What is the Ecological Self?

One of my favorite concepts in ecopsychology is that of the ecological self, also known as the ecological identity. It originated with deep ecology, the philosophy founded by Arne Næss that encourages us to see ourselves as one of many parts of a vibrant global ecosystem and to value all of nature for itself rather than for what we can use it for. The ecological self is who we are when we see ourselves as interwoven with the rest of life. More importantly, the ecological self is altruistic, with a deep-seated need to care for and protect all life, not just human aims.

Most of us in the United States were raised with the idea that humans are at the top of an ecological pyramid; some of us even grew up learning that we have dominion over the entire planet and that it was made specifically for us. Unfortunately this power-over approach has led us to severely damage ecosystems, even in the most remote parts of the planet. We’ve polluted the air, water and soil, caused numerous species to go extinct, and even threaten our own health and happiness in spite of our supposed superiority.

Yet we also yearn for a connection with nature. Look at how frequently nature imagery is used in our popular symbols: Apple computers, the bear and the bull on the stock market, and a whole menagerie of animals representing our sports teams. Many of our town and city names are nature derived, like Springfield, Thousand Oaks, Lakewood, Jasper, Ashland, and many more. And there’s the old joke that suburbs are places where we cut down all the trees–and then name streets after them.

Our children pretend to be animals, at least until we condition the play out of them. Yet ours is a culture that lacks a way to express kinship and connection with other beings. We don’t have a system of totemism or nature guardians. The best most of us can hope for is the occasional online personality test promising to tell you what animal you most resemble.

But the ecological self allows us that kinship, and more. We remain human beings, of course, but we also are allowed to “think like a mountain,” as Aldo Leopold put it in his famous book, A Sand County Almanac:

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain.”

Of course, we know that mountains don’t actually think; they’re stone covered in a thin layer of volcanic and sedimentary soil which sustains a variety of life forms who may think on their own levels. But if we were to pretend we were mountains, we might consider more the fragility of the life that thrives on our steep flanks, and the balance thrown out of place when one species causes too much damage to another: deer to grass, or humans to wolves.

You don’t have to be a full-time environmentalist to be able to appreciate how everything is connected, humans included. Think about what you ate for dinner last night. Do you know where your food came from? What soil it grew or was raised in? What the climate was like, how much rain fell and how much sun touched green leaves or warm hide? No matter how processed it may be, your food did not originate in a factory somewhere, but on a piece of land. And by eating that food, you are eating that land and making it a part of your body.

The more you develop your ecological self, the more aware you become of these everyday interactions with ecosystems near and far. The boundaries between “human” and “nature”, which were wholly contrived to begin with anyway, start to break down. You can start to imagine, like you did when you were a child, what it’s like to be a tree, or a fossil, or a breeze. Maybe your mind is a little more rusted in place, and it’s not as easy to get out of your everyday headspace, but your imagination still works. You can have a greater appreciation for the needs of other beings, not just humanity. That spider building a web in the garage isn’t just there to scare you; it’s trying to find a good place to catch some flies for dinner. The bird singing outside the window is trying to find a mate; the dandelion scrabbling out a life in the sidewalk crack just wants to survive long enough to send forth seeds on tiny white parachutes.

So why is this ecological self so important psychologically? Well, for one thing it helps to create a greater sense of connection to everything else out there. You’re not really alone if you see yourself as part of a greater ecological community that includes many species, not just humans. There can be great comfort in that, even in trying times.

And again I reiterate that a more developed ecological self leads you to want to be more responsible for what’s around you. You see yourself as an integrated part of a greater whole, and what harms that whole harms you. It’s self-defense, yes, but it’s also defense of those around us. And we feel better when we take care of others.

In my next article this upcoming Tuesday I’ll give you some ways you can develop your ecological self.