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The Balance of Nature

Balanced Rock, Trough Creek State Park

One of the things that bugs me most about some of my fellow environmentalists, aside from the patchouli, is the near-religious adherence — even among those enviros who eschew religion — to the notion that natural ecological systems have an innate and emergent self-repairing property. It’s a dangerous idea that breeds complacency, and it’s really widespread.

I’m painting with abroad brush here, I know. I’ll continue to do so for convenience’s sake, but it’s true that a number of enviro types  have dropped the notion of a “balance of nature.” In my experience, wildlife biologists and people who study aridland ecosystems are especially likely to have deprecated the Gaia idea of Earth being an overarching, self-regulating system. And paleontologists.

It’s easy to understand how the notion might have come about. Ecosystems get more diverse over time, with the species in them evolving as many ways of making a living as can fit in the space available, and so disruption of an ecosystem might merely open up opportunities for organisms to grow and reproduce. Those disruptions might be truly cyclical, as with tides flooding and draining a tidepool twice a day or freezing temperatures descending on half a continent for four months every year, or they might be cyclical in the stochastic sense — forest fires, 500-year floods and droughts, the occasional exotic pathogen making its way to a new continent. If you stand back and squint, those cycles can look like stability as organisms are killed off and new ones grow to replace them. Especially if you don’t pay attention to the fact that, say, the regrown forest no longer includes American chestnuts.

Unless you eradicate every living thing from a wide area when you disturb it, species will colonize that disturbed area as fast as they can. They compete with one another, take advantage of opportunities the other colonizing species provide in relationships parasitic and commensal and endosymbiotic, fill every emerging niche in the developing biotic landscape of the disturbed area. Eventually, an ecological regime will likely develop where the pace of change is much slower. In humid temperate forests, this often happens when tall trees whose seedlings can develop in deep shade become dominant. Without further disturbance, forests of these trees can remain relatively unchanged for a long time, because they’ve evolved characteristics that make it very difficult to compete with them for domination of the landscape. But there’s really not much difference between a hardwood “climax forest” and a weed-filled fallow field: they’re both the scene of organisms competing and interacting with one another in complex ways.

We humans look at things from our own perspective, so the “climax forest” seems like a different animal altogether. A weed lot can change utterly in a couple of years. It may take 200 years for a lucky hemlock seedling’s descendants to take over an ancient hardwood forest dominated by sugar maple. That forest seems stable to us, but that’s because we don’t live long enough to notice the shift. The same general dynamics apply.

I worked as an environmental writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area for close to 20 years, and the San Francisco Bay Area is full of very thoughtful people who form thinktanks and salons and such, and holism and systems thinking have been in vogue with those people for quite some time. And one of the things you hear systems thinking types say fairly often about complex systems such as ecosystems are “self-regulating.” That’s the whole Gaia idea in a nutshell: the Earth “acts” to “heal” damage to its living systems.

When I’ve pressed systems thinkers on what they mean by “self-regulation,” they will sometimes talk about negative feedback causing homeostasis, like for example predators keeping prey numbers in check, ensuring the prey don’t eat all their food, ensuring there are future prey, ensuring there are future predators to keep prey numbers controlled  – despite the fact that the mechanisms called “negative feedback” in one setting can just as easily cause dramatic change in an ecosystem. If there are 70 pumas on a large island with 10,000 deer, the predator-prey ration may well become cyclically stable. If it’s a smaller island with two pumas and eight deer, the very same mechanism will result in an island with neither pumas nor deer in rather short order.

It seems to me that “negative feedback” thus becomes less a defining characteristic of complex systems and more an artificial category of dynamics defined by their outcomes, after those outcomes happen.

I worked with a group of people once who were writing a systems-based environmental science curriculum for the California Department of Education. The chief  idea behind this curriculum was that California’s environment was a complex system, and that complex systems predictably behaved in certain ways, one of which was that they had a tendency to seek stable states. I accepted this uncritically for a while: it’s pretty much received wisdom among a certain set of enviros. But the more I thought about it, the more it fell apart.

What is a “stable state”? A set of conditions that lasts for a relatively long time.

What indicates a “tendency to seek stable states”? The system spends more time in the stable states than in the unstable ones.

In other words, a system going through change spends more time in the states that last longer.

Tautology.

I didn’t keep that gig for very long.

Here’s the thing: people really, really want to believe that ecosystems are self-repairing, because that way we can excuse the fact that our very existence these days seems to rend that hopefully self-healing fabric. The notion that ecosystems’ seeming stability is a combination of chance and inertia is a little frightening. It’s scary to think that whatever ecological equilibrium we enjoy might be best explained metaphorically as the cumulative inertia of a quintillion solar-powered flywheels each spinning on their own rather than as a benevolent Earth Mother taking care of us.

It suggests that as we stop one of those flywheels after another, we’ll eventually find that one too many.

Comments

  1. mildlymagnificent says

    One too many? Or just the wrong one.

