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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Ecology is a relatively new science, and an extremely complex one to pin down. It’s also stuck between competing world views which mean that sometimes ecological information can be used to justify something when in fact it can only support an argument, rather than justify it. Knowing the history of ecology means that we can better understand the role it plays in our societies and the considerations of our future planet. 

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Ecology is the discipline which studies phenomena such as climate change, the extinction of species, global temperature increases, sea level rises, and more. Some 200 years ago, ecology wasn’t really a thing, and even biology only really began to be developed as a separate science in the 19th century. The origins of exploring the relationship between humans and nature using the scientific method are much more recent than we might think. However, the discovery of climate change and the potentials for increased carbon dioxide to warm the atmosphere are not as recent as we often make out. In fact, in as early as 1863, British physician Joseph Tyndall suggested that carbon dioxide and water could potentially provoke a change in climatic conditions, based on his studies of the absorption of light by gases.

There are some challenges to writing a history of ecology, not least the fact that each country, culture, religion, and people have a different relationship to or with nature. This means that their ‘ecology’ or ‘economy of nature’ will be different. What we commonly call ecology in the English-speaking world has largely been influenced by North American research and priorities, mostly in military and security. Other countries, such as Russia, have contributed much to ecological science historically, however the Soviet Union regimes have meant that this did not continue. Māori have their own relationships to nature, and each iwi or tribe will relate to their environment in a different way. Is the study of this ecology? Or is this something else? In this article on the history of ecology, we’ll stick to understanding ecology in a scientific and mostly western sense, drawing on the history of the study of natural relationships from a scientific perspective. This does not mean that other, indigenous cultures do not have an ecology, or that their ecologies are not important. Rather, we should understand their relationships to nature using their language and in their context.

What is ecology?

Ecology, broadly speaking, is the study of living beings and the relationships between them, between these beings and their environment, and of the biological factors of the environment. Ecology studies things like ecosystems, which are specific containers of life on earth which work according to certain patterns and tendencies. Ecology also studies the biosphere, or the whole area in which living beings exist on the planet. In more recent times, ecology has been more focused on the relationship between humans and nature, than other relationships. This is because of the discovery that human beings are destroying the continued viability of life on earth through their production and consumption activity. This destruction has manifested in climate change, the acidification of oceans, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the loss of animal and plant species, and much more.

There is a problem in defining what the boundaries of ecology are, however. Think about how we use the word ‘ecosystem’ or ‘climate’ to talk about start-ups or just groups or communities of things. These are terms which are proper to ecology, and not to other disciplines or areas of life. But if ecology is the study of ecosystems, then we must say which type of ecosystem we are studying: probably not the start-up ecosystem, that’s for sure! There are also an increasing number of small disciplines appearing, which branch off from ecology, such as the ecology of gender, ecology of words, ecology of music, and much more. These are more difficult to place, because ecology does look at the relationships between living beings, therefore, between human beings, too.  

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A quick overview of the stages in ecology’s history

Yannick Mahrane writes that there are three main stages in the development of ecology (in “Ecology: Know and Govern Nature” (French)). Each stage relies on a different metaphor or way of seeing nature, which influences the nature of the science that is being performed. Other writers will discuss the development of ecology in terms of paradigms, or main assumptions that theorists make. Yet more will talk about ecology in terms of the debate between holistic theories, which view the earth or living beings as a united system, and reductionist theories, which look at the parts of these systems separately.

According to Mahrane, the first stage of ecology was from the word’s coining by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, until the end of the Second World War in 1945. This period was characterised by the study of plants, which developed in order to control territories, regulate and improve agricultural production, and learn about how plants functioned through institutions such as Botanic Gardens. These scientists had an organicist ontology, meaning they viewed the world as a unified whole, and organisms within this system are constantly changing and evolving.

The second stage of ecological development is from 1945 until the middle of the 1970’s. This stage is characterised by a formal, mathematical ecology, which functioned on a culture of engineering and geo-engineering. This is when we saw the large attempts to build domes and controlled environments by people such as Buckminster Fuller, which ultimately failed. These ecologists thought in mechanistic and cybernetic terms, meaning that they viewed the world as composed of mechanical parts which all needed to be understood in order to understand the whole. This viewpoint is also called reductionist.

