April 25, 2011


In The Ecology of Order and Chaos Donald Worster details the chronological history of the view for environmental science and ethics. He states ecology has an underlying meaning premised in simplicity and conservation. Aldo Leopold, Bill Devall, and George Sessions views of ecosystems as stable and harmonious are beginning to dissolve. The “old” viewpoint contends we should maintain ecosystems or return them to their natural state. Worster believes the emergence of this “new” view for ecology will change the perspective of the environmentalist’s concern for nature.
From the beginning Worster talks about the conclusions he made years ago in a publication of his about ecology and its ideas about nature; “…[ecology] itself needs to be morally examined and critiqued from time to time” (159). This statement foreshadows the conclusion he reaches in The Ecology of Order and Chaos; an all-wise guide view of ecology is inaccurate and dangerous. We must be willing to accept challenges to our preconceived notions of science and nature. I believe it would be safe to say that Worster is, generally speaking, content with the way ecology has been willing to evolve as a science/philosophy.
The early workings of ecology, from the likes of Paul Sears and other ecologists of that time, has the viewpoint that ecology is “… a study of equilibrium, harmony, and order…” (159). Frederic L. Clements moved to dynamic ecology, which is, “concerned with change an evolution in the landscape” (160). This notion of nature suggests that nature itself will reach a climax stage and essentially become a single animal or plant. The view articulates that nature is maturing, and after it is given enough time to organize, will “…exercise some control over the nonliving world around it…” (160). Essentially, it will develop a consciousness and “use its brains.”
This ideal integrates nicely into the perspective of ecology most influenced by Eugene P. Odum for which the main concern was the flow of energy and nutrients through the natural system. One can see the similarities between Clements and Odum’s ideals, that nature will reach a point of maturity that conditions harmony and interrelatedness. These men argued because nature is both our home and provides our every essential need, ecology ought to be made the foundation of education, economics, and politics. 
Nowadays, as Worster mentions, ecology “… has become a study of disturbance, disharmony, and chaos, and coincidentally or not, conservation is often not even a remote concern” (159). Drury and Nisbet’s individualist notion of ecology does not accept the argument that nature will reach maturity nor the belief that early species pave the path in making this maturity possible. Whether it is natural disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires), or animals in nature (badgers, mound-building ants), there is always a disturbance in nature to keep it from reaching equilibrium. Worster’s evidence for this individualist approach comes from Paul Colinvaux (popularized contemporary philosophy). Colinvaux states, “What look like community properties are in fact the summed results of all these bits of private enterprise” (165). In other words, he argues, the nature of succession is purely based on survival of the fittest.
Worster writes that the new views of ecology are due to the discovery of chaos and are “…fundamentally erratic, discontinuous, and unpredictable” (166). He evidences the randomness of weather and how, despite our methodical predictions, rain falls or it doesn’t. The evidence is in “each little snowflake falling out of the sky turns out to be completely unlike any other,” and “cars suddenly bunching up on the freeway” (166). Ecologists were some of the last individuals to accept the current notion of chaos. In the mid 1970’s they conceded that the mathematical models their data inferred were not fully explainable and they could not explain “the periodic outbreaks of gypsy moths in eastern hardwood forests…” (166).
Chaos Theory is best explained in Worster’s words, “tiny differences in input can quickly become substantial differences in output” (167). I accept Chaos Theory and many of the claims associated with it because of the mountains of evidence for it; there is more evidence for the randomness of nature than for the harmony of it. Reality is a pretty complex, insane concept to fathom. We don’t have a proper enough understanding of reality to try and fit it into neatly stacked subcultures of science; but we can try our best.
Although Worster does his best to give evidence for his points, there are some points of argument against his beliefs. As noted by Professor David Cartwright, the fact that Chaos Theory tries to explain randomness in a nicely laid out perspective is quite ironic. Though I see no other way for which it could conceivably be done; which brings me to my next point. Worster contends, “The world is more complex than we ever imagined, they say, and indeed, some would add, ever can imagine” (166). What about advances in technology?
When artificial intelligence (A.I.) is advanced to an exponential factor, will we as some claim, be able look to A.I. for a solution to our every problem? Earlier this week we interviewed the co-founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, for TechZombie. When Google was just getting started, Kelly asked the current CEO of Google, Larry Page, what his end game for creating Google was. Page told him it was to “create the largest artificial intelligence database in the world.” If every human on earth that has access to the Internet is contributing to an A.I. database, does that not leave open the possibility that we will some day know everything? That much knowledge could theoretically calculate an inconceivable amount of data. However, to play devil’s advocate, if the data that makes up this A.I. database is not correct, that could lead to a “Butterfly Effect” of poor decision making; reinforcing Worster’s belief that ecology should not be taken as an all-knowing science.
The ideas Worster offers are compelling because they unravel preconceived notions of nature. Chaos Theory can be compared with Ludwig Von Wittgenstein’s theory of the ladder in “Tractatus,” though in slightly different context. We can leverage what history has presented to us, about environmental ecology as a ladder, to help ourselves better comprehend the process of human thought and understanding. It is important for us to recognize these ideals and then dispel of them by redefining what we know.
Worster seems to convey the point that the more we know, or try to understand, the more we realize we don’t understand. Because of this realization, we must respect nature more than ever. He states, “It may be that we moderns, after absorbing the lessons of today’s science, find we cannot love nature quite as easily as Muir did; but it may also be that we have discovered more reason than ever to respect it…” (168). The solution is that we “flap our own wings in it a little more gently” (168). The emergence of this new “understanding” of not really understanding is so incomprehensible to many that they entirely disregard it. That is why many scientists were slow to adopt Chaos Theory; it was too demoralizing to their lives work to want to accept the concept. Regarding scientific knowledge, Worster says, “They have been announcing laws, designing models, predicting what an individual atom or person is supposed to do; and now, increasingly, they are beginning to confess that the world never quite behaves the way it is supposed to do” (166).
I believe Worster would have a firm appreciation for what James Gleick conveys in his newest book The Information. Gleick believes that nature is chaotic and the information that flows throughout reality and space and time works like a computer (to be fair, I’ve only read halfway through the book). The computer, as a whole, will not function properly without every component interacting with one another. At this point in human history, we don’t know what we would need to know, to determine if Chaos Theory is correct. I agree with Donald Worster because he acknowledges that we don’t know what we thought we knew. Nature is chaotic and you can’t predict chaos. This being so, we better be extremely careful about what we do to the environment because we really don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.

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