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Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas

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Nature's Economy is a wide-ranging investigation of ecology's past. It traces the origins of the concept, discusses the thinkers who have shaped it, and shows how it in turn has shaped the modern perception of our place in nature. The book includes portraits of Linnaeus, Gilbert White, Darwin, Thoreau, and such key twentieth-century ecologists as Rachel Carson, Frederic Cl Nature's Economy is a wide-ranging investigation of ecology's past. It traces the origins of the concept, discusses the thinkers who have shaped it, and shows how it in turn has shaped the modern perception of our place in nature. The book includes portraits of Linnaeus, Gilbert White, Darwin, Thoreau, and such key twentieth-century ecologists as Rachel Carson, Frederic Clements, Aldo Leopold, James Lovelock, and Eugene Odum. It concludes with a new Part VI, which looks at the directions ecology has taken most recently.


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Nature's Economy is a wide-ranging investigation of ecology's past. It traces the origins of the concept, discusses the thinkers who have shaped it, and shows how it in turn has shaped the modern perception of our place in nature. The book includes portraits of Linnaeus, Gilbert White, Darwin, Thoreau, and such key twentieth-century ecologists as Rachel Carson, Frederic Cl Nature's Economy is a wide-ranging investigation of ecology's past. It traces the origins of the concept, discusses the thinkers who have shaped it, and shows how it in turn has shaped the modern perception of our place in nature. The book includes portraits of Linnaeus, Gilbert White, Darwin, Thoreau, and such key twentieth-century ecologists as Rachel Carson, Frederic Clements, Aldo Leopold, James Lovelock, and Eugene Odum. It concludes with a new Part VI, which looks at the directions ecology has taken most recently.

