Environmental traditions

In an influential account Donald Worster points to two main historical streams of thought that had come together in the environmental movement, two opposing attitudes to nature that had led, through the centuries, to two different kinds of ecology (Worster 1977). One stream he termed "imperialist," which he traced back to Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century and the ideas about useful knowledge and the human domination of nature that were so central to Bacon's thought. For Worster, Bacon's philosophy, and the subsequent institutionaliza-tion of an experimentally oriented science of nature, had been part of an exploitative ecology through which the non-human environment was portrayed as raw material, or as natural resources for human use and benefit. As Worster put it, "Bacon promised to the world a manmade paradise, to be rendered astonishingly fertile by science and human management. In that utopia, he predicted, man would recover a place of dignity and honor, as well as the authority over all the other creatures he once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden" (Worster 1977: 30).

Carolus Linnaeus in Sweden and Georges Buffon in France were among the most influential scientists in the eighteenth century to begin to give this imperialist ecology a more systematic form and establish its characteristic modes of interacting with nature. It was Linnaeus and Buffon and their many disciples who brought an interest in nature into the broader social processes of colonization, exploration, and exploitation. Linnaeus, for instance, began his career by carrying out investigative journeys of exploration in the Swedish provinces on behalf of the parliament, and he sent his students around the world in search of new species ofplants and flowers. From a base in Uppsala, in the remote, semi-civilized periphery of Europe, Linnaeus turned the Baconian vision into a full-fledged classificatory mode of sciencing, an episteme. For Michel Foucault, the taxonomic program of Linnaeus was one of the formative elements of the science of the classical age. Observation, classification, naming, and categorizing were the central components of eighteenth-century science. "Natural history in the classical age is not merely the discovery of a new object of curiosity; it covers a series of complex operations that introduce the possibility of a constant order into a totality of representations" (Foucault 1973: 158).

Nature became a system of component parts to be tended, or operated, like a machine so that its productive utilization for human benefit could be made more effective and extensive. Motivated by a deeply felt Christian theology, as well as by an inordinate interest in non-human beings, Linnaeus elaborated an economy of nature in which man was to exploit God's creations as efficiently as possible:

All these treasures of nature, so artfully contrived, so wonderfully propagated, so providentially supported throughout her three kingdoms, seem intended by the Creator for the sake of man. Every thing may be made subservient to his use; if not immediately, yet mediately, not so to that of other animals. By the help of reason man tames the fiercest animals, pursues and catches the swiftest, nay he is able to reach even those, which lye hidden in the bottom of the sea. (quoted in Worster 1977: 36)

This highly utilitarian view of nature came to be promulgated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in philosophy and politics, but especially in the natural sciences, as they took on a more professional and disciplined organizational form. Utilitarianism was a view that fit well with the more general project of industrialization. Science came to be oriented toward the needs of the emerging industrial culture (see Russell 1983). Science became a profession, an integral part of industrial society and, within the sciences, more dynamic, exploitative approaches to nature became the dominant "paradigms" or metaphorical thought-figures.

In many respects, the linking of science with industrial technology was perhaps the most fundamental process of the nineteenth century; it made possible both the consolidation and expansion of a new economic system, as well as the creation of a range of new forms of cultural expression and social interaction. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, "the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention. A new method entered into life" (Whitehead 1925: 98). And it would be as an experimental, systemic approach to understanding nature that the imperialist road would enter into the science of ecology, when it was given a name and a more formalized identity (by the biologist Ernst Haeckel) in the 1860s.

Opposed to the imperialists were the nature-lovers, to whom Worster gave the label "arcadian" in order to associate their particular version of ecology to the classical "ideal of a simple rural life in close harmony with nature" that had been depicted by Roman poets in the ancient Greek region of Arcady. The back-to-nature folks began to articulate their counter-program at the dawning of the industrial era as part of the Romantic movement. The arcadians shared many of the modernizing, scientific ambitions of the imperialists, but they came to develop a different way of investigating and understanding nature. Tracing arcadians back to the English pastor and writer Gilbert White and especially to his work The Natural History of Selborne, originally published in 1789, Worster delineated a stream of experiential, or participatory, ecology that was perhaps most influentially developed further by Henry David Thoreau in the nineteenth century.

