A Brief History of Ecology

by | May 30, 2011

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of its central themes is the idea that, in the environmentalist’s argument ‘the politics is prior’ to the science. Environmentalists seem to forget what it is they have presupposed, and appear to believe that instructions about how to live and how to organise society can be simply read off from ‘science’. For instance, in the climate debate, environmentalists presuppose an equivalence of the climate system’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate, thus they claim that knowledge about the climate amounts to knowledge about how best society should be ordered, and if we fail to obey these imperatives, we will destroy ourselves.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis, who produced The Power of Nightmares, and The Trap: Whatever Happened to Our Dream of Freedom had a fascinating essay in the Observer yesterday, which examines some of the origins of political ecology, especially the ideas of holism and ecosystems. Curtis begins his essay — How the ‘ecosystem’ myth has been used for sinister means — with a claim from a protester at recent demonstrations in London, about her movement’s non-hierarchical structure (an expression of the prevailing ideology, says Curtis) and draws a history of this idea.

Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.

As I think Curtis suggests, the claims made by today’s radicals (and many conservatives, for that matter) to be free of hierarchy belie the dearth of substantive cohesive ideas. Hence, so many protests today look much more like self-indulgent, middle-class whingeing, and there is this bizarre spectacle of self-styled radicals marching, not to demand a relaxation of state power, but in agreement with its aims, often demanding a more authoritarian, less democratic exercise of power, and the creation of political institutions and bureaucracies to realise their aims. For instance, the ‘web march’ organised by Friends of the Earth before and during the drafting of the UK Climate Change Bill, demanded a ‘strong climate law’, seemingly in lieu of a popular movement to legitimise it. As pointed out here, this was the epitome of the environmental movement’s failure to actually be movement: it could get people to upload their anxiety onto the web, but it couldn’t get them out into the streets, or even to the ballot box, under one cohesive idea. The ‘Big Ask Web March’ was therefore to political activism (1.0) what Chat Roulette is to romance. Nonetheless, the Climate Change Bill was passed.

The essay is adapted from the next episode of his series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, due to be broadcast tonight on BBC2. The three-part series intends to examine role of cybernetics in political thought to suggest that we have been ‘collonised by the machines we have built’. The first episode examined the influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivism on the early computer pioneers and ‘cyber libertarians’, who thought, claims Curtis, that machines could create a society free of politics and hierarchy. In particular, there was a belief that computers could produce economic stability by hedging risk. But far from flattening hierarchies and creating stability, computerisation created a new means of control and the transfer of economic crises: the wealthy were able to protect themselves from chaos created in the new system. Unfortunately for Curtis, it is perhaps easy to read his narratives as a causally-determined sequence of events that seem to begin with the idea, and end with whichever phenomenon he is attempting to explain. This has led to claims that he is outlining a conspiracy theory, or over-stating the influence of some thinker or other over events. For instance, it looks as though Curtis is suggesting that Rand herself was responsible for the Asian financial crises of the late ’90s. But I think this is a misreading of a more subtle thesis. The point of outlining the progress of ideas through their history is not to ‘join the dots’ in this way, but to emphasise the role that ideas have in the shaping of history, outside the control of their authors. Myths have more power than myth-makers.


  1. Philip

    I think another example of Curtis’ ideas may be found in the attempts at the start of the 20th C to provide a rigorous formal basis for mathematics . Eventually proven to be impossible, in the sense that any non-trivial formal system of description is incomplete. Forrester’s placard with his CoR model is an example of such a formal system (as is any modern computer program) and therefore ultimately unrealistic as a description of the real world – a kind of reductionist nightmare.

    Fascinating also, to hear from Curtis that sections of the environmental movement in the 70s were opposed to the steady state view of the world. Is this an accurate observation, and if so how did this become inverted in the modern environmentalist’s vision? Does it imply that those climate sceptics concerned about the impact of modern environmental ideas on the environmental are actually on the same side as those original radicals (Brand, Moore?).

  2. Ben Pile

    Philip, do you mean the part of the ecology movement who were opposed to the likes of the CoR, and were suspicious of their objectives? Or the ecologists who were sceptical of the idea of balance in the natural world?

    I think the answer is possibly that the idea of a ‘balance’ proved to be more politically useful, especially in an atmosphere of political disillusionment. The claim that there exists a ‘balance’ means that environmentalists don’t have to work so hard to demonstrate anything: they just have to suggest that the ‘system’ is changing, and the precepts of balance and interconnectedness did the rest.

