Reading Integral Ecology

In 1999 I read my first Ken Wilber book. I had never heard of Wilber before the day a surprisingly assertive old hippie struck a dialogue with me in my favorite reading nook at the local library. “You have to read this book son”, declared the bearded stranger. “It will change the way you exist.” Fantastic, I thought. I had been hunkered down with Alan Watts and D.T Suzuki for weeks and was certainly open to a good mind-thrashing alternative. So I accepted the slender paperback from the grinning coyote, asked a few utterly twenty-something questions, and then sat back to digest. I had no expectations.

Until I cracked the cover of The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998) I had no idea of what to expect from the American philosopher. I hadn’t known at that point he’d written 12 previous volumes over 23 years, exploring everything from altered and mystical states of consciousness, to human development more broadly, to the evolution of the kosmos as such. I would soon learn all that and more.

Only a few pages into the book Wilber gives up the gambit completely: “Fools rush in where angles fear to tread; therefore, the integration of science and religion is the theme of this book.” (p.xi) In my opinion Wilber went a long way to fulfilling that aim. In the book he lays out a panoramic vision which arguably makes room for the co-existence of a wide range of “religious experiences” and practices, while honoring the achievements of human rationality and secular wisdom. Our world is composed of a wide spectrum of ways of being in the world, Wilber argues, and each offers us unique glimpses into the time-less and the developmental dimensions of human life. And for over 35 years Ken Wilber has been taking inventory of the key insights from both science and religion, East and West, and attempting to design tools with which to develop a more humane and sane worldview.

Did the book change the way I existed? Maybe a little. But, more importantly, it offered me an initial glimpse of what a truly synthetic narrative might look like. That first glimpse lead me on a path through all of Wilber’s previous books (including Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and A Brief History of Everything), and the handful he would publish afterwards (including my favorite Integral Psychology), and towards a deep and persistent appreciation for integrative thinking and research generally.

But this is not the place for an overview or critique of Ken Wilber’s work. I bring this anecdote up as a way to contextualize several posts forthcoming as part of a reading group for the book Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World, by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman. The authors use Wilber’s "integral" meta-framework (AQAL) to analysis dozens of ecological paradigms and case histories for the expressed purpose of extracting the core insights of each and reconfigure them together in such a way as to provide a more comprehensive view of the natural world than has yet been available. Do they succeed in bridging the gaps between scientific disciplines, eco-science literatures and research methodologies? That remains to be determined. But, no doubt, the journey of discovery that such a project and book entail will make for an exciting foray into the realm of environmental philosophy and ecological science.

The Integral Ecology Reading Group (IERG) will unfold between several blogs and will include a number of people intimately familiar with both Ken Wilber’s theory and environmental studies more generally. Each week a participating blog will review that week’s readings and host discussion for the larger group.

The schedule for the reading group is as follows:
June 1 – 7
Introduction/Chapter 1 - The Return of Interiority and Conceptual Framework of Integral Ecology
Host Blog: Knowledge Ecology (Adam Robbert)

June 8 – 14
Chapter 2 - It's All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model
Host Blog: Knowledge Ecology (Sam Mickey)

June 15 – 21
Chapter 3/4 - A Developing Kosmos/ Developing Interiors
Host Blog: Immanence (Adrian Ivakhiv)

June 22 – 28
Chapter 5 - Defining, Honoring, and Integrating the Multiple Approaches to Ecology
Host Blog: TBA

June 29 – July 5
Chapter 6 - Ecological Terrains: The What That Is Examined
Host Blog: Mediacology (Antonio Lopez)

July 6 – 12
Chapter 7 - Ecological Selves: The Who That Is Examining
Host Blog: Immanence (Adrian Ivakhiv)

July 13 – 19
Chapter 8 - Ecological Research: How We Examine
Host Blog: Integral Ecology Center (Nicholas Hedlund-de Witt)

July 20 – 26
Chapter 9 - Ecological Harmony and Environmental Crisis in a Post-Natural World
Host Blog: Ecology Without Nature (Tim Morton)

July 27 – Aug 2
Chapter 10/11 - Practices for Cultivating Integral Ecological Awareness/Integral Ecology in Action
Host Blog: Archive Fire (Michael)
It's a massive book at almost 800 pages, so it should make for interesting comments, divergencies and perspectives.  Anyone who wants to participate is more than welcome to post their comments or questions on individual host blogs. Also, a big thanks must go out to Adam Robbert for organizing and facilitating the group.  I’m very excited about having such knowledgeable participants as co-discussants, and hope some of you find the time share your thoughts.


Jeremy Trombley said...

You know, I think my first encounter with Wilber was about the same time as yours. I was studying Aikido back in Lawrence as a teenager, and one of my instructors was almost obsessed with Wilber. He recommended The Spectrum of Consciousness to me. I bought a copy, but never read it. I cracked it a couple of times, and read some stuff about him on the net. My general impression was that he was too New Agey for my interest (I had been through a New Agey phase a few years before and was trying hard to distance myself from it). It didn't help that the guy who recommended it to me was also obsessed with enneagram.

