Book Summary: Nature’s Economy by David Worster

I was recently posed a question: “Why should we care if just one species goes extinct, especially if it is no use to us?” 

At first, the question struck me as an ignorant question, but later, I realized it was an important question—a valid question, even. It frames the spectrum of doubt belonging to someone who generally conceives of the natural world as a collection of discreet parts, in service of a their own immediate needs, rather than as an interconnected system in service of all species’ needs.

In response, I would suggest that we should care because each species is part of an interdependent whole, that the optimal state of nature is filled with biologically diverse species that have developed and emerged through evolutionary transformations to fill specific niches that symbiotically support one another. Even if the species appears to be of no use to us, its loss tends to be even more of a burden.

  • Imbalances can occur because different species keep other species in check (preventing further animal population explosions).
  • Likewise, the decline of some species directly impacts humans (the loss of bees, for example, has introduced grave difficulties for food production).
  • Beyond that, extinction may be the symptom of stressors in the environment that can likewise impact human health—such as carcinogens or toxins that lead to brain disfunction or other conditions, worthy of researching and preventing.

However, efforts to exterminate certain species are not without precedent and they have received strong backlashes on both moral and scientific grounds, with easily drawn comparisons to genocidal activities against other humans by some societies and governments.       

The notion that nature functions as an interdependent biological community is most prominently upheld in the field of ecology. Donald Worster’s book, Nature’s Economy: The Roots of Ecology (1977), offers a useful history outlining the trajectories of thought that have informed the thinking and policy-making surrounding ecology in the Anglophone and American contexts, from the mid eighteenth-century until the 1970s, when it was published by the Sierra Club. Therefore, I wish to summarize the entire book to serve as a primer for people interested in the intersection of biodiversity conservation and ecological study. I hope some of the main threads of discourse outlined in that book can serve as a means to frame the initial question. 

I would like to note that the book is not up-to-date, and it does have a second edition, the cover of which I’ve used as the feature image of this post. However, I have based my post on the first edition published in the 1970s. It also does not include Third-World, Post-colonial, or Feminist approaches to Ecology—a gap partly filled by the work of Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive, which I’ll discuss in a later post. Likewise, it does not include indigenous people’s contributions to ecological knowledge in the U.S., either. Yet, it does catch us mostly up to date in terms of the purview of European-based scientific approach to ecology in the United States. I don’t mention these oversights to dismiss Worster’s work, which introduces many ecological developments, but to point to the importance of recognizing additional approaches to ecology that fall outside its scope. 

The book is divided into five parts plus an Epilogue: 

Part One—Two Roads Diverged: Ecology in the Eighteenth Century

Part Two—The Subversive Science: Thoreau’s Romantic Ecology

Part Three—The Dismal Science: Darwinian Ecology

Part Four—O Pioneers: Ecology on the Frontier

Part Five—The Morals of a Science: Ethics, Economics, and Ecology

Epilogue—The Age of Ecology


Part One

—Two Roads Diverged: Ecology in the Eighteenth Century

Holistic versus Mechanistic thought

The first Chapter details the most important work of Gilbert White, an English naturalist, who wandered the hillsides of Selborne and wrote his observations of natural processes in a work entitled The Natural History of Selborne in 1789. Factories were just being adopted into the economy of England and such processes perhaps informed his observations, providing an apt metaphor for his main argument. He wrote, “Nature is a great economist,” in that every element had been maximized to its most efficient potential, serving the needs of the other species, specifically humankind. It is one of the first examples of a genre of writing that would become popular later in the work of John Muir and others: nature essay writing. It also was one of the first books that observed natural world in a holistic sense (an interconnected unity) and its ideas permeated the work of subsequent authors. It also promoted a rural agrarian lifestyle as an ideal form of pure, simplistic, and philosophically rich experience. Such sentiments were not immediately recognized, but later, when industrialization subdivided the open-field system into small plots separated by hedges, English readers turned to White’s work as a symbol of a lost ideal. 

