Introduction to Eco-Humanities: Back home to Ecology

by Libby Robin

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In this issue we return to the deep roots of the ecological humanities. Oikos, the original Greek word that provided the root first of ‘economy’, and later of ‘ecology’, meant ‘home’.

Donald Worster, in Nature’s Economy, traces the etymology of oikos from the home to the State. First, in 1530, ‘oeconomy’ simply meant sound household management. Later it came to me ‘the political administration of all the resources of a community or state for orderly production’ (Worster 1992, p. 37). In 1658, Sir Kenelm Digby, an early promoter of natural science and religion, used the phrase ‘oeconomy of nature’ – which came to mean ‘the grand organisation and government of life on earth’. The science of life was subject to God, the Supreme Economist/housekeeper, who kept the Earth household functioning productively. Thus, Worster argues persuasively, the study of ‘ecology’, is imbued with the political and economic, and with the imperative to manage Earth for maximum output.

A new generation of ecologists moves beyond the idea that the output is for humans, and looks at ‘maximum output for life’. They speak of ‘ecological services’, and cost out the ways ecosystems make life possible – providing fresh air, water quality and saving damage control measures that would otherwise cost trillions of dollars. But they are still in a sense articulating Earth’s household management.

Rather than Earth scale, we want to consider the human scale. We don’t speak of ‘managing for maximum output’ – the idea of production for production’s sake – but rather ‘managing our lives for effective dwelling in the world’, managing ourselves to live integrally with non-human others, rather than fashioning them to suit our priorities. The economics of home, how we actually live our lives, is central to this.

In this Ecological Humanities corner we have gathered together some new writing on old questions. Andrea Gaynor writes of how suburban home gardening can build ‘independence’; Rebecca Lucas looks at how home cooking can sustain the soul as well as the body; Ulla Rahbeck returns to a classic children’s story, Dot and the Kangaroo(1899), and considers the question of ‘finding’ home; Ian Campbell explores the role of his grandfather, Archibald J.Campbell in promoting wattle as a national emblem, and in the final piece, Libby Robin returns to home on a national scale, in ‘Home and away: Australian sense of place’.

The question ‘how do we live at home?’ is fundamentally human – yet it is also deeply ecological.

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