The interconnectedness of things: an interview with Prof. Matthijs Schouten

10 August 2016

Matthijs Schouten is Professor of Ecology and Philosophy of Nature Restoration at the Wageningen University and Professor of Nature and Landscape Protection at the University of Cork, Ireland. He also works as a senior strategist for The National Forest Service in the Netherlands, as well as being a self-proclaimed ‘student of Buddhism’. Schouten is the author of numerous books and his conversations on the unity between people and nature with Princess Irene of the Netherlands formed the basis of her book ‘Leven in verbinding’ (Living in connection). In this interview with Richard Glass, he talks about how humans have become disconnected from nature and their food, the need for a new approach to farming and the importance of interconnection in solving the world’s challenges.

You have talked about the anonymity of our food chain, for example people’s only contact with animals being the steak in cellophane at the supermarket. You have also stated if you eat meat, you should be prepared to kill the animal yourself. To what extent do we need to break our attachment to meat and how do we reclaim our food chain?

It would be very good to break our attachment to meat from the environmental perspective. There are quite a few problems with the food system. One fascinating problem is that we have become disconnected from the process that brings us the food on our table. For example, the tomato you eat has a whole chain of events behind it. And when you understand that chain of events, you understand that you are part of the process; you are part of a wider world full of interactions and relationships. That understanding is increasingly lost, because you just walk to Albert Heijn supermarket now and take something from a shelf. That gives a sense of displacement in terms of food.

Education is part of solving that problem. I think that education about food in schools is crucial. We have to teach children and society as a whole what is needed to produce food, what’s involved in what you eat. That also involves awareness about the requirements of other creatures. That’s why I said you shouldn’t eat meat unless you are prepared to kill the animal. If you just go to the supermarket and buy your little chunk of meat wrapped in plastic, you have no idea of how the animal was raised, how it was brought to a slaughterhouse, how it was killed. I think that understanding is crucial, otherwise you shouldn’t eat it. Then you are disconnected with the world that feeds you.

The other thing in relation to food and I find that just as worrying is the fact that our food is too cheap. It’s not sustainable. Whatever I eat, I simply pay the production price. What I do not pay are all the externalities that are involved in the production process. I do have to pay it in the end, as I have to pay for the cleaning of the environment through taxes. That’s what the Department of Environment does. But that’s not reflected in the food price. All the subsidies that go to farmers in order to maintain the EU farming policy is not in the price of the food. So in the end what we pay for what we get on our table doesn’t add up. The price of food should be higher. This is not sustainable and it’s going to collapse at some point.

In a lecture recently for the It’s the Food, my Friend! Series, you touched on the Indian concept of Ahimsa , not harming other living beings, compared to the Western perception of nature, which places man above animal. To what extent have we become disconnected in the West from nature and the environment?

When I was studying comparative religion and philosophy, I always found it most striking how in the West we humans have completely separated ourselves from the rest of creation. It’s rather Western. It started in the Greek and Roman civilisations, where nature was seen as designed to serve humans, the only beings with a rational mind or ‘logos’ and therefore superior to all other beings. The relationship to what is around us is different in the West from what it originally was in the East. That is very much connected to this image of a rational mind, which separates you from everything that is not rational. This image resonates more strongly in the Western Christian tradition than biblical images which suggest a closer connection between humans and nature. It is interesting to see that when you ask westerners what happened on the sixth day of creation according to the Book of Genesis, they invariably answer: the creation of mankind. They forget that Genesis states that on that day first ‘the animals with a soul’, that is the terrestrial animals, were created. We do not have an own day! We collectively overlook this because we read the Bible from a Greek-Roman perspective.

In the East the relationship with animals is even closer. In India, there was the principal of Ahimsa, which emerged in Hinduism and Buddhism. That simply means you do not harm any being that has senses and can feel. So that’s a completely different view to how we perceive animals. Descartes stated that there are only two substances, namely matter and mind, and as he could not that prove any other beings apart from humans have a mind, all creatures apart from humans were to him merely things that moved through the laws of mechanics. So, the world became a world of things, except one rational being: us. That makes us orphans in this world, rather lonely. The way we now treat animals on a larger scale, such as factory farming, is rather cruel. We position ourselves as owners of all that has been created and exploiters of all that has been created,which leads to large-scale destruction of ecosystems and practices like factory farming.

What is the source of our disconnection from nature and is there optimism for the future?

It all boils down to the illusion that we think there is a separated self, that we are an entity that is independent of the world around us, both physically and mentally. That’s an illusion, which is what Buddhism stated a long time ago and certain other religious systems as well. It’s ecologically proven. Ecology now also teaches us this truth: we are part of an ecological system and if we destroy that, it’s the end for us.

The Vietnamese philosopher Thích Nhất Hạnh has talked about ‘interbeing’. On the first page of one of his books he writes that if you’re a poet you will see sunshine in this sheet of paper, because without sunshine trees do not grow. If you look deeper, you will also see a cloud in this sheet of paper, because without rain the trees can also not grow. And if you even look deeper you will see the logger who cut the tree and took it to the mill to make this paper etc. And then you also see yourself, because the paper is now part of your consciousness. So you’re in this paper too. Then he says a fascinating thing. Maybe we should abandon the verb ‘to be’, because the verb ‘to be’ suggests that things and beings can exist independently of the world around them. But no one and nothing exists independently of all the rest. All exists only because the other exists. So he continues, maybe we should coin a new verb ‘to inter-be’.

