Ecology of Self-Determination

“A seed only begins to manifest its greatest potential the day it is buried in dirt.”
~Matshona Dhliwayo

self determination, the desire to flourish like a seed. we have the potential to transform

First let’s define ecology.

The following definitions of “ecology” come from

  1. The branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms.
  2. The set of relationships existing between organisms and their environment: desert ecologies.
  3. The set of relationships existing between any complex system and its surroundings or environment: the ecology and politics of healthcare.
  4. Also called human ecology. The branch of sociology concerned with the spacing and interdependence of people and institutions.

Now let’s look at a simple example of ecology. In the spring, many of us desire to bring plants into our outdoor spaces. If we head to the local garden store and simply buy a bunch of seeds and plants without considering the ecology of our spaces, the chances of cultivating a thriving garden are pretty slim. When we plant seeds, we need to consider soil quality, sunlight, temperature, and watering needs. Each plant is different. It’s also important to consider the combination of plants we wish to grow, and how they interact with one another. Tomatoes planted beside a lower growing plant will steal the sun as it grows taller, and the smaller plants won’t grow.

It’s a little mind-blowing when you consider all the potential held in a tiny little seed. It’s very easy to look at a tomato seed as we plant it and think it will never amount to anything. Then as time moves forward and we tend to it, the seed grows into a plant, and as we tend to the needs of the plant, we get to see it grow. Eventually the plant flowers, and little green tomatoes pop out. Growing tomatoes requires patience, but with the right care and attention we can have a beautiful harvest at the end of summer.

For Reflection

Have you ever felt moved by nature? Think of a time when you felt a surge of hope related to the resilience of nature. For example, this could be a time when a nearly dead houseplant grew a new leaf after some care and attention. Or perhaps you had the opportunity to walk through a forest that was previously devastated by fire, and you saw the forest restoring itself.

What did you see?  Please describe below.

The Difference Between Environment and Ecology


An environment is simply the static surroundings someone or something is embedded within. When we speak of “environment” we are speaking about the conditions surrounding a living thing. In your case, right now your environment might be the room you are in–including things like the temperature, the colour of the walls, the chair you are sitting in, the computer you are working at, the lighting, the sounds, the smells in the room. Some environments are very static, especially if you consider places like hospitals, malls, or offices. There is much less interconnection, uniqueness of self, working together, and choice in an environment.

Let’s look at another example of a more static environment: Consider a teenager entering high school for the first time. Many of us felt like small fish in a big pond when we were that age. There were very concrete systems and rules in place. Desks were set up a certain way. Classes were run to meet the needs of the majority rather than the individual. Curriculum was offered in a way that fit with the school objectives and values and to meet the requirements of the province. There weren’t always opportunities to influence the physical environment or even the learning environment. A lot of us found ourselves having difficulty fitting in or feeling like we belonged.

(*Your high school may have looked different. Today many schools and education systems are working to change to a different approach that meets the needs of kids differently. However, many of us had challenging experiences in school.)


Ecology, however, is the environment plus the interconnection of YOU and all living things in that environment. An ecology is living and breathing and interconnected. Each part of the ecology has a role and importance.

Consider the ecology of the outdoors. Every living thing is interconnected and relies on other living things for survival. Let’s look at the role honeybees play in our ecology. Bees pollinate plants. Pollination starts the growth of fruit. The sun and water nourish the plant. It grows and grows. We harvest the fruit, and the fruit then nourishes us. One living thing affects another, each action influences other living things. As humans, our health is greatly interconnected with the health of the bee population.

Ecology is about a relationship: it is the fluid, interactive interconnection between all living things and the environment they inhabit.

When discussing ecology,  a big component of interconnection is something we call uniqueness of self. Uniqueness of self means that each living thing – with all its individuality – has a unique and important role to play within the whole. We aren’t all the same. We are all different and our strengths and differences complement each other. Uniformity should never be the goal (as we covered in the person-first language section).  Interconnection means that we join our unique gifts together and that connection creates an ecology that is wonderful and dynamic. When we each have competency, autonomy, relatedness (which are the three parts of self-determination theory we talked about earlier) we can begin to trust ourselves, and harness our self-determination, resilience, and courage. As we do, we can step into our unique role in the ecology of our life and community.

A thriving social ecology is a community where all participants are valued for who they are. Together the members of the community support and encourage each other. They intentionally create opportunities to honour each other’s strengths and uniqueness while guiding others in skill building. Both solitude and connection are valued and encouraged. Conflict is seen as a normal part of relationship and community living. Differences of opinion are handled in an honest, direct and respectful way, with each person being mindful of their own judgments, biases, and assumptions.

For Reflection

  • Can you think of any communities similar to the one mentioned above? (They can be real or fictional, e.g. from a book or movie – The Fellowship of the Ring from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the gang from The Wizard of Oz)? What are some things you appreciate about that community?
  • How do interconnection and self-determination show up in the community?
  • Can you see the ecology of peer support looking like this?

How can Peer Support Foster an Ecology of Self-Determination?

Like the potential held in a seed, people also possess an innate propensity towards growth and transformation. Self-determination requires a specific ecology to flourish. We recognize that we can face many obstacles that can inhibit our growth. However, when the conditions are right in our lives (thanks to our ecology) we can harness our intrinsic motivation, find hope and a sense of purpose, and move forward.

Reflect on the core values of peer support. If we live out the core values in our work, consider how that will add to an ecology that encourages self-determination.

Below, write down some ideas on how living out the specific core value can contribute to an ecology that supports self-determination. Consider intrinsic motivation and the 3 components of self-determination that we covered earlier in this module (Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book