The Ecological Principle
by Adam Robbert
It has recently become more clear to me that one of the central issues I have been exploring in my research deals precisely with the question: where does ecology begin, and where does ecology end? I have taken this up in several previous posts, some arguing for an expanded three-fold ecology that would be more encompassing than traditional ecological models (HERE and HERE) and some that have been more bold in arguing that ecology is a principle of all relationships, grounded ontologically in reality (HERE).
Sorting the ends and beginnings of ecology is important as it relates to many of the problems I am constantly asking myself: does knowledge form an ecology in its own right as Gregory Bateson, Felix Guattari, and Edgar Morin argue? What is the ontological status of “an ecology of mind”? Is this just a metaphor, or are we actually talking about real ecological relationships when speak of such things? I have the same questions for media ecology– how is the ecology of media environments related to the natural, biophysical ecologies of the earth community? More importantly, what are the relationships between all three ecologies?
I’m hoping that ecological thinking (of the type that Tim Morton argues for) will go some way to relieving us of the common narratives available when we have to think ontologically about these problems. I am, as ever, unsatisfied with the holistic organicism of many Romantic philosophers, but I am no mechanist either– lets move away from the poverty of seeing either chaos, determinism, mechanism, teleology, and organicism as the only available possibilities when thinking about physicality and life.
We are in the late anthropocene and these styles of thinking just won’t satisfy, we need a thoroughly ecologized thinking. One that links matter and ideas; “culture” and “nature;” ecology and economics in more thorough going ways. Here I follow Bruno Latour (and William James before him) in insisting that the cosmos is not determined or chaotic, but is rather composed by all the individuals entities which exist in it (perhaps Whitehead’s “Creativity” is worth a mention here as well). The cosmos is constructed, but it is constructed by stars, radiolarians, nebulae, satellites, bibles, mammals, planets and records as well as humans. Time and space flow out and bend around these entities depending on their speed and consistency, these entities tie entropy and complexity together, they form the networks that spin off existence in the shifting sandstorm we call reality. Polytheism is not nearly an adequate word to describe the powers of such objects.
In this sense, Jane Bennett’s work has been a huge relief to come across as she seems to be struggling with the same issues vis-a-vis our conceptions of matter in The Enchantment of Modern Life and Vibrant Matter. Like her I am looking for a way to tell the story of matter without vitalism or mechanism, with meaning but without a necessary teleology. I think this is the kind of lifting a generalized, or integral ecology can do. Clearly, whether or not all aspects of society, culture, or thought have ecological effects is not at issue, everything thing on earth that acts has some impact ecologically, even if it is not clear what that impact is. What I am looking for is an ecogenesis, the place where ecology can truly be said to begin, and then to depart from there and search far and wide to discern how far into other areas of the world ecology spreads its fibrous roots, networks and antennae.
This question is necessarily a difficult one because it contains an inherently arbitrary component to it, where we define the start of ecological activity depends on how we approach the divide between living and nonliving, between complex chemical reactions amongst large molecules and between legitimately alive organisms. With this in mind, I can ask the question in another way: does the earth have an ecology before life?
At minimum, traditional definitions of ecology demand two components: organisms and environments. Yet, proto-organisms and physical landscapes (which are different from environments mind you), predate this kind of ecology. A further question could then be: what are the a priori conditions for producing ecological worldspaces as opposed to just complex geophysical ones? We have then three questions to explore:
1) Where does ecogenesis begin?
2) Do ecological systems predate life?
3) What are the necessary a priori conditions for ecological worlds to emerge?
Questions 1 and 2 seem to have simple answers: ecogenesis coemerges with biogenesis. Life as an event arises contemporaneously with the environment it helps to create. Oikos and bios are different aspects of the same phenomenon, one collective and one individual, respectively. From this perspective ecological systems cannot, by definition, predate living forms because a world cannot be said to be ecological until organisms are present. Thus the answer to question 1 is: ecogenesis starts with life, and the answer to question 2 is: no, ecological systems cannot predate life. Question 3, however, poses us some serious problems, which as we will see complicate the answers to questions 1 and 2.
There are necessary preconditions for an ecology to emerge, you need (presumably) a spherical planet, a molten, active geological core, and physical raw materials that are combinable, reactive, and capable of complexifying. Additionally, a wide variety of extra-terrestrial criteria must be met: solar energy, position in the solar system, an affective membrane that can interface the inner constitution of the planet’s composition with the surrounding solar system, thermodynamic energy gradients and more. Surely this is not a comprehensive list, but it at least goes some way to describing the conditions necessary for the emergence of ecosystems.
These questions are what Meillassoux would call problems of “ancestrality;“ problems that force us to imagine a reality that predates the manifestation of any entity able to imagine it. No one can witness the birth of the universe from outside, since by definition, the universe has no “outside,” only various dimensions of interiority from which humans, as one expression of the cosmic landscape, can only describe partially, and only then as participating elements in the experiences they are trying to describe. All images of the birth of universe are by necessity thought experiments, not concrete actualities. Yet, nevertheless, we can push forward with this particular thought experiment and attempt to reconstruct an image of what ecogenesis actually entails.
If, as we have seen, the a priori conditions for the emergence of ecology predate the event of ecology by perhaps billions of years (e.g., through the formation of the solar system, the planets etc), then at what point do we actually say “ecology now, but not previous.” This is of course a non-anthropocentric version of the anthropic principle; we are centering not life or consciousness, but ecology as one of the necessary outcomes of a universe organized in the way this one happens to be. It differs from the anthropic principle though in a crucial way. The anthropic principle argues that the universe that exists for observation must be one that supports the existence of the observer. In other words, the only universe a human can observe is a universe that allows and supports the emergence of human life. We can coin a phrase and suggest that the ecological principle hints at something a little broader. The universe may not necessarily be one that must develop towards human consciousness, but it seems likely that the potential development of ecological worlds is high, and this in and of itself multiples the dimensionality of the universe several fold, not into a teleological image of organic development, but rather of complex ecological systems that themselves house multiple teleologies, each of them contingent, adaptive, recursive, and evolutionary.