Easter Islanders, aware that they were almost completely isolated
from the rest of the world, must surely have realized that their very
existence depended on the limited resources of a small island. After
all, it was small enough for them to walk round the entire island
in a day or so and see for themselves what was happening to the forests.
Yet they were unable to devise a system that allowed them to find
the right balance with the environment."
paraphrase Ponting, we are aware that Earth is completely isolated
from the rest of the universe and we realize that our very existence
depends on the limited resources of this one small planet. After all,
it is small enough for us to fly around in a day or so and see for
ourselves what is happening to the forests (and plains and waters).
Yet we seem unable to devise a system that allows us to find the right
balance with the ecosphere."
- Peter Miller and William Rees 2
is a relatively small island in the Pacific Ocean that was first settled
by islanders of Polynesian descent in the fifth century. Easter Island
had very few natural resources, and the only agricultural endeavor with
which the settlers found success was the harvest of sweet potatoes. Because
sweet potatoes are not a labor intensive crop, the population eventually
had ample time to pursue other activities. The "other activities,"
in this case, turned out to be ceremonial activities among clans that
included the construction of over 300 ahu, flat mounds or stone
platforms that have advanced astrological alignments. At the site of each
ahu, they placed huge stone monuments (called Moai), which were carved
in distant quarries and transported to the site. There
are several theories about the Moai, and what led to the collapse of the
Easter Islander's society, but it is clear that the competition among
clans for more and more monuments proved to be the key to their eventual
demise as a society.
theory depends heavily on a probable method of transport for these monuments—rolling
them on large tree trunks. Moving the monuments on tree trunks required
massive amounts of timber harvest for nearly 200 years (approximately
1400-1600 CE), as competition between clans for more and more monuments
became progressively more intense. The complete deforestation that eventually
occurred led to lack of materials for shelter, cooking, and fishing; erosion
and leaching of soil nutrients; societal and cultural collapse due to
inability to construct these monuments; and competition/conflict between
clans as resources became more and more scarce. By the time European settlers
arrived in the 18th century, Easter Island society had decomposed to the
point of near-constant warfare cannibalism.
on a planet with finite resources, with only one input from the outside
-- the energy from the sun. While our technologies can rearrange matter
to better suit our convenience, and extract energy by reaching farther
and farther into the depths of the Earth, the limits to this process have
become evident. A return to "ecological thinking" is necessary
if we are to survive. Our deep involvement and preoccupation with technological
thinking to the exclusion of
ecological thinking has been a major contributor to environmental
unit, we look at ecology -- the understanding of living systems in relation
to their environment. Ecology is the study of the patterns and relationships
of these systems. In Greek, the word "oikos" means "house,"
and "logos" means "pattern." The word "oecologie"
was coined by Ernest Haeckel, German scientist and follower of Darwin,
in 1866. From that time and throughout the 1890s European botanists studied
systems of plants and land and their interdependencies, giving rise to
the science of ecology. Thus the science of ecology has always had a holistic
approach to nature, connecting communities and systems. The philosophical
roots of ecology and the land ethic of Aldo Leopold are discussed in detail
in the unit on Ethical Systems.
study of ecology was tilted towards moral philosophy. As a science, it
grew in parallel, more as a description of the distribution of plant communities,
and their patterns of succession. In the 1920s and '30s ecology became
more of a discipline of science. In 1927, Charles Elton, a colleague of
Aldo Leopold, coined phrases such as "food chain" and "niche"
and began to work on the way nutrition started with the sun, and on the
natural dependencies of organisms and "communities of plants."
The English ecologist Arthur Tansley proposed the term "ecosystem"
for the total system of relationships.
of ecological thinking with technological thinking is important to our
understanding of why conventional technologies have worked with little
regard for the environment, except as a source of raw material or a place
to dump -- or even as conditions and constraints to conquer. Table 1 contrasts
features of conventional technological thinking with those of ecological
or systems thinking.
on parts and how they connect for immediate performance
on patterns, context, connectedness, and relationships
reduced or taken apart for understanding
= sum of parts
understanding of parts in context of larger whole
sum of parts
as collection of objects; relationships secondary.
are networks of relationships
sense of rigid structures of domination and control
order of interdependence
oriented thinking, often in terms of closed systems
thinking or weaving together to make sure there is free flow
in network; structure follows.
1: Technological Thinking vs. Ecological Thinking (adapted from
is the result of human effort to transcend limits placed on us by space
and time. Population explosion has made us aware that the extent to which
we can overcome space constraints is limited.
and efficiency are the main metrics of success in technology, which has
led to a lack of appreciation of time -- that it takes time to build the
complex intricate system that houses and nurtures us as part of it. This
lack of respect for time that is embedded in our technological thinking
has been one of the most salient factors in degrading environmental quality.
To feed our technological ways of life, we currently destroy 24.7 million
acres of ancient forest, pump 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2
into the air, and pump 24.9 billion barrels of oil out of the Earth each
year.3, 4, 5
have typically focused only on narrow segments of the entire system to
which the specific technology relates. For example, the design and marketing
of the automobile had no forethought about the disruptions large numbers
of automobiles would have on land, on air, on energy use, on social units
such as cities and families, on all aspects of our ways of life. Technological
thinking has traditionally had characteristics that are contrary to holistic,
systems thinking -- but this has slowly begun to change. The emerging
practice of industrial ecology looks at products as part of a larger cycle
and attempts to reduce the environmental impacts of production, consumption,
has traditionally dealt only with natural systems. The new field of industrial
ecology is beginning to study industrial behavior and biogeochemical cycles
as a part of a system, using the results to design environmentally friendly
products and processes. For true integration, however, we need to merge
the two ecological systems -- natural and industrial -- with the right
consideration of space and time. We are still a long way off from this
and response of various organisms to nature's cues is beautifully illustrated
in a flower clock designed in 1751 by Carl von Linnaeus, who is considered
the father of botany. Noticing that different flower species opened during
different times of the day, Linnaeus designed a clock (Figure 1) using
the characteristic time of opening and closing of the flowers. He found
that once bees had found the flowers they preferred, they would return
to the "clock" at the appropriate time, rain or shine! This
is a beautiful example of the temporal behavior deeply embedded in the
ecological system, including animal physiology. It has also been shown
through experiments that certain medications or treatments for human illnesses
are more effective at different times of the day (for reasons not fully
understood by science). Technology has often tended to ignore these time-linked
behaviors and effects.
1: Representation of the flower clock proposd by Linnaeus. The
of the clock run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Click
for larger image.
Source: The Clocks That Time Us, by Moore-Ede, Sulzman, and
Ponting, Clive. Green History of the World, Oxford University Press,
1991. p. 7
Miller, Peter and William Rees. Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment,
Conservation, and Health. (Edited by D. Pimentel, L. Westra, and R.F.
Noss). Island Press, 2000. p. 3
Source: Greenpeace Video, Magnificent 7. Greenpeace USA Media Center,
Global CO2 Emissions from fossil-fuel burning, cement manufacture,
and gas flaring in 1998, as measured by weight of carbon. Source: Carbon
Dioxide Information Analysis Center, http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/ftp/ndp030/global98.ems.
Global Crude Oil Production, 2001. Source: Energy Information Agency,
Moore-Ede, M.C., F.M. Sulzman, and C.A. Fuller. The Clocks That Time
Us, Harvard University Press, 1982. p. 12