Ecology’s Image Problem

By Liam Heneghan

“There are tories in science who regard imagination as a faculty to be avoided rather than employed. They observe its actions in weak vessels and are unduly impressed by its disasters” —John Tyndall, 1870

The-Poetics-of-SpaceIn his 1881 essay on Mental Imagery, Francis Galton noted that few Fellows of the Royal Society or members of the French Institute, when asked to do so, could imagine themselves sitting at the breakfast-table from which presumably they had only recently arisen. Members of the general public, women especially, fared much better, being able to conjure up vivid images of themselves enjoying their morning meal. From this Galton, an anthropologist, noted polymath, and eugenicist, concluded that learned men, bookish men, relying as they do on abstract thought, depend on mental images little, if at all.

In this rejection of the scientific role for the imagination Galton was in disagreement with Irish physicist John Tyndall who in a 1870 address to the British Association in Liverpool entitled The Scientific Use of the Imagination claimed that in explaining sensible phenomena, scientists habitually form mental images of that which is beyond the immediately sensible. “Newton’s passage from a falling apple to a falling moon”, Tyndall wrote, “was, at the outset, a leap of the prepared imagination.” The imagination, Tyndall claimed, is both the source of poetic genius and an instrument of discovery in science.

The role of the imagination is chemistry, is well enough known. In 1890 the German Chemical Society celebrated the discovery by Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz of the structure of benzene, a ring-shaped aromatic hydrocarbon. At this meeting Kekulé related that the structure of benzene came to him as a reverie of a snake seizing its own tail (the ancient symbol called the Ouroboros).

Since this is quite a celebrated case of the scientific use of the imagination I quote Kekule’s account of the events in full:

“During my stay in Ghent, Belgium, I occupied pleasant bachelor quarters in the main street. My study, however, was in a narrow alleyway and had during the day time no light. For a chemist who spends the hours of daylight in the laboratory this was no disadvantage. I was sitting there engaged in writing my text-book; but it wasn't going very well; my mind was on other things. I turned my chair toward the fireplace and sank into a doze. Again the atoms were flitting before my eyes. Smaller groups now kept modestly in the background. My mind's eye, sharpened by repeated visions of a similar sort, now distinguished larger structures of varying forms. Long rows frequently close together, all, in movement, winding and turning like serpents! And see! What was that? One of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. I came awake like a flash of lightning. This time also [he had had fruitful dreams before] I spent the remainder of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis. If we learn to dream, gentlemen, then we shall perhaps find truth…” Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellsehaft, 1890, 1305-1307 (in Libby 1922).

In supporting his argument about the positive role of the imagination John Tyndall quoted Sir Benjamin Brodie, the chemist, who wrote that the imagination (”that wondrous faculty”) when it is “properly controlled by experience and reflection, becomes the noblest attribute of man”. Brodie cautioned, however, that the imagination when “left to ramble uncontrolled, leads us astray into a wilderness of perplexities and errors…”

The philosopher Vigil Aldrich provided an interesting example of how imagination could be a hindrance to science. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, the English astrophysicist, referred frequently, according to Aldrich, to “the world outside us”. Consciousness, in contrast, can be described as being “inside of us.” Using such images Eddington was, said Aldrich, “under the spell of the telephone-exchange analogy.” Where the nerve ending leave off the world beyond us takes over. If the telephone exchange image seems ill-chosen, the image, after all, could be worse. One might imagine inner consciousness as a submarine and from our berth within it we come to know the outside world by means of a periscope! Now, Eddington did not use this image (others did) but when we try to make sense of it we can do so only by saying that inner consciousness is like a submarine only when one supposes that it is nothing at all like a submarine. One must “tone down the analogy” to make it useful. If you do otherwise “the lively imagination begins to protest”. Aldrich speculated that theorists persists with inept picture-making because when toned down, it often appeared as if the image is illuminating even when it is not. Moreover, a flashy image is entertaining. Thus one can easily make the “pleasant mistake” of identifying the image with the “real meaning” of an assertion.


