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Ecological Democracy as the Heart of our Conversations


‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye,’ the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

Conversation between The Fox and The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

To communicate with heart firstly demands us to learn ‘seeing with heart’. And even though the fox reveals it as a ‘very simple secret’, our prevalent reductionist sociocultural/economic outlook certainly dims our ability of ‘seeing what is essential’. One of the most essential things and therefore one of the most difficult to grasp is that our humanity ‘inter-is’ with the whole community of life, sharing the same ‘universal breath’ with every specie and integrating Gaia as a superior living system. The point is, as I repeatedly have argued across the Gaia Education’s design for sustainability/regeneration program, by acknowledging ecology as the crux of our human priorities we in fact can improve our conversations, i.e., our communicational processes such as democracy, governance, conflict resolution as well as the plenty of meaningful concepts we addressed by means of this learning process (Gaia Education, 2018). Thus, by centering in ecology, we have good chances of genuinely healing big social chasms which separate us from ‘the other’.

ego-eco  (Conciliating ‘Culture’ and ‘Nature’)

In this line, I want to emphasize on one concept that wasn’t directly mentioned, yet essentially encompasses everything I’ve absorbed, which is the significant notion of ecological democracy. According to professor Randolph T. Hester, author of the compelling book Designing for Ecological Democracy, as long as we keep separating ecology from direct democracy it will be really challenging to overcome our general coexistence problems. Yet by the time we fathom how combining them it shall bring hope (Hester, 2006).

In regard to the subject of this reflection, I also want to highlight some keen thoughts of professor Humberto Maturana (1991) on the interweaving of democracy and conversation before exposing what Hester (2006) conceives as ecological democracy. The prominent Chilean biologist and philosopher states that “democracy is a political way of life that fosters conversational and participatory scopes” for all community members involved in a common purpose. In short, he suggests that in democracy the several political and spiritual viewpoints should operate as different means of inclusive cooperation for the sake of the common wellbeing of both a community, city or country. Nonetheless, when these collective perspectives turn to ‘ideologies’, then they shift towards a peril for the social coexistence. It implies the denial of the ‘other’ when that ‘other’ disagrees, and thus it undermines the possibility of conversation. Maturana says:

“ideological disagreements never support conversations, neither opportunities of conveying something new, they are just coercive incidents which ask for submission or the absolute denial […] the unique manner to avoid the misappropriation of the community matters by some individual or human group, is being immerse in a democratic life, grasping that democracy is not a power issue but a collaborative one for the achievement of a national goal, and that demands education” (Maturana, 1991, p.68 – 69).

Hence the importance of learning to see with heart, or in other words, understanding ‘the biology of love’ in consonance with professor Maturana.

Back to the previous point, professor Hester (2006) clarifies the ‘inter-are’ between ecology and democracy in order to convey that ecological democracy “represents the best possible life we can achieve”. In one hand, he explains that ecology is “the science of relationships between organisms, including our environment and us.” It implies “the study of natural processes, ecosystems, and interactions of humans [and human organizations] with each other, other species, and the cities we occupy”. He also states that ecology entails “principles of social and environmental function and interconnection”. In addition, the sociologist expresses that ecology is also “a comprehensive, long-term way to think creatively”. That is, from my holistic viewpoint, ecology can be understood as the cornerstone of every biopsychosocial pattern that emerges in life (1*). On the other hand, he specifies that democracy is “government by the people” through “active involvement in a locality […] following principles of equality and attending to individuals needs and broader community goods”, or in terms of the module (Gaia Education, 2018) –considering participatory democracy definition– “a process emphasizing the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of community and organizational systems”. Here the connection between both concepts make sense of what is a good human life in harmony with the entire web of life.

So what is ecological democracy? Mostly from an urbanist approach, professor Hester indicates that building an ecological democracy:

“is about remaking […] cities so that we can better work with neighbors and others, solve intricate community problems that help us sustain our liberty, our way of life, and the ecological system on which liberty and life depend; and gain pleasure from the places where we dwell.” (Hester, 2006, p.1).

And going beyond, the landscape architect maintains:

“ecological democracy […] is government by the people emphasizing directs hands-on involvement. Actions are guided by understanding natural processes and social relationships within our locality and the larger environmental context. This causes us to creatively reassess individual needs, happiness, and long term community goods in the places we inhabit.” (Hester, 2006, p.4).

Thereby, I want to reassert the cause of our faint view, or our ‘lack of heart’, is because of the education we as humans have absorbed through the governing both unsustainable and selfish social model which turns the Oikos into a vast object of our appetite (Fromm). Our hostile relation with nature began taking form hundreds of years before the advent of the industrial revolution, however it was of course the cusp of our separation. Not by any means I believe we’ve been created ‘in the image and likeness of gods’ invented by humans (I’m epicurean in this way); I believe our behaviors, attitudes and cultural expressions are the consequence of the systems we’ve shaped. Harmful religious beliefs, political graft, social exclusion, polarization, and thus the lack of social responsibility, the lack of empathy, the lack of deep listening, the lack of consensus, the lack of good conversations, among other factors that make us being at odds are the outcomes of ecobiopsychosocial illness.

In this way, and as an example, professor Hester (2006) points out that city makers have designed and keep designing more and more cities ecologically illiterate. I.e., “cities that do not take advantage of natural factors inspired by their [bio]regional characteristics”, these are major issues that “separate us from local environments and render us ecologically illiterate”. Moreover, he denotes that the conception of machine-like cities (Cartesian view) “point to the greenhouse effect, to global economics that create ‘international cities’ and exploit backwaters, to developing country inequities, and to the loss of cultural and biological diversity”. Then, what we can expect of the quality of communication, facilitation, conflict resolution and consensus in places which have been mainly set up as means of exploitation, unconscious production and unsustainable consumerism?

Well, to conclude I’d like to simply encourage to all the whole systems thinkers, ecological designers, cultural creatives, evolutionary leaderships, and organizational ecologists in the different arenas to keep seeing and communicating with heart in order to promote ecoliteracy as the thrust to achieve an ecological democracy, and consequently to keep forging an ecobiopsychosocial (EBPS) capital that allow us to live as reflexive, conversational and interdependent living beings, honoring Gaia and working to regenerate our relation with the whole community of life.

(1*) That’s the reason why I’m pursuing the holistic ecobiopsychosocial approach.

Author: Juan Sebastián Cárdenas Salas (November 10, 2018)

From the serie: Reflections Around Gaia Education

Watch Randy Hester: The Declaration of Interdependence – Ecological Democracy (2017)

Watch Humberto Maturana on the biology of love at the American Society for Cybernetics (1993)

Resources of support/ Book References

Social Dimension – Module’s 2 Handbook general contents and references (Gaia Education, 2018)

Design for Ecological Democracy by Randolph T. Hester (2006)

EL SENTIDO DE LO HUMANO by Humberto Maturana (1991)

Cover Image by Juan Sebastián Cárdenas Salas


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