30 review for Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas

  1. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    In a narrow sense, Nature's Economy could be considered a counterpart to Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While Kuhn looks at evolution of scientific knowledge from the inside, looking for moments when accumulated evidence pushes scientists to a new paradigm, Worster looks at the mind of the scientist, examining how his (well over 90% of the players in the book are male) own predilections and his cultural frame guide his work. I found this fascinating, because it reveals that para In a narrow sense, Nature's Economy could be considered a counterpart to Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While Kuhn looks at evolution of scientific knowledge from the inside, looking for moments when accumulated evidence pushes scientists to a new paradigm, Worster looks at the mind of the scientist, examining how his (well over 90% of the players in the book are male) own predilections and his cultural frame guide his work. I found this fascinating, because it reveals that paradigms in ecology have been perhaps one part observation for every nine parts extrapolation, values, and ideology. Through that lens, Worster's narrow history of ecology becomes a much broader history of the value sets applied to nature and its relationship with human society throughout the last 300 years of Western history. The first few parts focus on individuals - Gilbert White, Linnaeus, Thoreau, Darwin, - while as time goes on, the conversation becomes more rich and complex. The format of the book makes it surprisingly diverse. The milieu and locale within which each author developed are incredibly distinct, and it's kind of stunning whenever Worster points out that the debates of an era would be largely incomprehensible to authors of previous eras. It's stunning because nearly every debate and conversation in the book feels familiar and fresh. I have often defended science from detractors who claim it abandons warmth, feeling, and an appreciation for holism in its pursuit of objectivity. Worster makes it clear that this argument has been going on since the emergence of science has a common and institutionalized pursuit, and that the Romantic sense of nature largely arose in response to that critique (incidentally, my response to that criticism is both deflated and upheld by Worster's analysis: I argue that science is a tool, and it is quite independent of the values scientists hold and by which they live their lives; Worster points out that it's not at all independent of those values, but those values can really be anything). The section on Thoreau was especially fun. I realized that he was a badass, of course, but not how completely that was true. Worster implies he basically came up with the idea of environmental history, using tree rings and vegetation to read the history of land use and colonization. He also almost completely anticipates David Abram's argument, minus the bit about writing. Whenever he escaped Emerson's clutches, Thoreau embraced his body and looked for a totally sensual, physical embrace of nature - doing natural history with his nose, hands, and tongue as well his brain and eyes. The central conflict, especially in the pre-crisis years, was between the Arcadian school, dominated by natural history, observation, and a portrayal of nature as warm, mutualist, and beautifully life-affirming; and the Imperial school, which emphasizes the violence, competition, waste, and annoyance in nature and invites human guidance to fix some of these issues and increase productivity. It was surprising to me how much the Imperial school seemed to be congruent with and suggestive of permaculture, adjusting nature to produce more human food and less human nuisances. In the meantime, of course, none of the ideals the early thinkers suggest were actually implemented in any meaningful way, and the planet was utterly trashed. The transition to post-WWII ecology was a rather abrupt one. As Worster really tells only the story of how people think about the land, not how it is actually treated, you get the impression that people in the 1960's just looked around one day and realized "shit, we're really screwing this place up." By that point, ecology had developed a set of observations from which somewhat empirical principles could be derived. Society looked to the profession for guidance on how to deal with the problems their damage was causing, and, as far as Worster is concerned, they utterly failed to answer the call. While early naturalists spent much of their time doing observational natural history and extrapolating what they noticed into sweeping pictures of nature, modern empirical scientists do much the same thing with experimental data. Nature is vast and complex enough to supply convincing evidence for nearly any vision; it is full of stability and disturbance, competition and cooperation, profligacy and thrift. Worster's story of modern ecology depicts competing schools differing in their focus (and, since what they look for determines what they find, their conclusions), driven in competition by faddism. Succession, food webs, chaos, complexity, mosaic landscape ecology, and more had their moment in the sun, and each contributed to a more complete knowledge of nature. Unfortunately, it seems that this conflict of opinion, especially the realization that nature relies on its own disturbance, destruction, and catastrophe, has been taken advantage of to push preservationist logic off kilter. A nearly equal contributor was the New Ecology school's emphasis on reducing ecosystems to mathematically described populations and energy budgets. This may be how science moves forward, and ultimately it is neatly compatible with a Deep Ecological viewpoint (I find the whole thing rather magical) but at the time it was associated with a scorn for subjective attachments, an unrestrained willingness to destroy ecosystems to dissect them, and the sense that science didn't yet know enough to guide policy. Worster plays into this too. His epilogue makes it sound like the shifting sands of environmental value systems (what he describes as "historicism") invoke moral relativism, setting our policy makers and citizens adrift in a moral ocean with no anchor. He does helpfully suggest that environmental history and paleoecology can contribute to grounding ecology in a value system that makes some sense, and I agree with him strongly on that point. Like most environmental historians, Worster does a great job with prose and narrative. He very carefully manages his own voice, assiduously avoiding inserting his own perspective and opinion in the story until the very end. It's interesting, because what he does throughout the book is essentially to deflate earnest ecological thinkers' ideas by pointing out their recapitulation of ancient tenets of Western thought, so when he does reveal some of his own thoughts at the end, it's clear they are subject to the same critique and limitations. And I guess that's his lesson, that no matter how far you push into new territory, your ideas are always just going to be variations on these same old themes. Kind of discouraging, if you find Western thought to be fundamentally violent, imperialistic, and placeless.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Collier Brown

    We don't hear it as much these days, but the notion that we are living in an Age of Ecology persists. Why don't we hear of it more often? Why doesn't it feel like we're living in an Age of Ecology when the effects of other Ages--the Industrial Age, for instance--offered far more tangible experiences? Because, as Worster outlines here, the idea of ecology itself still lacks consensus regarding its fundamental claim: that people and their environments are codependent. And it's not just a matter of We don't hear it as much these days, but the notion that we are living in an Age of Ecology persists. Why don't we hear of it more often? Why doesn't it feel like we're living in an Age of Ecology when the effects of other Ages--the Industrial Age, for instance--offered far more tangible experiences? Because, as Worster outlines here, the idea of ecology itself still lacks consensus regarding its fundamental claim: that people and their environments are codependent. And it's not just a matter of political intransigence on the part of conservatives or liberals or whatever. The science behind ecology shows both innate stability and instability in our oceans, our atmospheres, and our many hot, cold, wet, and dry terrains. Both sides of the debate are right, in a way, and neither are unique in their positions. Which is to say, the debate is an old one. That's always the story of history. Worster tracks Western civilization's shifting opinion about mankind's relationship to nature: from the pastoral view of naturalists like Gilbert White to the rise of scientific naturalism at the turn of the century and finally toward uncertainty as scientists began to find themselves alienated by nature's almost impenetrable complexity. I'm giving very broad strokes here, of course. Worster includes the ideas of Alexander von Humbolt, Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson--you know, the biggies. The beauty of this book, besides its layman accessibility (you do not have to be a scientist to understand Worster's wonderful prose), is its contextualization of an idea that, for the uninformed, seems new and relevant only to our moment in history. This is not a didactic or moralistic treatise on the human impact on planet earth. It is simply a series of historical vignettes meant to capture the prevailing and changing sentiment regarding nature over two or three centuries. I highly, HIGHLY recommend this book, not only for the insightful connections it makes but for the influential authors it recommends. There are some beautiful editions of Gilbert White's Selborne out there. Enjoy!

