Can It Be an Antidote to Our Toxic Age?
by Evaggelos Vallianatos
One of the discoveries I made during my 25-year tenure at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ecology.
Of course, I had heard of ecology before joining EPA in 1979. I studied zoology as an undergraduate, so I was familiar with ecology and its theoretical focus on connections and processes. They underpinned the natural world.
But nothing had prepared me for the political ecology of EPA. I came to know a few ecologists and, more than that, I read dozens of their memos.
It was then I realized the harmful effects of pesticides — and the limits of ecology in America.
For example: EPA banned DDT in 1972. DDT was America’s pest control bullet of choice for decades. Its demise energized the chemical, agribusiness, and academic pesticide interests as nothing else could. Disinformation, insults, threats of hunger covered the country.
The ecologists of EPA had gathered the data on what DDT did to birds and other animals. The evidence of harm was so severe that Richard Nixon’s administrator of EPA, William Ruckelshaus, banned DDT.
The ecologists of EPA could be our first line of defense. They know enough chemistry, biology, and toxicology to make reasonable judgments about the ecological (deleterious) effects of industrial pollution.
Yet, with the exception of banning DDT and a few other pesticides in more than forty years, the ecologists of EPA are not an ecological bunch. Politics and their own education bring them to see the world with the eyes of industrialists.
This political ecology, more inevitable and blatant in administrations like those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, was not really that surprising.
Like most other scientists, ecologists practice science detached from the natural world. In fact, many fear and hate nature because they believe nature is part of them rather than they being part of nature.
In the 1980s I came across another version of ecology.
In 1988-1989, I taught at Humboldt State University in northern California. One of my colleagues, Bill Devall, taught “deep ecology.” With Devall, ecology had moved slightly closer to its roots. He taught ecology was a resistance movement.
But is there a tradition of resistance in ecology?
In 1969, Paul Shepard of Williams College was co-editor of a book with the telling title: The Subversive Science. Shepard defined ecology as a resistance movement. He wrote:
“Its Rachel Carsons and Aldo Leopolds are subversive… They challenge the public or private right to pollute the environment, to systematically destroy predatory animals, to spread chemical pesticides indiscriminately, to meddle chemically with food and water, to appropriate without hindrance space and surface for technological and military ends.”
True, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold were subversive: Their ideas demythologized the perverse dogma of man’s right to dominate and pollute the Earth. They clearly inspired Shepard’s call to action, which remains mostly a dream.
This is probably the reason the ecologists at EPA always investigate questions of how but rarely those of why. Shepard is right. Americans usually associate nature with natural resources and scenery. When I taught at the University of Maryland in 2003-2004 my department had the name “natural resource science.”
Nevertheless, authentic ecology is subversive, nay revolutionary science. It is the antithesis of the prevailing industrialized civilization. It puts man in his place — one in millions of species, not much special about him. He has the same needs for food, water, shelter, open space and beauty other animals do. He cannot survive alone. An impoverished or poisoned nature spells his doom.
Ancient people had figured out their healthy relationships with nature.
The ancient Greeks, for example, put their gods in the natural world. Their “oikos” — the root for the word “ecology” — was home. Goddess Hestia was the hearth of Greek homes. Their relationships with Hestia spilled over to their connections with nature.
Goddess Artemis was the queen of the natural world. Demetra reigned over grains, agriculture, civilization; Dionysos protected the grape vines and wine; Athena gifted the olive tree to the Athenians. Pan was the god of sheep, goats, hogs and cattle; Aristaios was the god of honeybees and beekeeping.
Aristotle loved animals. In fact, he studied them thoroughly and he pioneered zoology; his student, Theophrastus, invented botany. Neither Aristotle nor Theophrastus named what they did ecological, though their writings are full with ecological insights.
So why are our modern ecologists removed from ecology? Why don’t they have a deep understanding of nature, but rely primarily on technics in their assessment of risk?
There’s Western history behind the failure of ecology in America.
The rise of Christianity in the fourth century had a deleterious impact on Greek culture. The Christians smashed more than the temples and altars of the gods. They made Greek science invisible.
It took almost a millennium for Europe to start healing itself from the blow of Christianity. Greek texts reentered Europe in the fifteenth century, triggering a scientific Renaissance. Those texts were also full of natural philosophy and, hence, ecological insights, but the moderns blocked nature from their vision.
The Greeks were right, however. Animals and plants matter. The Earth is alive and sacred. It nourishes all animals, including the human animal. Ecology comes from that understanding.
The subversiveness of ecology might just be the antidote to our toxic age.
Evaggelos Vallianatos teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).