One central difference between the two traditions was in the role attributed to the scientist and to his or her expertise. The imperialists were part of a professionalization process, by which science became a vocation, a socially accepted and mandated form of knowledge production. Arcadians, on the other hand, still practiced a "gentleman's" science, and, in the hands of a Thoreau or a Johann Goethe, whose writings have also been an important reference point, they pursued their science in a more engaged and "holistic" manner. The self-imposed limitations that were so central to the Baconians, the narrowing of observation to what could be seen and classified, were rejected by the arcadians. As Thoreau wrote in his first published essay,

The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience. We do not learn by inference and deduction, and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy... The most scientific will still be the healthiest and friendliest man, and possess a more perfect Indian wisdom. (quoted in Worster 1977: 97)

Thoreau and other nineteenth-century arcadian ecologists developed what we might call a different discourse of nature study, a more descriptive and poetic type of knowledge-making that has continued in our day in popular travel and nature literature among other places. In Thoreau's writings, the scientific and the literary are often in an exciting tension, which has led to sometimes heated debates between different environmentalists who lay claim to his legacy.1

By the end of the nineteenth century the professional scientist and the nature writer, and with them the broader cultures of science and literature which were still able to be combined in Thoreau, tended to part company. Worster's argument was that the two streams of ecology had both contributed to Charles Darwin's theory of natural evolution, but that they had subsequently given rise, in the course of the twentieth century, to two different ways of thinking about ecology and conducting ecological research. The one was systemic, while the other was individual in focus, and they have fostered an ecosystems-oriented ecology, on the one hand, and an evolutionary, population-oriented ecology on the other, the one taking its point of departure in the systemic relations that exist among species, and the other taking its point of departure in the dynamic relations of one species to its environment (Kwa 1986). What are at work are different attitudes, or conceptions of nature, as well as different methodological and theoretical assumptions about how to investigate, or to interrogate, nature.

In the late nineteenth century, in the making of the conservation movement, the two streams gave rise to two types of conservationism. The arcadian or romantic approach could be seen at work in organizations such as the Sierra Club in the United States, which adopted an approach to conservation that sought to preserve particularly valuable, or striking, landscapes from further exploitation. The imperialist approach came to dominate the development of resource management and scientific forestry, and led to ideas about efficient use and, within science, to the concepts of ecological succession and ecosystems. The opposing programs of Linnaeus and White were reenacted in the so-called preser-vationism of John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, and the conserva-tionism of Gifford Pinchot, the secretary of interior in the "progressive" United States government at the turn of the century (Gottlieb 1993).

Worster's distinction can be considered a first slice of the environmental cake, and like all first slices, it is perhaps a bit too big in the pieces it separates. As with similar dichotomies that have been suggested by other authors - between ecocentrics and anthropocentrics, animists and mechanists, deep and shallow ecologists - Worster's division into imperialist and arcadian roads to ecology captures a fundamental contradiction in contemporary environmentalism. But almost by definition, it also neglects all those approaches that fall in between the two opposed camps. Even more seriously, Worster's scheme, like many of the other dualisms that have been suggested, tends to disregard a third important source of inspiration for the environmental movement. For it was not merely, or even primarily, conservation or nature preservation that provided the focus for the emerging movement. There were also, particularly in industrial cities and urban areas, a number of social problems that had come to be identified in the course of industrialization that were at the center of attention: industrial waste and pollution, automobility, energy use, and, perhaps most importantly, occupational health and safety, the environmental hazards of work. These issues had all been more or less ignored by the conservation movements in the United States, as well as in most other countries, but they came to form an important part of the agenda for the new environmentalism that emerged in the 1960s (Jamison etal. 1990; Gottlieb 1993).