The final stage in ecological development is from the late 1970’s until today. Here, ecology becomes influenced by neoliberal politics. We begin to view ecosystems as providing us with services, which need to be accounted for and managed. Managerial ecology views nature as something to be directed, and human beings are the designated managers of this nature, performing a very similar role to managers in companies. Economic rationality, in terms of resources, production, consumption, and more, are key to the viewpoint that this kind of ecology takes.

The beginnings of ecology

We could think that ecology first began as a systematic study of nature with Aristotle’s natural science, in Ancient Greece. This was not called ecology at the time, but Aristotle made detailed observations of many animal and plant species, noting their qualities and relationships, and drawing differences between the varieties and species that he found. Theophrastus, around the same time as Aristotle, also commented on the relationships between living beings.

The second possible beginning of ecology is with Carl von Linné’s economy of nature, entitled Systema Naturae, spanning 3 volumes and 2,300 pages. His method was to identify, name and describe as many different species as he could find, and determine the hierarchy or relationship between these different beings.

Biology as a science began to appear in the 19th century, and people such as revolutionary biologist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin began positing their hypotheses concerning the natural world, and how this natural world had developed. At the same time, Ernst Haeckel in Germany begins referring to something he calls oekologie (ecology) – the economy of nature, which he defines as the study of the relations between organisms:

“By ecology, we mean the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the “conditions of existence.” These are partly organic, partly inorganic in nature; both, as we have shown, are of the greatest significance for the form of organisms, for they force them to become adapted.” E. Haeckel, 1866 Generelle Morphologie der Organismen.

This definition of ecology will be expanded upon, throughout the rest of the history of ecology, because ecology does not only study living beings, but also the environment, the ocean, the soils, and more. It also is concerned with other types of living and non-living things, not only that which we would normally call ‘organisms.’

Image: Aristotle's De Anima. Aristotle was one of the first biologists and zoologists in the Western tradition.

The invention of some key concepts in ecology

In the late 19th century, there were some central developments that helped ecology to become a domain in its own right. These were the invention of the concept of the biosphere, and the creation of ecology’s research method, the quadrant.

In 1875, Austrian geologist Edward Suess invented the term biosphere. He did this in the context of a changing Europe: no longer was Europe composed of feudal communities; rather the industrial development and the creation of nation states was beginning to change the way people lived, and saw the world. This increase in industrial action and production meant that people began studying the impact and the relationship between humans and nature. They could see that something was happening, and that landscapes were changing, so scientists began investigating this.

It would only be in 1926 that the idea of the biosphere could really take hold, as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian philosopher and ecologist, Vladimir Vernadsky. In his book, The Biosphere, he posits that life is the geological force that shapes the earth, and that terrestrial life can be considered as a totality – in a global sense.  Instead of thinking about small localised ecological events, there is a linking and intimate relationship between all life on earth. This concept of the biosphere is one view in the holistic perspective in ecology.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, Frederick Clements developed the concept of the quadrant: a square, usually 5 metres wide and 5 metres across, in which all life forms would be studied to build a picture of a particular area. Clements wrote a how-to guide for ecology, measuring out quadrats, counting species, and measuring conditions. It was later that more statistical and sophisticated measurements were added to these methods, to reach the forms that we have today.

The ecosystem

The idea of the ecosystem is another key concept in ecology that has only grown in popularity since its coining in 1935. It was not, however, until the 1950s that ecosystems became a central notion for ecologists worldwide.

Between the World Wars, most ecological thinking was dominated by Clements’ theories, which considered ecological communities as organisms and associations, buoyed by his methodology of the quadrant. British ecologist Arthur Tansley developed the idea of an ecosystem in his work “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts” to once again shift the paradigm in ecology. His interest in ecology, as for most ecologists, was due to a larger scale industrial revolution, and an increasing globalisation, which were beginning to reveal negative flow-on effects on the environment, and on our ability to produce food for larger populations.

Tansley considers ecological communities as totalities, and not separate species with no relations between them. This again is a holistic perspective. The ecosystem is a way of referring to these ecological communities of related plants and species in a particular place. However, Tansley is very keen to point out that the ecosystem is not a given concept in nature: we cannot see ‘ecosystems’ nor can we find them somewhere. Rather, ecosystems are mental abstractions, ways of seeing communities of living beings, such that we can better study and understand the relationships between living beings in a particular area. We should not forget that ecology produces models of the world, and all models are wrong – they are simplistic representations of what reality is actually like, but we use them because they help us to understand what the world is like.

