The history of applied ethnomusicology in the US goes back at least to the New Deal era, when ethnomusicologists were (comparative) musicologists and when Charles Seeger, the first president of the American Musicological Society, argued on behalf of an applied musicology that would be put to practical use in a democratic republic, for the benefit of society as a whole, rather than in service to high culture only. It was also an era of conservation, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, with agricultural conservation efforts underway in the Farm Security Administration, and the Works Progress Administration undertaking cultural conservation by collecting and encouraging popular and folk arts and crafts. The invaluable recordings by folklorists such as Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress were part of this effort.
The history of applied ecology goes back at least to the World War I era. The story will be a familiar one to anyone who’s followed the history of applied ethnomusicology. The professional society of ecologists, the Ecological Association of America (ESA), began in 1915, as an offshoot of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was founded to help unify a science that consisted of plant ecology, animal ecology, and so forth—a series of specialties without a general ecological theory. The ESA hoped to stimulate research and to serve as a place where scientists could share information. One of the ESA’s standing committees was devoted to another goal, using ecological research to advance environmental conservation. This "Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions" was led by the ESA’s first president, Victor Shelford (1877-1968), from 1917 to 1938. The next year, 1939, saw the publication of the most important work in general ecology in the first half of the 20th century, Bio-Ecology, co-authored by Shelford and Frederic E. Clements. The book advanced Shelford’s ideas of the biome and ecological succession, which he had introduced as early as 1912. Clements, of course, is known for his idea that ecological succession led to a climax community in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
Shelford’s credentials as an eminent research scientist were beyond dispute, but when at the end of Roosevelt’s last presidential term he tried to steer the ESA into establishing a new organization, one devoted to conservation, the ESA balked. Its officers decided that as a scientific society they must avoid becoming a political advocacy group, which they feared would happen if they sponsored the conservation organization that Shelford wanted. Going further, they abolished the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions that Shelford had led for its first 21 years. Upset, Shelford left his professorship at the University of Illinois, and in 1946 founded the new organization himself, the Ecologists Union, aligning nature conservation with the goal of preserving entire ecosystems. That organization is known today as The Nature Conservancy.
It would be interesting to know whether the ESA’s unwillingness to endorse applied ecology during the immediate post-World War II period was part of the general climate of distrust for social engineering that derailed applied ethnomusicology for several decades, a distrust fueled by the social and scientific experiments and the war on academic freedom in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Universities might offer protection from persecution if academics could establish that science was beyond politics. But applied ecology would not be derailed for nearly so long as applied ethnomusicology. Eugene P. Odum (1913-2002), son of the sociologist and folklorist Howard W. Odum (1884-1954), and a student of Shelford in the 1930s, in 1953 wrote the integrative textbook Fundamentals of Ecology, which laid the foundation of ecological science on the ecosystem, a foundation that would remain for at least three decades.
The idea of the ecosystem was not original with Odum--it had been defined as a unit of study by Arthur Tansley in 1935, and tested by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. In the Fundamentals Odum explained ecosystems in the then-novel terms of cybernetic systems theory, in which higher levels of organization have structures and functions as a whole—emergent properties—that can’t be predicted by analyzing their component parts. Yet in that book and increasingly so in its successive editions, Odum also advocated an applied ecology in which scientists would work as consultants in policy matters. He himself did so, in matters of nuclear power (“atoms for peace”) and in opposing pesticides. During the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Odum promoted the idea that ecology was an integrative discipline (much like an ecosystem itself) that served as a bridge between science and society. He always maintained the distinction between ecological science and environmental activism, and lamented that the distinction had blurred as the environmental movement gathered momentum: environmentalists were being labeled as ecologists even though they had no formal training in ecology. Yet he felt that it was most appropriate for ecologists to take a stand for the environment, and for ecological research to ground the environmental movement by providing a scientific basis for sound policies.