Sean Esbjorn-Hargens - Integral Ecology
March 25, 2009 15:20

Integral Ecology. Part 1: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World
Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Ken Wilber

This dialogue is available for free.  Click the link above to listen now!



Written by Corey W. deVos

"Thus in an integral context the classical definition of ecology (the study of the interrelationship between organisms and their environment) becomes the study of the interrelationship between organisms’ behaviors and experiences and their cultural and natural environments. In other words, integral ecology is the mixed methods study of the subjective and objective aspects of organisms in relationship to their intersubjective and interobjective environments. In fact, we can use the classical definition as long as we understand that by “organism” we mean an individual holon with subjectivity and by “environment” we mean a collective holon with intersubjectivity. Thus, integral ecology doesn’t require a new definition of ecology as much as it needs an integral interpretation of the standard definitions of ecology, where organisms and their environments are recognized as having interiority." - Sean Esbjorn-Hargens


Climate change, disruption of the food supply, energy policy, loss of biodiversity, rampant deforestation, glacial retreat, etc.—as we consider the breadth and depth of the problems our world currently faces, it is clear that we need to take a truly comprehensive approach to our environment and our relationship to it. Our problems are too big, too global, and too knotted—if we hope to collectively respond to our ecological problems, adapt to the massive changes we currently see our world going through, and transform our connections to the planet and to each other, we must find a way to make sense of all this staggering complexity, all at once.

As of right now, there are over 200 distinct and valid schools of ecology in existence, each focusing upon some important aspect of reality. In Integral Ecology, Sean has done a remarkable job of identifying and situating all these many schools, describing the strengths and weaknesses of each approach while showing how they all relate together. More than just an eclectic sampling of the many ecology movements to date; Integral Ecology offers a fascinating academic synthesis of our entire body of ecological knowledge, putting all the pieces of nature's puzzle together into a single picture of our living world.

After sharing the general impetus behind the book, Sean and Ken discuss some of the unique contributions Integral Ecology offers to the study of nature. For example:

  • Like many holistic approaches, Integral Ecology recognizes the role human psychology plays in the planetary ecosphere. But unlike the majority of holistic approaches, Integral Ecology offers a coherent model of human growth and psychology, demonstrating the many ways humans are capable of relating to their environments. This is an essential factor, especially as many geologists are now suggesting that our world has entered a new geologic epoch, moving from the "Holocene" era to the "Anthropocene," defined by the capacity of human beings to directly alter the landscape.
  • Like many panpsychist and panexperientialist approaches, Integral Ecology recognizes the value of including interior realities into our ecological maps: subjectivity, consciousness, values, culture, etc., and not just thinking of the world in terms of cold external surfaces and systems. Perhaps even more significant, this approach acknowledges and includes the subjectivity of the organism itself—which may seem like an obvious consideration, but has not been successfully accounted for until now. Unlike most approaches, Integral Ecology suggests an actual framework to include all these interior realities in a meaningful and methodologically rigorous way.
  • There's no such thing as a singular without a plural: both subjective and objective realities have collective dimensions to them as well, or intersubjective and interobjective realities (cultural worldviews vs. techno-economic modes of production, for example.) Each of these four dimensions of experience—subjective, objective, intersubjective, and interobjective—are irreducible to one another, and when taken together form the "Four Quadrant" map made famous by Ken Wilber. (See below for a description of the Four Quadrants, along with examples of the four quadrants being applied to ecology.)
  • All knowledge is based upon practice—that is, at the core of every truth lies an injunction that essentially says "if you want to know this, do that." This is true for all branches of human knowledge, whether ecology, psychology, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, or mysticism—data can only be enacted and observed if you are willing to perform the experiment. Integral Ecology takes a very sophisticated approach to recognizing and situating these injunctive practices, even compiling them into a simple yet comprehensive "yoga of integral ecology."

As Ken points out, Integral Ecology represents a new milestone for the application of Integral theory and practice in the real world. It is among the first major applications of the AQAL model to a particular discipline, focused specifically upon the terminology belonging to that field. While many praise Ken Wilber for his massively multidisciplinary approach to life, the universe, and everything (and rightly so!), the sheer scope of his work has more often than not been an obstacle for bringing integral thought to academia—after all, when studying about ecology, who really cares about the likes of Spinoza, Plotinus, St. Teresa, or Nagarjuna? Integral Ecology is the first to use the Integral map to drill so deeply into a single discipline, offering both a 50,000 foot view of the entire field, as well as an up-close view from the trenches of ecological theory.


