The word ‘ecology’comes from biology and often seems to point to our relationship with the natural world. In conversation, ecology usually implies a protective and appreciative attitude towards Nature. But there is no reason to consider ecology only in relation to the natural world. Etymologically ‘ecology’ means ‘a deep sense of home’. But Nature is not our only home.
Let me explain how I come to that definition. ‘Eco’ is the short form of the Greek word oikos, which means ‘home’. Logos is a special word used in philosophy and theology among the early Greeks. It’s like the Indian notion of ‘dharma’. It is a profound idea, suggesting mystery and depth, meaning and order. I prefer to translate oikos-logos as ‘a deep sense of home’.
Let’s bring protection and appreciation into that definition and apply it to all contexts and settings in which we all live our lives. In that sense, we could develop an ecology of daily life and include within our concerns our bodies, our homes, our towns and cities, the workplace, public areas like parks and roadways, bridges and trains, buildings and shopping centers, rooms and furniture. Any and all settings for the various compartments of our daily lives are potential objects of our ecological concerns.
Just as Nature-ecology we want to protect life forms – animals and trees and oceans – so with the ecology of place and setting we would specifically aim for such values as health, beauty, function, and value to community. Ecology is not just the study of cultural institutions, but caring for them. I don’t mean this in any superficial or sentimental sense. We need a strong philosophy of care, so that we see it as being equal in seriousness to the use of physical resources, our usual approach to Nature and culture.
Let’s take the office workplace as an example. When it is seen only as the scene for high functioning, the atmosphere of an office may be spartan and even depressive. I have visited offices where workers are not allowed to have plants, photographs or personal objects and where the walls by edict are colourless or plain white and unadorned. The idea, I am told is that workers can focus better when they aren’t distracted.
But let’s apply our criteria to an ecology of the office. Beauty, a primary ecological value, creates a humane environment and contributes to the emotional wellbeing of the workers. It also adds an essential ingredient to the wellbeing of the building and the place of work. It lifts morale and raises the efforts at work to a loftier value level.
An office also has a relation to the community, perhaps to the town or neighborhood in which the office is located. An ugly building makes the neighborhood ugly and affects the lives of the citizens – men, women and children – who live in the ambience of that building everyday. Perhaps noisy machinery or a dilapidated parking area gives the neighborhood an air of blight.
Workplace architecture often accents function and flow to the detriment of the other values such as a spirit of home, emotional warmth and beauty. Of course, it is possible to blend function with these other values, but it seems easier to neglect them and imagine work only as a kind of functioning; then the workplace has the feel of a factory.
Another example might be the automobile. An ecology of the car would consider not only harmful physical pollutants but also the noise the car makes in neighbourhoods, the impacts on the community of the vehicles, roads and signs, and the psychology of the driver. If you drive ecologically, you will consider your speed and civil behaviour as part of the enterprise. Another similar example is air transport.
If you are fully ecological, you will take into account beauty, comfort, civility, safety, health and social intercourse.
These are all oikos values, related to life at home, because ecology is rooted in the archetype of home. Wherever you are, you treat it as home. You make home wherever you can. You evoke the spirit of home in whatever setting you happen to be in, because setting is home. A human being always requires home, even when traveling. Hotels and restaurants are versions of home, as is the cubicle at the office, the carrel at the library, or a seat in the car. These are all setting, or seating, and ecology is the creation and care of setting.
Not imagining ecology in this extended way,we tend to treat most of our settings as functional necessities. We don’t bring them enough care and we don’t consider the value of health, beauty, pleasure and community. We don’t register the injury to our ambience because our functional, objectifying thinking has gone so deep into us that it overrules subjective sensation. The reality we believe in is that which is measurable and physical. The value of home lies out of reach, just beyond the edge of the myth that dominates our era – the age of commodity and function.
We all know that we have been unconscious about the natural world and have done it serious harm over centuries. In the same way we tend to be unconscious about our settings and allow ugliness and narcissism and a driven functionalism to dominate our daily lives. No wonder society has troubles and families don’t understand why their children can’t thrive and our streets and airports are manic. Our public and private psychology reflects a world uncared for, lacking an ecological sensibility. We have forgotten that the world, not only Nature but our ever-changing culture and personal ambience, is our home and has to be maintained with regular and refined care.
This article is published with permission from Resurgence Magazine, UK.