    I like Lucy Cooke’s little quote.
    “nature is like a game of Jenga; you never know which brick you pull out will cause the whole stack to collapse”.

    It’s a bit of a reminder of all those ‘unintended consequences’ in various islands with unique combinations of flora and fauna. One particular bird or animal gets wiped out by rats or hunting. Nothing happens for a while until a tree species starts dying out. Whoops! Their seeds were only ever successfully spread by that one and only critter eating and depositing them.

    If that particular tree is the biggest, shadiest in the forest, the whole system will change. For the better? How many species depend on _that_ tree.

    My suspicion is that some people see the Fukuoka organic farming “system” of just letting weed species colonise and ‘enrich’ degraded soils and systems, gradually getting them more productive, as relevant or applicable to natural systems in danger from encroachment or encirclement. They’re two entirely different purposes and they need entirely different approaches.

  2. says

    To me, the baseline is: nature is a shitty place where nobody actually cares.
    “Nature” as a whole will come around perfectly fine if we raise global temperatures by 10°C. Many creatures will die, many will die out, but give or take a thousand years, we’ll have some working eco-systems in it, no better or worse than the ones we currently have.
    The problem is that we’ll be among the specias that will suffer a lot. So, either we’re the ones who care or nobody will.

  3. phill says

    I think you’re broadly right, but you’re also in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s true that a ‘systems thinking’ approach to environmental studies can be thought of as self-regulating in the short term and the concept can be mis-used to imply long-term stability. The problem with this teleological approach to systems thinking is that it doesn’t, as you correctly point out, take the long view and so what looks like stability may really only be a hiatus on the way to greater change. This arises not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with systems thinking but because of the boundaries applied to such thinking, particular the constraint of time. If you imagine an ecological system as a topology, a landscape with hills and valleys representing points of stability and instability (valleys are more stable points than summits because the system has to overcome more inertia to move away from them) then the problem comes down to where you put the boundaries. The environmentalists you mention constrain the system with very close boundaries in time, whereas in reality the boundaries may be out of site over the horizon.

    Unfortunately, any useful tool can be devalued by unskilled application and I think you’re right to point out that systems thinking can be used to bolster prejudices as well as to provide genuine insights. A good example is James Lovelock’s ‘Daisyworld’ model, which was a brilliant introduction to the idea of the interconnectedness of ecological systems, but which has little to say about the real complexity of such systems.

  4. says

    The kernel of this problem is the assumption that steady states are *desirable* states. That certain systems can self-regulate implies the existence of steady states, but says nothing about how acceptable they are from a human perspective. That’s not to say that self-regulation *cannot* produce and sustain desirable outcomes, but it is by no means a given.

    You’ll see the same issue whenever self-organisation rears its head, the first examples that come to mind being laissez-faire economic policy, climate change, and the creationist misconception that evolution is a conveyor-belt of ascention with tool-using humanoids at the top. The first two examples are particularly seductive, because it’s natural to assume that the steady states of a human-created system are desirable to humans. Try telling that to the poor creatures in every Sim City-like I’ve ever played.

  5. magnusmeyer hustveit says

    Regression to the mean plays a part in how the illusion of balance comes about, too.

  6. astro says

    when i was in high school, i had an internship at the local university with a physics professor who had me work on chaotic systems. it was a long time ago, and i may be misremembering, but i recall that one of the models was a predator/prey population ratio (i think it was wolves and deer or caribou). i distinctly recall how the model showed two equilibrium points, but the populations varied chaotically with the slightest perturbation.

    the lesson was clear: nature wasn’t in balance, it was in equilibrium. and if you give it a little nudge, it can go all over the place before it settles into a new equilibrium (and there can be more than one).

  7. ChasCPeterson says

    What is a “stable state”? A set of conditions that lasts for a relatively long time.

    I don’t know. Take a long enough view and nothing lasts, it’s true. But a broad brush is even less appropriate for ecosystems than for environmentalists. Clearly some really are more ‘fragile’ than other, more resilient systems. In general, the more complexly reticulate the food web, with redundancy and competition for every ‘niche’, the more resistant a system is to (reasonably mild) perturbation. It’s that ability/tendency to resist major, visible (to us) change, to return to a previous ‘state’ (that’s negative feedback) that makes a ‘state’ more ‘stable’, not just passive constancy.

    (and I’m (still) a sucker for patchouli)

  8. Holms says

    1.
    That slate boulder is fucking cool.

    2.
    The self regulation idea reminds me of the Le Chatelier principle: a change exerted on an equilibrium will cause that equilibrium to oppose that change. Excellent to know for chemistry, dubious oversimplification for ecology.

  9. says

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I think part of the problem is our failure to accept uncertainty — and our tendency to see patterns, and to anthropomorphize (emergent) systems.

    While intellectually it is interesting to try to figure out whether the ant hill is more intelligent than the ants (or is intelligent at all) — it is very dangerous to assume that what *seems* like intelligent behavior, or systematic trends *are* stable, systematic or (even worse) intelligent.

