Ready to share the story? Here's how you can help.

Cosmology and Ecology

January 1, 2018

Learn more from Journey Of The Universe.

Engage with Journey of the Universe

This article was originally published in the Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene published by Elsevier,and the attached copy is provided by Elsevier for the author's benefit and for the benefit of theauthor’s institution, for non-commercial research and educational use including without limitationuse in instruction at your institution, sending it to specific colleagues who you know, and providing acopy to your institution’s administrator.All other uses, reproduction and distribution, including without limitation commercial reprints,selling or licensing copies or access, or posting on open internet sites, your personal or institution’swebsite or repository, are prohibited. For exceptions, permission may be sought for such usethrough Elsevier's permissions site at: S. (2018) Cosmology and Ecology. In: Dominick A. DellaSala, and Michael I. Goldstein (eds.)The Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, vol. 4, p. 151-157. Oxford: Elsevier.© 2018 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.Cosmology and EcologyS Mickey, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, United States© 2018 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.Historical OverviewHumans, throughout their evolution, have used stories, images, and symbols to understand themselves and the world around them.Different understandings have emerged with the ongoing development of arts, religions, philosophies, and sciences. The complexand uncertain dynamics of the Anthropocene are compelling humans to revisit and reconstruct those understandings, to rethinkwhat it means to be human (anthropos) during an epoch in which the planetary scale of human impacts are inextricably entanglinghuman history and natural history. Understanding the planetary presence of the human species requires an understanding of therelationships between the life, land, air, and water of Earth as well as an understanding of the cosmic context in which human-Earthrelations are situated. In other words, understanding the dynamics of the Anthropocene requires an understanding of ecological andcosmological perspectives.In recent decades, humans have learned an unprecedented amount of information about the ecological and cosmologicalcontexts of human-Earth relations while simultaneously realizing the vast scale with which human activities are destabilizing anddestroying the conditions of life on Earth. The irony of that situation conveys a sense of urgency. The ways that contemporaryhumans understand and respond to the planetary scale of their actions are of critical importance for the future of life on Earth.Understandings of cosmological and ecological perspectives bear upon global climate change, the current mass extinction ofspecies, freshwater scarcity, and other urgent problems already facing life on Earth. Accordingly, cosmological and ecologicalknowledge is not simply a matter of collecting data or communicating facts. It is a matter of informing the values that ground andorient human behaviors, decisions, and institutions. During a time of massive and uncertain transformation, cosmology andecology are relevant to all humans, not just scientists. Along those lines, cosmology and ecology can be thought of not merely asscientific endeavors but as cross-disciplinary modes of inquiry that involve scientific perspectives entangled with ethics, politics, andcultural traditions.The importance of cosmology and ecology for human existence is becoming more urgent and more explicit in the Anthropocene,but its importance is not new, as is evident from a consideration of the history of cosmology and ecology. To some extent, one canfind cosmological and ecological perspectives throughout the history of human interpretations of the world and the place ofhumans therein. Scientific cosmology as the study of the structure and dynamics of the universe can be said to begin with ancientGreek thinkers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle around the 5th century BC. However, the roots of cosmology extend much further.Interpretations of the universe can be found throughout human cultures, beginning in the symbols and artifacts of Paleolithicpeoples, for whom a sense of the universe is inscribed in cave paintings, burial sites, and figurines (North, 2008). Earlyinterpretations of the universe can also be found in the narratives and astronomical observations recorded in the Mesopotamian,Egyptian, and Chinese societies that emerged after the Neolithic Revolution, which took place around 10,000 BCE, approximatelythe same time as the beginning of the Holocene Epoch. Similar to the situation with cosmology, while scientific ecology as the studyof relations between organisms and environmental conditions began with the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined theword oecologie in 1866, proto-ecologists have been undertaking inquiries into organism-environment interactions for thousands ofyears (McIntosh, 1985).Cosmological and ecological inquiries are often connected. This is evident conceptually, as symbols and stories that relate toEarth overlap with symbols and stories that represent what transpires in the sky and beyond. Cosmogonies, that is, stories about thebeginning (genesis) of the universe, often include stories about the beginning of Earth, its various life forms, and the cycles of itsseasons. These connections are also evident practically, as understandings of the sun and the stars