The New Ecology

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Oswald J Schmitz. 2017. The New Ecology: rethinking science for the Anthropocene. Princeton University Press. ISBN978 0 691 16056 6

There are numerous ecology texts on the market and most cover much the same material. In the last 30 years we’ve seen a move towards more specialised areas not in terms of ecological basics like populations, ecosystem¬† and communities but in the way that specific places are developing their “own” ecology. Scanning the publishers lists as I do to find new material to cover, I am struck by the rise in this new “wave” focus. Urban ecology springs most readily to mind in this regard with output rising rapidly with the development of its own ways of working. In a similar vein there have been texts looking at sustainability and ecological change going right back to the first environment conference at Stockholm in 1972. This text offers a different path, the need to find an ecological text that deals with the rising mix of human/environment interactions. As if to underline the need for such a text, the author situates it in the Anthropocene, the latest (and still controversial) geological period. Its stated aim is to provide, for a general audience, an outline of ecology that eschews the human/nature dichotomy, implying that the reader would be hard pressed to find any “wilderness”.

The opening chapter sets out the basic thesis of the text. We are living in an age where people are are blurring the old human/nature divide and we need to re-think the ways in which we deal with ‘nature’. More than that, we need to be aware of the key ecological principles that might drive this new reality and make sure that we keep within the limits. In fact, the more you read and re-read this chapter, you keep thinking about this as an update to Limits to Growth from that first UN conference!

Having set the scene, the remainder of the text elaborates upon the key points. What aspects of ecology do people need to be aware of to live sustainably? Subsequent chapters try to tease this point out largely through narrative and some linkages to standard ecological methodology. In terms of biodiversity, the key message is the need to maintain ecosystem services. Some ecological principles are used to justify this. A more persuasive case if offered by examining the domestication of nature. Here, field examples are used to illustrate the flaws in some common ecological theories. The case is made that current ecological theory might not be able to deal with the new reality of human action. Species extinction might be the common thought but that ignores the idea that vacant niches are opportunities to be exploited Рextinction leads to speciation!  Further work on systems thinking and resource limits continue the theme about how we can use or re-use ecological principles to serve the new reality of a human dominated world.

This is an unusual text. It is not an ecology book in the traditional sense. There is a strong central idea that human action has shifted the planet into a new phase (hence Anthropocene!). Allied to that shift, there is the need for people to adapt both their lifestyle (moving towards sustainability) and their ecological thinking (to remove the distinction between human and natural). This means that the book is more of a guide to the ways in which ecology can be re-used to navigate future trends. It’s an interesting discussion on the ideas that we need to consider if we are to continue living as we are.

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