The Tapestry of Life

… or, why this is the ecology of happiness.

Businesspeople are amazed about the networks of global manufacturing and trade; the mystically inclined find examples proving how we are all one from Eastern philosophy to quantum mechanics; scientists wonder about the way the quantum world and, in fact, everything may be entangled in each other; ever more people use devices that connect them with the global networks of information and communication systems.

We are all ever more plugged in, wired (or actually wireless), connected 24/7, living life on a screen, and totally fascinated with all this utter connectedness.

Just tell anyone who isn’t already convinced of the importance of “green” issues the very word ecology, though, and chances are they’ll shut off.

Don’t we have better things to worry about than saving some horny toads or hooting owls, or fighting a climate change that some people say doesn’t exist, isn’t our fault, or may come with good sides, too?
Why give up on the modern life when even the people who protest against corporations and their evil influences do so while and by making use of their corporate-produced and -connected smartphones?

Life really is connected in much deeper ways, down to the cellular level and the flows of energy that is its spark, deep into the evolutionary history of how the human species came to be – and ecology provides the perspective with which the real connections shaping our lives are most appropriately considered.

Agriculture in N. Oregon (NASA image)

Credit: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and the U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

We very much like to think that “all the world’s a stage.” This theater in which the drama of life takes place is thought of as a fixed and permanent structure. Really, though, the very ground we walk on changes, and life itself influences the very conditions under which life goes on. With us humans, in particular, the influence has reached a level where we are, collectively, rivaling geological forces.

Welcome to the Anthropocene, in which the human mark on the land is visible even from space, and flows of energy and materials in this our world have been changed tremendously – to the point of straining the planetary boundaries beyond which “the very conditions under which life goes on” may become altered in ways that make our own survival difficult.

These warnings and threats are only too much of a focus, though. Their usual result is the feeling of “well-informed futility:” we have at least an inkling of the problems, but since they all seem too threatening and too intractable for us to have an influence on them, we cannot do much better than ignore or deny them.

The ecological perspective can focus on the beauty and fascination, too. Even if there were no internet and no smart phones, we are still all connected with the fascinating diversity of species out there, all forming threads in the tapestry of life.

WWF Commercial – Threads from Troublemakers.tv on Vimeo.

These two sides, the warning of impending doom and the fascination, beauty – and responsibility – are all too common, though. All well and good, but what use is the ecological perspective to a better life?

We belong here…

Not only does ecology show the problems and connections, it shows how deeply we are a part of this world, practically and psychologically.

Human beings have been a part of this world for a few million, counting modern humans with more modern ways of life for several thousand, years.
What we want from life, how we think about it and the world, why we prefer certain kinds of landscapes, why we eat what and as we do, and why we have such problems with it in this day and age – these are all aspects of our psychology shaped by our species’ evolutionary ecology.

Humans have adapted to pretty much all environments on this planet, from the tropics to the Arctic, from deserts to rainforests – and humans have also adapted the environments to their liking, creating cultural landscapes and cities. Human civilizations have flourished.

… we are ecosystems and networks…

The microbes on our skin and the bacteria in our guts make up a considerable part of “us,” and a functioning balance of them is necessary for our health and well-being. There is no living without them. So, we ourselves are, in fact, walking and breathing ecosystems.
The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, all the myriad ways we are connected – there is hardly a boundary even without the expansion of our selves that modern information technology has provided.

Not just why the things that make happy do make happy, and not just how our lives are embedded in this living world, is a matter of evolution and ecology, but finding out how they stand in relation to each other and in the world also needs this perspective focusing on connections and the difficult, shifting balance that makes life.

If we only look at one aspect – work over the rest of a personal life, GDP over actual human needs and happiness in society – we miss essential connections.

Focus on the money and forget what you want it for, and you end up trapped in a cycle of work-and-spend without ever realizing… and collectively, we have ended up at a point where sacrifice is asked of us not “to save the planet” anymore, but to get the ailing economy going again, which is supposed to be good for all of us – but hasn’t really been too good for too many people for quite a while.

… but we can’t do whatever we please.

We cannot get rid of all the microbes on and in us, and civilizations cannot exist independent of the material and energy the environments they are embedded in can provide. Civilizations have flourished, but also collapsed again, depending on whether they “[chose] to fail or succeed,” as Jared Diamond put it so interestingly in the subtitle of his book “Collapse“.

This is typically the point at which either calls for responsibility and apocalyptic warnings, or appeals to empathy and calls for altruistic sacrifice are pronounced. These are warranted reactions, for the challenge is not to “save the planet” or “save the pandas/whales/redwoods/etc.,” but to ensure our own survival – which does not work when we destroy ecological functioning. But, this being the ecology of happiness, let’s focus on the potential instead.

We can do better, though.

In our own lives, the diversity and relationships of things that make happy is one network with its own “ecology.” Knowing what factors there are and how they interact – at the very least, that a balance has to be struck between them, but also that there are synergies – can contribute to a better life.

Not least, expanding the focus to the more usually ecological aspects of our impact on the world, there is quite a strong relationship between consumerism (or its avoidance), the impact it has on the world, and our happiness.

Reducing your ecological debt can help you reduce financial debt and become ‘freer’ from the empty promise that the next job, the next gadget, the next great experience bought in a catalog is going to make you happy all at once. Trying to “escape 9-5, live anywhere…” can also become more truly impactful, a way towards really better lives, when you consider it in its – in your – embeddedness in the world.

Synergies also exist in wider ways, with reconciliation ecology, work towards resilience, localization, transition: ways of (making a) living that work together rather than against ecological patterns and processes, both of “nature” and of human needs… more to come.

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