inform practical decisionsregarding activities like navigation, hunting, and farming. These connections can be found in the inauguration of scientific inquiriesinto nature, which emerged in Greece around the 6th century BC. Some of the earliest scientific inquiries have their expression onthe threshold between the imaginative storytelling of myth and the rational argumentation of logical thought. For instance, inPlato’s dialogs, descriptions of the universe include logical accounts of mathematical proportions and empirical observationsalongside mythic descriptions that convey a sense of the cosmos through images and metaphors, like the analogy for which theworld is like a giant organism with its own world soul.In the works of Aristotle, Plato’s student, a more rigorously scientific perspective can be found. Aristotle’s investigations intonature synthesize and critique the accounts of his predecessors while articulating rational arguments and empirical observations toaccount for celestial as well as terrestrial phenomena in terms of principles like motion, space, time, and causality. Earth isenvisioned at the center of the universe, surrounded by concentric celestial spheres that hold the stars and planets. The motion ofthe spheres causes the motion of things on Earth, and an unmoved God is the eternal source of all motion. Although there is muchoverlap between earthly and cosmic phenomena for Aristotle, he also makes a significant distinction between them, separating theterrestrial motion of elements, plants, and animals, whereby there is a beginning and end for every individual thing, from thecircular and thus eternal motion of the stars and heavenly spheres. The terrestrial realm includes everything from Earth to the moon,and is thus referred to as the sublunary sphere, in contrast to the stars, planets, and spheres above the moon (i.e., superlunary).Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene 151Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyAristotle’s cosmological framework was further adjusted and elaborated by subsequent thinkers, including Ptolemy in the 2thcentury CE. Ptolemy is most associated with the geocentric cosmology that was predominant in the Western world during theancient and medieval periods. That geocentric perspective was challenged by the Copernican Revolution, which began whenNicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) proposed a heliocentric framework, wherein the Earth is not the center of the universe but is inmotion, rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun. Copernicus was not without predecessors. For instance, Aristarchus ofSamos proposed a heliocentric paradigm in the 3rd century BC, although it was ignored in favor of the popularly acceptedgeocentric model. The Copernican Revolution erased the sublunary/superlunary distinction by accounting for all terrestrial andcelestial phenomena as exhibiting the same kind of motion. The articulation of the law of universal gravitation and laws of motionby Isaac Newton (1642–1727) can be seen as the culmination of the paradigm shift begun by Copernicus.The Scientific Revolution extending from Copernicus to Newton provided the conditions for modern accounts of the interconnectednessof humans, Earth, and the cosmos. In some accounts, this interconnectedness is nothing but the interlocking parts of ameaningless machine, while for others it is a meaningful revelation of beauty and order reminiscent of the Greek word kosmos,which connotes a sense of the world not simply as order but as a harmonious and beautiful order. That sense of kosmos as beauty isfound in the word “cosmetics.” One of the most influential presentations of a vision of nature in which humans, Earth, and cosmosare interconnected in a beautiful order is Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (Wulf, 2015). Published in five volumes between 1845and 1862, Cosmos presents the integrative vision that Humboldt acquired through his extensive travels and studies. His worksynthesized, popularized, and advanced the scientific knowledge of his day, influencing the works of numerous scientific andliterary figures in his own and subsequent generations, including Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel TaylorColeridge, naturalists like Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and HenryDavid Thoreau, the preservationist John Muir, and many others. Approximately 130 years after Humboldt’s work, Sagan (1980)published his Cosmos, which followed Humboldt in providing an accessible synthesis that represents the current state of scientificknowledge. In the intervening period of time, sciences underwent many upheavals and new developments. The cosmological andecological insights that developed following Humboldt’s Cosmos became situated in a more dynamic framework, one for which alllife and even the universe itself is undergoing a process of evolution.In biology, Darwin’s theory of natural selection facilitated widespread acceptance of the notion that species are not static kindsbut emerge through evolutionary processes, developing in relationship to the selective pressures presented by environmentalconditions. Influenced by Darwin’s account of biological evolution, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel proposed a scientific studyof the relationships between organisms and their environmental conditions. The study of these relationships would comprisesomething like a study of the economy of nature, or what Haeckel called oecologie, translated into English as “ecology,” meaning astudy of (logos) nature’s household or dwelling (oikos). Haeckel