The Ecological Circumstances of the Circumstances of Politics

This is the first in a series of posts on Environmental Political Theory.


With his famous phrase “the circumstances of politics” the philosopher Jeremy Waldron offers an abstract characterization of what politics are at the most basic level. Waldron holds that the circumstances of politics are present when a group of people feel the need for “a common framework or decision or course of action on some matter, even in the face of disagreement about what the framework, decision or action should be.”1 For Waldron, grasping the circumstances that underlie political interactions is essential to establishing a normative vision which identifies as a source of value the contributions political institutions and individual participants in them make toward resolving differences in order to pursue common action.

In this post I want to propose what I will call the “ecological circumstances” of the circumstances of politics. I take the ecological circumstances to function as the material background against which the political circumstances obtain: in general, the ecological circumstances point to a key problem over which human communities disagree, generating the political circumstances. That problem, in brief, involves the need of human beings to transform their environment in order to gain from it material support for their survival, in light of distinctively human needs and capacities. I am working towards an abstract vision of politics which places at its center the fact that, for human beings, the requirement of making a living from the environment must be met collaboratively, hence essentially involves the need to resolve disagreements over what kind of life should be led, and what must be done to make it materially possible.

My understanding of the ecological circumstances of politics is rooted in the concept of human “niche construction,” which has been a recurring topic on this blog. Niche construction is significant because adaptation to an environment is typically not a matter of being equipped by evolution to passively receive what is needed for survival. Obviously animals have to work: predators have to hunt, herbivores have to forage. But adaptation involves more than having the proper physiognomy to take in resources. As geneticist Eva Jablonka puts it, “All living organisms are active agents, altering through their activities the living conditions in which they and their descendants develop, act and are selected.”2 The pervasiveness of niche construction indicates that a general feature of life is the requirement that organisms modify their surroundings so that it will yield what they require. An organism’s being adapted to an environment, that is, involves not simply its being in an environment that meets its needs, but more importantly its having the capacity to adapt the environment to meet its needs.

This fact of animal life (though it applies to plants as well) is especially manifest in the case of human beings, for whom nature is particularly not forthcoming. As I have discussed in a previous post, this fact was highlighted by Adam Smith, who saw keenly that to survive human beings must engage in niche construction. This is humanity’s fundamental ecological circumstance. The key feature of our situation on Earth is not that we are reliant on ecological processes. Of course we are—but the more salient fact is that ecological processes will not support our survival unless we direct them to that end by modifying our surroundings. Humanity is not in Eden; by way of interpreting the Genesis story, the effect of God’s curse on the ground is that it will no longer sustain us spontaneously, but only after we have transformed it through our hard labor.3

A more salient fact still, however, is that the niche that human beings construct for themselves is social. I develop this idea in a previous post on an article by psychologist Steven Pinker. In brief—we should understand a creature’s niche in terms of the capacities the creature deploys to gain resources from its environment. Pinker argues that, because cognitive capacities are so important to human survival, we can speak of human beings occupying a “cognitive niche.” But Pinker observes that the capacities humans deploy to sustain themselves involve cooperation as well as cognition—though of course the two are closely associated through the medium of language. As with other social species, human beings survive as members of a group, whose capabilities—including the capabilities to coordinate various individuals’ capabilities to common ends—stake out the ecological space the group draws from to survive. In this sense we can say that human beings occupy a “socialized niche:” i.e. their ecological niche is created by their society.

The idea of a socialized niche sets the stage for the idea of the ecological circumstances of politics. The human ecological circumstance is that, like other forms of life, human beings must transform the environment in order to survive. But more specifically, as a result of their evolution, for human beings that transformation is a social enterprise—it is undertaken in groups. More specifically still, human beings more than other social species construct their socialized niche by using their cognitive capacities. In constructing their ecological environment they simultaneously construct a social environment of language and shared knowledge, which is promulgated across a group and transmitted from one generation to the next. Their shared knowledge—the group’s culture—in effect involves (among other things) how to “operate” the ecological niche they have constructed, i.e. what to do to maintain the transformed environment so that it continues to yield what they need.

