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    Cultural Identity (what defines us?)

    An Overview Of Integral Ecology - A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues

    Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Michael E. Zimmerman  |  15.Jun.15


    Gaia’s main problems are not industrialization, ozone depletion, over-population,
    or resource depletion. Gaia’s main problem is the lack of mutual understanding
    and mutual agreement. . .about how to proceed with those problems.
    We cannot reign in industry if we cannot reach mutual understanding
    and mutual agreement based on a worldcentric moral perspective concerning
    the global commons. And we reach that worldcentric moral perspective
    through a difficult and laborious process of interior growth and transcendence.

                                                                                                        – Ken Wilber

    Since its inception in 1866, with Ernst Haeckel’s publication of General Morphology of Organisms,
    the field of ecology has multiplied, divided, and morphed into numerous schools and subschools.
    Each such school is an attempt to capture something not included by other approaches.
    Every knowledge niche seems to have a corresponding school of ecology connecting its insights
    to the understanding of ecological processes and environmental dynamics. With the emergence of
    new schools of ecology, as with most disciplines, there is a tendency for the nascent approach—the
    “new kid on the block”—to define itself against existing approaches in order to justify its particular
    position. All too often, fences are built between approaches where bridges are needed, and some approaches pair up with each other to discredit other seemingly misguided approaches. The net result
    is a fragmented field of various approaches either pitted against each other or in alliance through
    protective politics.

    So what is someone concerned about the environment to do when confronted with the magnitude of
    variety that currently exists within the field of ecology and environmental studies? How is an activist,
    scientist, or philosopher expected to be effective in the face of such multiplicity? No wonder the
    world of ecology is in such disarray—it has grown so big that it no longer knows itself. For instance,
    all too often practitioners of landscape ecology have never heard of environmental aesthetics; environmental philosophers do not know the difference between population ecology and community ecology; individuals working in the field of acoustic ecology do not know about linguistic ecology.

    Today there is a bewildering diversity of views on ecology and the environment. With more than 200
    distinct and valuable perspectives on the natural world—and with researchers, economists, ethicists,
    psychologists, and others often taking completely different stances on the issues—how can we come
    to agreement to solve the toughest environmental problems of the 21st century? We need a framework
    to help sort through these many approaches and connect them in a pragmatic way that honors their
    unique insights on their own terms. Integral ecology provides this framework: a way of integrating
    multiple approaches to ecology and environmental studies into a complex, multidimensional metadisciplinary approach to the natural world and our embeddedness within it. Integral ecology unites
    valuable insights from multiple perspectives into a comprehensive theoretical framework, one that is
    already being put to use around the globe. This framework is the result of over a decade of research
    exploring the many perspectives on ecology available to us today and their respective methodologies.
    In short, this framework provides a way of understanding the relationship between who is perceiving
    nature, how the perceiver uses different methods, techniques, and practices to disclose nature, and
    what is perceived as nature.

    Integral ecology is a comprehensive framework for characterizing ecological dynamics and resolving
    environmental problems. It is comprehensive in that it both draws upon and provides a theoretical
    scheme for showing the relations among a variety of different methods, including those at work in the
    natural and social sciences, as well as in the arts and humanities. Integral ecology unites, coordinates,
    and mutually enriches knowledge generated from different major disciplines and approaches. Integral
    ecology can be: a) applied within a discipline (e.g., by integrating various schools of ecology);
    b) applied as a multidisciplinary approach (e.g., by investigating ecological problems from several
    disciplines); c) applied as an interdisciplinary approach (e.g., by using social science methods to shed
    light on economic or political aspects of environmental values); and d) applied as a transdisciplinary
    approach (e.g., by helping numerous approaches and their methodologies interface through a well
    grounded meta-framework).