inherited the tension between two perspectives that had beenpredominant since the development of ancient Greek sciences. As the environmental historian Worster (1994) describes this tensionin his account of the history of ecology, it involves a contrast between a perspective that affirms the interdependent coexistence oflife on Earth (an arcadian view) and a perspective that aims to control life and organize it into a hierarchy where it has less value,vitality, and intelligence than humans (an imperial view). On one hand, Haeckel and many subsequent ecologists celebrated theinterconnectedness of life, but on the other hand, they frequently employ mechanistic explanations of that interconnectedness.By describing organisms and environments primarily in terms of passive, material mechanisms, ecologists fail to account for theirdynamic activity and self-organizing interconnections.A mechanistic orientation in ecology gained predominance after Haeckel. The favored methods employed thermodynamics andeconomic models of production, consumption, and efficiency to describe ecological communities or ecosystems, measuring theways that energy is variously transformed through interactions between plants, animals, soil, water, air, and sunlight. Along with thenarrow scope of this mechanistic view, which reduces everything to energy flows, another shortcoming of this approach is that, byviewing ecosystems as inherently stable and orderly, it was difficult for ecologists to account for the role of uncertainty, disorder, andunpredictability in ecosystems. This was resolved with the introduction of chaos theory into ecology in the 1970s and 1980s. Thisprovided models and metrics to scientists for analyzing the unpredictable dynamics that accompany ecosystem disturbances andunderlie any ostensible balance that ecosystems exhibit. In this view, the energy flows of ecosystems are less like stable and orderlysystems and more like dynamic, intricately textured patches that shift and change in complex and unpredictable patterns. Alongsidethe ecological science developing in the second half of the 20th century, many scholars in the humanities began taking up ecologicalperspectives, organizing studies of environmental ethics, environmental esthetics, ecofeminism, political ecology, environmentaljustice, and the spiritually informed model of deep ecology, all of which indicate the persistence of the arcadian view of thenatural world.While ecology and evolutionary biology were developing, a radical upheaval took place in cosmology. In the 20th century,cosmologists came to the consensus that the universe is evolving. Two observations were particularly important for development ofan evolutionary approach to cosmology. First, in the 1920s, Edwin Hubble observed through the use of a high-powered telescopethat distant galaxies are moving further away from our galaxy, the Milky Way. This is evident in the changing color with whichdistant galaxies appeared. Hubble noticed a shift into the red area of the color spectrum (redshift), which indicates that an object ismoving away from the observer, whereas a blueshift would indicate an object moving closer, and no color shift would indicate astable object. This provided evidence that the universe is expanding, which suggested that perhaps the universe had an explosivebeginning, starting from a very small state and expanding to the size it is currently. Evidence for such an explosive beginning or “BigBang” came in the 1960s, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson observed thermal radiation left over from the initial eruption of theuniverse. This radiation appeared as a dim glow in the background between stars, showing up faintly in the microwave region of the152 Cosmology and EcologyEncyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyradio spectrum, and it is accordingly called the Cosmic Microwave Background. This demonstrated that some inflationary eventtook place approximately 13.8 billion years ago, and the universe has been expanding ever since. Discoveries in the 1990s ledscientists to hypothesize the existence of dark energy to account for the fact that the rate of cosmic expansion is increasing. Darkenergy is not to be confused with dark matter, a kind of matter that does not interact with the electromagnetic spectrum but can beinferred from astronomical observations. The concept of dark matter was first proposed in the 1920s. The majority of the massenergyin the universe is dark energy (68%), and dark energy and dark matter combined constitute approximately 95% of the totalmass-energy of the universe.Previous scientific developments from Aristotle and Ptolemy to Copernicus and Newton all assumed that the universe is static,like a giant sphere or container within which events transpire. The new evidence that emerged in the 20th century indicated that theuniverse is itself evolving. Not only is everything in the universe changing, the universe itself is changing, too, and there is muchmore to the universe than is visible to human observation. Alongside the emergence of ecology and evolutionary biology, thisevolutionary perspective in cosmology changes everything, compelling humans to reexamine their understanding of their place inthe universe.A New StoryThe evolutionary perspectives of cosmology and ecology describe the natural world as dynamic, generative, and interconnected.What was thought to be a static universe is actually changing, and the entities in the universe are not passive, inert substances, whichare best described in mechanistic terms, but are enacting processes of self-organization, such