As humans have become more and more developed, it seems as though we have lost the ability to connect with the natural world on a deeper, experiential level.

As we have developed, our experience of nature has changed, and we are limited in how we can relate to or understand other denizens of the natural world by how we perceive it.

Umwelt is a word that describes the sensory bubble that limits our perception of the world around us. As humans, we can only experience what can be perceived by our sensory organs, and so our Umwelt is very specific to us. Other creatures have more, fewer or simply just different sensory organs to us and so their Umwelten is vastly different to ours; different to the extent that it is potentially impossible for us to understand how they perceive the world. We can imagine viewing light at a higher frequency perhaps, as some birds do, but it is impossible for us to imagine how scallops perceive the ocean surface with up to 200 eyes lining the edge of the mantle of their shells.

Because of all of the various sensory organs that evolution has devised to navigate life on Earth, the myriad creatures that call it home have an equally large number of ways of perceiving the world. The possibilities of perception are endless; endless Umwelten.

This discovery of various Umwelten was a relatively recent one — the term being coined by Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — and so it would seem to make sense that, prior to this, humans just thought of other creatures as being less intelligent, or less conscious, than us. As the argument would have gone, and still goes: we perceive the world and it seems that other creatures do not perceive the world as much as us, if at all. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that we are conscious of the natural world and they are not, or at least less conscious than us.

This worldview, of humans being the most conscious being or only conscious being has troubled philosophers and scientists for centuries. Many scholars believe in a theory called physicalism — matter is unconscious and the physical world is the ultimate reality. This theory runs into difficulty trying to explain consciousness, however. On the one hand, purist physicalists might claim that consciousness is just an illusion and the result of physical happenings in the brain. Others resort to dualism, the belief that while matter is physical, consciousness is something different and immaterial. Those in the latter camp must then explain how the material and immaterial can possibly interact.

Clearly, consciousness has caused quite a mess. However, there may be a very good reason for this. We are trying to explain consciousness in terms that were never meant to explain it. Father of modern physics, Galileo, was unable to see how consciousness fit into his scientific lexicon, and so he discarded it. From the very beginning, the mathematical, and so scientific world was never equipped to explain consciousness. The French philosopher René Descartes ran into a similar problem when defining the ‘mind-body problem’, and so simply defined matter (i.e., the body) as unconscious and separate to the ‘mind’.

There is one view that can account for the problem of consciousness, however. Panpsychism is the view that everything, down to an atom, has a level of consciousness, a level of experience. Atoms are not necessarily conscious in the same way we are, but perhaps they are conscious at some primitive level. Even the most basic systems that are able to sustain themselves, such as trees, plants, bacteria and amoeba, could experience a kind of mentality and simple consciousness. Panpsychists are not claiming that cars are conscious, as they do not self-organise or sustain themselves as organic matter does.

“The possibilities of perception are endless; endless Umwelten.”

It is easy for us to dismiss other creatures as not being conscious for exactly the same reason as we find it hard to relate to other creatures — we do not share the same Umwelt. We perceive the world in a uniquely human way. It’s possible we also experience consciousness in a uniquely human way.

Panpsychism still views the material world as the ultimate reality, though it has broadened the definition of the material world to include conscious experience. If nature is alive and conscious in this way, then the Earth is more like an organism than a machine.

Perhaps this is the root of the problem. Perhaps we have been treating the Earth like a machine, and not an organism, this entire time. In many ways, this is exactly what we’ve been doing in treating the planet like an infinite resource that is here for our pleasure. Gone are the days of animist societies that believed the world was full of other ways of being alive, cultures that offered sacrifices to the sun and used the Sea to connect with God. No, God is dead and science is the new religion.

To solve the climate crisis, of course we need cleaner, greener technologies; of course we need to stop fossil fuel production and end deforestation. However, what we really need is a shift in ideas. In being so focussed on the carbon equation we have blinkered ourselves. Current policy and opinion around the world is reactive and aims to solve the symptom, not the cause. Mother Nature is crying, and we ignore her at our peril.

Reading Recommendations:

An Immense World — Ed Yong

Science and Spiritual Practices — Rupert Sheldrake

Galileo’s Error — Philip Goff