Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's Time to Recognize That Nature Isn't Static

“I’m an environmentalist,” I told my son as we discussed some propaganda to which he had been subjected at school, “but I don’t have an anti-human agenda and I understand that nature continuously evolves.”

I’m in favor of preserving natural lands and waters and preventing undue pollution, but unlike some environmentalists, I don’t think these resources should be frozen in time or returned to some mythical edenic state. “If some environmentalists had been around when the dinosaurs were dying out, they’d want to preserve the T-Rex,” I told my son.

The historic preservation/restoration approach to environmental resources has long mystified me. If natural selection is nature’s way of managing itself, why are so many environmental policies based on preventing this from happening? Why are so many environmental approaches based on a static view of a resource’s natural state?

I felt vindicated in my views as I read this review of Emma Marris’ book The Rambunctious Garden. She says that it takes a lot of human work and intervention to keep an ecosystem looking “pristine.” Ecologists are fighting a battle to keep ecosystems static. In the name of keeping something natural, they are trying to keep nature from doing what nature naturally does.

The reviewer explains, “In the first half of the 20th century, ecologists came to believe in equilibrium—that natural systems tended toward a steady state.” I remember being taught about succession as a child. Ponds would become marshes, and later meadows, then softwood forests, and finally hardwood forests. This climax was thought to be the natural state. “Conservation, therefore, was a matter of restoring this climax.”

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that nature never achieves any kind of static state. It is in a constant state of change as it responds to multiple affecting variables. This is the very essence of nature. Academic ecologists now largely accept this fact. Yet the obsolete static approach “still dominates practical conservation management.”

Marris complains that while ecologists recognize that nature changes, they largely seem incapable of designing any policy that does anything other than attempt to restore some static condition: “preserve this rare species, maintain this habitat structure, freeze in time this ecological moment, return this degraded land to a particular state, whatever the weather and whatever the novel arrivals of exotic species.”

Moreover, Marris notes that some alien species end up improving ecosystems. This is heresy to the environmentalist orthodoxy, which aims to eradicate all such species.

So how should ecosystems be managed? Ms. Marris says, “In a nutshell: Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development and try just about everything.”

The trouble with this advice is that people and organizations have developed power structures based on the static view of nature. They drill it into school children so that they can have willing supporters in the future. Whole government agencies owe their very existence to the static “balanced” view of nature. Activist organizations rely on this view for fundraising. None of these people are about to relinquish their power over such a small thing as truth.

While the current environmental power structure marshals against a truly natural view of nature, my hope is that over time the wisdom offered by those like Marris will gradually take hold. This would allow the power structure to eventually morph so that the interests of the environmentally powerful would more closely align with good ecological practices.

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