Jump to the following topics:
- What is ecology?
- Humans are part of the environment.
- Techniques for enhancing our experience of the environment.
What is ecology? It is a study of:
- The living things within our environment, along with the inanimate forces (e.g., climate, geology) which affect those living things.
- The relationships of things within our environment. Ecologists examine the interactions among plants, animals, humans, and the inanimate forces.
- The environment as a whole.
- Humans' activities within the environment: resource management, pollution, populations, food supplies, and -- philosophically -- mankind's position and role in this environment.
Humans are part of the environment. In many ways, we are simply one species among many. The Cartesian, anthropocentric view of the universe sees nature as something to be fought and conquered and consumed; contrarily, the standpoint of "deep ecology" is ecocentric, in which each member has dignity and value in its own right. We are intimately related to and interdependent with those other members not only through our constant interactions, but also through our common heritage, whether we believe that heritage to be one of evolution or divine creation (or a combination of both, whereby evolution has been directed by divine inspiration). We can learn to sense more than a dynamic relationship to the other components of the environment; we might intuit a common essence in the transcendental substance of spirit. If we accept the value of other species in their own right, we might be able to develop a relationship in which humanity can develop its unique qualities, and fulfill its potential, without disrupting the development of other life-forms. As humans, we base on concept of uniqueness upon various foundations:
- Technology. However, most of our technology is an attempt to compensate for our inadequacies; we are not the fastest, strongest, or toughest species, so we have needed to develop tools, weapons, and clothing simply to survive. In that sense, technology might be a sign of our inferiority, not of our superiority. Functionally, for example, a modern apartment building is no better than a beaver's humble home of branches. And who is to say whether a television set is more entertaining to humans than a treetop is to a bird? Or whether our ability to build a submarine indicates preeminence over a fish which can swim underwater without technology?
- Language. We simply don't know how much communication is happening among other species. Obviously, animals communicate through sounds and behaviors. However, we cannot judge the intricacy of their language, because we know little about it; when we hear nothing but a "meow" or a "quack," other members of that species are probably hearing subtleties which convey much data. Communication might be occurring via intuition, or through a means which we have not discovered (like the animals' radar and sonar which we did not discover until the 20th century). Plants, too, might be able communicate somewhat -- as indicated by George Washington Carver, Luther Burbank, and people who have the type of sixth sense which grants them a "green thumb"; the plants' awareness is a type of communication, even if it is not an intentional "language."
- Intelligence. If intelligence is indicated by rational action, humans can hardly claim it as one of their special qualities. My definition of intelligence is "the capacity to process data," but we don't even know what type of data is processed by other species, nor how that data is processed by some type of "thinking." We have selective standards of intelligent; just as a person can be labeled "intelligent" if he or she is skilled in math but weak in verbal skills (for example), we tend to judge animals "unintelligent" if they are not skilled in human-like mental operations while we might be discounting those animals' unique non-human means of processing information. For example, humans wield enough intelligence to be able to navigate by reading a map, but some birds can navigate by "reading" the stars.
- Introspection, religion, and philosophy. However, we do not know the "inner life" of other species. Humans have developed sophisticated religions, but the goal of those religions is some type of intuitive, non-verbal connection to a greater power; plants and animals might be experiencing that same type of connection. Human religion is unique in its development of religious concepts -- but that conceptualizing is the element which leads to neurotic intellectualizing and religious intolerance, and not necessarily to the spirituality which poets have discerned in nature's harmony, vitality, and peacefulness (although, of course, nature also exhibits violence, death, and turbulence).
- Art. Although animals' behavior might be viewed as purely utilitarian, we cannot know whether, for example, a beaver believes that it's dam is "beautiful." And when we listen to a bird expressing itself in tones which are so delightful to human ears, we might be correct in believing that it's verbalizations are not merely intended to attract a mate or assert territoriality; the bird could truly be "singing" for pleasure.
- A sense of distinction. Perhaps crows or cockroaches believe that they are a special species, thoroughly different from the others, not an "animal" at all, and created by a god which gave them authority over all other species. Or perhaps humanity is the only species which sets itself apart -- in ignorance, and in arrogance, and in fear of such realities as mortality, "animal passion," and commonness.
Techniques for enhancing our experience of the environment.
- We can spend time in natural surroundings. Many people enjoy activities such as hiking, camping, gardening, and bicycling. Although hunters and fishers might be viewed as exploiters of nature, many of them are zealous conservationists; some people use hunting or fishing as a respectable excuse to go into the woods when their real reason is to enjoy the contact with nature.
- We can have pets and plants in our home. They remind us that we, too, are simple living creatures, despite our human concerns of money, career, possessions, deadlines, and social position. We realize that animals are not so different from us; they seem to have exactly the same emotions and feelings (e.g., affection, anger, loyalty, fear, boredom, jealousy, etc.); they think (with skills such as problem-solving, learning, memory, and recognition of human words); and they display most of the same behaviors (e.g., eating, sleeping, fighting, mating, etc.). Our human lives seem to be different only because we dwell so heavily on our human-specific interests (e.g., working overtime when we could instead be "playing" at home like our kitty).
- We can explore our body's integral role in the physical world. While our thoughts are in another realm, our body is composed of the same chemicals as those of the trees and the rocks; the atoms themselves were forged in stars. When we breathe, we inhale molecules which have been a part of other people's breaths, and plant's respiration, and ancient campfires. We consume foods and liquids; later, we release them back into the environment. And when we die -- despite the metal casket which is supposed to separate us eternally from the earth -- we will indeed return all of our physical substance to the ground.
- We can develop a lifestyle which takes less from the environment. We can recycle, and we can reduce our use of water, electricity, gasoline, and other consumables. If we become discouraged by a realization that our small contribution makes little difference in the scope of the worldwide ecological crisis, we can adopt the perspective that, at least, our actions express and deepen our own love and affiliation to the earth regardless of anyone else's actions.
- We can work for the environment. We can help with regard to issues as acid rain, pollution (of the air, water, or soil), soil conservation (i.e., reducing erosion), nuclear power plants (and radioactive wastes), deforestation (of rain forests and other woodlands), population control (through family planning and other means), endangered species (of plants and animals), chemical spraying, animal rights, global warming, land-use issues and planning, alternative power sources (e.g., wind or solar power), toxic wastes, ozone depletion, noise pollution, nuclear-weapons issues (e.g., nuclear testing and disarmament) -- and local problems such as the destruction of a nearby stream.
- We can discard any belief that our physical life is unholy. In order to emphasize the value of the transcendental spirit, most religions teach (explicitly or implicitly) that the physical world is a distraction from "spiritual life," that it is tainted and evil, that it is composed of obstacles and temptations, that is merely an illusion. However, the concept of "the physical world as illusion" means only that our regular perceptions (including those of the physical senses) are not discerning the essence; the world is still "real" as something to be loved and lived intimately.