After a brief hiatus, the Integral Ecology reading group is back in action here. (Antonio at Mediacology combined two chapters – 5 and 6 – in his post of two weeks ago, and I’m running a little late with this one.)

What follows is my summary and response to Chapter 7, “Ecological Selves: The Who That Is Examining.” Since the research literature pertaining to psychological development and ecology is not my particular field of expertise, I’ve asked my friend Andy Fisher to comment on that section of the chapter and am including his comments below. Andy is the author of Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (SUNY Press, 2002) and a practicing clinical therapist who lives in Perth, Ontario.

The focus of this chapter is the relationship between psychological development and ecological reality. E/Z’s view is “that integral awareness of developmental dynamics and the capacity to take multiple views are crucial elements in achieving behavioral changes and altering our current treatment of the biosphere” (p. 215). They contend that if we don’t take account of psychological dynamics, we will simply not be able to solve our environmental problems. While this contention is shared by many, it remains far from universally acknowledged in the environmental movement, so E/Z’s contribution on the topic is very welcome.

The first part of the chapter (pp. 216-226) provides a highly useful overview of the literature on the psychology underlying, and informing the resolution of, environmental problems. In two subsections, “Psychological Development and Ecology,” and “Ecological Lines of Development,” E/Z cover a broad range of work, from the early writings of Harold Searles, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and Paul Shepard, to the more recent research of Stephen Kellert and Peter Kahn, Jr., among others. The second part (pp. 226-242) develops in detail their own conception of the “8 Eco-Selves,” followed by a brief illustration of these eco-selves in an account of Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’s experience with the Northwest Youth Corps.


1. Psychological Development and Ecology

My own knowledge of the psychological literature E/Z describe is somewhat cursory, so I’ve asked Andy Fisher, ecopsychologist and practicing therapist, to comment on it. I’ll let Andy’s thoughts, which I appreciate him sharing, stand for themselves.

Andy writes as follows:

In terms of their review of researchers, I’m glad E-H and Z acknowledge Paul Shepard for his use of developmental psychology. He was the first person to offer a picture of psychological development that integrates the natural world. This will be his lasting contribution (not his primitivism). I wish, however, that they had given more attention to his actual views, many of which have gained strength through the findings of subsequent researchers. For example, the significance he gives to childhood play at being animals finds much support in Gene Myers’ research on children and animals.

I think, on this note, that E-H and Z don’t give Myers’ work enough attention either–just a single paragraph that doesn’t detail any of his important findings and thoughts about anthropcentric bias in developmental psychology. I do wonder if there is a bias at work here in E-H and Z themselves. They seem most interested in researchers who find egocentrism and anthropocentrism in children, as this fits their anti-romantic viewpoint.

It is not quite accurate, finally, to say (on p. 218) that ecopsychologists (lumped in with deep ecologists) do not make use of developmental models. There’s not a lot of strictly ecopsychological literature to speak of, but I would say that a concern for the human lifecycle and psychospiritual development is actually a central theme. Certainly, this is true for me. Probably the closest match within ecopsychology to what E-H and Z have in mind is Bill Plotkin’s Wheel of Life model, which lays out 8 stages of development (published in his Nature and the Human Soul in the year before the IE book).

As for the discussion of a possible ecological line of development, I agree with E-H and Z when they suggest that “many established lines of development could, in principle, be translated to or situated within an ecological context” (p. 224). I think, however, that this could then be used to argue against a specifically ecological line of development, at least as just one line among many. In fact, I belive that all lines of development need to be ecologized or integrated with nature, otherwise psychological development appears to take place in an ecological vacuum (or as Harold Searles said back in 1960, “a homogeneous matrix of nothingness”).

One example of such ecologizing comes from the environmental educator David Sobel. He notes that Piaget’s stage of concrete operations corresponds exactly with the period in which children have a huge hunger for being outdoors. Thus he suggests that the concrete world children need to get their hands on as part of their cognitive development is actually the world of rocks and trees and creeks. Nature is then incorporated into the cognitive schemata the child forms at that time.

