So! We’ve already talked about dominator ecology as a practice that is deeply colonial and often co-opting and recuperative of environmental struggle.
To more clearly understand the practice of dominator ecology, let’s consider some questions about it:
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?
What are the questions asked? What is the safe level of arsenic or cesium in a waterway? When will a certain population of fish collapse? How can we mitigate the effects of fertilizer runoff? How do we manage this woodlot for maximum productivity? The questions asked by dominator ecology take the needs of the economy as primary. Modern industrial techno-civilization is the assumption behind the questions it asks, and the wild then becomes a variable to be managed. Often, even if an ecological study’s questions are well intentioned, their findings will be used to justify certain levels of destruction anyways.
What are the tools used? Cells under microscopes, genetic mapping, soil and water laboratory tests, radio tracking bands on the legs of birds, satellite arrays for measuring global warming… The use of sophisticated technology in dominator ecology often goes unquestioned. However, the choice of tools we use in our inquiry are not determined by the inherent value of the tools themselves, but by the kinds of questions we choose to ask and the kinds of answers we decide to value. Using expensive, specialized technology means that the observations and therefore the conclusions arising from them are unverifiable for anyone who does not have access to that technology. It becomes a way of situating ecological knowledge as fundamentally out of reach of everyone but a class of professionals who usually work for universities or governments.
Scientific inquiry is, at its root, egalitarian, since it just means observation, experiment, and critical thinking. There are many ways of observing and many ways of reaching the same conclusions and developing a sophisticated knowledge of the earth. Both astronauts who sees the earth from space and traditional earth-based cultures describe an understanding of connectedness and whole-systems. What we want to bring up here is that privileging high-tech ways of knowing is one way that dominator ecology becomes authoritarian and inaccessible to most.
What kinds of answers are valued? Primarily data, statistics, and anything numerical. Dominator ecology is reductive, seeking simple causal relationships, on the cellular or chemical level if possible (privileging the use of high-tech tools). This reductiveness becomes a way to deflect blame away from destructive practices, because it is difficult to attribute a specific cause to an environmental problem, or to definitively prove that something is damaging the health of an ecosystem of watershed.
An example of this is when, in the summer of 2012, all the fish died in Hamilton’s Red Hill creek, and this was followed by a brief flurry of research that all went to prove that the cause was unknown; however, this is the same Red Hill creek that recently had a massive highway built along its whole length. The degree to which such a development reduced the creek’s resiliency is not quantifiable and didn’t turn up in any chemical testing of the water.
In other situations, like in the case of the collapse of the commercial fishery in Lake Erie, this reductive thinking means that the causes of problems are identified very narrowly (blame the lampreys). This narrow identification of the problem then leads to managerial, short-sighted solutions (poison the creeks where the Lampreys spawn every year forever). Which leads us to…
What kinds of lessons are drawn from those answers? As we said, the questions asked by dominator ecology take the needs of the economy as given, and the answers they value are reductive and very narrowly defined. This leads to managerial answers. The natural world is viewed as just a collection of resources, and so the dynamic ecological relationships need to be understood only so far as to properly manage those resources for continued exploitation.
Dominator ecology seeks to be dispassionate, neutral, dehumanized, and so it situates itself as essentially apart from and not deeply affected by the subject matter, which is the network of life itself. This means that those who do feel the destruction of the land on a personal level – namely Indigenous communities – are excluded from consideration because passion is considered bias, which is of course ‘unscientific’. This rationale has also been used to exclude or marginalize the voices of women.
Because dominator ecology seeks to manage ecosystems, it focuses on how to act on them in the present, regardless of how much stress that system has endured over the last few hundred years. This means it seeks to understand a present moment separate from its past and without a future. To illustrate these tendencies towards dispassion and timelessness, here’s a quote from an essay entitled “A Historical Perspective on High Quality Wildlife Habitats” by Ian D. Thompson, from the book, Ontario’s Old Growth Forests:
“Unfortunately, with each passing generation, society loses some of its ability to see or understand which habitats are superior because of cumulative changes over time across landscapes. Each succeeding generation only perceives the world as they see it, not as it once was, and unfortunately our collective memories are short. […] in the late 1960’s in Montreal, the best black duck habitat (i.e. high duck denisty and highly successful breeding) was an area southeast of the city known as Nun’s Island. Nun’s Island is now home to high-rise apartments and high-priced condominiums but not ducks; such has been progress in the world. […] Now, the best black duck habitat anywhere in Quebec is elsewhere, maybe on Isle Verte, or perhaps in the boreal beaver ponds, but the black duck population is poorer for the loss.
“[…] when we think of grizzly bears, we think of uninhabited mountain ranges with meadows and river valleys where humans rarely travel. But if we read history, we know that grizzly bears once inhabited the great plains and foothills of Canada and the United States, where the amount of prey alone (huge herds of bison along with deer and antelope) would indicate that this habitat was far superior than the mountains to which the bears are now relegated. Humans eliminated the bears from these prime areas and so history has altered our perception of what high quality grizzly bear habitat really is.”
So far, Thompson seems to offer a critique of the timelessness of dominator ecology, the separation of a situation from its past and future, and his analysis of how our understanding of high quality habitat weakens over time is quite interesting. However, his use of the ambiguous word “changes” to describe the massive campaign of genocide and destruction that continues to be waged against Turtle Island, its peoples, and its creatures foreshadows some absurd conclusions. He continues:
“As habitats change, invariably as a result of human activity, so too do the ways animals react to and use the new habitats. It appears, at least, that most forest species in Canada are able to adapt to these changes, as no species has gone extinct solely as a result of forest management. Animals in many situations seem capable of adapting to changed habitat conditions by learning behaviours appropriate to living in the new conditions, if the change is neither too extensive nor too dramatic. On the other hand, we have not completed the first cycle of logging in Canadian forests and so it is too early to draw conclusions with respect to species survivorship in the long term. Certainly some species have not adapted well to habitats created by logging and their populations have declined as a result.”
In an amazing feat of verbiage, Thomson manages to conclude that clearcuts creates habitats, animals can find ways to deal with it, and its too early to draw any other conclusions. Even when the past is considered by dominator ecology, it is looked at so narrowly that it becomes impossible to say anything meaningful, which is also a form of timelessness. This timelessness also conveniently eliminates Indigenous peoples’ relationships to and knowledge of the land, and wraps the whole process of colonialism – including genocide and ecocide – into the sanitized word “changes”.
And at whose service is this done? The science of ecology is not neutral – there are some serious power dynamics at play, and so the discipline itself becomes a weapon for the powerful.
Almost all environmental studies are carried out by governments (the federal or provincial ministries of Natural Resources or of the Environment), by large corporations (who seek to profit from so-called natural resources), by universities (whose work is invariably funded by both the state and the corporations, an example being the University of Guelph’s cozy relationship with Monsanto), or by private environmental assessment firms who are contracted by one of the above.
Many development projects in Ontario are subject to an environmental assessment, whose purpose is to demonstrate that whatever the project is, it will either have no negative effect on the wild or that the effect can be mediated, for instance by building an artificial wetland to capture runoff from a new suburb development. Of course, this process greatly favours those able to pay for ecological expertise, who then get to choose what questions are asked and what answers are presented.
Ecological expertise is inaccessible – the financial cost of a degree or an environmental assessment is is a huge barrier, as is the narrow, professionalized discourse of the industry. Even NGOs like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club use that discourse to gain legitimacy. Those who can’t afford the expertise are excluded. But even if more voices were included, dominator ecology is a rigged game from the start, because its starting assumption is that economic and industrial and civilized growth are necessary and the wild needs to be managed to accommodate them.
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