OOS 53-3
Paul Sears: Cautious ‘subversive’ ecologist

Wednesday, August 12, 2015: 2:10 PM
329, Baltimore Convention Center
Gene Cittadino, Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, New York, NY

Paul Bigelow Sears—botanist, pioneering paleoecologist, conservationist—is probably best known not for his strictly scientific work but for two publications, thirty years apart, intended for a general audience: his 1935 book Deserts On the March, in which he warned against the kind of human neglect of ecological principles that created the dust bowls, and his 1964 article “Ecology—A Subversive Subject,” in which he suggested that ecology, “if taken seriously as an instrument for the long-term welfare of mankind, would…endanger the assumptions and practices accepted by modern societies.” Although cautious by nature and politically conservative, in his many books, articles, reviews, and public lectures Sears  nevertheless challenged the economics of continual growth, criticized the blind adoption of new technologies, and made bold pronouncements about the exploitation of natural resources and the ignorance or disregard of ecological principles in land-use practices. This study explores the nature of and motivations behind Sears’s contributions to human ecology through an examination of his extensive publications and his personal papers.


Sears devoted most of his professional life to studies that lay at the intersection of paleobotany, ecology, and anthropology. An obsession with prairies from early youth and his boyhood experiences on a family farm seem to have been the chief catalysts. Encouragement from Henry Cowles, with whom he had studied  briefly at Chicago, helped Sears shift his focus from plant morphology to the reconstruction of vegetation and climate history. Circumstances also intervened. As chair in botany at Oklahoma in 1935 he responded to a call for help with the dust bowl predicament by volunteering to write a book explaining the cause. The result was Deserts on the March and instant notoriety. While advocating wise land use and criticizing the blind embracement of new technologies for the next several decades, Sears nevertheless took positions that distanced him from some of his less conservative colleagues. For example, he supported claims of the Atomic Energy Commission that the risks of fallout from nuclear testing had been exaggerated by critics, and he served on the Commission’s Plowshare Advisory Committee, supporting plans for using nuclear explosions for large-scale excavation projects. On these points he clashed directly with Barry Commoner, whose career as outspoken environmentalist was shaped by the same events. Seemingly contradictory, these contrasting positions were consistent with the personality and the careful, methodical work habits of this advocate for the “subversive” nature of ecology.