    Nature does *not* have intent.

    Tanks for the great comment on the difference between stable and equilibrium too.

    I recently came across this interview with Alan Kay, and a part of that seems relevant:

    “Science today is taught in America as a secular religion. But science is not the same as knowing the things learned by science. Science itself is a stance in relationship to knowledge. In order to do science, you have to give up the notion of truth. Because we don’t know the world directly; we know the world through our mind’s representational systems, which are like maps. Science is a map that is always incomplete, and so it can always be criticized and improved. And that’s why it’s so effective at, say, treating diabetes, or whatever. Because the map is incomplete, it can always be improved, and so it is the best way to deal with what is.”

    Unfortunately in this case I think it would be appropriate to replace “America” with “the world”.

    http://www.squeakland.org/resources/articles/article.jsp?id=1007

    (Not dated, but a few searches indicates that it is from before 2003)

    Don’t anthropomorphize eveolution – she doesn’t like that, and might kill your children.

  10. says

    Everyone has their dogma but I say as long as the “free market” is balanced with “dialectical materialism” all is right with the world.

    lff

  11. mudpuddles says

    I like this article and agree with much of it (and with Phil at #3), but I have a few quibbles.

    First, I hate the term “environmentalists” because (at least in Ireland and much of Europe) it includes any and every ill-informed and illogical but well meaning Luddite for whom scientific evidence is as much a barrier to a fabled utopia as it is to US Republicans. Over here, we tend to use the terms “environmental scientists” and “screaming greenies” to distinguish between the rational and the lunatic less rational.

    Seond, you say “Ecosystems get more diverse over time” – hmmnnnyeaaaah but no not really but well true but only up to a point… its not so simple, and many ecosystems actually become less diverse over time – rf. the Pre-Cambrian explosion, like when a new market opens up and there are zillions of chancers all hoping to make it big and in the end only the best adapted survive and the rest are eaten.

    Those little niggles aside, I think some of the argument you present is perhaps largely an issue of perspective. For example, I would agree that ecosystems can be self-repairing to a great extent – many scientists from Dunbar in the 1960s to Hubbell in the 2000s have put forward theories, since backed up by evidence, that this is a result of the combination of local ecological factors and the outcome of the process of natural selection, not because that’s the way the ecosystem “wants” to be, or because the goddess loves harmony etc. As you point out, too many cats means no cats and no deer, and species of predator or prey or both will disappear again and again until or unless some arrangement (at macro and micro levels) arrives that enables the two to survive. Ecosystems can only persist as long as the majority of these relationships are in some relative state of balance.

    Certainly, that balance can and usually will become disrupted over time, and ecosystems do change significantly. Many of the boglands of Ireland (at least those that are still intact) have been relatively unchanged for 10,000 years, but even without human influence it would be expected that some disturbances – subtle climate shifts, atmospheric change or the appearance of a new pathogen etc – will in time lead to a new ecosystem or at least a new level of functioning. The point is that natural selection acts on the level of ecosystems as well as at the levels of species and inter-specific relationships, precisely because it acts at the species / interspecies levels. Just as the cat’s coat may be selected over time to a pattern that assists with hunting through camoflage, so too does the ecosystem reflect the assemblage of conditions that enable the predator and it prey and a whole lot else within a community to survive.

    From a conservation perspective, this is where the question of redundancy becomes important – clearly there may be some species that can come and go without precipitating system wide change, and clearly we cannot rationally or practicably expect that every single species should be conserved. I think you are making the point that the idea of self-repair in ecosystems is not sound and an excuse used by certain policy makers for inaction. I think it is scientifically valid, if only across limited spatial, temporal and ecological scales, and is a reason for very specific, better informed and better targetted policies and practice.

  12. quentinlong says

    Ecosystems do have a self-repairing property, and it would be unwarranted to ascribe sorta-kinda-religious faith to a person just because they acknowledge that fact. In this context, one breaches the boundary between “acknowledging fact X” and “taking fact X as an article of faith” when, after noting the obvious fact that ecosystems have a self-repairing property, one neglects to take on board the somewhat less obvious fact that this self-repairing property has limits. Yes, any ecosystem can absorb some degree of disturbance and end up more-or-less in the same condition it used to be in before the disturbance happened; the thing is, “some degree” is very much finite. And if a disturbance exceeds the limit of an ecosystem’s finite capacity to absorb disturbances…

  13. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    First, I hate the term “environmentalists” because (at least in Ireland and much of Europe) it includes any and every ill-informed and illogical but well meaning Luddite for whom scientific evidence is as much a barrier to a fabled utopia as it is to US Republicans. Over here, we tend to use the terms “environmental scientists” and “screaming greenies” to distinguish between the rational and the lunatic less rational. – mudpuddles

    Who is this “we” of whom you speak? It is absurd and offensive to dismiss all environmentalists or greens who are not environmental scientists as “screaming greenies”. I’m pretty sure the average level of relevant knowledge is higher among those who self-identify as environmentalist or green, than in those who sneer at them; and they have at least grasped the key point that there is an urgent environmental crisis.

