Age of Ecology

When I introduced "The Myth of the Secular," the last series I did for Ideas, I mentioned that it was done in a style that I had first used in this series, "The Age of Ecology," broadcast in 1990.  During the 1980's I had grown restive with the conventional documentary in which a group of speakers are deployed as beads on a string created by the programme maker.  A couple of things bothered me.  The first was that the you-go-then-I-go rhythm of the documentary inevitably limited each speaker to a certain short span of time - it was a lot longer in an Ideas programme than in a television documentary, where one point per "clip" or "insert" is the almost unvarying rule, but more than three or four minutes was unusual and likely to make the documentary feel lumpy and unbalanced.  So people with a lot more to say were often limited to what the exigencies of the documentary allowed them.  The second was that the narrative momentum of the documentary often prevented much attention to what was individual about the individual speakers in the programme.  To talk about their curiculum vitae, or the way in which their ideas had formed and developed, or how these ideas might differ from the documentary's artificial consensus was often difficult or impossible.   So I settled on the one person at a time, and sometimes one person per programme, scheme that I worked with on and off for the next twenty years or so. 


This method allowed me to present a spectrum of views without having to reconcile or even compare them.  Each person's thought could unfold in its own time and on its own terms.  There was time to explore how each one came to think as he or she did, and how each one defined his or her terms.   My theme, the age of ecology, was well-suited to this treatment.  Practically everyone agrees that we live in such an age, now sometimes called the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human impacts on nature now register on geological time scales, but there the agreement ends.  Do we need more management, more science, more regulation, or less?   Can a retooled capitalism pilot "spaceship earth" to salvation, or is a more fundamental change of attitude required?   I first became aware of this question in 1970, when Ivan Illich spoke at a teach-in some friends and I had organized in Toronto.  The environmental crisis, Illich said, presented a fundamental choice:  either we would turn back from the edge that was beginning to become visible, or we would try to manage a precarious life on this edge by means of an ever more comprehensive and intrusive set of calculations and controls.   Illich, typically, was a little ahead of his time, but twenty years later the choice he had offered was rapidly being decided in favour of the management option.  My series was an attempt to draw attention to some of the more searching and more critical approaches to the age of ecology that I had come across; and without, as I've said, having to bring them all into precise alignment.  Included in the series were the following thinkers:

Part One: Wolfgang Sachs and Donald Worster

PartTwo: David Ehrenfeld and John Livingstone

Part Three: Thomas Berry

Part Four: Vandana Shiva and Frederique Appfel-Marglin

Part Five:  John Todd

Part Six:  James Lovelock and William Irwin Thompson

Part Seven: Murray Bookchin and Stuart Hill

Part Eight:  Bill McKibben, David Rothenberg and Erazim Kohak

The year after these shows were broadcast Jim Lorimer published a book called The Age of Ecology - the cover is pictured above - in which transcripts of a number of my programmes, including some episodes from this series, were gathered.  Remarkably the book is still in print.