Friday, June 29, 2012

Apocalypse and Utopia in Equal Measure

In an essay entitled Mechanism of Utopia Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the notoriously pessimistic Romanian philosopher, declared his surprise that “riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos.”[1]  It is not, he concluded, that our hatred for each other is insufficient; rather, we are saved by the being too mediocre to fully act upon our mutual odium.  The balance of these opposing propensities permits us to soldier on.  More affably, one might just as well wonder why peace and kindredness are not more stable and enduring.  Certainly we profess to desiring them.  Sunnier times do not prevail, one suspects, not merely because our baser natures assert themselves and we disincline to tame them, but because the better and worse aspects of our natures are blended through the human mix, rather like the fruit in a Christmas pudding.  A sultana in every forkful; a little bit of anger, or condescension, or pride in every charitable act.

Utopian visions are born of destitution, in the depths of which one feels there is a better world just within reach.  And when this destitution is at its most profound, the utopian wants everything to change.  “Air annoys you.” Cioran wrote, “let it be transformed.”  The utopian imagines that all can, in fact, be changed, even herself!  That is, her view is that human nature is such that the rages of our bruter natures can be quelled.  Apocalyptic visions are utopias without the swaggering self-confidence in the unbounded mutability of our natures.  The Apocalyptic looks at her derelict conditions and sees only ruination.   

Ecological utopias have two complementary dimensions: one orients towards a better place, the other towards a better time.  That better place may be one that is currently blasted, but now re-imagined by ecological and social engineers (the sustainable city), or alternatively, that better place can turn away from the contemporary landscape, desiring to build elsewhere: the rural commune (the sustainable subdivision), or the planetary escape (Mars Now!).  Utopias models themselves upon a different age, former times or an imagined future.  In this sense utopia (without place) can also be utemporalis (without a time).  The “without” in both terms represent the absence of this particular here and now – utopia imagining a place that is not here, utemporalis imagine a time that has passed or is yet to come.  Ecological utopias can be restorative, a hankering after a historical Gold Age (for ecologists it will not be the world of the Athenian citizen rather the world of the plains hunter).  Alternatively, utopia it can be directed towards a bright new future, a non-analogue future where the principles of sound design conceive a world that has never been seen before. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If Leopold’s Land Ethic was going to work would we know it by now?

A few months ago I wrote a fairly critical account of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.  To restate my contention from my original post: If the land ethic was going to work as formulated in the 1940s we’d probably know about it by now.  

Eric Daryl Meyer recently responded with some comments on my post and with some additional comments on Leopold’s essay (see here). I'll respond to Eric at greater length soon:  perhaps one of the metrics of the significance of Leopold's essay is that, even when one thinks one knows it, it is nevertheless worth revisiting before one writes about it in detail.  But for now a few initial comments.

Eric wrote that I overstated the disjunction that Leopold makes between philosophical and ecological ethics.  This may be the case – Leopold’s writing is a little muddy on this point.  That is, he claims that it’s the “extension” of ethics that has so far only been studied by philosophers. Therefore an ecological account of this extension is what’s needed – a geological accretion of sorts.  Therefore, Leopold was not taking on ethics in its entirety – just the more focused question of how one gives to the land that which we already, in theory, grant to one another, that is, ethical consideration.  However, it is pretty clear that in attempting to reconcile a philosophical definition of ethics with an ecological one he splits the difference in favor of the ecological.  To be clear, I don’t think that Leopold is making philosophy and ecology disjunct: he is rather conflating them and saying that if we solve, so to speak, the equation for the “x” of evolutionary ecology, we also get the “y” of philosophical ethics. That is for Leopold x=y.  With this the resources of philosophy, which might be a very useful partner in developing the land ethic, get brushed aside.

Now, it may simply be the case that Leopold has no particular interest in the deliberations of let’s say the past couple of millennia of philosophy on the question of ethics.  That’s fine – pessimism on the question of how philosophy will help us in the matter of an ethical extension to the land community may be reasonable. But it doesn’t seem to me that we get an awful lot from Leopold's speculation about social evolution or from Eltonian ecology either.  (That being said, he does anticipate several issues that became important in ecology only decades after the land ethic.) 

It’s with all of this is mind that I said we need to save the Land Ethic from Leopold’s particular account of it.  In my original post I noted that there has been a lot of work on the land ethic in the past decades –work that often supplements precisely what Leopold sets aside.  I had invited my readers to set this aside for the time being so that we could get back to Leopold’s essay in our efforts to finally get past it.  Perhaps this was not an especially helpful suggestion.  That being said, in some ways it seems to me that this is what Eric does in his short but interesting post.  I say this not to be agreeable, but because I think the approach, Eric’s approach, hints at some paths forward. 

