Initially the shift to conceiving societies and cultures as ecologies seems slight. After all, in the traditions of social and political thought, societies have largely been thought both in terms of relations and processes. If ecology consists not in thinking nature but in thinking beings of any sort in terms of relations, then it would seem that describing culture as an ecology changes nothing. And in some ways this is true. All that was there before in social and political thought remains. It is not so much that something is lost with this move as the domain of entities relevant to culture is significantly expanded.
In Book III of the Ethics, Spinoza resolved to treat the emotions as phenomena of nature and to investigate them accordingly. Something similar happens when cultures are treated as ecologies. Thinkers such as Latour have argued that modernity is based on a split between nature and culture. Nature is one kingdom, with its own laws or principles; and culture is another kingdom with its own laws and principles. Generally nature is treated as the domain of causality, while culture is treated as the domain of meaning, the sign, or the signifier. Under this model, investigating nature amounts to investigating causes, while investigating society means investigating meanings. A wall is thus erected between nature and culture.
Like Spinoza, I want to investigate culture as a phenomena of nature (though as I’ve argued elsewhere and can’t get into here, this means transforming our understanding of nature). Put a bit differently, in thinking cultures as ecologies I want to think societies in nature. This doesn’t mean that I want to reduce things such as signs, signifiers, and meanings to biology and neurology like the evolutionary sociologist or something silly like that. Meaning has its own manner of functioning as meaning; and while dependent on biology so far (perhaps AI’s are on the way that operate with meaning), cannot be explained in terms of biology. Meaning has to be understood as meaning qua meaning, according to its own principles.
No, understanding culture as in nature means something quite different than giving reductive explanations of all cultural phenomena. It means breaking down that wall between nature and culture. Culture isn’t just meaning, but involves all sorts of natural elements as well without which it couldn’t exist as it does. In other words, ecological conceptions of society are premised on the thesis that there are certain material conditions for the existence of culture. Here we must take care, for “material conditions” immediately brings to mind Marx and his famous account of production as the ground of society and the forms society takes. These are, indeed, material phenomena, yet in the ecological conception of society the material conditions of culture are not anything themselves produced by culture; at least initially. These material conditions include things such as the existence of an atmosphere, fauna and animals of all sorts, energy in the form of calories and of others sorts to power tools, gravity within a certain range, temperature within a certain range, etc.
I am not, of course, saying anything new in pointing all this out. Other theorists have articulated it as well. Then again, here I am not interested in saying something new but in saying something true and playing some small role in drawing the attention of others to it. Cultures, like organisms, I want to say, are material beings that interface with a broader physical world, both drawing matters from that world and releasing matters into the world. And here I wish to say these material factors exercise a power of their own on the form that social relations take that often goes unspoken in our critical theories. Yes, meaning is a key component of culture. Yes meaning is something we need to investigate in our social and political thought. However, we also need to attend to this broader dimension embodied in technologies of all kinds, infrastructure, features of geography, and the larger natural world in which cultural worlds are embedded in manners similar to Amazon rain forests and coral reefs.