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Dark ecology: a view of nature not 'saved' by science

Lara Williams dissects the theory of dark ecology and how scientists should consider the impact of human interference when fixing ecological crises

Climate change is one of the most pressing problems to face 21st century ecosystems. Global warming and the loss of species is occurring at such a rate that the planet is accelerating towards what scientists are calling the “sixth mass extinction.”

Advances in science have offered a deeper understanding of climate change, as researchers continuously look for ways to help us limit this ecological crisis we find ourselves in. However, with that, scientific findings have also brought about a much deeper and widespread understanding of how the human species have contributed to the same environmental problems we are now trying to get out of.

‘Dark ecology’ is a concept rooted in the works of philosopher Timothy Morton, which suggests we need a change in the way we look at ecology.

Dark ecology proposes that we scrap the term ‘nature’ as we know it, as ecology is not about the pristine non-human nature. Instead, Morton claims that as a species we must become more ecologically aware of our coexistence with the non-human world. Dark ecology is about developing an ecological awareness, which Morton states as “the awareness of unintended consequences”. In other words, to acknowledge that you cannot be aware of everything that you need to be aware of at all times.

Dark ecology is said to be ‘dark’ because it forces us to think about our interactions with the non-human world, causing Homo sapiens to realise for the first time that they are capable of acting on a planetary scale. Human-induced alterations of the planet are so extreme that we are now entering a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Anthropos is a word derived from Ancient Greek meaning ‘human’ and this epoch is appropriately named as it is the first time in history that humans have been the primary cause of planetary change. Continued advances in science and technology have been proposed as a promising solution to alter human actions, and to reverse some of the damage which has been done. But what if that is not the case? What if our actions further exacerbate the problems that we are trying to fix? With scientific advances only going so far, dark ecology asks us to consider a world where humans do not try to control any further. Where science will not heroically ‘save’ the planet, reinstating humans as the species on top. Dark ecology asks us to sit with what we have done and accept it – science may not offer us a way out of this mess.

This is because controlling outcomes via science is not always as it seems. The human species were not to know that the Neolithic Revolution (starting ~10,000BC), when humans first started to become farmers, would lead to the practice of agriculture as we know it today. Advances in science that enable us to thrive as a species have always had unknown consequences. Only upon despoiling the planet have we come to realise just how much we are interconnected with it. Morton states that “ecological awareness folds back on itself in the Anthropocene. It involves us being aware that we are involved in something that we did not sign up for [like contributing to global warming] but which we are involved in, nonetheless”. A full loop has been created, whereby scientific research that looks to understand the changes of our planet points to humans being the culprits all along. Today we are not only driving ecological construction, but science has made us know that we are.

Morton’s Dark Ecology outlook is nothing short of controversial, with claims of it interfering with science communication. It does, however, offer a different side of the coin to science, to ecology, and to our interactions with the non-human world.

From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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