What are the concepts behind the Pitzer Multi-Species Commons?

0. It’s about systems:

0.1 Everything is part of an ecosystem. There is nothing that is not part of a system. The divide we make between the “natural” and the “artificial” (or “cultural” – e.g. human made) is not a divide between two actual discrete systems. Everything is entangled in many ecosystems that cross all scales. Ecology is a field of engagement that necessarily ignores (and even actively refuses) any claims of a Nature-Culture divide (and the very concepts of Nature+Culture).

0.2 Systems are never singular. More than one is always at work. We need to be able to switch across incompossible systems, scales and perspectives in a rapid and creative fashion.

1. It’s a dynamic world:

1.0 Ecosystems are dynamic, they evolve and change. The are not stable or static over long historical periods. Succession between states of ecosystems is not preordained, linear or orderly. Systems are open, dynamic and have multiple stable states (e.g. “Nature” is not “in balance”).

1.1 Understanding the dynamic nature of our world does not mean either that everything is in total flux, or that we should celebrate change for the sake of change. Far from it, it means that we have to study how dynamic systems operate, how they change states, and what are their patterns and regularities and work within this reality (punctuated equilibrium is a useful concept in this regards).

1.2 Our classical framework for ecological understanding/action is far too focused on stasis, balance, essence, linear change, and discreet objects. We need to focus on continuing to develop thoughtful frameworks that focuses on systems, fields, and non-linear + emergent processes.

1.3 A systems is not simply a “thing” writ large. An ecosystem is not just a larger object. systems have unique logics of feedback loops, meta-stability, and unique modes of individuating that have little to do with our thing centric models of thinking.

1.4 The evolution and development of actual systems make a mockery of conceptual paradigms of reality that upholds the categories of nature and culture, environment and organism, self and other, technology and biology in their absolute refusal to correspond/entangle. This should be seen not as the need to blur or hybridize these categories, but that they (these categories and systems), as a singular overarching framework are a fundamental part of the problem. We need to develop alternative frameworks that refuse not only the divide between Nature and Culture – but the totality of the Nature/Culture framework. (This is a call for both a careful systematic laying out of the existing paradigm and an inventive curiosity to explore other models and develop new models).

2. Humans are part of the world:

2.0 Humans have been a critical agent in most ecosystems for a very long time. It is certainly long before the industrial era that humans began to have a significant role in the shape of most/all global ecosystems. This goes back far into prehistory (hundreds of thousands of years). This makes it difficult to talk about the modern area as the Anthropocene with any accuracy (never mind the mix of arrogance, crisis thinking and thing centrism inherent in such a term).

2.0.1 None of this is to deny that humans, in the form of rapid climate change for example, are not having an enormous negative effects on contemporary ecosystems. Rather it is to stress that we have always been part of the world, and that the methodology/goal of environmental efforts cannot be to remove humans from the world, or to return the world to some prehuman eden. This is a dangerous and misguided way to frame our pressing ecological matters of concern (see 1.4). Moving to a new entangled framework is precisely to effectively and pragmatically come to terms with how we are part of reality and to address concerns like rapid climate change from an integrated systems perspective.

2.1 Ecosystems could also be termed “eco-social systems” to stress the full human embeddedness in such systems. But, this might give one the false impression that today there are non-human embedded ecosystems. To say “ecosystem” is to talk about an assemblage of human and non-human actors and their practices, technologies, and much else (yes other species are technological).

2.2 The shape of all existing historical ecosystems in North America are significantly co-shaped by human practices. This is at least a 10,000 year history of significant human co-evolving ecosystems that cannot be captured by terminology like “balance,” “harmony” or “oneness.” Indigenous communities are not caricatures of our desires for a pure harmonious people. They do not utilize our frameworks (nature). They have been active, transformative agents that played significant roles in shaping the ecosystems that we now understand to be “nature”. Early european explorers and biologist saw “wilderness” where they should have seen novel (to their eyes) forms of agroecosystems.

2.2.1 Migration, Colonization, Conquest: The meeting of peoples is really the meeting of distinct eco-social systems or assemblages. Humans always travel as an ecological assemblage – interdependent plants, animals, insects, bacteria and fungi.

