Leopold’s Challenge

The first rule of intelligent tinkering, said the author of A Sand County Almanac, is to keep all the parts. Ecologists have been struggling with this ever since.
A New Ecological Vision

Stephen Bocking hearkens back to Aldo Leopold for a new ecological vision. How can we keep all of the parts and why should we? Bocking weaves politics and science together to reveal prospects of a resilient future with ecologically creative designs for parks and neighbourhoods. 

Stephen Bocking hearkens back to Aldo Leopold for a new ecological vision. How can we keep all of the parts and why should we? Bocking weaves politics and science together to reveal prospects of a resilient future with ecologically creative designs for parks and neighbourhoods. 

EVERY SO OFTEN, new ideas about ecology take root. So it was in the 1960s. Rachel Carson set the pace, explaining, in Silent Spring, the urgent need for an ecological perspective. Space images portrayed a lonely and fragile biosphere, a view ratified by the first Earth Day in April 1970. Some said we were entering the Age of Ecology, and ecologists embraced the moment, specifying cures for the complaints – overpopulation; pollution; and exploited forests, rivers and seas – of a sick world.

But then it all went sideways. The Age of Ecology went the way of hula hoops, displaced by energy crises, neo-cons and insecurity. Environmental practice demanded numbers, not nostrums.

Ecologists have struggled ever since to assert their relevance. And not without some success: ecosystems have become part of every environmental conversation, as has ecologists’ advice to expect and adapt to change and uncertainty. Ideas about cities, landscapes and wildernesses all draw on ecology. Even practice sometimes includes a nod in that direction.

But it hasn’t been easy. A planet transforming itself into something warmer and scarier, as well as evolving ideas about environmental politics, the limits of knowledge, and the impossibility of pristine nature have challenged ecologists. But they have also presented fresh opportunities for these scientists to be creative in how they relate to other people and to nature.

Several decades ago, Aldo Leopold set out the terms that define these opportunities when he explained that the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts. Ecologists have been struggling ever since to answer the challenges implicit in his comment: to explain the parts, and to understand what constitutes intelligence when it comes to peoples’ relations with the natural world. Just as occurred during the earlier era of ecological awareness that Carson inspired, these opportunities have spurred ecologists to form new ideas. They began with other species and the physical world. More recently, their vision has expanded to include humans. This new ecological vision encompasses three dimensions. One relates to our ability to learn and to adapt to change. The second concerns how we live within our patchwork landscapes of nature and culture. And finally, there are the political implications of ecological knowledge – including our capacity to oppress.

Adapting to uncertain and ever-changing ecosystems

For several decades, ecosystem ecologists have urged attention to the forest, not just the trees, and to the river, not just the salmon. After all, without soil, there can be no trees. Nor, as seems to now be widely recognized, can the diverse values that humans see in nature be maintained without healthy, intact ecosystems. Yet such insights still generate struggles, especially among resource professions and industries that remain focused on maximum commodity production.

These struggles come to the fore whenever ecologists urge new ideas about ecosystems. One such idea has been to discard the notion of ecosystems as stable or finely balanced. Instead, they experience patterns of change over time: cycles of slow accumulation of biological capital punctuated by its sudden release and reorganization. Forces that stabilize the ecosystem (such as forest growth) maintain its productivity and nutrient cycles while, despite conventional thinking, destabilizing forces (say, a forest fire) maintain diversity and resilience. A view of nature as predictable has been replaced by one that accepts uncertainty and the likelihood of surprise. This implies a new goal for management: not control for maximum production, but resilience in the face of disturbance, which thereby embraces natural variation over an artificial and unsustainable stability.