  3. 4 out of 5

    David Bates

    In his 1977 work Nature’s Economy Donald Worster traces the development of the scientific discipline of ecology, which he broadly defines as the systematic thinking about the interrelationships of organisms. Noting the prestige of ecology in American thought and policymaking following the victories of the Environmental Movement Worster noted that his aim was “not so much to account for the appeal of ecology to our own time as to understand what this field of study has been prior to its recent as In his 1977 work Nature’s Economy Donald Worster traces the development of the scientific discipline of ecology, which he broadly defines as the systematic thinking about the interrelationships of organisms. Noting the prestige of ecology in American thought and policymaking following the victories of the Environmental Movement Worster noted that his aim was “not so much to account for the appeal of ecology to our own time as to understand what this field of study has been prior to its recent ascent to oracular power . . . Like a stranger who has just blown into town, ecology seems a presence without a past. Before committing ourselves too firmly to its tutelage, however, we might do some digging into its previous life.” Worster picks up the modern history of ecology in the eighteenth century, when thinkers began to describe how all the varied forms of life interacted as a whole in an “economy of nature.” Early on two major traditions emerged within the new field of thought. The first was an “arcadian” school that found expression in the writings of the English naturalist Gilbert White, advocating a simple, humble life for man in order to restore him to a harmonious relationship with nature. The second was an “imperial school” which Worster traces from the influential writings of Carolus Linnaeus, whose “ambition was to establish, through the exercise of reason and by hard work, man’s dominion over nature.” Proceeding episodically Worster follows the influence of these schools forward, choosing exemplars to illustrate the development of ecological thought. Henry David Thoreau becomes the inheritor of Gilbert White’s legacy and the exemplar of a subversive American romanticism that reverenced the sublime divinity of the natural world, and stressed interdependence and holism. The common values which informed the thought of White and Thoreau could be traced through other American naturalists like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, to present day environmental activists. In the main, this would remain a protest tradition until the mid-20th century however. The development of “scientific” thought during the nineteenth century, ensconced by its close within universities, would be driven by the imperial school. Opposite Thoreau Worster places Charles Darwin as the exemplar of post-Romantic thought. The natural world of ruthless struggle for dominance and survival which Darwin described not only explained biodiversity, it legitimized exploitation and conquest and carried the imprimatur of objective science. “It was not just to his own generation . . . that Darwin taught the harsh reality behind the often pleasant façade of nature” Worster tells us. “His influence endured . . . he gathered and published ‘facts’ – which led to scientific laws which eventually became, for the great majority, Truth.” To dwell on the violence and suffering in nature” was from was from the mid-nineteenth century on, “to be ‘realistic.’” It is here that Worster makes his central point. The influence which Darwin’s findings in the Galapagos islands had was not an artifact of the natural progression of findings within a field of empirical research, but of his society. The emphasis Darwin placed on competitive struggle, Worster argues, could not have been conceived of by, or made sense to, a Hopi Indian of the southwest or a Hindu of the subcontinent. But to industrializing, technological, colonizing cultures like Britain and the United States it gained broad currency as a paradigm far beyond its simple technical merits. An instrumental, utilitarian view toward nature prevailed. A turning point came, Worster suggests, on the Prairies of the American West. It was there in the first decades of the twentieth century that ecology as an academic discipline took shape. Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles became the main advocates for a theory of natural development based on observations of the varied forest and grasslands of the West. Competition for survival between organisms in a system created dynamically progressing stages of development, until a stable climax stage in tune with the local climate was attained. This philosophy of change and progress neatly matched the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner which described American frontier settlement in terms of progressive stages of civilization. Clement’s model existed in a world without people; Turner’s model existed in a world where nature was immaterial to development. Both theories flowed from values that disconnected civilization from the environment, humans from nature, rather than relating them to each other. But in a few short decades the bison were annihilated, the sod of the grasslands broken up and natural predators exterminated. Under the droughts which recur periodically in the West, the soil became dust, and the black dust was lifted by windstorms into the debilitating maelstroms of the Dust Bowl years. Only haltingly in the post-war years did ecology turn to the study of conservation as policymakers reacted to the disaster. Developments in ecological thought, Worster concluded, had not strayed far from the social and economic attitudes of their day, nor been much removed from the “messy, shifting, hurly-burly world of human values.” Noting that the field was currently preoccupied with models drawn from contemporary economics and technological fields, he found it a somewhat unpromising counterforce to the economically driven, technologically enabled exploitation that the environmental movement opposed. The answer lay in a return to the values of arcadian thinkers rather than the imperial. “Our fundamental task, in this writer’s view, is now to choose between these two moral courses, and thus to decide where this science of ecology can and should lead us.”