as the self-organizing dynamicswhereby the first stars formed out of massive clouds of hydrogen and helium, and the self-organizing dynamics whereby speciesevolve and organisms live and move. For the cultural historian Thomas Berry (1914–2009), this new information coming fromcosmology and ecology calls for the development of a new story of the universe, that is, a narrative that conveys these evolutionaryperspectives and their implications for human beings. It would be a story of the evolutionary journey of the universe and everythingin it. In this journey, humans are not the only or primary center of meaning and value in the world. In other words, humans are notthe only subjects in a universe of mere objects. Rather, the dynamics of self-organization that characterize human agency andintelligence are found in different forms throughout life on Earth and, indeed, throughout the whole universe (Kauffman, 1995).As Berry puts this in The Universe Story, which he co-authored with the cosmologist Brian Swimme, the universe is less like a“collection of objects” and more like a “communion of subjects” (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 243).The new story is not merely a story with which one can communicate about the evolution of matter, life, and humans. One of theimplications of an evolutionary perspective on the universe is that the universe is itself something like a story. The universe can bedescribed in terms of a narrative structure, having a specific beginning 13.8 billion years ago, with subsequent events unfolding overtime, each of which has its own story. If the universe is structured like a story, then part of the task of telling the new story is to showhow no telling is ever isolated. Every particular telling of the universe story participates in the encompassing processes of the Earthcommunity and the whole universe. There are countless ways to tell the story, depending on the specific conditions available for thestoryteller and for those who might share in it. To convey the basic dynamics of the storied existence of the universe, Swimme andBerry (1992, p. 71) articulate the “cosmogenetic principle.” It accounts for the evolutionary becoming of the cosmos in terms ofthree main aspects: differentiation, subjectivity (or self-organization, “autopoiesis”), and communion.Differentiation refers to the objective differences that distinguish entities from one another. It can be seen in the uniqueness ofevery particular thing, system, or event, such as the specific characteristics differentiating one galaxy from another and from otherentities, whether stars, atoms, black holes, trees, animals, bacteria, fungi, planets, humans, etc. The counterpart to the objectivedifferences between things is the subjective or self-organizing dynamics of complex systems and living organisms. Differentiationcan be thought of as the exterior aspect of the universe, and self-organization can be thought of as the interiority of the universe, thatis, the inner agency or subjectivity of things, which can also be thought of in terms of a soul or a sacred quality of things. It is theactivity whereby anything is itself, from the self-organizing dynamics of a galaxy or a star to the agency of animals and the subjectiveawareness of human beings. Alongside differentiation and self-organization, the third aspect of the cosmogenetic principle iscommunion, which refers to the interconnectedness whereby different things connect and interact. In the evolving context ofcosmology and ecology, to be is to be related. The very identity of any matter, life, or human is dependent on and generated from itsrelationships with the world around it. Not all connections are the same, nor are they all beneficial, but all things are variouslyinteracting with their surrounding conditions, coexisting in some kind of connectivity, communication, or communion. Gravitationalattraction is a form of communion, so is ecological interdependence, and for humans love is a form of communion.By understanding the universe as a communion of different subjects, one discovers oneself while also discovering the Earthcommunity and the whole universe. The evolutionary story indicates that humans are woven into the ecological interconnectednessof the Earth community, and Earth is itself woven into the complexity and self-organization of the whole universe. Ecology in thissense is not separate from cosmology. Rather, ecology is cosmology functioning at the scale of terrestrial coexistence, integrating thesame dynamics of differentiation, self-organization, and communion. Berry (1999, p. 84) puts this point succinctly: “ecology isfunctional cosmology.”A key aspect of the new story is that, like other narratives developed throughout the world’s cultural traditions, it does not simplydisseminate facts but also informs the values that ground and orient human activities. Conveyed as a narrative, the informationpresented in cosmology and ecology connects scientific perspectives with all aspects of human endeavor. In particular, it challengesCosmology and Ecology 153Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyethical assumptions and norms for which the human being is the sole or primary locus of value in the universe, a position typicallyreferred to as anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism. For anthropocentric ethics, nonhuman modes of existence have valuemainly in terms of the use to which humans put them. Animals, in this view, have value as sources of food, labor, or companionshipfor humans, but they do not have value in themselves, and trees have value as raw materials