What an Ecological Civilization Might Look Like
Given the overwhelming harm being done to the world's environment and to its people, it is essential today to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization-one that exists in harmony with natural systems-instead of trying to...
January 1, 2011 | Source: Monthly Review | by Fred Magdoff
Given the overwhelming harm being done to the world’s environment and to its people, it is essential today to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization-one that exists in harmony with natural systems-instead of trying to overwhelm and dominate nature. This is not just an ethical issue; it is essential for our survival as a species and the survival of many other species that we reverse the degradation of the earth’s life support systems that once provided dependable climate, clean air, clean water (fresh and ocean), bountiful oceans, and healthy and productive soils.
There are numerous ways to approach and think about the enormous harm that has been done to the environment. I will discuss the following: (1) the critical characteristics that underlie strong ecosystems; (2) why societies are not adequately implementing ecological approaches; and (3) how we might use characteristics of strong natural ecosystems as a framework to consider a future ecological civilization.
I. Ecological Principles: Learning from Nature
The study of ecology developed as scientists began to understand how natural systems functioned. Scientists quickly realized that they needed to think and study in a multidisciplinary fashion-there was no way to comprehend the full complexity of such systems by focusing on one particular discipline or sub-discipline. In fact, even after intense study, it is usually impossible to understand fully a highly complex system-with interactions and positive and negative feedback loops-to the extent that you can accurately predict all the results that will occur when you intervene in some way. Frederick Engels described this phenomenon well, over a century ago in 1876:
Learning to “know and correctly apply” the “laws” of nature has progressed greatly since Engels’s time. Although we must always proceed with caution when working with complex ecosystems (as Engels warned, there may be unforeseen consequences), much has been learned about how natural systems operate, about the importance of the interactions of organisms among themselves and with their physical/chemical/climatic environment. There are fragile natural ecosystems that are easily disturbed, and may become degraded as a result of slight disturbance. However, many natural ecosystems are strong, able to resist significant perturbation and/or quickly return to normal functioning following a disturbance. Natural disturbances of an ecosystem may be sudden-a wildfire started by a lightening strike, huge winds generated by hurricanes, floods, etc.-or gradual, as with changes in long-term precipitation trends. More resilient systems are better able to adapt to long-term gradual changes as well as sudden ones.