Linked to the idea of the ecosystem is the particular relation within this system between living beings, called the niche. Charles Elton, the pioneer of animal ecology, used this term to describe the place occupied by a particular being in relation to other beings. The niche is “the position of the animal in its environment and its relations to its food and to its enemies.” (Animal Ecology, p. 63-64).

Another paradigm shift, this time with energy

As industrial societies began to electrify large parts of the home and office, energy transformation and electricity transfer became important topics in the minds of many scientists. This change did not escape ecology, with Howard Odum, a North American ecologist, positing that energy is a universal perspective through which we can see the world, particularly in the way that human beings use nature. Photosynthesis – the way that plants capture energy from the sun – is one such way of considering energy transfers, and opens up a realm of considerations regarding the efficiency with which plants convert energy into mass or food that we can eat.

Along with Odum, Raymond Lindeman believed that ecosystems were actually thermodynamic systems, which exchanged energy with their environments. An ecosystem could be seen and determined through analysing energy transfers. Take a corn field, for example. The corn plants take up nutrients and water from the soil, and sunlight from the sun, which they convert into energy in order to grow the plants. Other organisms in the corn field, like the worms in the soil, the bugs on the plants, etc. all take energy from their surroundings, and convert it into energy that they can use to sustain their life. Human beings do the same thing – we eat food and drink water, which we extract molecules of glucose from, in order to have the energy to perform.

corn field
Corn field

The third paradigm shift: mathematical ecology

Between the two World Wars – the late 1910’s and the late 1940’s – ecology was in its golden age, as Jean-Paul Delèage put it.

The first attempts at mathematical ecology were with Thomas Malthus’ writings on human population. In 1798, he published “An Essay on the Principle of the Human Population” where he compares human population growth to resource availability on Earth. He notes that human populations double: they follow the pattern, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32… Resources, and our subsistence, however, grows following an incremental increase: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Eventually you will have a population of 256, but resources will have only grown to 9 – therefore showing that at a certain point there are limits to population growth, because of a lack of resources available for these populations.

Along with this conclusion, resources were becoming scarce and ecological problems were beginning to emerge in the growth of food and the availability of wood for fuel. Mathematical and statistical formulations became a key way of understanding, and therefore predicting, what would happen in certain ecosystems that were crucial to human survival.

Alfred Lotka (in 1925) and Vito Volterra (in 1926) produced ecological models for competition and predation in nature. They wanted to find out how certain animals became the prey of other animals, and what this did to their populations, depending upon the population of the predator. Central to their ideas was the observation that animals in nature seemed to compete for resources and space, and the availability of these things determined the relative success of their populations.

The introduction of past events into these models by these two researchers meant that the models became more complex. It also gave a sense of history to the things that were happening in nature: what happens now depended upon what happened in the past, and we began to be able to make mathematical connections between past and present, and therefore understand what might happen in the future.

Edward Wilson then built upon these ideas, which were for him too simplistic, to develop the idea of dynamic equilibrium. These mathematical models were reductionist – they wanted to understand species, and could not include in their models all the conditions that affected the populations of a specific species – climate, food, predators, other species, catastrophes, viruses, bacteria, and more.

The idea of an equilibrium is similar to that which we find in economics, and Yannick Mahrane suggests that there is a link between the era in which the idea of market equilibrium took hold in Western societies, and when it became an ecological concept, too. Wilson’s idea is that species in a particular ecosystem will reach a stable point of equilibrium, where certain populations are able to be maintained according to the resources. When something in the ecosystem is disturbed, these relative populations will change – the point of equilibrium will move and re-establish itself at different levels to before.

The theory of Gaia

Building upon this idea of equilibrium and changing points of stability, British scientists James Lovelock and Lyn Margulis developed the hypothesis of Gaia, which unified the concepts of biosphere and equilibrium in the science of ecology.

The Gaia hypothesis sees the earth as a living being itself, which is capable of self-regulation and self-organisation of the climatic conditions and the life forms that exist on the planet. This system, called Gaia, is much larger and more inclusive than the biosphere; it includes places where there is no life as well, such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the rocks.