for construction or as sources forrecreation, but they do not have value intrinsically. The epic of cosmic, terrestrial, and human evolution gives lie to any pretense tohuman superiority. In the context of the new story, all things—material, living, or human—possess intrinsic value by virtue of theircapacities for self-organization and communion. Respecting and caring for the values inherent throughout the natural world is notonly beneficial for nonhuman members of the Earth community. It is also beneficial to humans. When humans nurture andconserve the world around them, they are nurturing and conserving the conditions that support the health and well-being ofhumans. To destroy one’s own environment is ultimately to destroy oneself. Biocide is ultimately suicide.This shift toward nonanthropocentric ethics opens out into a universe in which everything is a center of value. Such a shiftsupports efforts to protect animal rights and the rights of nature. More generally, this shift is indicative of what Berry (1999, p. 3)refers to as the “Great Work” that humans must take up during the current evolutionary moment. “The Great Work now, as we moveinto a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humanswould be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” In earlier periods, the Great Work was different. It changesdepending on the particular context. For instance, the Great Work of classical civilizations in China, India, and the Mediterraneanwas to bring forth the world’s religious and philosophical traditions, and the Great Work of the indigenous people who first came tothe Americas was to develop intimate rapport between people and places. The Great Work now is to transition away from the modein which humans view themselves as dominators and masters of their environment, toward a mode of mutuality, in which humansview themselves as members of “a single integral community” in which humans and nonhumans are intimately interrelated (4).The new story of the universe provides a context within which humans can carry out such a transition. It provides a context withinwhich the small-scale perspectives of everyday human activities can expand to take large-scale phenomena into account, such asecological communities and ecosystems as well as planetary systems such as the hydrologic cycle and the global climate. This isdirectly relevant to the challenges facing humans and life on Earth during the Anthropocene. Indeed, in the large-scale perspective ofthe universe story, the transition out of the Holocene Epoch must be understood alongside another transition that is also occurringnow, the end of the Cenozoic era, which began approximately 65 million years ago following the extinction of the dinosaurs—thefifth major mass extinction event for life on Earth. Another extinction event is happening now, the sixth mass extinction, and thespecific dynamics of the transition out of the Cenozoic and into a new era remain to be determined, depending in significant wayson the activities of humans.Compelling humans to participate in the Great Work, the story of the universe involves a veritable reinvention of the human,using critical reflection to define humans as a species embedded spatially in the community of life on Earth and temporally in vastevolutionary processes. Moreover, such a reinvention is not simply directed at changing individual humans. It is also a matter ofchanging the basic institutions of human societies. A transition toward mutually enhancing human-Earth relations demands thatgovernmental, economic, educational, and religious institutions transition toward modes of operation that are more conscious oftheir ecological and evolutionary contexts. Although much still remains to be done, such institutional transitions are alreadyunderway. The nonhuman members of the Earth community are gaining more representation in politics and jurisprudence, such asthe recognition of rights of nature in Ecuador’s constitution. Economists are determining metrics for more accurately valuing theecosystem services provided by natural resources, and they are also rethinking ideals of growth and progress. Educational curriculaand pedagogy are becoming more inclusive of environmental studies and outdoor learning. Faith communities and religiousleaders are exhibiting environmental concern and mobilizing support for more just and sustainable relationships with the naturalworld. This is not to say that the scientific perspectives of cosmology and ecology should be imposed on these various socialinstitutions. Presenting cosmology and ecology in terms of a story makes it possible to avoid any rigid border separating sciencefrom society. Social institutions are themselves active participants in the story of the universe, and thus their perspectives arevaluable in themselves. Social institutions interact with sciences, and the universe story provides a common reference point fromwhich hospitable dialog between their various perspectives can promote mutually enhancing human-Earth relations. The perspectivesarticulated in the sciences provide one aspect of the kind of wisdom included in the story of the universe. For Berry (1999, p.176), the new story involves “a fourfold wisdom,” which includes contemporary scientific inquiry along with the religious andphilosophical traditions of classical civilizations, the traditional ecological knowledge and lifeways of indigenous peoples, and theperspectives of women. While people of all sexes and genders are included in the first three parts of this fourfold (science, classicaltraditions, and indigenous lifeways), Berry recognizes