    The integral ecology framework has promising applications in many areas: outdoor schools, urban
    planning, wilderness trips, policy development, restoration projects, environmental impact assessments,
    community development, and green business to name a few. In fact, a wide variety of ecologists,
    environmentalists, urban planners, wilderness guides, and activists recognize the theoretical
    comprehensiveness and practical efficacy of integral ecology and have been using its principles and
    distinctions successfully in a variety of contexts: community development in El Salvador, marine
    fisheries in Hawaii, eco-activism in British Columbia, climate change initiatives in Norway, permaculture
    in Australia, environmental policy in Tasmania, sustainable consumption and waste reduction
    in Calgary, and urban design in Manitoba.1

    The Four Quadrants

    The integral ecology framework draws on integral theory as developed by American philosopher Ken
    Wilber.2 Integral theory provides a content-neutral framework—the AQAL model—that has been
    developed over 30 years and is being used in over 35 professional disciplines (e.g., economics, law,
    medicine, art, religious studies, psychology, and education). According to integral theory, there are
    at least four irreducible perspectives (objective, interobjective, subjective, and intersubjective) that
    must be consulted when attempting to understand and remedy environmental problems. These perspectives are represented by four quadrants: the interior and exterior of individual and collective
    realities. These four quadrants represent the intentional (“I”), cultural (“we”), behavioral (“it”), and
    social (“its”) aspects of ecological issues (see fig. 1).

    Put briefly, the objective perspective examines the composition (e.g., physiological and chemical) and
    exterior behavior of individuals such as humans, bears, salmon, redwoods, or beetles. The interobjective
    perspective examines the systemic structures and exterior behaviors of collectives, ranging from



    human socio-economic systems to ecosystems. Data generated by methods belonging to objective
    and interobjective perspectives are valuable, but they neither provide an exhaustive understanding
    of the problem at hand nor do they necessarily provide motivation for action. Technical information
    alone cannot persuade people to act. Motivation arises when we experience a given environmental
    problem through two additional perspectives—subjective and intersubjective. Academic and public
    environmental efforts only infrequently approach problems with awareness or appreciation of the
    role played by these interior perspectives, including aesthetic experience, psychological dynamics,
    religious meaning, ethical issues, and cultural values.

    Integral ecology labels these four irreducible perspectives as follows: terrain of experience (first person
    subjectivity), terrain of culture (second-person intersubjectivity), terrain of behavior (third person
    objectivity), and terrain of systems (third-person interobjectivity). In other words, integral
    ecology recognizes and draws on first-, second-, and third-person perspectives. The perspectives are
    irreducible because, for example, a first-person perspective contains important aspects of a situation
    that are not captured or represented by a third-person perspective. When I say, “I feel devastated as I
    look at this polluted stream,” I am speaking from a first-person perspective. The perspective informing
    my assertion cannot simply be replaced by a third-person perspective, which would issue forth a

    statement such as: “That person sees the polluted stream.” There is quite a difference between simply
    “seeing” the polluted stream and “feeling devastated” by it. Likewise, the second-person significance
    of a multi-stakeholder gathering, which brings together culturally divergent and even contentious
    worldviews, cannot be equated with the third-person function that the meeting may have in socioeconomic terms. Each of these terrains highlights a different and essential aspect of reality and are known through different types of methodologies and practices (see fig. 2).

    These four perspectives are often used to look at an environmental problem or ecological reality, either
    informally or through formal disciplinary traditions. Following is a simple example of an integral
    understanding of the problem of toxic emissions. Each section briefly examines toxic emissions from
    a different terrain highlighting the kinds of perspectives that would be included in looking at and addressing this issue.

    The Integral Ecology of Toxic Emissions

    Terrain of Behavior

    Toxic chemicals can cause (or trigger) various deleterious effects in the behavior and structure of
    individual cells, organs, and organisms. We must study, measure, and describe these so that more
    comprehensive grounded recommendations can be made about limiting their release into the environment. In other words, it is important both to understand how individual behavior, structures, and
    health are effected by toxins at all levels of ecological organization (from cells to organs to organisms),
    and to look closely at how human behaviors in our daily activities contribute to and sustain
    environmental toxicity.

