Ecology: The Scholars

(see also Ecology: Farmers and Hunters)

Ecology is the study of the interactions between living organisms and their environments, and the word refers equally to these natural systems themselves (a woodland, a pond). The closely-related subject of ecological, or environmental, ethics extends moral judgment beyond human affairs to the ways humans interact with nature. The two aspects of ecology combined—the science and the ethics—is a field as large as the planet’s history. Here is a shortened version:E22


The science of ecologyE23

1. Evolution and adaptation (or “autoecology”) studies the ways in which species come into being and adapt to or change their habitat, what they eat and how they defend themselves, reproduce and extend their range.E24

2. Population ecology is about population numbers, their rise and fall, their predators and prey, the symbiosis and synergy with other populations, and the ways populations respond to the fundamental problem that, given a chance, they will increase (short term) beyond the (long term) ability of their environments to support them.E25

3. Communities and ecosystems. Here we have the study of community in the sense of organisms (including people) that live together, how they are influenced by “bottom-up” influences such as changes in water quality, and “top-down” factors such as the arrival of an alien predator. This is the field of ecology that studies community-defining relationships such as competition, predation, facilitation (where one species’ existence assists another), and mutual services (where species take positive action in each other’s interests, as well as their own). It is here that we find rigorously scientific approaches to resilience, diversity and complexity.E26

4. Landscapes and biospheres explores real landscapes and regional biospheres, their productivities and their sensitivities to shock.E27

5. Conservation biology addresses the practical problems and solutions related to the task of conserving species and their habitats, learning from previous extinctions, providing assistance when habitats get sick, and restoring them when they have been damaged.E28

6. Ecosystem services. This is the aspect of ecology which sees things from the point of view of human society, valuing the environment for the massive and enduring service of making the planet habitable by us. Its influence still has a long way to go, because the immediate spoils from exploiting the environment and destroying ecosystem services are obvious to the individual who does so, whereas the damage tends to be less obvious, delayed, and seen as no one’s responsibility. The study of ecosystem services makes our dependency on them explicit.E29

7. Managing the biosphere. Fisheries, wildlife, water, disease, the commons, the economy as it affects the ecology—nature itself—all need management in some form, given the competing claims on, and uses for, the world’s ecosystems. Barry Commoner—along with Rachel Carson one of those who established public awareness of environmental matters in the 1960s and 1970s—defined “Four Laws of Ecology”, of which the most famous is his Third Law: “Nature knows best.” It needed saying, because at the time nature was being given a helping hand with DDT and organochlorates (Food Prospects), and it is now being given wheelchair assistance with genetic modification, but it has often been misinterpreted as the principle that we should not intervene in nature at all. It is widely agreed now that nature does need active and vigorous protection if it is to have a future.E30


The ethics of ecologyE31

8. Values: Nature in the service of Man. For a long time, it has been taken as an article of faith that humans are (in a sense) at the centre of the universe. From this point of view, plants and animals have been seen—by thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and John Locke (1632–1704)—not as miracles in their own right, but as a resource for the benefit of Man, and far short of Man’s accomplished brilliance. This is “anthropocentrism”, and it gathered strength decisively in the period known as the “Axial Age” (800–200 BC), when there was a widely-shared shift in mindset towards an awareness of the distinctiveness of humans, and of individual obligations and conscience. It was an image of the human with nature only weakly represented in the background, and with a single God as an exemplar of what Man ought to be.E32

Underlying this attitude to nature was the principle recognised by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) of The Great Chain of Being, which has humans at the peak of a hierarchy with inanimate matter at the bottom, and then rising, stage-by-stage, through the simple microorganisms, plants, invertebrates and vertebrates to humans and then, finally to God and the company of Heaven. And related to that was the view that it is only humans that have a soul, and that nature—as René Descartes (1596–1650), and Isaac Newton (1643–1727) argued—can be thought of as a machine that exists for our convenience. Locke summarises,

God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience.E33

Nature therefore has no moral standing in its own right, although some moral sense does find its way into the discussion with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), for a person who is cruel to animals, he wrote, “becomes hard also in his dealings with men”.E34

The anthropocentric view was not all bad, for command over a God-given resource can also be taken to imply a responsibility towards it. And yet, it has provided other contributors to environmental ethics with a point of departure—it is a proposition with which most of them have been able to disagree.