the need to explicitly include the wisdom of women, which has beensystematically excluded or suppressed in patriarchal societies for thousands of years.While there are surely other ways to enumerate the diverse perspectives included in the new story, Berry’s articulation of afourfold wisdom indicates that this story does not privilege any single perspective as being the best or truest. An integrative storymust bring traditional and contemporary perspectives into dialog. Along those lines, two students of Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker andJohn Grim, took up his work in contributing to the development of an interdisciplinary field of religion and ecology (Grim andTucker, 2014). The explicit development of this field began in the 1990s with a series of conferences at the Center for the Study ofWorld Religions (CSWR) at Harvard University. Those conferences focused on the cosmological and ecological implications ofmajor religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto, andindigenous traditions), and one conference focused on the study of animals across religious, ethical, and scientific perspectives.The conferences led to the publication of a corresponding book series, and it facilitated the establishment of the Forum on Religion154 Cosmology and EcologyEncyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyand Ecology (FORE). Currently stationed at Yale, the Forum is comprised of a diverse and international network of scholars,researchers, religious practitioners, and advocates. The Forum website is a hub for news, education, research, and outreach in thefield of religion and ecology and in intersecting disciplines of ethics, economics, and gender studies. Furthermore, since it began, theForum has been supportive of the Earth Charter, which is an international declaration of shared values for a global society that isgrounded in evolutionary and ecological principles oriented toward the development of a peaceful, just, and sustainablecivilization.Extending their work with cosmological and ecological perspectives, Tucker (co-founder of the Forum) and Swimme (co-authorof The Universe Story) collaborated with one another on the Journey of the Universe project, which includes a documentary film, abook, a series of filmed conversations with experts, a website, and educational curricula. This multimedia project conveys thegroundbreaking discovery of the evolutionary story, from the Big Bang through the evolution of life to the present confluence ofmultiple ecological crises, which mark the transition out of the Holocene Epoch and, on a larger scale, out of the Cenozoic Era.It presents scientific information while also indicating the profound implications that this story has for human thinking, feeling,and acting. This is not to say that Journey of the Universe presents itself as an ultimate authority or a guide for civilization. Rather,guidance in the Anthropocene does not come from the Journey of the Universe project, Berry’s new story, or any other presentation ofan evolutionary epic or an integrative vision of human and natural history (e.g., Big History). Guidance comes from thecosmologically and ecologically sensitive wonder that those accounts of the evolutionary journey can evoke or inspire. Wonderchallenges assumptions and opens up new possibilities. “This sense of wonder is one of our most valuable guides on this ongoingjourney into our future as full human beings” (Swimme and Tucker, 2011, p. 113). This appreciation of wonder is not unlike Berry’sfourfold wisdom, which indicates that there is no single perspective that functions as the primary guide for human-Earth relations.CosmopoliticsThere are multiple ways of opening up to a more conscious and conscientious engagements in one’s ecological and cosmologicalcontexts. There are many sources of wisdom, many sources of guidance for understanding and responding to human-Earth relationsin the Anthropocene. The complicated challenge of coordinating human-Earth relations into a just and sustainable planetarycivilization is the focus of cosmopolitics. This is different from the idea of cosmopolitanism, which began in ancient Greece withphilosophers who identified themselves as citizens (polites) of the world (kosmos). Cynic and Stoic philosophers spoke ofcosmopolitanism both to indicate their freedom from the narrow limits of their homeland and to affirm their participation in alarger political milieu. In modern thought, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed a version of cosmopolitanismoriented around a law of universal hospitality that would secure unending peace between all humans. While those ancient andmodern senses of cosmopolitanism are useful for expanding politics from local to international scales, they are predominantlyanthropocentric, focusing only on human participation in the political collective. However, with the entanglement of human andEarth systems, the conditions of the Anthropocene render untenable any rigid boundary that would separate a human realm ofpolitics from the nonhuman constituents of the natural world.Reflecting on the entanglement of human and natural systems, the Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (2010)distinguishes cosmopolitics from the anthropocentric models of cosmopolitanism. The idea of cosmopolitics suggests that the limitof political activity is extended beyond the human species to the whole cosmos. Politics is thus not an exclusively human activity buttakes place in an ecology of diverse practices for composing a shared world, in which practices that represent human interests areinterconnected