Why the Ecological Imagination Matters


  • “..The watchwords of the nineteenth century have been, struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, commercial antagonism between nations, military warfare. The struggle for existence has been construed into a gospel of hate. The full conclusion to be drawn from a philosophy of evolution is fortunately of a more balanced character. Successful organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.” – Whitehead AN. 1925. Science and the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 265.

On July 14, 2016, a team of researchers at the University College, London, announced that species biodiversity worldwide had fallen below levels considered safe for ecosystem stability. [i]

“..For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries — an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study.

Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.

The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat…”

We cannot exist outside of nature. Our whole evolution as a species has been attuned to the rhythms and limits of nature. We forget that at our peril. From the looks of the latest reports from ocean biologists, climate scientists, and ecologists, our peril has never been greater.

That is why we need to stop discussing “the environment” and “nature” as if it was outside the world inhabited by humanity.[ii] 

For those environmentalists who delight in say “Nature bats last” I have news: this is not a game. If your model of the environmental issues is one that pits humans against Nature, that makes of “nature” an intelligence that is better off without human interference, you are labouring under a serious, even fatal, misunderstanding. The human role within the natural world on this planet is not that of an adversary. It never is, for any living creature. In fact, the human role is important to the health and stability of that natural world. Turning large stretches of the biosphere over to “Nature”, free of human activity, is not a solution to environmental problems created by industrial civilization, it is abdication of responsibility.

Let me explain. Out of the darkness of confusion of human affairs we do not always focus on what kind of creature we evolved to be in this world. Those of us who have become preoccupied by the theatre of civilization, absorbed by the human drama, often fail to look up, to check the bigger picture beyond the stage. A few have: Galileo did. Darwin did. Brothers Eugene and Howard Odum looked up too, and together founded modern ecological science in the 1950s.  Another who looked up was biologist Edward O. Wilson, before falling back into the oppositional binary error of assuming it was man against nature when he wrote The Social Conquest of Earth in 2012.

It was never conquest. It was never even a contest. The evolutionary niche of the modern human species is not to overcome limits and dangers of the biosphere, but to understand it, and even, to sustain harmony within it.

Models of human social and economic prehistory, despite the insights offered by Whitehead nearly a century ago, have also tended to overlook the role of ecosystem feedbacks. Most narratives about cultural evolution presuppose changes due to competition between groups leading to progressively more superior adaptations.

The common fairytales go like this:

1) mobile – or immediate-return – hunting and gathering economies represent an early “stage” of cultural evolution, associated with the Paleolithic technology (Stone Age) phase of human evolution during the Pleistocene;

2) more sedentary – delayed return – hunting and gathering communities, were made possible the next “Mesolithic” stage, set in in zones of “richer” wild resources during the early Holocene;

3) then the “breakthrough” of plant and animal food domestication occurred, and “Neolithic” technology appeared. Larger communities of farmer-horticulturalists and herder-pastoralists were now possible;

4) this was followed by intensive “agricultural” economies characterized by even larger and more stratified city-states, with organized religious ritual and monumental architecture. Each economic change allowed greater human biomass, thus won out over less productive economies by force, or by example;

5) this process has now culminated in colonization and on-going conversion of remaining pockets of inefficient subsistence economies in “small-scale” societies, by modernization and development practices connecting them to wider networks of global commerce and communication.

If all this sounds plausible to the reader, it testifies to ubiquity of the myth of progress. That’s right. It is a myth.

It is a myth about how inventing “more productive” economies, a “more secure” food supply, “better” sanitation, and “better” social controls (the rule of law)… made human lives healthier, longer, and less violent than they were “back in the Stone Age”. It is also a myth about the superiority of the kind of human being that inhabits modern civilization; as such it succors fantasies of racial – or genetic – superiority as well.

Until some cultural anthropologists set out to document just how rough the lives of hunter-gatherers really are, and they couldn’t do it. Granted, there was higher infant and childhood mortality, but it was still less than in the 17th century Europe. The general consensus of ethnographies was that hunter-gatherers were extremely competent people using simple technologies to live long, healthy lives of plentiful leisure: affluence without luxury.

You would think that it might be a relief to know that 99% of human evolutionary history was NOT played out in misery. But the idea of progress is important to people who identify with the ideals of the Enlightenment. Ideas about rationality, the rule of law, and the social contract were all closely entangled with the dawn of the “modern era” – the dawn of the age of Galileo and Copernicus that led inevitably to the likes of Hume, Hobbes, Darwin, Pasteur, and Henry Ford: thence to the explosive growth of our contemporary sciences and democracies.

