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CLARK, John. A Social Ecology. 04. The Ecological Self

Monday 31 May 2004, by CREAGH Ronald



1. The Social and the Ecological

2. A Dialectical Holism

3. No Nature

The Ecological Self

A social ecology applies its holistic and dialectical approach of the question of the nature of the self. While it emphasizes wholeness, it does not accept the illusory and indeed repressive ideal of a completely harmonious, fully-integrated selfhood. Rather it sees the self as a developing whole, a relative unity-in-diversity, a whole in constant process of self-transformation and self-transcendence. The very multiplicity of the self, «the chaos within one,» is highly valued, since it attests to the expansiveness of selfhood and to our continuity with the larger context of being, of life, of consciousness, of mind. Such a view of selfhood shows a respect for the uniqueness of each person, and for the striving of each toward a highly particularized (in some ways incomparable) good that flows from his or her own nature. But it also recognizes that personal self-realization is incomprehensible apart from one’s dialectical interaction with other persons, with the community, and with the larger natural world. The development of authentic selfhood means the simultaneous unfolding of both individuality and social being. The replacement of the voracious yet fragile and underdeveloped ego of consumer society with such a richly-developed selfhood is one of the preeminent goals of social ecology.

Within this general orientation, there remain many areas for development of the social-ecological conception of the self. As Kovel points out, the realm of signification creates an imaginary sphere in which there is a necessary degree of separation from nature, and even from oneself as nature. He explains that

«we are at one time part of nature, fully participating in natural processes; and at the same time we are radically different from nature, ontologically destined by a dialectic between attachment and separation to define ourselves in a signified field which by its very ’nature’ negates nature. »


Because of this «basic negativity» in the human standpoint toward the world,

«the relationship between the self and nature cannot be comprehended though any simple extrapolation of an ecological model grounded in unity in diversity.» [2]

Moreover, the «thinglike» aspects of the self—the realm of the preconceptual and of the most primordial layers of desire—can never be fully transcended in either thought or experience. Part of the social ecological project of comprehending «unity-in-diversity» is to theorize adequately this duality and the necessary experiential and ontological moments of alienation, separation, and distance within a general non-dualistic, holistic framework (rather than merely to explain these moments away).

In doing so, social ecology will delve more deeply into those inseparable dimensions of body and mind that dualism has so fatefully divided. As we explore such realities as thought, idea, image, sign, symbol, signifier, language, on the one hand, and feeling, emotion, disposition, instinct, passion, and desire on the other, the interconnection between the two «realms» will become increasingly apparent. The abstract «naturalism» of Bookchin’s social ecology will be transformed into a richer, more dialectical, and many-sided naturalization. As Abram notes,

«[w]e can experience things—can touch, hear, and taste things—only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive ! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us.» [3]

Such a holistic concept of human-nature interaction is a necessary complement to the conception of humanity as «nature becoming self-conscious» or «nature knowing itself,» which might otherwise be taken in a one-sidedly intellectual, objectifying, and ultimately idealist sense.


4. The Ecological Self

5. A Social Ecology of Value

6. An Ecology of the Imagination

7. An Ecological Imaginary

8. Freedom and Domination

9. Eco-Communitarian Politics

10. Social Eco-nomics

11. The New Leviathan

12. The Future of Social Ecology

[1«The Marriage of Radical Ecologies» in Zimmerman et al., Environmental Philosophy : From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, 1st ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice Hall, 1993), p. 410-11. While social ecology and other Western ecophilosophies have come to terms with unity-in-diversity, perhaps they would do well to consider the radically dialectical concept of difference-non-difference, the bhedabhedavada of Indian philosophy.

[2«Human Nature, Freedom, and Spirit» in John Clark, ed., Renewing the Earth : The Promise of Social Ecology (London : Green Print, 1990), p. 145.

[3Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 68.