    Terrain of Systems

    Systems may be defined as enduring patterns of relationships that help theorists to explain how individuals or groups relate to one another. Organisms are members of and are sustained in part by their

    ecosystems, defined as interrelated and interdependent organic communities and their physical environments. If toxins poison insects that constitute part of the food chain on which frogs depend, frogs
    will become sick or die. In turn, frogs form part of the food chain of larger animals, including birds,
    which will be harmed by ingesting poisoned frogs. In addition to studying ecosystemic consequences
    of toxic emissions, integral ecologists must also examine the various social, economic, and political
    structures involved in the production and release of toxic emissions. Social theorists define such
    structures as relatively stable patterns, rules, and institutions that shape the interactions among social
    agents, and often regard social structures as more fundamental than the individuals that are shaped
    and even made possible by such structures. Although resisting such reductionism, integral ecologists
    recognize the importance of understanding the scope of, interactions among, and limitations of
    pertinent social structures. In fact, such understandings are crucial for suggesting alterations of and
    alternatives to existing social structures.

    Terrain of Culture

    In addition, integral ecologists must examine cultural factors, namely how ideologies, worldviews,
    religious systems, and values encourage, discourage, or are neutral with regards to toxic emissions.
    Various worldviews (e.g., conservative Christian, scientific-rational, or postmodern) will be motivated
    to take corrective action for very different reasons. Hence, integral ecology encourages us
    to understand the various worldviews involved with the issue. Developing mutual understanding
    between individuals and their worldviews is critical to resolving the problem. However, achieving
    such understanding is by no means easy and is one reason why this dimension is typically neglected
    in current ecological efforts.

    Terrain of Experience

    Our direct experience of ourselves, other people, and the natural world plays an important role in
    how we approach the environment. Integral ecology recognizes that psychological capacities, states
    of consciousness, beliefs, and mental conditioning all shape our individual attitudes about issues like
    toxic emissions. We must understand these different psychological dimensions and their role in creating
    motivations and beliefs about toxins and the environment. Integral ecology holds that transformative
    practices such as therapy, contemplation, meditation, and community service help individuals
    discover the roots of their attitudes, beliefs, and emotions that give rise to care for or the neglect of
    the environment. Transformative practices can support individual development, which in turn can
    affect collective attitudes and practices, leading to new institutions, which further support interior
    development. Until we can create healthy expressions of our divergent worldviews and until we have
    leaders who embody an ethic that embraces all people and the planet we live on, we will continue to
    misuse nature.

    These four terrains provide a way to explore the many conditions that give rise to environmental
    issues. Each terrain represents a unique dimension of ecology that we must consider if we want a
    comprehensive understanding and comprehensive solutions. Each terrain is obviously more complex
    than what is described in this simple example. We hope, however, that you the reader can feel and
    see the value of including all four terrains (and their respective disciplines) in addressing ecological
    realities and environmental issues.

    Animal Perspectives

    In addition to highlighting the four perspectives that humans can take when approaching environmental
    issues, integral ecology asserts that all organisms—by virtue of their sentience—can also take
    these perspectives. In other words, the capacity to take first-, second-, and third-person perspectives is
    not limited to human beings. Thus, in addition to being able to take third-person perspectives through
    their sense organs (e.g., eyes, ears, nose), animals have perspectives that make possible experiences
    of their own in ways analogous to human first- and second-person perspectives and experiences.
    Individual animals can be and often are understood merely from one perspective as “parts” of an
    ecosystem, but such an understanding is incomplete. Because animals are also “members,” and thus
    not only “parts” of ecosystems, they have experiences and cultures of their own that should be taken
    into account when describing them in their habitat. Ecologists and environmentalists would benefit
    by becoming aware of the substantial body of research supporting this understanding of organisms.
    (See, for example, the work of ecologist Marc Bekoff, ornithologist Irene Maxine Pepperberg, and
    primatologist Frans de Waal, to name just a few of the researchers focusing on animal interiors).

    The four terrains, then, may be understood in two related ways. First, the four terrains refer to the four
    perspectives that an integral ecologist can take in order to characterize and to ameliorate an environmental problem, such as toxic emissions that are harming organisms and the environment. Second, the four terrains refer to the perspectives that any organism can take and in fact does take with regard to itself, other organisms, and its ecosystemic context. As an example of what we are talking about, let us take a quick tour of the four terrains or perspectives of a frog.

