The Three Ecologies is one of the final works published by Felix Guattari (1930-1992), a French philosopher, political militant and institutional psychoanalyst. While Guattari is perhaps best known for his co-authored projects with Gilles Deleuze; Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus and What is Philosophy; The Three Ecologies provides an excellent insight into Guattari’s stance on politics, social movements and subjectivity.
The concept of the three ecologies; three interconnected networks existing at the scales of mind, society and the environment, was originally formulated by influential theorist Gregory Bateson in Steps to An Ecology of Mind, however Guattari seeks to elaborate and refine the concept in more detail, while additionally adding a more radical form of poststructuralist Marxism to Bateson’s ecological system.
Pre-empting the global networks of power and resistance described by Hardt and Negri in Empire and Multitude, Guattari argues that ‘The only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale, provided that it brings about an authentic political, social and cultural revolution, reshaping the objectives of the production of both material and immaterial assets.’ (28) Whereas previous revolutionary movements have concentrated on creating political changes at the level of the nation state, Guattari claims that the shared nature of the environment that we live in, and our collective impacts on it such as anthropogenic climate change, reveal the commons on which we are ultimately dependent, and thus the ecosophical position he advocates is one of global resistance to what he describes as ‘Integrated Wold Capitalism,’ which is very close to a less deeply theorised version of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, and resonates with Castells’ delineation of the rise of the network society, and Jameson’s understanding of postmodern capitalism.
Such a global and unificatory position may at first appear to contrast sharply with commonly understood models of postmodernism, which following Lyotard claim that postmodernity is marked by the death of the modernist meta-narrative, and indeed some such as George Myerson have claimed that ecology, and ecological crises mark the end of the fragmented and partial era of postmodernism. To such claims, Guattari argues that ‘The ecosophical perspective does not totally exclude unifying objectives such as the struggle against world hunger, an end to deforestation or to the blind proliferation of the nuclear industries; but it will no longer be a question of depending on reductionist, stereotypical orderworlds which only expropriate other more singular problematics and lead to the promotion of charismatic leaders.’ (34) While ecosophy can hold unifying ideas and objectives, these do not insist on a scalar homogeneity – difference and plurality are encouraged at each of the levels of ecology, mind, society and environment – however these differences themselves are not absolute, and so limited unifying objectives aimed at securing freedoms and rights for all subjects are possible under such a philosophical framework.
Consequently Guattari’s argument is that ‘Environmental ecology, as it exists today, has barely begun to prefigure the generalised ecology that I advocate here, the aim of which will be to radically decentre social struggles and ways of coming into one’s own psyche… Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations.’ (2) For Guattari then, as with Bateson, ecology is far more than a concern for the environment, it is an epistemological system based on an understanding of nonlinear systems governed by feedback loops and nonlinear causality. An understanding of connectivity, of balanced systems, network topography and complexity theory are fundamental to the way in which this ecosophical model operates. In contrast to a capitalist system predicated on economic growth, Guattari’s ecosophy seeks balance allied with a reevaluation of what we value; going well beyond GDP as an indicator of quality of life, in what can be understood as a decentred socialism, or ecologically informed variant of anarchism, where goals are collectively negotiated rather than dictated by economic elites.
According to Guattari, creating such an ecosophical society requires a reorientation of thought, so that we understand ourselves, the society we live in and the ecosystem we inhabit as three different scales of ecology, linked by a series of processes (or abstract machines). ‘Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mecanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’. (43) Indeed Guattari goes as far as to argue that ‘It is quite wrong to make a distinction between action on the psyche, the socius and the environment. Refusal to face up to the erosion of these three areas, as the media would have us do verges on a strategic infantilization of opinion and a destructive neutralization of democracy. We need to kick the habit of sedative discourse, particularly the ‘fix’ of television, in order to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies.’ (42)
The role of mediated communications occupies a central position for Guattari, and he is particularly scathing about the effects of television as a centralising and hierarchical media which privileges economic and social elites’ perspective on public discourse, effectively negating the potentiality for a dialogic and democratic debate about how to create more sustainable and equitable relationships within and between the three ecologies. Indeed, Guattari states that ‘An essential programmatic point for social ecology will be to make the transition from the mass media era to the post-media age, in which the media will be re appropriated by a multitude of groups capable of directing its resingularization. Despite the seeming impossibility of such an eventuality, the current unparalleled level of media-related alienation is in no way an inherent necessity.’
The three ecologies was written a few years before the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, and Guattari’s death meant that he never saw the explosion of user-generated content and dialogic forms of communication which are currently to be found online, and it would have been fascinating to learn as to whether Guattari would classify some of the co-creative models for collaborative communication such as; Indymedia’s open publishing or the wiki’s used by sites such as Wikipedia and Crocodyl, as examples of ecosophic media.
One hugely positive message to be found within the ecological warning of impending disaster across all three ecological registers (the increase of mental health disorders and stress related disorder; warfare, failed states run by competing warlords, the rise of right wing religious fundamentalisms in both the East and the West, and of course the ecological crises of anthropogenic global warming and natural resource depletion) is that the solutions to these problems are already at our doorsteps. ‘Wherever we turn, there is the same nagging paradox: on the one hand, the continuous development of new techno scientific means to potentially resolve the dominant ecological issues and restate socially useful activities on the surface of the planet, and, on the other hand the inability of organised social forces and constituted subjective formations to take hold of these resources in order to make them work.’ (31) Industrial capitalism has enhanced our knowledge and technological capabilities beyond belief. Yet despite this technical and scientific advancement we still are faced with massive inequalities of wealth, poverty on an enormous scale, millions of annual deaths from easily treatable diseases and numerous wars, both between and inside states. As Martin Luther King famously stated back in the 1960’s “We have learned to swim the seas like fish, and fly the skies like birds, but we have not learned to walk the earth like brothers.’ Guattari’s ecosophy then is a philosophical attempt to remedy this situation, calling for a new way of understanding the world and our place in it allied with a new method of being to create an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable world.