Subcedence, Neoliberalism, and the Coming Ecological Collapse

Since my research is in its very early stages still, I thought I’d use this blog space as a way to express some first impressions of topics I’ve encountered thus far.

Firstly, the overarching theme of the paper can be condensed into a simple slogan: system change, not climate change. An informed reader will know that the environmental situation, generally, isn’t good. What’s more controversial, however, is that the underpinnings of the sixth mass extinction event that is the result of the anthropocene is rooted in the very fundamental ontology – that is, fundamental beliefs about the nature of being – of the institutions that govern our lives. Timothy Morton, a philosophy professor and writer, identifies as the core of this ontological issue an idea that pervades nearly all Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, and one that’s undoubtedly familiar to the reader; the assertion that wholes are greater than their parts.When assembled fully into a whole the parts yield something with a much greater status, or so we think. This is evident in the ways that we conceive of objects such as, say, a car. Individually, each part isn’t particularly special nor interesting, but when put all together, they become a car! In the prevailing ontology, cars are taken to have a higher state of existence than mere car parts. Morton, however, denies this. Instead, he supports an ontology of “subcedence,” where parts and wholes exist on the same ontological level. That is: a car and a wheel have the same ontological status.

This is difficult to grasp at first, but it helps to think about an example. Take, as Morton uses, a meadow. Pluck one blade of grass from the meadow. Does it remain a meadow? Certainly. Pluck another. Still a meadow? Yep, and continue on until there’s only one blade of grass left. When did it stop becoming a meadow? Instead of engaging with this issue head-on, as philosophers have done for centuries, Morton instead proposes that we view a “meadow” as a porous, spongy sort of being that is flexible in its constituents (it’s still a meadow if a blade of grass is plucked, or the gopher family in it moves out), yet not anything greater than its constituents. There is, in Morton’s view, an irreducible difference between meadowness generally speaking and this particular meadow, where the former is what leads to rigid, binary issues that philosophers have struggled with for centuries (evidenced by the grass-plucking example). Crucially, this is not to be confused with the position that the meadow, as a spongy, ethereal whole, is reducible to what makes it up (the grass, the flowers, the animals, etc.), but rather that the meadow in all its etherial sponginess does exist as a meadow, but in the very same way that the gopher family that resides in the meadow exists as a gopher family. The whole is not reducible to its parts, and neither are its parts entirely exhausted by their presence in the whole (the gopher family could just as well find a different meadow to live in).

The implications of this view would undermine the core ontology that guides neoliberalism and its exploitation. Rather than the individual (or more accurately, the consumer) being the basic unit of society as neoliberalism would have it, both individuals and society exist in a mushy, incomplete way, and neither can be reduced to the other. Instead, when dealing with environmental issues and questions of resource allocation, we must begin from a place of immersion from within our surroundings, and work to provide enjoyment for all things, not simply ourselves (since, as Scott Gilbert1 would claim, we are and never have been ourselves).

With the perpetuation of the sixth mass extinction event on this planet churning ahead at full speed, the time certainly is now to ask what fundamental beliefs we hold are actively working to perpetuate such destruction.



Gilbert, S., Sapp, J., & Tauber, A. (2012). A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 87(4), 325-341.

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