Using Wilber’s thought, I would say that the ecological aspect of each line of development reflects the descending (this-worldly, earth-embracing) moment of Spirit. That the various lines of development need to be ecologized reflects, I believe, an anthropocentric and ascending prejudice in psychological and spiritual thought. If the entire spectrum of consciousness (UL quadrant) were ecologized then that would mean ecologizing all the other quadrants as well. Now wouldn’t that gives us a different picture of the Kosmos.


2. The Eight Eco-Selves

The second, and longer, part of the chapter presents E/Z’s model of the “eight eco-selves.” This model correlates Ken Wilber’s color-coded mapping of levels of psychological (or psychosocial) development with attitudes toward and behaviors in relation to the natural world. From the bottom up, these eight are as follows: Eco-Guardian (Romantic Ethos), Eco-Warrior (Heroic Ethos), Eco-Manager (Stewardship Ethos), Eco-Strategist (Rational Ethos), Eco-Radical (Equality Ethos), Eco-Holist (Holistic Ethos), Eco-Integralist (Inclusive Ethos), and Eco-Sage (Unity Ethos).

The actual descriptions of each “self” are detailed, and I won’t try to summarize them, but I hope that my comments will give enough of a flavor of each as well as a sense of the overarching model. I don’t have an electronic version of E/Z’s diagram to share, but it builds more or less on the same structure as the other stage mappings they (and other integralists) utilize in other contexts. Here are two of those (click on the first and scroll down to the first large diagram; or click on the second for its source).




As with the previous chapters, my feeling with this one is that while E/Z’s comparison of ecological attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives is very valuable, and their goal of bringing order and coherence to the whole spectrum of environmental theories, methods, and ontologies is an important endeavor, it is hampered by a certain in-built inflexibility in the AQAL system itself. If the task they are attempting could be compared to the construction of a habitable building, it seems to me that the primary tool they are using for it — the Wilberian structural-hierarchical ladder of development — may sometimes get in the way of the construction. This results in a tension between a flexible, nuanced, conceptually fertile, and “post-metaphysical” discussion of possible correspondences and, on the other hand, a desire to plot everything, irrespective of its historical and cultural contexts, onto a single hierarchical grid.

For instance, in the first part of the chapter, even after citing several pieces of research evidence (Kellert’s, Kahn’s, and others’) that suggest that attitudes toward nature do not inherently correlate with attitudes toward people, E/Z continue to embrace the Wilberian developmental hierarchy of “egocentrism – ethnocentrism – sociocentrism – worldcentrism – planetcentrism – kosmocentrism.” The latter model is one in which the first time that concern for the nonhuman is supposed to appear is only after an individual has achieved the globe-spanning, all-humanity-embracing “worldcentrism.” But such a contention makes little developmental sense, since human entanglements with the nonhuman are present at all “levels” of society.

The same hierarchic developmentalism mars their discussion of the “8 eco-selves.” While these selves could be envisioned as a mapping of 8 distinct potentials or emphases (perhaps even aligned with the 8 AQAL “primordial perspectives“), which emerge under the appropriate conditions and which mix and blur in practice, E/Z are committed to conceiving them as unfolding in a linear progression, from the first (eco-guardian) to the last (eco-sage). They provide a detailed series of characterizations and examples for each of the eight, which results in each step of the ladder being asked to carry a great deal of weight.

But many questions arise from this hierarchical conception that, to my mind, are not satisfyingly answered. Why, for instance, should the eco-strategist who “exploits nature as a result of greed and a focus on short-term profits” be seen as so much (three levels) higher than the eco-guardian, who “sees nature as ensouled,” “is one with aspects of nature but not one with humanity” (doesn’t this go against the eco-ethno-etc. line of development?), and “approaches nature with slash-and-burn tactics” (as if “slash-and-burn,” or swidden agriculture, were necessarily ecologically ill-advised, and as if it were consistent with seeing “nature as ensouled” as opposed to these being two distinct and separate things)?