In any case, whether my first impression was accurate or not, this new application of Wilbur's work seems to deserve serious consideration. I'll be following the reading group, but probably not contributing much since I have several projects I'm trying to get moving with. Look forward to reading the posts, though!

Anonymous said...

not religiously inclined myself so won't be reading Wilber but looking forward to seeing where the points of common interest/action might be as you all work thru this.

michael- said...

Wilber is a bit of an oddity in my estimation. There is that "new age" aspect to his project, and definitely among his “followers”, but over the years I find that the core of his work still resonates.

His attempts to synthesize so many seemingly divergent disciplines is, well, quite alarming. He tries to pluck out the most salient and supported knowledge from various disciplines (broadly from biology, several paradigms of psychology, sociology, hermeneutics and philosophy) and fit them together into a multi-leveled and multi-perspectival meta-framework with which to honor the insights all. Wilber calls it “orienting generalizations”. It might sound like an impossible transdisciplinary project, but how it finally rolls out is actually quite concise.

The cognitive effect of looking at the world through Wilber’s integrationist theoretical lens (something he calls AQAL, meaning “all quadrants, all levels. all lines…”) is astonishingly powerful. Basically what AQAL does, at least for me, is act as a signaling system prompting us to always maintain a simultaneous-awareness, as much as possible, of the bewildering array of complex temporal, material, existential and semiotic interconnections that make up our past and present living conditions. Wilber makes the case for a radical inclusivity and participation in our considerations and engagements of reality from a ‘developmentlist’ standpoint.

The parallels with several notable theoretical projects can easily be drawn out as well. Two quick examples being Guttarati’s “three ecologies”, and Lacan’s borromean knot of the “real, imaginal and symbolic” - but there are several others.

Wilber ground both his epistemology and ontology (as if they ever could be separate domains) in a perspectivism that envisions all meaningful reality as an enactment of the personal, social and ecological aspects of our world simultaneously. Simultaneity is the key here. “Integral” in this context means inclusive without reducing anything to anything else.

Now I do have my doubts about various aspects of his “integral vision”, but those are details. What Wilber’s work can do, however, is provide an intriguing grand narrative as the basis for understanding the important details of a complex world and the larger patterns which connect them.

Regardless, this book and reading group isn’t about Ken Wilber. It’s about seeing if his framework has anything special to tell us about ecological thinking and research. Esbjorn-Hargens is somewhat of a fringe enthusiastic but intelligent proponent of AQAL, whereas Michael Zimmerman is a mainstream academic eco-philosopher with deep roots in Heideggerian scholarship and environmental thought, so am excited to see where the book will take me.

michael- said...

I wouldn't consider Wilber as simply a religious philosopher, but he does "transcend and include" religious modes of thought. A theory/worldview wouldn't be "integral" if it left some aspect or another of our human experience out, would it?

My interest in this book is revolves completely around ecological thinking and ecological knowledge. My question is: what are the fundamental insights of the ecological sciences and how can we incorporate those into our individual, public and collective lives?

Ross Wolfe said...

Yes, Wilber has always struck me as a bit too New Agey and casually syncretistic, looking to "Eastern wisdom" and so on. I'm far too stubbornly Eurocentric in my Weberian understanding of the rationality of Western modernity to accept what I would consider rather naive appropriations of "holistic" or "organic" gems of Eastern thought. But that's just me. It looks like an interesting reading course.

Anyway, Michael-, I am hoping you have not been too put off by the recent string of controversy on my blog regarding the whole SR/OOO phenomenon. You were right that I probably should have cut back a bit on the vitriol and prefaced it, perhaps, with a "Just kidding guys!" But that probably would have been disingenuous of me. You should know from my interactions with you that I don't consider you part of that crowd of careless, ego-inflated blogosophers that was parodied in my satire piece.

If I were in the reading group, I would selfishly militate for the inclusion of my essay on nature. Still definitely looking forward to seeing your posts responding to that! Anyway, all the best, Michael.


michael- said...


No worries Ross. If I had been included I would have laughed even harder. I have as thick of skin as you could imagine (i'm basically a worn leather satchel filled with lemon-pepper chicken wings and molotov cocktails).

So why not militate for your essay by participating in the comments then? You could purchase the book and read with us. I, for one, would love to get your take on the issues at hand, as there will be much to contemplate with regards to the illusory nature/culture divide.

In fact Wilber has written in many places that the divide is false and that everything hinges on what we mean when we use the terms ‘nature’, ‘culture’, ‘wild’, ‘civilized’ and so on. Integral theory argues that each development ‘stage’ and cultural orientation has its own versions of those concepts and what they signify.

More on all this later…

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think that our attempts to grasp things will always be limited/reductive/perspectival so the ideal of integration/simultaneity may be an inflationary/manic danger of achieving a Gods-eye view, and we should remember Derrida's narcissism without end and Rorty's manipulation without end as echoes of Heidegger's only a God can save us, and reminders that we will always come up short in ethical matters. See Caputo on Foucault's hermeneutics of not-knowing who we are.

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