The greatest discovery of the past century had nothing to do with nuclear physics, or computer science, or genetic engineering. Rather it was the discovery of the essential connectedness of life and environment. The primary discipline of interrelatedness is ecology beginning with the work of Ernst Haeckel in the nineteenth century. The discovery of evolution extended the awareness of our connections to life in time and more extensively to the story of life on Earth. Fields such as ecology, general systems theory, systems dynamics, operations research, and chaos theory added details and theoretical depth, but with each advance in the precision and extent of knowledge the larger story remained the same. Living systems are linked in food webs and ecological processes into larger systems whether called the noosphere, biosphere, ecosphere, or Gaia. The boundaries between life forms and between what we take to be living and nonliving things shift and sometimes morph into other forms and processes. In Earth systems, small changes can have large effects somewhere else and at some later time. Natural systems and the world made by humans are intertwined in more ways than we can possibly imagine. The result is less like a machine than it is like a web stretching across all life forms and back through time. The effects of human actions millennia ago still ripple forward, intersect with other changes sometimes amplifying, sometimes diminishing in intensity. Some human-wrought changes, such as deforestation and saline soils throughout much of the Middle East, are permanent as we measure time.
Nothing in the preceding paragraph is particularly new or controversial. But the idea of interrelatedness has yet to take hold of us in a deep way. We still live in thrall to a world created by Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and their heirs who taught us to dissect, divide, parse, and analyze by reduction but not how to put things back together or see the world as systems and patterns. The results were intellectual power without perspective so that, in time, overspecialization became a kind of a cultural disease. There are many reasons why things do not change long after their deficiencies are apparent: the inertia of habit, economic inconvenience, the preservation of reputation, and intellectual laziness. But the most important barrier to change remains simply that science and the technology it spawned works and is a powerful presence in our daily lives. Automobiles, airplanes, the cornucopia evident in every supermarket, miracle cures, and the wonders of computers and communications are a constant reminder of the powers of a particular kind of science and a promise of things to come. That much of our technology also 'bites back' and incurs costs that we do not see is mostly lost on us. Many live in what has been called a 'consensus trance', believing that things will go well for us, which is to say that progress will continue indefinitely. Beneath such ideas is the faith that nature does not ''set traps for unwary species,'' as biologist Robert Sinsheimer once put it or that progress itself is not a self-made trap.
There have always been skeptics, however. Toward the end of his life, H. G. Wells could see no grounds for hope. More recently, Joseph Tainter, Martin Rees, and Jared Diamond have expressed doubts about our longevity based in no small part on their views of scientific progress. Rees, for example, believes that our odds of making it to the year 2100 are no better than fifty-fifty. Diamond has cataloged the reasons why past societies have collapsed and they bear more than a passing resemblance to our present behavior. James Lovelock, co-author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that we are approaching a climate-tipping point somewhere between 400 and 500 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere after which ''nothing the nations of the world do will alter the outcome and the Earth will more irreversibly to a new hot state.'' In various ways, each of these attributes our vulnerability to the failure to see systems, patterns, and to exercise foresight. As a result, we stumble toward a time of severe climate destabilization, biotic impoverishment, and ecological surprises.
The failure of ecological knowledge to penetrate very deeply into the larger society and its decision-making systems ought to be a matter of grave concern. The early work of ecologists Howard and Eugene Odum on the productivity of salt marshes, for example, may have slowed but certainly did not stop the juggernaut of development that has severely damaged coastal ecosystems virtually everywhere. Similarly, we know a great deal about the services of natural systems and the impossibility of duplicating these by human means. Yet the drawdown of natural capital and the destruction of ecosystems are still trumped by narrow short-term concerns of profit and economic expansion. Sometimes the costs of ecological folly become starkly apparent as they did following hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005 in which the damage done by a class III hurricane (at landfall) was amplified by the removal of mangroves and coastal forests that would otherwise have absorbed much of its energy and dampened the destructive effects. That, too, was known in many circles but did not have much effect on the policies that prevailed along the Gulf Coast, where oil extraction, commerce, and gambling ruled the day.
Public attitudes toward science are often undermined by poor education, inadequate public funding, and, sometimes, religious dogma. In the USA, evolution, once thought to be an established part of science, is hotly contested as just another 'theory' by advocates of 'intelligent design'. The scientific evidence about human-driven climate change is indisputable, but ignored or underestimated even when alternatives are economically advantageous. The results are evident in the considerable data describing ecological deterioration virtually everywhere and the failure to seize better alternatives as well. Law based on ecological knowledge and the hope that we might calibrate our public business with the way the world works as a physical system is under constant assault. Evidence about the health and ecological effects of toxins is downplayed. Public access to information about the release of toxics is restricted. The result is a significant gap between what is known about how the world works as a physical system and the public policy in every country. The cumulative result is that we are much more vulnerable to ecological ruin and extreme events than we might otherwise be.
What can be done with ecological knowledge? One answer is that ecology as a science ought to do what it has been doing, which is to say document the deterioration of ecosystems in ever finer detail. Ecology, the argument goes, is a science and its practitioners ought to maintain their credibility as scientists and not assume the role of advocates and risk losing their credibility even when they recognize folly disguised as public policy. If that is the future of the discipline it will, I think, flourish for a time while the human prospect withers.
There is, however, another perspective on the uses of ecology. Paul Sears in 1964 and later Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley in 1969 once called the discipline ''the subversive science.'' They proposed ecology as an inte-grative discipline, ''a kind of vision across boundaries'' and a ''resistance movement'' - an alternative to being ''man fanatic.'' Ecology in their view ''offers an essential factor ... to all our engineering and social planning.'' In their perspective, the world needs to know what ecolo-gists know and needs to take that knowledge seriously enough to transform the ways by which we provision ourselves with food, energy, materials, shelter, and livelihood. Ecology as a subversive science would be integrated with building, industry, agriculture, landscape management, economics, and governance. In short, the idea of interrelatedness would move from the pages of obscure scientific journals out to the main street, and into board rooms, editorial offices, courtrooms, legislatures, and classrooms. It would progress from being just one more interesting but obsolete idea to become the design principles for a better world - the default setting for everyday behavior.
Was this article helpful?