Embrace Your Ecological Self

Foster a new relationship with the Earth and other life by connecting with your ecological self and overcoming anthropocentrism.

Rainforest deforestation

Finding your ecological self means transitioning from, "I am protecting the rainforest" to "I am part of the rainforest protecting myself."

Photo by Fotolia/Richard Carey

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Coming Back to Life (New Society Publishers, 2014), by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, shows how grief, anger and fear are healthy responses to threats to life, and when honored can free us from paralysis or panic, through the practice of the Work that Reconnects. In the following excerpt from Chapter 3, “The Basic Miracle: Our True Power and Nature,” Macy and Brown address the importance of embracing your ecological self and being interdependent with other Earthly life.

Something inside me has reached to the place
Where the world is breathing.

— Kabir

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one
directly, affects all indirectly.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The view of reality emerging now is breathtakingly new to those of us who have been shaped by the Industrial Growth Society. Supported by postmodern science and ancient spiritual traditions, it brings a fresh understanding of our relationship to the world and of powers within us for its healing. Liberating us from constricted notions of who we are and what we need, it brings us home to our true nature — in league with the stars and trees of our thrumming universe. This view is basic to the Great Turning and fundamental to the work this book presents.

We people shaped by western civilization have struggled to master the natural world around us. We have studied the Earth and the cosmos, determined to discover the essential building blocks of life. We have acted as if we could know and control the world. We came to think of ourselves as made of better stuff than the animals and plants and rocks and water around us. Our technologies have amplified disastrously the ecological and social effects of that kind of thinking. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson commented on this:

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. As you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against … other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.

Perhaps we made our biggest error in thinking of the world as made of “stuff” to begin with. Fortunately — and paradoxically — our very search for mastery and knowledge through science has brought us to the dawning realization that the world, indeed the universe, seems not to be composed of stuff at all. Each time we have grasped what appeared to be a basic building block, it has dissolved into a dance of energy and relationship. And so we awaken today to a new kind of knowledge, a growing comprehension of our connectivity — and even identity — with everything in the universe.

Living Systems Theory

Modern science and the Industrial Growth Society grew up together. With the help of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, classical science veered away from a holistic, organic view of the world to an analytical and mechanical one. The machines we made to extend our senses and capacities became our model for the universe. Separating mechanism from operator, object from observer, this view of reality assumed that everything could be described objectively and controlled externally. It has permitted extraordinary technological gains and fueled the engines of industrial progress. But, as 20th-century biologists realized with increasing frustration, it cannot explain the self-renewing processes of life.

Instead of looking for basic building blocks, these scientists took a new tack: they began to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. They discovered that these wholes — be they cells, bodies, ecosystems, even the planet itself — are not just an assemblage of parts. Rather they are dynamically organized and intricately balanced systems. These scientists saw each element as part of a vaster pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles. The discernment of these principles gave rise to General Systems Theory.

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, known as the father of general systems theory, called it “a way of seeing.” And while its insights have spread throughout the natural and social sciences, the systems perspective has remained just that: a way of seeing. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called it “the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years.”

How Life Self-Organizes

By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scientists made an amazing discovery — amazing at least to the mainstream western mind. They discovered that nature is self-organizing. And they set about discerning the principles by which this self-organization occurs. They found these principles or systems properties to be awesomely elegant in their coherence and constancy throughout the observable universe, from sub-organic to biological and ecological systems, and mental and social systems as well. The properties of open systems permit the variety and intelligence of life-forms to arise from interactive currents of matter/energy and information. These properties or invariances are four in number:

1. Each system, from atom to galaxy, is a whole. That means that it is not reducible to its components. Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the dynamic relationships of its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating emergent properties and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts. For example, wetness could not be predicted from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen before it occurred. Nor can anyone can predict the creative solutions that may emerge when a group of people put their wits together.

2. Thanks to the continual flow-through of matter/energy and information, open systems are able to self-stabilize and maintain their balance in what von Bertalanffy called fliessgleichgewicht (flux-equilibrium). This homeostatic function enables systems to self-regulate amidst changing conditions in their environment. They do this by monitoring the effects of their own behavior and realigning their behavior with preestablished norms, like a thermostat. Feedback — in this case, negative or deviation-reducing feedback — is at work here. It is how we maintain body temperature, heal from a cut and ride a bicycle.

3. Open systems not only maintain their balance amidst the flux, but also evolve in complexity. When challenges from their environment persist, they can fall apart or adapt by reorganizing themselves around new, more functional norms. This is accomplished by feedback — in this case, positive or deviation — amplifying feedback. It is how systems learn and evolve. This feedback is blocked and ignored at the risk of system collapse.

When a system is unable to adapt its norms, perhaps because of the scale and speed of change, the positive feedback loop goes into overshoot and runaway. As ever-increasing oscillations upset the balance of its interrelated parts, the system loses coherence and complexity — and begins to unravel.

4. Every system is a holon — that is, it is both a whole in its own right, comprised of subsystems and simultaneously an integral part of a larger system. Thus holons form nested hierarchies, systems within systems, circuits within circuits.

Each new holonic level — say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family — generates new emergent properties that are not reducible to the properties of the separate. In contrast to hierarchies of control familiar to organizations in which rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holonarchies) order tends to arise from below, as well as be summoned or inspired by its larger context.

The system self-generates from adaptive cooperation between its parts for mutual benefit. Order and differentiation go hand and hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.

Water, Fire and Web

The mechanistic view of reality separated substance from process, self from other, mind from matter. In the systems perspective, these dichotomies no longer hold. What appeared to be separate and self-existent entities are now seen as interdependent and interwoven. What had appeared to be other can be equally construed as a concomitant of self, like a fellow-cell in the neural patterns of a larger body. What we had been taught to dismiss as mere feelings are responses to our world no less valid than rational constructs. Sensations, emotions, intuitions, concepts all condition each other, each a way of apprehending the relationships that weave our world.

