Acquiring ecological wisdom

Wholesome knowledge


Wholesome knowledge is a category of wisdom that improves or preserves humans as individuals or groups. In the context of historical anthropology wholesome knowledge supports the fundamentals of living with one another within the ecological production of the planetary economy in ways that are relation-based rather than consumption-based. We look at these lost aboriginal cultures and marvel at their ways of living that seem so wholesome compared to our own.  Nevertheless, in our modern world, wholesome knowledge is the acquired wisdom that enables us to position quality of life and greater life fulfilment as primary goals, with aims that lead to processes for utilising the environment to improve or reconstruct a personal identity and lifestyle. The personal gathering of wholesome knowledge therefore helps people adapt themselves to difficult and challenging life circumstances as they grow older.  Research into identity development of older people suggests that this period of life is suited for applying creativity and wisdom to discover new ways of viewing Earth as a provider for future generations.  This can be seen as a cultural legacy to pass on a message to their children’s children that they should only take from the planet what ecological processes of growth and renewal can restore.


Bioscopes: examples of wholesome knowledge


All organisms interact at a cellular interface with the physical and biological world that surrounds them, from the interaction of food with cells lining the human gut to wandering through tropical forests and sailing the open ocean. Bioscopes are examples of systems biology, which is an approach to understanding ourselves of the larger picture, be it at the level of the organism, tissue, or cell, by putting its pieces together. It stands in stark contrast to decades of reductionist biology, which involves taking nature apart.


Systems biology is the study of the interactions of biological components in a spatial entitiy .  The components may be molecules, cells, organisms or populations.  The spatial entities may be habitats, organisms or organs. At the core of systems biology is holistic thinking.  This is the desire to understand natural systems as a functional whole, rather than a sum of parts. Thus, it is not sufficient to simply recognize the different facets of complexity.  Instead, the aim is to discover and examine the generally hidden threads that hold everything together and elucidate how these functional links can lead to the emergence of new phenomena and understandings.


Ecological examples that provoke systems thinking about our relationships to other living things in the human ecological niche are important to support lifelong learning.  In this context, bioscopes are a category of powerful teaching materials we owe to John Henslow.  Henslow, as professor of botany at Cambridge, was the mentor of Charles Darwin but from 1844 he also taught the children in the Suffollk village of Hitcham where he was the Rector. Bioscopes are living worlds within worlds and the particular educational example of systems biology that Henslow introduced to village schoolchildren was plant-pollinator interactions so that they should obtain a basic understanding of sex.  The phenomenon could be readily observed in the local hedgerows, and in the classroom it was taken down to the level of naming the sexual parts of flowers.  Because of the role birds and bees play in plant reproduction, to tell children about “the birds and the bees” has since become a euphemism for sex education in the English language.  Darwin addressed the wider importance of pollination interactions in the process of natural selection when he wrote in 1859, ” . . . I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favourable deviations of structure”.


In this wider context, every assembly of plants and their pollinators is a prime example of mutualisms in which both species benefit as a result of an interaction. Because pollination is a mutualism, many characteristics of the flower and the pollinator have evolved in concert including morphology and seasonality. Plant-pollinator bioscopes highlight many fundamental ecological concepts (e.g., foraging theory, competition), evolutionary concepts (e.g., diversification of lineages, adaptations), and applied biological concepts (e.g., agriculture, climate change). They are relevant to current issues surrounding the decline of honey bees and humming birds.


Bioscopes can change the mental balance between an individual and nature forever, particularly when they illustrate connections between our culture of mass production and the ecosystem services vital to our survival.   The educational message is that we not only need to be with nature but we have to recognise we are part of nature in everything we do from turning on a tap to taking a making a garden.  This deeper understanding is a feature of bioscopes as instances of nature that open windows on our use of the environment and our attitudes towards the maintenance of its habitats and species.  In truth, everyone has their own collection of bioscopes, large and small, in the mind’s eye.  Each has been chosen ‘not for what it is’ but for ‘what else it is’.  The ‘what else’ shifts one’s thinking towards humanity’s bigger picture.  So the small picture of flower and bee yields a complexity of understanding our place in the vast human ecological niche that now encompasses the entire planet.  Simplicity of form is a condensation or distillation to engage people more profoundly.  This is the educational outcome of a good bioscope.  The aim is not to create the appearance of nature but to stimulate thoughts about how we are integral with non-human species and the material world which furnish our ecological niche.  This point was made by Marc Trieb** when he chose the Patio de los Naranjos, or the Court of the Oranges, which forms the entrance to Cordoba’s Great Mosque and Cathedral, to illustrate complexity condensed within the simple (fig 1).


