A Question Of Balance



For traditional, vernacular folks, ecology was something distinctive — to feel part of, respect, love and cherish; not exploit. Their deep respect for the biosphere, and the source of life, water, was based on simple, pure logic; not dogma. Most significantly, all vernacular societies aimed their energies at maintaining this delicate, decisive order of the Cosmos.

Daniel B Botkin, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, at the University of California, US, observes that ecological deterioration, a troublesome question in our troubled world, has been a “result of a persistent misconception about the natural world — that under normal circumstances it exists in a steady state, its equilibrium [is] disturbed only when people interfere.”

In his classy book, Discordant Harmonies [OUP/US] — which I happened to re-read recently — Botkin recaptures several incidents to demonstrate that concepts such as ecological climax and balance are based less on how the natural world functions than on obsolete expressions of 18th century romantics, who conjured up images of emotion, untouched nature, and primitive man.  Botkin’s touchstone is the industrial revolution, which shaped a new perspective: the ‘steady’ state of nature of natural historians.

Botkin agrees that the idea of a maximum sustainable yield does have a scientific basis, in sharp contrast to natural ecological climax.  He highlights the equation that gave rise to Verhulst’s S-shaped logistic curve. The growth of a population under constant conditions, for example, starting with a small number of organisms and multiplying to a higher limit — the carrying capacity — are determined by ‘those very states’ themselves.

Botkin also recounts the sad case of a paradise lost, Tsavo National Park, Kenya, and the slipping fortunes of the Peruvian anchovy fishery, which is yet to rebound to its pre-crash levels, following human intervention. Questions such as, what do we hope to protect, or what is nature per se, Botkin avers, are but only paradoxes of human existence.  His analogy, “No matter how green is man’s thumb, or technological advantage, the Homo sapiens cannot create life. All they can do is manage for the recurrence of desirable conditions.”

Notes Botkin, “In terms of climate, the cycling of chemical elements, the distribution of species and ecological communities and the rate of extinction of species, we must reject the possibility of constancy in the biosphere.” An ecosystem is a complex, dynamic network, composed of a broad spectrum of interdependent organisms.  If one element alters its position even marginally, the whole system can change, even go kaput. “Ecology,” Botkin contends, “should supplant outworn metaphors with images more appropriate to evolving organic systems in which chance plays a crucial role. A machine has no history. Life, of course, has, and it includes organisms, ecosystems, and the biosphere itself.” His inference: if nature resembles law, to inquire of nature is to question time, circumstance and so on. There is no ‘original’ state in nature. What may have been natural, at one time, could be a figment of imagination later.

Botkin’s new ecology contends that man lives in nature and culture, at the same time, but to say that nature is culture would be wrong. In his words, “Change is of little concern compared with the frequency, kind and degree of change. Animal population should and need not be changed or managed to obtain a magical number, but merely [made] to be sizable enough to minimise chance of extinction.” In other words, “To manage for the recurrence of desirable conditions.”  The precondition to such an idea, as Botkin points out, depends on “nature’s generative capacity and human intervention in the natural world is discreet only to the degree that it maintains such ability.”  To cull an exemplar. Trim, if you like, the vertebrate branch of an evolutionary tree prior to the appearance of hominids. Result: nature, in full bloom.

When I finished reading the book anew, I happily acquiesced to Botkin’s perceptive analyses of ecology’s natural and opposite identities — one which we are subverting at our own peril.

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