The Ecological Identity Concept

I’m in Norway this week and next as part of sabbatical research and learning. I acknowledge and am thankful for my privilege and fortune! One reason I came to Norway is to further explore the concept of, and how to teach, ecological identity. This term was originated by Mitchell Thomashow, has been influential in much of my thinking, teaching, and research, but is also admittedly not widely used within the field of education, environmentalism, or ecology. But I think it should be.

We all have an ecological identity whether recognized or not. Our collective and individual identity is rooted in the ecosystem in which it evolved and within which we live as individuals. Most people do not use this term, and possibly have not thought about their place, role, or culture as rooted in the ecosystem in which they live. Many people may not even consider that they live in an ecosystem!

I believe this disconnect, literally, from the ecosystem or natural world is foundational to our many looming environmental crises. By “natural world” I do not mean specifically wilderness or undisturbed nature as might be found in a national park. Downtown New York City is still in the natural world (though maybe has squished it like a stepped-on grape) and the individuals are still as literally connected to that ecosystem as American philosopher Henry David Thoreau was connected to Walden Pond or Norwegian philosopher Arnie Naess was connected to his cabin, Tvergastein. No matter where, all living beings are deeply connected to their place by the mere act of breathing, metabolizing, exhaling and excreting—in other words, by living.

A person not able to understand or think in these terms, I would argue, would have an ecological identity of disconnection. The opposite might be an ecological identity of strong understanding of understanding one’s connection to the ecosystem. Neither, however, translates directly into behaviors or actions that could be qualified as good or bad for “the environment.”

An individual can feel a deep connection to the ecosystem in which he or she lives through participation in recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, etc. but behave in such a way as to consume considerable energy while producing prodigious waste and pollution, having what we might call a large “ecological footprint.” Conversely, one could live in a high rise in downtown NY, Oslo, or London and behave in ways that minimizes energy consumption and waste production, and therefore have a small “ecological footprint” without ever setting foot in nature.

In both cases, the behaviors might be purely rote-learned behaviors not consciously thought about in the context of how it is an expression of his or her understanding of one’s place. I contend, however, that one’s biological, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical being all evolved within the ecosystem from which they and their “people” are from. Those aspects of their personhood (their identity) are rooted in and come from the ecosystem in which they live and can trace their ancestry to.

This brings me to Norway and the influence of Norwegian Philosopher Arnie Naess. He wrote extensively about the process of developing a personal philosophy deeply rooted in one’s place, and because of the connection to place, labeled this an “ecological philosophy” or (“ecosophy”). Out of the exploration of his ecological philosophy he introduced the concept of “deep ecology”. Deep ecology has these eight principles1:

  1. All living things have intrinsic value.
  2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
  3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.
  4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
  5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
  6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
  7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
  8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the necessary change.

You can see that none of these above principles have anything to do with being outdoorsy or active in nature but could be influential aspects of a person’s behaviors and their identity. I choose the term “identity” over “philosophy” as I think it makes the concept of thinking about one’s place more accessible. This may be a product of growing up in and American culture and writing to an American audience.

Regardless, I don’t see any hope for working our way out of our current environmental crises and looming, dramatically-altered future climate, until individuals begin to think more purposefully and deeply (okay, philosophically, to honor Arnie) about their ecological identity and understand their connection to the natural world. Otherwise any behaviors intended to address environmental issues (i.e. recycling) are too little, too late as they are merely rote-learned behaviors as a result of reactionary policies coming as a means to fix a problem instead of preventing it in the first place. We should not have to legislate rules requiring ecological buffers between bodies of water fertilized lawns or agricultural fields to prevent fertilizer runoff, but instead individuals should know enough to ask and anticipate, “what happens if..?” Until we can do this individually and then collectively through political decision-making structures, we will always be chasing our tails.

To explore what this might mean for teachers and their role in guiding children to explore ecological identity I refer you to this recorded presentation of mine titled Educating for Ecological Identity.

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1 – Introduction (2008). Alan Drengson in The Ecology of Wisdom: The Writings of Arnie Naess. (2008). edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall. Counterpoint Press. Berkeley CA.

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