And thus human beings’ ecological circumstances place them in political circumstances. The ecological circumstances dictate that human beings must cooperate in an on-going social project of niche construction. But, I presume, the ecological circumstances do not determine how that cooperation must go. I concede that I do not have direct evidence that it is inevitable that members of a social group will disagree over how to conduct the shared effort of manipulating their surroundings in order to survive. And it might be suggested that in small groups, a stable culture would lead to a stable consensus on how to live together. But perhaps not; as ecologist Erle Ellis argues, “While the actions of individuals within sociocultural systems can depend largely on culturally inherited traits, individuals and groups choose among and adopt cultural traits in different ways . . . yielding substantial variance and unpredictability in individual, group, and societal behavior. Though human capacity for cooperative behavior is exceptional, so is human cognitive capacity and behavioral flexibility.”4

In a conclusion reminiscent of a statement of Hannah Arendt’s, Ellis holds that “individuality of choice” means that culture does not determine individual behavior; in her words, “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”5 In keeping with this view I believe there are strong reasons for supposing that human differences could be a source of disagreement. The fact of cultural stability over time, in other words, does not indicate the absence of disagreements, but rather the presence of procedures for resolving them.

The circumstances of politics abstractly characterize the function of politics: to resolve disagreements over common action when common action is necessary and disagreements are inevitable. The ecological circumstances of politics abstractly characterize a key issue that gives rise to the circumstances of politics: how to engage in niche construction, which is necessary for human beings, necessarily a common effort, and as such as likely as not to be a matter of disagreement. I therefore take niche construction to be a conceptual starting point for environmental political theory. It is, I believe, a way of understanding why and how humans’ relationship to their environment is essentially political. And therefore it is of central importance to a normative outlook on that relationship. The normative meaning of the ecological circumstances of politics is that normative judgments must flow from an acknowledgment of the necessity of niche construction. In future posts I hope to explore what this might tell us about how particular instances of niche construction can be evaluated.


  1. Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 102. 
  2. The entangled (and constructed) human bank,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 366 (2011), p. 784. 
  3. Genesis 3:17-19. I believe John Locke took this idea to heart; see my post on his theory of property. 
  4. Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere,’ Ecological Monographs, vol. 85, no. 3 (2015), pp. 287-331, p. 299. Earlier this year we conducted the Anthropocene Biosphere Project: a series of posts on Ellis’ paper, culminating in a panel discussion on the OU campus. 
  5. The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 8. 
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3 thoughts on “The Ecological Circumstances of the Circumstances of Politics

  1. Pingback: The Ecological Circumstances of the Circumstances of Politics – Ukko Elhob's World

  2. This is an excellent contribution in a sorely needed reappraisal of the way in which political theory has grasped ecological circumstances in the past -and vice versa. Moreover, it asks the right questions about the implications of the Anthropocene, or the way in which this hypothesis challenges some old assumptions about socionatural relations. However, I see a danger in emphasizing too much cultural variability, i.e. the fact that ecological circumstances do not determine the way in which human beings cooperate, although the ecological grounds of cooperation remain unchallenged. The danger is the emptying of that which is peculiar to both such ecological circumstances and the Anthropocene: the fact that human beings are doomed to transform nature. We can discuss how to do so, but we do so -such is surely one of the central messages conveyed by the Anthropocene. This would be, I guess, the prepolitical dimension of a relation that is, or becomes, political. In sum, we have to be careful not to “sound” sociobiological, but it is also important -although maybe I am wrong- not to weaken the essential content of the anthropocenic reality: the unavoidably transformative character of the human relation with nature.

    • Thanks, Manuel–I think we see things in substantially the same way. But let me clarify something: you mention cultural variability, and indeed as I’ll emphasize in a moment I think any theory must account for the obvious variability across culture in the way different human societies fashion niches. But when I spoke of variability, citing Ellis and Arendt, to be clear I was pointing to variability within a social group–i.e. to the disagreements over how to fashion the society’s niche that constitute the circumstances of politics. I take it that those disagreements can take place within a given culture–over what the culture demands and how to accomplish it.

      As to variability across societies–even under similar ecological conditions: absolutely, we want to avoid sociobiological-style determinism as to the details of a given society’s niche construction. I think it makes sense to think in terms of constraints here. Human beings are constrained in their dietary choices–we can’t eat wood or rocks–but within those constraints we obviously have virtually indefinite options. So just as our diets reflect our discovery of a huge range of possibility within some basic constraints, there is a huge range of possibility for the types of niche we create, including how we create them–even against the fact that we are constrained in the sense that we have to construct our niche, with all the attendant transformation of nature you mention.

      I think I am just restating your point here–but let me close with a final observation. I mention Smith in my post–and as it happens I think Smith was very aware of the phenomenon I just mentioned. He speaks of the importance to people of non-functional differences between goods, i.e. differences that don’t contribute to actual survival, but have, say aesthetic significances. Thus, people prefer different styles of clothing, or of decoration for their dwellings. I think that Smith sees this as a basis for the propensity to trade that he thinks characterizes human beings. I think it is worth looking at Smith much more closely on this point; I’ve indicated where this might go in a post from last year.

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