Protoecological observations were a part of natural history as it was pursued by the Rudbecks as early as the turn of the 18th century, and by Linnaeus and his disciples. We also find some protoecological theorizing in Linnaeus. In other words, the study of the relations between organisms and their environment was a natural component of 18th- and 19th-century natural history. This protoecology used concepts from physicotheology, neo-Platonism, and romantic idealisms to describe the findings from their observations and theories.
Natural history continued as late as the middle of the 19th century without being seriously questioned, represented by natural historians like Elias Fries and Sven Nilsson. The typical natural historian was a generalist in the sense that he possessed a broad knowledge of plants and animals. He had observed the lives of animals in the wild, knew how to hunt, and captured them. He knew what plants were useful, as medicine or in agriculture and other industries that could be improved. The Linnaeans at the universities taught how to perform meticulous descriptions of species and to classify the material found, the very alphabet of natural history. Taking inventory of Sweden’s flora and fauna had yielded great knowledge of both plant and animal geography, thereby raising new questions about how organisms adapt to their environment. In this sense it can be said that there were plenty of protoecologists in the early 1800s.
Most natural historians were physicians or clergymen; some were civil servants or financially independent noblemen. Only very few were employed by universities, museums, or other institutions. In the 18th century there were only four professorial chairs in natural history at the universities. During the 19th century the number of positions grew slowly at the universities, and some positions in natural history or related fields were created at various academies, institutes, and museums—later in secondary schools as well.
In the second half of the 19th century the social order of natural history began to break down, and a new kind of biology took shape. The chairs in natural history were replaced by specifically botanical and zoological ones. Separate programs of study were created for the respective disciplines, and starting in the 1870s it was possible to take a specialist degree (licentiate) in botany or zoology. The secondary school subject of natural history was not replaced by the subject of biology until 1905, which can be seen in one sense as the end of natural history.
At the same time, new institutions were created, museums and laboratories, where the new study of nature got underway. The trend partially entailed a turning away from the study of nature in the wild, and thereby from protoecology. But this was counterbalanced to some extent by the establishment of new institutions devoted to practical industrial pursuits. Agricultural sciences were organized around 1850, forestry sciences around 1900; at the same time institutions were established for research on fresh water and the seas. In these fields the natural history tradition lived on to some extent: forestry and marine scientists especially were interested in the relations between organisms and their environment, and solid protoecology was pursued.
Regional societies of husbandry emerged in the 1810s, and a national equivalent, the Academy of Agriculture, was founded in 1811. The Swedish Fen Culture Association, the Swedish Sowing Association, the agricultural institutes at Ultuna and Alnarp, seed testing stations, the Proving Ground, and the Entomological Institute are other examples of new institutions.
In the natural-history tradition, the amateur and the professional worked side by side. But as the social foundation of natural history was gradually eroded, this changed. Amateur biology continued to be popular and new groups emerged as a foundation for natural history, the most important ones being secondary schoolteachers and children and adolescents. At the same time, the gap between amateurs and professionals widened; the latter found their favorite objects among cryptogams and marine invertebrates, groups that required the equipment of a specialist to study.
Söderquist claims that just as we can speak of the electrification of Sweden, we can speak of an ‘ecologization.’ He discerns several phases in the development of ecology, from pre-ecological natural history, through protoecological studies, to the first assertions of a special science of ecology, which grow more and more forceful. In the 1970s major ecological research projects were launched with the aim of mapping how ‘the sea’ and ‘the forest’ function. A Commission on Natural Resources was appointed—in sum, ecology stands out as a savior that will solve some of society’s most fundamental problems. The culmination of this process occurs in the 1970s when political decisions are made to view society as resting on an ‘ecological foundation.’
During the 1960s and 1970s ecology came to play a crucial role in the emergence of the environmental movement. What brought ecology to the forefront were modern social developments. The dark sides of the consumer society in the affluent world became more and more apparent in the form of dying birds, acidified lakes, and mountains of waste. Global problems like starvation, soil erosion, the extinction of animals and plants, and the disappearing rainforests led to a heightened awareness of what came to be termed ‘the ecological crisis.’ Voices were heard saying that we are collectively sawing off the branch we are all sitting on. This societal development aroused an aspect of ecological thinking that had been relatively recessive in earlier periods. But ever since the time of Linnaeus’ notion of the economy of nature, ecology has borne within it not only the concept of the interplay of nature but also, albeit less explicitly, the thought that humankind and society should be integrated into this natural context.
Although there has been a marked change in the environmental policy situation during the 1980s and 1990s, this vision lives on, not only in the political parties that originally were influential in these issues, the Center Party, the Left Party and eventually the newly started Green Party. The Social Democrats under the leadership of Göran Persson have also made attempts to put forward the renewable society as a vision at Social Democratic conventions. The fact that one of his advisors in these matters is Stefan Edman, a Christian environmental philosopher, invites historical parallels, making the role of Christian physicotheology in the emergence of ecology especially interesting in retrospect.