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

1 comment:

  1. Updating (and correcting) a little of what I said in my comment on your 2011 post, the following applies:

    Since an equilibrium organism is at one with their environment because they are cold and dead, I am not too keen on the term being bandied around to refer to resilient ecosystems that bounce back after perturbations. But neither are ecosystems entirely disequilibrium, because then everything in them would be completely opposed and disconnected from their surroundings. A crystal is so tightly ordered that it has near zero entropy, and if that were the case for forests there would be trees in regular arrangements. So one is looking for links, and measures of order and complexity, which allow the system to be, as Kaufmann, describes a stable dynamical disequilibrium system, but one which is not so close to equilibrium and in tune with its surroundings that it flies apart at the slightest disturbance. An equilibrium ecosystem would randomly fluctuate with its environment, which tends to be the case for disturbed ecosystems, or ones that are simple, such as agricultural monocultures.

    That is, your family home and garden are relatively stable in time. Forests can last hundreds of years. But there are floods that wipe out gardens and fires that wipe out forests, and dare I say it, Mt. St. Helens! So the steady-state is nontheless somewhat fragile. The dynamical disequilibrium state is highly ordered which enables it to maintain stability- up to a point. Sometimes it does not recover. Climate change or other perturbations may affect an ecosystem but it may not completely change it- or depending on severity, it might.

    There is a large amount of order in a single organism in the form of organs, transport systems etc. and similarly for ecosystems. But there is also a large amount of stuff that goes on in mature ecosystems with many links, namely destruction and death on a regular basis, and sometimes fierce competition for resources. That can surely be described as entropic, and not regular like the crystal. But not too many of the creatures in it would survive without the holistic system, hence in that sense the whole is greater than the parts.

    So for 2 reasons Odum was probably correct in some ways about the holistic nature of ecosystems, as species are dependent on the greater entity for their survival, and since properties can emerge from the overall complex organisation of the ecosystem. For example there is evidence that suites of bacterial communities in a soil show emergent properties.

    So my view is that the natural disequilibrium state of a mature ecosystem is as highly ordered and resilient as it can be, and hence it persists over time, therefore is not highly disequilibrium or in equilibrium. Furthermore the extent of order sometimes creates what Odum foresaw before any of the modern experiments described it- emergence. The whole CAN be greater than the sum of its parts. The brain functions from a number of compartments, virtually without effort. The body functions with not only a number of organs, but a whole suite of microbial communities, usually with some level of stability. My view is not quite like Odum or the more modern-day version of "one system" which is James Lovelock's Gaia. But it is possibly correct that the living biosphere generally behaves as one large (eco)system, although I disagree that the abiotic and biotic components act as one system. If this is correct there will be obvious flow-on effects from tweaking one part of the system, in other parts. A perfect experiment for this might be climate change.