Whatever Happened to Ecology?
By Gene Wilburn
Words have lifetimes — some very long, some short. Many words are elastic and stretch from their original meanings to wider application or a more specialized meaning. Some words define and encapsulate eras. Think of disco and discotheque. Or flapper and Charleston. Eras gone by, and the only remaining life the words have is to give reference to the pop music of a different time. Another such word that comes to mind, from my earlier years, is ecumenical.
Ecumenical is a fancy word, imported in the late 16th century from Latin which in turn imported it from Greek and meaning, for the most part, “promoting or relating to unity among the world’s Christian churches” in the sense of “belonging to the universal Church.” The original Greek meaning appears to be something like “the (inhabited) earth,” meaning principally the Roman Empire.
The word came to renewed prominence in the mid–1960s and was especially popular on university campuses in the U.S. There were several ecumenical services that I and many others attended to see the ways the various branches of Christianity worshipped. It was the era of Pope John, folk masses, and Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists getting together for pot-luck gatherings — perhaps the last such era of its kind before the echo of the Civil Rights marches and the ever-present war in Vietnam opened the rift that has continued to split the US into two separate, superimposed countries. Goodwill became less fashionable. Nixon was elected President. Goodbye ecumenical. Ceremonies of innocence were drowned.
It was around this time that many young people left the organized churches to find more contemporary ways of exploring their relationships to the universe. Transformations were in the wind — the times they were a-changing’. It rang through in the music, poetry, novels, hairstyles, and lifestyles of the young in what Mexican poet Octavio Paz called “an explosion of the spirit.” Its symbols were seen in peace signs, painted VW vans, concert posters, flowing hair, headbands, dance, and underground newspapers. Marijuana became the new communal sacrament, and LSD, mescaline, peyote, and magic mushrooms were portals to new kinds of perception. It was a heady time, unsustainable of course, and as with all things, tragic for some, but it was also a pretty time that, if experienced, can never be forgotten. Ah, the sunsets… but I digress…
It was in this time period that I first encountered the word ecology. The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary first entered the language around 1875, in the original, scientific meaning of the term, “The branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment.” The word grew gradually beyond its more limited definition to a broader sociological definition: “The study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment; (also) the system of such relationships in an area of human settlement. Freq. with modifying word, as cultural ecology, social ecology, urban ecology.”
In the late 60s and early 70s it took on a more political flavour, meaning “The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement; (also) a political movement dedicated to this.” By this time ecology had become a buzzword and was frequently featured in such archives of the time as the Whole Earth Catalog, along with geodestic domes.
Ecology wasn’t a new concept — the interrelationship of organisms and their surroundings had been known for centuries — but the word gave clarity and weight to the concept, and in the world of DDT, Agent Orange, inappropriate dams, and urban sprawl, it began to take on an urgency as we learned of more species going extinct due to the clearing or altering of habitats and the encroachment of people.
Yet oddly, it’s a word I only hear now occasionally. One of the natural extensions of ecology is climate change. As the ecological and other studies added up, it became obvious to just about everyone in the world, except for a strange cadre of U.S. Republicans who have, for inscrutable political reasons, chosen to turn their backs on science and knowledge, that Earth, our very planet itself, is headed for a change that will not be good for the human species, much less the rest of the planet’s ecological systems.
Yet the word ecology is getting a new boost in usage, this time for the bacterial communities of our stomachs and intestines. Evidently we, and the bacteria in our bodies, co-evolved to make mammalian life, as we know it, possible. Our insides are literally crawling with them. The good ones help us digest food and contribute to our health. Whatever else our existence means, it is a life that, biologically, is only achieved by committee. Every “I” is literally a “we.” I’m glad to be seeing the word in use again because I always felt, in my gut, that ecology would make something of a comeback.
At a more abstract level, there is an ecology of the mind. The more you learn, ponder, and read, the more complex your mental landscape becomes and the more scope you have for ideas, counter-ideas, imagination, and insights. Who you read — which thinkers you have chosen to help guide you along the neuronal highways and byways of the brain — creates the type of mental ecosystem you live in, and determines whether it’s a rich, varied, healthy ecosystem, or a more limited ecosystem with poor mental soil. So, as the acolyte said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”