    I’ll take the liberty of linking to a paper of mine looking at some of the issues Chris raises.

  14. mudpuddles says

    @@ Nick #14,

    Hi Nick,

    It is absurd and offensive to dismiss all environmentalists or greens who are not environmental scientists as “screaming greenies”

    Indeed it is. That’s not what I did. Read the quote you selected from my post again.

  15. Sastra says

    It seems to me that “negative feedback” thus becomes less a defining characteristic of complex systems and more an artificial category of dynamics defined by their outcomes, after those outcomes happen.

    This psychological trick for coming up with an understanding of how Nature “balances” itself reminds me of the popular belief that “everything happens for a reason.” Such reasons tend to escape the physical cause-effect boundaries and run into moral and teleological purposes for why — in the long run — it was better for X to happen, than not. You come in after the fact and rationalize the result into being a goal.

    Perhaps both mental tricks are connected to the Just World Fallacy: the belief that things have to be fair , and this is a natural imperative structured right into the universe. Fair, that is, to us — and by our own standards. Supernaturalism, then, whether explicitly connected to a religion or not.

  16. says

    Great and thoughtful quibbles, folks.

    Chas, I loved patchouli and wore it often until I spent a few years working on Telegraph Avenue. The stuff is NOT a substitute for soap and water.

  17. says

    And yeah, I grant that using a mechanistic metaphor (like the teetering boulder in the photo) to describe dynamic systems necessarily, as Chas and others suggest, elides some important detail.

  18. sharkjack says

    What is a “stable state”? A set of conditions that lasts for a relatively long time.

    What indicates a “tendency to seek stable states”? The system spends more time in the stable states than in the unstable ones.

    A stable state in a mathematical system is a point where small pertubations from that point will allways lead back to that point (or cycle around that point). If a system ever comes close enough to a stable state to get attracted to it, it will tend to stay there, unless it gets perturbed enough to leave the stable state’s range of influence. So it’s not really a tautology where it comes from. However in this case it’s applied outside the normal constraints. We’re not talking about a specific model or reality, we’re talking about reality itself. All those nice distinctions between perturbations vs the system are thrown out of the window and what we have left is people inducing stability from a lack of change. But slow changes in one time scale can make huge differences in others, especcially in high dimensional systems.

    Also systemic perturbation can cause bifurcations, which means small changes causing extreme shifts in equilibrium. If you don’t define what exactly the system is, a bifurcation might be right around the corner and you’d never know before it happens.

    In the end, I agree with the sentiment expressed by Giliell.

    To me, the baseline is: nature is a shitty place where nobody actually cares.
    “Nature” as a whole will come around perfectly fine if we raise global temperatures by 10°C. Many creatures will die, many will die out, but give or take a thousand years, we’ll have some working eco-systems in it, no better or worse than the ones we currently have.
    The problem is that we’ll be among the specias that will suffer a lot. So, either we’re the ones who care or nobody will.

    Of course it’s not always that simple to define good for us humans, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than for the good of ‘nature’.

  19. lobotomy says

    The only reason we wish for balance is because we humans depend on the current state of balance for our survival. If the balance shifts too far one way or the other life gets harder for we humans (and other species, too, but who cares?).

    As others have noted earlier, “Nature” doesn’t care. It doesn’t have a purpose or intent and has no goal or preferred end state.

    I think this cartoon sums it up pretty nicely:

    http://9gag.com/gag/3917354

  20. iknklast says

    “One of the things that bugs me most about some of my fellow environmentalists, aside from the patchouli, is the near-religious adherence — even among those enviros who eschew religion — to the notion that natural ecological systems have an innate and emergent self-repairing property. It’s a dangerous idea that breeds complacency, and it’s really widespread.”

    As an environmental scientist who teaches college freshmen, I always dread having students tell me they took EnvSci in high school, because I know I’ll be spending the rest of the semester clearing that idea out of their heads – that, and the idea that every ecosystem should be a forest, and that if we all recycle, the world will somehow magicallly be fixed.

  21. mudpuddles says

    @ sharkjack, #19

    What you said. Nicely put. That perspective reminded me of this paper, an old favourite for how it helps spell that out: Levin, S, (1998) Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems. Ecosystems 1: 431–436 (should bee freely available via google)

    @ lobotomy, #20

    I like that cartoon, and interestingly I have seen that same one used to argue against policies aimed at conserving biodiversity, claiming that nature does not need our intervention. Most recently by a politician living near me who is a favourite amongst the turf cutters at a seminar fighting back against EU law that requires that turf cutting be stopped in certain protected peatlands. He argued that nature’s preferred end point is harmony for wildlife and since nature is more powerful than people all the turf cutting in the world will not harm biodiversity. He was supported by a local priest arguing that God will not let us make all those species disappear (but we can destroy ourselves by war and sin if we wish). I guess again its about perspective!

