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  • What Is Sustainability Studies?
  • Gillen D'Arcy Wood (bio)

1. Ecocriticism and Biocomplexity

In 2004, an influential group of ecocritics convened in a decommissioned school classroom in Matfield Green, Kansas, to discuss environmental sustainability. This group included well-known figures in American ecocriticism such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, president of the renowned Land Institute, and the philosopher Bill Vitek. Essays arising from that Matfield Green meeting were subsequently published in 2008, in a volume entitled The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge (2008). By way of introduction to the themes of complexity and sustainability, editors Jackson and Vitek launch an assault on science and the scientific method. In the spirit of Aldo Leopold that presides over the volume, Jackson and Vitek represent professional science as a pernicious legacy of the Enlightenment, a hubristic "knowledge-based world view" (1). The instrumentalist, scientistic view of natural resources has led, .among other disasters, to the industrialization of American agriculture—its transformation from an agrarian model of small, variegated farming plots to a hyper-fertilized, monocultural agribusiness that deploys vast quantities of petroleum-based chemicals, depletes precious topsoil, and creates toxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Jackson and Vitek go further, extrapolating from the evils of industrialized agriculture a general argument against science as such. Science, according to this critique, is synonymous with the technologies and knowledge paradigms of modernity [End Page 1] itself, and thus responsible for the full cluster of environmental crises facing twenty-first century humanity: pollution of land, air, and water, mass bio-extinction, deforestation, and toxic food technologies, among others. Science has driven this Western and now global project of modernity by a ruthlessly positivist outlook, a "prideful optimism" (8) that disdains uncertainty and complexity in favor of data and "endless facts" (10). Science and sustainability are historical enemies, and sustainability science a contradiction in terms. What is needed, from their perspective, is a humble, non-quantitative respect for nature's complexity, for the constitutive uncertainties of our relation to the environment, and for the limits of human knowledge. Ecocritics should champion, they argue, an "ignorance-based worldview" (22).

The Matfield Green manifesto on sustainability offers a rousing cri de coeur, but it is also demonstrably wrongheaded and uninformed on key issues—and represents a dead end for twenty-first century ecocriticism. For instance, it would certainly come as a surprise to a biophysical scientist working today to be charged with a disregard for uncertainty or complexity, when these constitute the dominant research paradigm in the natural sciences. In 1999, Rita Colwell, epidemiologist and incoming president of the National Science Foundation, established "Bio-complexity in the Environment" as a new priority funding category for the NSF. "The metaphor of biocomplexity was inspired," she explained, "by the interdisciplinary imperative not only to integrate the natural sciences, but also to understand the role that natural and social system interactions play in the dynamics of our planet's system and how these influence sustainability" (254). In terms that mirror the now-outdated Matfield Green critique of science, Colwell acknowledges that most twentieth-century scientific practice had been essentially reductionist, with the goal of isolating natural organisms and their observed behaviors within ever smaller ambits.

But the advent at the turn of the century of large-scale digital technologies and data-merging capability—from genome sequencing to ecological monitoring devices to satellite imaging of land and sea—has now enabled scientists to emerge from discrete disciplinary problem-solving to address the bigger picture, namely "the complexity of the living system and non-living world, and how [they] function to sustain us on this planet" ("Biocomplexity" 1). Accordingly, the NSF now grants multimillion dollar grants under such rubrics as the "Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems." While such a phrase might never have flowed from the oracular pen of Aldo Leopold, he would certainly have understood its holistic intent and respect for nature's complexity. [End Page 2]

Biocomplexity—the chaotically variable interaction of organic elements on multiple scales—is the defining characteristic of all ecosystems, including human societies. Biocomplexity science seeks to understand this nonlinear functioning of elements across multiple scales of time and...


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