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Paper 12

rppatel's picture


Ecological intelligence → the detour from tragedy?

This past semester I’ve been in classes that both deal with human identity and the environment. The two classes are my Emily Balch Seminar and my Environmental Studies course. A common theme in these courses is looking at human interaction with the environment. One concept that was brought up in my Emily Balch Seminar was the idea of Ecological Intelligence.  In our discussion we tried to outline what exactly constitutes Ecological Intelligence.  We looked at three different authors with three very different perspectives to figure out the nature of ecological intelligence. In my Environmental Studies course we discussed a lot about the idea of regulated environmental conscientiousness in relation to the human population and Earth’s resources. After reading an article for Environmental studies and having the discussion in the Emily Balch seminar I wanted to know how one of the authors, Chet Bowers would respond to the article we read in Environmental studies. Bowers discusses the relationship between ecological intelligence and the cultural commons. I want to see if there is a tie between ecological intelligence, regulated environmental conscientiousness and the commons. To figure this out I decided to look at the piece we read in my Environmental Studies course through the lens of one of the authors we read in my Emily Balch Seminar.

In my Environmental Studies class we read, The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin. In this essay he argues that people are inherently self-interested and as a result the rest of the planet suffers. Humankind tries to maximize self gain but the problem is when the majority wants to maximize self gain, not enough people are accounting for  the rest.  He argues that continuing our self- interested habits is not viable long term. The availability of resources currently on the planet is not enough to sustain the population at the rate it is growing. One of Hardin’s argument is that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all”. Humankind is being selfish by breeding when there isn’t enough shared resources. In our class however,  we determined that there is enough resources to sustain the population but the issue is that the resources are not distributed equitably. We discussed the idea of humankind becoming more environmentally conscientious. Many of us in class were almost too optimistic in our belief that there isn’t a tragedy to the shared commons as long as the commons gets shared evenly.  And the commons gets shared evenly if enough people are environmentally conscientious. But in the back of our naive little minds we knew this wasn’t really an option. One of Hardin’s comments after publishing is that he wished he had called the paper “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons” . It’s necessary to add the word “unmanaged” because when limits are put into place there is a forced environmental conscientiousness. However without that forced environmental conscientiousness, we are faced with the problem of individuals maximizing self gain.

I was intrigued by this idea of the unregulated commons.  Chet Bowers, in his article, Steps to the recovery of Ecological Intelligence , distinguishes the natural commons from the cultural commons. Hardin and Bowers have different interpretations about the repercussions of the commons.  To get a clearer idea about what exactly constitutes the commons I found a compelling piece by Overson Shumba that claims “Bowers (2008) makes a distinction between the environmental and cultural commons pointing out that the cultural commons represent the largely ‘non-monetised’ and non commodified knowledge, skills, activities and relationships that exist in every community” ( Shumba 2011 ). Hardin’s definition of the natural commons was more focused on the unregulated shared resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, fish stock, or any “communal” item. For example, Hardin would call Bryn Mawr’s Tea pantries and washing machines part of the commons as they are “shared” resources with almost no regulation.  Though those items aren’t exactly “natural” the idea is that these are things students at Bryn Mawr feel entitled to, similarly with the shared natural commons the human population should be entitled to clean water and other resources. The tragedy is that when the commons is unregulated there is no way for everyone to get what they need. With Bryn Mawr the dorm restrooms no longer have paper towels. When the towels were unregulated we were wasting a lot of paper and having a negative environmental impact. What happened at Bryn Mawr is almost exactly what Hardin says will happen if the natural commons remain unregulated. However, I think Bowers would disagree with Hardin in that it’s a tragedy that can only be solved with forced conscientiousness. Bowers describes the cultural commons as the “sources of knowledge and skills that have enabled different cultures to live with a smaller carbon and toxic footprint”. I think Bowers would use ecological intelligence in terms of the cultural commons to bridge the gap left by an unregulated natural commons. To be ecologically intelligent one must consider the repercussions of any action. I think Bower would point out that what Hardin doesn’t address is that if us the Humans while still being mindful of our needs understood the interconnectedness of the cultural commons and the natural commons through ecological intelligence there wouldn’t be a tragedy. Bower argues that “ecological intelligence takes into account the interacting patterns [...] that are ignored by non-ecological thinking to how an individual’s actions introduce changes in the energy flow and alter the patterns of interdependence within natural systems.”  (Bowers 2008) Bowers is saying that ecological intelligence can act as that regulation Hardin says is crucial.

I think the nature of ecological intelligence is that it is the needed awareness brought through the cultural commons to curb the tragedy Hardin says in inevitable from an unregulated natural commons. Ecological intelligence can also include environmental conscientiousness but it goes further in that I think it accounts for more recognition of the impact of certain practices or use of resources. I sort of think its being conscious of the environmental contact zone.

Works Cited

Bowers, C.A. "Steps to the Recovery of Ecological Intelligence." Ometeca 14/15 (2010): 43-52. Web. Nov. 2014.

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162.3859 (1968): 1243-248. Web. Dec. 2014.

Shumba, Overson. "Commons Thinking, Ecological Intelligence and the Ethical and Moral Framework of Ubuntu: An Imperative for Sustainable Development." Journal of Media and Communication Studies 3.3 (2011): Department of Mathematics and Science Education, School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Copperbelt University, Mar. 2011. Web. <>.




Anne Dalke's picture

As you know, I’m delighted that you are seeing the possibility of conversation between your classes, and I like it very much that you are putting Hardin and Bowers into dialogue. But what I want to know now is this. You claim that “if humans understood interconnectedness, there wouldn’t be a tragedy,” that “ecological intelligence can act as regulation.” But how does knowledge get converted into action? We KNOW we’re causing environmental destruction; why do we continue to do this? How to change not just understanding, but behavior?

Some more general observations (from our last conference) about “Rina as a writer”:
* you are now aware of your tendency to “ramble” in the earlier papers
* the later papers are more organized, in part because you are now doing some planning and outlining ahead of time
* you still need help in generating a concrete thesis
* you’re now going to re-write paper #9, comparing the campuses of Columbia and Bryn Mawr, in terms of the possibilities they offer for ecological education, and you’re going to do so using Latour’s notion of the animated world.