It was the Enlightenment that made, of history, a magisterial progress out of the darkness of past ignorance. The idealization of the age of global colonial conquest by European powers as the “Enlightenment” was like taking a favourable selfie and posting it to Facebook. 

Both this myth and its opposite: a golden age represented by the “harmless” hunter-gatherer people; arise from a false duality.

If the data disproves the previous stereotypes – characterized by brevity, hardship, violence, and a constant struggle to find enough food – does the demolition of such a previous negative stereotype necessarily require that we now must consider the domestication of plants and animals the “greatest mistake in the history of the human race”? Does depreciation of civilization necessarily follow from research among modern day hunter-gatherers?

Surely not.

The “post-Neolithic” economies are riskier ventures, less stable in extreme densities, but no less stunning testimony to the adaptive scope and power of the collective cognitive niche; the fusion of two very different heritable replicators. Humanity is inexplicable except as a couples’ dance.

Most of my life has been devoted to testing hypotheses about human cultures as collective cognitive niches: systems that organized and operationalized learned and shared information, technology, and techniques to the management of ecosystems.

Modeling ecological systems feedbacks, and seeking tipping points leading to the domestication of plants and animals seemed a worthy objective. I also hoped that this exercise might indicate later critical links in the chain of those socio-economic changes culminating in the establishment of a number of centers of civilization around the world. A science of humanity must free itself of preoccupation with moral and magical agency, even if these still dominate public narratives today. If we are animals, evolving within the complex dynamic of our ecosystem, then our fate is about how well we function within that ecosystem, not about escaping to other planets after trashing this one.

Vesting any cultural variations with the moral baggage implied by terms like “mistake”, “pre”- or “post-Enlightenment”, or even “pre-state and state” societies still seems to me to trap our explanations in a dichotomy.

If we insist on moral interpretations, let them be bounded by the harm we do to each other, and to the survival of our fellow travellers on this planet. Consider this: what, after all, were any of these stories but system-justifications? It is not a practical kind of myth that insists that human advancement has always come at a cost – we killed off the mammoths and other mega-fauna – that is just what we humans do, so get over it? And it IS a myth.

Today the global industrial economy is destroying ecosystems, leveling mountains, and spewing hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals into the air and water, and it is not doing all these things to magnanimously create “jobs” or to improve the lives of humans in general. It is doing these things to make profit for financial investors. This is not about civilizational “progress”, it is about justifying continuing inequality and ecocide.

Don’t believe me? Well consider this: how can we miss the link between the supposed triumph of technocracy and the triumph of the current global elite?

When did “job creation” or “national security” become the dominant memes of democratic politics? When did “ecosystem services” become the watchword that determined whether a wetland or forest should be drained or logged as part of “development”? The only real beneficiaries if all this destruction are an increasing tiny number of very wealthy and powerful people, people who have throughout the history of state civilizations perpetuated a myth of their own superiority. In the past it was divine will and choice – only Arthur could draw the magic sword from the stone; later it was destiny to be ruled by those of “blue blood”, and then, as the colonial and industrial economy became global, myths emerged to justify world domination by a “great race”, and later more “scientific” bamboozlement was created in the form of eugenics – the elimination of the “unfit” from the breeding pool, and even today there are those who propose that the most “successful” (fittest?) have the highest I.Q.

Are the motivations any different, when there is state sponsored exploration and conquest take land, liberty, or lives away from the “savages”, “barbarians”, non-Christians, “infidels”, “heretics”, or “lesser races” than when states make only token gestures to rein in industrial fishing fleets, commercial agriculture, mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction, activities that do nothing to improve most human lives – do those few jobs so generated really make up for the destruction of entire ecosystems? 

Why will it matter, to the ultimate destiny of the human species, if no elephants, polar bears, or other wild animals, and little “wilderness”, were to survive until 2100?

Well we are discovering today that it does matter. 


[i] Tim Newbold, Lawrence N. Hudson, Andrew P. Arnell, Sara Contu, Adriana De Palma, Simon Ferrier, Samantha L. L. Hill, Andrew J. Hoskins, Igor Lysenko, Helen R. P. Phillips, Victoria J. Burton, Charlotte W. T. Chng, Susan Emerson, Di Gao, Gwilym Pask-Hale, Jon Hutton, Martin Jung, Katia Sanchez-Ortiz, Benno I. Simmons, Sarah Whitmee, Hanbin Zhang, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Andy Purvis. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment.

Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201

[ii] The setting “aside: areas of wilderness” to preserve wild animals and ecosystems, and the forcible removal of indigenous people from these areas is something most of wildlife biologists and central planners find sensible, but it is not.. The ecosystems they so value are not endangered by the sustainable economies of tribal people; they are, literally, shaped by them. So the good intentions motivating modern state governments are predicated on a false assumption that wilderness is “pristine”.

8 thoughts on “Why the Ecological Imagination Matters

  1. Hi, Helga. Found this from one of your posts on Facebook. I guess you know we are “friends” in that environment.

    This particular essay and its subject appeals to me because I too consider myself an anthroecologist. I had intended to make a career in literature and write, but then I took an anthro 101 class and was introduced to the principles of culture as a social adaption to the environment, which was a different and truly fascinating new perspective for me than culture as art and literature. There’s a lot more to what went into it for me at the time than that, but that’s a long story for a dark night in front of a camp fire. The short version is I found cultural anthropology much more mind expanding than sitting in literature classes and listening to a bunch of wannabe writer professors dissecting the masters with various structural analyses that other wannabe writers had developed over the years. Then I took an ecology class and discovered systems thinking which is much closer to the way I look at things, so ecology became my minor as an undergraduate at one of the big Green Revolution colleges in Michigan, MSU.

    I studied both anthropology and ecology through a masters level before I turned away from academia and to my own examination of the problems with the complex society form of adaption that now rules human cultural adaption strategies. A lot of that had to do with my personal experiences and what those experiences awakened in my questioning mind. Back when I started college out of high school, I had a dream that was guiding me. Anxious to pursue that dream, I dropped out of an excruciatingly boring college my freshman year back in 1966. I thereby went from a 2s deferment to 1a, waking up the bureaucrats in the draft board in the process. They acted quickly and got out a draft notice. Instead of being able to go to Paris where my romantic imagination envisioned I would seek out the existentialists and other expat writers in those sidewalk cafes I saw in pictures back then, figures like Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Camus and Sartre who had excited me in high school, I suddenly found I was facing the draft and what that would mean.

    Those cultural circumstances really did a rite of passage-level change in my life at that point. And boot camp was — I assume still is — done very closely to the ancient form of an actual rite of passage. Though now I know it was not done with the same spirit in which the form likely evolved, in the close-knit gathering-hunting groups, probably over a 200,000 year period in which the shared social construction of social personhood also evolved. Instead it was done in the inhumane and utterly cruel form of what I’ve come to see as a modern institution.

    I of course didn’t know that at the time, it was just one of the most horrible experiences of my life, up to that point, and I am now convinced it traumatized me at a level that produced something like what we now call PTSD, from which I am convinced many individuals never fully recover, myself included. I still remember my first impression of abject horror when I stepped off that bus into boot camp in San Diego, CA. What I saw was close to what I imagined when I read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” my last year of high school. I remember thinking to myself, this is not a training ground to make boys into men, as so many of my fellow boots were seeing it, it’s a prison camp. Oh! Whatever have I done wrong? I think that was one of my first genuine, life-forming epiphanies of my soon to be entered adult life.

    Rite of passage studies with writers like Van Gennep and my eventual favorite, Victor Turner after I got back from Vietnam was one of my first passionate areas of study when I returned to school and discovered anthropology. That’s important to mention only because I feel it helps explain my own trek into the realms of cultural studies and how we may be making up somewhat different narratives from differing experiences in an area of concern that I find, from your writings, to be very similar in scope and form.

    Enough prelude. I just want to say that I feel we are in agreement that culture is a human form of adapting to our environment. And that relationship is at base always an ecological one, not something separate from the environment as so many people have come to take for granted. I find that’s not a perspective that a lot of people are prone to consider, though I personally believe it would be helpful if they did. The whole nature of our many cross societal political conversations could then be from a much different perspective. Silly me. Considering it would move what we all take part in as modern industrial civilization to a very different theater of thought, one much less romanticizable than this delusion that we are on a linear projection to an ever elevated position on some evolutionary hierarchy, or something even harder to describe that works itself out in various religions. Perhaps, anyway.