Later, under the influence of White’s work, other authors would challenge industrial society and the principles of mechanistic science that favored “narrow specialization, mathematical abstraction, and excessive reliance on elaborate instruments of measurement” using the ethos of “holism” as their discursive line of defense. Likewise, White’s work reflected a moral, integrated stance in the community, which was also used to critique scientific isolation and insensitivity towards the negative consequences wrought by its application. Thus, following White’s work and its reception, the binary between “mechanistic reductiveness” and “organic synthesis” started to influence critiques of scientific thought and methodologies. Currently, the discourse of ecology still relies on the underlying critique that a “mechanistic” view of the world, content on depleting resources for the prospects of economic growth, should be supplanted by a richer, fuller understanding of it’s complex holistic links. 

Nature as Benevolent Machine: 

Another important figure during the Age of Reason was Linneaus, who created the classification of species that we still use today. He was particularly impressed with the God-given organization of nature and wrote about it in a famous essay entitled “The Oeconomy of Nature” (1749), which described the natural world as a static system of cycles that continue endlessly, fashioning the world as a system naturally governed by God. It likewise detailed the assigned limits of food sources, ranges of species, and reproductive rates, granting them each “allowed places” in nature’s hierarchy. Worster argues that Linnaeus’ thought depended on three main tenets: the machine-like unity of parts of God’s creation, the benevolence of natural harmony, and the utilitarian purpose of “nature’s oeconomy” in that nature was productive and possibly even designed for man’s needs. Challenging the premise of benevolence, Hobbes posited nature as a realm of war and carnage, whereas Adam Smith adopted Linnaeus’ utilitarianism, claiming nature’s system of parts provided the raw material for human needs. Nevertheless, Linnaeus’ model was easily be adopted and distributed in Europe, as it posed no great challenge to the existing merger of rational science and Christian religious piety. Notably, this perspective had not yet accounted for changes within the system of parts creating a whole. 


Part Two

—The Subversive Science: Thoreau’s Romantic Ecology

Thoreau’s contributions as a naturalist

Worster introduces Thoreau as the founding father of ecological thought in the United States making contributions that would later emerge in a theory of plant succession. Thoreau was fascinated with the trees of the forest, especially in light of the vast deforestation that had occurred in North America. Settlers believed that the forest would replenish itself easily, but were baffled when a cut-down grove of Oak trees would be followed with a new growth of pine trees. Thoreau observed the actions of the squirrels transporting the seeds of pines to distant areas, giving them a vast reach. He also noticed that the old-growth of forest, interspersed with a wide variety of different tree species, would not instantly replenish itself. Whereas Linnaeus observed nature from a perspective of harmonious perpetuation, Thoreau’s impressions were made in relief of an awareness of the damage incurred upon the centuries’ old forests in the name of “Civilization.” His imagination, like that of White, was fueled by a dream of understanding and recovering the forest of “Arcadia,” i.e. before the influence of European Civilization. In that sense, he felt that humans should modify their actions on behalf of nature. 

Romantic Underpinnings

Thoreau is considered part of a Romantic tradition of writers who rejected the rational science of the Enlightenment for a more intuitive approach to thought. In drawing upon personal experience and spiritual connection, however, led them to reject the premise of scientific objectivity for its detached approach to observing nature. As a result, he was wary of the specialization of scientific inquiry, due to its tendency to lose sight of the whole. Placing nature’s spiritual influence above that of a utilitarian perspective, Thoreau’s work at times takes on the tone of a mystic. Thoreau likewise made parallels between inhumane actions in the political sphere with the inhumanity of a lack of respect for life in nature, which Worster suggests was like describing the killing of other species as a form of suicide. Finally, Thoreau privileged the first-hand knowledge of nature developed by the Native Americans as opposed to laboratory methods of acquiring information and therefore confined himself to personal observation with direct and prolonged exposure to the natural world, most famously written in his account “On Walden Pond.”

Renunciation of Material Needs

Thoreau’s philosophy extended beyond his preoccupation with observing nature. The spiritual underpinnings of Thoreau’s writings expressed not only a renunciation from scientific rationalism, but also from material needs and comfort, preferring an ideal spiritual transcendentalism to a more pure ideal of asceticism. In this sense, in order to convene closely with nature, he simultaneously rejected its material influence upon his metaphysical transcendence. His writings often take on a moralistic tone of the significance of independence from the changes wrought by civilization through asceticism.     


