A Brief History of Ecology

By Bryn Glover

Forty years ago, Stephen Croall and William Rankin described the relationship between humanity and the Earth in a nutshell. The biosphere surrounding the planet is like a thin coat of paint over a football, they suggested in Ecology for Beginners. The image is typical of the way they allude to the delicacy and interdependence of the global ecosystem throughout a book that traces different civilisations and philosophies across the planet and then summarises their respective views of excessive consumption and exploitation.

Re-inventing the wheel 

It’s an age-old standoff, of course, between the plunderers of the world’s natural resources and those who understand that our long-term survival is incompatible with unfettered exploitation. What is more difficult to explain, however, is the environmental movement’s surrender over the decades to the very forces of exploitation identified by Croall and Rankin. In those days it was commonplace to read dire warnings of the ecological disaster that would befall humanity if we failed to moderate consumption of limited resources. The difference between then and now is our understanding of the fact of climate change and its causes. The old arguments against fossil fuels centred on their unique value as finite resources that would be needed in the future, or on the pollution that resulted from burning them – not on the global warming that resulted from the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fortunately, ecological awareness is now making a comeback, even if it sometimes feels as if we’re just re-inventing the wheel.

The modern green movement owes its origins to Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) warned of the adverse environmental effects caused by agricultural use of pesticides, biocides and other chemical compounds, such as DDT, and to Barry Commoner whose The Closing Circle (1971) linked ecological destruction to the polluting new products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) of global capitalism. Over the subsequent decades, other writers such as Rudolf Bahro (The Alternative: Towards a Critique of Real Existing Socialism) and André Gorz (Ecology as Politics) made useful contributions to the ecological struggle against capitalism. But some of the fiercest criticisms of what he called ‘techno-fascism’ came from the Austrian-born philosopher Ivan Illich. Writing in 1985, long before Huawei, 5G and universal data gathering, he argued that we must impose limits on technology and industrial production in order to preserve the ecological balance of a ‘convivial society’.

Nowadays we understand the significance of tipping points and of runaway ecological effects that can only be prevented by co-ordinated effort. Yet Illich’s notion of techno-fascism is enshrined in our modern mania for digital junk that consumes vast amounts of energy in its creation, storage and dissemination. One thing Illich didn’t foresee, however, is the way it isn’t just state-owned concerns like Huawei but often private-sector corporations that are now sponsoring the techno-fascist control of information.

Online opium

It is Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, rather than Orwell’s Big Brother, watching us and collating our data to drive up profits and steal elections. The statistics about childhood web-addiction are well-known, but how many grown-ups install smart speakers and other entertainment or information gadgets in their homes and are seemingly unaware that these AI devices also operate as listening devices, perhaps only responding to key words but actually recording everything? If this isn’t Illich’s nightmare of techno-fascism, I don’t what know else it might be.

So what has gone wrong? Why has so little heed been paid to the writing on the wall for humanity? Can it be that capitalism has successfully fought back against the threat of eco-socialism by flooding the world with new opiums and distractions?  Marx famously defined religion as the opium of the people, making them look beyond the poverty and misery of the real world towards the promise of the afterlife. Nowadays the opiates are mostly electronic but the stark facts remain the same as ever. The challenge for Carson’s and Commoner’s successors is to find new and more effective ways of communicating the simple message that radical changes are necessary if we are going to avert the coming chaos.

Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee

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