A strength of environmental disciplines is that they bring into proximity bodies of knowledge that are often set apart. Though some quibble with him on this, historian of ecology Donald Worster places both Charles Darwin, the philosophical scientist and Henry David Thoreau the scientific philosopher at the ground of ecology as a natural scientific discipline. And though it is fair to say that ecology has maintained an identity largely separate from the environmentalisms it has inspired, nevertheless ecology and environmentalisms have been good conversation partners. Both have listened to an admirable degree to its poets, artists and philosophers. A good thing this may be in many ways, but my contention here is that the environmental sciences and the practices associated with them — environmentalisms like sustainability — are prone of taking their most arresting images too literally. I wonder if there is not in environmental thought a pathology of the imagination? Too readily, it seems, we transform a provocative image into a proven hypothesis; we smuggle ancient and baffling worldviews into contemporary conceptions of nature.

I sketch a few examples here to illustrate the case. Perhaps you will have ones that you can add.

Nature as an Organism

You are justified in calling Nature your Mother if you have a mother who wants you dead. A Mother who inculcated both your limitations and your accomplishments. Nature: A Mother who birthed a world equipped with tooth and nail and hungry eye; whose family tie is the ripping of flesh. Why, I wonder, are we quick to demand of God an explanation of evil but incline less to asking that question of Mother Nature?

To call Nature our mother is just one manifestation of the image of the Earth as organism. It is enduring, compelling and surely wrong-footing.

University of Wisconsin historian Frank N. Egerton traces the myth of cosmos as organism back to Plato. Timaeus asked “In the likeness of what animal did the Creator make the world?” He then speculated as follows: “For the Deity, intending to make this world like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings, framed one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature.” Because of Plato’s fateful influence on the history of western thought, Egerton noted that the implications of this myth have been enduring. According to Egerton the myth is the source of two related concepts “the supraorganismic balance-of-nature concept and the microcosm-macrocosm concept.” The supraorganismic concept views the cosmos as having the attributes of a living thing whereas the microcosm-macrocosm concept takes different parts of the universe to correspond with an organismal body.

Both flavors of the organismal concept get expressed in ecosystem ecology. Natural ecosystems, the influential University of Georgia ecology Eugene Odum asserted, are integrated wholes, and developed in a manner that parallels the development of individual organisms or human societies. The development of the natural systems, ecological succession in other words, is orderly, predictable, and directional. It leads, in Odum’s view of things, to a stabilized ecosystem with predictable ratios of biomass, productivity, respiration and so forth. The “strategy” of ecosystem development, as Odum called it, corresponds to the “strategy” for long-term evolutionary development of the biosphere – “namely, increased control of, or homeostasis with, the physical environment in the sense of achieving maximum protection from its perturbations.” Homeostasis etymologically derives from the Greek “standing-still” and in the sense that Odum meant to imply, indicates a dynamic and regulated stability. In other words, the stability of the organism.

Odum does not stand here accused of covertly importing the organismal image into his work; he was quite explicit about it. There is much to admire in Odum’s work and the ecology that he inspired, but the sense of design and purpose that it implied in nature (what philosophers call teleology) put Odum's ecosystem ecology at loggerheads with contemporary evolutionary theory which insists on the purposelessness of nature. It has taken quite some time to reconcile ecosystem thought with evolutionary theory.

Another example of the superorganism’s baleful influence can be found in the Gaia hypothesis. In his preface to Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) Lovelock wrote:

“The concept of Mother Earth or, as the Greeks called her long ago, Gaia, has been widely held throughout history and has been the basis of a belief which still coexists with the great religions.”

If the development of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia hypothesis is anything to go by, hypotheses about the workings of nature derived from the organismal image of nature have a shelf life of a decade or so. Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth was published in 1979 and he rescinded the teleological claims of the Gaia hypothesis by 1988 in his book Ages of Gaia — or at least he became attentive to the problems that the superorganism concept created. He still maintains that the Earth’s atmosphere is homeostatically regulated but he admitted to not having been led astray by the sirens of the superorganism.