Part Three

—The Dismal Science: Darwinian Ecology

Darwin’s Era and Influence

Worster identifies Darwin’s outlook on nature initially as an astonished view of the Galapagos that witnessed the destructive forces at play including “extinction, conflict, depratvity, [and] terror,” suggesting that Darwin was disenchanted with the Romantic view of nature as an arcadian realm. His observations in the Galapagos islands likewise confirmed his suspicion that the biological variation he saw, which disrupted his expectations, stemmed from a greater force of change than the theories of Linnaeus or other predecessors could account for. 

Influenced by the writings of Gilbert White, Alexander von Humboldt, and Charles Lyell, he was inspired to explore diverse regions of the world. Through von Humboldt, he found an emphasis on carnage, while the work of Lyell problematized the static version of species dispersal formulated by Linnaeus. Lyell’s work proved that vast migrations had occurred, upsetting the balance of regional species groupings due to his historical perspective of geology which revealed cataclysmic floods and volcanoes as shaping forces. 

Darwin devised a theory of natural selection to account for the idea that species aren’t outright created, but evolve, publishing his theory and supporting data in On the Origin of Species. 

Worster suggests that all survival on earth is socially determined according to Darwin’s theory. Darwin describe nature as a “web of complex relations” in which no individual species can live independently of that web. Darwin observed specific “co-adaptations” linking insignificant species to welfare of other species were intensely specific to a region and environment, reaffirming his belief in interdependence within nature. Darwin also observed how certain species had evolved to perform specific behavioral patterns or “places” within different environmental contexts, likening the tortoise of the Galapagos to the bison of North America for the economic function they performed in nature. Additionally, Darwin noticed that these “places” would not last forever and shifted over time due to competition among species. Finally, context proved influential upon species variation, since species were constantly evolving varied traits upon moving to diverse regions. Two motivators drove species to evolve new traits: in the absence of competition, providing a new niche to fill, a species could evolve to inhabit that place, or by successfully competing against other species, a species might override the previous “place” inhabited by other species. Resulting evolutionary changes could similarly open up new “niches” available to fill in subsequent generations of species, creating a situation of “divergence,” which according to Worster, did not have enough emphasis within On the Origin of Species, granting other means to evolution than competition such as variation, individuality, and deviance. Therefore, scarcity and conflict comprised the most desperate and least favorable means to survival. Contrasting explanations for evolutionary survival emerged from his theory including non-combative innovative growth and combative individualistic competition, though the latter has arguably received more attention.     

Not surprisingly, subsequent social theories of dominance emerged from Darwin’s thought including the racially targeted statement that, “the Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence.” Thus, the ecological construct, when used to construct social hierarchies, presents a divisive ideology. Likewise, its long delayed publication and later reception was starkly divided between those who embraced and those who opposed his theory. Ultimately, the resulting theory, Worster suggests brought about profound changes to ecologically thinking, but at the same, time remains a theory that must be approached with qualification, as a product of its Victorian-Era time period.   

According to Darwin’s theory, extermination and self-seeking aggression appeared as a natural right and part of the process of staking a claim upon survival—a sort of “might is right” ethos. However, not all Victorian moralists could embrace an ethos of “sheer power” as society’s bedrock, such as Lester Ward, who preferred a managerial model which could protect the weak from exploitation by the strong. Ward’s perspective of nature contrasted with Linnaeus in that he had no faith in it’s economic efficiency, suggesting instead that it produced “redundant fertility” in the form of an excess of eggs to produce a few creatures or the excessive monstrous size of elephants. Ward believed that nature could be improved upon through better planning. For Ward, civilization could beneficially control and manage the chaos of nature. In a similar shift, which isolated man from nature, Thomas Huxley emphasized a confrontation between man and nature, which valorized man’s domination over nature, favoring domesticated gardens and controlled landscapes to unruly wilderness. The Victorian Era proved important for highlighting a fundamental rift between thinkers who conceived of nature from a biocentric perspective (Darwin, Thoreau, Linnaeus, and White) and those who privileged humankind’s separation and implicit domination over nature in an anthropocentric perspective (Ward and Huxley). Though Darwin’s theories did little to instill an ethos of preservation or stewardship towards the natural environment by man, his perspective on nature as an all-inclusive system did not isolate humankind from the forces at play within nature.

