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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