Tansley’s ecosystem

The term, “ecosystem,” comes to us through A.G. Tansley’s 1935 article, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms.” He has been criticized for his role in colonial British ecology, but here Tansley is of salience for two other reasons.

First, ecosystems for Tansley make no sense without taking humans and their interactions with the landscape into account. “We cannot confine ourselves to the so-called ‘natural’ entities and ignore the processes and expressions of vegetation now so abundantly provided us by the activities of man. Such a course is not scientifically sound, because scientific analysis must penetrate beneath the forms of the ‘natural’ entities, and it is not practically useful because ecology must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity,” he wrote.

This might seem to be pushing at an open door today, but Tansley deployed a discourse quite different than his contemporaries, the U.S. ecologists. Theirs were just-so stories about “climax communities” evolving on their own—if and only if devoid of human beings mucking things up. Two commentators on Tansley’s work (Laura Cameron and John Forrester) argue that his “principal contributions were, in contradistinction to American ecology, to emphasize the systemic interrelations of human activity and botanical phenomena—he sees no real difference between those ecosystems which are natural and those which are ‘anthropogenic’ (nature ‘produced by man’, as he glossed in 1923).” “A well-defined localized human community is the kernel of an ecosystem,” Tansley reiterated in an address to the British Ecological Society in 1939.

Tansley is, however, important to us for another reason. Not only was he a founder of the British Ecological Society (the precursor to ecological societies in many countries) and the Nature Conservancy, he was also well-known and respected member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society, having been analyzed by Freud for nine months in 1922 and 1924. For Tansley, humans and their desires (“energy”) were and are never far away from ecosystems in a profound way.

Whatever the reader thinks of Tansley’s dated terminology, we see few if any ecologists today take human desires as anything but The Enemy. Such, I’d like to think, would have appalled a Tansley who took desire and ecosystem to be inseparable. He’d be the last person, I suspect, surprised or shocked by large critical infrastructures, created to satisfy desires and wants, as having environmental impacts, bad and good.

Principal source: John Forrester and Laura Cameron (2017). Freud in Cambridge. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. This is a massively informative volume and its footnotes alone are an entire education.

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