    A frog experiences itself and its world through four distinct modes of non-reflective perception: the
    subjective perception of basic sensations; the objective perception of the five senses; the intersubjective perception of resonance with another organism; and the interobjective perception of social and ecological dynamics. Each of these modes of basic awareness reveals a different world: an intentional world, a sensory world, a cultural world, and social world (see fig. 4).

    The Frog’s Intentional World

    The terrain of experience includes the frog’s subjective or intentional world. In the early 1900s, German
    biologist Jacob von Uexküll pioneered work in the “subjective universe” of animals. His work
    serves as a foundation to the field of biosemiotics, which studies how organisms interpret “signs” in
    their environment. This terrain represents the frog’s first-person awareness—its somatic experience
    of hot and cold water, physical pain, pleasure, and various impulses. The frog does not have a self-conscious relationship to these experiences, but it does have an interior that supports a variety of
    subjective experiences, even if they are relatively simplistic.

    The Frog’s Sensory World

    The terrain of behavior includes the objects of the frog’s senses and capacity to perceive movement
    and differentiate its surroundings. For example, the field of sensory ecology provides insight
    into the sensorial capacity of organisms and how they register pheromones, visual stimuli,
    auditory cues, skin sensations, and tastes. Accurate perception is crucial for the frog’s survival.
    This terrain also includes how the frog registers its environment and interfaces with it as a result.

    The Frog’s Cultural World

    The terrain of culture includes the frog’s communication and exchange of meaning with frogs and
    other animals such as snakes, birds, insects, mice, and foxes. When organisms communicate and
    interpret each other’s signals (e.g., sounds and body language), they create a “semiotic niche,” or an
    intersubjective space of meaning. Frogs, like all sentient beings, have a specific semiotic niche. This
    intersubjective space meshes or collides with the depth of meaning in other organisms. A frog that
    misunderstands the intentions of a roaming fox—jumping at the wrong moment—is likely to end up
    as dinner. Consequently, interpretation and misinterpretation of signals plays an important role in an
    organism’s survival and reproductive success. In integral ecology we speak of the frog’s “culture” as
    a general, intersubjective space between individual frogs. Frog “culture” includes all the ways frogs
    communicate meaning (vocalizations, pheromones, movement, visual display, touch). It also includes
    the ways frogs interpret inorganic features and other animals within their world. We do not assume
    any degree of self-reflectivity on the part of frogs. But frogs do share an intersubjective space among
    themselves and with other organisms!

    The Frog’s Social World

    The terrain of systems includes the various roles, patterns, and relationships that structure the behavior
    of frogs among themselves with regard to organisms and to the physical environment. The totality
    of social exchanges among frogs, with other organisms, and with the physical environment comprises
    an important aspect of the frog’s ecological niche. In addition, there are various social structures and
    regulations that frogs adhere to that are informed by ecological pressures and evolutionary dynamics.
    These various systems comprise the frog’s social world.

    In short, a frog, like other organisms, has four distinct perspectives or lived worlds. So not only does
    an organism perceive its environment (a third-person perspective), but it also perceives others (a
    second-person perspective) and itself (a first-person perspective). Thus, in addition to a perceptual
    or sensory world (objective), an organism has an intentional world (subjective), a cultural world
    (intersubjective), and a social world (interobjective). As a result, in an integral ecology context, the
    classical definition of ecology (the study of the objectively ascertainable interrelationships between
    organisms and their environment) becomes the mixed methods (i.e., qualitative and quantitative)
    study of the subjective and objective aspects of organisms in relationship to their intersubjective
    and interobjective environments. Introducing subjective perspectives and intersubjective perspectives
    complicates matters, but provides a much richer understanding of ecological dynamics. The recognition
    and systematic inclusion of animal interiors is one of the features of integral ecology that sets it
    apart from other schools of ecology.

    In addition to including animal interiors, integral ecology draws on many schools of ecological thought
    to include human interiors in a more comprehensive fashion than any other ecological approach. Integral
    ecology also examines the development of complexity in nature and the developmental capacity
    to take more perspectives in humans. In particular, integral ecology is interested in including how
    nature shows up to people operating from differing worldviews such as those informed by traditional,
    modern, and postmodern values. Integral ecology is also very interested in the movement of individual
    and collective identity from egocentric (“me”) to ethnocentric (“my group”) to sociocentric
    (“my country”) to worldcentric (“all of us”) to planetcentric (“all of us and our planet”). This developmental trajectory from ego- to planetcentric has many important implications for how we might
    better approach our complex planetary issues.