Fig 1 Courtyard of the Oranges

Patio de los Naranjos, Sevilla


The simple alignment of the grid of trees mirrors the alignment of the hundreds of stone columns inside the mosque, creating an ingenious spatial relationship between the two. Lines of stones in the pebble mosaic pavement also accentuate the grid pattern making up the whole complex of narrow water channels.  Trieb believes that the irrigation system is the most elegant ever conceived in the way it uses water as a way to connect interior and exterior arcitechtural spaces. He reasons that such places are so enduringly beautiful because they speak literally of the root of their inspiration. Irrigation allowed families to settle and raise food, which led to civilization. That gift in turn inspired architectural form and reflected the connection between water as the source of life and the ability of Homo sapiens to build and live in an urban environment.


Potent bioscopes also reinvigorate the connection between beauty and the environment.  Kate Cullity** defines this beauty as the all-encompassing somatic and visceral kind, with the power to awaken a re-imagining of new ways to relate to and care for nature of which we are a moving part.  All bioscopes illustrate ecological processes of regeneration, competition, death and decay and nutrient recycling plumbed into a managerial background.  Finally, the deeper and wider messages from bioscopes is that they undermine the foundations of many of our confectionary values, which are grounded in the economy of commodities and unlimited economic growth.  All these behaviours link us as consumers with ecosystems near and far.  In this context, bioscopes show us that humankind is at one with all non-human species in that we partake of the same pool of Earth’s finite resources.  It is the planet’s productivity that will ultimately put a stop tp population growth.


Lifelong learning***


Culture is the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or a social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, fundamental human rights, value systems, traditions and beliefs.  The relatively recent global demographic shift in the age distribution of humanity, which has resulted in an increase proportion of the elderly, is one of the most significant changes now influencing cultures across the globe. Human longevity has now become a central factor in the demography of industrial society.  It is one of the most rapid and massive changes on the part of any species. Extended life span is not an optional add-on utilising the power of the pharmaceutical industry.  The over-60s now have to be taken seriously as an important socio political segment of society and this has great implications for human cultural ecology. Like the younger segments of society the elderly have significant inputs into transport, infrastructure, financial services, social care, climate change and energy-use, life sciences and constitutional reform.  This impact is underway in all countries taking the pathway of consumerism.


Ageing, is a sequence of staged processes, which is first manifest from twelve years of age.  This is the age when statistically humans in the Western world are least likely to die.   As an all-pervasive phenomenon, ageing may now be truly defined more broadly as ‘the combination of biological, psychological and social processes that affect people as they grow older’ (Fig 2).


Fig 2 Perspectives on ageing *

ecological model2



As with other phenomena such as ‘sexuality’, ‘race’ and ‘disability’, which appear at first sight to be biological categories, the material changes in the ageing body are shaped by social conditions, such as diet, working conditions, and also made meaningful by social and cultural practices.  This ecological perspective of ageing indicates that the concept of ‘life course’ provides an analytical framework for understanding the interplay between human lives and changing social structures.  The individual life course from birth to death is seen as a social process, which results in interactions of individuals in societies and groups that are segmented by age.  In particular, patterns of health and well being are affected by a dynamic interplay among biological, behavioural, and environmental expressions of the human genome, which now unfolds throughout an extended life course of individuals, families, and communities.  This life course is expressed in profound age-stratified cultural expressions.  It defines the analysis of ageing in a biomedical perspective and a socio-cultural perspective.  Together, both perspectives form an analytical ecological framework.of human lifespan.   The first perspective charts ageing as a decline in fitness caused by the accumulation of cellular errors leading to failures in organ systems.  The second perspective deals with age-related social and cultural practices leading to both inequalities and inclusivity.