Part Four

—O Pioneers: Ecology on the Frontier

This part of the book was perhaps the part I found most interesting because I had known least about it, prior to reading the book. 

Worster traces the roots of the word “Ecology” back to Ernst Haekel who created the neologism Oecologie in 1866 meaning “the economy of nature” or the interrelations and behaviors of organisms and their habitat. It gained popularity through its use by the International Botanical Congress in 1893. Alexander von Humboldt’s methodology of studying the interrelationships of plants and geographies was practiced by his predecessors including August Grisebach who labelled assemblages of plants and environments “formations.” This led to three newly established methods of study. To classify plants not just by taxonomy, but also by adaptive forms. To emphasize plants as socially integrated societies, and to identify climate as the crucial determinant for individual and communal patterns (195). Following this rationalization, C. Hart Merriam, an ornithologist in the United States defined distinct climatic “life zones” in North America. Taking a cue from the importance of interdependence, Danish ecologist Eugenius Warming categorized and defined different types of “commensalism” or interdependence in nature, including “symbiosis,” which challenged the idea of strict individualistic competition of Darwinism. In addition, Warming expanded upon the categorization of ecological regions from strictly climatic zones to include soil and water considerations. In addition Warming theorized why plant communities change over time in relation to climate, soil, and water, much as Thoreau had done when he noticed the succession of pines following a fallen oak grove. Warming modified the theory of succession to suggest that the developmental pattern of ecological communities is toward a “climax” formation, “the most diverse, stable, well-balanced, self-perpetuating society that can be devised to meet the requirements of each habitat” (202). Following the work of Warming, the consolidation of the field of ecology took place with ecological research taking place inside and outside of laboratories. Many people identified the decline of the naturalist with the rise of the ecologist. In 1919, Victor Shelford defined ecology as “the science of communities” and for Worster, a more precise definition is, “the science of the development of communities.” 

The first American Ecological Society was formed in 1915, with newly developing expertise in the field. Two scientists, Henry C. Cowles and Frederic Clements were considered the most eminent in the field, and though they worked independently of one another, their work established the tradition known as “dynamic” ecology, which drew from Warming’s theory of “succession” to research vegetation development. Along the shores of Lake Michigan, Cowles observed the variation in succession not only across time, but also across space, in proximity to different geological features. Meanwhile, Clements researched succession in the grasslands region of the Great Plains. He subdivided the stages of development of vegetation into “seres,” or different developmental stages leading towards ecological “climax stage” characterized by the optimal, self-sustaining balance of vegetational development for a given climatic and geographic region. Later on, Clements combined his research with that of Victor Shelford to combine their research of animals and plants to define ecological “biomes” or dynamic communities of life. Clements used his research to define and describe the climatic community of the grasslands biome, which would soon face the threat of modern farming with the creation of the plow that led to the Dust Bowl. Because of the largely destructive role that human activity played in the “climax stage” of vegetation that Clements researched, he struggled to incorporate the role of humankind within his theory of ecological development. Therefore, he faced some criticism for excluding considerations for human interests from his research. 

Starting on page 221, Worster gives his most thorough “case study” of the intersection of ecology and a national emergency in terms of the influence of the ecological movement on policy. Worster cites the devastating impact of the tractor on the condition of soil in the Great Plains as one of the main contributing factors to the rash of dried up, infertile lands that characterized the Dust Bowl. The tractor had the ability to break up the heavy sod of the grasslands. This sod structure kept moisture in the soils, preventing them from desertification. While the United States did not wish to follow the Mexican model of establishing large cattle ranches on the land to raise livestock—a more suitable use of the grasslands—due to a conflicting political desire to divide the land into smaller, more equitable parcels of wheat growing fields under the Homestead Act of 1862, droughts in the 1890s and later during the Dust Bowl, revealed the devastating lack of foresight behind this policy. 