    200+ Perspectives

    As noted above, integral ecology acknowledges the importance of and defines the relationships
    among the many standard schools of ecology (e.g., behavioral ecology and population ecology). In
    addition, however, integral ecology also includes schools of ecology that study individual and collective
    interiority (e.g., psychoanalytic ecology and ethno-ecology). This expanded definition of ecology
    has allowed us to identify over 200 different varieties of ecological thought (including 80 schools of
    ecology) ranging from acoustic ecology to zoosemiotics. Each of these schools emphasize various
    positions within the four major terrains.3 Figure 5 provides a sampling of forty of these schools and


    their potential placement within the four terrains. While some schools emphasize two or three terrains
    depending on the context or the expertise of a particular author, our point is simply that we need to
    include as many of these valid perspectives on nature as possible, especially when dealing with our
    more complex ecological problems.

    In affirming the differences among, as well as the importance of, each of these major perspectives,
    integral ecology avoids various kinds of reductionism. For example, it avoids reducing psychological
    and cultural dimensions to simply objective behaviors or to complex interwoven systems. Subjective
    and intersubjective perspectives—including beliefs, psychological dynamics, values, cultural norms,
    religious traditions, and ethnic self-identification—must be included in characterizing environmental
    problems. Coordinating and assessing pertinent perspectives requires the use of multiple first-, sec-


    ond-, and third-person methods in an interrelated fashion. Integral ecology accomplishes this through
    integral methodological pluralism, which is to be contrasted with using one or a few methods of
    knowing reality or doing research according to one’s own preferred view (e.g., drawing primarily
    on a particular school of ecology such as community ecology and its third-person techniques). With
    integral methodological pluralism, other perspectives that might be brought to bare on the problem
    at hand are also embraced (e.g., insights from eco-phenomenology with its first-person practices and
    environmental justice with its second-person processes).

    Each of the perspectives associated with the four terrains can be studied through two major methodological families, namely from either the inside or the outside. This results in eight major methodological families (e.g., phenomenology) or zones associated with integral methodological pluralism (fig. 6). Integral methodological pluralism consists of three principles: inclusion (consult multiple perspectives and methods impartially), enfoldment (prioritize the importance of findings generated from these perspectives and their methods), and enactment (recognize that reality is revealed to individuals through their activity of knowing it). As a result of these three commitments, integral ecology emphasizes the dynamic quality of ecological realities as being enacted by an observer using a particular way of observing to observe a specific part of nature. In other words, ecological realities are understood as a dynamic interaction between the who, how, and what. These three principles are what allow integral ecology to recognize and interrelate 200 distinct perspectives on nature.

    Among the 200 perspectives on ecology and the natural world that we have identified, there are many
    approaches that specialize in using the methods, practices, and techniques associated with each of the
    eight zones. Consequently, an integral approach to ecology must include all eight zones or it inadvertently leaves out important aspects of reality that have a bearing on achieving effective ecological solutions to our planetary problems. In other words, the more of reality we acknowledge and include, the more sustainable our solutions will become, precisely because the project will respond to the complexity of that reality. We cannot exclude major dimensions of reality and expect comprehensive, sustainable results. Eventually those realities that have been excluded will demand recognition and incorporation as the design falters and is abandoned for more nuanced and comprehensive strategies. Hence the need for an integral approach.

    After using integral methodological pluralism to develop a solution to a particular environmental
    problem, integral ecology practitioners must communicate that solution in ways consistent with the
    worldviews and values of a given audience. For example, extensive psycho-cultural research indicates
    that about 30%–40% of the adult population of the United States holds traditional values
    (e.g., conservative Christian), 30%–50% holds modern values (e.g., people committed to democratic
    individualism and science-oriented rationality), and 10%–30% hold postmodern values (e.g., environmentalists concerned with ending socio-cultural hierarchy and the domination of nature) (see the
    research by Willett Kempton and colleagues as well as the work of Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson).
    In fact, cross-cultural research indicates that these three kinds of values are found in many
    countries across the globe. Integral ecology sees how each of these different worldviews contributes
    towards environmental solutions, and representatives from all these perspectives need to be included
    in our efforts.