2.2.2 All existing ecosystems have, in their composition of species, the history of these eco-social meetings of migrating human groupings/ecologies (much like the genetic trace of differing human cultures found in each one of us). Look closely at your lawn and you can quickly trace the movement of human entangled multi-species assemblages – earthworms from europe, lambsquarter from central america, plantain from asia…

2.3 Non-human species utilize humans for their own ends. When we plant something, or eat something, we are doing its bidding as much as our bidding. We are not the only creatures with agency – agency is distributed across systems, and systems themselves have agency beyond the agency of their components.

2.4 In a very real sense all species “manage” or co-manage an ecosystem. We need to develop a better understanding of how systems manage themselves as a system. (We need to develop an expanded set of options beyond restoration centered forms of ecological management).

2.5 Restoration as management – the returning an ecosystem to a historic state is a considered human action that involves the deliberate choosing of one of many possible historic states to which one “returns” an ecosystem. Restoration has no obvious state to return a system to. And this specific historical recreation (which might or might not be actually possible, or desirable) most often comes at great costs in terms of resources and ecological impact. The choices are in no sense obvious or “natural” – restoration is an intensive act of sustained human intervention in an evolving ecosystem with very uncertain outcomes. Restored is always a term needing scare quotes and a great deal of footnotes. While “restored” ecosystems can appear “wild” (e.g. unmanaged by human practices), they require rigorous and costly maintenance procedures that rival those of a classical french formal garden.

2.6 Co-management strategies need to avoid defaulting to restoration (or an argument relying on the seeming endorsement of “nature”) – and rather take into account/develop a host of possible ways to work within and with change toward multiple and often differing ends. (All of this does not preclude restoration as an option or a strategic goal).

2.7 We need to develop ways to see the novelty and creativity of all ecosystems. These will emerge from direct practices of engagement (see section 5: Foraging below).

3. On Worldly Creatures and Environments:

3.0 Species do not adapt to landscapes and come to “fit” where they live. Rather species and environments mutually inflect and shape each other. Environments, as much as species, are the outcomes of evolutionary processes. The relation of organism to environment is intra-active. “Place” does not pre-exist as a container/challenge for organisms to figure out how to fit in. Place and organism are outcomes of processes of mutual inflections across multiple scales. Earthworms make soil and then they dwell in it (as new insects, plants, fungi and bacteria join them…)

3.1 “Native Species/Invasive Species” are anything but neutral terms: The concept of the ideal fit of a “native” species to a unique environment has direct and troubling genealogical links to 20th century political movements that stressed the unique destiny of a people, their “soil”, and the removal/eradication of those who do not belong (Nationalism + Fascism). We need to be cautious about our willingness to continue these practices if “only” on the non-human world.

3.1.1 Native and Invasive are concepts to stop history: Those that have always belonged vs those new-comers – refugees, migrants, drifters. Rather we need a careful study of (1) actual dynamics (see above), and (2) how we understand ecosystemic “harm” – two brief things are worth noting: the overwhelming majority of recent arriving species have no negative impact on existing ecosystems and the blaming of specific species for harm is to simply misunderstand the systemic nature of the issues that an ecosystem faces – ecological crises should never be reduced to blaming recently arriving species.

3.2 To move away from the problematic logic of “Native” vs “Invasive” does not mean we are forced to adopt an “anything goes” approach to (co-)managing ecosystems. Rather, we propose a pragmatic goal of cautiously negotiating the meetings and transformations between differing dynamic human entangled multi-species assemblages towards new resilient eco-social systems as a goal. This will always be a complex negotiation, fraught with unexpected developments and setbacks, as well as astonishing surprise.

3.3 Let us test out new terms and logics to understand our dynamic ecosystems (without the terms Native or Invasive): rapid colonizers, recent adaptors, historically established communities/assemblages, historical species, recent ecological immigrant species, novel ecosystems, eco-social systems…

3.4 Coming to understand how we came to develop the Native/Invasive framework for ecology is of critical importance. This will necessarily involve a critical rethinking of the larger framework of “Nature/Culture.” Both of these binaries have a deeply problematic history that has it genesis in the development of the “Essence Ontology” bequeathed to us by greek philosophy. (See below).