Additional Resources

I. Description of Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World

Today there is a bewildering diversity of views on ecology and the natural environment. With more than two hundred distinct and valuable perspectives on the natural world—and with scientists, economists, ethicists, activists, philosophers, and others often taking completely different stances on the issues—how can we come to agreement to solve our toughest environmental problems?

In response to this pressing need, Integral Ecology unites valuable insights from multiple perspectives into a comprehensive theoretical framework—one that can be put to use right now. The framework is based on Integral Theory, as well as Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, and is the result of over a decade of research exploring the myriad perspectives on ecology available to us today and their respective methodologies.

Dozens of real-life applications and examples of this framework currently in use are examined, including three in-depth case studies: work with marine fisheries in Hawai’i, strategies of eco-activists to protect Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, and a study of community development in El Salvador. In addition, eighteen personal practices of transformation are provided for you to increase your own integral ecological awareness.

Integral Ecology provides the most sophisticated application and extension of Integral Theory available today, and as such it serves as a template for any truly integral effort.

Purchase Integral Ecology here.

Download a free 15-page PDF primer of Integral Ecology here.



II. What are the Four Quadrants?


According to Integral Theory, there are at least 4 primary dimensions or perspectives through which we can experience the world: subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective.

These 4 perspectives, represented graphically, are the upper-left, lower-left, upper-right, and lower-right quadrants.




In the subjective—or upper-left—quadrant, we find the world of our individual, interior experiences: our thoughts, emotions, memories, states of mind, perceptions, and immediate sensations—in other words, our “I” space.

In the intersubjective—or lower-left—quadrant, we find the world of our colletive, interior experiences: our shared values, meanings, language, relationships, and cultural background—in other words, our "we" space.

In the objective—or upper-right—quadrant, we find the world of individual, exterior things: our material body (including brain) and anything that you can see or touch (or observe scientifically) in time and space—in other words, our “it” space.

In the interobjective—or lower-right—quadrant, we find the world of collective, exterior things: systems, networks, technology, government, and the natural environment—in other words, our “its” space.


What’s the point of looking at the world through a 4-quadrant lens?

Simple answer: Anything less is narrow, partial and fragmented! Integral Theory maintains that all 4 quadrants are real—and all are important. So, for example, to the question of what is more real, the brain (with its neural pathways and structures) or the mind (with its thoughts and perceptions), Integral Theory answers: BOTH.

Moreover, we add that the mind and brain are situated in cultural and systemic contexts, which influence both inner experience and brain activity in irreducible ways.

What’s more important in human behavior? The psychology of the mind (upper left), or the cultural conditioning of the individual (lower left)? Integral Theory answers, again: BOTH. What is more critical in social development? The habits, customs, and norms of a culture (lower left), or the products it produces (like gun and steel – lower right). Integral Theory answers: BOTH.

All four quadrants are real, all are important, and all are essential for understanding your world.

While some might like to reduce reality to the mind (upper-left quadrant), and others to the brain (upper-right quadrant), and still others to the influence of cultural context (lower-left quadrant), and yet others to the effect of systems (“it’s the economy, stupid!” i.e., lower-right quadrant), Integral Theory holds that ALL 4 QUADRANTS are indispensable. The more we can consciously include the 4 quadrants in our perspective, the more whole, balanced, healthy, comprehensive, and effective our actions will be.

And it all boils down to just four dimensions. It's as easy as I, we, it, and its!



III. Applying the Four Quadrants to Ecology

Here are some fairly advanced illustrations that show how the Four Quadrant model can be applied the field of ecology. The first diagram illustrates the four dimensions of ecological crisis, while the second two represent two ways of looking at an organism through the four quadrants (this act of looking at something through the quadrants being known as "quadrivia").

If you are not familiar with the Four Quadrant model, see above for a general introduction.

If you are already familiar with the Four Quadrant model, but still do not understand some of what you see below, that is okay. Just notice what you do understand and let the rest pass right over you, without being overly concerned about comprehending every detail. Much of this material is intended for more advanced students of Integral theory, such as the difference between "inside" and "outside" quadrivia, or the "integral calculus" shorthand (e.g. 1-p x 3-p x 1-p).















« recent entry | return to index | previous entry »

  © 2015 Ken Wilberhome | what's new | professional | personal | cultural | social | cool stuff site design by ursa minor