That is a view that modern science, including psychology, sociology, physics, ecology, all point to. When you really see this, your relationship with the world changes. You’re not an independent entity that stands on its own. You’re part of everything that happens. This view forms the basis for a sustainable life style. When we can feel this, we will move towards a sustainable future, because then we won’t exploit and destroy. It also gives an enormous joy to discover you are not alone or orphaned. You’re part of everything that happens.

All the great problems we have now, such as climate change, the ecological crisis and the monetary crisis have to do with that deep-ingrained illusion of a separated self. What I see changing, and that is happening on various levels of society, is a move away from separation and isolation towards a more connected worldview. The old religious traditions are all falling apart in the West, and what we see emerging instead are various forms of modern spirituality, which are often inspired by non-Western traditions. And in this  modern spirituality, the sense of connectedness is very strong, also connectedness with nature.

All kinds of young people are setting up their own businesses and want to do it sustainably. They are concerned about how their business contributes to the whole biosphere, instead of just what profit they can make. There is my optimism. I have the feeling that our society is moving away from a rather anthropocentric view based on the illusion of a separate self towards a more connected worldview.

How do we move forward when the Donald Trumps of this world are gaining political power, and have so little interconnectedness and compassion?

Ghandi is supposed to have said that we have an inherent problem in politics and within the power structures of the world, because the people who want power have no soul, and the people who have souls want no power. I think there is a problem that those people who shape certain things in this world are not always the most compassionate, open and connected. Trump is a dangerous person. Whatever you feel about Hillary Clinton at least there is a sense of responsibility and being connected to the wider world. I have the feeling that Donald Trump is only connected to himself.

There’s an awareness growing in the West of global relationships, which stems from Eastern civilisations. Take the clothing industry. When I buy something in the shop here, I buy at the same time what happens in Bangladesh. I’m part of the well-being of the people there. That’s the interbeing that Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about. When I buy lentils, I buy the farming system of the place where the lentils have been produced. I buy the social circumstances of people. That is what interconnectedness or interbeing is, and that awareness is growing.

At the same time, and as a result, exploitative systems feel threatened. That’s the counter reaction to these new developments in society. The very important thing now is to be alert because dissention is growing in society. We are losing the middle ground in politics and are moving to extreme stands on the right and the left.. There is a sense of dissatisfaction in so many people, which is also the breeding ground for populism. I don’t think this dissatisfaction in Western society is about material stuff. I have a feeling there’s a much stronger dissatisfaction that has to do with the feeling of powerlessness and disconnectedness.

I just came back from a landscape conference in Ireland. We discussed an interesting phrase that was coined by French philosopher Marc Augé that is ‘non-lieux’ or ‘non-place’. A landscape that has developed slowly over the course of time gives a sense of place. What has been happening very rapidly in the second half of the last century through technological development and socio-economic development is that we are constantly changing the landscape. We have created landscapes where people feel no sense of place or sense of belonging. Nobody wants these landscapes, but they are emerging everywhere. Augé called them ‘non-places’. These places give you a sense of displacement and disorientation. They’re part of this whole sense of powerlessness. That has to do with disconnection, not feeling part of a community. At the same time I see a change. People are building their own communities and making new networks. We are in a time of transition; a fascinating time, but also a worrying time.

The Burren biotope in Ireland is one of your areas of expertise. You have talked of destruction of biodiversity and traditional farming methods there, and how this reflects a wider trend. You have placed the blame on the EU and increasing drive towards efficiency and intensive farming. Should the EU be reformed and how should this occur?

There’s absolutely reform needed in that sense. About half of the EU budget is for agriculture. There is EU policy for nature conservation and environmental protection, but it has not been integrated sufficiently with what is happening with large-scale agriculture. I think it’s very important for the EU to revise its agricultural policy. They are not integrating environmental and biodiversity aspects into farming practices and farming subsidies. That needs to change. Within the EU, the whole farming policy is still primarily focused on agricultural output and intensification of the output.

Farming is also about creating landscapes and biodiversity. In the Netherlands at the moment, biodiversity is much higher in cities than in the countryside, except for nature reserves. Biodiversity has declined in the countryside to such an extent that it’s almost, from an ecological perspective, a desert. So, integration of biodiversity issues into farming policies is crucial. There needs to be some statutory change.

The argument is always made that there is a growing world population that needs to be fed so we need to intensify. But that’s scientifically wrong. A lot of research has been done recently, which has also been accepted by journals like Nature, which shows that we can feed the world population with more environmentally friendly farming without the need to expand the area used for agriculture. So, this idea that we need to intensify farming is a myth.

You are a practicing Buddhist. How this informed your worldview and what could it teach society as a whole?

I studied biology, but that gave me no insight into why we as humans are doing what we are doing to the environment. That’s why I studied philosophy and comparative religion and I became fascinated by the East simply because the approach there is about interconnectedness and loving-kindness and compassion.

I’m a true scientist in that I believe in scientific research, but there’s more to life than just science. If we just approach reality in a scientific way, we become a little bit blinkered, because in the end it’s also about relationships with this world. How do we emotionally connect with this world? Buddhism proceeds from two observations: everything is always in a process of change and nothing and no one can exist independently of the world around them. These are – in modern terms – basic scientific facts. Buddhism then draws the conclusion that when one is able to live one’s life in accordance with these realities, one automatically finds inner peace and develops loving kindness towards the world. I am empirically testing this conclusion in my personal life.