    The variations in the way I see things never fails to fascinate me and to leave me perplexed. Individual human vision is almost always impossible for me to predict. I have expended a great deal of effort trying to share that anthropological perspective of culture and the environment in my conversations and in my writing. While it was one of my first epiphanies in my anthro 101 class, and I find myself at home with others who’ve been attracted to the cultural anthropological approach, as a rule it seems like an idea that is beyond the reach of most people’s imaginations. World views can be unshakable it seems, even in a time of crisis.

    I just want to end with this. I see modern complex societies as a kind of creation that may not be amenable to our DNA based humanity. My brother and I have been talking about it for years. He took the artist’s route with his life path, but we have maintained a life-long conversation on many topics, including this one. We now talk about this form of society — a conglomeration of complex institutions organized into various nations and states globally — as a kind of artificial intelligence (AI). We both entertain the idea that the AI is taking over human self actualizing intelligence, and that the ontology of institutions as problem solving organizational structures has come to rule our adaptive potential to the planet, not our human social intelligence that was so adaptive before we came upon this form of organizing ourselves.

    My explanation for this gets very complicated. It’s the PhD dissertation I never completed. We humans can adapt to its form but it’s questionable to me as to whether we can control and intelligently direct it in a manner that can be ecologically sustainable.

    That’s my primary concern at this stage of my life.

    Nevertheless, it is a form we now keep recreating over and over despite the cycle of collapse that archaeologists like Joseph Tainter have documented and theorized about (“The Collapse of Complex Socities” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Tainter). The form itself, despite the mythological levels of adulation we find for it throughout most modern societies, may not be the best form to allow us to develop to an eventual, fully mature level of our human potential in a lifetime, that is, unless we step out of the institutional form that most people stay within throughout their lives. But doing that is an intricate process that would take something on the level of a guided rite of passage, and we would need to create cultural forms to do that, and make those forms a part of the institutionalization that takes place. I’ve seen sporadic attempts in that direction, but they do not grow to become part of our cultures. The institutions, therefore, can find ways to weed these attempts from the norms. The results of that cultural failure on the species as a whole may be potentially catastrophic — to our species and to necessary biodiversity of the planet itself, especially given god-like power of the prosthetic level of achievements that our modern technology represents. It’s well understood that not another species on this planet has the capacities our prosthetics afford us in our adaptive efforts in every habitat. With that creation goes a tremendous challenge to achieve ethical and moral levels of consciousness about our place in the ecology of this planet. But institutionally, we don’t seem to be achieving that consciousness. Nevertheless, that capacity that equals our collective ability to adapt is a direct consequence of our institutional creations that we insist on maintaining until the last moment of collapse.

    I have my doubts that we will create a social consciousness that will achieve success in dealing with our social/cultural creations on this level before we annihilate ourselves and most of the other species with these institutionally derived and directed prosthetics. Individually, maybe. But that, I fear, is not enough. And I don’t know how to have a conversation with an institution.

    I’ll leave you with that.

    (I am thinking of putting this on my site, Ren’s Ramblilngs https://renhuntsinger.wordpress.com/, as a kind of open conversation with you)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow that comment was practically a blog entry by itself. Thank you for introducing your own journey – it is so nice to meet other fish swimming against the same tide. You are welcome to use any of the material I post here, as long as you make it clear that I am to blame for it… (wicked grin).

    More seriously though, I am not as convinced, as you seem to be, that complex civilization is beyond our mental scope to engineer ecologically in a sustainable way. If humanity survived this century it will likely be because we managed to do it. Not just as a post-industrial civilization, but as a multi-cultural and multi-economic super-organic synthesizing of practices, institutions, and ideology that has one unifying theme – ecological engineering in keystone role to keep all planetary ecosystems diverse. Mitigating the system justifying paradigms equating economic stratification and industrialization with superiority, may, however, be the biggest obstacle. The self-affirming illusions of the wealthy may be a far worse problem than any species-specific cognitive limitations you can imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can tell from your vigorous and passionate Facebook time line that you have more hope than I have! I therefore at the very least hope I don’t discourage you. I am ever hesitant to share what I think because I truly hope I’m wrong. But that’s about the limit to my hope right now. I’m not in a good place with when it comes to that. I appreciate the offer on all your great sources. Please trust that I’m very concerned with giving credit where it’s due. The credit’s no good to me anyway :). I’m more than happy to let someone else carry the ball. In fact I want everyone to take this as seriously as you seem to and then they will all carry the ball of social responsibility. That’s me the anarchist talking. Then something might really be possible with regards to raising a social conscience above our current seeming intent on mass suicide.