Everything Connected

It is a banality of the ecological sciences to state that everything is connected. That ebullient Scot, and eventual stalwart of the American wilderness movement, John Muir, provided the image. He wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And if such statements are employed to sponsor a notion that individual organisms cannot be regarded in isolation from those that they consume, and those that can consume them, or furthermore, that as a consequence of the deep intersections of the living and the never-alive, that there can been unforeseen consequences flowing from species additions or removals from ecosystems, then few may argue with this. However, just as the ripples of a stone dropped in a still pond propagate successfully only to its edges (though they may entrain delightful patterns in the finest of its marginal sands), not every ecological event has intolerably large costs to exact. True, if the dominoes line-up and the circumstances are just so, a butterfly’s wing beat over the Pacific may hurl a typhoon against its shores, but more often than not such lepidopterous catastrophes do not come to pass.

Ecosystems, energized so that matter cycles and conjoins the living with the dead, have their lines of demarcation, borders defined by their internal interactions being more powerful than their external ones. They are therefore buffered against many potentially contagious disasters. This, of course, is the essence of resilience – the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance without disruption to habitual structure and function. Ecology is as much the science investigating the limits of connections as it is the thought that everything is connected.

The Community Concept

Is there a greater 20th Century American environmental thinker than Aldo Leopold? Certainly there few that provided as many genuinely poetic images: in the eyes of a dying wolf he saw “a fierce green fire”, he exhorted us to “think like a mountain”, he depicted the crane as “wilderness incarnate”. For all of that, has Leopold not led us astray, with images associated with of the “ethical sequence”? Leopold’s influential land ethic “enlarges the boundaries of the community concept.” The ethical sequence that he proposed progresses stutteringly from free men, to women, to slaves, to animals, plants, rocks and land. It has a compelling lucidity. Leopold admitted, however, that it seems a little too simple. The ethic invites us into community with the land. A person’s self-image will change under a land ethic: “In short,” Leopold writes “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror plain member and citizen of it.”

Now, Leopold is a subtle thinker and knows not to confuse the image with the thing. Certainly he expected this transformation to take quite some time. The land ethic would not emerge without “an internal change in our intellectual emphases, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” Now I have little problem with the image of extending the ethical circle other than noting that it makes it seem easier than it has proven to be. My more serious objection concerns the rather thin notion of community that seems to be implied in Leopold image of the plain citizen. As environmental philosopher William Jordan III has illustrated in his book The Sunflower Forest (2003), missing from Leopold’s account is any acknowledgment of the negative elements of the human experience of community: envy, selfishness, fear, hatred, and shame. As Jordan pointed out this leads Leopold and others to “a sentimental, moralizing philosophy that…insists on the naturalness of humans…but that neglects or downplays the radical difficulty of achieving such a sense of self, and also downplays the role of culture and cultural institutions in carrying out this work.” If Leopold’s image of the community and our place within it is an impoverished one, the work of extending the circle becomes impossible.

There are other images that we might have discussed here. Ones that have had, at times at least, unfortunate implications for environmental thinking. For instance, in 1864 George Perkins Marsh wrote that mankind is disruptive, not just occasionally, mind you, but “is everywhere a disturbing agent.” One hundred years later the Wilderness Act renews the image in the definition of wilderness as an area “untrammeled by man.” We might have considered contemporary accounts of social-ecological systems where these systems are posited as a compound substance, but that in depicting them, we tease the components apart again.

So, if environmental thought and ecological science has been susceptible to what my colleague and friend Professor David Wise of University of Illinois, Chicago, has called “malicious metaphors”, is there a more productive way to think about the role of the image in developing environmental thought?


The work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884 – 1862) — one of the more lovable of the French phenomenologists, certainly the hairiest — is helpful in sorting out of a productive role for the imagination in science. He was renowned for his work on epistemological issues in science as well as for his phenomenological account of the poetic image, and his philosophical meditation on reverie. As much as he was a materialist in his approach to science, he was subjective and personal (as a matter of theoretical orientation) in his philosophical work on the imagination. Bachelard

Bachelard’s work on first glance is so inviting. Chapters in his book The Poetics of Space (1958) have enticing titles like The House from Cellar to Garret, Nests, Shells. Perhaps this is why the book is a philosophic bestseller. My copy claims “more than 80,000 copies sold”. And though indeed opening a Bachelard book is like relaxing into a warm bath, nevertheless there is an astringent in those waters. The thought is somewhat obscure as Bachelard ransacks the lexicon of the various disciplines he brings together in his work: Kantian philosophy, Husserlian phenomenology, Jungian psychoanalysis etc. Oftentimes his use of technical terms was novel; reinterpreting them, Bachelard pushed them into new service. Because of this density, I wonder how many of those 80,000 copies have languished on bookshelves? Mine certainly did until the past few weeks.

