Thursday 30 September 2021

Ecology Expanded (2021)

 From The Philosopher, Volume CIX No. 1 2021

Aldo Leopold was an advocate of the need to maintain wolves and other large carnivores in forest ecosystems 

Ecology Expanded

By Andrew Porter

If there’s one thing that philosophy often returns to, it is that, as often as not, our concepts are too delimited. My interest here is whether this perennial concern applies to the field of ecology, and that if indeed it does, whether and how we ought to broaden it. Certainly, today’s environmental thinkers, naturalists, and scientists have done a very thorough job of delineating the components of ecologies all across the globe, but my argument is that they leave it there without realising that ‘ecology’ may have a further and grander application as a universal force and fact. 

This thought opens up some promising new avenues. Firstly, because any attempt to broaden our concept of ecology will extend it to include two other major components of what are generally identified as the realms of actuality. ‘Ecology’ is conventionally understood to mean the interactions of organisms with each other and with their natural environment and this is, of course, its most visible aspect. As we observe and reflect, we are learning that species and their surroundings are more intricate and holistic than we have schematised, yet how might 'ecology' as an ontological fact be fundamental to reality everywhere? To answer this, surely the first step is to revisit the question: ‘What is ecology?’ 

Let us start with the ecological notion of ‘interrelationship’

Let us start with the ecological notion of ‘interrelationship’. Humans are good at both discovering and creating such interrelationships. The contemporary world prides itself on being ‘interconnected’, adept at manipulating one kind of concatenation or another. It may, however, be useful to step back and also look at what may be the standard and archetype of interconnection. For human life is grounded in nature, or a pattern of broader reality. When I say this it seems as if I am advancing one great Ecology with a capital ‘E’, but actually what I want to concentrate on is two manifestations of ecology – in order to see how they work understood as sets of interrelationships. 

Now, as we all know, ecosystem processes are those that sustain and regulate the environment. The study of ecology might easily be expanded to include how this works in, say, the concept of a person as part of a seamless web within the intricacies of the universe. We cannot presume what it is that sustains and regulates, but we can explore it genuinely.

Within such an exploration, there seem to be three levels. First, the ecology of natural ecosystems, secondly, ecological balance within ourselves, and thirdly, the interrelationships of the whole cosmos. These three have the hallmarks of being themselves an ‘ecology’. They are each extraordinary organic systems of physical and nonphysical energies. 

Indeed, each person’s set of virtues is an ecology. It is not a gratuitous analogy to say magnanimity, kindness, courage, and wisdom are a set similar in coherence and effect to the complex of components such as lungs, lateral collateral ligaments, the cochlea, and the part of the brain called the Sylvian fissure. The point is that the physical and the non-physical create a total system of ‘virtue’ – a plexus of interrelated parts – that defines the whole person. The ecology of it is that the physical and nonphysical are not different substances. Some immaterial ‘energy’ is at the root of both.

Inside ourselves are vivid moral actualities as well as species of spirituality and principle, along with muscle, bone, brain cells, eyes, the power of will, toenails, thoughts, emotions, and the tissue and functioning of organs.

The internal ecosystem of living things may have a diversity of components, but the relation among the components, physical and nonphysical, directly results in thriving. One life may be an organization of phloem, xylem, leaves, roots, and the vegetable life force, but the nexus, the connecting heart, of the system is growth and exuberance as that kind of plant. Indeed, the parts in harmony make the whole. The makeup of an animal matrix is an ecology of purpose, instinct, heart, alimentary canal, anus, brain, emotion, and muscle, among others and with variation. Morphogenesis is often a function of interrelation between this makeup and the limits or opportunities of the environment. But the nature of a species stays consistent, as if the whole that the ecology makes establishes a continuity of behaviours and inner character. Ecophysiology can explore this.

Outside ourselves we see chipmunks and soil, trees and sky, foxes and ice cliffs, and so on. Outer ecology is not only physicality; it also has unseen forces and efficacious powers such as principles of ‘order and freedom’ or ‘time and timelessness’, creating a kind of overall harmony. And we notice that the universe, too, has a wonderful blend of invisible and visible entities in a state of ecology, such as the principles of goodness and beauty, the stars Sadalmelik and Fomalhaut, powers that derive from the interplay of polarities, and planets four times the size as Earth yet with the same density. 

The universe, I speculate, has nodes, that is, connections between entities and nexuses of valuing that are at the centre of its character. This logos seems to work by a system of, one, concentrations, such as star systems and two, general powers, such as density waves or principles of complementarity; this is its ecology. Valuing is not limited to humans; if it were, humans would not be here. If I were asked to define the universe in a phrase, I would say that it is the active valuing by spirit of how and whether something fits. We discern from ecosystems and biomes that they are instances of a cosmic interplay between universal or general spirit and individual, particular spirit. Certain ideas in physics support this as well: ideas such as that energies that are omnipresent are in synergy with singular energies. The comprehension of a perfected eagle wing by general spirit may be active in the morphology of an eagle's wings. The beauty of a natural environment may have an effect on the complex of energies that make up an animal or a person.    

