15 April, 2010

Quarreling with the Ecologists

I like ecology. It is a fascinating subject, and it deserves much more credence than many will ever allow it. Its importance is hard to contest: long before man played any part in sizeable political or economic systems, he was a node in the Earth’s many extensive ecological networks. It was upon these networks mankind built his civilization, and it is upon these his continued survival depends.

Needless to say, I find the work of ecologists to be quite valuable. This does not mean that this work is beyond criticism. In particular, there is one uncomfortable assumption that pervades ecological literature that is deserving of censure. This assumption was illustrated quite clearly in a recent issue of Biodiversity and Conservation:

David S. Woodruff. Biodiversity and Conservation. 3 February 2010.
The Thai national debate over forest protection has become polarized with two opposing camps approaching conservation very differently and pejoratively labeling each other as ‘‘bananas’’ or ‘‘watermelons’’ (Watershed 1999; Woodruff 2001b, 2006; Fahn 2003). The ‘‘bananas’’ are often Western-trained government ecologists who recognize the importance of protected areas of forest in wildlife conservation and water quality. They have adopted the Western view that man is apart from nature and therefore humans should be removed from the forest regardless of the fact that hill tribe members are difficult to resettle as they lacked citizenship, land rights and education. The alternate view, held by the ‘watermelons’’, is that humans are part of nature; their sustainable use of natural resources should be developed and their societal rights must be strengthened. Such views are likely to be held by academic sociologists and championed by the NGOs, and conform to traditional views that humans are part of nature. ‘‘Watermelons’’ are green (environmentalist) on the outside but pink (politically leftist, a pejorative term in this instance) on the inside. In contrast, ‘‘bananas’’ are yellow (Asian) on the outside but white (holding Western views of nature) on the inside. (p 933)

According to this very article, intensive forest clearing has been common practice in Southeast Asia for 2000 years. Agricultural societies have existed in the region for at least 5,000 years. Modern humans have lived in the region for more than 40,000 years. For tens of thousands of years the ancestors of those living in Thailand have been an active part of its ecosystems. How can Western ecologists justify claims that these people are not a part of nature?

By appealing to tradition, of course.

The idea that man is fundamentally different from the rest of creation has deep roots in Western culture. For centuries we have divided the world into parts civilized and savage, places created by man and places of the untamed wild. For the great majority of the last three centuries this distinction was expressed in terms of glorious triumph: man had “conquered” the oceans, “mastered” the elements, “overcome” the ravages of nature. The last fifty years have seen this narrative turned on its head. The environmental movement was the vanguard for this – they sought to radically realign the way man’s relationship with nature was seen, talked, and thought about. Now man, ‘destroyed’ natural resources, ‘hurt’ the environment, and ‘exploited’ nature. Man the Victor had become Man the Oppressor.

The great irony in all of this was the narrative really had not changed at all; both stories were tales of conquest and both were expressed with the vocabulary of subjugation. The only real difference between the two was the moral judgment tacked on at the end. Substantive change in the narrative would be much harder to achieve.

Such change is difficult to achieve because it requires a radically different perspective. To view the relationship man has with his environment with objectivity, we must stop looking at the relationship as human would. I suggest a broader perspective: the ecosystem itself.

Ecosystems are dynamic nonliving systems. Because they are nonliving, they do not have interests, desires, needs, or possessions.* An ecosystem does not care if it experiences an explosion in biodiversity or it is inflicted with a series of devastating extinctions. It simply exists. And because it exists as a dynamic system, an ecosystem can experience any number of extinctions or explosions and remain an ecosystem. Short of the destruction of all biotic interactions in an environment, this ecosystem will always be an ecosystem, though its various components may differ from time to time. 

This also means that no ecosystem possesses an ideal or natural state of ‘balance.’ As dynamic systems ecosystems can exist in an infinite variety of forms; as nonliving and unconscious things ecosystems cannot select a preference among them. Given that no ecosystem has an ideal configuration, it is impossible for outside forces to exploit or damage the ecosystem in anyway – they can simply change it from one configuration to another.

Indeed, the entire notion of ‘outside forces’ is a curious one. By definition, an ecosystem is the sum of all interactions and relationships existing between organisms and abiotic factors in a given environment. Thus anything – be it a parasite or an asteroid – that interacts with any part of the system is in that moment of interaction part of the system itself. This rule is not suspended for mankind. From the viewpoint of the environment, man is just one biotic factor among many. His relationship with other parts of the system is not categorically different than those of other species. The things he builds are not categorically different than those built by other species. Cities, roads, power plants are termite mounds and beaver dams on a larger scale.

In this sense any division between things ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is disingenuous. Man is a product of nature. Because of this, anything he builds is natural. Anything he destroys is natural. Anything he changes is natural. Humanity is a natural process.

Artists, merchants, philosophers, priests, and politicians can pretend otherwise. I do not begrudge them for this; it is through our dreams of singularity we find meaning. Scientists, when working as scientists, are not allowed such liberties. The scientists seeks to understand the world objectively – the Universe on its terms, not ours.

Thus my quarrel with the ecologists.

*Or perspectives. I ask you overlook this for the sake of the thought experiment.

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