An example: Eric helps out Leopold by saying that he didn’t really mean “to extend” ethics but rather that he wanted to put philosophical ethical considerations back in their deeper ecological context.  Now to maintain this one has to discount some of what Leopold says – he seemed to mean extend in a pretty concrete way.  In fact, helpful diagrams of the development of ethics depicting the Leopoldian extension abound. Both Leopold and his interpreters see it in these terms.  Therefore Eric’s rereading of this get’s beyond Leopold in a fairly provocative manner.

Eric says that once we put ethics in their ecological context then we may get “human beings to recognize their already-situatedness in relations to living and non-living beings…” That is, we will have a new understanding of ourselves. Perhaps; certainly it seems necessary.  But as Eric notes (concurring with me) we are left with no idea about the means by which this comes about. To push for a “framework in which it is feasible for people to…self identify as citizens…of the ecological community…” is simply to hope for the same think that Leopold hoped for.  I regard this as useful, however, because Eric concludes as I do that one needs to clear away, or at the very least reinterpret, a lot of the work in Leopold’s essay to get to its useful core.  In other words the land ethic needs to be rescued from Leopold’s treatment of it.

[An essay by William Jordan II with contributions of the "values group" on the value theory that I alluded to in the original post will appear in Environmental Ethics later this year.  Also, I briefly, very briefly, comment on Leopold and the Balance of Nature in this recent post at 3Quarksdaily]

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Ecosystem is a Unicorn: Does A Balance of Nature Exist?

A unicorn is described as having the legs of a deer, the tail of a lion, the head and body of a horse. It possesses a single horn which is white at the base, black in the middle and red at the tip.  Its body is white, its head red, and its eyes are blue.  Clearly, the only thing unreal about a unicorn is in the combination of its parts.  That is, a unicorn is less than the sum of its parts, assuming, that is (with a prayerful nod to Anselm of Canterbury), that existing in reality trumps existing in the mind, or in this case existing in the mind as in a series of disarticulated parts that are themselves very real.  

When an ecosystem is described as greaterthan the sum of its parts, as it was in Eugene Odum’s holistic conception of it, what is meant is that when the biotic components of ecological communities interact with the abiotic realm (that is, the formerly living and the never-alive), certain properties of the whole emerge that cannot be readily predicted from an analysis of the component parts.  This claim, made on behalf of the larger units of nature, was persuasive to generations of ecologists influenced by Odum’s textbook, first published in 1953 and now in its posthumously published 5th edition (2005).[1]  However, in as much as Odum’s notion of the ecosystem manifests a Balance of Nature perspective it has almost universally fallen out of favor in ecology and, like the unicorn, is emphatically relegated to myth and fancy.

Read on at 3quarksdaily 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Balance, a Battle: Simberloff (vs. Grene) vs. Odum on the Greek Roots of Ecosystem Ecology’s Enduring Appeal

[Recently I wrote about Eugene Odum’s ecosystem concept.  Its motto is that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Odum’s view that natural ecosystems were integrated wholes which developed in a manner that parallels the development of an individual organism or human societies (a harkening back to the largely discredited views of Frederic Clements) was regarded with great suspicion by ecologists who saw the Balance of Nature view as obsolete and unhelpful.  I discuss one especially influential critique of Odum’s ecology in this post.  Since this is a rough draft of what will be a more comprehensive essay please feel free to comment if you think I stand in need of correction: no doubt I do!)]

Daniel Simberloff (1942 - ), an iconoclastic American ecologist, visited a variety of Irish zoological institutions in the early 1990s to examine collections of mustelid skulls (weasels, martens, stoats and so on).  He was doing so in order to test ideas about a phenomenon called ecological release – that is, changes in the anatomical characteristics of animals predicted to emerge in circumstances of reduced competition.  Ireland, a relatively small moist rock off the European coastline, has 20 terrestrial mammal species, compared to 42 in relatively larger island of Britain, and 134 on the European continental mainland.[1]  Therefore, one might expect that some anatomical characteristics of these mammals would differ between the Irish populations and their British and European counterparts, since in Ireland there are fewer species competing for resources in the same place at the same time. The size and shape of predators’ skulls, an aspect of these animals associated with that most ecological of characteristics, feeding, seemed an excellent feature to examine.  Consistent with the expectations of theory Simberloff confirmed that in many important respects these Irish mammals differed significantly from their British counterparts.[2]  I remember his visit well, not only because my friend John Lynch, then a brash young evolutionary biologists, now at Arizona State University (not quite as youthful, but still, thankfully, brash!) hosted him.  Simberloff had a comprehensive knowledge of the Irish fauna, and indeed was very familiar the work of most contemporary Irish naturalists; though some of them did not know him!

