The Ecological Self

by Chris Clarke

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 4-6)

I have twice in a GreenSpirity group sung Ronnie Kahn’s song[1] “Return Again” with the words:

Return again, Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are;
return to what you are;
return to where you are:
born and reborn again.

On the second occasion we danced as we sung it, on a natural lawn encircled by trees in the New Forest. On “who you are” each brought their hands to their heart, the place of the yearning of love, our individuality. Then on “what you are” the hands moved to the belly, the place of our more visceral emotions that we share with our mammalian cousins. Then we raised our arms wide and expanded our consciousness, to join with the trees, and up into the sky and stars as we turned around on “where you are”. At the end we felt we were indeed reborn, because we had redefined what was our self.

Each enactment of a line of the song is a thought, a mini-story, about the self. I see most human activities of meaning-making, and especially sciences, as telling stories; and psychology as telling stories about the self. Psychotherapists help their client to tell a more meaningful story to themselves about themselves; academic psychologists try to tell a more general story. For both, a good story is one that integrates and makes sense of the many aspects of our experience and behaviour, without ignoring the uncomfortable bits. And for the client in psychotherapy, a good story (like a good novel) needs to be one that they can inhabit, live by, that engages their emotions as well as their intellect. The story we tell depends on the way in which we live and experience the world. Conversely, the way we live and experience can be shaped by the story we tell. Each such story carries with it a particular concept of the self.

Stories about the self in the West, from Plato onwards, portrayed it as essentially individual and self-contained. The real self might have been simply the soul, as with Plato; or a combination of different structures, such as Aristotle’s vegetative, animal and human souls, which are all present in us, or the later Christian division into body, spirit and soul. All these, however, are restricted to a single individual. As far as I know, C G Jung was the first in the West to go beyond a self-contained individuality by depicting a self with a dimension that was extended, continuing into the collective unconscious that joined up our conscious parts like the sea bed uniting an archipelago. This notion leads on to our ecological connections, taking us to the Ecological Self.

The name “Ecological Self” was first introduced by Arne Naess[2] in 1985. Later he defined it as “that with which [a person] identifies”, where by “identifies” he understands “a spontaneous, non-rational . . . process through which the interest or interests of another being are reacted to as our own.” The idea is rooted in his own experience. He describes how

“I looked through an old fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic. What was basic was the process of identification, that ‘I see myself in the flea’. If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent.”[3]

A more heroic example is the moment, now famous, when Aldo Leopold witnessed the death of a wolf that he had shot[4] and was so transformed by his experience as to become one of the founders of the environmental movement in the USA. Both these men found their selves extended to a greater world, so that, from their new story of the self, their actions and values were changed.

The Ecological Self is well described by psychological theories that see the self as arising from a dynamic web of relationships. As Isabel Clarke argues in her article here, “our relationship with those other beings with whom we share the earth, the animals, and with the very ecosystem and the earth itself, is knitted into the fabric of our being, The character of that relationship lies at the heart of who we are, but paradoxically, we lose part of our individuality when we really embrace relationship. ” This is a story of the self that goes beyond the individual. Elizabeth Ann Bragg sums up the concept in the following points:

Ecological self is a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life-forms, ecosystems and the Earth itself.

Experiences of ecological self involve:

an emotional resonance with other life-forms;

a perception of being similar, related to, or identical with other life-forms;

spontaneously behaving towards the ecosphere as one would towards one’s small self (with nurture and defence).

It is possible to expand one’s sense of self from the personal to the ecological.

She roots this idea in psychological theories in which “the ‘self’ is constituted in and through connections and relationships with others” and in particular in the insights of systems theory: the modern scientific approach of analysing things not in terms of the parts that they are made of, but in terms of their “dynamics”, the way in which they respond and change within their context, “with energy and information flowing across fluid boundaries” [3].

The most comprehensive account of the Ecological Self has been set out in two books by Freya Mathews, in which she develops a systems-theoretic view of a living cosmos where the Ecological self finds its place. The first, simply called The Ecological Self[5], is rather theoretical in flavour. To begin with she inquires as to what the ultimate foundation of the universe is, the “substance” (in the specialist terminology of mediaeval metaphysics) which owes nothing to anything else for its existence. Using the physics popular at the time she wrote, she suggests that “substance” is none other than space, thought of as a curved, dynamically changing entity. The physics has changed, with the substance now being like a sort of universal field. But the implication remains: the foundation of the universe is a single undivided whole that contains and constitutes everything. She alludes to Spinoza’s vision that this foundational substance (“God, also known as Nature”) must have two aspects: a material aspect of extension which allows all things to find their own identity, and an aspect of consciousness in which all things connect with each other, with themselves and with the whole.

This is a crucial change of emphasis, turning upside down both the old concept of the individual self and the old physics of individual atoms. Now it is not a matter of trying to join together souls and atoms that are created separate. Instead “what we are” and “who we are” is a unity across all space and all beings. On this view, the uniting nature of the Ecological Self is what we start from, the source of our being in which we are created. Our call is not to struggle to create our Ecological Self, but to allow ourselves to “return again” to it. The message is similar to that of the New Universe Story familiar to GreenSpirit members: that “we are stardust”, united with each other and with the depths of time through the cosmic processes that created the atoms of which we are made. But the message is now stronger. We are not just created by combining separate atoms, but we are differentiated from a single undivided substance.

She too, like Bragg, uses systems theory, and for her the idea of a dynamics, with information flowing across boundaries, enters in two distinct ways. First, the dynamics within a region of space marks off this region as an organism, something whose patterns of change are focused within itself. Second, the dynamics connecting it with its outside context establish the ecological nature of the organism and so constitute what she calls a Self: a subsystem which is both part of the greater whole and also has an individuality through its relations with this greater whole. So, as stressed by Isabel Clarke, we are our relationships. This means that when we “return again” to a recognition that our Self is by its nature Ecological, we are not simply flowing back into the oneness from which we came. Rather, we reconnect with this oneness bringing with us also the particular individuality that we have learnt through life. This is the meaning of being human.

Mathew’s second book, For Love of Matter[6] gives these ideas impact by grounding them in her own experience. She recounts her experience of seeing, with an inner eye, the inner consciousness of all things, all linked in their selfhood whether we ordinarily think of them as alive or not. She then recounts through several personal stories how recognition of her Ecological Self has not only overcome difficulties in her life, but has enabled her own individuality to grow as well. Individual and Ecological are not contrary, but mutually reinforcing.

For me, the story of the Ecological Self, at the heart of Ecopsychology, seems a vital part of GreenSpirit’s contribution to spiritual change in society. Our rituals, such as the dance I have described, encourage awareness of the Ecological Self and makes it real for those who take part in them. At the same time, the concept as developed by Mathews, in conjunction with the New Universe Story which links it with our cosmic context, provides for the first time a story that links psychology, physics and theology; not just by analogies, but by a detailed account that is grounded in our individual experience of life and the collective experience of science. I believe that this story matters to society as never before, and that GreenSpirit is uniquely placed to tell it.


[2] Arne Naess (1985) Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In M. Tobias, Ed., Deep Ecology (Avant Books,1985), pp.256-270 (quoted in Bragg [3])
[3] Elizabeth Ann Bragg. Towards Ecological Self: deep ecology meets constructionist self-theory (Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, 93–108, 1987).
[4] Aldo Leopold, Aldo: (1948 [1987]) A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford University Press, 1948[1987]),p. 129
[5] Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge 1991)
[6] Freya Mathews. For Love of Matter: a contemporary panpsychism (State University of New York Press, 2003) reviewed in GreenSpirit, Summer 2005, pp 19-20