It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
—Charles Darwin, from “Recapitulation and Conclusion,” The Origin of Species (1859)
The term ecology has its roots in the Greek oikos (house) and logos (order or knowledge). It has come to name a branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. The concept and term surfaced in the mid-19th century in the study of natural history–most notably in the writings of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel who defined ecology as the investigation of the relationship of organisms with their environment.
The term broadened in meaning during the 20th century to encompass an emphasis in the sciences on the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms as well as the study of ecosystems. Ecological scientists draw on physics, chemistry, and biology to explain specific phenomena. Its concerns are with organisms, groups of organisms and their interactions, including their interactions with the environment—or the physical, chemical and biological components of an ecosystem.
Our interest is less in the disciplinary field of ecology and more in the social and cultural meanings of the term ecology. Timothy Morton’s recent book The Ecological Thought (2010) reminds us that ecology orients our thinking away from individual things to things in relationship—to interaction and interconnectedness, and to pattern and process. The ecological thought is the thought that follows from this orientation—or, rather, is the orientation itself.
The ecological thought is the irreversible recognition that things exist in relation rather than in isolation. The ecological thought is thinking about the essence of a living thing as an expression of connections and context. The ecological thought is also thinking the beauty and complexity of living systems. Morton’s exposition and analysis of the concept is potentially useful for environmentalists who so often find themselves walking on a bog of moral and conceptual certainty:
The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that it become easy. . .to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more the world opens up (1).
We’ve gotten it wrong so far—that’s the truth of the climate disruption and mass extinction (5).
Thinking the ecological thought is difficult: it involves becoming open, radically open—open forever, without the possibility of closing again (8).
The ecological thought is difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them (9).
The ecological thought is as much about opening our minds as it is about knowing something or other in particular (15).
A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think (16).
If everything is interconnected, there is less of everything. Nothing is complete in itself (33).
The ecological thought is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being (123).
The ecological thought “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest. . .the ecological thought can be highly unpleasant” (135).
Things will get worse before they get better, if it all. We must create frameworks for coping with a catastrophe that, from the evidence of hysterical announcements of its immanent arrival, has already occurred (17).
The ecological thought must transcend the language of apocalypse (19).