To enjoy the fruits of Bachelard’s insights we should do at least some of the work of appreciating how he produced them. In the hope that this will embolden you to return to your copy of The Poetics of Space, or other works by Bachelard on the imagination, or pick them up for the first time, I will give a summary, as best I understand it, of what his phenomenology of the image is all about. I am, I should tell you, strictly an amateur Bachelardian.

The poetic image is eruptive for both poet and reader. Bachelard say that for its creation “the flicker of the soul is all that is needed.” So, every great image is its own origin. Famously, Bachelard maintained that the imagination, contrary to view of many philosophical accounts, is “the faculty of deforming images offered by perception.” The poetic image emerges into the consciousness as a direct product of “the heart, soul and being of man.” Elsewhere Bachelard claims “the imagination [is] a major power of the human nature.”

The poetic image is therefore not caught up in a network of causalities. Our first recourse should not be to ask what archetypes an image represents, or what aspects of the poet’s psycho-biography explains it away. In this assertion Bachelard remains true to phenomenology’s maxim of going “back to the things themselves.” In as much as such things are possible, one approaches the poetic image freed from all presuppositions.

So it is of secondary importance to ask where an artistic image comes from; what matters more is to explore what opportunities for freedom an image creates. Instead of cause and effect, at the center point of which we traditionally ask the image to stand, rather we might speak of the “resonances and reverberations” of the image. This is not, I think, just some fanciful softening of language, it is a necessary acknowledgment of the way in which an image does not simply reflect a memory, but rather revives an absent one and the way in which an image explodes into images. When we read the poetic image it resonates, when we communicate it it reverberates. The repercussions of the image, said Bachelard, “invite us to give greater depth to our own existence.” What bearing does an image have on our freedom? A great piece of art, Bachelard says “awakens images that have been effaced, at the same time that it confirms the unforeseeable nature of speech. And if we render speech unforeseeable, is this not an apprenticeship to freedom?”


I propose that Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological account of the poetic image, despite its somewhat unpromising obscurity, is helpful in addressing environmental thought’s special porousness to striking images. In this short sketch I cannot fully substantiate the claim. I will end, however, with an example where an approach such as Bachelard’s seems to have been fruitful.

Tim Morton is one of the most widely read and exciting environmental writers of recent years. As far as I know has not cited Bachelard as a methodological inspiration, although his work is phenomenological and existential. [Added: One of Morton's earlier books on the representation of the spice trade in Romantc Literature was entitled Poetics of Spice (2006) – making him, it would seem, an explicit Bachelardian after all!]. Morton is so concerned about the potential of sedimented ideas leading us into Sir Benjamin Brodie’s “wilderness of perplexities and errors”, that he elected to drop the term “Nature” altogether. In his book Ecology Without Nature (2007) he explained the problem: “…the idea of nature is getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art.”

The results of Morton’s analysis lead us to strange, perplexing, though ultimately interesting places. Out of this natureless ecology comes a suite of insights on “dark ecology”, an ecology reminding us that we are always already implicated in the ecological. There is no outside from which we get a guilt-free view of the fantastic mess. Deriving also from an ecology developed without a sentimental view of nature comes a fresh analysis of connectedness. Morton revives Muir’s hitching image but this time its resonances are weirder than the oceanic feeling that we are all blissfully in this together. His analysis gives us the queer bestiary of “strange strangers” with which we are stickily intimate, and yet we can never fully get to know. Morton develops this account in The Ecological Thought (2010) which I recommend to you. I am not supposing that this is an adequate summary of Morton’s recent books, but I think that Tim is converging on the idea of resonances and reverberations that Bachelard has written about.

The image, and the imagination, can play a positive role in environmental thinking. Darwin’s image of the “tangled bank” is both a pretty and useful way of thinking about the way in which the organismal profusion developed from a common ancestor. But a misapplied image can be a disaster. Understanding our responsibilities with respect to the image is the work of the future, it is the work that will birth the future.


Walter Libby The Scientific Imagination The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep., 1922), pp. 263-270

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