Towards a Social Ecology

Have you noticed the great coalescing that’s occurring? The many threads of the same narrative that are starting to weave together? Precipitated by the urgency of our planet’s decline, there’s a harmony starting to hum and vibrate with diverse voices, different perspectives but a shared vision.

The climate conversation and action is joining the gender equality conversation (the two were clearly never separate), the end of life and death conversation is enfolding itself into the climate conversation, a tide is turning around our appreciation for the wisdom and insights of our Indigenous people, and the feminine is dancing her way in to traditionally dominant masculine domains and it feels like we’re moving closer towards a true social ecology, or as poet Mark Tredinnick says, an ecology of belonging.

There’s a strong connection between our culture’s death avoidance and the current climate crisis. Examining that connection illuminates an approach that might heal not just our fear of death and dying, but the trajectory of contemporary Western culture or, more truthfully, its demise. The word ecology comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “household” and logos, meaning “knowledge”.  Dying in Australia over the last 10o years has become anything but household knowledge.  As we have moved further and further towards a clinical and institutional approach to dying we have lost that critical household knowledge, the ecological whole-of-life understanding of our dying.  We’ve made linear what was always circular, as we have done with so much else, including our economy, resulting in what is now a dire threat to our very existence.

If ecology is about the household knowledge of the natural world around us, let’s preface the word with another to reflect a broader approach to household knowledge, one that encompasses human beings as co-creators with and of the natural world around us.  Let’s turn towards social ecology. The word social is from the Latin word socialis, meaning “united, living with others” so it’s a neat fit with “household knowledge” if we are to explore the deeper dynamics of social complexities and how they play out in our experience of, and attitudes towards say, dying.  A social ecology is one that embraces the notion of each of us living beings having and sharing an understanding of ourselves, each other and of the natural world in which we live – united, together. 

This notion implies a definitive absence of domination.  There is no implicit hierarchy – each part of the whole is in equilibrium.  The people share an understanding of each other and the natural world of which they are a part.  There is a deep recognition of our interconnectedness and the symbiotic nature of all things on earth – what you do to one, affects the whole.  Our First Nations people understood this deeply. We have always had much to learn from their ancient wisdom.

The word community comes from two Latin words, com and munos, meaning “together in gift”.  From a social ecology perspective, how one community experiences dying, affects the whole.  If socially we lose the “household knowledge” concerning dying, a part of life that is so intimately connected to our living, we risk losing the richness of being “united” and “together in gift”.  Perhaps we lose this richness not only in the dying part of life, but throughout the whole of life – our living - as a consequence.  You start to see the thread here, that connects what we’ve done to our planet as intimately linked to our conscious or unconscious bias towards eternal youth, immortality, throw-away attitudes, disregard of traditional wisdoms, secularity and separateness.

As dying has become institutionalised, separated and removed from living, we as a society have lost the household knowledge that dying offers to us – and not only at the end of life.  By separating dying from our living we have created an industry out of it and our responses to dying have been professionalised and compartmentalised.  Dying has become a silo.  As an industry, this silo approach has given us good medicine but it has robbed us of household knowledge that I dare say has robbed us of a deep appreciation of the preciousness of life. 

What happens when we lose that deep appreciation for the preciousness of life, and for the circular, rhythmical, cyclical and wholistic nature of life, human and other? It looks like what happens is that we create structures, we engineer structures that remove us from our household knowledge, remove us from community, remove us from our intrinsic interconnectedness, and prioritise economic markets over humanity - economic growth over ecological preservation.

Poetry has a way of bringing us to our knees, sometimes swiftly, sometimes gently, sometimes abruptly, sometimes strikingly – as David Whyte says, “poetry is the language to which there are no defences”. Mark Tredinnick, whom we are delighted to present in Sydney and Melbourne soon, quotes Jim Harrison, “We are here to be curious, not consoled. The gift of the gods is consciousness.”

And Mark says, “we are here to die more and more beautifully to illusion, delusion, banality, sentiment, cant and superficiality; we are here to make our lives worthy of our suffering (and others’ suffering); and poetry can help us do it. A poem is a practice as well as a thing, a practice first for the poet and then for the reader, in attention. In witness, in growing wise. Wisdom is not the same thing as understanding or mastery or expertise. It is a looser arrangement and deeper.

And it is a process; it is a way”.

Melanie Greblo