A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

In ecology, we should watch our language.....

I think this may be a suitable moment to repeat on EnviroSpin, in a modified form, an essay on language and ecology I first published in 1998. In 2004, what I said then, seems to me to be even more apposite and urgent.....

'Language for a non-equilibrium world'

Heracleitus (fl. 513 BC): "All is flux, nothing is stationary."

As we move deeper into the new Millennium, it is my fervent belief that popular ecology is in a crisis. If the subject is to survive as a credible entity, it must experience a significant Kuhnian paradigm shift. Unfortunately, this pardigm shift is currently proving impossible because many practitioners, both professional and amateur, cannot bring themselves to recognize the crisis phase through which they are passing. Our ecological language is suffused with a desire for 'stability' and 'safety' (the so-called 'precautionary principle'), whereas, in reality, all is Heracleitan flux, and we can never "step into the same river twice". We are trying to replace human flexibility and adaptation in the face of inevitable change by god-like control and stasis, and it will not work.

The terrible experience of the Kyoto Protocol on 'global warming' has surely been warning enough. As I have watched the debate unfold, I have felt increasingly like Heracleitus himself, observing the folly of the 6th Century B.C. Ephesians from his hermit-home, high in the mountains. To hear scientists talking about 'halting' or 'curbing' climate change is deeply disturbing, but for them to try to make the world believe that this 'stability' might be achieved through manipulating just a few variables out of the millions of interlinked and dynamic factors which govern the world's climate is sinister. Let me be blunt: a sustainable climate is an oxymoron, a scientific nonsense.

In similar vein, our continuing obsession with forests - and the ever-asserted 'evils' of deforestation - causes us to ignore the whole ecological history and pattern of the Earth, not to mention of the vast tracks of land and ocean where there have never been any forests at any time. Only a New Englander, such as Henry David Thoreau, could write that "...Nature endeavours to keep the earth clothed with wood of some kind." One could go on - our subject is littered with such false 'ecologies'; but the point is made. The whole of popular ecology is warped, dated, and increasingly dangerous for the survivial of humanity. Why?

Semiotics of ecology

I believe the answer lies in the semiotics (i.e. the study of signs) and the language of ecology. Our subject's metalanguage - that is, the overarching language which governs the thoughts and expressions of us all, both professional and amateur - is deeply flawed, yet it remains so powerful that it continues to over-ride what 'real' ecology is telling us. The key signifiers of this metalanguage (the points de capiton of the psychoanalytical theorist, Jacques Lacan) have all been derived from certain historic and regionally-specific sources, well exemplified by 19th Century Germany, Thoreau and New England: the hegemony of forest ecology; the hegemony of equilibrium notions; and the hegemony of Europe and North America over the 'rest', or what Edward Said has potently termed the Orientalist 'other'. Because of the essential control exercised by such language 'signifiers', and despite the cogent critique of so many scientists from 1910 onwards, we continue to think and speak our ecological signs in terms of climaxes, optima, balance, harmony, equilibria, stability, ecosystems, synecology, and 'the exotic other', like tropical rain forests (the 'jungles') and the giant panda. (Can we please have the smallpox virus and the rat on the collecting cans of the WWF instead? They too are part of biodiversity!).

In doing this, we often ignore what we really know and what our own research should be telling us, research that is consistently opening up to us a non-equilibrium world, in which change takes place all the time, in all sorts of directions and at all sorts of scales, catastrophically, gradually, and unpredictably, a world in which means are 'meaningless', and a world in which autecology rules, both past and present, and prediction is very, very difficult. For many, the resultant tension, which is as traumatic as any that existed between 'creationism' and 'evolution' in the late-Victorian world, has painfully split personalities, so that they say one thing in public, and another before their peers. 'False ecologies', like false relics, are good enough for the faithful 'Greens', if the ends justify the means. For others, who must sadly, and often desperately, cling on to the wreckage of the metalanguage they have held so dear for so long, the 'key signifiers' have been adjectivally (and most conveniently) modified to permit their continued use, so that 'development' is now always 'sustainable', while the non-equilibrium world is reduced to 'disequilibria' of 'multiple-equilibrium states'! A virtual contradiction in terms!

Towards a new metalanguage

Much of what we write about topics, such as the tropical rain forest, is misleading, and we know in our heads that it is misleading, and people are not fooled, for they increasingly know it is misleading. We delude ourselves, and all the good folk who inhabit this restless earth, if we do not accept change as the norm and stability as an illusory, and ultimately, dangerous goal. The inevitable application of equilibrium solutions (under the guise of 'sustainability') to a non-equilibrium world may prove to be the very worst chimera of them all, and, in continents such as Africa, it could even be regarded as a criminal act.

We have to replace our Northern-derived, historic metalanguage of 'equilibrium', 'sustainability', and 'balance' with a different metalanguage, more accepting of change and comprising new 'key signifiers', including 'adaptation', 'migration', 'movement', 'opportunism', 'flexibility', and 'resilience'. We will also require a new and more radical approach to the political ecology and economics of risk assessment. The language of non-equilibrium will then come to the fore, and, like King Canute before the surging sea, we will begin once again to show some humility in the face of our uncontrollable and unpredictable planet.

In this new metalanguage, fire, drought, seasonality, and cold should no longer be seen as 'ecological stresses'; such a concept of 'stress' can only exist if we foolishly maintain a classical norm of 'stability', some Eden of perfect rainfall and equability against which all other habitats must be assessed. There is no such Eden, and, for most plants and animals, the absence of fire, cold, or seasonality may prove a greater stress than their presence. Life itself was born out of fire, and Prometheus gave fire to humans as a gift; for Heracleitus, fire was the Universal Principle of Life. The driving forces of abiotic (outside) change must therefore also be regarded as the norm, and not the internal adjustments of biological systems.

But, perhaps, the greatest 'wrong' is the fact the we ecologists so often seem to dislike 'people'; people are signified in our metalanguage as 'the problem' - that dreadful racist phrase, 'the teeming billions', who destroy the earth and upset the 'balance' and 'stability' we so desire! In any future metalanguage, people must always be 'the opportunity' and not 'the problem'.

We must watch our language much more carefully.

[Adapted for EnviroSpin from an Editorial by Professor Philip Stott in the Journal of Biogeography 25, 1998, pp. 1-2. © in Web Form, Philip Stott 2004.]

Philip, not long returned from Herculaneum. Need one say more? Breakfast. I'm off for a meeting to the famous Pinewood Studios today - "Carry on Warming (Pans)"?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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