Philosophy of Ecology

Abstract

Although philosophy of ecology was slow to become established as an area of formal philosophical interest, there is a rich history of developing and debating conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science. A key challenge in conceptualising ecological complexity is to allow simultaneously for particularity, contingency and structure – structure, moreover, that changes, is internally differentiated, and has problematic boundaries. In contrast to ambitions of earlier decades for identifying general principles about systems and communities, ecologists now widely assert historical contingency, nonequilibrium formulations, local context and individual detail. Given that all organisms – humans included – live in dynamic ecological contexts, philosophy of ecology raises more general questions about conceptualising the positionality of humans and other organisms in the dynamic flux of their intersecting worlds.

Key Concepts:

  • Although philosophy of ecology was slow to become established as an area of formal philosophical interest, there is a rich history of developing and debating conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science.

  • A challenge faced by all ecologists is to deal with ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics.

  • All organisms live in an ecological context that has structure and dynamics, so all philosophy of biology depends on some implicit conceptualization of ecological relations.

  • Ecologists of a particularistic bent question many of community ecology's models, rejecting them when their fit to data was no better than alternative ‘null’ hypotheses or ‘random’ models.

  • Observation and experiment can contribute to the generation of theory in many ways other than through crucial hypothesis tests.

  • Models need not be seen simply as representations intended to capture the necessary and sufficient conditions to explain observed phenomena – exploration of models can produce new concepts, questions and hypotheses.

  • In contrast to ambitions of earlier decades for identifying general principles about systems and communities, ecologists now widely assert historical contingency, nonequilibrium formulations, local context and individual details.

  • Under the label ‘political ecology’, environmental problems can be analysed in terms of intersecting economic, social and ecological processes, which operate across various spatial and temporal scales and are mutually implicated in the production of any outcome and in their own ongoing transformation.

  • Self‐consciousness about the social interactions involved in producing ecological knowledge extends a post‐modernist critique of unified science that argues that people's reasonings can only be rooted in historically specific life practices.

Keywords: complexity; models; history; scale; boundaries

Figure 1.

Intersecting socio‐environmental processes leading to soil erosion in San Andrés, Oaxaca, and México. The dashed lines indicate connections across the different strands, which together with relationships of inequality, characterises political ecological analyses. Taylor PJ () Agency, Structuredness and the Production of Knowledge within Intersecting Processes. © University of Chicago Press. First published in Taylor PJ (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. © University of Chicago Press.

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Rozzi R, Pickett STA, Palmer C, Armesto JJ and Callicott JB (2013) Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action. Dordrecht: Springer.

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Taylor, Peter J(Oct 2014) Philosophy of Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003607.pub3]