Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

2.4.1 The emergence of ecology

To help you gain a better perspective on the general progress of scientific development, Table 4 provides a schematic potted history of some of the major ideas coming from science that have sought to guide our actions. It includes both social and natural sciences, though the former really only became distinct ‘sciences’ from around the nineteenth century, during the ‘modernisation’ period.

Table 4 Development of the sciences

PhasePeriodKey actorsBig ideas
Hermetic cosmologyAncient to medieval (before 1400)





Earth is the centre of the universe

Universe was created for humans

Universe is an organic, finite whole, bound together by divine spirit

Alchemy is the search for eternal youth and vitality

Copernican revolution1400–1500Copernicus

Sun is the centre of the universe

Universe is infinite in extent

Humans have no unique status

Scientific revolution1500–1700





Universe has mechanical structure

Scientific method of induction (observation to theory) invokes need for value-free method of acquiring knowledge

Cartesian dualism separates mind from body as precursor to separating human from non-human nature

Enlightenment or ‘modernisation programme’1700 onwards




Three principles of emancipation of humankind: liberation from poverty, slavery and ignorance (cf. French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity)

Possibility of rational control over natural and social surroundings using scientific method to improve social wellbeing (i.e. beginning of ‘social sciences’)

Two main scientific pathways of modernisation: positivism, associated with Popper (though Popper is a critic of standard logical positivism, his ideas are rooted in aspirations of value-free knowledge); and critical theory, associated with Habermas. Whereas positivism privileges an ideal form of value-free objective inquiry, critical theory privileges the importance of values that inevitably circumscribe science

A significant twentieth-century change in science and mathematics was signalled by the work of post-Newtonian physics (most notably that of Albert Einstein), non-linear dynamics, complexity sciences and chaos theory. For example, the physicist Fritjof Capra (1996) suggests that a conceptual watershed has taken place, leading to new thinking around the interrelationships and interdependencies of living systems. His opinion is that deep ecology is a key expression of this change.

Trends in natural science valuation might be tracked in a similar way to trends in economic and social valuations. In each case, a broadening out of perspective can be seen. For economics, the boundaries have extended from narrow measures of instrumental value towards an appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature. For social valuation, the boundaries have extended from anthropocentric perspectives towards more ecocentric perspectives. For natural science valuation, the boundaries have extended from a focus on the scientific management of conservation of ecosystems – a worldview informed by an anthropocentric perspective on the instrumental value of nature – towards a more humble worldview based on respect for uncertainty and complexity, and acceptance of the limitations on our capacity to predict and control nature. Such a worldview challenges conventional ideas of science being able to separate out judgements of ‘fact’ from value judgements. Thomas Kuhn (1962), a historian of science, famously explained the interaction between such judgements in terms of ‘paradigms’. Science in Kuhn’s terms is not value-free.

The conversation between the world of scientific ‘factual’ judgements and the world of value judgements can be understood by examining the specific natural science of ecology. In 1866 Ernst Haeckel, a leading German biologist and disciple of Charles Darwin, coined the term Oecologie to describe the integrated study of nature. This was, according to Haeckel, to be the study of ‘all of the environmental conditions of existence … the science of the relations of living things to the external world, their habitat, customs, energies, parasites etc’. His suggestion was that the living organisms of the Earth constituted a single economic unit resembling a household. Yet ecology (though not by that name) had its advocates long before Haeckel: Linnaeus, White, Thoreau and Darwin all worked towards the revelation of the ‘interconnectedness’ of things.

The concept of the ecosystem itself, on the other hand, is relatively new and arose from the need to have a different conceptual model of the natural world in order to know more about it. In 1877 Möbius proposed the term biocoenosis to describe a community of living things, recognising that the species involved had something in common. Shortly afterwards, Frederic Clements (1916), a US botanist and plant geographer, proposed that for any given set of environmental conditions, the plant community develops towards a stable population; thus by studying a location or habitat, ecologists could predict the specific community that would be most at home there. Clements viewed the stable plant population as a ‘complex organism’: many living things functioning together as a single being, like the organs of the human body. Thus for Clements the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. However, one of his contemporaries, H.A. Gleason (1926), took the opposite stance. Gleason regarded plant communities as more or less random collections of species, highlighting the influence of abiotic factors on how one plant species succeeds another in a population.

It was during this debate about the nature of plant communities that Arthur Tansley (1935), a British ecologist, proposed the term ‘ecosystem’. He considered the ecosystem to be the basic functional unit of nature, consisting of an abiotic component (elements, compounds, climate) and a biotic component (green plants, consumers, decomposers, bacteria and fungi). Des Jardins (2001, pp. 167–73) describes several different models that have influenced the way ecologists think about ecological systems: the organic model, the ecosystem model (which encompasses two further models, the community model and the energy model), and the chaos or non-equilibrium model. The common perception associated with the organic and ecosystem models has been that ecosystems tend towards a state of equilibrium. As a result, issues around the ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘conservation’ of the land have dominated discourse on appropriate land-use. However, in recent years these assumptions of equilibrium and stability have been challenged by the chaos or non-equilibrium model. This model is associated with what has been termed a new ecology, which has emerged under the influence of two quite separate lines of development. First, within science, increasing attention is being given to non-predictive, non-linear, non-equilibrium factors, which are explored under the general heading of complexity science. Second, within development studies, and in relation to issues of environmental management in less developed countries, planners have been paying increasing attention to pastoral livestock management systems (Scoones, 1994) for the way in which local experience provides appropriate ecosystem management under conditions of intense uncertainty.

The science of ecology gave humans a new view of the world; they were no longer on the outside looking in on nature, but rather an integral part of the ecosystem. Yet although Darwinism and the ecological sciences encouraged a more ecocentric ethical perspective, that perspective was not always benign. There are serious ethical questions to be asked with respect to the biological determinism underpinning social Darwinism and associated sociobiology (e.g. ‘selection’ of the fittest!), as well as some of the more extreme misanthropic (hating of humanity) connotations associated with deep ecology. Nevertheless, Darwin and the science of ecology did open the way for scientists to engage with ethical issues from a less anthropocentric perspective.

This new ‘ecological’ worldview has stimulated questions about how humans value and relate to the non-human natural world. The emergence of new ecology and the associated appreciation of complex socio-ecological systems have reinforced a growing recognition that our capacity to predict, manage and control the environment is limited. Our interconnectedness with the rest of the natural world, coupled with our diminished status within it, has helped to trigger interest in developing a less anthropocentric perspective on environmental responsibility.

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