From the socio-cultural perspective, education through school, home and society has a measurable impact on wellbeing, through all the stages of life.  Globalisation with its technological and social changes are key factors that most people will experience during their extended lifetime, resulting in the need for more educational updating than any previous generation. If people are to lead satisfying and productive lives, they will need to learn throughout this extended lifespan in order to maintain a constant engagement with society to maintain and extend their autonomy and identity capital. This reinforces the social glue that older people add to society in addition to any financial contributions they make. Other contributions to their communities and neighbourhoods are made by being active members of the places where they live.   Recent research has shown that older people already have a greater propensity to volunteer, to be involved with community-based organisations, to participate in democratic institutions and to vote.  Also, elders see life from a very different viewpoint than their children, and so choose different priorities.  The virtues we associate with age, namely prudence, caution, deliberation, security, are the very opposite of those materialistic forces that built the modern world. But as the demographic pattern of high industrial society shifts toward the senior years, what have been called ‘legacy values’ are bound to gain greater political weight. It has always been the role of elders to raise the great questions of meaning and purpose that loom large as death approaches. As we grow older we naturally become more inward and contemplative, wondering what all the effort and the anxiety, the hard pursuit of success and of material resources has really achieved.  In particular, facing an extended yet finite life encourages introspection on the meaning of life. The conservatism of elders stems from their concern for security, a state of dependency that influences them toward a different allocation of the nation’s wealth than younger citizens might prefer.  There is a shift towards thinking about a legacy of humanistic values that transcend the individual life course and will condition the world of their children’s children.  This is not only the concern of the old.  It’s important to remember that attitudes and policies imparted by the middle-aged today are most likely the attitudes and policies by which those same middle-aged adults will be judged when they move into the aged population group themselves.  It seems to be the fate of an industrial population to age and to alter its values in the direction of its elders.


In contrast with materialistic values, humanistic values, or what we sometimes call simply human values, have to do with human development, human fulfilment and human enrichment. This includes health, the social order, and the natural environment; it includes everything with which we identify or with which we have an internal relationship. People have always been concerned with meeting their materialistic needs and with acquiring the means for doing so, but in the modern consumer society wealth and power have become ends in themselves or means to still more wealth and power. Material values are dominant and the human enterprise conceived as the quest for wealth and power, is different from what it would be in a humanistic culture with the human enterprise defined in terms of human growth, cultural advancement, and social betterment.  Indeed,  the Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam developed a theory called gerotranscendence: the idea that as people age, they transcend the limited views of life they held in earlier times. Tornstam believes that throughout the aging process, the elderly become less self-centered and feel more peaceful and connected to the natural world. Humanistic wisdom comes to the elderly, Tornstam’s theory states, and as the elderly tolerate ambiguities and seeming contradictions, they let go of conflict, and develop softer views of right and wrong.


The gerotranscendence theory does not claim that everyone will achieve wisdom in aging. Some elderly people might still grow bitter and isolated, feel ignored and left out, or become alientated and judgmental.  Also, just as in other phases of life, individuals must struggle to overcome their own failings and turn them into strengths.  Life long education comes in here to aid a natural tendency of the elderly to assemble their experiences as a lifetime whole, gathering the necessary information and understanding from a wide range of sources.  This is where bioscopes come in because they reveal that all living things are part of a global human ecological niche in which we of necessity partake, but should also give.  We are but one species in a multitudinous mass of living organisms built on the same dynamic carbon framework.  This biochemical oneness with all other creatures is expressed in every breath we draw in.  It is also expressed in our mortality when an individual’s life course ends in death.  Evidence that elders take readily to educational bioscopes comes from the membership lists of nature conservation organisations and surveys of visitors to nature sites.  The issue is how to embed learning through bioscopes into the entire life course of everyone so that we manage nature for a greater purpose and pass this message on to future generations.  The starting point is that ageing makes our mental picture-making become more holistic to increase the focus on the development of hidden or neglected skills, which lead to a delight in life with potential for cultural change.


*Perspectives of Ageing


Futurescapes ISBN 978-0-500-51577-8


*** Ageing in Society ISBN 978-1-4129-0020-1



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