The list of items under each category, despite the qualifications and caveats (“Examples of the Eco-X can include aspects of…”), still feels like a slotting of very different contemporary and historical phenomena into a pre-existing — and thus “metaphysical,” in Wilber’s sense of the word — grid that ignores the developmental nature of those phenomena and their arising out of specific conditions and contexts.

Just some random examples here: Level 1 (eco-guardian) includes “wicca” and “ecofeminism”; 2 (eco-warrior) includes Earth First!, “the stoic mountain climber,” and “off-the-grid housing”; 3 (eco-manager) includes “Puritan ethos,” Boy and Girl Scouts, “fish and game wardens,” and the Audubon Society; 4 (eco-strategist) includes conservationism, “the Lockean worldview,” deontological ethics, urban planning, and industrial agriculture; 5 (eco-radical) includes ecopsychology, “various doomsayers and apocalyptic approaches,” and “the social construction of nature”; 6 (eco-holist) includes “Felix Guattari’s three ecologies” and “Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere”; 7 (eco-integral) includes “Michael Zimmerman’s environmental philosophy” and “Bhutan’s ‘Middle Path’ to development” (though what Bhutan’s Nepalese refugees might think of that rating isn’t considered; and one wonders where China’s historically cautious approach to capitalist development might fit); and 8 (eco-sage) includes transcendentalism, St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Brother Sun, Ken Wilber’s Eco-Noetic Self, “some neo-pagans,” and “nondual spiritual activism.”

The result leaves me wondering if this exercise is really “integralist” (level 7), or if it retains some of the retentive-compulsiveness of a previous level, such as that of the “eco-manager.” And that brings me to a related discomfort I have, which is with E/Z’s repeated claim to be working toward a “mutual understanding between perspectives,” at the same time as they imply throughout that their (and Wilber’s) perspective — emerging at the “Turquoise” altitude that encompasses all these things and sees them, for the first time, according to their proper levels — is supposed to be that much higher and more integrated than the others. Is this not trying to have one’s cake (of integral fairness and respect for all) and eating it (leaving one’s integralist superiority intact)?

The point here isn’t that there aren’t more and less inclusive approaches. E/Z’s description of the Eco-Sage evokes exactly the kind of self that many readers might like to see themselves as:

The Eco-Sage is an ego-aware self who integrates multimodal and multidimensional elements across contexts in the service of humanity. [...] They recognize paradox and the limits of ‘mapping.’ [...] They understand others in developmental terms and encounter them without judgment. [...] They experience the world as a place full of potential and paradox [... and] as an immanent expression of timeless Spirit.

But the idea that an understanding possessed by individuals and groups is more inclusive than others is not much different, in principle, from the idea that “my truth is better than yours” — which just isn’t a very good way to start a conversation.

And I think the reason why their model feels this way to me is simply because E/Z are trying to do too much lifting with it. Holism, for instance (to my mind), is not something that only arises at level 6 of an 8-stage progression, and sageliness is not something that only certain individuals alive today are manifesting for the first time in human history (as they and Wilber often suggest). Holism arises in dialectical interaction with individualism or atomism. An individual may begin by focusing on him or herself to the exclusion of others, but he may then learn that others are like him and that valuing others makes things better both for him and for the larger group (i.e., holism). Another individual may value his tribe above all others, but then may learn that inter-tribal harmony is an important contextual factor shaping the well-being of the tribe (and of other tribes).

The same thing can happen for nationalism and “planetcentrism” when these levels emerge — i.e., when we begin to live in a world of bounded nation-states, or in a world in which communication starts to be planetary in scope. Each of these can simply be seen as an expression of the same dynamic — an individualist/holist, or self/system, dialectic — along paths and network connections that hadn’t previously existed. Planetcentrism is several “levels” removed only if these “levels” are seen as transformations occurring historically in and through a coordinated field of relations between different kinds of entities — human societies, linguistic and cultural tools, organic and material relations, etc. — not if they are seen as climbs up the rungs of a pre-existing and morally and spiritually valenced ladder.