4. Science, Art & Nature:

4.1 Our criticism of the Native/Invasive logic is not an argument for a “pure” science separated from value claims. By this we mean we are not making a claim that the Native/Invasive framework is bad because it cannot be defended as “scientifically factual”. Such a claim can certainly be effectively made (Steven Jay Gould’s famous critique would be a good example of this, see bibliography). We are of the belief that all scientific practices involve inherent value claims, and that these need to be part of the debate (hence our focus on developing an alternative paradigm to Nature/Culture). This is not an argument for a form of cultural relativism. Because facts, like ecosystems, are made does not make them any less real. Our world is in-the-making – we need to be cautious and pragmatic co-creators. This requires a real art – one which we need to strive to learn a new artistry of co-composition of the real in all its forms. (Perhaps this is a useful working definition of art for our times?)

4.2 This debate about the status of truth claims in regards to these issues necessarily operates at the level of historical practices and conceptual frameworks (which might be loosely referred to as paradigms).

4.3 Classical environmentalism utilizes the historical model of the Nature/Culture paradigm. These concepts are unique to the west, and of a pretty recent provenance (anthropologists have been unable to find corresponding concepts in any non-western culture, see Descola text in bibliography). This paradigm operates via a process of division and purification (the essence ontology) in which humans and their practices (Culture) are understood to be fundamentally distinct from the practices of non-humans (Nature).(see above diagram).

4.4 We argue, contrary to many environmentalists and conservationists, that the answer is not to fuse these terms (e.g. “we are all nature”), that would be to simply let one side of this duality supersede the other – leaving the duality and its logic firmly in place. The conceptual baggage of this “nature” is far too problematic to uncritically accept (after all it is part of why we utilize the dangerous logic of “native/invasive”). We need to develop an alternative framework and set of practices (procedures). We need to put aside this paradigm.

4.5 The Nature + Culture paradigm operates as sorting and purify system – which we fondly and somewhat ironically call The Hygiene Paradigm (see above diagram).

5. Co-making new forms of Place:

5.0 Critical to an alternative ecology is the rethinking of place and our place in the universe. After all – the concepts discussed above are about place and they lead necessarily to a set of important questions about place: What are the dynamics of ecosystems? How do species and environments meet? What belongs in an environment? Who gets to decide who gets to be in an environment?

5.0.1 Our current practices of place pull us in two seemingly opposite directions: towards free-floating placedness, and towards a militant desire to purify places. The have resulted in a logic that disembeds us from where we are, allows us to operate in an eco-consumer logic, and understanding care for place as the purifying of place. We are not suggesting a middle ground, we wish to leave this paradigm begin and open up the possibility of developing multiple serious alternatives (and following existing ones that are outside of western metaphysics – here we look especially to existing forms of animism).

5.0.2 While we intellectually recognize/understand our intra-dependence on the environment, this is both highly abstract and within the problematic Nature/Culture framework (The problematic aspects are that we are intrinsically separate but needing to join. This makes it impossible to see the inherent actualities of intra-dependence).

5.1 The first step towards an alternative model of place is to begin with an understanding of the human as a fully collective being that is always part of an environment. This means that any discussion of humans should consider them first as embodied, embedded, extended, enactive, and affective.

5.1.1 This entangled mode of being of an environment means that one’s senses (ones sensorium) as a totality evolve and are co-shaped/shaping an environment. Rather than viewing the world as a blank slate or from some common perspective, we have inherited a historical cultural and environment based Sensorium (see Cultural Sensorium).

5.2. Co-shaping is another term for co-making – this means a renewed focus on creativity (we are co-making/co-creating). This requires a re-defining creativity away from a human attribute, and away from being a “thing”. Creativity is a fundamental quality of reality (from the big bang to earthly evolution). It is a distributed and relational practice that crosses scales, temporalities and species.

5.2.1 Other concepts that need to be carefully transformed: composition and craft (crafting). These are terms to be “rescued” from the arts and put back into general practice. All life involves questions of composition and crafting. (These are necessarily aesthetic questions – about the sensible, seeable, sayable and doable). These are multi-species questions.

