Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature Reply To: Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature

Author Replies # Posted on December 8, 2014 at 11:34

It is not difficult to see how Caroline Merchant’s The Death of Nature has had such a impact. Merchant tackles the formation of a contemporary world-view that has re-conceptualized nature as a machine, rather than a living organism. I was very interested in how Merchant discusses the decline of an organic world-view and an alliance with mechanism, which has become fundamental to the history of conservation and ecology.
My area of research is the Amboseli basin, in southern Kenya, much of which has been encompassed by a national park since the 1960s, though a protected wildlife area since the 1920s. The research agenda on this landscape has been dominated by responsible management of Amboseli’s resources for long-term benefit and sustained yield (though discourses regarding communities who should be benefiting have shifted over the year). Amboseli is a landscape managed in the name of environmental quality, and researchers have used such methods as ecosystem modeling, manipulation, and prediction of outcomes to influence policy and scientific study.
I was so fascinated to read in Merchant’s chapter “The Management of Nature” that the roots for such a utilitarian approach to ecology (as practiced in Amboseli and many sub-Saharan National Parks) were apparent in the ideas of the natural philosophers of Restoration England, who according to Merchant are John Evelyn (1620-1706), John Ray (1627-1705), William Derham (1614-1687), and Raph Cudworth (1617-1688). Merchant talks about how just like in the seventeenth century, today’s managerial ecology subjects nature to rational analysis for long-term planning. She talks about how by reducing the vegetative community to an ecosystem, the anthropomorphic connotations of group sharing give way to physical descriptions and equations associated with quantitative analysis. I had never before really thought about how the rise of modern science has contributed to the Amboseli landscape being viewed as not an organism, but instead a machine.
Merchant also discusses how the reductionist model of the new ecologists which developed in the 1950s has its limits. It is difficult, if not impossible to successfully program contexts and patterns into a computer. Merchant writes that taking components or abstracting data from the environmental context can alter the whole, distorting its behavior (252). She goes on to criticize systems theorists who claim a holistic perspective, because they wrongly assume that they are taking into account the ways in which all the parts in a given system affect the whole. She points out that the gestalt is not mathematized, and that the ways in which each part in any given instant take their meaning from the whole (291).
I think that a huge part of the failure to meet conservation goals in Amboseli stems from something Merchant discusses: “the more open, adaptive, organic, and complex the system, the less successful is the formalism” (291). The kind of ecology embraced in the 1950s, and the conservation pathos really needs to be applied to a closed, precisely defined, and relatively simple system. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan African savannas have never resembled anything of the kind.
Merchant does believe though that ecology as a discipline can change. She calls for an alternative to the managerial ethic that developed out of seventeenth-century mechanism, she welcomes an organismic small-community approach, which relies on human decision makers and participatory democracy rather than on experts (252). Community based conservation theories which became popular in the mid 1990s have really embraced these ideals, though whether or not it works is still very much open to debate.
This got me thinking some more. Merchant writes that ecologists today must really develop holism as their philosophy of nature, as communities that have succeeded in living in equilibrium with their environments have holistic perspectives. Holism was proposed as an alternative for mechanism by J.C. Smuts in 1926. Merchant quotes Smuts who wrote rather beautifully that “Holism is a process of creative synthesis: the resulting wholes are not static, but dynamic, evolutionary, creative… The explanation of nature can therefore not be purely mechanical; and the mechanistic concept of nature has its place and justification only in the wider concept of holism.” Holism in ecology sees nature as cyclical, but the cycle is dynamic and interactive. The parts of the cycle are interlocking, and no elements can be removed, and each part is defined by and dependent on the total context. I think this is still too simplistic and mechanistic a view of nature.
So that is kind of where Merchant lost me. But in keeping with her thread of new interpretations of the past providing perspectives on the present I thought I would explore how 1950’s style new ecology has embraced to varying degrees resilience theory instead of holism. Unlike Merchant’s discussion of holism, resilience theory works with processes of change and nested hierarchies of individual adaptive cycles. Resilience theory seems to me to be the response to critiques of systems theory in ecology, much like holism. Resilience theory is even more radical in its avoidance of easily conceptualized systems than holism.
Personally I am supremely uninterested in fitting my own research into any sort of theoretical framework structured around systems. I understand that they are important for people who are doing a grand synthesis, and working at the top level managing massive systems like those in government, law, conservation, economics etc. I think it is a noble goal to strive for. However, my research focus, at least at this stage in my life is much more biased towards the massive gaps in our knowledge of how the world functions, or has functioned in the past. I feel more comfortable with gathering data before I attempt to create or evaluate models.
Which is why I really enjoyed Merchants book, because I felt she was calling for ecologists to be less preoccupied with “the parts of the machine”. I also really value the book for illustrating that our world-views are biased and shaped by events such as changes in land tenure in Britain, and the industrial revolution (though I think colonialism could have garnered a chapter as well). These are events which happened centuries before I came into being but have influenced to such a profound degree the way I understand the world, and taking some time to reflect on that is wonderful. Thinking about how these events have impacted the management of a landscape in southern Kenya is also pretty fascinating. I feel I have a much richer appreciation for the history of conservation now, and will no longer trace its origins to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.