Philosophers divide their "love of wisdom" in various ways. Three common sectors are, (1) what we know as real and important (ontology), (2) the way we get that knowledge (epistemology), and (3) how in the light of knowledge we conduct ourselves (ethics). The three are connected like the points of a triangle; they reinforce one another so that cultural foolishness or wisdom shifts with the times, depending on what is known, how it is known, and what people feel committed to do about it.
Ever since the Renaissance, epistemology has been strongly influenced by science with its analytic and objective method of obtaining knowledge. Within the same time span, as theism faded, humanity moved to the centre of ontology's stage. The ethic that emerged in harmony with science and humanism is the prevalent one of individuality and self-aggrandizement.
If Homo sapiens is the central reality of the universe, then human rights are the sole focus of ethical concern. Further, science is the appropriate way of knowing, for what else so effectively promotes human interests and human power over everything else? But if things other than humans are of surpassing importance, as today's deteriorating world leads some to suspect, then the conventional mode of knowing and the conventional individualistic ethic are called into question. Reconception of reality, of what is centrally important, can open avenues of escape from tradition's species-centred ethic and the mode of knowing that serves it.
What humanity's leading vision and direction will be is today's portentous question. The history of where humankind has been in thought and action, and how the race has arrived at its present difficulties, is interesting but less important. The modern age has produced many theories as to what has gone wrong but few visions of what, from here on, might go right. To fulfil its promise, ecological philosophy needs to launch an imaginative quest for an attractive, rational future.
To see the world inside-out is to see it wrongly. Yet that is precisely the perspective that people have brought to the interpretation of their role on Earth. The new vision, from outside-in, more accurately portrays the ecological reality. It reveals people, society, human institutions, as dependent within the encompassing context of the planet.
How to express this dawning comprehension? New verbal symbols are needed. Old words, carriers of old concepts and thoughts, are unequal to the task. Among the misleading ones are those that refer to human circumstances, to surroundings, to the milieu. Hence the significant question, What on Earth is environment?
In the following discussion, three points are stressed: (1) As conceptualized at present, "environment" is an obscurant, a grab bag of elements so hazy in their relationships that attempts at structured thought about them face certain frustration. (2) Before it can be appreciated, studied, defended, and sympathetically cared for, "environment" must be conceptualized as the three-dimensional changing and evolving World Ecosphere: a substantial surrounding reality, a Nature that is palpable as well as mystical, creative, life-producing, and life-sustaining. (3) The sectoral ecosystems that the Ecosphere comprises must be conceived as structured, evolving, and life-encapsulating, and experienced as biophysical/ecological entities, supra-organismic volumes wherein people individually and communally live, move, and have their being as constituent parts of the planetary surface.
Environment as the Level-of-Integration above the Individual
Of all the words commonly used in discussions of ecological integrity and deterioration, "environment" is surely the vaguest. That it stands for something important is attested by the many agencies and departments of government that busy themselves with managing its parts and by the army of environmentalists eager to defend them.
Yet beyond general statements pointing up, down, and around, to the air, soil, water, food, forests, wildlife, natural resources, wilderness, parks, cities, culture, society, and especially whatever impacts on community health, few agree about the exact referent of the word "environment."
The Australian Environment Protection Act defines "environment" as "including all aspects of the surroundings of man whether affecting him as an individual or in his social groupings." A proprietary essence is distilled by the Canadian Study Group on Environmental Assessment Hearing Procedures in identifying environment as "a collectively shared property." Ontario's Act Respecting Environmental Rights gives a more detailed and representatively chaotic definition, taking environment to mean: