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)