Beware the Oikos

Beware the Oikos

Prior to the development of the formal concept of legal rights in the seventeenth century, ancient Greek society also provided a model of how rules of entitlement and ownership were regulated within the context of the household and the family. The Greek household was named the oikos. That word becomes the root (eco) for modern terms such as ecology and economy. As explained by Donald Worster, with respect to the term oecologie (ecology) as created by the German evolutionary scientist Ernst Haeckel in 1866:

Haeckel derived the new label from the same root found in the older word “economy”: the Greek oikos, referring originally to the family household and its daily operations and maintenance. Before the advent of modern political economy, men assumed that national economic affairs could be conceived of as merely extensions of the household keeper’s budget and larder (Worster (1977) p 192.).

Running and ruling the oikos involved the head of a household (a male) managing the affairs of his family, his property and the functioning of the house (oikonomia). A male that rules an oikos had status in law to own property, vote on public affairs and obtain and hold positions in public office. Females and slaves had no such entitlements or ‘rights’ and could not participate in government. Being male and having entitlements to property and political power were inherent aspects of the formation of democracy in the 5th century. Again, the idea that these ‘rights’ excluded some humans (women, slaves, people of colour) is not a good foundation for inclusionary ethical concepts in the early 21st century. Patriarchy, male chauvinism, racism and slavery were all features of ancient Greek society and even the idea of proto-rights arising out of such an inegalitarian society raises doubts about the conceptual providence of any attempt to found rights on the oikos and the public policy and ‘management’ of all by privileged males in the polis.

As consequence of our past beliefs, environmental impact assessment is founded on a mistaken concept of life and being. Individual ‘discrete’ species and identifiable ecosystems are abstractions and lead to the mistaken idea that we can ‘manage’ ecosystems much like we manage households or economies. The oikos approach to environmental management within what is now called ‘regenerative’ capitalism becomes enmeshed in the idea that identifiable parts of nature can be accounted for by conceptualising them as off-sets, enclosable, assets, biobanks and valued as ‘natural capital’ or ‘stock’ in the shop of life.

The evolution of rights, as we have seen, has been in lock-step with the rise of private labour, private property and capitalism and is now an essential component of its global ‘success’ under neo-liberal and conservative political ideology. The problem with ‘rights’ is that they are entirely compatible with a natural capital approach and fully supported by the abstractions of species and ecosystems.[64] There is no doubt that ‘rights of nature’ and ‘natural capital’ are good bedfellows and this union is at the core of our extinction and climate crises on Earth right now. That bad marriage needs a divorce, not further counselling.

Excerpt from Albrecht, G.A. (2021) The Extinction of Rights and the Extantion of Ghehds, The Griffith Law Review, 2021, DOI: 10.1080/10383441.2020.1878596


“In many respects, especially for Indigenous people, the scientifically derived terms “ecology,” “ecological,” and “ecosystem” also fail to capture the emotional and cultural dimensions of the human relationship to land. They are useful terms in systems science but not so relevant to the expression of human emotions.

Ecosystems are abstractions, as it is impossible to know where an ecosystem starts and finishes. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the use of terms such as “ecological” with respect to human psychological states might even be an inadvertent form of neo-colonization by the misuse of bioscience placed into indigenous belief systems.

More generally, given the dual origins of both economics and ecology in the Greek, ‘oikos’, defined as the management (rule) of the household, the use of ‘eco’ can take us in the direction of ecosystem services and ecosystem offsets where the ecological is expressed in purely monetary terms and subject to economic managerialism.

Because of the risks of cultural and fiscal colonizing, I have come to the conclusion that where possible, the applications of the discipline ‘ecology’ should be restricted to the (scientific) domains of the oikos. Human emotions with respect to the Earth, the psychoterratic, deserve to have defining terms that carry no such excess baggage.”

Excerpt. Negating Solastalgia: An Emotional Revolution from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene,  American Imago 2020.