    Which brings me back to sharkjack:

    Of course it’s not always that simple to define good for us humans, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than for the good of ‘nature’.

    Agreed, and this is where I see a fascinating link with the idea of morality as it pertains to environmental policy. (by morality, I mean secular morality; religious arguments on morality tend to leave me nauseous) Are we morally obliged to act to halt or reverse human impacts on biodiversity? If yes, then is this only true if the impacts hurt humans? Or are we obliged to act even if the only confirmed beneficiaries are invertebrates?

    Maybe a good topic for a future post, Chris?

  22. raven says

    A long while ago, I hung around for a while with deep time ecologists.

    1. On long term time scales, ecologies aren’t stable but metastable. Old growth forests burn down, lakes fill in, ice ages come and go. Dinosaurs disappear, replaced by mammals. Nothing lasts forever.

    2. Their big argument was over how long humans would last. Some said we had overshot the long term carrying capacity of the earth for humans and there was going to be a dieback.

    Whether this was going to happen in a hundred years or a thousand was the question.

    I don’t think it is answerable. It might happen, might not. We probably won’t know until after the fact.

    We see this with global warming. We aren’t going to do anything but adapt. It’s not obvious that we can do anything inasmuch as our entire civilization runs on fossil fuels and this is a world problem requiring a world solution. How many people would have to die before we even made an attempt? I’m guessing it would be tens of millions or hundreds of millions.

  23. raven says

    (by morality, I mean secular morality; religious arguments on morality tend to leave me nauseous)

    Religious morality is an oxymoron at best and a fallacy at worst.

    The fundies hate environmentalists. They usually claim that god is in charge and won’t let us destroy our life support system aka as the biosphere.

    Michele Bachmann once said that we won’t run out of oil because god will just provide more of it. Presumably god is refilling the oil reservoirs right now when no one is looking by poofing in some more oil by magic. An Illinois congresscritter said recently that global warming isn’t worth worrying about because god said he wouldn’t destroy the earth again after the Flood.

  24. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    It is absurd and offensive to dismiss all environmentalists or greens who are not environmental scientists as “screaming greenies”

    Indeed it is. That’s not what I did.

    I accept your assurance that it’s not what you meant to do, but by positing a dichotomy between “environmental scientists” and “screaming greenies”, with no hint of a third option, it is what you actually did.

  25. says

    Commentary: The unknowing religious or
    Why some commentaries draw my ire!

    I have a great deal of respect for PZ Meyers, and have had since I read his research in Graduate school. I also enjoy his blogs and admire his stance against creationism/intelligent design.

    My own personal view is that both science and religion are belief systems. Science deals with examination of the here and now, and can we predict based on our past experience (observation and hypothesis testing). Religion deals with our belief about what happens after death (hard to describe so all will recognize it and so far definitely not testable)

    Both are valid in their own context. The caveat is science has no valid comment on religion and religion has no validity in commenting on science. In if that is adhered to I see no reason for conflict between the two belief systems. It is when religion comments on science or,sciences tells people what to believe that conflict arrises.

    What we need here is respect. Not all people who share our bielief system. To force them to do so drops us (philosophically)to tthe level wher we are no different than those who perpetrated the holost or the inquisition.

    So on the matter of respect. This brings me back to the topic at hand “Why some commentaries draw my ire!”.

    If this is a blog where we purport to discuss things from the perspective of science then we should not be inseting our values into any scientific discussion. Terms like “shitty place” or “nobody actually cares” or “Desirable’ or “fucking cool” or ” Luddite”, or “rational” or “screaming greenies” or “dangerous idea. What is wrong with things being accurate or not, or uncertian or less so.

    Am I commenting on inconsequentals. I think not. After 30 years of working in science in support of evnironmental values I have to say scientists who fail to make these kinds differentiations are the route cause of why the wrong people claim to be scientists (a dregree does not make you a scientist, it is adherence to the philosophy that does) and why science has been used to justify almost any decision.

  26. raven says

    What we need here is respect. Not all people who share our bielief system.

    You have a point but you have the wrong target.

    If the fundie xians would just stay under their rocks, tell their lies to each other, and oppress their women and children, we wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about them.

    But they can’t and won’t do that. The War on Science is real and asymmetric.

    Why don’t you go tell the creationists, Geocentrists, Flat Earthers, and anti-environment xians to leave us and our society alone instead. I’m sure they will listen intently and then most likely threaten to kill you. It’s what they often do to us.

    BTW, science isn’t a belief system. That is simply wrong. It’s perpendicular to religion. You can be any religion or none and still be a scientist and about half are religious.

  27. says

    One thing that comes to mind about the self-regulating balance of nature: “Barren wasteland” seems like a pretty stable ecosystem to me. Nature’s perfectly able to rebalance an ecosystem to that type if something upsets it badly enough. To recklessly anthropomorphize, nature and life are perfectly willing to continue in a harsh and ugly state. It’s our human perspective that favors lush gardens with diverse, colorful critters over insects scraping by in the desert.