Later on, the Dust Bowl was considered a largely manmade disaster, requiring the state to implement a large-scale conservation program for agriculture in 1941. In the years surrounding and following the Dust Bowl, a number of critics to Clements ideal of an ecological climax community emerged. A.G. Tansley of Oxford felt that humans could not be excepted from Clements’ biotas, favoring an environmentally relativist approach, rejecting the need for external limitations such as the “climax phase” model upon manmade environments. James Malin felt that Clements work did not account for the serious disruptions that occurred naturally, though it remained critical of the disruptions incurred by humankind. These included forest fires or the bisons’ “natural tilling.” He ultimately favored a form of “technological determinism” in which the changes brought about by the land could be sorted out through manmade improvements or technological innovation. However, his rationale could not defy the fact that the land as Clements had observed it had remained more or less stable for thousands of years, giving credence to most ecologists’ beliefs that manmade management could not surpass the existing natural paradigm of ecological succession. For Worster, the Dust Bowl reveals the difficulties wrought by humankind’s false illusion that nature can or should adapt to the marketplace needs rather than our need to adapt to existing climatic and ecological concerns. 

Part Five

—The Morals of a Science: Ethics, Economics, and Ecology

Extermination and Public Lands Management

Apart from the Dust Bowl, Worster uses the example of predator management by the Bureau of Biological Sciences (BBS), a branch of the Department of Agriculture, reaching a peak in the 1940s and 1950s as another example of how economic interests came to influence ecological processes on a grand scale in the United States followed by a backlash from ecological thinkers. All of this occurred under the heading of “conservation,” which initially encompassed a doctrine of resource management. State-sanctioned policies of predator extermination on behalf of livestock farmers beginning in 1905 under the direction of C. Hart Merriam led to sharp declines in the populations of large predators including bears, wolves, and coyotes were conducted using a variety of widely distributed poisons. Even after the economic cost of these programs could not be justified by the economic losses of livestock, defiance within the BBS against predatory animals have remained firm. 

This policy favored a similar ideological underpinning to that of “progressive conservation” championed by Gilford Pinchot, who organized the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Pinchot’s understanding of conservation mean to protect the “efficiency” and “productivity” of public lands from an agricultural perspective, as though forests could be farmed like crops. However, the economically motivated philosophy held no particular concern for the role of wild creatures. Policy makers such as Pinchot, mostly held regard for large animals that held value in recreational hunting such as deer, thereby giving support to the efforts to eliminate predators. However, once this theory was applied, it proved little benefit for the deer. Worster cites the example of game management in the Kaibab Forest, set aside as a natural preserve. In the absence of a predator, the deer population swelled from 4,000 to 100,000, which led to malnutrition and over-grazing across the land and subsequently the population dropped back to 10,000 with the side effect of widespread range damage. One of the key texts that transferred the ideas of agricultural management to a broader view of public lands management was Game Management written by Aldo Leopold. However, years later, his own ideology shifted towards a critique of the role of economics and the adoption of ecological concern by asserting the natural rights of animals, modeled after the rights put forth in the Bill of Rights, when he retreated to the wilderness in the manner of a natural historian to write Sand County Almanac, which is considered one of the seminal texts of the environmental movement along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Critics of the extermination of wildlife during this time included John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, who sharply opposed Pinchot’s support for these policies. He and others complained about the lack of research into the environmental consequences of extermination. The American Society of Mammalogists and the Journal of Mammalogy gave voice to many criticisms, mostly drawn on moral grounds promoting the need for the “balance of nature” akin to the ideal of the “climax stage” of Clements. Alternative policies such as setting aside lands reserved for uncontrolled populations of wild animals were suggested (and likened to Native Reservations by Worster). Others promoted the idea that carnivores played an important role in nature as natural checks upon rodents and other pests, but this argument was suppressed through a tampering of evidence by the BBS, proving that subjective interests were intertwined with purely “rational” goals.           

The advent of New Ecology

Ecology, as a scientific discipline, has not, however escaped the influence of economic-incentives, when it developed into the field of “bio-economics” in the 1960s. This discipline would interpret the natural world through the lenses of scarcity, productivity, and efficiency, further promoting the need for the controlled management of nature. However, applying concepts from both economics and physics led to new approaches in ecology in a wave of research under the heading New Ecology.  