    I posted a link to this conversation on my own Facebook time line, along with a few lines from my above response, which I also put on one of my lonely blogs as I suggested I would (link to that in the above). A good friend of mine already responded on Facebook with something thoughtful, as is his way, and he suggested your essay belongs at the very least in the Common Dreams news blog https://www.commondreams.org/. I heartily agree.

    One of the activities I’ve spent many hours trying to promote on the internet is that of developing conversations with people all over the world. I’ve been on a few message boards, like Thom Hartmann’s, where a public figure can bring in a crowd that can keep the boards alive. I’ve created a couple of message boards of my own, and they flowered for awhile, but they weren’t perennials like Facebook, and so they all died out, and everyone ended up back at Facebook. I won’t burden you with all the reasons I am not happy with Facebook. I didn’t try to get those boards to flower after they died. I just moved on. But I still believe in the art of conversation and the skills that are involved in making conversations work can have potential, if we have enough time. It’s just one of those things that I don’t have what it takes to make happen apparently, though I think I’ve touched a few people over the years. One of the formats for conversation that I drew from for one of my boards came through David Bohm’s work on dialogue, in case that’s something that interests you: Bohm Dialogue https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohm_Dialogue, A critical retrospective of his work, http://dialoguestudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Bohmian_Dialogue_a_Critical_Retrospective_of_Bohm_s_Approach_to_Dialogue_as_a_Practice_of_Collective_Communication.pdf, and this little handy book by Bohm: “On Dialogue” https://www.amazon.com/Dialogue-Routledge-Classics-76/dp/0415336414/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1545259610&sr=8-1&keywords=david+bohm+of+dialogue.

    Anyway, good work here. I applaud you.


    1. Thank you. I had similar experiences on various Yahoo Groups that are conversations still going, but too bogged down with in-fighting now. But don’t despair… these bright spots of constructive and illuminating conversation are a normal thing: we all have networks that light up in certain places for a while and then go dark again, while another node of communication sparks off elsewhere.

      I am just glad you came along and lit up this little spot. I will enjoy returning the favour.


  4. Also, check out the following blog by Tom Murphy, physics professor at the University of California, San Diego….

    “….It is remarkable how quickly tribal cohesion instincts of mutual help resurface as soon as core elements of civilization (provision of food, water, electricity, for instance) fail in a natural disaster. We’ve still got it, underneath the veneer.

    Leaving that for another time, let me now condemn myself in the court of civil opinion by making the charge that most people on Earth are members of a dangerous cult whose central beliefs seem every bit as bizarre to one who has escaped the thought prison, but that are seldom questioned and even fiercely defended. This post offers ten heretical statements that seem obvious to me, but tend to produce emotionally charged reactions by members of the cult of civilization. Watch yourself, now.

    Let’s start by just unloading them all, in compact form, each point to be briefly unpacked in what follows. Some of the points essentially follow from previous ones, but are powerful (jarring) enough to deserve their own statement.

    Humans are not the reason for all of creation: not the end point or goal in this universe.
    A human life is no more sacred than that of a wolf (as just one example).
    Our civilization is not any sort of destiny: not he only or best way to organize ourselves on this planet.
    We are not building civilization—brick by brick—according to some master plan aiming toward a “better” end: no paradise/salvation awaits on the current path.
    Technology and innovation are slowing, not accelerating.
    Technology (ahem; renewable energy) will not solve our big problems.
    Space colonization is an infantile fantasy that is not part of our future.
    Growth is destined to end: we have hitched ourselves to a losing wagon.
    Monetary valuations badly miss the mark by orders-of-magnitude, so that decisions based on money (i.e., most societal decisions) will be bad ones.
    Malthus was wrong only in his optimism that population will saturate and stabilize.
    I don’t expect many to make it through the list without at least a “wait a minute…”
    Okay, readers of this blog are perhaps more predisposed to this way of thinking, but that’s a skewed representation of “normal” people—many of whom may find themselves to be offended or even apoplectic. To me, that sort of reaction betrays a bit of…cultishness. Perhaps the best way to explain is for me to state as succinctly as I can why each of the statements seems like obvious dispassionate truth once free of the baggage….” https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2022/10/the-cult-of-civilization/?fbclid=IwAR2YOwakjE9PssKmhx0vgKrpoJ6YkDYTwpi-17FBvmiJKLE7tkVOjKdaQRQ

    Liked by 1 person

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