On the History of Ecology
What the history behind ‘the subversive science’ tells us about humanity’s relationship with nature.
This sort of writing is what I would call a ‘heuristic essay’. Its purpose is to crystallize thoughts — thoughts that are part of my learning process — through externalization. In other words, this essay is the product of my use of writing to clarify. Its aim is not to convince, not to inspire, but rather to shed light on principles which may remain otherwise veiled by ambiguity to most readers. I hope that in doing this sort of writing for myself, I can add to the richness of your own learning experience. More than anything else, the message of these essays is to focus on learning instead of knowing. Why? Because what we still have to learn has far more profound implications in our lives that what we know. With that, I bid you read on, all ye curious…
In this big, wide world of ours, there exists an essential conflict of interest. Humanity, dreaming of its own high moral pedestal, a dream of ascendancy like that of medal-winning Olympians, defines its own specialness in a way that also destroys it. Humanity is, like the many Greek heroes that represent it, a victim of its own hubris. Believing itself a master, deluded by an illusion of control, humanity takes and takes, leaving little behind but degraded wastelands and decrepit urban sprawl.
Through history, we humans have existed on one or another side of the fence: a fence of industry. Before the industrial revolution (the first one), we lived in what is often depicted as a harmony with nature, a past so oft-romanticized by poets and essayists. Regardless of the validity of this perception, it remains true that people lived without a stark conceptual barrier between the natural and the artificial world. Inexorably immersed in nature, escape to a modern city would not be an escape from a harsh natural setting, but rather a passage into a hostile and unknown world. Part of the fabric of nature, life was a little closer to, a little deeper into what is called nature today. Even while humans plunged species into extinction and degraded ecosystems, perception of humanity’s relationship to nature was that humanity was among nature, not beyond it.
And then, swept up by the irons of industry, cities bloated and smoke billowed, transforming the world into a technological labyrinth utterly unforeseen. Now, immersed in concrete and silicon, we have a 20/20 hindsight, retrospectively aware of just how influential this fence was. To put it simplistically, we once lived in harmony with nature, but when science and technology got too zealous, we entered an age when nature become a resource, not a home.
Of course, we know that these lifestyles were not anchored in the attitudes of the time. For centuries before the industrial revolution, many Christian doctrine dictated that nature was a masterfully created chain of being for the use of man. Even when we were in no position to conquer nature, many still believed in our ascendancy above it. It was this deeply held impression of humanity’s superiority, of nature’s intended use by humanity, that blossomed into the political and economic foundations of industry.
In spite of this prevailing doctrine, a feeling of deep association with nature is comparatively ancient, a tradition of human nature harkening back to our tribal, nomadic origins. Among Europe’s many tribes, Christian doctrine largely replaced Pagan systems, systems that often categorized humans among nature’s many other species. Europe’s Pagan cultures held it as self-evident that we lived in harmony with nature. In this way, especially when we consider the ancient pantheistic traditions of Eastern religions as well, defining ourselves as part of nature is the historic (and prehistoric) norm, merely interrupted for a short stretch of centuries by anthropocentric Christianity.
Having lived through two centuries of anthropocentric industrialism, association with nature has at last returned to the fore again. After the scientific excitement set off by the Enlightenment — an excitement that could be called naïve — technological growth exploded, and fueled the forge of industrial revolution. But after long enough, Western societies looked out at what they had done. Dismayed by urban sprawl, by slums, by billowing smokestacks and coal-fire smog, they came to the terrible realization that they had created a monster. The West had transformed into a toxic beast, one whose appetite could never be satiated. Fed by theories of capitalism, imperialism, and racism, the industrial world infected the entire planet, enveloping it in technological development and profiteering.
But we could never quite return to the circumstances of the past. Most technologists couldn’t dream of the simple farming life in Selborne’s famous hills. Most scientists couldn’t fathom of a career of arbitrary writing as a cog in the monastic tradition. Most philosophers couldn’t swallow a career interested only in utilitarianism, forsaking their delightful forays into metaphysics and existentialism. No, ethics are too different, as are our understandings of the universe.
