Viewing nature as a multi-tiered economy is not a recent revelation. Donald Worster explores the genesis of this idea back to Gilbert White during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In sum, nature has producers and consumers. Consumers, whether they are humans, lions, bullfrogs or fire ants feed off the producers who are usually represented by photosynthesizing life forms. Consumers often aid producers in their propagation, even though it may not always be obvious. This concept of organic bodies interacting as a community is the basis of ecology.
Because there are so many variables, ecology and environmental study is a tricky field to study. Even more adroit are the historical scholars and their examinations of the environmental study. When most authors are banging their war drums calling for a reevaluation of environmental outlook or positing radical theories, Worster wishes to pursue a "deeper awareness of the roots of our contemporary perception of nature." He does not attempt to argue much of a hard-line point throughout his book, rather than openly explore the history of ecology. This is a simple and humble way to approach any topic and can be a truly wise idea. Worster separated the history of ecological thought into half a dozen eras. His hope was to illuminate the progression of ecology from organic, to romantic, to mechanistic, to tragic, to apocalyptic, and back to organic. By patiently probing through a massively diverse history of ecological ideas, Worster has written an epic of ecological history. If J.R.R Tolkien wrote an epic of ecology it would have turned out similar to Nature's Economy.
One strength of Worster's writing is his ability to draw upon obscure characters and develop attachments to various agents of history. Worster never grazes over characters or ideas, rather he supplies descriptions and backgrounds to diversify the story. He describes the drab appearance of "Oakies" and the tensions of Apollo 13. He explains the geology of the Galapagos Islands and the background Eugene Odum. By providing character development, background science and minute details, Worster has created an ecology of ecologists.
Worster provided so much detail in an attempt to push his minor thesis and his only real argument. According to Worster, ecology (along with other sciences) progressed according to the social and cultural patterns of the time. I will highlight just three of these instances.
The nineteenth century of the western world saw technological growth and scientific development in such quantities that had not been achieved for two thousand years. Man's achievements reaffirmed the belief that the natural world should be categorized and mechanized both physically and ideologically. Ecology in its attempts to identify the various cogs and relationships in nature fit surprisingly well into the mechanists blueprint. Nature was meticulously broken down and organized in order to identify as many agents in the economy of nature as possible. Ecology aided this process.
Ecology was looked to out of desperation during the 1930's and Dust Bowl catastrophe. Ecologists had much to offer in regards to explaining the dust storms. Most importantly they explained why it happened and how to prevent it from happening in the future. Ecology, with its ability to understand natural relationships, educated people in the importance of naturally evolved landscapes. These landscapes evolved through species succession and climax. Ecologists gained some admiration and even a few public pay-checks.
Lastly, ecology became an oasis of purity following the atomic bomb and World War Two. For centuries, scientists were bringers of progress, knowledge, and curiosity. But shame and fear was cast over the scientific community upon the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most brilliant physicists in the world who once pondered the heavens and studied the forces that keep us floating through space became the harbingers of unrelenting death produced from the laboratory. Chemists who once theorized on the elemental similarities of humans, birds and trees became the dark scientist who played God by perverting the elements. Science, as Worster explained morbidly, had a large stain on its lab coat. Ecology, with its happier appraisals of life and natural connections became very popular in the shadow of the bomb. And so entered, "the Age of Ecology."
As mentioned above, Worster routinely supplemented his history of ecology with details and narratives. Initially, I found this cumbersome and inhibiting to the point. Only after getting through one third of the book did I realize that the details are the point. The details are what create the connections of ecology. The characters and their diverse backgrounds were what the human culture was comprised of. Two hundred years of botany, biology, geology, physics and curiosity mixed with two hundred years of market economy, integrated with two hundred years of social and cultural trends all added up to a photograph of earth taken by an Apollo astronaut drifting through the vacuum of dead space. There it lay, a tiny blueish greenish gem able to support complex life, the only such gem we know of. Ecology as an idea existed for centuries, ecology as a thesis was born from that photograph. Donald Worster's Nature's Economy had to have all the details it did, it was the only way to appreciate the complex connections existing on earth.