It should not have been a surprise to find Simberloff in Ireland since from the earliest days of his career he had been embroiled in an important controversy about the composition of island biotas.  In particular, Simberloff had been one of the first to experimentally test hypotheses about the so-called equilibrium theory of island biogeography which made predictions about the number of species likely to be found on islands of different sizes and located at increasingly distances from the continental mainland.

The theory of island biogeography is an equilibrium theory – a theory of balance, though balance meant here in a milder sense than in the holistic ecosystem concept of Gene Odum.  In 1967 in one of ecology’s more famous monographs, Simberloff’s mentor at Harvard, E O Wilson speculated along with mathematical ecologist Robert McArthur, that the number of species on an island was related to the geographical extent of the island, and emerged as a dynamic equilibrium between immigration and extinction rates.  Large islands and those closer to a continental shore enjoyed higher immigration rates – they are easier to find and colonize by species from the mainland, and in turn, by virtue of the larger populations which they can support, larger island experience lower extinction rates.  The equilibrium between these rates therefore predicted higher species richness on such large and/or close islands. 

To test this theory Simberloff and Wilson censused invertebrates on five mangrove islands off the Florida coast and then controversially chopped them up to create archipelagos of smaller islands.  They also defaunated some of them using methyl bromide (CH3Br) and observed the recolonization of insects in the years that followed.  In all cases they expected that the islands would re-equilibrate in a manner predicted by the theory.  Although the results of this audacious project confirmed many aspects of theory, nevertheless Simberloff urged caution both in interpreting these results as tests of the equilibrium theory and in extending these insights into conservation practice in mainland situations.[3]

There is much to be said about this work, its implications and the controversies that surround it, but let me just make the following remark: Simberloff’s commentary on the research showed a willingness to exercise caution in the interpretation of his own work, a commendable scholarly trait.  His prudence regarding the extrapolation of island biogeography to make general conservation prescriptions was noticeable[4].  Simberloff did not propose a “strategy of island faunal development”, and did not enter into discussion of whole faunas being in any way greater than the sum of its parts, that is, there is simply no attempt in his work at a holistic ecology of islands. 

Later, commenting on island biogeography he noted that both species number and species composition emerges as equilibria in several factors operating at the same time.  And these equilibria are frequently disrupted as a result of capricious events such as introductions or geological changes. Thus the equilibria are ultimately what he called “quasiequilibria” and are subject to long-term change. “‘Equilibrium’ in this sense is synonymous with "compromise," he said, “and the realization that island communities represent compromises parallels a Dawinian view that individual species are compromises.” Simberloff was prepared to argue an analogy between the equilibrium in species richness on islands and the optimizing of evolutionary forces, however, he did not succumb to a temptation to extend the analogy of island communities to organisms.  Though islands biotas might be balancing acts they are not superorganisms.  Patterns of species richness on island could be understood based upon the probabilistic outcomes of the comings and goings of individual biological populations.

I have dallied a little on island biogeography not only because it illustrates that ecology can propose theories of balance that do not make a commitment to holism but also because Simberloff  later became the most spirited critic of the Odum conception of the ecosystem.  There may be a balance in nature – ecological patterns emerging as a temporary balancing of forces – but there is no Balance of Nature.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Last Great Balancing Act: Eugene Odum and the Strategy of Ecosystem Development

There was a small bust of Eugene (Gene) Odum in the lobby of the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia which bore the inscription “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.  It used to entertain me to see Odum, that spritely giant of ecology, pass by his own bust most days without remarking it much at all.  Lesser men might have glanced.  I showed it to my father once when he visited me in Georgia while I worked there in the 1990s.  His response after he read it was merely a shrug and he wondered whether the phrase actually meant anything.  My father was not the only one to wonder this.

In fact, the epigram was central to Odum’s holistic understanding of ecology.  In the mid 1960s he wrote that there were two types response to discussions about ecology as a system’s science.  One group of responders would affirm, he thought, that “any school child knows that the whole is not a sum of the parts”, but another “remains unconvinced that there is anything really new or different at ecological levels that can not be ultimately explained either by the reduction of the whole into even smaller parts…”[1]  Identifying the most appropriate unit of analysis was critical to humanity adequately addressing of its environmental problems.  Odum recognized the ecosystem as that unit of analysis.  As he defined it, a definition that remains serviceable in contemporary ecology, the ecosystem was
“made up of all the organisms in a given area (that is, “community”) interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to characteristic trophic structure and material cycles within the system.”[2]
Asserting that the ecosystem whole was greater than the sum of its parts meant that ecological analysis restricted to another ecological level – individual organisms or biotic communities, for instance, would fail to capture the dynamics of nature in a way that permitted us to ameliorate our impacts. 

