chapter  7
Vital signs: how money transforms ecosystems
Pages 21

Human-environmental relations are being studied from a variety of perspectives in a number of disciplines. The human sciences have seen the emergence of new subfields such as environmental history, environmental anthropology, environmental sociology, environmental philosophy, and environmental economics. Ecosemiotics, on the other hand, should be seen as a new theoretical approach to human ecology that can be applied across several disciplines (cf. Hornborg 1996, 1999a; Kull 1998; Nöth 1998). Its basic assumptions are of a somewhat abstract and formal nature, but can be used as a framework for organizing very specific, empirical material. Its primary justification lies in its ambition to transcend Cartesian, conceptual dichotomies such as culture/nature, society/nature, mental/material, etc., that we discussed in Chapter 2. To the extent that such binary oppositions continue to obstruct holistic understandings of human agency in the biosphere, the various environmental subfields of the human sciences may have something to gain from an elementary familiarity with the ecosemiotic paradigm. One of the intriguing possibilities of this paradigm is that it can provide us with a way of fundamentally rethinking the phenomenon of money. Briefly, we might characterize the ecosemiotic paradigm as founded on the contention that ecosystems are constituted no less by flows of signs than by flows of matter and energy. It rejects the conventional notion of nature as a primarily material phenomenon, opposed to a notion of society as primarily communicative. Rather, it views nature and society as interconnected systems, both of which are simultaneously material and communicative. Although I wrote that ecosemiotics is a ‘new’ theoretical approach, this needs to be qualified. Early in the twentieth century, the zoologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) had realized how constrained our view of ecosystems had become by the obsession with quantification and materiality that dominated the natural sciences. His concern was to visua lize the interaction of organisms in nature as based on their subjective, species-specific perception

of each other and of their worlds. As mentioned in Chapter 2, he called such subjective worlds Umwelten (Uexküll 1982 [1940]). This subjectivistic brand of biology laid the foundation for the modern science of ethology, but its philosophical implications for general biology and ecology should have been far-reaching. The continued hegemony of materialism in natural science can be understood as an accommodation to the demands of an economic and technological establishment concerned with the management and control of natural systems. Uexküll’s Umweltlehre raised more profound questions about nature than the exact measurement of its material metabolism. In echoing the animistic cosmologies of many pre-modern cultures, it has appeared romantic and of little use for the modern science of ecology. Possibly, the recent concern with biological communication (e.g. phero mones) could lead to a general reassessment of Uexküll’s position. Nevertheless, this concern remains pragmatic rather than philosophical and continues to be geared to measurement and control. Whereas Uexküll and the pre-modern animists were both concerned with perceiving the natural environment as composed of sentient subjects, mainstream biology continues to convey the image of nature as an assemblage of objects. The significance of an ecosemiotic approach becomes clearer when we consider the role of humans in ecosystems. The anthropologist, psychiatrist, and biologist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) similarly visualized a science of living systems that focused on communication. He applied a remarkably consistent, theoretical framework to his various studies of animal behaviour (dolphins, octopuses, otters), play, alcoholism, schizophrenia, art, ritual, war, and environmental crisis. Whatever the material substrate and the particular outcome, Bateson argued that the patterns and forms of living things are generated in communicative relations between recursively engaged subjects or ‘minds’ (Bateson 1972, 1979). He was thus able to see cultural phenomena such as language or ritual as subsets of a much wider and more general category of communicative phenomena, which defined and coincided with life itself. This largely intuitive vision surfaced in a number of startling analogies between cultural and biological phenomena that mainstream anthropology found little use for. In later years he explicitly tried to apply these insights to environmental concerns by approaching ecological crisis as a ‘pathology’ of epistemology and communication. Such normative and functionalist arguments made him and his followers (e.g. Rappaport 1968, 1979) easy targets for criticism within anthropology (e.g. Friedman 1979), but I believe that this has been an unfortunate case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As Bateson and Rappaport envisaged, we have many insights to gain from viewing ecological crisis as a problem of communication. In this chapter I shall address three questions that I believe to be of fundamental importance to ecosemiotics:

1 To what extent can ecosystems be seen as semiotic (sign-mediated) phenomena?