The Balance of Nature
I confess that when I started reading up on the question of the balance of nature and human intervention ecological systems I was operating under the unquestioned assumption that nature contained benevolent self-regulating processes. It was quite a shock to discover I was wrong!
It has been part of our inherited body of 'knowledge' for millennia that nature is naturally homoeostatic. For instance predator and prey populations may vary a little but they always hover around a mean over long periods of time. Evolution of species is explained entirely by changes in environment, minor random changes within populations themselves making no real difference at all.
This idea of nature being in balance is a standard doctrine of school biology as the cheesy little kids song listed below well illustrates. I've also listed a school biology worksheet that expresses the same idea.
Recent research by ecologists, in particular a project studying plankton populations, has demonstrated that there is no balance between natural populations in the wild. They vary in a 'chaotic' manner with no discernible pattern.
Maurice Sanders, in his paper to our Stoa meeting, argues that there is a parallel between this idea of nature being benignly self-regulating and Adam Smith's idea of the Hidden Hand of the economy. Smith argued that the sum of all individual trading decisions adds up to a system from which everyone benefits as long as it is allowed to operate unhindered. Many modern-day sustainability campaigners argue that human intervention in natural systems is inherently harmful and that all humans need to do is withdraw and nature will sort out its own problems via naturally benign processes. This new research by ecologists suggests that they are profoundly mistaken and that human have no options to continue their intervening and molding of nature.
Controversial or what?
Expressions of the classical idea of nature in balance...
- Kids song abour the balance of nature
- What happens when you upset the balance of Nature? — A classic statement of the balance of nature thesis.
- The web of life — A school worksheet on the balancing systems in nature.
Arguments that nature is chaotic and not in balance...
- All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace — The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts (60 min video) — Watch this if you can as it shows how cybenetics infuenced the modern idea of the balance of nature and turned it into political ideology.
- Chaos In Food Webs — The Balance Of Nature Concept Takes A Beating.
- Chaos wrecks the balance of nature
- John Kricher on his book 'The Balance of Nature Ecology’s Enduring Myth'
- Study of ocean life shows a 'chaotic' balance of nature
- The Mythical Balance of Nature
- The Real Constant Is Eternal Turmoil
New ecologists like John Kricher talk about nature, like the weather, being a 'chaotic system'. It's an unfortunate and misleading use of the term 'chaos' as natural laws are clearly discernable in the processes of nature. Chaos in this context does not mean 'totally disordered and inexplicable'. A chaotic system is one in which there are natural laws in operation but the system is so complex that it is impossible to predict future states of the system. This obviously has profound implications for sustainability initiatives. How can we be confident about our interventions in nature when we cannot make accurate long-term predictions?
If you want to understand the basic principle behind chaos theory take a look at this little 4.5 minute video which explains it very elegently and succinctly.