The attributes of ecosystems, properties which for the most part could not, according to Odum’s adage, be predicted from an examination of the components constituting the ecosystemic whole include the following: community energetics (production, standing biomass, nutrient cycling, and overall metrics of ecosystem stability).  In his list of 24 ecosystem attributes Odum includes metric of biotic community structure, life history and strategy since lower ecological levels may not add up to the properties of the whole, nonetheless the whole may constrain the parts.

By defining the ecosystem in a holistic fashion, one with characteristics such as balance, integration, the possession of emergent properties, stability, equilibrium, attainment of a steady-state, and homeostasis, Odum tied his ecology to a venerable tradition, one that dates to the earliest Greek conceptions of the natural order known as the Balance of Nature.  The Balance of Nature defined in the most general terms is where the interrelated components of a system operate in harmony, thereby reflecting a stable equilibrium of traversing forces.  This dynamic harmony persists unless disturbed by external interventions.  Odum’s unit of concern is primarily the ecosystem, but since his ecosystem is the upper-level entity that constrains those levels below it in the ecological hierarchy, therefore where he expresses a Balance of Nature perspective it ramifies throughout the entire system.

Nominees for the 2012 3QD Science Prize (including a post by moi)

Son Fiacha, under my gentle duress, kindly nominated a post of mine for a 3quarks daily prize.  The piece is on Decomposition and Decay: (In the Kingdom of Decay).  The company is a riot of very fine writing.  Please visit:
...and by all means ignore the marvelous competition and vote for me!


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Men Like Gods: H G Wells on the Balance of Nature, Ecosystems Services and the New Ecology.

“It is true; there is something fierce and ratlike and dangerous about Earthly men.” Men Like Gods, H G Wells

In one of his less celebrated fictions, Men like Gods, H G Wells presents to us a most curious Utopia.[1]  The citizenry of Utopia are, quite naturally, more advanced than are those of 1921, the year in which the novel is set.  Their Last Days of Confusion happily are left behind them and they live governed by the Five Principles of Liberty: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. Our hero Mr. Barnstaple, who along with a small group of other humans, was transported to this other world is a subject of some interest to its inhabitants and is the occasion for some mirth on Wells’ part.  A Utopian girl, for instance, asks casusally, "And you make love?" The answer, "Not habitually, I can assure you," he said. "Not habitually."

Nature in general is well regulated by the natives of this Utopia with some interesting consequences.  In describing the ecological circumstances of Utopia, Wells provides us with a pithy overview of the concept of the Balance of Nature.  Since the history of Utopia differs from the history of Earth in minor details only (their Christ, for example, was put to death on the wheel, not the cross) one can assume that the transition from the Balance of Nature to the Management of Nature proceeded in a fashion that Wells finds to be useful for contemplating the trajectory of nature on this Earth.  

The inquiry concerning nature comes amidst a suite of criticisms that the Earthlings levied at the Utopians during a lengthy ethnographic exchange with their hosts.  The first note of disapproval is sounded by one Father Amerton (a caricature, some say, of G K Chesterton, though a review of the novel at the time of identify him as a Father Vaughan).  Father Amerton’s objection concerns the regulation of human affairs and not those of nature.  He had already expressed concern about the means by which Utopians limited their populations to a mere 250 million inhabitants. “Do you”, he fulminated at the Utopians, “respect the marriage bond?”  To which a Utopian responds, “In Utopia there are no bonds.” Pressing them further our priest concludes that “you have abolished the family.”  Always, it seems, quick with the quippy response he is told that in Utopia the family, in fact, is “enlarged and glorified…until it embraced the whole world.”  Finally, after accusing our free-loving Utopians of bestial promiscuity, a Utopian concluded that Father Amerton suffered from an inflamed and diseased sexual imagination, which would be, on the morrow “examined and dealt with.”

