What makes the world what it is? Is it fair to say that everything is connected in some way? These are fascinating questions regarding diversity within the ecological sphere. Students of topics like historical ecology or global environmental history typically take to certain concepts and theories quickly, eager to apply their knowledge to the world. Through empirical observation and critical analysis, we come to understand our surroundings with complexity and open-mindedness. In this little reflection of mine, I want to ventilate some thoughts I have on how I perceive ecology. There are ontological ideas rooted in epistemology and sociology that I would like to touch on, with the intention to explore the question; how do beings exist together in the ecological space?
The way we understand nature tells us how we see ourselves. Steve Hinchcliff’s discussion about interactivity is interesting to bring up.1 To explain this debate in simple terms; does nature operate in an organised manner (through interaction) or randomly (through hybrid relations)? Hinchcliffe argues that the former comes from a deterministic perspective, where every event is settled beforehand, and nothing really changes. In contrast, the latter encourages change, difference, and spontaneity in nature. There is still some nuance here. On one hand, he believes looking at ecology as interactive still encourages distinction and dichotomy between elements, as it is explaining the relationship between cultural, social, and nature-based aspects in a rather structural and static way. On the other hand, claiming all elements are hybrids and relate to each other at all times can cause a risk of minimising the connectivity between the living and non-living, while reducing its significance. As Ian Hodder states, the idea that humans and “things” depend on each other suggest a dualism that is too deterministic. We are instead all part of an entanglement, where the events taking place often are random and unintentional.2 Adding to this, it is not about if we can relate the biotic and abiotic, but how and when they are related. Exploring the why might be appealing, but sometimes there is no clear reason for the outcome.
Diversity can often indicate different strengths and weaknesses compensating each other. Perhaps it is inaccurate however to focus on how we all are different, and only how our differences lead to vitality and efficiency in ecology. I still believe all the ways we are not the same creates some sort of balance in the world, even though we as humans tend to be all too different with desire for profit, separating ourselves from our fellow beings.
Whether ecology should be depicted as several entities all at once or as one whole entity, is something worth asking. Although, this type of phrasing is doing ecology a disservice reducing it to one or the other when it is evidently both. Like the human body, it is made up of many parts that work hard to keep it alive. As with all biological phenomena, nothing is merely one thing but many things – creating an ensemble of different elements playing off each other. It could be described as an orchestra, but I also perceive it as a multitude of dancers in a complex choreography. Everyone is dancing both on their own and with each other, creating a wholesome spectacle we are all part of.
When trying to maintain an ecosystem’s health, one must turn their gaze upon it as a whole and not just focus on a smaller scale. I refer here to a system, though it is perhaps inaccurate to claim ecology to be systematic. Everything is partaking in a social network in relation to each other, hence the role of one component changes depending on the context. The interaction or agency here is when the actants within assemblages are reacting to and affecting each other, with or without intention.3 When talking about Actor-Network-Theory,4 writers often refer to the relation between actors – how individuals with agency relate to one another. Some confusion can occur about how agency in inanimate objects can exist and what kind of intention they can possibly have. Therefore, using the term actants might make more sense when discussing unintentional consequences.5 My point regarding agency is simply that there can be different ways of acting, with or without intent. So, actors with intention and actants with consequence are entangled in a dynamic web, perpetually impacting their surroundings while also changing themselves.6
When I went to Sicily to do field study for my Master’s thesis, I learnt about the marvellous lives of olive trees and how they have adapted to their environment. Growing in such dry climates, they had to become resilient. Vincenza Ferrara (a former student of the Global Environmental History programme at Uppsala University), who leads this research project I am part of, wrote about the agency of olive trees as well as the practice of “talking” to the trees to learn their history in her thesis from 2016.7 When recognising that acting has the possibility of meaning many things, the world does not seem as methodical anymore.
When one section within the whole stops functioning, the entire network is exposed to vulnerability. It is resilient, but not indestructible. Adaptation to circumstances and surroundings is ideal though not always guaranteed. Nevertheless, change does not have to mean failure, although maybe it looks like it from a closer perspective if one zooms in on each component or network. Similarly, with all the climate debates and environmental crises of today, we see our nature transform into something negative. I do not necessarily argue against this; everyone has some opinion or impression of the environment and what it entails.
However, when it comes to nature, we tend to overcomplicate it. By this I do not mean that we fail to give credit where credit is due – for nature is truly complex and the processes that take place within it are spectacular. Instead, my point is that we constantly try to analyse it, to give it meaning and try to understand it in a very detailed way. Our curiosity drives us to want to study how the Earth works, but this may mean that we might not appreciate the natural world for what it is. Take for instance the interpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection – many times our interpretation of it paints nature as brutal and harsh in reference to the survival of the fittest. Some writers and politicians extend this to a social context – that the strongest among a group of people will survive – often overlooking that strength comes in other forms apart from physical power. Besides, social darwinists miss the point about how natural selection is a neutral process, and no social values should be applied to it.8
Of course, this thought of the animal kingdom as being ruthless has not escaped me, although I think it may not be a fair conclusion. Another way of looking at the natural environment is to put it on a pedestal; that it is something sacred that must not be destroyed. Now, I believe it is more accurate to claim that nature is neither good nor evil; it is simply neutral. If people fear and resent death, then normalising death challenges our morals. A mutualistic perspective would describe relations between entities as bringing either a positive, negative, or neutral outcome, which is a valid way of looking at it. This depicts each network as unique and purposeful.9
Regardless, I would take it a step further and say that the notions of negativity and positivity promotes dualism and are subjective, for all networks should be viewed with neutrality. Subjectivity will never be discredited, and it will never be wrong. Subjectivity is what change and difference is all about. A neutral outlook is however not a deterministic one, but one of acceptance.
Our reality shapes how we see our environment and while one reality might be true for us, it is not the absolute truth. The only thing we can truly know is that everyone and everything just is. Life, too, is merely life. Even though the ideas of living and dying are put against one another, they go together. Alas, something must be eaten for something else to keep living, and in the end, we all perish. We are part of this dance we call life, moving in our own rhythm while still being part of a bigger show. We just keep dancing, our dances intersect with the movements of others, and so we evolve together. There is both harmony and conflict between dancers, still everyone does their own thing. This is why I believe the concept of entanglement adds up. Simply put; everything just is what it is.