    In summary, there are numerous approaches to the environment: philosophical, spiritual, religious,
    social, political, cultural, behavioral, scientific, and psychological. Each highlights an essential component, but too often remains silent concerning other important dimensions. To overcome this fragmentation, integral ecology provides a way of weaving all approaches into an environmental tapestry, an ecology of ecologies that honors not just the physical ecology of systems and behaviors, but includes the cultural and intentional aspects as well—at all levels of organization. Thus, integral ecology
    is the study of the four terrains of the natural world at different levels of complexity. In addition,
    integral ecology takes into account the multiple worldviews within individuals, communities, and
    cultures, and their accompanying environmental perspectives—each with its specific forms of mutual
    understanding. Furthermore, integral ecology highlights that the environment and its various aspects
    are revealed differently depending on the mode of inquiry or methodology used to investigate it. As
    a result, integral ecology identifies eight methodological families that need to be utilized, on their
    own terms, for comprehensive knowledge of any given ecological reality. In short, integral ecology
    recognizes that different approaches to ecology and the environment are the result of a spectrum of
    perspectives (“the who”) using a variety of methods (“the how”) to explore different aspects of the
    four terrains (“the what”).

    Only by becoming increasingly aware of the who, how, and what of environmental issues can we truly
    integrate the multiple voices calling for a more just and ecologically friendly world. Only in such a
    world is there the capacity to generate sustainable solutions to complex multidimensional problems,
    and only in such a world are all the notes of nature’s song sung. Integral ecology is committed to the
    complexity and multidimensionality of this world in its entire mysterious splendor. Integral ecology
    supports us in becoming increasingly reflective of what we are looking at, who we are as we are doing
    the looking, and how are we looking at it. By becoming deeply reflective individuals, we can hope
    to reach effectively across the divides that separate us, and foster mutual understanding in service of
    our blue-green planet.

    People who use the integral ecology framework recognize that it is not enough to integrate ecosystems
    and social systems (e.g., economies, laws, education). Nor is it enough to also include objective
    realities (e.g., behavioral studies, laboratory testing, empirical analysis). Instead, what is needed is to
    integrate these interobjective and objective realities with subjective (e.g., psychology, art, phenomenology) and intersubjective (e.g., religion, ethics, philosophy) realities. In effect, integral ecology unites consciousness, culture, and nature in service of sustainability.

    Integral ecology allows for a comprehensive understanding of how the many ecological approaches
    available can be united to inform and complement each other in a coherent way. This integral framework honors the multiplicity of ecological perspectives. It allows individuals to become proficient
    at identifying how various methods focus on specific ecological concerns, and from which perspective
    those concerns are being explored. Environmental issues today are so complex that anything
    less than an integral approach will deliver only temporary solutions at best and ineffective results at
    worst. What is needed is an ecology of perspectives—one that combines the insights, approaches,
    concerns, techniques, and methods from the 200 distinct perspectives of the natural world. Such a
    meta-approach can coordinate and organize the various ecological perspectives in a truthful, sincere,
    just, and functional way that avoids being just another perspective. It is our hope that integral ecology
    supports a new kind of ecology, one that is informed by the strengths of many approaches and
    methods, while at the same time exposing the limits and blind spots of any single approach. Integral
    ecology provides one of the most sophisticated applications and extensions of integral theory available
    today, and as such it serves as a template for any truly integral effort.


    1 For additional examples, see the seven case studies edited by Sean in a special double issue of World Futures and the two dozen examples presented in chapter 11 of our book, Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World (2009).
    2 Ken Wilber has published over 20 books since 1977 (nearly 10,000 pages of content). Most of this content is found in his Collected Works. For an overview of Wilber’s philosophy, see Frank Visser’s book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion.
    3 For a description of all 200 perspectives, see the appendix in our book, Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World (2009).


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