with practices that represent nonhuman interests. Cosmopolitics is thus an integrative approach to navigating thediverse and discordant milieu of knowledge, including traditional and contemporary ways of representing humans and nonhumans.The cosmos is not a background on which a political collective is composed. The cosmos is the unknown possibility of acollective composed of numerous and diverse modes of existence.From its smallest to largest scales, from its earliest beginnings to the most contemporary events and developments, the cosmos isso immense and dynamic that cosmopolitics will never be finished. Cosmopolitics involves the ongoing composition of a collectivein the making. Cosmopolitics resists war not by seeking, like Kant, a perpetual peace grounded in cosmopolitan law, but bymaintaining the perpetual struggle of including more modes of existence in the political collective. Diverse entities like rivers,radioactive waste, carbon dioxide, forests, and salmon cannot be neatly separated from human activities, and they are not simplyobjects of scientific research. Woven into the dynamics of planetary coexistence, they must be engaged politically, as constituents ofa planetary civilization. Crucial to the task of representing diverse modes of existence is resistance to any final authority that wouldimpose itself on the ecology of practices and thus circumvent the ongoing work of composing a collective that represents multipleperspectives.Different discourses can align with and endorse but should not impose the knowledge disclosed through their practices. Forexample, scientists can endorse knowledge of climate change that is disclosed through practices of Earth systems science, butscientists would circumvent politics if they imposed that knowledge on other knowledges, such as those disclosed in economic,ethical, or artistic practices, or the practices of traditional cultures. Understanding and responding to climate change is severelyimpeded when science circumvents the political process, and it is likewise severely impeded by politics that fail to representscientific knowledges. Sciences are necessary but not sufficient for composing a planetary collective. Furthermore, in contrast tosecular politics for which religion should be a private matter excluded from the public sphere, cosmopolitics takes seriously theperspectives of religious traditions and faith communities. For example, as climate change is a problem involving energy use (fossilCosmology and Ecology 155Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyfuels), representations of the climate must include ecological understandings of energy as well as understandings of cosmic energy(e.g., the Cosmic Microwave Background) and religious conceptions of energy, such as theological notions of God as energy or EastAsian notions of a spiritual force or energy (qi) permeating all things (Bowman and Crockett, 2012).Like Berry’s new story, cosmopolitics proposes a radical redistribution of agency to all humans and nonhumans. Thiscomplicates the binary system that has defined the operations of modern politics, that is, the system for which there is arealm of humans (subjects, society, values, culture) opposed to a realm of nonhumans (objects, science, facts, nature). From thestandpoint of cosmopolitics, ecological crises are not simply problems in nature or the environment as opposed to culture orsociety. Ecological crises entangle humans and nonhumans in complex assemblages and collective histories, which renderuntenable the modern separation of nature from culture and facts from values. Practices of ethics, economics, esthetics, andreligions have contributed to and increasingly are being affected by problems like species extinction, freshwater scarcity,pollution, toxins, and anthropogenic climate change. All theories and facts are value-laden, involving features such as humandecisions, scientific instruments, institutional support, and funding. Cosmopolitics engages in diverse distributions of agencywhile recognizing that there is no nature separate from culture, no objects separate from subjectivity, and no facts devoid ofvalues. It is a craft for composing a common world among multifarious actors across multiple scales, providing possibilities forthe participation of humans alongside nonhuman participants, whether subatomic particles and molecules, organisms andecosystems, technologies and media, or stars and galaxies. Moreover, after thorough representation, not all participants make itinto the collective, as some actors have deleterious effects on the collective. For example, while it benefits humans and manyother species to represent the global climate as a political actor rather than excluding it from political consideration, it couldbenefit the cosmopolitical collective to exclude harmful or risky technologies, like certain nuclear reactors or geneticallymodified organisms.Particularly important for the Anthropocene is the challenge of representing the planet Earth in the political collective,specifically insofar as the planet is currently being shaped by human impacts. The planet cannot be excluded from the publiclives of human beings, as it provides the basic conditions for those lives, and those lives are currently altering its basic systems of life,land, air, and water. The French anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour is an example of an advocate of cosmopolitics who isengaged in the task of facilitating the entrance of Earth into a political collective of humans and nonhumans. For Latour (2017), thecomplex assemblage of human-Earth relations is not