Mr Freddy Mush was next to voice his concerns.  “There had been”, he declared, “something very ancient and beautiful called the ‘Balance of Nature’ which the scientific methods of Utopia had destroyed.”  What this Balance of Nature was, precisely, “neither the Utopians nor Mr Barnstable were able understood all that clearly.”  Mr Mush in a familiar sounding exasperation known to those of us who seek to impose definition of this hefty but nebulous idea finally sputtered “I hold by the swallows.”  He elaborated that there were no swallows to be seen in Utopia because there were neither gnats nor midges.  The Utopians had systematically exterminated these flies with some predicable ecological consequences – although apparently they maintained reserves in which some species were held in isolation.  Swallows had indeed become rare, but the Utopians, wise stewards as Wells would have us believe they were, had not fully vanquished “these delightful birds.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Myth of the Demise of the Myth of the Balance of Nature

In his 1954 exposition of the Myth of Eternal Return historian of religion Mircea Eliade related a short tale that sheds light on the transformation of event into myth.[1]  It seems that just before the Second World War, folklorist Constantin Brailoiu recorded a ballad in the Romanian village of Maramures in which a few days before he was to wed, a young man got thrown off a mountainside by a jealous mountain fairy by whom he had been bewitched.  The body and the hat of the man were returned to his fiancé whose funeral lament was full of “mythological allusions”.  Though the event upon which the ballad was based reportedly occurred “long ago”, upon further investigation it transpired that not only had it occurred as recently as a few decades prior, but that the fiancé was still alive.  The facts of the case as the bereaved reported them were tragic but rather more mundane.  The young man fell off a cliff and was retrieved alive by shepherds, brought back to his fiancé, subsequently died, and was lamented in the traditional manner.  When the folklorist confronted locals with the “facts” of the case they assured him that the fiancé had misremembered in her grief.  The myth had supplanted the memory.

In recent years strenuous lamentations have been poured over the death of the Balance of Nature.  An emerging consensus is that a notion of ecological systems as ordered, static, regulated, steady-state and in equilibrium is passé.  The idea of a Balance of Nature, though it remains a popular framework in the public understanding of ecology, tends now to elicit a shrug from professional ecologists for whom it apparently means nothing.  Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, for instance, entitled a book on the topic interrogatively: “Balance of Nature?” and the answer was no – at least “no” in the sense that the term Balance of Nature is a conceptually fuzzy one and submits to no unified meaning.[2]  Modern ecologists, we are told, do not believe in this balance anymore.[3] The Age of Equilibrium has given way to one in which chaos, catastrophe, or at the very least disturbance (since chaos and catastrophe now, themselves, seems a little jaded) predominate.  

In environmental historian Donald Worster’s account of this transition from balance to tumult he remarks on how the contemporary disruptive view of things make the tempo of nature seem awfully like the human sphere.  “All history”, he says “has become a record of disturbance, and that disturbance comes from both cultural and natural agents.”[4] Thus in his litany of disturbances droughts and pests are placed alongside corporate takeovers and the invasion of the academy by French literary theory (one assumes this to be a early 1990’s mirthful jab at his colleagues at the University of Kansas)!  An implication of this, of course, is that by dispatching the Balance of Nature and asserting a greater comparability of human and non-human factors in the dynamics of systems then it becomes less easy to axiomatically condemn human impacts of the environment.  This, I would stress, does not absolve the human ruckus but it certainly makes it more difficult to arbitrate our shenanigans.    

For all of that, it must be said that on the temporal and spatial scales at which I exist something that seems quite like equilibrium, a balancing of forces, is holding me and the beings outside my window together – we are stable enough for our mild companionship.  In the disturbanceful, anxiously frenetic view of ecology that supposedly we all now endorse, I do not, in fact, as I pause to glance out my window expect that the garden will have been ecologically jolted into a new state.  The elm still arches over my window; the Japanese Maple prettily disports itself in the Juneday sun.  That is not, of course, to say that I have an expectation of permanence either for me or for my vista.  Like many ecologists, I suspect, I see stability and change, balance and disturbance.  From this perspective then it seems that an emphatic declaration of the demise of the myth of the Balance of Nature is as unhelpful as is an insistence that such a balance exists and that it persists in perpetuity until disrupted by a human intrusion into the workings of the natural world.

To make the connection with Eliade’s edifying story explicit (perhaps tediously so), let me put is like this: contemporary ecologists had been affianced to the notion of an equilibrium world-view and as they listen to a ballad lamenting its spectacular fall, they choose not to assure the balladeer that their beloved is merely injured. 

In posts over the coming days I will be briefly reviewing the question of how severely battered is the Balance of Nature concept.  I suspect (who ever knows how ideas play out until you write about them) I will be arguing that although the notion in its more metaphysical incarnations should be hurtled off the nearest cliff but that, nevertheless, there is yet some life in the old boy and this will need saving.  That is, surgery not euthanasia is called for.

[1] Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971
[2] Pimm, Stuart, The Balance of Nature? Ecological Issues in the conservation of species and communities. University of Chicago Press 1991.
[3] E.g. “balance of nature.” In The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Houghton Mifflin. 2002.
[4] Worster, D Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge UP 1994