If you fancy yourself on the cutting edge of things, you will want to read “The New Ecology” with its promise of reconciling nature and humanity. Oswald J. Schmitz argues that the new ecology seeks to ensure that people will continue to benefit from nature without denying future generations the same opportunities.
“This book sketches a portrait of a scientific field that is developing new ideas and ways to help humankind thoughtfully engage with nature in the interest of promoting a sustainable world. It addresses how human values and choices influence what ecosystems look like and how they function,” writes Schmitz.
One of the major issues, sustainability, is tackled in the first chapter. It remains a source of clashes between different human values. There are those who want to exploit nature because it benefits the human economy and wellbeing and others who love nature for its pristine beauty. History indicates that humans will persist in their efforts to transform and control nature in the 21st century, an epoch known as the Anthropocene, a period during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
‘Restore nature back to health’
How can mankind engage with nature in a wiser and more sustainable way? Schmitz argues that the new ecology helps society overcome the human/nature divide by formulating scientific ways to integrate the study of humanity with the study of nature.
“In undertaking scientific studies to diagnose the problems, one also builds the kind of understanding needed to restore nature back to health and, more importantly, help society minimize the risk of inflicting damages as it strives for greater technological and economic advancement.”
To explain the sustainable role humankind could play within nature, the author makes an interesting parallel with the market economy whereby sustainability means finding trade-off balances given limitations set by the scarcity of resources.
This reminds me of Bill McKibben’s excellent book, “Deep Economy” in which he explains that economics had become abstracted from the actual planet until the 1980s when Herman Daly, a World Bank economist and a young professor, Bob Costanza, established the Society of Ecological Economics. In 1997, Costanza joined twelve co-authors to publish a paper that, for the first time, tried to put an economic value on “ecosystem services” such as pollination and decomposition for example.
As ecological economist Eban Goodstein says in his bestselling textbook “Economics and the Environment”: “Ecological economists argue that natural and created capital are fundamentally complements.”
In other words, you need to think about the planet. You cannot just get richer, at least for long, by diminishing and impoverishing the world around you.
One of the main goals of “The New Ecology” is to encourage environmental stewardship, which simply means preserving and protecting the species and habitats that make up ecosystems. The key to its success lies in one word: cooperation.
“Stewardship succeeds when people as individuals, or as members of organizations, communities, or other institutions that comprise human social systems, have the opportunity to engage with each other in the interest of having a stake in, and cooperatively managing, ecosystems for long-term sustainability,” Schmitz writes.
But cooperation is precisely what is becoming more difficult. The development of hyper-individualism is increasing gradually in our modern urban societies. We are becoming narcissistic and willingly give up a community, an extended family, deep and comforting roots, just because we want to make something of ourselves. We want to become rich and our affluence isolates us even more. In a changed world, it is membership and not ownership that will provide food, energy, companionship and entertainment. Similarly, interdependent relationships in nature influence the flow of materials and energy and control the functioning of ecosystems.
With finite space on Earth and dwindling resources, one of the new ecology’s main tasks will be to restore and rehabilitate nature but also to re-imagine how humans and nature can co-exist harmoniously to form “socio-ecological systems”.
A new field known as Industrial Ecology is emerging; it is designed to minimize waste production, pollution and environmental damages. “Industrial ecology proposes that societies can get inspiration from, and can learn about, sustainable and efficient use of materials and energy by looking at how natural ecological systems function. Fundamentally, this means re-imagining that industries and society are integral players in circular economies that involve chains of producers, consumers and decomposers,” writes Schmitz.
Another emerging field, the so-called urban ecology, is using ecological principles to help re-orient urban planning toward the creation of sustainable cities. Landscape plays an essential role in urban planning. The use of plants and flora helps cities promote biodiversity and sustainability.
Studies have found that people living in neighborhoods with a high number of trees not only enjoy better physical and mental health, but also have a lower incidence of cardiac and metabolic ailments than people living in neighborhoods with only a few trees.
Furthermore, around the world, more people than ever are farming the cities which happen to be where most people live. Urban areas produce about a third of the food the areas consume. In Shanghai, urban farms provide the population with vegetables, milk and eggs. Because of the lack of soil, urban farmers can grow plants using very little water and they produce considerably less waste during harvest than standard farming. They are also not tied to traditional growing seasons and are not affected by the weather.
Furthermore, green roofs that are covered with vegetation help absorb rainwater, provide insulation, and lower urban temperatures to mitigate urban island effects.
“The New Ecology” underlines the essential role that humans can play in shaping what the Earth will look like in the coming century. Ecologists can no longer act alone and Schmitz acknowledges that.
“It is an exciting time to be an ecologist. By helping humankind to better distinguish its wants from its needs, and to understand the ecological as well as the societal implications of both, ecologists are helping societies transition toward more sustainable livelihoods,” he writes.
This book is an excellent introduction to the new ecology. It helps us understand that we humans — and all of nature — are intertwined and that we have to work with nature for a sustainable world. And it offers hope that change is possible.