What do we mean by ‘ecological’?

To answer this question, I’d like to highlight the work of four theorists in complementary research spaces. They each provide a contemporary perspective of value within a wider discourse and provide ways of thinking about the ‘ecology of thought’, or more specifically ‘ecological-thought’. More importantly, appreciation of this work allows others to move past a crossroads of these different and interesting valuings and into the (more mundane) research on thought-ecologies. The directions of discourse can then be aligned with one’s own personal preferences for thinking.

In Ecological Thought (1995) Tim Hayward introduces deep-ecological thought as a contribution to the political and social foresight discourse to ‘transform controversy into constructive dialogue’. By the re-placing of humans into Nature we recognise that humans and their constructions are, to other sentients, forms of ‘environment’. This shifts the familiar aversions to anthropocentrism towards an a more enlightened inclusivity, evoking a certain sense of responsibility. He writes:

“In ecological thought, humans are reintegrated with the rest of the natural world. I say re-integrated since an ecological perspective is in some ways one which can be recovered from ways of life, closer to nature and to biological rhythms, that modern Western societies appear to have lost.” (p. 31)

By noting how science (and scientism) can serve ecological values, rather than offering uncritical realist discoveries as an Enlightenment from nature, there is a place for a value system that re-discovers a dwelling place, an ‘oikos’, in the ecology of being for humanity. Three general imperatives in this ethic are; i) to live in harmony with nature, ii) to overcome anthropocentric prejudice, and iii) to recognize an intrinsic value in beings other than humans. Hayward concludes with Arne Naess’ ecological reflections on the implicit philosophy of children immersed in an alive, feeling, nature – by proposing the re-finding of a social and political counterpart as an emancipation from ‘self-imposed immaturity’ towards a mature ecopolitical era. The ecological thought proposed is a politics of the situated expanded. (His more recent writings are available here: link).

In The Ecological Thought (2010) Tim Morton, provides a more radical and definite ‘ontic’, to shift not only the content of political thought, but also the location of the politic by moving boundaries in relations, in time and intrinsic valuations. Rather than a ‘small[er] is beautiful’ approach that curbs and limits, Morton confronts us with an intimacy that ‘explores and expands upon existing pleasures’ (p. 37) to ‘start thinking about pleasure as a coordinate of the ecological thought.’ (p. 38) occupied by its full scope of inhabitants. In a radical ownership of the other excluded, he writes:

“The ecological thought consists in intimacy with the strange stranger.” (p. 46) “Interconnection implies separateness and difference. There would be no mesh if there were no strange strangers. The mesh isn’t a background against which the strange stranger appears. It is the entanglement of all strangers.” (p. 47). “Rather than a vision of inclusion, we need a vision of intimacy. We need thresholds, not spheres or concentric circles, for imagining where the strange stranger hangs out.” (p. 78)

This is a move beyond community and enlightened self-interest, to a ‘collectivity’ of weakness, vulnerability and incompletion. The narrative is intensely realist, embracing the paradoxical nature of enmeshment with difference, accepting the possible affective states of the ‘disgusting real’, which includes anger, confusion, depression, disgust, doubt, grief, helplessness, honesty, humiliation, and shame. Morton does proposes that, in terms of how much states open us to the ecological thought, he’d still rank “compassion, curiosity, humility, openness, sadness, and tenderness the highest.” (p. 125-126) . The proposition of ‘the ecological thought’ holds firm to the realism of immersed enmeshment. (His pre-flections on the book are here: link)

In ‘A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought (Radical Theologies)’ (in press) Anthony Paul Smith potentially draws together an ecology of discourses of nature, in philosophy, theology and ecology. From the thesis which proposed this research is the idea that ecological thinking involves an ecology of metaphysics where ideas form in the interplay beyond (or before) discourse. This originates from the problem that ‘nature has become a problem for nature’, noting that if human beings are natural, then there is potentially nothing unnatural about what we are doing. Implicitly, all the very different philosophical and theological ‘natures’ are then also ‘natural’. Smith establishes an invitation into a thinking about nature that is outside Nature, an ecological thinking that is outside the objectification of ecology; a ‘radical immanence of the Real’ as unified with the creatural and the transcendent. Smith (previously) writes:

