“The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.” Barry Commoner
So whatever happened to ecology anyway?
I can still recall a time, way back in the wild days of the late 20th century, when ecology was a powerful rallying point, not just for its obvious planet-saving merits, but also for the powerful metaphors that it brought to our consciousness. Ecology, and its step-sister environmentalism, inspired us to political activism, but it also drove our appreciation of inter-relationship with each other and the biosphere itself. “It’s all connected,” we reminded one another at every opportunity. Change one element and we transform entire webs of structure and function, in the both the human and the natural world.
But after a few decades in the limelight, ecology diverged into two separate tracks and in the process, lost its power to inspire. On one hand, the science of ecology went brainy and academic with specialized journal articles, laborious calculation and plodding, left-brain policy analysis. On the other, environmentalism was co-opted by corporate commercial interests and became shallow, safe, watered-down and meaningless. Suddenly, being green was about buying pretty nature calendars, recycling a few plastic bottles and not much more. In this divergence, we lost the essential meanings that make ecology such a exciting and transformative study. We lost the fact that ecology is powerfully relevant, not just to global-scale matters of habitat, oceans and the atmosphere, but also to the fine-grained details of our personal day-to-day lives.
And so it’s time to revisit this science of relationship and a good place to begin is with ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003). Hardin was famous for his 1968 description of “the tragedy of the commons,” the notion that community spaces such as pastures, oceans and atmospheres make convenient dumping grounds for all sorts of unwanted rubbish, toxins and waste products that individuals and corporations would prefer to avoid taking responsibility for. Hardin also coined one of the most powerful phrases ever to come out of the ecology movement. Struck by the incredible interconnectivity and interdependence he observed at every level of ecosystem dynamics, he remarked “We can never do merely one thing.”
This phrase surely ranks as one of the most profound statements ever spoken by a human being. Not only does it accurately describe our large-scale impacts on forests, grasslands and oceans, it also shocks us into a new appreciation of our personal lives and ways we might do better. It reminds us of a deep primal truth: everything we do in this world and our personal lives has consequences. Every thing we touch, say or think impacts the world, sometimes in extremely powerful ways.
This principle of extended consequences is about far more than our effects on external ecosystems. It’s easy to understand that building a dam is “not one thing.” A massive concrete structure that chokes a major river is certain to have a multitude of destructive consequences that ripple across habitats and species in both space and time. But the same principle also applies to the seemingly trivial acts of our everyday lives, behaviors that we rarely think of as “green” or “ecological.” A word, a gesture, a kindness or an extra effort; all of these things ripple and cascade through our lives and the lives of the people around us. No matter how insignificant they may seem at the moment, they are never “just one thing.”
Of course, most of us understand the fact that our large-scale physical actions will have consequences. Steal from your neighbor and you’ll poison the trust in your community; misuse antibiotics or fail to wash your hands and you’ll increase the virulence of bacteria for all of us. But it’s not just gross physical actions that cascade through the flux and flow of our lives. Neuroscience tells us that the subtle activity of the mind actually shapes neural connections and that this process goes on continuously, in every moment of our lives. In other words, our very thoughts have tissue-level consequences. And when brain tissue changes, so does our attention, cognition, memory, learning and behavior. And when behavior changes, so do social relationships and habitats. Ultimately, no thought is without consequence; no thought is merely one thing.
This is where ecology and the art of personal living intersect with the field of chaos theory. Few of us understand the detailed science behind hyper-complex systems, but most of us have heard the metaphor known as the “butterfly effect.” That is, the atmosphere of the earth is so incredibly interconnected and sensitive to initial conditions that “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Texas can set off a thunderstorm on the other side of the world.” This is a fabulous image of course, but it also happens to be an accurate description of how non-linear, complex systems change and grow. When systems become hyper-complex (atmospheres, habitats, human brains and social relationships), minute disturbances can trigger immense, large-scale transformations. In other words, little things can be huge. The subtle can be extremely powerful.
Once we begin to appreciate the ecological nature of our personal lives and the systemic effects of our actions, a host of implications become clear. In the first place, we realize that there can be no isolation in this world. When everything is massively interconnected, there can be no place to hide, no alternative but to be involved. Escapism is impossible; even passivity has consequences. Nothing is truly neutral.
We also begin to understand that all of us are intrinsically powerful; all of us are acting on the world in every moment. And in this process, no effort is ever truly wasted. Every act of courage, no matter how small, has consequences. Every time we make a move towards health, knowledge, mindfulness or compassion, we make such qualities more likely, not only in our own bodies and experience, but in our families and communities as well. Every time we exercise, eat right, meditate, say a kind word or open our hearts, not only do we benefit personally, but so do others, both near and far.
Of course, there’s more to this process than mere cause and effect. The “what” of our actions ripple and cascade outward into the world, but so too does the tone and spirit with which we do what we do. In other words, it’s not just what we do, but how we do it. Ultimately, we have no real knowledge of how our actions and spirit will touch the world. And because of this fundamental ignorance, our best course is to lead with quality and character: integrity, honesty, compassion, creativity and kindness.
Once we begin to appreciate the reach of our most subtle attitudes and behaviors, we are simultaneously challenged and inspired. The things that we do matter. Know it or not, like it or not, we make a difference. And so, every moment is a call to step up, an opportunity to transform, not only our lives, but the wider world as well. In the end, we realize that the ecologists were right all along, not just about forests and farms and oceans, but also about the way we live in every day. Every moment touches the web of life. And who knows? That seemingly minor act of courage we create today may very well set off an inspirational cycle of transformation in someone else’s life, community and habitat.
So flap your wings; this very moment is a butterfly.