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The myth of a constant and stable environment

By Daniel B. Botkin

Nature has always changed; even the moon’s rotation around Earth and distance from Earth have changed over the millions of years. Living things require, and depend upon, change in nature in order to survive. We have learned this from science, from geological history recorded in ancient nautilus shells to understanding radioactivity.

Yet it’s shocking how little science is involved when we apply environmental sciences to solve environmental problems. Most of our environmental laws, policies, and actions are based on ancient Greek and Roman beliefs about nature — the idea that nature, left alone, exists in a perfect balance, which will persist indefinitely if we just stay out of the way. This folktale nature isn’t just constant over time but stable as well, in the sense that it can recover from (some) disturbances. If it is disturbed — by our actions for example — and then freed from those disturbances, folktale nature returns to that perfect balance. Of course, every system has its limits, and even folktale nature can be pushed so far that it stops working.

Try as we might, we just don’t seem to get away from this myth.  Many of my colleagues in ecology deny the existence of a folktale balance of nature, but when asked to create a policy, technical terminology for a law, or an explanation about why something has gone wrong with the environment, they set down statements that assume, depend on, and require a balance of nature.

A prime example is the current discussion about tipping points. The conversation is that we are destabilizing the atmosphere, and therefore the atmosphere is about to reach a tipping point that will trigger something undesirable, perhaps disastrous. But the reality is that the climate is always changing and has never been stable. It’s a dynamic system, always in flux, so it can’t really have a kind of point from which to tip. It can be messed up from a human point of view, but if we are serious about “managing” it, then we have to manage it as a system that never remains constant.

The Pygmy Scrub-hopper. Photo by Jeevan Jose, 2010. Creative Commons License.

This contradiction — believing that we have to act so that our environment achieves a balance, while down deep knowing this never really was true — has been recognized since the 1990s, but it just won’t go away.  It underlies what most of us assume and believe about nature, including scientists, naturalists, and the person in the street. Why not?

Humans have been interacting with the environment for as long as our ancestors have been on Earth. If early humans were going to survive, they needed a good knowledge of local nature: which plants to eat, which ones made good medicines, and which ones were deadly (rudimentary science). But the world was also mysterious, full of beautiful, strange, frightening, dangerous things, events that were powerful and unexplainable. This led to attempts to explain nature through myths and folkways, which have persisted and are now deep within our culture.

When I first came across this contradiction, I couldn’t believe it. I was asked by the newly formed Marine Mammal Commission to explain the goals of the new Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972). The law’s goal was for every marine mammal species to reach an “optimum sustainable population,” but the commission said they didn’t understand what that could mean, either legally or ecologically, so they asked me to explain it. I knew some of the scientists who were on the scientific advisory committee to the commission, respected them greatly, and knew that they knew that oceans and marine mammal populations were always changing. But what they said to the commissioners about the law was based on the ancient belief in a balance of nature.

I wrote several books about all of this, including Discordant Harmonies, No Man’s Garden, and Beyond the Stony Mountains, hoping people would let go of this old myth, but the idea and the contradictions continue. Our laws require that we restore endangered species to their former abundance. But since there never was a fixed abundance, it doesn’t make sense to force an endangered population to some hypothetical, unrealistic size that isn’t helpful in promoting the persistence of species.

Consider forest fires. Until late in the twentieth century we were told by Smokey Bear that “only you can prevent forest fires,” which by implication could only be bad for nature. In the past fifty years, we have learned that many forest species, plant and animal, have evolved with, adapted to, and actually require forest fires. The great Sequoias of California, one of nature’s longest-lived creatures, can reproduce only after a clearing takes place in a forest from storms or fire. Recognizing this, many ecologists and foresters understand that forests need fire, need disturbance. But forest fires are tricky things; they easily get away and burn houses. Still, if we don’t light them, nature eventually does, and destroys houses anyway.

Why do our ways of managing and conserving nature keep falling back to the old ways of thinking? One reason, ironically, is that it isn’t nature by itself that needs to be unchanging; it is our civilization that depends on constancy. When humans were just hunter-gatherers without a permanent home, they could follow the environment as it changed, moving around the world to places that better suited them. But then farming started, and people began to stay in one place. Land ownership developed. With the advance of civilization, cities were founded and became important and desirable. Once people set up all these fixed structures — farmlands, cities, and towns — we became dependent on environmental constancy. It is we who want and need a balance of nature, not our nonhuman companions, whether polar bear, the blue whale, or sequoia tree.

We interact with nature in two ways: rationally and what we can best label as emotionally. Our emotional response includes our folkways, myths, spirituality, and religious sensitivities. Both ways of interacting with nature are important, but we get ourselves into trouble when we confuse the two, letting the emotional response determine what we think are rational decisions, while at the same time believing that rationality can replace emotion. Our myths and folkways are deeply embedded within us. We believe in both the grand idea of a balance of nature and in modern science, but only when science serves as revealed truth that we can believe without question.

Daniel B. Botkin is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered and Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark.

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