A New Ecology: Reclaiming a Healthy Connection Between Humans and Nature

In a new book, “The New Ecology,” F&ES Professor Oswald J. Schmitz provides a concise and personal explanation of how scientists have come to recognize the relationship between humans and nature — and how more careful choices can help protect the natural world.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

During its earliest days the field of ecology was devoted to the study of nature apart from humans. But a new kind of ecology recognizes that one simply can’t separate nature from humankind.
new ecology cover
In a new book, “A New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene,” Oswald J. Schmitz, the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at F&ES, offers a concise and personal description of this new ecology and the critical role humans play in an unprecedented transformation of the natural world.
In a recent interview, Schmitz explains how scientists came to appreciate this complex relationship between humans and nature, why he’s hopeful that we can protect biodiversity through careful choices, and why it’s important to introduce these concepts to non-scientists.
A book launch for ”The New Ecology” will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17 in the Knobloch Environment Center, Kroon Hall. Read more

“What the new ecology is trying to do is work with social scientists, economists, political scientists, and others to really think hard about how we can integrate with the natural world and how we can change societal norms and behaviors so that we are respectful of the feedbacks between ourselves and nature,” he said.
“That really requires a change in ethic in how we treat life on this planet.

Q: What do you mean by a “new ecology”?

OSWALD SCHMITZ: It’s not “new” in terms of ecological science. But it is new in the sense that I think a large share of the broader public views ecology as a science that precludes humans from nature and as a field that seeks to constrain humans from pursuing health and economic wellbeing. This book shows that there’s new thinking in ecology that says, no, that’s not really the way the science has developed. And that’s not the way we’re trying and hoping to use the information that science can offer. It’s a new ecology for society, not necessarily a new ecology for science.

Q: You write that the study of ecology originally supported sustaining nature for itself, almost as if you could separate nature from humankind. Why was this nature/humankind separation problematic?

SCHMITZ: We evolved as part of nature, as a species. I don’t know why we’ve privileged humankind over all other species and nature. And I think that society’s mindset is that somehow we don’t belong to nature, we just continually destroy it. But if you really think about what we do, as I say in the book, we operate like a lot of species: We engineer our environments and we create opportunities for ourselves the way other species try to. So we’re really not that different.

Q: You show how human values, and the choices we make, are shaping the natural world — for good or ill. But you also make the case that we can change those behaviors to have more productive impacts.

SCHMITZ: Exactly. I think as we have become more industrialized, more market-driven, and more urbanized, we’ve found a way to live outside of wild nature. Basically what we look at nature for is as a supply or a storehouse of resources that we can extract and then drive into the market economy. As a means to build goods that revalue and enter a market for trade in products. So people became divorced from nature in that sense because it’s simply a place where we get stuff. I think we’ve grown to appreciate that as we strain those places to get stuff, we have to realign our thinking about what it is that we do, how we connect to those places. We have to build in feedbacks into our own human ecosystem that then reduce the damages in that supply house. Because those damages eventually come back to haunt us — we lose opportunity.
What the new ecology is trying to do is work with social scientists, economists, political scientists, and others to really think hard about how we can integrate with the natural world and how we can change societal norms and behaviors so that we are respectful of the feedbacks between ourselves and nature. And to work within those feedbacks. That really requires a change in ethic in how we treat life on this planet.

Q: The book highlights research that shows species and systems, if managed appropriately, are more resilient than might have previously been believed. Does this give you optimism that there’s still a fighting chance to maintain this as a sustainable planet? 

SCHMITZ: Yes. I think that the lesson is, if we are willing, we can restore the environment and bring it back to states that we value and that can supply the services and functions that we really need for life support. And there’s another part that we’re now learning about which contributes to that. Historically we have thought that we’re living with the legacy of what happened over evolutionary time, that the species that exist on the planet right now are the products of evolutionary development that has gone on for millennia before us. And so species are constrained to do whatever they’re doing because they’re predestined by their evolutionary history. But we’re showing that evolution can actually happen very quickly, provided we have the variety available in species populations to allow evolution to proceed.
What that means is that there is a lot of adaptive capacity on the part of organisms, too. The adaptive capacity and ability to withstand disturbances plus the ability to be able to restore things gives a lot more hope that we’re not necessarily on the brink of a sixth extinction. There’s still a lot of resilience in ecological systems, and that is something we have really not appreciated in the past. And that’s actually a double-entendre on the phrase “new ecology,” because that kind of understanding is only very new, even in ecology.

Q: You've written several books about ecology, but this one is written for a more non-specialist audience. Why did you make this decision? And what message do you want them to receive? 

SCHMITZ: Well, it has come out of my teaching. I’ve taught a lot of students who don’t want to be ecologists. They want to be informed by ecology, but they also want to know how to provide meaning to the broader world. How to take this ecological know-how and use it effectively. And I’ve also had friends and family ask me what I do. And I’ve often thought, OK, I’m a scientist, but how does what I do really give meaning to their lives? And so I’ve thought long and hard about how I can get messages out about the hopefulness and excitement that ecology can bring to societal understanding and improving societal welfare. That’s why I wrote it. It was a labor of love to give back to society for the investment they’ve given to me in terms of my ability to do my science and learn from it.

Q: You also used a lot of personal storytelling to make your case.

SCHMITZ: It makes the information tangible. We can talk about science in the abstract and we can talk about all of these theories. But I think people like to gain their understanding by getting a sense of place or being able to resonate with a certain favorite creature. Then you can explain how that creature can change its behavior and respond to what humans are doing. So I think what we need to do is make it relatable to peoples’ day-to-day lives and how they perceive the world. With stories, you can find common ground where they will sit back and hopefully listen and not be turned off by the more high-level scientific discussions that normally go on.
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842