Ecology is a presence everywhere, as if loathe to skip being anywhere. It is the fullness and richness of nature with the deepest ecology consisting in wholeness – of all levels. And so, in light of this, it makes sense to conceive of ecology as inclusive of all its levels or layers. Such omnipresence of ecology signals or suggests that there is a universal impetus to reiterate exactly this kind of order and purpose. As there are individuals, relations, and wholes together creating the ‘Big Three’ types of entity in discernible reality, there seem also to be three thrusts of ecological being: the universal, that of Earth, and that of interior nature. And if each is ‘its own’ system, this only underscores the potent ability of nature to delineate levels or areas without sacrificing wholeness and unity.  

Consider too that conventional approaches to ecology might include the study of organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems, whereas a more comprehensive approach might focus on principles, systems, and the intelligence and efficacy of spirit – whether in the arena of soul or that of formative principles similar to the World-Soul identified by Plotinus. 

The editors of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (2010) write: 
‘Because we have an obligation not to destroy our own kind, our own selves, our own cultures, we have a corresponding moral obligation not to destroy the ecological and geological foundations of our lives and the future of humankind on Earth’.
Can metaphysics change mindsets? I think so. And reconfigured mindsets can change the world. Including all levels of reality is like caring about those seven generations ahead; the expansion elicits a different mindset. And it is mindsets that will decimate or rescue Earth’s ecologies.

However, we might ask: what supports the idea that there are three levels of ecology? We take earthly ecology as a fairly well-known fact and definition, and thus standard, of what ecology is and how it works. The language of ecology seems enlargeable, not just because we’re prone to draw parallels and dream up connections, but because, across the three areas, commonality emerges as actual.

How do we keep all three in mind and perceive both unity and differences? Theoretical physics might be one lens, systems theory might be another, and biology or even metaphysics might be useful in enabling us to conceptualise correspondences and similarities. Metaphysics, by the way, in attempting to explain ‘first questions’, both temporal and logical, is very useful in exploring deep questions about what is currently extant. Allowing all three – internal, earthly, and cosmic – to have their organic place not only helps us conceive, but also spurs our realisation that there is, overall, an august and prodigious Ecology corresponding to our theory.

We might try x as the organisms in the cosmic ecology, y as its biotic and abiotic environment. A consensus or an individual insight might identify the x as unseen forces and immaterial spiritual entities that holistically guide, measure, and modulate. The y might be seen as physical existents of all kinds – dust, asteroids, upland larkspur, stars, planets, galaxies, etc. Together, x and y fulfill the values and principles inherent in discernible nature. If this isn’t food for thought, not much, I think, can be.

Ecological ethics, with its long and storied history, is rich with voices concerned to advance clarity and moral vision to protect the planet from disastrous harm. Over the years, ecological ethics has been strengthened by both the vigour of physical ecologies and human thought. Science and other disciplines may delineate and explore the concept of the subject, but it seems that we're on good ground if we extend the concept to include broader realities than simply organisms and their natural environment. This greater inclusion is, I think, a vital part of generating the ethical action needed to save the Earth. 
How would ecological ethics benefit from a broader focus? An expanded concept of ecology would allow ecological science to go the direction of physics, meaning to go toward what, in conventional terms, might seem esoteric and exotic (such as quantum physics), but which in fact is experimentally supported.  

Environmental ethics might benefit from this larger reference. For instance, the theory of biocentric egalitarianism, related to but not identical with deep ecology championed by Paul Taylor in his 1986 book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, might now see humans as part and parcel of this wider universal vitality.

Ecology’s founding father, Aldo Leopold, wrote in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac
‘When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.... That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.’
Understanding that ecology is not limited to physical Earth ecology, we can love and respect the internal structuring of a life as well the universal complex of values, interrelations, and wholes.

More recently too, the environmentally-oriented urban planner, Jonathan F. P. Rose, says in an essay called ‘A Transformational Ecology’ (published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, 2010) that:
‘The ecological issues facing us are human-caused issues.... Our disharmony [with nature] comes from flaws in the way that we think. In essence, the ecological issues before us are ontological issues, issues having to do with our beliefs about the nature of the world.’ 
This accords with environmental activist and author Wendell Berry’s words: ‘The Earth is what we all have in common’. Earth’s ecologies subsist within a larger environment of energy and also have micro ecologies nested within them.

Broadening the concept of ecology to include the essence of physical things, living or otherwise, with the ecologies of the universe complements comprehension of earthly ecology and hints at why things fit together so well. Entailing all the circles and spheres of what can best be called intelligent spirit acknowledges that ecology works anywhere because of this essential nature. 


About the author 

Andrew Porter is an independent scholar in the United States, especially interested in literature, history, and philosophy.

Address for correspondence: Andrew Porter <>