A Look at Dominator Ecology: Part 1

healthOver the past few years, we’ve learned we’re not alone in being fed-up with the type of ecological knowledge and discourse in the dominant culture. Lots of people question the perspectives towards the land that are spread through the mass media, upheld in the academy, and are readily funded. Though the intention of this series is to offer some starting points for an anarchist ecology, we would like to take some time to describe what it is that we seek to avoid.

 This article is the second in a series called Towards an Anarchist Ecology. Click here to start at the beginning.

The study of ecology in this society is, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a deeply colonial and oppressive practice that has and continues to serve the interests of the powerful, usually at the expense of Indigenous communities. We call this ‘dominator ecology’. This is the ecology of management from a distance, and of remote expertise, that sees itself as fundamentally separate from the land, inhabiting a present without a past or future.

One of our collective members refers to herself light-heartedly as a “recovering academic biologist” and recalls how she and her fellow classmates worked in that field with the intention of doing good, of helping the environment and healing the earth. However, as many of you probably know, there are few professional paths into that work, and even those require ethical compromises.

We don’t want to dismiss the knowledge that comes out of the mainstream, or deny that it has motivated and supported some really good projects at certain moments. We want to dismiss the practice of dominator ecology, how and why it does what it does, without dismissing many of its insights and findings. Most settlers do not have access to traditional knowledge, so we’d rather learn about things like pollinator associations or bird migration through dominator ecology than not know them at all. We also want to speak honestly about the role dominator ecology plays in the destruction of the wild and in ongoing colonization.

We want to offer a clear critique so that we can better cultivate other ways of knowing. How does dominator ecology uphold power? How does it contribute to ongoing colonialism? How does it keep us alienated from the land? How is it motivated and funded?

Let’s begin with this quote from The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis about the beginnings of the formal science of ecology, describing how white settlers finally figured out the existence of succession:

“In the late nineteenth century, a young professor of biology named Henry Chandler Cowles approached the Indiana Dunes as if it were a living laboratory. While studying the pioneering of the land by plant communities, he observed that dunes evolved from barren sand near the shore to ridges of pioneer grasses to hills of shrubs and trees and finally to climax forests. The plants that lived on the sand, he discovered, grew in predictable patterns, with marram and sand reed grasses first, followed by red osier dogwood and sand cherry and cottonwood, then maple, oak, and pine.

“Others before Henry Cowles had recognized that the Indiana Dunes were a dynamic ecosystem, with land forms and microclimates supporting more plan diversity per acre than in any other national park in the United States. But where others had seen only hills of sand and an interesting variety of plants, Cowles saw centuries of ecological progress compressed into distinct zones only a few hundred feet apart. In 1899, when he published his observations in a report, The Ecological Relationships of the Vegetations of the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan, it sent a shock wave through the scientific world. Cowles had demonstrated for the first time that plant communities succeed one another, each serving as the foundation for those to come, while simultaneously creating the conditions for its own collapse. This concept of the interrelationship of organisms was revolutionary and it changed the way people looked at the natural world. Some historians now mark Cowles’ paper as the beginning of the science of ecology.” 

Despite this passage claiming that Cowles had “demonstrated for the first time,” he was obviously not the first person to realize that succession existed. Odawa and Ojibwe peoples had been living in that area for countless generations, over thousands of years, holding an intimate relationship with the land, but that is all ignored in this telling.

The passage also suggests that this discovery by Cowles was “revolutionary”, but it’s important to look at that claim more closely. Certainly there continues to be huge potential for a wider awareness of such awe-inspiring findings to create revolutionary change. But we have to remember that this so-called discovery of succession took place within colonial institutions. This close relationship between the science of ecology and those power structures means its potential to create change is easily co-opted.

Perhaps the author uses the term ‘revolutionary’ to describe the ensuing efforts by settler naturalists to insert the science of ecology into the political decision-making process. It took the political and economic elites sixty years of escalating ecological catastrophe and increasing anger within settler communities to recognize the recuperative potential of dominator ecology. The publication of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, is often presented as a tipping-point of public opinion and the emergence of the modern environmental movement.

To recuperate a struggle – for example, anger against massive population declines of many species of birds and amphibians due to pesticide use – means to take a situation that threatens to go beyond the ability of politicians to control and to bring it back within the realm of democratic discourse as a means of pacifying it. This recuperation has spawned a whole industry of environmental assessment, and destructive development projects compete with each other to include the most trees in their parking lots, or to fund improvements to hiking trails while continuing to profit from quarries that poison that same watershed.

To more clearly understand the practice of dominator ecology, we want to consider:

What are the questions asked?

What are the tools used?

What kinds of answers are valued?

What kinds of lessons are drawn from those answers?

And at whose service is all this done?

Tomorrow we will post the second half of this look at dominator ecology, answering these questions one by one. For today though, we would like to close with a quote from the publication Lèse-Béton, translated as Breaking Concrete. It is published from participants in the Zone à Défendre struggle in western France, preventing the construction of an airport, in what is currently the largest land defense struggle in Europe. The following is the text of a letter to an environmental assessment firm called Biotope that was delivered when some resistors broke into their offices:

“Biotope and its employees are playing a large role in giving, voluntarily or not, ecological legitimacy to this project and to its promoters.

“It’s not too late to oppose what a handful of tecnocrats have decided will be our future. It’s not too late for a few gears in the machine to take responsibility and refuse to be accomplices to this catastrophe. You can’t prevent a project from happening while you’re under contract from its promoters – pretending the opposite is cowardly and in bad faith, with no other goal than to hide your own responsibility from yourself. You conveniently forget to see the consequences: refuse to obey, refuse to play the game of these impact studies that everyone can see are inexcusable from an ecological point of view.

“It’s probably fun to count the little birds, the great crested newts, and the reptiles, to wander through the forest or to inventory the wetlands in an idyllic landscape… Except we don’t want your inventory, we don’t need your expertise and we don’t need you to “manage our living environment”, no matter what you or some elite leaders might think.

“It’s naive to hope to awaken an ecological glimmer in the hearts of our leaders or in the boardrooms of Vinci. We want to depend only on ourselves, this is why we will oppose any advance of this project – whether it takes the hypocritical guise of an environmental assessment or whether it shows itself openly as it really is: massively rejected by the population and advanced only with the support of an army of police.”

As always, we want to hear your reactions and responses to this piece! Use the comment box below, email us at knowintheland (at) gmail (dot)com, or find us on facebook as knowingtheland isresistance and tell us about what comes up for you when you consider these questions about dominator ecology.thank you


Dennis, Jerry. The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas. Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.

Henry, Michael and Peter Quinby. Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete with History, Ecology, and Maps. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2010.


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