In Defense of a Grey Ecology: Think Biospherically, Act Ecosystematically

The last post on this topic was largely polemical and so I thought I would expand on some of the concepts presented in concentrated form there. Let’s focus on a well-worn maxim of environmentalism, “Think globally, act locally”. It is important for people to understand that there is a disconnect between the political environmental movements and the science of ecology. The two sometimes overlap, of course, but there is a lot of work to be done to bring them together in a more fruitful union. This old environmental maxim hints at that disconnect for it overcodes the scientific via the political. Global and local are not strictly speaking technical scientific concepts, they are metaphors that are appropriated from the spatial approach to politics and this leads to all sorts of ideological coloring of environmentalism. Some can be quite nefarious, for instance the recent Red Tory appropriation of “localism” aims at a kind of “greening” that’s been common to the Conservative party since David Cameron came up with the idiotic slogan, “Vote blue, go green”. Again, there is no respect here for ecosystem science, as the conservative localist isn’t concerned with the actual ecotones (the corridors that mark off a kind of porous boundary from one ecosystem to another), but only with a crude notion of the parish. This localism pushes a return to parish boundaries without any regard for what that would mean ecologically, but still make use of a green veneer. In short, the environmental movement needs to begin to take more from the science of ecology, to make some kind of peace with its scientific character (which often offends the environmental steward), and from there, with that knowledge, we can begin to create a more rational, more human, and ultimately successful political ecology.

The ideological environmental distaste for the city has something to do with this partial rejection of scientific ecology. What determines the ideological environmentalism is a pastoral aesthetics, a neo-agrarian lifestyleism, that overdetermines any scientific finding. If urban ecology shows us, through ecological models, that human beings can participate in a more resilient biosphere by living in concentrated cities, with agricultural zones surrounded by greenbelts (where those ecosystems would be relatively absent of human beings as a dominant species), the neo-agrarian immediately appeals to some pseudo-ethical category of “authenticity” or to the inherent goodness of “the local” and “the small”. I purpose a less catchy maxim to replace the all-t00-ambiguous “think globally, act locally”, “think biospherically, act ecosystematically”.

Before I turn to an explication of this proposed maxim I want to say something to the final comments related to this in my last piece. My point of locating the city at “the centre” of a new ecological policy for reorganizing society along eco-political lines could be better described as an attempt to place human beings in an ecosystem where they will thrive and be less destructive to the wider biosphere. The point is often brought up by neo-agrarians that we’re “disconnected” from our food. I agree and I think most reasonable people presented with the brute facts of food production in the first world will have to agree. The answer to this problem is not some kind of individual piety, where individuals grieve over their inauthenticity within the food web, but an unconscious piety, a directing of attention that “just happens”. The model I take here, following and extending Philip Goodchild, is that of money. Money directs attention for us unconsciously, it values for us (somewhat like the the Buddhist allows the prayer wheel to believe for them or the “bad faith” Catholic allows the liturgy to do the same in a different context). There is a political response that will finally be successful and would constitute a radical change from the current capitalist determination of ideological green thinking (meaning the ways businesses have responded to militant greens, rather than the ideology pursued by the militant greens themselves) and that political response is to remove the false choice between ecologically viable and ecologically destructive forms of life. Freedom is here the ability to choose one path, rather than to choose between an infinity of paths (as a friend tells me Sartre says). This is also why I ultimately disagree with Adam’s Paulist nihilism of hospitality. The political act of a cold vegetarian/vegan (as opposed to the “authentic” vegetarian or eater of “happy-meat”) is to show that one can choose this path without regard for personal feelings. One simply does it because it is just, even if it is ultimately weak, without trying to convert the meat-eater or holding their “righteousness” over the others.

The neo-agrarian does not think about this issue ecologically, it thinks about it in nearly purely in terms of human culture. So, cities are assumed to be sites of inauthentic ecological dwelling because people in cities “consume” without regard for the effects. Now, there are some empirical mistakes at work here. Rural communities are rather, in terms of the non-human aspect of the ecosystems, very destructive. Agriculture is the original form of human eco-destructiveness! Rural communities also tend to “consume” without regard or attention for the consequences. They require that the energy infrastructure be extended, as they spread out, they require larger houses, have more children, require roads and highways to set up supply lines, etc., to say nothing of their consumption of culture whose loci of production tend to be urban. While, ecologically, the human dwells in cities in a more concentrated way, they tend to have fewer children, there is the possibility (varies from city to city) for more efficient use of energy, and there is a possibility for more efficient lines to the countryside and those parts of the earth that should be allowed to be reclaimed by non-human nature (where human beings will no longer be the dominant species in those particular ecosystems, allowing for greater biodiversity within the biosphere).

In short, we need to think within the biosphere (the set of all actual ecosystems and the general system of exchange between them) as we act locally within particular ecosystems. Systematically requires research and an understanding both of the human geography overlaid on top of the human/non-human ecosystem, and how they currently interact and a model of how they can interact with concern towards fostering resilience and biodiversity. In less technical terms, a grey ecology recognizes that human beings have a particular power of intentional action, as witnessed by agriculture and city-planning, and that can be redirected at a biospherical level by acting systemically at the ecosystem level to create human intensive ecosystems (cities) and ecosystems where human beings have very little to do with the working of that ecosystem. Give up on proposing an authenticity from outside the ecological situation and begin to recognize that we are already caught up in the act of being ecological. One only needs to recognize that we contain within our own actions, both at the rural and urban level, the seeds of our extermination through the destruction of a biodiverse biosphere in the making heterogeneous the various ecosystems that make it up and that that recognition means we also contain the power to negate that self-destructive seed.