simply Earth or a planet, for those designations connote a natural worldunaltered by humans. In the Anthropocene, a designation that captures the entanglement of humans with Earth systems is Gaia.Latour is adapting this name from the Gaia hypothesis (also called Gaia theory), which was developed by James Lovelock and LynnMargulis, who used this name of an ancient Greek goddess of Earth to convey the complex, self-organizing dynamics of Earthsystems. While contemporary scientists have expanded this theoretical model into the theories and methods of Earth systemsscience, the name Gaia is still significant as it indicates that Earth is not just a thing or an object, but is an actor, an agent activelyintruding on the political task of composing a common world.Representing Gaia is not something that scientists can do alone. Art, religion, ethics, law, education, and all aspects of humanendeavor have important contributions to make toward a representation of Gaia. In that sense, Gaia is not a totality but an openendedmultiplicity, including contrasting articulations of the multiple modes of existence entangled in human-Earth relations. Thisis not unlike Berry’s new story, for which the single story of the universe is not an overarching totality. Its singularity emerges in anongoing communion of all the specific stories of material, living, and human beings participating in the evolutionary journey. Thetask of composing an integrated Earth community is thus a task of representing the diverse Earth stories of humans and nonhumans.Furthermore, Earth stories are not restricted to beings currently on Earth. As a source of energy for Earth, the sun too has a role toplay in the cosmopolitical collective, as evidenced by the rising industry of solar energy and the crucial role of photosynthesis for lifeon Earth. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence and speculations about the colonization of mars are further indications of theinterplanetary and intergalactic scope of the actors relevant to cosmopolitics. The challenge of representing Earth stories andcultivating mutually enhancing human-Earth relations has an immense scope, reaching back almost 14 billion years and extendingto 2 trillion galaxies. The intimate connection of human existence to that immensity can inspire wonder, guiding humans into newpossibilities for planetary coexistence in the Anthropocene.ReferencesBerry T (1999) The great work: our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.Bowman D and Crockett C (eds.) (2012) Cosmology, ecology, and the energy of God, New York: Fordham University Press.Grim J and Tucker ME (2014) Ecology and religion. Washington, DC: Island Press.Kauffman S (1995) At home in the universe: the search for laws of self-organization and complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Latour B (2017) Facing Gaia: eight lectures on the new climatic regime (C. Porter, trans.) Cambridge: Polity Press.McIntosh RP (1985) The background of ecology: concept and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.North J (2008) Cosmos: an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Sagan C (1980) Cosmos. New York: Random House.Stengers I (2010) Cosmopolitics (R. Bononno, trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Swimme B and Berry T (1992) The universe story: from the primordial flaring forth to the Ecozoic Era—a celebration of the unfolding of the cosmos. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.Swimme B and Tucker ME (2011) Journey of the universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Worster D (1994) Nature’s economy: a history of ecological ideas, 2nd edn. New York: Cambridge University Press.Wulf A (2015) The invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.156 Cosmology and EcologyEncyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copyRelevant Websites—Bruno Latour Homepage.—Cosmos magazine.—Earth Charter Initiative.—Emerging Earth Community.—The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.—International Big History Association.—Journey of the Universe.—Thomas Berry and the Great Work.Cosmology and Ecology 157Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, (2018)Author's personal copy

Cosmology and Ecology

January 1, 2018

Humans, throughout their evolution, have used stories, images, and symbols to understand themselves and the world around them. Different understandings have emerged with the ongoing development of arts, religions, philosophies, and sciences. The complex and uncertain dynamics of the Anthropocene are compelling humans to revisit and reconstruct those understandings, to rethink what it means to be human (anthropos) during an epoch in which the planetary scale of human impacts are inextricably entangling human history and natural history. Understanding the planetary presence of the human species requires an understanding of the relationships between the life, land, air, and water of Earth as well as an understanding of the cosmic context in which human-Earth relations are situated. In other words, understanding the dynamics of the Anthropocene requires an understanding of ecological and cosmological perspectives.

Recent Articles

The Powers of the Universe

November 8, 2023
Essays by Betsey Crawford

The Tides

November 23, 2021
Grace Cajski

Turkey Day

November 22, 2021
Sam King

Reflections by Brian Edward Brown

September 16, 2021
Brian Brown
Success! Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Enter your email to join our newsletter.
You may opt-out anytime.
Contact Usinfo@journeyoftheuniverse.org195 Prospect Street
New Haven CT 06511