I think that an integral theory can be genuinely “post-metaphysical” in the sense Wilber himself wants it to be, but to do this it would have to drink more deeply from the kinds of moves toward a “flat ontology” that recent ontological realist and process-relational philosophies have been developing. (There are problems with many of those, but the impulse is a crucial one.) E/Z’s “ladder” feels like it has been in place all along, as a universal scheme of development that underlies the universe from its beginning to its end. And if the ladder is built for a certain kind of eight-story structure, we need to ask whether the building we are trying to craft ought to have eight stories or not.

If cultural developments, attitudes, and practices are genuinely seen in the context of their emergence, they cannot be mapped onto such a universal-for-all-times ladder. E/Z often acknowledge this with their many qualifications, hedges, and nods toward nuance and complexity, but then they fall back almost immediately onto reliance on their ladder. Notice how this happens here, for instance, in the shift between the first claim, which emphasizes flexibility, and the color-coded links pinned to each of the items in the second list:

Almost any example provided for any eco-self can be held from many of the levels. For example, the rhetoric of deep ecology, which is listed as an example under the Eco-Radical, can be used to support and justify neo-pagan rituals (magenta worldview), monkey wrenching (red worldview), environmental legislation (amber worldview), natural capitalism (orange worldview), and social activism (green worldview). (p. 237-8)

What, then, do we make of the kinds of unitive (nondual) experiences neo-pagans may claim to have in the context of their rituals? And why couldn’t each level have its own particular style of “social activism”?

To be genuinely “post-metaphysical,” Wilber’s color-coded, all-embracing developmental step-ladder would have to be presented as a conceptual tool but not as a measuring stick, because it would acknowledge that the world being measured with it never holds still for long enough for those measurements to be very useful.


Concluding thoughts

The chapter ends with Sean’s account of the Northwest Youth Corps — which sounds like a wonderful experience, and the kind of thing that many adolescents would benefit from. (I urge you to read it.) Sean describes how participants, over the course of six weeks, developed their own perspectives from eco-guardianship and eco-warriorship to eco-manager, eco-strategist, and particularly eco-radical. (The upper three levels “never emerged,” he writes, “since those horizons usually do not appear until much later in adulthood if at all.”)

My question here for Sean is this: Is there any evidence that the participants actually moved through all five stages in sequence? The effect of simply assuming that they do fall in such a sequence is that the characteristics of each stage — such as ritual for the first, competition and heroism for the second, structure and authority for the third, self-esteem, achievement and independence for the fourth, and so on — are defined according to those levels and not according to what they may be in themselves. Ritual, then, becomes about “totems and mascots” and “cultural myths and legends.” But scholars of ritual studies will tell you that ritual is not reducible to something as (supposedly) “primitive” as totems and mascots. And scholars of myth would disagree with the assumption that “cultural myths” belong on the lowest of eight rungs of development. (And how does all of this square with the “egocentrism” that is supposed to define that level?)

There seem to be too many assumptions being carried into the empirical world for the AQAL model to be genuinely testable in the way that this fragment suggests. But since the case studies that come later in the book are supposed to detail the usefulness of the model in much greater depth, I’ll wait for them before making any definitive judgment on this.

Final thought, then: I think the basic conceptual model has a great deal of potential, but I find the way it is used here to detract from its usefulness by packing in too many assumptions about specific real-world phenomena. I would like to see more conceptual experimentation with the model itself before trying to amass an encyclopedic account of ecological ideas and practices. That said, it’s great that E/Z have gotten this ball rolling, and I hope the book gets the critical attention it deserves so that it can be refined, reformulated, and used to do the work they would like it to do.


Be Sociable, Share!

Related posts:

  1. Integral Ecology – week 3 (part 2)
  2. Integral Ecology – week 3 (part 1)
  3. Integral Ecology week 7
  4. Integral Ecology schedule
  5. Integral Ecology discussion has begun
  6. Speculative Realism & its ecological sympathies