“Radical immanence is different from the Nature of naturalism; it is different from a quasi-thing above consciousness or humanity. Thinking in the manner of radical immanence is to think neither as a part in a whole, nor as a cog in a cosmic machine, but in a manner already-manifest prior to thinking as inscribed within a system. For that system itself is produced from that immanence. Radical immanence is prior to ontology or to the difference or alterity to ontology. … It is the thought thinking more than it is the totality of thought. It is not a system, but neither is it unknowable. …  It is the unconcealed prior to knowledge, prior to theory, and theory can never circumscribe it but can recognize that it already is it.” (2011, p. 8)

This ‘non-philosophical’ thinking about thought subsumes thought into nature, without it becoming merely naturalistic or materialistic. This proposition of us being with and within ‘ecologies of thought’ may provide a naturalised approach to thinking ecologically by adopting a non-philosophy sensibility. (A recent interview is here: link)

In ‘The Impending Emergence of Ecologial Thought’ (1964), LaMont C. Cole looks critically and kindly at the role of contemporary ‘ecological systems thinking’ as contributing to other disciplines. Drawing prologue, parable, principle and epilogue together this is a story of ecological systems theory’s potential for contribution to other disciplines negating nature. He forewarns:

“Once we accept the proposition that natural selection will operate in the direction of filling vacant ecological niches, we must logically begin to wonder whether total eradication of destructive forms is desirable.  (p. 31) All this suggests to an ecologist that clean cultivation, routine pesticide application, and other agricultural practices that reduce the diversity of species in the community may be working in exactly the wrong direction.” (p. 32)

In predicting the emergence of the significance of ecological thought in responding to the effects on vacated niches void of innocuous viruses, he envisages that the biological effects for humans (and ecosystems) might be a proliferation of noxious organisms specifically adapted to domination of the domains of the toxic. As Cole extends the ecological metaphor to the human body, one cannot help extending those imaginings to the body of human thought itself. (A further article is here: link)

From these four forms of thoughts on ecology we have: i) ecology as a human value that is to be thought more about, ii) a seeing of humans in an ecology of values as represented by the tensions of many thoughts,  iii) a thinking that values the human inspired ecology of all our ecologies, and iv) ecological thinking that informs our human values inspired interventions. While maintaining the complexity and nuances of these contributions, these domains might initiate: the a. valuing of the ecological, b. ecology as a value, c. an ecology of valuings, and d. the ecology of value.

The distinctiveness of these contributions usefully provides a comparison to the study of Thought-Ecologies, which seems to be more a practical, than philosophic, pursuit. In recognising the tensions in the formation of conceptions, the dynamic of the philosophic, and the resultings of resultants, this inquiry necessarily includes an appreciation – of conceptions of nature, the natural, the ecology and the ecological. The value bias in this discipline is placed on a valuing of human thought and thinking as a natural phenomenon that has as its effect an aesthetic that, in its infinite forms, is a strangely beautiful (if unfamiliar) not so completely strange stranger.

Inquiry into all forms of the formation of the ecology of thought is itself an act in intimacy. The means by which we approach this wide field of appreciations are possibly all to be seen, within a wider discourse, as equally valued and valuable equally.

willvarey (2012).


1. Hayward, T. (1994) ‘Ecological Thought: An Introduction’, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

2. Morton, T. (2010) ‘The Ecological Thought’, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. Smith, A.P (2013) ‘A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought’, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

4. Cole, L. C. (1964) The Impending Emergence of Ecological Thought, BioScience, Vol. 14 No. 7 pp. 30-32.