The New Ecology

The New Ecology by Oswald J. SchmitzIn The New Ecology, Oswald Schmitz provides a concise guide to ecological thinking for an era in which the activity of one species—humans—has become the dominant influence on the environment, the Anthropocene. Much traditional ecological thinking has attempted to analyze the natural world in isolation from the social world of human life, regarding the human world as an external disturbance to the state of nature. The New Ecology seeks to bridge this nature/human divide and understand human life as an integral part of local and global ecosystems. In turn, it seeks also to recognize the scale of human influence on the environment and to promote an ethic of environmental stewardship, of responsible use and husbandry of the resources embodied in the ecosystem.

Two fields that might seem paradoxical areas of study for ecologists are industry and the city. One might think that the factory and the concrete jungle are as far removed from ecological concerns as one can get. However Schmitz points out that neither can be considered in isolation from either the natural world or the global economy, and that both can benefit from ecological thinking. Much modern industry is dependent on raw materials extracted through mining, raw materials which are necessarily finite in supply, meaning that in the long term these industries cannot be sustainable. Schmitz suggests that these industries could be reconfigured to mirror the cycles of food chains in which different organisms act to produce, to consume, and to decompose food to once again become raw material for the producers. To some extent, the practice of recycling follows this cycle, but we are a long way from recycling enough to supply all the raw materials needed for production. Massive quantities of these raw materials are being lost to landfill. One step in the right direction would be to design products with their ultimate decomposition in mind, to make it as easy as possible to break down and recycle the constituent materials. Taking things further, we can think of industries as making up complementary clusters in which, as in ecosystem food chains, the waste products from one industry become inputs for another. Schmitz notes the example of a development in Denmark in which “an electric power company, a pharmaceutical plant, a wall-board manufacturer, and an oil refinery exchange and use each other’s steam, gas, cooling water and gypsum residues.” (p.174) Another potential resource is the enormous quantities of raw materials embodied in our cities—could cities become the mines of the future?

Cities also need to be considered as their own distinct type of ecosystem. The urbanization of the global population continues; it is estimated that as much as 90% of the the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2100 (p.180). The sustainability of these cities will depend in part on the extent to which they can produce the materials needed for operation and minimize dependence on external resources. Thanks to ecological study we are increasingly aware of the vital role played by urban trees and greenspaces in filtering pollutants from the air, cooling the urban environment (in turn reducing energy use for cooling buildings), and controlling rainwater run-off. These unpaid services can be valued at hundred of thousands of dollars (p.184). But cities themselves form parts of larger systems, drawing on and affecting vast hinterlands, and often affecting distant parts of the globe in their demand for resources. Only through deepening our understanding of these complex interactions, including industrial and urban ecology, can we hope for long-term sustainability.