Reviewing the controversy over the so-called music ecology trope, i.e., the idea that a music culture can be regarded as an ecological system, I think it may be helpful to re-orient the division I drew about fifteen years ago between ecological and economic discourses surrounding sustainability. At that time I thought that the ecological discourse was best represented by conservation biology and its approach to environmental sustainability, while the economic discourse was best represented by the Brundtland Report’s Our Common Future and its emphasis on sustainable development. But for the past eight years or so I’ve found it helpful to think of the ecological discourse surrounding sustainability as more diverse than what conservation biology represented.
It may be useful to distinguish between two strands within the ecological discourse on sustainability. One is an ecosophical strand, represented to some extent by the deep ecologists, who retain the idea that there is an optimal state towards which nature, in the absence of human intervention, inexorably moves; and that therefore human beings ought to either get out of the way or if intervention for sustainability is necessary, one must “help nature along” or “do as nature does” and “follow nature.” Human beings are viewed as part and parcel of nature, as inhabitants or citizens of nature, not as superior to it or dominant over it. This strand of thought is also found among many environmentalists who do not think of themselves as ecologists, or who often conflate ecology with environment, as in usages like “ecological collapse” instead of “ecosystem collapse.”
The other strand is pragmatic, and it is represented by contemporary ecosystem ecologists who think of nature as a complex system that moves through one environmental disturbance to the next, each one followed by a regime change, and a temporary equilibrium which may be more or less desirable than the one prior. There is no such thing as a “natural” tendency to move toward an optimal, climax state of dynamic equilibrium. Human beings are still part and parcel of nature, but nature can also be evaluated in terms of the “services” or benefits that ecosystems offer to humankind. To that end, ecosystems are managed for movement in more desirable directions, and when those are reached they are sustained insofar as possible by means of resilience strategies.