Notes for Environmental Psychology: Invite Integral Ecology and OOO to the Party!
by Adam Robbert
Environmental psychology (let’s call it EP today) is a rather peculiar and interesting discipline, and should be of particular interest to two new emerging fields of inquiry: Integral Ecology (IE) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). We can begin this fruitful exploration by first examining what it is that is so interesting about environmental psychology, including some of its problems, and then proceeding by suggesting how an EP/IE/OOO alliance can further developments in all three fields. If it seems ambitious to include three new fields (and three sets of acronyms!) I would like to suggest that each cover different, and necessary domains of research. EP is primarily the domain of empirical scientific research, OOO primarily a philosophical adventure, and IE a potential framework that can bridge both. In other words, they each hold important pieces to an increasingly complex ecological puzzle.
First, let me state why I think environmental psychology is so interesting. Its deceptively simple two-word title advances us into a new domain of inquiry, one that bridges the outside with the inside, the individual with the collective. “Environment” usually suggests context, externality, collective, or place. It is the arena within which individual entities interact, at least that is the normative reading of the word. Through this exploration I would like to suggest that this reading of environment is entirely inadequate. Likewise, “Psychology” usually connotes a study of individuals, their behaviors and interior dimensions. Psychology explores a space within, and, through the medium of a subject, allows individuals to interact with an external environment. I would again like to suggest that this reading of psychology is just as inadequate as the simple reading of environment. Thankfully, EP is not this simple, and will become even less so as we explore it’s interface with OOO and IE.
To put it more succinctly then, environmental psychology is at once a study of individual, interior phenomena, and external collective phenomena, their interactions and subsequent recursive effects. In this way environmental psychology has become a very useful tool for addressing issues dealing with urban, social, or political ecology, place attachment, solastalgia, place meaning, environmental ethics, landscape aesthetics, design, architecture, religious issues vis-à-vis the sacredness of certain geographic locations (think Easter Island, Machu Pichu, Stonehenge etc) and more. In general I think the field as a whole is moving in a very promising direction, for those unfamiliar The Journal of Environmental Psychology is a good place to start. The literature is already quite vast so my comments are necessarily broad, a more in-depth treatment would itself be a lengthy project. My aims here are rather to start a discussion of the broader trends in the field and bring them into dialogue with certain aspects of IE and OOO. With the former I will focus on the work of Edgar Morin and on the latter with Tim Morton’s contributions to OOO and ecology.
A key contribution IE can make to the field of environmental psychology comes from Edgar Morin’s “Paradigm of Complexity” that describes the three primary elements of any complex system (for more details on this check out Morin’s On Complexity). For Morin, all complex systems are dialogical, recursive, and holographic. How so? First, systems are dialogical because they are always in dynamic tension with the other elements within a system. This dialogical approach is distinguished from a dialectical approach since, for Morin, dynamic tension does not imply new synthesis or stability at a higher level of complexity, rather dynamic interactions are chaotic and uncertain, prone to unexpected shifts of relationship and affect. Dialogical relations are as capable of increasing new kinds of disorder as they are at producing new levels of order or complexity. Second, systems are recursive since dialogical relationships are always mutually interactive (though not necessarily symmetrical). Cause and effect are in this way entangled within any one component of a system, and do not proceed
in a simple, linear fashion. Third, systems are holographic. This point is rather counterintuitive and sounds a bit more mystical than it actually is. Simply put, the holographic nature of systems means that each component of a system is externalized throughout the system as a whole, and each whole system is internalized on the inside of all of its parts. The holographic principle radically complexifies the part/whole distinction and robs each of its primacy. All parts are in some way reflective of their wholes, as all wholes are contiguous with their parts.
Thus for Morin reductionism and holism are both out of the question, complexity lays the path forward (This should set off some alarm bells for both actor-network and object-oriented folks, I’m thinking of Bruno Latour’s statement “an actor is nothing but its network, but a network is nothing but actors,” as well as Graham Harman’s concepts of “undermining” and “overmining.” I suspect that Morin is, at the end of the day, still to relationist for the likes of Harman and Tim Morton, but I don’t think Morin should be totally disqualified for this- but that is another discussion entirely).
Lets return to environmental psychology for a moment. If, as we have seen, environmental psychology must consider internal, individual elements of place and external, contextual elements of space, we need to rigorously think through these many-tiered relationships. Morin’s three principles of complexity are entirely useful here. Common to EP are lists of factors or elements that must be taken into consideration to describe the full compliment of complexities interacting within a given environment. These are often intrapsychic factors such as thoughts, feelings, beliefs or worldviews, and external elements including economic, political, social and ecological influences.
If we consider Morin’s principles here then we can draw no strict lines either between inside and outside or the individual and the collective, even as we must admit that individuals do exist and externalities are stubbornly resistant to our interpretations about them. Taken more specifically, the thoughts, feelings, or worldviews expressed by a given individual, are, from Morin’s point of view, dialogic, recursive and hologrammatic. Thus there can be no individual thought that is not in some way embedded in it’s whole context, just as their can be no context that is not also an emergent characteristic of it’s parts. To complicate matters further, this hologrammatic relationship must also be understood to be always on the move. The part-part and part-whole relations are all recursive and dialogical, feeding back on themselves and resulting in new patterns of organization and affectivity. The conclusion from this is that interiors and exteriors or individuals and collectives are always folding into another, interconstellating themselves into new patterns of activity and organization (on a side note, this is why poststructuralist critiques/accounts of identity formation make so much sense to me, think biopolitics, counter-memory, or the entire field of gender studies and you can probably see what I mean).