9. Values: Nature in its own right. Here we have the opposite view. Nature matters. It has intrinsic value, which holds good whether there is a human around to benefit from it or not. Among the many writers making this case were Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862, author of Walden), John Muir (1838–1914, founder of the Sierra Club and critical to the establishment of the US National Parks), and the thinkers of our own day—John Passmore, Mary Midgley, and Chip Ward. Ward turns the tables on anthropocentrism with his observation that, if it is reliably intelligent life that we are looking for, the natural world has a better record than humans. In fact, nature’s self-organising ability may be more complex than any thinking that our own brains are capable of, so . . .E35

. . . we must wipe off that smirk and pay attention to the evidence of intelligence all around us. When we perceive and respect the self-organizing intelligence at work in the natural world, we try to dance with nature, not drive it.E36


10. Moral judgment: where does it apply? This is the discussion about how to decide on a frame of reference for our obligations towards nature. The mere fact of living and eating means that we constantly override the interests of other organisms, however much we respect animal rights (vegans no less, since they capture land that would otherwise be used by animals, defend crops from animals, drive cars and heat their homes). The insistence that we should have “respect” for nature helps, although there are doubts about what that means, since our grossly inflated human numbers show little respect, however much we may protest about it.E37

The most promising way of thinking about this is to be holistic about it—to be aware at least of the existence of human civilisation, in its huge numbers, and to count it into our thinking and behaviour. A clear case of holistic thinking is James Lovelock’s Gaia, providing the foundation for the environmental thinker David Keller’s observation that . . .

. . . the entire biosphere, as one unitary system, should be the focus of environmental ethics.E38

For Aldo Leopold, holism’s most significant expression was community:

When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.E39

. . . and, in his Round River, Leopold reflected that human beings, plants, animals, soils and waters are . . .

. . . all interlocked in one humming community of cooperations and competitions, one biota.E40

In summary, we get Leopold’s famous maxim—the land ethic:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.E41

If we really do take a holistic view, how can we know whether a thing will preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic commonly or not? How do we know which (if there are two options) will do it better, or (if there is an unavoidable trade-off) which part of the biotic community to favour? Well, environmental ethics produces only rather general answers to this: we need to know what we are doing; and we need to feel for the nature that is on the receiving end of our actions. That is, we need both ecological literacy and bioempathy. And that needs to apply to everything—wilderness, the oceans, agriculture, cities, homes, and the giant and troubled human ecology itself.E42


11. Frames of reference for thinking about environmental ethics:E43

A psychological awakening? Urban life insulates us from having to think about nature. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss stripped away that insulation by living for many years high up in the Hallingskarvet mountains, in a cabin he built for himself and named Tvergastein—the place of crossed stones. Out of that came a psychological awakening, expressed in due course in the set of eight principles which proved to be the foundation statement for the “deep ecology” movement, drawn up jointly by Næss and the philosopher George Sessions.


Principles In Summary
Deep Ecology

1. Nature has intrinsic value, apart from its practical value to humans.

2. A rich diversity of life forms is a value in itself.

3. Humans have no right to reduce that diversity.

4. Present human intervention in nature is excessive and should be reduced.

5. The present population is too large for a healthy natural environment.

6. Policies—economics, technology and ideology—must be changed radically

7. A new ideology is needed which values life quality rather than consumption quantity.

8. Anyone who agrees with these points is obliged to take action to do something about it.E45


Why is this seen as a psychological awakening rather than an ecological one? Well, underlying it is the idea of “biocentric equality” . . .