In all, one essential understanding has changed: our place in that universe. After the industrial revolution, ashamed of the destitution science and technology had wrought, something in our lifestyle had to change, and that change had to be driven by ideology. The belief that nature was a resource had gone too far. Too many people lived in poverty. Too many cultures had been smothered by imperialism. Too many swathes of grand ole’ ‘greenness’ had been lost forever. No, what we needed back in our lives was romance, and in this instance in history, that romance was needed in science.
Scientists were becoming increasingly isolated from the public. Retreating into their labs with their instruments and their reductionism, scientists occupied an ivory tower of knowledge whose walls increasingly thickened with inaccessibility. Science was no longer open to any layperson; it had come of age, and with this age, came its pretenses.
Science had to backtrack. Science had to become romantic without becoming unscientific. Its enterprises, in other words, had to reconnect with nature, inspiring newfound connection therewith, a message to be shared with anyone.
But this shift in paradigms required an abandonment of science’s mechanistic traditions. Rather than study parts of nature, science needed instead to study the romantic whole, the all. Instead of reducing nature to a sum of parts to be used by man, science had to view it holistically. People didn’t want to be cogs in a mechanistic world; they wanted to be participants in a living world. They craved connection to something greater than themselves, a craving we still cherish today.
Enter ecology. Aiming to feed this desire for connection and romance, naturalists returned to the field to study behaviors and interactions. Instead of classifying nature as parts, early ecologists understood nature through its grand workings. By looking at how different organisms interact with each other and their environment, we began seeing emergent properties of nature that were invisible to us before. These emergent properties depict life as more than a sum of its parts, and by fitting into it, we become more than mechanisms. Ecology, in cautioning against excessive reductionism, is the wholeness we craved through the empty mechanistic spasm that initiated the industrial revolution.
But for all intents and purposes, ecology’s essential philosophy is but a proposition. Humans are defined by their peculiar ability to believe whatever they choose, regardless of evidence. And for some interests, believing that nature is a resource for humans is…how shall we put it…more advantageous? But thanks to the romantic backlash against the industrial revolution, we now have a confident voice from the other side of the fence, from a side where we feel more whole and at peace, where we, as human beings, are not reducible to mechanisms. Regardless of belief in supernatural souls or vitalistic life forces, we are more than cogs in an industrial machine.
In proposing this view, ecology was always poised to become one of science’s most influential fields. It tempered industrialism, lent skepticism to imperialism, and now speaks with force on the issue of climate change. And in understanding nature as a whole, ecology is first in line to inform movements toward sustainability.
It is for this reason that ecology has become so much more than a science. Its penumbra of influence allows such terms as ‘ecological thought’, ‘deep ecology’, ‘ecological philosophy’, and even ‘ecological politics’. With it comes an inherent ethic, a philosophical element sorely missing from most other sciences. And with this philosophical element, ecology has the power to pervade politics, economics (a closely linked field at its inception), and even religion.
With such philosophical purchase, ecologists are much more than scientists, and while taking up arms of influence depends on the zeal of the rifleman, a degree in ecology is as much a degree in philosophy and ethics as it is a degree in science.
So come, ye fellow communicators! Let us dance to that harmony of life in our woodland field stations, and toast the wholeness of nature! We must be sure to share the fruits of our celebrations with all others, from the most diehard, reactionary capitalist to the most aloof and nomadic hippie.
All are friends in this orchestra of life. We must not mistake dissident chords for disunity, for if we do, we lose touch with that sense of oneness that drives us to nature in the first place.
Thoughts? Questions? Critiques? Speak up! A wise man once said we should try to be wrong as fast as possible. Sharing your perspective will only help my learning process and that of anyone who reads this.
Many thanks to my editor Susan Jones, a historian of science at University of Minnesota, whose critiques elevated the sophistication of this essay, and also of my historical thinking in general.