As systems we participate by virtue of constant flow-through in the evolving web of life, giving and receiving the feedback necessary to the web’s integrity and balance. To convey this dynamic process, theorists have used a variety of images. Fire and water are prominent among them. “We are not stuff that abides,” said systems cybernetician Norbert Wiener, “We are patterns that perpetuate themselves; we are whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water.”

Or we are like a flame, said several early systems thinkers. As a flame keeps its shape by transforming the stuff it burns, so does the open system. As the open system consumes the matter that passes through it, so does it also process information — ever breaking down and building up, renewed. Like fire, a system both transforms and is transformed by that on which it feeds.

Another frequent image is that of a neural net. By their interactions, nerve cells differentiate and create new neural assemblies at their holonic level within the larger body, enhancing diversity and therefore complexity. They generate intelligence as they weave ever more responsive nets. Systems political scientist Karl Deutsch took this image as a model for social systems, showing that free circulation of information is essential to healthy self-governance.

Our emerging understanding of fungi provides another potent image for the connectivity of open systems. Microscopic cells called mycelia — the fruit of which are mushrooms — spread nearly invisibly underground to create a vast network that permeates the soil and fuses with the roots of plants and trees to share water, food and vital information.

Gaia Theory

Systems theory has transformed the way we see our planet home. In studying the chemical composition of our atmosphere, scientist James Lovelock discovered that the balance of its proportions, which stays within the narrow limits necessary for life, indicates self-regulating processes at work — the hallmark of a living system. In collaboration with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Lovelock developed a hypothesis that presents the entire biosphere of Earth as a self-organizing system.

Thankfully, Lovelock did not call this hypothesis, soon to become a theory (the “hypothesis of self-regulative processes of the biosphere” or another name respectable to his fellow scientists). Instead he listened to his friend, novelist William Golding, who suggested he call it Gaia for the early Greek goddess of Earth, thereby catching people’s poetic imagination. Like the Apollo photo of Earth from space, this name for Earth has transformed the way many of us now think of our planet home. We no longer see Earth as just a rock we live upon, but as a living process in which we participate. Earth takes on a presence in our consciousness as source of all we are and can become.

Deep Ecology

What does it mean or matter to be interdependent with all Earthly life? In exploring this question, deep ecology arose, both as a philosophy and a movement. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, a mountain climber and scholar of Gandhi, coined the term in the 1970s.

In contrast to reform environmentalism, which treats the symptoms of ecological degradation — clean up a river here or a dump there for human benefit — deep ecology questions fundamental premises of the Industrial Growth Society. It challenges the assumptions, embedded in much Judeo-Christian and Marxist thought, that humans are the ultimate measure of value. Often expressed as biocentric, this perspective holds that we must break free from the species arrogance that threatens not only humans but all complex life-forms within reach.

Beyond Anthropocentrism

It is hard to experience our interrelatedness with all life if we are blind to the human-centeredness embedded in our culture and consciousness. Deep ecologist John Seed, an Australian rainforest activist, described both the ways it constricts us and the rewards we find in moving beyond it.

Anthropocentrism means human chauvinism. Similar to sexism, but substitute “human race” for man and “all other species” for woman…

When humans investigate and see through their layers of anthropocentric self-cherishing, a most profound change in consciousness begins to take place. Alienation subsides. The human is no longer a stranger, apart. Your humanness is then recognized as merely the most recent stage of your existence, and as you stop identifying exclusively with this chapter, you start to get in touch with yourself as mammal, as vertebrate, as a species only recently emerged from the rainforest. As the fog of amnesia disperses, there is a transformation in your relationship to other species, and in your commitment to them.

John Seed pointed out that this liberation is far more than an intellectual process. For him, as for many others, it comes through taking part in actions on behalf of Earth.

“I am protecting the rainforest” develops to “I am part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking.” What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature. The change is a spiritual one, sometimes referred to as deep ecology.

The Ecological Self

Arne Naess has a term for the wider sense of identity that John Seed describes. Naess calls it the ecological self and sees it as the fruit of a natural maturation process. We underestimate ourselves, he said, when we identify self with the narrow, competitive ego. “With sufficient all-sided maturity” we not only move on from ego to a social self and a metaphysical self, but an ecological self as well. Through widening circles of identification, we vastly extend the boundaries of our self-interest, and enhance our joy and meaning in life.

A welcome and significant feature of this concept is the way it transcends the need to sermonize about our moral responsibilities. When we assumed that we were essentially separate, we called people to be altruistic — that is to favor the other (alter in Latin) more than the self (ego in Latin). This is not only philosophically unsound from the perspective of deep ecology, but it is also ineffective.

What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited …. The extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals …. [But] the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.

Asking Deeper Questions

Naess and his activist colleagues called for a deep, long-range ecology movement. Whether or not it is generally recognized as a movement, certainly deep ecology ideas have circulated widely, enlivening green activists and academics alike.

These ideas have evolved into a deep ecology platform — including such principles as the recognition that life-forms have an intrinsic right to exist, and that human population should not exceed the carrying capacity of Earth. However, deep ecology is neither an ideology nor a dogma. Of an essentially exploratory character, it seeks to motivate people to ask, as Naess put it, “deeper questions” their relation to life on Earth and their vision for the future. Such questions act as a solvent, loosing up encrusted mental structures, freeing us to think and see in fresh ways.


Reprinted with permission from Coming Back to Life, by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, and published by New Society Publishers, 2014.