. . . all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and to reach their own individual forms of unfolding and self-realisation within the larger Self-realisation.E44

That capital S is significant: Self = the whole Lifeworld. As for “equality”—that is more controversial, and the philosopher Warwick Fox, for one, disagrees with it: whereas we can agree that all living things have their intrinsic value, he argues that the idea that this value is equal everywhere is without foundation.E46 And critics of deep ecology also argue that, while it usefully draws attention to our dependence on a conserved and cared-for planet, it pays little attention to the particular interests, needs and nature of society itself. The philosopher Freya Mathews, for instance, objects that . . .

. . . many feminists, socialists, and Christians who respect the natural world for its own sake might nevertheless not want to count themselves members of a movement which was neither feminist, socialist, nor Christian in its essentials.E47

And yet, Stephan Harding has no trouble with it. For him, the Lifeworld, that is, Gaia, is close to home. In fact, it is inside him:

To act well, we need to experience the Earth not as “nature” out there, nor as an “environment” that is distinct from us, but as a mysterious extension of our very own sensing bodies that nourishes us with an astonishing variety of intellectual and aesthetic experiences—with the roar of the sea and with the wonderful sight of the night moon reflected in a calm lake. Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth . . .E48

Environmental virtue ethics. This is about how we should live our lives. John Muir took his cleansing encounters with nature to the extreme—behind the Yosemite Falls, for instance:

After enjoying the night-song of the waters and watching the formation of the coloured bow as the moon came round the domes and sent her beams into the wild uproar, I ventured out on the narrow bench that extends back of the fall, without taking sufficient thought about the consequences. [Then the wind changed and the full force of water and ice crashed down on him] Instinctively I fell on my knees, I gripped an angel or the rock, curled up like a young fern frond with my face against my breast; I moved a few feet along the bench to where a block of ice lay. I wedged myself between the ice and the wall and lay face downwards [Eventually making his escape back to his cabin, where, in the morning] I awoke sound and comfortable, better not worse for my hard midnight bath.E49

and Henry David Thoreau . . .

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.E50

Or we could grow our own vegetables. We have a wonderful literature and an emerging ecology of support groups to help us to take our own action in the pursuit of green living. Lean Logic’s dark recognition of the limits to this should not discourage us from going as far along that road as we can.E51

Continental environmental ethics. This sees the matter through the eyes of an arcane branch of philosophy called “phenomenology” which investigates human experience as a phenomenon in its own right, without reference to whether what is experienced is real or not. It is associated with philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, G.W.F. Hegel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.E52

Political environmental ethics. Politics erupts into environmental ethics in many ways. Here are two. The first is social ecology—the argument that we cannot make sense of the environment until we have made progress in sorting out society; ecological problems, it claims, are rooted in class hierarchy. It is represented by, for instance, Murray Bookchin—who takes issue with both Arne Næss and Thomas Malthus on the grounds that their analysis of environmental degradation seeks to lay the blame on the overpopulating underclasses. He requires any programme for the future to “challenge the basic corporate property, bureaucratic, and profit-oriented social structure at its most fundamental level of ownership and control”. The political critique is also represented by Derrick Jensen’s analysis of the question, “Why civilisation is killing the world.”E53

• And the politics comes with ecological feminism, which links the “twin oppressions” of women and nature. Both are said to be based on the logic of domination, which has several outcomes, of which racism is another. Whereas nature (it is argued) is organic and associated with the feminine, the modern conception of nature uses mechanistic technology and science to further the masculine urge to dominate.E54

Environmental pragmatism argues for a practical and politically savvy approach to environmental protection: do not waste too much time thinking about the principles, concentrate on what can be done and on what works. Keller has examples: In Utah, “free-market ideology reigns supreme and environmentalism is generally seen as a form of socialism in danger of fettering the Invisible Hand”, so an argument about the health effects of air pollution will not get anywhere. As an alternative, try “Utah Moms for Clean Air”. This makes the same argument, and the moms are praised for their ‘values’. Arguing that the “intrinsic value” of the Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy merits protection from all-terrain vehicles will (if anyone notices) provoke derision; pointing out that protecting it improves the recreational opportunities for retirees (and raises property values) can get results.E55