5.2.2 These questions are best taken up by beginning with the composition of actual concrete local dependencies that can be felt, and have meaningful real repercussions. This would be the beginning of a new sense of being-of-a-world.

5.3 We need to shift our thinking from a model of being-in-the-world to a model of being-of-the-world. We would like to propose that one of the most accessible, direct and powerful modes of doing this is foraging.

5.3.1 Foraging – the practice of gather spontaneously growing edibles from your immediate environment is a practice that can develop just such new visible, active and felt dependencies. When you pick and eat what is growing directly under your feet, what has happened to it now happens to you. You have a new form of responsibility to this plant and its immediate environment.

5.3.2 Foraging is thus not necessarily the answer to feeding the world’s hungry, it is a simple, deeply pleasurable form of engaged curiosity that helps us shift our most basic and fundamental way in which we are of a place. And it is this shift that is so critical to many larger shifts in our culture at large that are necessary for real environmental change to be possible.

5.3.3 Foraging – eating other species, might at first seem like a contradictory way to promote a new ecologically sensitive paradigm. Should we not be preserving and giving species space to thrive on their own? The key is that we are interested in producing a dependency (really an intra-dependency). In our current reality if one “resource” becomes scarce we just shift to the next. In this there is no dependency (at the best it is simply commodity stewardship). If you are reliant on rabbits or dandelion then you need to become part of co-making a world in which you all thrive (the multi-species commons). This involves inventing new shared community with thresholds, boundaries and limits. As many evolutionary theorist have pointed out (and Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire popularizes), when we tend to species, it would be a mistake to think that they are the passive ones in the relationship, for they are in fact getting us to care for them, spread their seeds and control their rivals. To eat something is an ethical act of care. This ethics is less about saying categorically no (to animals for example) and more about saying yes to eating with ecosystems into a shared intra-dependency.

5.3.4 Generalize the practices of foraging for food to the rest of one’s lives.

6. Where we live (Urbanism):

6.0 The environmental movement has, for many good reasons, focused on what was far from our cities, but today, as a good deal more than half of the worlds population lives in urban environments; it becomes a pressing issue to address ecological questions to the very place that most of us live - the urban environment.Classically we have understood cities as degraded, or destroyed versions of the ecosystem that were there before humans arrived. Urban environments are functioning novel ecosystems, they cannot accurately be classified/understood as failed states of earlier historical ecosystems.

6.1 In urban ecosystems even species that have been so poorly termed invasive, and seen as the most pernicious serve to spontaneously provide many important ecological services, from sequestering toxins, breaking up concrete surfaces, building and retaining soils, heat and drought tolerant. The species are perhaps better thought of as highly successful early colonizers that set into motion a process of succession (they would be the dominant species for ever) that allows a new dynamic ecosystem to emerge in stages/phases.

6.2 Most species that are recent migrants are not dominating highly successful early colonizers. We need some nuance here about the effects of these recent immigrants.

6.3 Urban ecosystems have a surprising level of biodiversity that often exceeds the biodiversity of the surrounding countryside (i.e. we should begin by assuming the impoverished environmental state of urban ecosystems).

7. On the Commons

7.0 The commons in classical political parlance is all of those things (resources) that exceed ownership (usually because of size). The standard examples are things like “air”, and “water”. The point is that these should not be privatized but rather be common property to all.

7.0.1 Much of our classical actions, from an economic perspective, begins with the assumption that the world is composed of resources (and scarce resources at that). “Air”, “Water”, “Knowledge” – the great abstractions. But resources do not pre-exist. They must be made. And they must be made for/with someone/thing – they must be made from some shared/entangled perspective. This making is always a relational (shared/common) activity.

7.0.2 Thus we would offer a new speculative definition of the commons: being of a shared relation. Being here understood as a collective/collaborative becoming (a becoming something). And “shared relation” understood as an emergent (semi-stable) environment (in which properties/affordances/resources emerge).