In 1927, zoologist Charles Elton defined food chains within his book Animal Ecology, defining food as “the essential capital in the natural economic order.” Elton used economic jargon to contextualize the functions of the different parts of the food chain. Elton’s notion of the food chain showed how a hierarchy of predation also created a population pattern of distribution in a pyramid shape: the largest predators had the lowest population, while the producers of food (plants) were distributed widely. Elton also theorized the “niche” which aligned with Darwin’s notion of “place” in the economy of nature. Scientists furthered their understanding of ecological niches, noting its alignment with speciation. Elton’s research led him towards an ethic of conservation, affirming that by prioritizing economic incentives, the land would give way to a dull, factory-like, homogenized existence.   

A.G. Tansely coined the phrase “ecosystem” and adopted theories of energy from the advancing field of physics into his purview of ecology, by quantifying energy flows throughout the environment. According to Worster, his approach “dovetailed nicely with the agronomic and industrial view of nature as a storehouse of exploitable material resources” (304). In 1942, another scientist, Raymond Lindeman, expanded upon these ideas to develop a theory of metabolic energy transfer among different species, charting energy consumption and production across an ecosystem to define a sum total of “net production.” The purpose of his research was to trace environmental efficiencies across different ecosystems, and in the course of his research, his observations led him to notice phenomena in aquatic systems that aligned with Clements’ theory of succession.    

Interestingly, Worster interprets the shift in ecological thinking and terminology as reflective of an overall shift in social dynamics: “In this world of computer-run organizations and carefully arbitrated resolution of all discords, it was probably inevitable that ecology too would come to emphasize the flow of goods and services—or of energy—in a kind of automated, robotized, pacified nature” (313)

Furthermore, he cites various examples of how New Ecology has been promoted within a managerial ethos towards land, using it as a starting point to assess and promote maximum efficiencies for economic-incentives. 

Organicist, Interdependence theories

Finally, Worster introduces a group of scientists who used the work of the moral philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote in his book, Science and the Modern World (1925), that “a mechanistic analysis of nature had dominated western thinking” for three centuries (317). He suggested that instead, science should view ecological communities as one views an organism—as a set of interdependent parts, irreducible parts. This theory critiqued the rational abstraction of mind from body, in Western rationalism. Drawing from it, a group of scientists emphasizing organicist interdependence started to theorize the intrinsically linking parts of nature from a predominantly moralistic perspective. The most well known among them was William Morgan Wheeler who applied the theories to ant colonies in 1910. By analyzing of the roles of different ants within the ant colony, his theory lent itself to comparisons to human social organization, a through line in the organicist approach. Another development was the notion of emergent evolution, which observed the different developments such as mind that had emerged through evolution. In spite of the upsurge of interest in interdependence in nature, their emphasis on synergy took on an idealistic tone when many other scientists were involved in researching thermodynamics or bioeconomics. Nevertheless, their emphasis on interdependence was later picked up by members involved in what Worster defines as the “Age of Ecology” in the post-war period.   


—The Age of Ecology

With the invention of nuclear weapons, the fallout of nuclear weapons became a prominent concern of American scientists, who attempted to inform the general public about the dangers of the secret military weapons program. Likewise, in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her seminal book for the environmental movement, Silent Spring, which adapted her scientific background to emerge as a voice of protest against the poorly researched and dangerous environmental damage caused by the chemicals in agricultural pesticides. Later, Paul Ehrlich informed the world of the dangers of the human population explosion. Worster explains that “by the 1970s the list of environmental threats had further expanded to include automobile emissions, solid waste, toxic metals, oil spills, even heat” (342). The 1970s sent a shockwave of public awareness of the Earth’s vulnerability in what the media termed, “The Age of Ecology.” During this time, numerous movements emerged to spur a revolution of change. As the environmental destruction following World War II had largely been through scientific and technological developments, the role of the ecologist was to interpret and communicate the value of interdependence and loss in the face of the harm caused by these scientific “advances.”    


















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