universe as a highly sensitive spider’s web, just as a spider feels any little movement of the web, so these energy fields are constantly transmitting information. As many spiritual traditions have intuited, and scientists such as Einstein and then Max Planck asserted, “we must assume the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind” as that “intelligence is the matrix of all matter” (Laszlo, 2017, p. 13). This intelligence “in-forms” all matter and processes. Through such an ontology, we are not separate and isolated beings, but “nested-I’s” (Bollier & Helfrich, 2019) or beings living within “communal individuality” where we are individuals-in-relations—fundamentally embedded in social and natural relations, always participating (Gould, 1978).
This relates to the new story of the Earth, as living systems theory has been explicating (Capra & Luisi, 2014). All Earth’s systems work together as they self-organize and self-regulate to maintain the optimal conditions for life. Our task as humans, then, is to work in harmony within these systems, not violating the ecological ceilings or violating the safe and just social foundations for the human family, as illustrated in Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” (2018). We have not been cooperating within these natural system dynamics and we are now facing an array of consequences that may imperil not only the ecosphere but the ethnosphere. Thus, for me, a simple definition of Transformative Sustainability Education is “learning to live, work, and be in this lifegiving way” (Lange, 2023). This requires we transform most of these operating assumptions that currently drive modern Western societies.
Another new and related story is the new story of consciousness. As philosopher Christian de Quincey (2005) asserts, consciousness goes all the way down, to all levels of reality. Consciousness is a primary reality. It is not just humans which “have” consciousness and cognition. As Chilean biologist Francisco Maturana has said, the process of cognition is the process of life and is a property of all living systems, keeping all beings and systems alive. The world is no longer a world of biological machines (animals) with no consciousness or feelings. Thus, there is a profound participatory aspect to consciousness. As quantum theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu (2004) describes it, through interacting, giving, and receiving with all other life forms, a resonance emerges where the individual parts lose an independent identity. They become a “quantum self.”
The implication is connoting a new story of morality and ethics. As many Indigenous scholars, such as Potawatomi Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013), describe, this leads us away from individualism and “personal” moral convictions toward a collective and kinship way of being. We are already always in relation. With this new perception, we can respond respectfully to other life forms and open our perceptual channels to our deep belonging in the cosmos. Further, Indigenous languages use grammar that conveys kinship (subject–subject relations) and animacy (living entities as constantly in motion), challenging the English language. English language structure can be transformed toward verb-based language to allow for kinship thinking, away from “it” or object thinking. Kimmerer (2013) says, as all beings and elements are alive, it is disrespectful to call them “it” just as you would not call any member of your family an “it.” This implies a respect way of living that embraces an ethical relation with beings far beyond human beings.
In the new story of epistemology, as feminist physicist Karen Barad (2007) suggests, learning is responding to the intelligibility of the world, participating in this larger consciousness however it manifests. Healing the natureculture split and bodymind schism will require different forms of knowing and relating. Thus, learning is no longer just about logic and empiricism. We have access to many other ways of knowing as well, discounted for centuries. As de Quincey (2005) details, we can access the philosopher’s gift of rationality, the scientist’s gift of the senses, the shaman’s gift of participatory engagement, and the mystic’s gift of communion. Integrating these ways of knowing and levels of consciousness brings much fuller forms of learning. In this way, we also begin to respect Indigenous and Southern epistemologies for the richness they bring to the human learning endeavour, as part of decolonization.
In sum, in this time of epochal shift as Jeremy Lent (2017) calls it, is a time for profound rethinking of all elements of Western civilization, for they have backed us into a tight corner. We are the transitional generations who will experience the long climate emergency but also have the opportunity, especially as educators, to find pathways into this emerging story of Relationality. Arturo Escobar (2017) calls for a “transition imagination” that enables us to engage these new cosmo-onto-axi-epistemologies. A transition imagination can enable us to move towards this new kind of human flourishing, which he calls Buen Vivir or well-being, unique to and respectful of every place we find ourselves on this good Earth.
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Bollier, D. & Helfrich, S. (2019). Free, fair and alive: The insurgent power of the commons. New Society Publishers.
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de Quincey, C. (2005). Radical knowing: Understanding consciousness through relationship. Park Street Press.
Escobar, A. (2017). Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press.
Gould, C. (1978). Marx’s social ontology: Individuality and community in Marx’s theory of social reality. The MIT Press.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.
Lange, E. (2023). Transformative sustainability education: Reimagining our future. Earthscan at Routledge.
Lange, E. A., O’Neil, J. Kcenia Polanco, & Ross, K. E. (2021). Educating during the great transformation: Relational approaches and transformative sustainability education. Studies in Adult Education and Learning, 27(1), 23-46. https://doi.org/10.4312/as/9692
Laszlo, E. (2017). The intelligence of the cosmos: Why are we here? New answers from the frontiers of science. Inner Traditions.
Lent, J. (2017). The patterning instinct: A cultural history of humanity's search for meaning. Prometheus Books.
O’Murchu, D. (2004). Quantum theology: Spiritual implications of the new physics. The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Raworth, K. (2018). Doughnut economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-Century economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Spretnak, C. (2011). Relational reality: New discoveries of interrelatedness that are transforming the modern world. Green Horizon Books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth A Lange is Honorary and Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Futures of the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. She resides in Canada and has served three Canadian universities as an adult and lifelong education specialist. She can be found at https://elizabethlange.ca and her latest book at https://www.routledge.com/Transformative-Sustainability-Education-Reimagining-Our-Future/Lange/p/book/9780367747060.