  28. w00dview says

    In this context, one breaches the boundary between “acknowledging fact X” and “taking fact X as an article of faith” when, after noting the obvious fact that ecosystems have a self-repairing property, one neglects to take on board the somewhat less obvious fact that this self-repairing property has limits. Yes, any ecosystem can absorb some degree of disturbance and end up more-or-less in the same condition it used to be in before the disturbance happened; the thing is, “some degree” is very much finite. And if a disturbance exceeds the limit of an ecosystem’s finite capacity to absorb disturbances…

    I find this “nature can survive anything we do to it” attitude is mainly espoused by anti-environmentalists. I remember during the BP spill, Rush Limbaugh was waffling on that The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there, and It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is. Therefore we should not clean it up and leave BP alone, you big lefty bullies, etc. The fact that political pundits who preach personal responsibility almost always tend to ignore our environmental mistakes is one of the most glaring examples of wingnut hypocrisy to me. Another hilarious piece of irony is that anti-environmentalists love the argument from nature just as much as new agers do. The best example being CO2 is natural!!

    The fundies hate environmentalists. They usually claim that god is in charge and won’t let us destroy our life support system aka as the biosphere.

    Michele Bachmann once said that we won’t run out of oil because god will just provide more of it. Presumably god is refilling the oil reservoirs right now when no one is looking by poofing in some more oil by magic. An Illinois congresscritter said recently that global warming isn’t worth worrying about because god said he wouldn’t destroy the earth again after the Flood.

    I think the fact these pieces of shit can twist the Bible in such a way as to make it say “Hey, don’t worry about pollution. God has it all sorted out” shows exactly how religion can justify anything and how it poisons everything. Slime moulds contribute more good to the world than these scumbags.

  29. barfy says

    Thank you so much for this post!
    My son and I argue a lot about humans and their relationship to the biosphere.
    Since he was little, I have taught him that humans are not separate from nature. There is literally nothing that we can do that is unnatural.
    All we can be is disruptive.
    Many of you might consider this a distinction without a difference. However, I argue that humankind’s worldview needs this distinction to craft a realistic and productive environmental policy.
    If how we act is placed on an artificial spectrum of ‘natural/unnatural’, we are making value judgments that may, in fact, act against all of our best wishes. That is, humans are disruptive to ANY ecological system, but then, so is ANY thing that happens – a seedling of a ‘native’ tree, the birth of a bunny, a volcano’s ash – anything. The idea is that the biosphere is a burbling cauldron of connectedness and change, where concepts of ecological systems in equilibrium are always temporary bubbles of varying sizes all destined to burst.
    This is the beauty of evolution. It is a system that doesn’t just allow for change, but incorporates it as an integral part of its definition.
    So, if humans are always disruptive, do we have that right? Who cares? If you are reading this, you can claim your right to be disruptive. It wasn’t like you asked to be born.
    The question then becomes, how do you/we want to be disruptive?
    The ability to ask this question is an emergent property of human evolution that is uniques to our species. We can both ask and answer this question.
    I am utterly natural. The world is not static. Evolution demands change.
    Great!
    So, now, instead of guilt wracking us over our unnatural prediliction to kill the whales, spew CO2 and grow cows, we can say that our emergent property allows us to study and attempt to manage the change in the biosphere to the best of our abilities in a way that we, as social animals, deem is in our best interest.
    Why do we have this privilege? Only because we assert it. Nature doesn’t care.
    In other words, humans aren’t ‘bad stewards’ of the environment. We’re bad stewards of our own interests.

    P.S. My son’s starting a PhD program in Forestry and Environmental Science at University of Freiburg in Germany, and no, he’s not responsible for the content above.

  30. says

    It’s our human perspective that favors lush gardens with diverse, colorful critters over insects scraping by in the desert.

    Appreciate what you’re trying to say here. But deserts are actually remarkably biodiverse.

  31. dreikin says

    What is a “stable state”? A set of conditions that lasts for a relatively long time.

    What indicates a “tendency to seek stable states”? The system spends more time in the stable states than in the unstable ones.

    In other words, a system going through change spends more time in the states that last longer.

    Tautology.

    That’s not a tautology. It is possible for a system going through change to spend a greater portion of its time in states that are relatively short.

  32. mudpuddles says

    @ Nick #25,

    Hi Nick,

    I accept your assurance that it’s not what you meant to do, but by positing a dichotomy between “environmental scientists” and “screaming greenies”, with no hint of a third option, it is what you actually did.

    I understand your intent there mate, but with respect I think your point is pants. ;) Mentioning two elements of a mixture does not in anyway suggest that those are the only two elements that exist, or suggest that I believe that’s all there are. If I say that milk includes water and calcium, that doesn’t mean I believe that that’s all there is in the mixture. I was actually a screaming greenie myself till I became less pig ignorant (very anti-GMO and pro-patchouli totalitarian in the 80s), and became an environmental scientist by way of being one or other of the many kinds of people included under the umbrella term “environmentalist”.

