An Eco Lens on Heritage

bridgetmck
6 min readMay 13, 2024
I’m learning to see my local river, the Wensum, pluricentrically, both as having personhood and as an unbounded wild force. This combines both a subjective connection and a letting go of likeness.

Learning to look with different ‘Eco Lenses’ helps people see the world in a fluid and an expanded way, opening up to many possibilities and interconnections.

There are various terms for an expanded perspective, with some subtle distinctions, for example:

Holistic: holding the whole picture in mind when considering parts or elements. Being holistic doesn’t imply what you should be looking at, only that you should look at the whole and the interconnections that form it.

Possitopian: (my neologism) an approach to future thinking which greatly expands the realms of possible futures, drawing on geophysical realities and data. It applies maximum imagination to help us envisage future scenarios which could be worse or better than we might allow ourselves to think.

Ecocentric: thinking from the wider perspective of Earth systems, ecosystems and their inhabitants, as opposed to a narrower anthropocentric or human-centred viewpoint (with -centric suggesting where you centre your gaze).

Pluricentric: thinking from multiple perspectives including both ecocentric and anthropocentric. It can also involve shifting between different human cultural perspectives and different types of non-human species — acknowledging racism and species-ism. Being pluricentric requires shifting your gaze, zooming in and out, and being subjective and objective.

Regenerative: thinking otherwise than the dominant economic system and culture, to see that this is degenerative, that is, destroying conditions for life on a planetary scale and with accelerating speed. It is about expanding the imagination to ways of living that enable Earth systems and ecosystems to heal themselves. It means holistically seeing places as parts nested within wholes. It means seeing all its inhabitants as expressions of life, with equal rights to exist and responsibilities to contribute to the health of the whole. It is an expanded perspective that is driven by ethics and purpose, to restore, heal and nurture all of life.

I run programmes for the arts, museums and heritage sectors that help practitioners put Eco Lenses on their work, ultimately helping them be agents for a Regenerative Culture. These lenses work at several levels, for example:

The Macro Eco Lens: the biggest, most expanded way of looking that we can manage. This might include seeing Earth as one planet of many in the cosmos, and the only known planet currently to host biodiverse life.

The Micro Eco Lens: looking closely at what might seem insignificant, or at what is hidden. This might include using technologies or the imagination. It might be about taking time to be present and observe small phenomena rather than trying to rush to make meaning or to use what can be seen.

The Human Eco Lens: for example, seeing bodies as ecosystems for multiple species of microbiota, or seeing us as a Great Ape species, exploring how we have interacted with our habitats alongside other species, or how indigenous lifeways have been denigrated as being too rooted in wild nature.

The Diagnostic Eco Lens: remembering or imagining what a healthy regenerating environment looks like, and noticing symptoms of trouble. This might include paying attention to what’s not immediately visible e.g. knowing that pollution from one continent travels to another. Seeing diagnostically brings together the macro and the micro, and the imaginative intuition alongside hard data.

Expanding, shifting and combining perspectives is challenging work, albeit necessary. Trying to look at the Earth crisis, diagnosing what’s wrong and deciding what to do is overwhelming and exhausting.

One cause for the exhaustion is pushing against the dominant colonial-consumer culture that is relentlessly simplifying all the complexities in denial of our interconnectedness with life. Our contemporary lifeways have separated us from our environs and life itself. This separation is represented by media, curricula and discourses that reinforce ‘Everyday Ecocide’.

As cultural workers, educators, environmental campaigners and mediators of all kinds, we can grow capacities and agency in people to see through these domineering mechanisms, to notice what has been made worthless or invisible, such as the whole operating system of Earth, the interspecies mesh of life, or the external impacts of our ordinary actions.

Everybody can put on their Eco Lenses. Each of us, whether we are exhausted after looking too long or overwhelmed by initiating the task, can find personal ways into this expanded way of seeing, like our own entrance into a gigantic maze or our favourite telescope in a vast observatory. The challenge with this is not to train our eyes on a single facet of the big picture, because that is to be stuck with Earth Crisis Blinkers on. (Having blinkers on means seeing the part for the whole, such as seeing carbon reduction as the only major issue — or plastic recycling or overpopulation and so on.)

Through practising with Eco Lenses, zooming in and out, thinking pluricentrically, and cultivating Eco-capacities through taking action with others in places, we can start to prefigure and build a Regenerative Culture.

I firmly believe that the Museums and Heritage sector has a great role to play in enabling this turning, but the people in the sector need to turn their heads to a Regenerative horizon. This means asking always “what are we doing to enable a viable future for people and planet? What are we doing to enable conditions conducive to life?”

The image below indicates the shifts needed within this sector through to the third horizon:

  • The Dominant paradigm is about dominion over groups of people and nature, expressed in the commodification of culture.
  • The Humanist imagination is considered a benign and desirable paradigm, but is too anthropocentric and risks supporting the dominant paradigm.
  • Pluricentric cultures is a paradigm of acknowledging human rootedness in biodiverse life in places, and the vital need to restore these systems.

Looking at my diagram below, you can read this upwards from the roots, showing how the dominant paradigm arises out of abstraction from life — a brain isolated from the body and its relationships with other bodies. This is contrasted with the form of a tree, and the idea that humans and our heritage are expressions of life.

The roots of the Dominant Paradigm are Colonised Territories, which give rise to Extracted Raw Materials, which are turned into Consumer Objects and Commodified Heritage, made by Producers (in a hierarchy whereby labour is exploited), and received by Consumers. Then all of this heritage is interpreted through separate Subjects, which barely acknowledge dependence on living systems. (Other ways of seeing culture exist around this paradigm but are unimportant.)

The roots of the Humanist Imagination are in Human-designed Places, which give rise to (more-or-less) Valued Materials, which are turned into Artefacts and Tangible Heritage, made by Artists, and received by Audiences. Then all of this heritage is interpreted through Enquiries that might be interdisciplinary but remain abstracted from life. (Other ways of seeing culture exist around this paradigm but are less important than the foregrounding of human creativity and civilisation.)

The roots of Pluricentric Cultures are in Nested Ecosystems (humans with other species in place), the health of which is seen in Geodiversity and Biodiversity, generating the adaptive capacities and interactions of Multispecies’ Expressions, which are valued as Intangible Heritage, created by Regenerators who facilitate culture with Participants. All this heritage is interpreted in various forms of Stories, including scientific stories. (Other ways of seeing culture are integrated into this paradigm, taking care not to let the Dominant Paradigm dominate and harm the life of the whole.)

You might see a resonance with the Three Horizons framework, which I’ve been lightly thinking about for the past 10 years. I think the Cultural sector is very strongly wedded to Horizon Two, because the social perception of its value is all about ‘doing things differently’. The creative entrepreneur and auteur does not want to go back in time to traditional lifeways. The humanist does not want to acknowledge our animality. The poorly funded public cultural sector is so close to collapse that they rely on support from those profiting from the Dominant Paradigm.

I’m aware this is all quite complicated. I know that looking at the Earth crisis, and looking with Eco Lenses is exhausting. I find hope and clarity in thinking this all through, and hope that some of you might appreciate it too.

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bridgetmck

Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK. Co-founder Culture Declares. Cultural researcher, artist-curator, educator. http://bridgetmckenzie.uk/