New Ecology for a Postnatural World

Ecological theory reflects the reality picture that the sciences project. Physics, the basic natural science, has always exerted great influence on shaping the popular view of the natural world. Radical changes in physical world-views have a deep impact on the perception of nature by the general public. Newton's conception of the universe as mechanical clockwork, regulated by a few fairly simple mathematical laws, became the world-model also of the philosophy and theology of his age, as well as the backdrop to its literature and architecture. Planck's Quantum Theory and Einstein's Theory of Relativity had a similar effect. Today, it is Chaos Theory that is finding application in a wide range of areas, including ecology. A "new ecology" is emerging, that sees "flux" and "chaos" as the determinants of nature over against the traditional notion of "balance" (Lodge and Hamlin, 2006).

Flux is, no doubt, a universal fact. Evolution, too, is recognized as a general characteristic of our world. However, today's physics acknowledges unpredictability and indeterminacy at the subatomic level that does not translate directly into the macrocosmic world. In the "human-sized world," physical bodies obey statistically deterministic laws, and complex organisms develop in a largely predictable way. How else could we build houses to live in and dare to cross bridges, or why would we train doctors and engineers?

Order and spontaneous self-organization do not exclude each other and the "balance of nature" does not contradict flux and change: all of nature exists and evolves in time. Time is the key factor that must enter into all our reflection on nature. On the macro level, nature presents itself to us in a delicate but real balance: even relatively minor changes in the composition of the air we breathe or in the temperature of our atmosphere would make life impossible. Proponents of the "Anthropic Principle" point to the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants - within ratios of one to a billion! - making it possible for life and humanity to exist in a universe full of contingencies. Even minimal deviations from the existing balance of matter and anti-matter would have made the coming into existence of our world and of life impossible.

"Natural Balance" and "Flux" play out on two different levels of reality and coexist in the same real world: life-giving air is a finely balanced mix of oxygen and nitrogen and it is constantly in flux. A change in this "balance" would kill most of life - a cessation of "flux" would have the same effect.

When taking over scientific terminology into everyday language, we have to consider that scientists are often coining technical terms by giving a very specific meaning to commonly used words. "Relativity" in the physicists' vocabulary does not mean that "everything is relative," as some may think. Similarly, the word "chaos," as used by scientists, does not refer to the condition of a room strewn with all manner of objects, but it denotes the mathematically as yet undefined condition of a large number of elements before they are reaching a mathematically describ-able order. In an unforeseen and as yet unforeseeable way, from what seems a "chaotic" jumble of disparate elements, order, and symmetry arise. Not insignificantly, the book that has inspired much of the popular "chaos" discussion bears the title Order Out of Chaos: the nature in which we live and have our being is not "chaos" but is constituted by the order that arose from it! (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984) In the language of today's physics, nature is in a "dynamic equilibrium," i.e., the interaction of a number of factors generates a condition of existence that is self-supporting under certain given conditions. If the ratio of the components is changed beyond a calculable amount, the whole dynamic equilibrium collapses.

If the "new ecologists" state that "the balance of nature ... does not exist" (Lodge and Hamlin 2006, p. 306), we have to say that this is simply not true. There is a genuine and scientifically verifiable "balance of nature" without whose functioning we would not be here and without whose continued working we could not live: it is this really existing "balance of nature" that we have to preserve. It is again this "balance of nature" that tells us how far we can go in using/abusing our environment: in and through this "balance" nature "speaks to us." If we continue to disturb this "Sacred Balance" in a major way, the very existence of humankind and of a great many other forms of life will be in peril.

In its presumed 4.5 billion years of existence, the earth has gone through dramatic changes: from a lifeless mass of cosmic dust and a fiery ball of magma to a planet with oceans and continents teeming with life. Life itself underwent major catastrophes and cataclysmic changes. There was, there is, and there will be change and flux. The earth as a planet would continue to exist also without humanity, probably even without any life. However, the point of our "ecology" is precisely to make sure that humanity - together with other forms of life - can survive on our earth. For this purpose, we have to preserve the "balance of nature."

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