Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.


The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

“Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe” Named One of CHOICE’s Editor’s Picks for 2013

Jeremiah P. Ostriker & Simon Mitton – Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe
One of Choice’s Editors’ Picks for 2013

The editors of CHOICE Review Online rave over Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe, saying: “Here is a new and welcome perspective on modern cosmology that any reader can easily grasp and appreciate. Excellent archival photos and a very useful appendix that clearly and simply explains some of the essential mathematical concepts add to the pleasure of reading this book. Written with authority and flair, this is one of the very best books on the topic. Recommended reading for any science buff! Summing Up: Essential.”

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness describes the incredible saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe. Over the past thirty years, scientists have learned that two little-understood components–dark matter and dark energy–comprise most of the known cosmos, explain the growth of all cosmic structure, and hold the key to the universe’s fate. The story of how evidence for the so-called “Lambda-Cold Dark Matter” model of cosmology has been gathered by generations of scientists throughout the world is told here by one of the pioneers of the field, Jeremiah Ostriker, and his coauthor Simon Mitton.

From humankind’s early attempts to comprehend Earth’s place in the solar system, to astronomers’ exploration of the Milky Way galaxy and the realm of the nebulae beyond, to the detection of the primordial fluctuations of energy from which all subsequent structure developed, this book explains the physics and the history of how the current model of our universe arose and has passed every test hurled at it by the skeptics. Throughout this rich story, an essential theme is emphasized: how three aspects of rational inquiry–the application of direct measurement and observation, the introduction of mathematical modeling, and the requirement that hypotheses should be testable and verifiable–guide scientific progress and underpin our modern cosmological paradigm.

The story is far from complete, however, as scientists confront the mysteries of the ultimate causes of cosmic structure formation and the real nature and origin of dark matter and dark energy.

Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).

Simon Mitton is affiliated research scholar in the history and philosophy of science and a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. His books include Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science and The Young Oxford Book of Astronomy.