Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"The Ecology Project" is The Gadfly's informal name for his research project, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES-9819617) and in conjunction with the Philosophy Department and the Conservation Biology Program of the University of California, Riverside. The formal title of the project is Implications of Disequilibrium Ecology for Environmental Ethics and Policy.  While the formal term of the grant has expired, work continues on the project.  A book on the research topic is now in progress.

This page of The Online Gadfly will report progress with this research, beginning with a description of the project adapted from the proposal submitted to the NSF, and the "full text" of a published paper, "Reconstructing Ecology."  (At the insistence of the editors and publisher, the published version will be about two thirds as long as this "full text." We prefer, and recommend, the version available here).

A brief summary of the project, the issues which prompted it, and the implications thereof, follows below.

The Ecology Project: A Proposal.

Reconstructing Ecology

On Behalf of Ecology and Ecosystems

"Disequilibrium Ecology" -- Much Ado About Nothing

"What is Natural?": A Concept Analysis

Nature: for Better or Worse

Can Nature be Harmed?

The Quotation Bin -- Environmental Ethics


A Brief Summary of the Problem and the Project

Disequilibrium Ecology - The Issue: According to the "received conventional wisdom," the science of ecology describes an "order of nature" which is characterized by integrity, stability, equilibrium, and self-regulating mechanisms . These assumptions have motivated an army of citizens to enlist in a campaign to "save the natural environment." The same assumptions have produced a library of national and international environmental policies, laws and regulations. And yet, each of these assumptions about the nature of "life communities" have recently been seriously challenged by ecologists and analytic philosophers. For example, proponents of this "new paradigm" in ecology have stated (a) that "the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth... living nature is not equilibrial..." (Michael Soulé), and (b) that "the classical paradigm in ecology, with its emphasis on the stable state, its suggestion of natural systems as closed and self-regulating, and its resonance with the nonscientific idea of the balance of nature, can no longer serve as an adequate foundation for conservation" (Pickett, Parker and Fiedler.).

Some philosopher's criticisms of "old paradigm ecology" are, if anything, more severe. Shrader-Frechette argues that because ecology can not predict events nor explain phenomena deductively (from "covering laws"), it fails as a scientific theory. And Sagoff adds that theoretical ecology lacks a classification system, boundaries, and "baselines" (norms from which to assess deviations), and thus cannot be assessed in terms of "integration," "health," or "normality." Indeed, he writes, "the terms 'eco' and 'system', when conjoined, constitute an oxymoron."

Clearly, the challenge of "the new (disequilibrium) ecology" reaches to the very foundations of ecological science and environmental policy. This research project addresses both the scientific and the policy issues which arise from this challenge to the conventional ecological paradigm.


Implications for Ecological Science: In our research to date, we have found in the published work of the ecologists, some warrant for the criticisms of the philosophers. Considerable vagueness and ambiguity is encountered in the use among ecologists of such terms as "community," "stability," and "integrity," and this conceptual inconstancy is compounded as these terms are directed away from the scientists laboratory and the scholar's seminars and toward the arena of public policy debate. Furthermore, it appears that ecological science does, in fact, lack clear baselines, boundaries, explicated concepts and theoretical rigor. What is uncertain is how much these problems are due to the nature of the subject-matter ("life communities"), and how much they are due to shortcomings in the methods, concepts and theories of ecological investigation. Biology before Linnaeus, and Chemistry before Mendeleev, seemed similarly chaotic before Linnaeus and Mendeleev discovered their classification schemes. Is there a similar scheme awaiting discovery by ecologists, or are "life communities" chaotic "in nature" - thus devoid of any order or structure "out there" available to discovery, classification, and theoretical articulation? The emerging dispute between the "old-paradigm" and "new-paradigm" ("disequilibrium) ecologists suggests that there is an urgent need for a "meta-scientific" assessment of the methods, concepts and theoretical structures of ecology, if that science is to advance beyond this dispute. Such "meta-scientific assessment" is the task of the analytic philosopher - and a primary objective of this NSF research grant.


Public Policy Implications: "Disequilibrium ecology" places the foundations of "the received ecological wisdom" in question; namely, the assumptions that "natural ecosystems" exhibit stability, equilibrium, and self-regulating mechanisms, and that, by implication, ecosystems can be evaluated in terms of "health" and "natural integrity." Thus numerous citizen concerns and public policies, based upon these very assumptions, may now be open to question and re-evaluation. Among them.


  • Wilderness preservation and renewal: "The new paradigm" states that because ecosystems are in constant change, there are no "normal" or "natural" conditions, and no "climax stage" of ecological succession. If so, then what is to be "preserved" in wilderness areas? What can be identified as the "target condition" of ecological "restoration?"

  • Extinction and loss of biodiversity. If ecosystems simply change, with no identifiable means of identifying them "better or worse," or more or less "healthy," and if extinction and speciation are "natural processes," why should we be concerned about the loss of species?

  • Limits of growth. With no serious consequences following from the alleged "disruption of finely tuned and adjusted ecosystems" (since, according to the "new paradigm" such "systems" are allegedly neither integrated nor systemic), the only practical limitation on economic and population growth is human ingenuity and information. (Cf. Julian Simon, and our critique thereof "Holes in the Cornucopia").

  • The sustainability of industrial agriculture. "Old paradigm" ecologists argue that traditional methods of agriculture, while inefficient by modern standards, are sustainable indefinitely, for they preserve the soil "microecology" which sustains fertility. Unconstrained by the "old ecological dogma" in the "inscrutable workings" of complex, integrated and balanced soil ecosystems, industrial agronomists with their genetically engineered organisms and inorganic chemical fertilizers, will claim to have a better way to feed the growing global population.

  • The burden of proof in pollution control. If there is no "inscrutably complex life-support system" believed to be imperiled by our industrial technology, the "precautionary principle" might be set aside. No longer must the manufacturer prove that his emissions are safe. It becomes the burden of the government and/or the potential victims to prove significant risk.

Space constraints have led to distortions in this summary. In fact, the "old" and "new" paradigms sketched here suggest a dichotomy of opinions, whereas they are in fact extreme ends of a spectrum of opinions among ecologists. (My preliminary inclination is to accept a moderate position, midway along this "spectrum"). Moreover, many (I suspect most) of the so-called "disequilibrium" ecologists would adopt the "liberal/environmentalist" approach to many of the policy issues listed above. Nonetheless, that approach is clearly undermined by a "new paradigm" in ecology that denies that integrity, stability, equilibrium, and self-regulation are significant, or even meaningful, features of ecosystems.

If "disequilibrium ecology" is correct, then a new foundation may have to be built and new strategies developed to defend traditional environmental and conservation policies. At this stage of the research, this investigator is suspicious of simplified views at opposite ends of the "spectrum." On the one hand, "the old-paradigm" is due for considerable refinement, qualification, and elaboration. On the other hand, we are disinclined to believe that the life community out of which we evolved is totally chaotic, and that there are no rules at work in this community with which we must come to terms, if our species is to continue to thrive on this planet. We suspect that a synthesis will emerge from this debate that will both advance ecological science and establish more secure foundations for environmental policy.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .