Ecological Thinking?

Published October 21, 2013-Updated February 9, 2018

Ecology is the study of interactions among organisms and their environment. One can even think about the human race in ecological terms, and this form of thinking is vital if we want to have a future. If we let our thinking transgress the boundaries of scientific disciplines, ecology becomes philosophy enhanced with information. Ecology stands for our relationship with nature. Philosophers have thought about this question for a long time, but now the debate is no longer academic, it has become very urgent because it threatens our survival. We have to throw out distinctions that have worked well for a long time. For instance the traditional distinction between nature and culture: these are not different regions of life, they co-exist and they are deeply intertwined. Nature does not exist outside of our cities, or underneath the asphalt of Los Angeles. It exists everywhere, all the time. It’s in the rain, the erosion, the bleaching through the sun. It’s in the animals that survive miraculously even in these city deserts. It’s in the grass leaves that break through the asphalt. It’s in the chemical processes of your brain while you think about these words. Our categorizations lead to a form of denial when we think that nature is somewhere else, just because we spend most of our lives inside a house, and we can switch on the lights at night.

Ecology addresses the connections between organisms and their environment, and therefore also the relations between organisms. Four ideas need to be emphasized:

1. Position of the human being. We are not elevated above nature as the Christian tradition has suggested for the last two thousand years. We are a part of the biosphere, and the question becomes whether we are a form of cancer, or whether we understand our place in the continuous self-transformation of nature that is called evolution. Seduced by our technological breakthroughs in the last few hundred years, we have adopted a god-like viewpoint from above, driven by a fantasy of the total domination of nature. But this is just another illusion of self-consciousness, a form of megalomania, not unlike fascism, but now in relation to nature.

2. De-realization through scientific perspective. The more we know about a snail, for instance, the stranger the animal becomes. We relate to other creatures by identifying motives, like hunger, sex drives, etc. But once we look at the mechanisms underlying these motivations, the unity of the organism disappears, and the physics, chemistry, and biology that constitute the unique creature make it almost transparent in relation to the evolutionary forces that shape it. Evolutionary slogans tell us, for instance, that evolution is shaped by the “survival of the fittest.” The fittest what? Does the mechanism of natural selection work on the level of the genes, the individual, the biological family or clan, or the species? What exactly is a “species”?

3. The more we know, the stranger it becomes. Nature is otherness, and it is everywhere. What seems familiar to us initially, becomes stranger and stranger, the more we know about it. This is true for physics and its discoveries, and it is certainly true for ecology and the relations between organisms. There are thousands of science-fiction stories depicting the encounter of humans and aliens, but we have these encounters already when we just look at an earthworm, for instance. The idea of a an encounter with strange otherness excites our fantasies, but we forget that we are surrounded by strangeness every day. The more we know about the organisms and the nature that surround us, the stranger everything becomes. We spin this “strangeness” into something miraculous, and we like to visit natural sites that are “awe-inspiring.”

4. Everything is connected to everything else. There are no firm boundaries in the real; they exist only through our attempts to categorize everything. The evolution of one species impacts the evolution of others; natural resources are created and re-cycled in multiple ways, and we are just beginning to understand that the biosphere is a complex system whose elements are other complex systems. Charles Darwin wrote about the above-mentioned earthworm, for instance: “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.” The fundamental interconnectedness of nature makes us a total part of it as well. We begin to learn the truth of this interconnectedness because we interrupted the ecological system of our planet deeply enough to feel the consequences.

Ecological thought is more than just knowing something about the connections between organisms and the environment. It is about opening our minds to the network of connections into which we are embedded. At its limit, it is a radical openness to everything. The ecological thought is full of shadow and twilight; it has to free itself from delusions by abandoning the Disney version of an idyllic nature.

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