  3. Luis Dias

    I love Curtis’ documentaries, and I agree that the core of his (many) thesis is how ideas that were spread to the world as a promise of X, Y and Z, had almost all of them an ironic twist and ended up being something completely different.

  4. Philip

    Hi Ben: Yes, I meant that part of the 70s ecology movement opposed to the likes of the CoR. And your explanation sounds very likely, thank you. Even given this, it still seems remarkable that the modern activists can continue to push the idea of balance, if “the science” now rejects it.

    I was pleased to find that you had liked Curtis’ program – I did too, and had been disappointed when I read the criticism of episode #1. I just hope I have understood his point correctly – which I take to be that there has been a tendency towards a belief in formal (or systems or programming) approaches to issues, when a more humble, incremental approach would serve us better.

  5. Ben Pile

    Philip, thinking about it further, I wonder if the other reason is that in the era of disillusionment, the ecologists that were resistant simply disintegrated. Literature from the era (i.e. pre-internet) is hard to come by, so this is probably an ill-founded comment — I think Curtis is perhaps too kind to the environmental movement, and over-states the ’70s ‘progressive’ wing of environmentalism. It is now, and it was then a rag-tag bag of confused perspectives.

    I’m not sure about being humble or gradual is the point of the film, but the systems approach is certainly the object of its criticism. It’s hard to over-state the extent to which this idea has been absorbed. It’s something I’ve tried to tease out of the climate debate, but no way near as effectively as Curtis. One of the most interesting things is the reformulation of the human that has happened in parallel with the climate debate. In the second part of this blog post — http://www.climate-resistance.org/2008/12/the-completely-cuckoo-climate-change-cyberspace-conspiracy-conspiracy.html — for example, I look at Monibot’s toying with the idea of ‘memes’ to explain the phenomenon of ‘denial’. The reality that Monbiot seems incapable of understanding is that the more he seeks ways to explain his political failure, the more he holds people in contempt.

    But it’s not just Monbiot, of course. There has been a great deal of energy spent trying to find psychological and pathological accounts of the public’s intellectual disobedience.

  6. Philip

    Thanks for your insights, Ben, they make a lot of difference. I think there must be many examples of scientific-sounding ideas taking a grip on the popular imagination. So, “the clockwork universe”, “it’s all relative”, “the uncertainty principle”, and from here, “the balance of nature” and “the tropical rainforest” (thanks for the reference, Shub!). Is the systems approach idea just another example of this, or is it something more? Does it too come with a handy catchphrase? It seems to me to have a definite touch of “the clockwork universe” about it, but with notions taken from complexity theory added in – emergence, “Conway’s Game of Life”. On the “reformulation of the human”, I think this is going to be discussed in part #3, so I’ll hold any questions about that for now.

  7. StuartR

    I have missed Curtis’s work so far (not for any specfic reason) so looking now, mostly from the recommendations of this blog but also seeing a “buzz”, I see from this documentary series that Adam Curtis basically had his fun surfing the same two youtube clips of Ayn Rand that I saw a year ago when I was curious enough to see her in the 2D flesh.

    Curtis has spun something out of them.

    I remember thinking, after I saw Rands videos, nothing more was added to my knowledge of her than the trivial fact I observed that her eye movements changed from the 50s to the 70s interviews. Not a profound observation.

    What does Curtis do? He actually plays slowed down all the observations from the 50s clip he can of her with her eyes darting around and his voice talking over.

    What a guy.

    The man has thin gruel written throughout. What subjects I have gleaned and I have seen of the two documentaries so far, the best is already covered by Ben Pile, and Ben Pile has written far more direct and cogent stuff about the balance myth without showing a latent desire for knocking off icons – BTW I really am not in the Rand “collective” ;)

    I remember a Bill Hicks skit when he was shocked to see Yul Brynner announcing “I’m dead now” from beyond the grave.

    Hicks said “What’s this guy selling?”

    This is how it is for ever more. What is Curtis selling? We should wait, why buy it too soon?

    I think whatever Curtis is selling will have to backed with something that will need to be pretty much orgasmic to justify this so far. Who’s betting it will end up being shit?

    Curtis is not honest, he is full of technique – which is shit in the modern parlance.

  8. StuartR
  9. StuartR

    Ah! Embed didn’t work. I’ll try a link.

    This video is a brilliant summary of Curtis’s style

    The Loving Trap



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