Three Ecologies and Speculative Philosophy: Some Reflections from the Road So Far
by Adam Robbert
Right around 2005-2006 I decided that I wanted to pursue philosophy as a course of study full time. I was totally unaware of what I was getting myself into but even before I started grad school I knew that my central focus would be in ecology. I wanted to know how it was that humans could know so much about the origin and development of the biosphere and still act in such a way so as to undermine its very existence. Had I been more interested in how these processes worked I would have studied biology full time, but I was more compelled to understand the reasons why humans behaved contrary to the knowledge they had uncovered. This lead me to study ecology from a philosophical perspective. At the outset, I reasoned that ecology could become a concept that linked the different branches of philosophy — ethics, ontology, epistemology — though at the time I thought of ecology as a metaphor to describe the relations between things rather than an actual description of those relations themselves. I was a constructivist and imagined long lists in my head of what a human ecology actually consisted of. If ecology was suppose to be about organisms-in-relation-to-their-environments what, I wondered, actually constituted the human environment? I started to look into it.
It turned out that since Haeckel first coined the term in the nineteenth century, ecology had gone through several transformations. In part inspired by Haeckel’s monism, the earliest usage of the word was heavily linked to notions of pantheism and natural theology; and when one looks at the history of biology — and evolution in particular — one finds a rather complex mass of religious ideas, science, and economic ideology all rolled into one problematic knot. In the two hundred years since then the knot of religion, economics, and science largely remains (think of neoliberal capitalism and the naturalization of competition, the intelligent design debates, or the ongoing struggle to understand the human genome, for example). Despite the complexity, there is every reason to suggest that progress in understanding ecological dynamics has been made. One might describe the progress of ecology as the history of an increase in conceptual relationality. Ecology started with monism, then quickly branched off in two directions: the ecosystems sciences (Tansley and the Odum brothers) and evolutionary biology (Darwin and Mendel). The former favored holism, energy flows, and physics; the latter favored reductionism, genes, and biology. The big problem was how to connect the abiotic physics of ecosystems ecology with the evolutionary dynamics of evolutionary biology.
I become impressed with the various attempts scientists were making to link organisms with environments (Richard Lewontin remains my favorite scientist in this regard). People might not realize it, but it’s only very recently that empirically verifiable studies have been completed that link the thermodynamics of an ecosystem with the genetic development of the organism. That the one influences the other was never in question but how the exchange between energy flows and genes took place was poorly understood (it still is but new and exciting research is being done everyday). Biologists new that organisms evolved through a process of speciation, but what about environments? Do ecosystems evolve? The jury is still out if you ask me. The point is that as ecology developed into the twentieth century, scientists realized that they had to keep adding more variables to the equation. Organism + Environment? Check. Organism + Genes + Environment? Check. Organism + Genes + Niche-Construction + Environment? Check. Organism + Genes + Niche-Construction + Environment + Industrialization. Wait, hold on. As we get further into the twentieth century the ecological list gets longer and stranger: are nuclear power plants part of ecosystems? what about cell phones? books? stock markets? the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea?
You can extend the list on and on.
As the anthropocene grows apace ecology becomes simultaneously more important and more impossible to the think, and I wanted to find an ecology suitable to a study of the anthropocene; an ecology of a human-transformed world. It seemed to me that there were three types of things in a human ecology: natural environments (with biotic and abiotic features), social environments (with all sorts of technologies and infrastructure), and cognitive environments (filled with ideas and beliefs of various kinds). I thought (and still mostly do) that any human ecology had to include at least these dimensions. These three basic domains, I reasoned, corresponded to three major disciplines: (1) natural ecologies (natural science); (2) cultures/technologies (social science); and (3) ideas (philosophy). My primary interest was epistemology (and, related, the philosophy of mind) so I was hard at work figuring out how (1) and (2) informed (3). I loved the idea that epistemology could be approached from an ecological perspective and I turned to the works of Gregory Bateson and Edgar Morin to understand how ecology could be used to understand mind (Bateson) and ideas (Morin). But as a I pushed the metaphor, I began to realize some rather peculiar things about the frameworks I was using.