In my terminology, what was at work was the mobilization of a third tradition - a tradition of human ecology - that had come with the development of the social sciences at the end of the nineteenth century. Particularly in the United States, in relation to various social welfare and public health projects, a wide range of "human ecologies" emerged both inside and outside the academic world. The settling of the continent and the challenges of taming the wild natural landscape inspired new ideas about the impact of the environment on social and economic development, or what the geographer, George Perkins Marsh, characterized, in his pioneering book from 1864, as the relations between "nature and man." In part motivated by the requirements of engineering and infrastructural development, in part an outgrowth of physical geography and urban planning and, in part, a sub-field of public medicine and public health, human ecologies entered into the new social sciences of sociology and anthropology, of economics and political science, as they became disciplines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Ross 1991).

With the closing of the frontier in America, and the colonization of the planet by the European imperial powers in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the earlier distinctions between nature and society tended to become ever more complicated and mediated. The natural landscape was becoming integrated, as component parts, into the industrializing social order. Fields were becoming food factories, and prairies were becoming sites of animal husbandry. Eventually the forests would become cultivated, as well as industrialized, and many wilderness areas would become parks, at the same time as a new breed of landscape architects like Frederick Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park, would selectively bring elements of the wilderness into the urban world. By the early twentieth century it had become apparent to many that a further kind of ecology was necessary - a human, or social, or cultural ecology - that investigated the borderlines and the hybridizations, the multifarious relations between human societies and their natural environs. Particularly in the United States and Britain geographers, sociologists, architects, and planners, as well as socially minded biologists and natural historians, would begin to articulate new conceptual frameworks and terminologies; and these urban and social ecologies would be applied by health officials and town- and city-planners to form, by the 1930s, a recognizable tradition of ideas and viewpoints (Jamison 1998).

Lewis Mumford was perhaps the most visible proponent of what has come to be called a regional approach to social development. Already in his first book, The Story of Utopias, from 1922, Mumford outlined the regional, or human ecological perspective, that would come to characterize more than sixty years of writing. Building on the teachings of Patrick Geddes, whom he referred to as his "mentor," Mumford combined elements from history, geography, architecture and urban planning into a synthetic human ecology. Basic to its methodology was what he called, in his first book, the regional survey:

The aim of the Regional Survey is to take a geographic region and explore it in every aspect. It differs from the social survey with which we are acquainted in America in that it is not chiefly a survey of evils; it is, rather, a survey of the existing conditions in all their aspects; and it emphasizes to a much greater extent than the social survey the natural characteristics of the environment, as they are discovered by the geologist, the zoologist, the ecologist - in addition to the development of natural and human conditions in the historic past, as presented by the anthropologist, the archeologist, and the historian. In short, the regional survey attempts a local synthesis of all the specialist "knowledges." (quoted in Jamison 1998: 90)

Mumford's books of the 1930s - Technics and Civilization and The Culture of Cities - can be considered paradigmatic, or exemplary, works of this

80 The Making of Green Knowledge Table 1. Environmental traditions



Human ecology

Formative influences







Key mobilizers

Odum brothers






Type of sciencing


natural history


systemic models

thick description


Relation to nature







Conception of nature




resource base








deep ecology


human ecological tradition (Guha 1991), which, after the Second World War, has become an important feature of academic life and public policy in both Europe and North America, as well as in other parts of the world. As opposed to the ecological traditions of the natural scientists, the various human ecologies seek to link natural and social knowledges into a coherent whole, usually focused on a particular region or community. Institutionally, human ecology has tended to be practiced in geography departments, but, since the 1970s, it has also been taught in environmental studies departments, and, here and there, in specific departments of human ecology, as well.

To make the story somewhat more complete, it can therefore be useful to add a third tradition to Worster's two ecologies, and to distinguish three ideal-typical traditions that have been mobilized in the making of environmental movements. Each tradition has its own characteristic conception of nature and its own preferred methods of investigation, as well as its own distinct version of an appropriate ecological practice or politics (see Table 1).

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