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:

Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons .Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature-but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.1

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.