    Anyway, if I confused some people, I’ll put it differently: The main problem with the term “environmentalist” is that in its current general use it covers all sorts, best and worst (e.g. the headlines that say environmentalists oppose something but which cover stories with quotes from those who think the nearby mobile phone tower will irradiate their water) and so is easily used as a catch-all for ideas that one sector or other selects for ridicule; unfortunately, in some cases that ridicule is hard to disagree with. There is a town called Tuam in County Galway where an anaerobic digestor, in line with current EU environment policy on generating energy from waste and reducing the need for landfill, is being opposed by “local environmentalists” because it is going to create a major terrorist target and kill babies. Thats a terrorist target for Al Qaeda. In a small town in rural Ireland. Where the main victims would actually be sheep (that’s not a stereotype, the digestor is planned for a massive field full of sheep). Which is a source of great mirth to the wider public. That type of use means that others usually covered by the term “environmentalists” – people such as Chris Clarke, you (I am guessing) and me – who base such opinions on solid evidence frequently do not get taken seriously when necessary. It doesn’t happen in most other areas – the Occupiers and 99%-ers are not all labelled as “economists”.

  33. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    This is where people are coming from when they claim that global warming isn’t worrisome because “the earth has various compensatory mechanisms,” isn’t it? >.>

  34. says

    We have to remember that it is life that adapts to it’s environment and it is anything but static, just as life is always evolving. Thus whatever balances exist are constantly in flux. Though from our perspective it’s mostly on timescales that we can’t appreciate. Thus it is both possible for us to alter the environment in a positive, neutral, and negative fashion. Just as any aspect of nature itself can do the very same thing, as evidenced by the fact that ecological history contains periods of relative stagnation, relatively rapid growth and increase in diversity, and relatively quick mass extinction events. We look at species that dominate an environment almost to the point of collapse and point to whatever little thing we’ve done to encourage that, and yes often we are the culprit, but at the end of the day wouldn’t that just be the precursor to a species with adaptive radiation?

  35. nesetalis says

    This is something that has bothered me for a long time. People seeing stasis where in truth there is only slow inevitable change (slow relative to a human lifespan perhaps.)

    I See it in the political landscape too. Where we have these cyclical changes, like a pendulum rocking between one extreme or another. Neither extreme is desirable, and the middle would suck too.. we need that change. However the base of the pendulum keeps moving, what we rock between changes with every generation. Eventually we might find ourselves in a horrific place.

    Then back to the environment, those changes eventually shift us toward something we cannot survive in. Sahara like desert or cold tundra… Alot of it is wishful thinking I suppose, no one wants to believe that the world will change.

  36. Sastra says

    jeanettecorlette-black #26 wrote:

    Both are valid in their own context. The caveat is science has no valid comment on religion and religion has no validity in commenting on science. In if that is adhered to I see no reason for conflict between the two belief systems. It is when religion comments on science or,sciences tells people what to believe that conflict arrises.

    Unfortunately for your argument here, both science and religion share the same “context.” They both try to discover, understand, and explain the nature of reality. Presumably religious people at some point have to step out of the language of metaphor and poetry, stop talking about what would be nice if it were true, and actually mean something that IS true, or real, or true or real enough for us to know about it, whether we “believe” it or not.

    Thus, the conflict is inevitable. Maybe you can be in Kentucky next week.

    What we need here is respect. Not all people who share our bielief system. To force them to do so drops us (philosophically)to tthe level wher we are no different than those who perpetrated the holost or the inquisition.

    No, what we need is LESS respect for poorly-formed hypotheses, and MORE respect for people’s ability to think, reason, and change their minds. This latter form of respect will only occur when we cease viewing what we conclude about God as being indicative of our identity — drop the egotism involved in doing so — and stop thinking of rational analysis and persuasion as being “just like the holocaust or the Inquisition.” Honest debate on rational common ground is the opposite of force.

    Scrutinize religious claims objectively — and expect that others (even the religious) are capable of the same virtue.

    Shame on you. You are arguing against the very values you claim you want to promote. Think.

  37. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    My own personal view is that both science and religion are belief systems.

    Belief in only required when there isn’t evidence for something. Belief is required to worship imaginary deities. So religion is a belief system from start to finish. No evidence for the phantasms. And presupposition is required for the Earth to be 6,000-10,000 years old. There is no evidence for this age.

    Conclusions are reached with evidence. Science deals with evidence and logical conclusions thereof. It isn’t a belief system in the same sense as religion as wholesale (and most likely fallacious) presuppositions aren’t required. I don’t presuppose the Earth is a few billion years old. But that’s what the evidence from many sources say, so that is the evidential conclusion, not a belief.

