Whose Ecology?

Con­cepts are ter­ri­to­r­i­al. Ask any archi­tec­tur­al design­er – espe­cial­ly one look­ing for work – how they feel about the appro­pri­a­tion of archi­tect” and archi­tec­ture” with­in the soft­ware industry.

That’s not to say that we aren’t will­ing to share ter­ri­to­ry with oth­ers who we see as kin. In the design fields, then, if ecol­o­gists for­mu­late and hand down the rules of the green road ahead, we flat­ter our­selves as being the ones to imple­ment them in the human world. 

In so doing, we mar­vel at the fact that our own means of for­mu­lat­ing and solv­ing prob­lems start to resem­ble in our eyes the strange and won­der­ful forms of ecol­o­gy itself. The hur­ried instal­la­tion of squares of sod gives way to the slow tend­ing of a patch through the uncer­tain stages of succession. 

There are two things of inter­est to be found in this: that such eco­log­i­cal mod­els are val­ued as being new and advanced, and that they are val­ued as being a clos­er approach to the nat­ur­al. Ecol­o­gy, we say, gives us a bet­ter idea of what nature is, and in return we work to think and do more nat­u­ral­ly, to become more natural. 

Imag­in­ing ecol­o­gy as the hub, and oth­er fields as spokes trans­lat­ing its dic­tates, we can read­i­ly see that each spoke con­strues ecology’s claims in a dif­fer­ent fash­ion, while com­mon­ly invok­ing it as a source of author­i­ty. But giv­en the trans­la­tions that are under­tak­en between the hub and its spoke fields, in the end you would be hard-pressed to find the resem­blance between the spokes’ respec­tive ecologies. 

Such dis­so­nances may be more or less pro­duc­tive. More dif­fi­cult is the appear­ance of the unwant­ed claimant, the claim jumper. The appro­pri­a­tion of ecol­o­gy” and ecosys­tem” as self-descrip­tors in the busi­ness field ran­kles; it may even tempt you, the very envi­ron­men­tal design­er, to drop the words alto­geth­er for the crime of association. 

What seems objec­tion­able? First, that in its search for advan­tages busi­ness seems to appro­pri­ate any­thing that can be val­orized, which means in sum any­thing that has been val­orized; a record that at best annoys those whose nests it pecks around, and at worst does real dam­age to the con­cepts in play. Sec­ond, more specif­i­cal­ly, that a field tied inex­tri­ca­bly by most of the aca­d­e­m­ic left to envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion and degra­da­tion should take hold of a set of terms asso­ci­at­ed with the defense and love of the envi­ron­ment. Third, more to the point, that it does so specif­i­cal­ly because of its aura of virtue, and for the pos­i­tive cast it reflects back on the endeav­or of busi­ness. To describe net­works of com­peti­tors, or worse, prod­ucts, as ecosys­tems might be a use­ful way to catch how they work as dynam­ic sys­tems; or might sim­pli­fy them and nat­u­ral­ize them, into per­fect mir­rors of a pic­turesque world of prey and predator.

Let’s be clear, though: just as is done in busi­ness, we land­scape design­ers bring in ecol­o­gy to ele­vate and endorse – some­thing that works eco­log­i­cal­ly nec­es­sar­i­ly works nat­u­ral­ly, and thus, habit­u­al­ly in our minds, as it should. Work­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly reverts to a base con­di­tion, a con­di­tion of lis­ten­ing, of sen­si­tiv­i­ty; of things bal­anc­ing them­selves out. And the dep­re­ca­tion of cli­max ecol­o­gy and the obser­va­tion of sud­den flips only has the effect of rein­tro­duc­ing our old love affair with rev­o­lu­tion – now guar­an­teed as a peri­od­ic and excit­ing out­burst from gen­tle cycles. 

(January 2019)