Systems theorists will not be surprised when I say that I started to think of the ecology of mind as more than a metaphorical description of human knowing but a concrete description of the process itself. In this regard, I began to explore poststructuralism (particularly Foucault) from an unusual perspective. When I read about biopolitics and subjectification I thought the arguments made sense, not on philosophical grounds, but on ecological and biological grounds. I was very interested in the way that different perspectives — ideologies, worldviews, religions, philosophies — actually seemed to act on the people and cultures which deployed them as if they had their own agency (much in the same way that organisms and environments are structurally coupled). This is of course what Foucault means by power, in the positive sense, of actually shaping the identity of individuals. This only furthered my sense that ecology was something more than a metaphor for describing human minds and knowledge; the human ecology of ideas was in some significant way related to the natural ecology of the biosphere and to the human condition itself. I chose to study scientific paradigms from a Kuhnian perspective to try and understand how this might be the case.
What I ended up doing was generating a complex epistemological framework based in ecological thinking (a version of which you can read in my essay “Ecology of Paradigms“). I was aware that social constructivism had its flaws and was in many ways at odds with the idea of ecology itself and I was eager to wage a kind of constructivism that avoided playing into the anti-science game (hence my constant praise for Latour and Stengers). I thought I had broken into some new territory by generating an epistemological account, heavily influenced by Bateson, that saw the construction of a worldview as a participatory event shaped out of the ecological interactions between perceiver and world. Of course what I had actually done was repeat, in my own way, the basic premises of philosophy after Kant and dressed it up in ecological language. This was not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it wasn’t really what I was going for, I just didn’t know it yet. What I did encounter, unexpectedly through researching Kuhn, was the radical empiricism of William James and this lead to another rather strange moment in my ideas.
I didn’t spend very much time with James at first, but I did like the idea of radical empiricism quite a bit. To this day it still has a very ecological sound to me. If we are to think about ecology we can’t include some events (e.g., bunnies, toads, and wheatgrass) and not others (e.g., sneakers, iPhones, and satellites) and this mirrors rather precisely James’s approach to psychology: experiences are happening, are having effects, and need attention — whether or not these are objective or natural experiences from one perspective or another is a different matter entirely. It’s the same with ecology, it has to be about everything from ideas to social structures to evolutionary dynamics (indeed, we can skip the subject/object, nature/culture dichotomy if we practice a strong radical empiricism). James’s account of experience really stuck with me as well and this was the first time that I started to think in terms of “ecologies of experience,” a very general notion, rather than ecologies of animals, worlds, and ideas. But perhaps most importantly, James lead me to Alfred North Whitehead. I’ll be the first to admit that on my first read of Process and Reality I understood less than 5% of what was going on, but I definitely liked the idea of speculative philosophy (and this is coming from someone who was entirely disinterested in metaphysics to begin with). Again, the idea that all entities possessed something like an experiential dimension made sense to me, especially as this concept related to my already expanded understanding of ecology.
I really didn’t get much out of Whitehead for the first few years of reading him but I was fortunate enough to encounter his ideas before coming across the work of contemporary Whiteheadians like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. By the time I was reading Modest_Witness and Science in Action I was well into writing proposals for what would become my M.A. thesis. Latour and Haraway were teaching me how to incorporate that third domain of activity I had excluded thus far in my research: real social networks. I was doing fine with 2/3 of my targeted domains, reading plenty of research in ecology and philosophy, but that middle ground — of culture and society — had eluded proper theorizing. Right around this time I also become aware of the ever-so-delightful field of research known as media ecology and become endlessly fascinated with the work of media theorists like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan. As media theorists well know, there are a number of ecological relationships in play between technologies (e.g., streets, cars, cities, glass, or cellphones); modes of communication (e.g., books, printers, computers, music, or art); and the dynamics of human sensory and cognitive development. McLuhan, Ong, Latour, and Haraway quickly began to fill out the social dimension I was missing (to be sure, my philosophical interests had much to say about power and society, but not in the material sense that these thinkers were taking up the problem).
When it came time to write my thesis I had come up with what I thought was a rather novel idea: not “Ecology” as a monolithic whole, but “three ecologies” of nature, media, and knowledge. My thesis was that all entities — be they organisms, social structures, or ideas — were situated within this three-fold ecological medium. I wasn’t thinking in terms of ontology yet, I was trying to make an argument about the situated character of all things in the biosphere; my point was more empirical than metaphysical. As I was in the early stages of writing and preparing the thesis, I gave a presentation on my research. The talk was well received but the first question caught me off guard. A colleague asked me how I planned to integrate Felix Guattari’s book The Three Ecologies into my own work and how my perspective differed, if at all, from his. I was embarrassed to have not read the book but, given the cast of characters I was drawing from, the similarities I found were not surprising. Guattari’s work did of course make it into the final thesis and I was emboldened to know that other reputable theorists were working along similar lines as myself.
