for Dick Howard

Depending on whether it is scientific or political, ecology covers two distinct, though interconnected, approaches. I will begin by concentrating on the difference between their objectives, rather than their interconnectedness. It is important to make sure that the political approach is not presented as the ‘absolutely inevitable’ product of a ‘scientific analysis’, to avoid producing a new version of the sort of scientistic and anti-political dogmatism that, in its ‘diamat’ version, purported to raise political practices and concepts to the level of scientifically proven necessities, thus denying their specifically political character.

As a science, ecology deals with civilization in its interaction with the terrestrial ecosystem: the natural base, the non(re)producible context of human activity. Unlike industrial systems, the natural ecosystem possesses a capacity for self-regeneration and self-reorganization which, by virtue of its great diversity and complexity, enables it to regulate itself and evolve towards ever greater complexity and diversity. This capacity for self-regeneration and self-reorganization is damaged by techniques that tend to rationalize and dominate nature, to make it predictable and calculable. ‘Our technological surges,’ writes Edgar Morin, ‘do not just upset the biological cycles, but disturb primary chemical bonds. Our response is the development of control technologies which treat the effects of these evils while exacerbating their causes.’ footnote1

From this starting-point there are two possible approaches. The first, based on scientific study of the ecosystem, seeks to determine scientifically what techniques and what pollution thresholds are ecologically supportable: in other words, the conditions and limits within which development of the industrial technosphere can be pursued without compromising the self-regenerating capacities of the ecosphere. This approach does not involve a fundamental break with industrialism and its hegemony of instrumental reason. It recognizes the need to limit the pillage of natural resources and to substitute long-term rational management of air, water, soil, forests and oceans; it implies policies for limiting effluents and recycling, and the development of techniques which are not destructive to the natural environment.

Policies for ‘conservation of the natural environment’ are therefore—unlike political ecology—not directed towards pacifying relations with nature or achieving ‘reconciliation’ with it; they are intended to keep it tidy, to maintain and manage it, while bearing in mind the necessity of preserving at least its more fundamental capacities for self-regeneration. From this necessity will be deduced such measures as are dictated by the interests of humanity as a whole, the lines along which states will have to constrain their economic decision-makers and individual consumers.