Direct action. Greenpeace, Earth First! and the Climate Camps (among others) have shown that direct action can achieve some results, as well as drawing the attention of the public and government to particular problems quickly and in ways which are not available to well-behaved debate and the environmental literature. It can complement the more orderly approaches, but it is not a substitute for them, and some critics find its relationship with terrorism too close for comfort. The debate on direct action between, for instance, Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey (for) and Eugene Hargrove (against) continues.E56

Permaculture. Here we have the case made by David Holmgren that the frame of reference which is needed is nothing short of deep, reflective participation in the ecology: a combination of the key principles which Lean Logic calls presence and the vernacular. Guided by permaculture, we ourselves become part of the mosaic of ecosystem services we depend on—not as clever technologists, high on fossil fuels, but as integrated participants over the long-term, going with the flows of its energy and nutrients. Holmgren writes,

[Permaculture] draws together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower us to move from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible and productive citizens.E57


12. The environment of the mind. This is about what we do to a concept when we think about it, how we change it around so that it fits our assumptions and expectations, and why the environment may be especially liable to this moulding and remaking.E58

We think about nature, not just in the light of our own expectations as individuals, but in a way that is shaped by the culture we live in. The influence of that culture is likely to be strong when, for instance, we are thinking about such ideas as “nature” and “wilderness” which have no objective definition. “The state of nature” would, for Thomas Hobbes, be something we want to get out of as fast as possible; for Henry David Thoreau, it would be something to be in, and stay in. And “ecology”, like “organic”, can be used in matters remote from the soil as a catch-all phrase to persuade the other person that what you have in mind is good, and natural (Hyperbole).

In this way we can live in a self-sustaining world of language which has been adapted to help us to feel good about things as they are and the intentions we have adopted, and we can devise and use technology in ways that reinforce this make-believe. Our cultural assumptions shape the technologies we want and develop; the technologies shape and reinforce the assumptions. In this sense, our understanding of the environment creates a virtual landscape: some of it is real; some is what we want to see; some is what we fear; some is what we dare not look at.


13. The science and the ethics. Science describes and explains; it does not take a view as to whether the things it has described or explained are good or not. Should this same discipline apply to ecology? Most scholars of environmental ethics think not. For the ecologist Paul Sears (1891–1990), it must maintain a “continuing critique of man’s operations within the ecosystem”, and he compares ecologists with doctors: doctors don’t simply describe tumours as interesting contributions to our understanding of medicine: they do something about them.E59

In any case, as Mark Sagoff argues, if nature’s design is good, corruptions of it must be bad. The extreme case of corruption must surely be the fact that the damage we are doing to the planet is on a scale that threatens to destroy our civilisation and its whole planetary habitat. Jared Diamond, author of the bestselling Collapse, argues that we do know what to do about it, but whether we will join up the science and the ethics effectively and quickly enough is, of course, another matter.E60


14. Environment and public policy. This range of subjects takes environmental ethics to questions discussed in depth in other entries in Lean Logic: population, agriculture, economic policy, socioeconomic and environmental justice (Climacteric, Growth, Presence, TEQs, Scale).E61


“To feed people or save nature?” That is the question asked in a celebrated paper by Holmes Rolston. And his answer is that—well, it depends . . . If the planet’s ecology is under such stress—with so many choices having closed—that hunger is an inevitable symptom of the way things are, and treating this symptom directly will only increase the hunger, then, perhaps, effort should be concentrated on addressing the underlying problem. That task, he writes in conclusion to another paper “The Future of Environmental Ethics”, is . . .

. . . the most fundamental of our responsibilities. We are searching for an ethics adequate to respect life on this Earth, an Earth Ethic.E62

Lean Logic wonders about that. With the gift of intelligence comes the duty of responsibility. On the other hand, maybe we are intelligent enough to learn from beetles. They don’t have an Earth Ethic. They have an ecology of place to fit into.


Related entries:

Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Ethics.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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