  4. 5 out of 5

    Donald Radcliffe

    This an extremely interesting book, I did a lot of highlighting, and I'd put it at the top of my recommendations for anyone interested in environmental history and/or ecology. One word of caution: I think it's a bit of a false advertisement, in that it seems more focused on the history of environmental ethics as they relate to ecology than it does on the history of ecology itself. There's a lot of dwelling on the ultimate implications of religious, spiritual, mechanistic, and/or postmodern thoug This an extremely interesting book, I did a lot of highlighting, and I'd put it at the top of my recommendations for anyone interested in environmental history and/or ecology. One word of caution: I think it's a bit of a false advertisement, in that it seems more focused on the history of environmental ethics as they relate to ecology than it does on the history of ecology itself. There's a lot of dwelling on the ultimate implications of religious, spiritual, mechanistic, and/or postmodern thought among the scientific community, more than aspects of theories themselves. I'm not complaining - it was done really well. It was just different than what I'd expected. The book does a great job of showing that leading scientific discourses are shaped by historical events and social fashions, going back to the 18th century, and up until about 1990. It gave me as a young ecologist a lot to think about in terms of how the field(s) got to where they are today.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    The scope of this history is extremely limited to England and America, male philosphers and scientists, and a foundational canon of ancient Christian and Greek literature. Taken as a history of all ecological ideas, then, it's absolute crap. But if the reader understands and accepts the narrow focus for what it is, this book has an interesting and coherent narrative.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ciaran McLarnon

    Really interesting, nice to read a book that isn't afraid to say ecology is awesome!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erica

    A classic from one of the best historians of the 20th century. In my opinion, however, -Dust Bowl- remains his masterpiece.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Miller

    Worster’s book compartmentalizes his subject and fails to draw upon sources that reach beyond spheres that work for his purposes alone. His summarization of Christianity (in two pages) inadequately blames Christians for abusing the environment. Although, Worster is clearly written in a linear text-book fashion, my dissatisfaction with the book is outweighed by all other considerations.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Richard Kravitz

    This was a great book, really getting into ecology now.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    A good read on the topic.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    And still another required book for an environmental class...

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mzeheter

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alexis Mettler

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brittney

  15. 4 out of 5

    Forestofglory

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nfgoranson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gabriel Corwin

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Kim

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sophie F-S

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lizzie Beebee

  22. 4 out of 5

    Paul Copeland

  23. 4 out of 5

    Linus Blomqvist

  24. 4 out of 5

    Hilarie Williams

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gareth Perkins

  26. 4 out of 5

    Pj

  27. 5 out of 5

    Diane Borden

  28. 4 out of 5

    Antoine Baggett

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dara

  30. 4 out of 5

    Leah Kinthaert

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