The key part of the Gaia hypothesis is that the living beings on the planet participate themselves in the regulation of temperatures and the composition of the surface of the planet. By breathing in and out, we take out oxygen, and release carbon dioxide. Trees take up that carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. The earth is no longer just something that is there, created in a certain way; rather it is the product of the life forms that have inhabited it. The proof for this hypothesis is the fact that many millions of years ago, when life first formed, there was no oxygen on the planet. Through the activity of bacteria, however, oxygen was released into the atmosphere, and then reached a stable level of around 21% of the atmosphere, which was the most ideal composition for the regeneration of forests, the growth of other species, etc. This world, therefore, is the best possible world for those species that are living on it, because they have participated in creating the conditions that now exist to support life.

This theory is termed a hypothesis because it is still hotly debated. The main reason for this is that the theory posits a certain teleological finality to the planet: there is a goal to the evolution of life on earth. It is not just random happenings that occur in certain ways that just so happened to create life and sustain life. This goes against much of the fundamentals of the sciences. Furthermore, the theory is supported by certain life forms above ground, but in the oceans, marine life seems to be much more determined by nutrient availability than temperature or composition.

We can, as Stephen Schneider suggests, take a key conclusion from this theory as truth: that organisms interact and co-determine their destiny. What this destiny may be is not defined, nor is it possible to know, but what we can know is that different forms of life are interrelated and are involved in determining the success of other forms of life on Earth.

Cover of Gaia by James Lovelock

The human being in ecology

As we became more aware of the fact that human beings are affecting the composition of the atmosphere, the quality of the soils, and the viability of other life forms on the planet, the object that ecology studied began to change. Instead of looking at ecosystems, ecologists began to study the biosphere – the totality of life on earth – in more detail.

Looking through the history of human civilisations, we can see a very strong correlation between the climatic conditions at a particular period in time, and the economic success of these civilisations. Although the ancient civilisation of the Maya in South America did not decline solely because of ecological reasons, the destruction of forests and the disruption of the water cycle contributed to the collapse of this civilisation. The cultivation of corn was the main factor in this disruption, and as they tried to grow more corn, they disturbed larger parts of the ecosystem upon which they were reliant.

Pierre Gourou, a French geographer, noted that “there is no crisis in the usage of nature that is not also a crisis in the way of life of mankind.” Our relationships with nature became more and more important as objects of study and analysis, to find out how we were changing the ecosystems in which we lived, and the biosphere as a whole. In the United States, and other countries, large areas of land have been rendered unusable and infertile because of the industrial agricultural methods that were, and to some extent still are, used to grow food for both humans and cattle that we eventually eat.

Ecologists, and political or literary ecologists, began to think about where this problem might have come from. Why and how did we get into this mess? These more theoretical and philosophical forms of ecology began to flourish around the 1970’s, and are perhaps still in their main growth phase today. Lynn White in her 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” traces back the origins of this relationship to nature to the Bible: we were told that God had given us the Earth to have dominion over, and to fill this Earth with our own kind. Francis Bacon, an English philosopher and statesman in the 16th century, made clear that human beings were the centre of the universe, and had absolute authority over all things on Earth.

The 21st century ecologist is therefore confronted with the question of the place of the human being in the biosphere. What role do they have? What impact do they have? And how can they live with, or without, nature? These questions are just as much scientific as they are philosophical, which is why ecology is now a discipline at the crossroads between multiple different areas of study and research.

Ecology is also still very much in a phase determined by neoliberal economic theory, whereby accounting for and quantifying resources and outputs is crucial to the work of many ecologists. Carbon accounting is but one example of this kind of ecology, whereby we attempt to figure out the carbon emissions of each resource and good on the market, and each process or action undertaken in society, so that we can develop an overview of the carbon emitted per year, per country. Once we can measure and know about it, then we can solve it: so would say the technologically-minded politician or leader.

Ecology has many challenges in the 21st century, not least the need to research the ongoing impact of human beings on the planetary systems and climate conditions. The challenges that ecology faces are only increasing, however, with the rise of a distrust in international organisations such as the IPBES and the IPCC, both tasked with reporting on the human impact on nature, as well as climate-skepticism, climate reassurism (those who say we don’t need to worry about climate change), and scientism (those who believe that science will solve all the problems). Disseminating and communicating the research and results of ecology, as well as the nuances about the predictions made and methodologies used in ecology, is another incredibly difficult task.

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