These ideas of uncertainty and resilience have been closely associated with the principles of adaptive management, as formulated by C. S. Holling and his colleagues. Since the 1970s, Holling’s ideas have followed an interesting arc. He began by understanding natural systems in terms of how they respond to disturbance, arguing that they have not one, but several potential stable states, and may flip unpredictably from one to another. He then placed this view of nature within longer-term and larger-scale cycles of change, drawing parallels between the ways in which natural systems lose resilience and the consequences of humans seeking single-mindedly to freeze resource management systems to the point of shattering fragility. Finally, and working with an expanding array of colleagues, he searched for ways to integrate resilience and a capacity to adapt and learn into both nature and institutions.

Experience has demonstrated the value of the concepts of ecosystem ecology and resilience. Given the multiple unknowns of a warming world – everything from unlooked-for invasions of exotic species to mysterious dead zones in coastal seas – any approach that acknowledges uncertainty and ignorance is, at least, realistic. Resilience ecologists have also constructed persuasive accounts of ecosystems in various states of malaise, from the Florida Everglades to forests burdened with a history of fire suppression.

Even after decades of efforts, however, the limits of these accounts also crowd our attention. As its critics have noted, ecosystem ecology is more often invoked than implemented, and is sometimes twisted into a convenient cover for business as usual. Resilience ecology has thus far proven more able to diagnose than prescribe, while tending to leave unexamined the awkward observation that resilience is anything but desirable in toxic ecosystems and unjust societies.

Some of these limits relate to how environmental affairs have evolved over the last few decades. Far more so than in the 1960s, politics is now a patchwork world in which diverse institutions, pursuing multiple goals, are guided by numerous and often competing forms of knowledge. Governments may not have withered away, but they are now at least obliged to work co-operatively with other agents. And while ecological perspectives have crept into many realms of action, from urban design to water governance, the status of expertise itself has shrunk. With experts often disagreeing, and sometimes bought and paid for, science can only ever be one source of guidance, and rarely the primary one.

This political patchwork is ill-suited to adaptive management and building resilience. To be sure, such approaches are only likely to be entertained when it becomes possible to challenge dominant institutions. And yet, like the command-and-control model that often serves as the designated bête noire of resilience scholars, an adaptive approach tends to rely on a view of science as the uncontested basis for action. As a result, adaptive management has most often been applied in situations such as commercial fisheries, in which one or a few agencies possess a clear, uncontested mandate, and are thus free to adopt resilience as their organizing principle.

Living within patchwork landscapes

Some ecologists have been tinkering with an even broader conception of the parts than that of ecosystems and resilience: one that would be more relevant to complex landscapes where natural and human history mingle, and where diverse solutions to the problems of living are exhibited. Such places become visible whenever one flies out of a city set amidst a settled landscape. As the aircraft climbs, another patchwork appears: not of politics, but of reality – a jumble of fields, forests, lakes and buildings. Yet this apparent chaos conceals an underlying order, defined by the tension between the imposed grids and edges of human intent and the liberating curves of rivers, hills and valleys.

Revealing this order is the task of landscape ecology, the study of the shapes and patterns created through the play of nature and culture. Building on traditions of landscape planning and often ancient land uses, unhindered by illusions of pristine nature, European ecologists have usually led this field. Charles Elton and other British ecologists incorporated the natural and human histories of their landscape into the core of their discipline long ago. In North America, Ian McHarg, in Design with Nature (1969), picked up on this theme, embedding ecology within the practice of landscape design, presenting a vision of culture and nature in harmony, and easing the tensions between human grids and natural curves.

The field continues to evolve, with Michael Hough and others developing practical, empirical tools to restore or rebuild nature within cities and other settled landscapes. They always emphasize the human scale, but with an awareness of time and space beyond our own. Over the last two decades, a more systematic approach to the ecology of shapes and patterns has also emerged, deriving principles of scale, change, flows and connectivity from landscape mosaics. Conservation biologists have examined how the spatial arrangements and temporal patterns of habitats affect biodiversity, while ecological restorationists, park managers, organic farmers and landscape architects, among others, have drawn on these ideas. Those of a more humanistic bent have considered how the stories, memories and cultures of places relate to concepts of landscape ecology.