    While some folks would say I believe in science, I concluded, based on evidence, that science provides better more consistent answers than religion in all manner of descriptions of nature. I agree with Asimov that it is a belief that in the next hundred years science will improve the knowledge of humanity, while religious belief will hold back humanity, dragging it back into ignorance.

    Your statement reflects the fallacious presupposition that there are two ways of knowing things, science and religion. Revealed knowledge (religion) goes nowhere. Which is why the two aren’t equal.

  38. Trebuchet says

    The problem, I think is that nature is not so much self-repairing as self-adjusting. Once a balance is tipped, something new will be established. It may be pretty similar to what was there before but won’t ever be exactly the same.

    Also, from the OP:

    If there are 70 pumas on a large island with 10,000 deer, the predator-prey ration….

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has that pesky “n” slip in every time I try to type the word “ratio”!

  39. unclefrogy says

    The last line of the cartoon does say it rather clearly.
    the Balance of Nature looks more like a sea saw or what we called it when I was a kid teeter-totter as it was always teetering. It is our desire for stability that looks at things as though they are or should be permanent, while in every place we look all we see is change nothing stays the same forever.
    Nature will “Heal itself” but has no favorites could just as easily be anaerobic as not though there is a certain amount of inertia involved to tend against that.

    uncle frogy

  40. Tethys says

    I have the same issue with many environmentally minded people. No, no, no! Nature does not have intent, nature does not have a plan.

    That slate boulder is fucking cool.

    AFAIK it is quartz arenite sandstone, and is assigned to the Catskill group. A nice diagram of how it came to be perched in its present location can be found at the link.

    Geology of trough creek pdf

    I dislike patchouli, but I adore lemon verbena.

  41. unclefrogy says

    I remember the reaction I had when I said one time to a Fundamentalist that nature had no vested interest in people. His face was kind of a shocked blank he said what did you say and I repeated it.
    he did not say anything else. neither did I.

    uncle frogy

  42. microraptor says

    I like how my ecology teacher defined ecology vs environmentalism.

    According to him, ecology is a science while environmentalism is a political position that may or many not actually incorporate any real science.

  43. Ichthyic says

    @26.

    of all the untenable positions you take in your comment (you should really look up why NOMA fails both philosophically and pragmatically sometime), this:

    science has been used to justify almost any decision.

    is the worst.

    in fact if science WERE used to justify most decisions, the world would be a far, far better place.

    Just the opposite is the case, unfortunately.

  44. says

    That’s not a tautology. It is possible for a system going through change to spend a greater portion of its time in states that are relatively short.

    Yes, well, erm, the thing with that is… OMG LOOK OVER THERE IT’s NIKE OF SAMOTHRACE *runs away*

  45. markdowd says

    While I do not deny that the thinking of your ecologist ex-patners may be stupidly tautological, a “stable state” has a very specific meaning in control theory, which is not tautological.

    Specifically, a state is stable if the system returns to it when perturbed (within limits). Abstractly, it is like a bowl sitting on the bottom of a bowl; give it a small push, and it will return to the bottom of the bowl, though there may be oscillations before it settles (if it ever does).

    This might be the way large systems work, but that is because they have various governors and regulators built in specifically for that purpose. Ecologies do not. They are ad-hoc systems of mutual exploitation; a proverbial knife-edge. A small outside perturbation causes chaos, especially on sensitive island ecologies.

    It was put best by Stephen Fry in “Last Chance to See”:

    “It’s like what you learned as a kid: it takes 5 minutes to mess up your room, but all day straighten it back out again.”

  46. greg1466 says

    Makes me think of an old George Carlin line. Paraphrasing, he comments something to the effect that he doesn’t understand the people worrying about the planet and that we need to save it. The planet will be just fine. The real question is, will we be able to continue living on it?

  47. keinsignal says

    This has bothered me for a while too. One thing I’ve found that really gets people thinking about it differently is to say that when we talk about these stable states, the word to use is not “balance”. It’s “stalemate”.

  48. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper says

    If there are 70 pumas on a large island with 10,000 deer, the predator-prey ratio …

    That isn’t possible, really, at least as said in the first part of the sentence. It may be true today, but after dinner tonight, there are going to be maybe 9,993 deer, and about seven less every day until spring, when there will be maybe 12,00 deer and 120 pumas, some of which are still cubs … but those numbers will be different the next year.

    It has to be stated that the population was XXX at last summertime count, with error, and XXY at last wintertime count, with estimated seasonal oscillation of …. or something. As Chris said, cyclical, and hopefully stable.

    Not that I’m knocking the fact we use shorthand, but it hides the nature of the …. nature. I did my master’s thesis on groundcover surveying, and argued that some types of cover are poorly defined, have no definite boundary, and oscillate with the seasons, daily rainfall and river levels. Unless we hunker down and define and designate the bejesus out of things, we are simplifying and assuming.

    Variation does happen, in everything, and it may only return toward center to a certain extent. Which is as Chris says.

    Good post.