Which Ecology?

“Ecology” is the name given to a sub-discipline of biology. However, ecological research is not conducted in this context alone – it is also a component of engineering-based disciplines, such as agriculture and forestry, and of subjects based more in the humanities and social sciences, such as cultural or human ecology. Indeed “ecological” has come to be a comprehensive catchword – especially a political one – that structures discourses and provides orientation for action. It follows that “ecological” can be conceived in both normative and epistemological terms.

In this project we are particularly interested in images of nature in its specific forms, that is, the modes of representation of nature “out there” in open space, outside the laboratory. These images are influenced substantially by visualisations of nature that are generated in the context of ecological research. All that is seen, described, assessed and politically negotiated as “ecological” in society is mediated through the production and transformation of images – through images which wander nomadically between various media and discourses as they move from science into society. As a consequence, nature in its specific forms – visible to the naked eye – is in this sense just as much a constructed phenomenon as the abstract nature of the laboratory sciences.

A range of different visual images of nature are constantly being generated and defended, depending on the historical, cultural and methodological context in which they occur. These images represent different metaphysical ideas and epistemic models, and they differ in terms of the techniques, strategies and settings involved in their production. Ecological research, as we see it, can be read as a mapping programme that presents different ideas of nature as they occur in different scientific, national, philosophical and geographical cultures. Whether a particular piece of nature is considered worthy of protection, is regarded as a commodifiable resource, as unreliable and dangerous, or as accessible to the contemplative mind depends crucially on its cultural environment – and thus, in our knowledge society, on science’s visual and conceptual representations.