Like those who study resilience, landscape ecologists seek co-existence between humans and nature. Both fields may also converge when, for instance, ecologists note the resilience of patterned landscapes, the significance of scale and the inevitability of change. Despite this overlap, these approaches build on different foundations, reflecting the divergent histories of the study of ecosystems and of landscapes. In landscape study, theory and action are derived not merely from a scientific understanding of natural systems, but from the landscape itself, and from its mingled heritage of nature and human history. Such a view, pragmatically accommodating diverse patchworks of knowledge and ideas, may prove better able to draw upon lessons from the past, and to underpin consensus and co-operation in the future, than does one that imposes, grid-like, a specific scientific perspective.

Ecology is also about politics

But there is still another emerging response to Leopold’s challenge – one that questions who is permitted to tinker, and who gets to define the parts. Over the last three decades, novel ideas about ecosystems, resilience and landscapes have been accompanied by shifting views regarding the place and power of science itself. Observations have flowed in from historians and political ecologists around the world. They have watched too many conservation biologists in India and Africa design parks that separate peasants from their livelihoods. In Central America, ecologists regularly dismiss local knowledge of biodiversity. In Laos and elsewhere, World Bank ecologists trade off communities displaced by big dams against protected areas for endangered species. Wildlife biologists in Northern Canada insist on strict controls on Indigenous hunting.

As these examples demonstrate, ecology can also oppress when science is allowed to displace other forms of knowledge and experience. Sometimes this oppression stems from the way ecologists define problems. For example, orthodox ecological ideas about desertification and deforestation tend to privilege certain forms of knowledge, with consequences that include a misdiagnosis of problems, and “solutions” that cause further degradation. One common outcome, observed in sub-Saharan Africa, India and elsewhere, is that people accustomed to caring for their local forest are blocked from entering it in the name of conservation, leaving it open to industrial exploitation.

Ecologists’ tacit support for powerful interests can be just as pervasive. Landscape ecologists are sometimes employed to green new suburbs, leaving unexamined the need for urban expansion. Resilience ecologists tend to attribute single-minded resource exploitation to ignorance, neglecting to mention the economic and corporate forces that drive the conversion of nature into industrial commodities.

Studies of the history and politics of ecology have not merely critiqued its capacity to oppress. This work has also shown that today’s scientific knowledge is not the only possible description of the world. It has done so by demonstrating the role of institutions, disciplines and wider society in shaping concepts such as the ecosystem and resilience. (This view of science as more than a simple mirror of reality does not, of course, deny that nature itself – wildfires, exploding species populations, flooding rivers, hillsides that erode and collapse – is also a powerful agent, able to reshape human-environment relations.) Such a perspective on knowledge and power presents still unexamined opportunities to frame a more critical, yet productive, view of ecology.

Modest ambitions

Experience over the last four decades has demonstrated the complexity of Leopold’s challenge: of tinkering intelligently while guided by an imperfect understanding of the parts. There are no easy answers, although several tentative responses show promise, including ideas discussed here about resilience and human landscapes – if they are tempered by an awareness of the oppressive capacity of ecology. Ecologists must also carefully consider how they relate to authority; a science that proclaims objective purity risks irrelevance, but a science too closely integrated with power courts its own corruption.

What this experience also compels is a more modest view of expertise. Such a view is evident in the many creative ways of combining knowledge from diverse sources that are now emerging. These ways acknowledge that while science can inform, it cannot lead, and that the essential environmental questions are political, not scientific.

Recent efforts have demonstrated the prospects of a modest ecology. These include experiments to involve all interested parties in building scenarios of a resilient future, as well as creative designs for parks and neighbourhoods that incorporate not only ecological knowledge, but also joy, pleasure and a sense of care. Such initiatives are not only modest, they also demonstrate that ecologists may finally be learning to transcend their own tendency to depict, as Leopold expressed it, “a world of wounds,” in which humans cannot touch but to destroy. 

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J’s EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.