Book Review: Amy Ione reviews The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene by Oswald J. Schmitz

The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp. Trade, $35
ISBN: 978-0691160566.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute

Posted on Leonardo Reviews March 1, 2017:

Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced about a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:

“The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.” [1]

Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota is doomed is incorrect: “[t]he New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances, such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.

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Review: Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited
Reviewed by Amy Ione

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited offers an explicit sequel to the discussion featured in the 1990 book Representation in Scientific Practice [1]. I use the word sequel because this more recent volume is not an update so much as an effort to show that the questions surrounding representation inhabit a quite different theoretical and conceptual landscape 25 years later.

The 1990 book grew out of a workshop on “Visualization and Cognition” held in Paris in 1983 [2]. Although a compilation of already published articles, the book is now remembered as a contribution that helped to coalesce the late 20th century discourse on scientific visualization among historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science on visualization and representation. In some ways it was also representative of how Kuhnian paradigms had changed thinking. Thomas Kuhn introduced paradigmatic thinking in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [3]. His thesis about distinctive ways of thinking in historical eras, in turn, laid the foundation for a focus on scientific context and a more nuanced approach to ideas and practices. With the first Representations volume it was clear that the discussion had shifted accordingly and included enhanced sensitivity to how humanists and social scientists perceived and modeled reality. Within this framework, epistemological thinking and practices were elevated.

The second volume demonstrates that this sea change brought about a focus on ethnographic studies within Science and Technology Studies (STS). The systematic study of scientists working and the environments in which they practice is so predominant in the articles of the second volume that an unacknowledged subtheme of the book is the degree to which practices within environments are now representative of what Kuhn might call a “normal” approach in historical, humanistic, and sociological investigation. Indeed, as author after author explained the design of his or her ethnographic study it is hard to miss how standardized the approach is. No doubt this is why some of the authors ask if the time is ripe for a shift from an epistemological to an ontological treatment of the representations concept.

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited itself is comprised of 14 lengthy papers primarily by younger scholars and seven brief, reflective pieces by established academics.

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