28 thoughts on “In Defense of a Grey Ecology: Think Biospherically, Act Ecosystematically

  1. Do we? I wonder whether cities, even environmentally and ecologically conscious ones, aren’t the epicenter of a larger transformation of “matter” that is irreversible. Not to sound like a raving nihilist, but coincidentally I penned a brief aphorism on this situation this morning:

    We eschew complexity at our peril. It is the lifespring; the diversity of existence. In a quest for order, we tamed and trained matter, threatening its inherent (molecular and genetic) difference. Sameness and uniformity are both progress and death. The very meaning of the material real is transformed – oversimplified; becoming a petrified monolith of artifice.

  2. The suburbs, perhaps? I suppose the city is at the center of this “solidification” in the sense of being at the center of the constructed, the artificial, the made (rather than “the grown”). This could change, but it seems unlikely. Apologies for the cynicism — born of reading Paul Virilio’s The University of Disaster of late…

  3. That’s unfortunate. Doesn’t an ecological position essentially depend on this distinction? I think here of common contemporary environmental practices, like recycling/composting, which rely on this divide. Isn’t denying this getting too far away from praxis?

  4. @AK & Hill: Fine. I give up. Your unwillingness to entertain positions differing from you own by labeling them as non-sense (or worse…) is clear. I’ll refrain from commenting in the future.

    All the best.

  5. I was going to say this but got lazy. I don’t mean it as a euphemism for “I think your dumb/wrong.” The words and syntax you are using just don’t make sense to me.

  6. Had I been in a less charitable mood, I might have deployed a memorable quote from Jules in Pulp Fiction, but that would have been over the line. Same sentiment, though.

  7. @Hill: You think because you mention Pulp Fiction and Sam Jackson you’re oh-so-bad ass and ghetto. If you met me in a dark alley, brother, you’d know the meaning of the word…

    Don’t mess with a bull, you’ll get the horns.

  8. No, recycling and the like do not rely on a divide between the artificial and the natural, at least not in reality though sometimes discourses around them do perpetuate that divide. The artificial and the grown contain a difference in degree, not of kind, they are still both natural and can be thought ecologically.

  9. APS: Really? Would you put plastic out in a compost pile? Or use banana peels to make an aluminum can? Of course, in the realm of the ideal, all atoms are “natural”. But until widespread nanotechnology makes alchemy a fact, then ecological visions should recognize the grown/made distinction.

  10. There’s a difference between recognizing a practical distinction and recognizing it on the philosophical or ontological level.

    For instance, I know what you’re talking about when you talk about different “races” among humans and can identify white and black people with a tolerable degree of accuracy, but that doesn’t mean that race is a central category in my understanding of human nature.

  11. @AK: Then your understanding of human nature will lack nuance. This was what I was suggesting from the very beginning; Any philosophy of ecology that strays too far from practical and material concerns can no longer be considered ecological. Ecology — “eco” + “logos” = “the logic/reason of place/home/earth”. Right?

  12. Anthony, thanks for this post. Can you say anything more about what you think an unconscious piety means with regards to the food system?

  13. And the necromancer has just taken us into the sad realm of the connection between fascism and ecology that Agamben talks about in the The Open. I wouldn’t put a bottle in a compost pile because it doesn’t, in the ecological sense, work there. That’s all one needs to say about it ecologically, not that it is artificial and the compost “grown”.

  14. Hey O. I think Goodchild’s work here is invaluable at the formal level (though I get the impression he and I disagree on the particulars to a degree). We would need to agree on what matters within the food system. Part of that means getting rid of the concept of authenticity as the major idea that we think about these issues through and figuring out what the best direction is ecologically and socially. How that could happen ranges from the utopic (so Philip’s discussion of “smart money” tied to ecological damage and other forms of real wealth, rather than the capitalist notion of absolute growth) to what seems to me to be obvious (get rid of lifestyle choices and just ban things like battery farming). Here though we really leave the realm of what I’m suggesting at the level of rant and would need to bring together a whole host of like minded people to develop the best way forward with economists, ecologists, city planners, etc., but I think the point of all of that would be to figure out what needs unconscious attention (the way we are always unconsciously concerned with those things that money concentrates) and creating the mechanisms that would direct that attention.

  15. I’m with Adam. I’m looking forward to seeing this developed. I’m beginning to grasp how money functions in this way and am curious to see alternative proposals for how this type of mechanism might function constructively for humanity. As you say that’s going to require a lot of work.

  16. I think what APS is saying here is also potentially an argument for insititutions like the welfare state against which some say ‘they are impersonal etc’, to which my response is ‘no, it’s constructing the institutions of a just society just as we have fair courts of law’.

  17. Krister Stendhal made the same argument based on the Sermon on the Mount — when you pay taxes to the welfare state and it winds up helping people, it’s the ultimate in “let your left hand not know what your right hand is doing.”

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