Once I finished writing my thesis I returned again to reading Whitehead. As anyone who has written a thesis knows it takes virtually all ones time away from reading anything not directly related to the research, and I knew I wanted to read more Whitehead. This time around the work really stuck and I quickly went through several of his major texts. I was also fortunate enough to have a community of peers who were also going through his work (including the always studious Matt Segall). About a year into this process the Metaphysics and Things conference was announced in Claremont, CA. A group of us decided to head down there to hear Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway speak — both of whom were advocating the need for more speculative philosophy in empirical research. At the time I hadn’t heard of either speculative realism or object-oriented ontology but was excited at the interest in Whitehead and speculative philosophy. (While I was at a coffee shop outside of Claremont I met Graham Harman but had no idea who he was. Next time the coffee is on me!)
It was in the midst of saturating myself with Whitehead, Haraway, and Latour that I began to get more excited about ontology as a project in and of itself. This lead me to re-consider what it was I thought I was doing with ecology in the first place. It was only through practicing ontology — and ontological thinking is a practice of mind — that I began to connect the dots I myself had been making. If ecology wasn’t just a metaphor for describing natural, epistemic, and social relations, what was it? In retrospect the answer seems so obvious. Ecology is a concept that can describe the relations between organisms and environments; humans and cultures; minds and ideas; and the relations across all three domains because ecology isn’t just a biological concept it’s an ontological concept. The hidden claim that was staring me in the face during my thesis was that ecology is a principle of relations. This simple statement (say it again with me, “ecology is a principle of relations”) effectively linked the empirical research I had been tracing — which viewed biology, culture, technology, and ideas as part of ecology — with my interests in speculative philosophy. In a sense the link between empiricism and speculation is embodied in the term “speculative philosophy” to begin with, I was just emphasizing one half of the coin.
After the Claremont conference I became increasingly interested in the cast of characters who presented (which included Roland Faber, Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro, Ian Bogost, and Graham Harman among others). It was Harman’s book on Latour The Prince of Networks that really drove the connections between ANT and metaphysics home for me. Having read Latour through Whitehead already (which is not common for most folks doing actor-network stuff) I found Harman’s take on Latour’s metaphysics totally natural. When I started to read Harman’s own books I became convinced that object-oriented philosophy was profoundly — paradoxically? — ecological in nature (something that Tim Morton was already quite aware of). The three ecologies I had developed needed a healthy dose of speculative philosophy to really take off and thats more-or-less what the past two years have been about for me. I wake up thinking about an ecologically inspired speculative philosophy, cosmological in scope — a kind of “experimental metaphysics” as Latour calls it — that continues to grow itself in blog posts, notebooks, conversations, and word files. There is much work ahead and I hope to continue writing on two fronts:
First, to continue working on the three ecologies as a methodological approach to doing post-disciplinary ecological research. This includes developing something like an actor-network model more thoroughly rooted in cosmology and ecology (putting the “cosmos” back in “cosmopolitics,” as it were). I’ve done quite a bit of work re-tooling the three ecologies as an expanded philosophy and hope to publish some of those insights soon. I see this end of the project mostly applicable to social science research in geography, political ecology, cultural anthropology, STS, place-based research, and climate studies. While much progress has been made in developing new research methodologies, these fields can all stand a more thorough-going, integrative approach that the three ecologies model can enact by linking empirical research and action in natural, social, and humanistic contexts. Climate change research, for example, is forcing us to re-think our traditional boundaries of research to include not just nature, culture, and technology; but also psychological patterns of behavior, worldviews, and ideas. Hopefully the three ecologies can be of some assistance here.
Second, we need to recover something of the cosmic sensibility with which Whitehead writes. The human worldspace is a small sliver of something vast and imitate that we are scarcely aware of. There is something of an intense drama playing itself out on Earth and now is not the time to be superstitious or perniciously skeptical about how incredibly strange things are. To rephrase a famous saying: no one knows what the cosmos can do. In this sense, we would do well to consider boldly what comes after modernity, capitalism, and the ecological crisis without having any clue what this might be. In this way where my first goal aims to catalogue, trace, and describe in detail the empirical connections between events; my second goal aims to follow the strangeness of things by evoking the uncanniness of our own being — finite, particular, and limited as it is — amidst a haunting ocean of other beings, some of whom care little whether we live or die. We need solid, empirical research to guide us forward, but we also need a vision that evokes what it means to be an earthling floating through the giant coral reef of the milky way. Hopefully my efforts can be of some use here.