7.1 We need to closely follow the process by which “properties” emerge (if they are not pre-given objective qualities). Our speculation (following Gibson and others) is that properties are best understood as “Affordances”. The classical definition of an affordance is actionable possibilities. The property of “liquidness” in water is relational (neither fully in the water, nor in the subjectivity of an agent) – water is liquid for certain types of bodies under certain circumstances (and not in others – try jumping from 800 feet into water it will have the relational properties of a solid). Properties (affordances) are thus for some subject in very particular circumstances. To say “water” or “air” as an abstraction is to ignore the specific emergent relational actualities that allowed forces to stabilize into something say “being liquid”. This liquidness is a specific achievement. (The above diagram sketches out an approach to this). Another simple example: “oil” is only a (specific form of) resource if you have a system that activates it as such (e.g. cars, plastics, industry, etc.). “Oil” is common to a shared relationship. It is a relationship that we are of in the same way we are of air and water (thus its constructedness (and its subject specificity goes unnoticed).

7.1.2 “Liquidness” or any other affordance/property is made and held in common in the process of its coming into being (after which it is most often privatized, and abstracted into a stable fixed universal “resource”, that can be bought, sold and traded). We wish to draw attention to both the process of emergence and to stress the need to refuse the “resourcification” (privatization) of properties.

7.1.3 Being of a relationship (being common) is always a process that involves many active agents (beyond humans). These extend beyond the living – for we need to consider the agency of materials. But, even without going so far, to consider an affordance, requires that we consider from whom this affordance show up differently. I.e. water shops up for us as a “liquid” but for a water skimmer it is a tensile surface. How to we take into account that water is thus many contradictory things (we need to refuse the law of the excluded middle)? This is why we are interested in speculatively generating a “multi-species commons”. Multispecies affordances. We have to consider and event from the perspective that each species/environment will have a radically different set of affordances – what shows up for each species is quite a different world. This is not something that can be understood from the outside. We need to actively become part of these shared relations. We need to actively become co-makers (we are not not makers, just silent or distant or passive co-makers currently). This returns us to the practice of foraging as a way to begin (never a solution).

7.1.2 “Things” are best understood as events – relational events that exceed their “being” at any given moment. This is a not because some aspect of the thing is hidden. Rather as relations change (as entanglements change, i.e. “place” changes) the thing itself will co-emerge otherwise (see creativity).

7.2 This moving “backwards” from resources/things to the state of open possibility is “The Commons” – the shared un-ownable openness of reality.

7.3 We need to develop methods of enaging with this – procedural techniques. Make things (common) – their emergence refuses the passage into scarcity/commoditiy. And remake existing things/practices common (transformatively remove things/practices from scarcity/commodity).

7.4 Multi-species foraging is a commons making act (being of a shared relation). And this is the beginning of much that we can evolve together.

An Introductory Bibliography

0. It’s about systems

Donella H. Meadows. Thinking in Systems

Systems and feedback


1. It’s a dynamic world

Hobbs, Higgs, & Hall. Novel Ecosystems

Susan Oyama, Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide

2. Humans are part of the World

John Protevi. Life War Earth

Charles Mann, 1491

Socio-ecological concepts and tools Design framework for sociecological systems

3. On Worldly Creatures and Environments:

Steven Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Developmental Plasticity & Evolution

Steven Jay Gould (Invasive species)

Anna Bramwell, Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darre and Hitler’s “Green Party”

Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th century: A History

Karl Ditt, “The Perception and Conservation of Nature in the Third Reich,”

Raymond Dominick, “The Nazis and the Nature Conservationists,” Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Mark Cioc, Thomas Zeller. How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich. Zygmunt Bauman, “The Holocaust and Modernity”

Mother Nature’s Melting Pot

Speaking Up for the Mute Swan

4. Science, Art & Nature

Bruno Latour. Pandora’s Hope

Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature Culture.

Marshall Salins: On the Western Invention of Human Nature.

5. Co-making new forms of Place

Heidegger Building Dwelling Thinking

Evan Thompson. Mind in Life

Marshall McLuhan. The Medium is the Massage

Samuel Thayer. Natures Garden

6. Where we live (Urbanism)

Peter Del Tredici Urban Ecologies & Plants

Urban Ecosystems (Stewart Pickett)

7. On the Commons

Bollier & Helfrich. The Wealth of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom: The Tragedy of the Commons

J.J. Gibson The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

E. J. Gibson The Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development

Jacob von Uxekull