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Copyright © 2001 by The Resilience Alliance

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Ludwig, D. 2001. Crisis and Transformation. Conservation Ecology 5(1): 11. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss1/art11/

Editorial, part of Special Feature on Pollinator Decline

Crisis and Transformation

Don Ludwig

University of British Columbia

Published: April 17, 2001

These are stressful times for ecologists, as we attempt to counter threats to cherished places and species. Are our methods and objectives appropriate to the task? Disciplinary boundaries, although essential for some purely scientific tasks, are an impediment to understanding complicated issues such as preservation of ecosystems. Human attitudes and past human influences on natural systems are crucial elements in understanding what is happening and what options are available. We cannot carry out our work as ecologists properly without help and insights from a host of seemingly remote disciplines, ranging from the broad outlook of theology and ethics to the intricacies of climate change and environmental accounting. The crisis that we perceive is also an opportunity to transform our own discipline.

Other disciplines with which we must interact are undergoing profound changes in response to the environmental crisis and in response to evolutionary insights. Cortner and Moote (1999) show that “ecosystem management” is based upon a new philosophical orientation informed by ecological understanding. This approach begins with rejection of the attitude of human domination and mastery over Nature, our inheritance from the Enlightenment. Newton’s mechanical theory of the motions of the heavenly bodies has led ultimately to the notion that all living creatures, as well as humans, are elaborate machines that lack purpose. This, in turn, has led to the attitude that the world consists of a set of “resources” whose function is solely to satisfy our needs. Many see this attitude as an underlying cause of our destructive behavior toward natural systems. Norgaard (1994) continues to revise the philosophical underpinnings of our environmental attitudes: he advocates rejecting old notions of progress and modernism, and replacing them with a new coevolutionary vision based upon biological insight. Prediction is recognized as impossible under that approach: flexibility and adaptability are the primary concerns and diversity is a good in itself. Similar concerns motivate new approaches to economics (Daly 1991, Hodgson 1999), law (Greenbaum et al. 1995), and sociology (Gare 1995, Lash et al 1996).

In adjusting to the new outlook, we must democratize knowledge and encourage public discourse. Paehlke (1995: 260) considers environmentalism to be a political ideology in a class with liberalism, conservatism, and socialism. It has altered our very language: terms such as “biodiversity” and “environmental impact assessment” were unknown just a few years ago. Paehlke and Torgerson (1990) see environmentalism leading to a new approach to governance that is noncompartmentalized, open, decentralized, antitechnocratic, and flexible. Ecologists have an obvious role to play in this democratization of discourse. Ecological observations and experiments have an attraction for people of all ages and backgrounds, as evidenced by the recent popularity of annual bird counts. Participation and activism satisfy a deep yearning in many people to contribute to a better world.

The disciplines of environmental history (Worster 1993) and environmental ethics (Callicott 1994, Coward et al 2000) offer essential data and insights into human behavior and focus on understanding the cultural and ethical roots of our global crisis. In addition, archaeology has acquired new significance. Redman (1999: 6) writes “In many ways, we stand at a threshold analogous to archeology's assault on the origins of agriculture a generation ago, one of the most exciting intellectual challenges ever addressed by our discipline. ... understanding the diversity of human environmental impacts, both sustainable and destructive, has the potential to become the hallmark of our discipline.” Paleontology also has new relevance to ethics. Leakey (1996: 253) points out that, on a geological time scale, our planet will take care of itself. He asks, “Why then, if it matters not at all what we do while we are here, should we concern ourselves with the survival of species that, like us, will eventually be no more?” He answers, “We should be concerned because, special though we are in many ways, we are merely an accident of history. ... We, like every species with which we share the world, are a product of many chance events, leading back to that amazing explosion of life forms half a billion years ago, and beyond that to the origin of life itself.” Leakey sees an ethical implication from paleontological findings: the fact that one day Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the face of the earth does not give us license to do whatever we choose while we are here.

Ecologists have always recognized the importance of diversity and adaptability, but have been hampered by lack of data covering the long periods necessary to demonstrate it. Paleontological and archeological evidence may change that situation. Genome projects may eventually have an intellectual influence comparable to that of the Copernican revolution: we humans share crucial parts of our genetic endowment with bacteria, plants, and insects. We are all one in a very deep sense, and must behave accordingly. Ecologists seeking to prevent destruction of habitats and ecosystems have often been thwarted by lack of political support and popular understanding of the issues. Now, as the crisis deepens, we find support from a great variety of sources. The philosophical and ethical underpinnings of our modern attitudes are eroding and being replaced by something new and more appropriate. Political support for environmental protection has grown enormously, largely in response to new popular understanding and activism. We ecologists are not alone in our concern for the earth’s ecosystems. The environmental imperative is transforming our ways of thought and our self-image. We live in interesting times of great opportunity.


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I thank Lee Gass for helpful suggestions to improve this work.


Callicott, J. B. 1994. Earth's insights: a multicultural survey of ecological ethics from the Mediterranean basin to the Australian outback. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, USA.

Cortner, H. J., and M. A. Moote. 1999. The politics of ecosystem management. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Coward, H., R. Ommer, and T. Pitcher. 2000. Just fish: ethics and Canadian marine fisheries. Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada.

Daly, H. 1991. Steady-state economics. Second edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Gare, A. 1995. Postmodernism and the environmental crisis. Routledge, London, UK.

Greenbaum, A., A. Wellington, and E. Baar, editors. 1995. Social conflict and environmental law. Captus Press, North York, Ontario, Canada.

Hodgson, G. M. 1999. Evolution and institutions: on evolutionary economics and the evolution of economics. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.

Lash, S., B. Szerzynski, and B. Wynne. 1996. Risk, environment and modernity. Sage Publications, London, UK.

Leakey, R. 1996. The sixth extinction. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, UK.

Norgaard, R. 1994. Development betrayed: the end of progress and a co-evolutionary revisioning of the future. Routledge, London, UK.

Paehlke, R. 1995. Environmentalism. Pages 260-261 in R. Paehlke, editor. Conservation and environmentalism. Garland, New York, New York, USA.

Paehlke, R., and D. Torgerson. 1990. Environmental politics and the administrative state. Pages 285-301 in R. Paehlke and D. Torgerson, editors. Managing leviathan: environmental politics and the administrative state. Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Redman, C. L.1999. Human impact on ancient environments. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Worster, D. 1993. The wealth of nature. Environmental history and the ecological imagination. Oxford University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Don Ludwig
Departments of Mathematics and Zoology
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B. C. Canada V6T 1Z2
Phone: 604-541-9409

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