Thinking the inside and the outside, or the individual and the collective in this way helps to dissolve static distinctions and places the EP perspective into a more ecological context. Implicit within the EP framework (again I speak here only generally) is that material and semiotic or physical and interpretive elements of place are entangled. In addition to this, environmental psychologists also recognize that the place, or environment, is not simply a backdrop to the action of individual entities, but is rather an agent in itself. All of this is, I think, greatly clarified by Morin’s work on complexity. And yet, here we are stuck with only relationships: relationships between individuals and collectives, or relationships between individuals and exteriors. If you’ve been following the speculative adventure that is OOO, I think you can guess what is coming next.
Withdrawal. Objects that are independent of any and all relationships, primordial cores that endure and are never exhausted by any set of contexts or encounters. That is what OOO is laying on the table from IE and EP to engage (that and a little thing that Tim Morton likes to call a “hyperobject,” but more on that later). We know that for Graham Harman, any object (which can be any entity whatsoever) is always situated and deployed within a given set of relations, but also, and counter intuitively, also withdrawn from all of those relations. Harman argues that this is a necessary feature of any object since, if an object were fully deployed in all of its relations, the universe would be incapable of producing novelty- nothing new would appear since everything that is would already be fully on display in a static, crystalline cosmos. Such is clearly not the case, as evolutionary cosmology can fully attest.
What does this mean for Morin’s complexity and EP’s torrent of messy interactions? It means that though Morin has given a sharp account of what we need to think in order to appreciate the dynamics of complexity and part/whole relationships, he missed some crucial elements that can be supplemented with a healthy dose of OOO. It is true that for Morin reductionism and holism are both dead ends when it comes to staying with the complexity, however his solution may not be robust enough to thwart the threats posed by “overmining;” whereby ultimately the individuals in a system could be subsumed by their roles in a bigger holistic network, or conversely, by “undermining;” where those same individuals could be reduced to more primary matters or particles. The only way to safeguard the integrity of individuals and of the system as a whole (which for Harman would constitute a larger object in itself) is through accepting the ontological status of withdrawal. All objects would be allowed to be as they are, fully concrete and irreducible to both their relations and their smaller subcomponents.
Thus despite the fact that all individuals and environments exist in a dialogic, recursive, and hologrammatic relation, each individual (or environment) would also be withdrawn from those same dialogic, recursive and hologrammatic relations. That is a great deal of theory to run through! So how does this help exactly? We need one more piece to tie together our ecological puzzle (for we are indeed tying and not untying these complex knots into new, more interesting knots- thank Latour for the great metaphor!) Enter the hyperobject.
I paraphrase Tim Morton when he suggests that hyperbjects are massively extended in space and time, they can only be revealed in small pieces to human consciousness and we literally lack the cognitive and affective capacity to take them in perceptually. Climate change is a hyperobject, so are ecological systems like the everglades, so are cities. Morton gives us the first OOO account of an environmental psychology when he muses about the strangeness of his own town of residence, an uncanny place that reveals itself to be ever stranger depending on circumstance (unfortunately I couldn’t find the link to this one, trust me its there!). In other words, the city-as-hyperobject, withdraws from our relations to it. There are plenty of subjective relations to a city. There is a city-for-me, a city-for-you, a city-for-the-subway-system, but the complete fullness of the city-in-itself withdraws from these relations, it always emerges in new constellations of activity.
Cities and ecosystems are both important sites for environmental psychologists. They want to know how individuals are affected-by and effective-of the city or ecosystem they are recursively related to. On this note, one very important hyperobject would be technoindustrial society in general. Lewis Mumford called this “the megamachine,” and I’m not sure if Morton would officially sanction Mumford’s megamachine as a hyperobject, but all signs point to yes.
The crucial thing we need to know about the megamachine, and what makes Mumford both a media ecologist and a proto-environmental psychologist, was his startling realization that humans are inside the megamachine! It might be true that the megamachine (which includes the techniques, bureaucracies, and machinery of the industrial world) was built by human labor, but, with the advent of the industrial revolution and globalization, this machine has subsumed the whole of humanity. The megamachine is now larger than us, it envelopes us, we can’t quite get our grip on the whole of it, in other words it is a hyperobject.
As we have seen EP is concerned with economic, political, social and ecological factors as well as the thoughts, feelings, beliefs or worldviews of individuals, thus I think at this point we can make a case that OOO, IE and EP belong together. Perhaps not so much in the sense of some over-arching metasystem (too clunky) but as complimentary forces that are themselves adjusting to new factors and problems in philosophy, science and politics.
EP can’t escape the pervasive influence of the megamachine (in fact much of the literature has to do with the effects of industrialization on ecosystems and communities) and Tim Morton’s analysis of the hyperobject helps us better think about these enormous environments within which we are immersed. Likewise, IE and OOO help us think through both the complexities of human-environment relationships (IE) as well as the withdrawn nature of independently existing objects (OOO). Hopefully this first round of dialogue between IE, EP and OOO can lead to helpful new research projects that can better situate us as individuals and collectives, in internal and external ways, with sounder ecological thinking and practices. There is definitely more that could be said about this, but I think I will leave it here for now.