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Wallace Kaufman

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by Wallace Kaufman   
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Last edited: Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Posted: Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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Dan Botkin's work in ecology has changed the model of how nature works. His vision and findings are not always comfortable for those who talk of a balance of nature.

NATURE WITHOUT BALANCE: DANIEL BOTKIN ON ECOLOGY By Wallace Kaufman History laughs at Denmark's legendary King Canute who waded into the waves and ordered the tide to stop. A small but growing group of ecologists aren't laughing, but they believe the conservation movement has been imitating Canute since its birth about 100 years ago. The ecologists are not talking about environmental Canutes "trying to stop progress." They're talking about campaigns to preserve forests, rivers, prairies, and lakes. When environmental groups go before Congress and state legislatures pleading their case for the "balance of nature," they may be staking their fame, fortunes and sacred honor on something that doesn't exist. The human intellect craves nothing more than order, and as far back as history goes we have believed in a "natural order." It could be disturbed, but if nature could regain control, she would re-establish order. A forest burned would go through a series of stages until climax growth returned more or less for good. Nature had restored her balance. Well, not her balance, but our balance, our wishful thinking and longing for order and permanence. Most environmentalists still believe in a classical balance of nature while others, like Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (AF Jan. 1990) proclaim Western culture has upset the balance forever. Most ecologists now believe such a balance didn't and doesn't exist. At Ohio State University Dr. Peter Chesson, a theoretical ecologist, says that as far as nature having an equilibrium, "We can say that's dead for most people in the scientific community." The University of Minnesota's Dr. David Tilman, says that among ecologists balance of nature is a term that "hasn't been used much in twenty years." The neat world in which wolves and deer, hawks and rabbits, bees and flowers kept each others' populations in balance and the world in harmony has gone to the old age home of quaint ideas to rest alongside spontaneous generation and astrology. It is just as useless as a guide for managing our resources and solving global environmental problems. In fact, as ecologists have studied areas that have been preserved and learned more about the interaction of natural forces, they have discovered that the traditional notion of preserving a balance of nature often leads to destruction. Or at least it invites changes conservationists never wanted. Dan Botkin, a small man with a gentle manner delivers the message of new ecology with quiet patience, something like a UPS man delivering Pandora's Box. There is no balance of nature, Botkin says. There's no steady state or even a steadily oscillating state. Whole populations of plants and animals flourish and crash with a violence that would appall most environmentalists. Nature has no preference for life as we know it, or life in any form. These are human preferences and creations. They can only be realized by very sophisticated, often high tech meddling. While many environmentalists think "hands off" is not interfering, its effects are often more devastating than deliberate intervention. In many cases environmentalists have been playing God as surely as Dan Quayle's God Squad, TVA or the giant timber companies. To demonstrate the unexpected results of letting nature "manage itself," Botkin sometimes uses a picture of Rutgers Universty's virgin Hutchinson Memorial Forest, a remnant of mid-Atlantic oak-hickory forests. Between the large trees in such forests during the 17th century a Dutch naturalist said one could easily drive a horse and wagon. Rutgers purchased the forest in 1954 with great fanfare. Audubon and Life magazines celebrated with beautiful pictures. The same forest in Botkin's contemporary picture has few large trees, and even a trail bike rider couldn't penetrate the thick undergrowth and vines. Letting nature manage the preserve meant controlling fires, allowing hurricanes to work their will, and standing by while alien species like Norway maple and honeysuckle to invaded. Botkin says managing for some imagined equilibrium devasted marine fisheries. Harvesting the same "sustainable yield" year after year produced disastrous overfishing in years when fish populations crashed because of natural forces. The hands off approach to nature, Botkin says, is based on the idea that it's us versus nature, that humans can only make nature worse. From classical times to the present people have assumed that nature is designed to maintain a balance, and that human presence disturbs that balance. Remote sensing, computer analyses, and a multitude of other technologies have made a mockery of our old sense of order. Perhaps there is a new and much more complex order that governs nature, but we are far from knowing it. For the new ecologists the realization that nature has no balance means that managing the biosphere is much more complicated than we ever imagined. To keep from making ever greater mistakes as human populations and powers explode, Botkin says, "We can no longer rely on nineteenth-century models of analysis for twenty-first century problems." Botkin and others say that while we may have the wisdom to act prudently, we are far from having the facts for final solutions. Many claims passionately presented as fact are emotional biases or intuitive guesses. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, despite the great cry that forests are being lost forever, no one has reliable data on how much forest is regenerating. Botkin recently started to study the relationship between forests and salmon in Oregon. Despite claims that timber cutting is destroying the five species of salmon that frequent these rivers, Botkin says scientists have tagged and traced only hatchery bred salmon, while the life cycles of natural populations is very poorly unknown. (See "Salmon and Forests," AF July/August 1992.) Even when we choose to actively manage nature to maintain a "natural state," Botkin and other new ecologists say our definition of nature has little to do with the real world. Botkin says that if we were to ask what the natural state of the great Boundary Waters wilderness is, "I could argue that it's natural state is pure ice." But we don't have to be talking about natural states that change over thousands of years like Boundary Waters or hundreds of years like Hutchinson Memorial Forest. A study of the common native mid-western weed, the pant creeper (Agrostis scaber) by two University of Minnesota scientists showed that even over a period of a few years the biosphere, like the stars of the universe, might tend more toward chaos than our present sense of order. In 1985 Dr. David Tilman and Dr. David Wedin sowed pant creeper in a variety of soils. By 1988 the pant creeper population in the most fertile plot showed a 6,000 fold explosion, then a crash to near zero. Other plots showed a variety of unexpected results. Dan Botkin says that twenty years ago these results would have disappointed researchers and been dismissed as a failed experiment. Since then a concept developed in physics and astronomy allows us to make sense if not order of such results. Chaos theory holds that any small difference in initial conditions of a system will tend to be magnified. Natural systems, according to chaos theory, do not behave like a well ordered machine. The relations of energy and matter in space or perhaps even life in a few cubic meters of soil undergo huge changes that seldom if ever repeat in an orderly pattern. There may be an underlying long term order, but it is not determined by the attraction of some unwavering point of balance. But neither is it entirely random. If it's not entirely random, perhaps it is ultimately predictable, but not with our current tools. Dr. Tilman's surprise at his findings are a scientist's miniature of the conversion that must happen among conservationists and society at large. "I never imagined I would find chaos," he told The New York Times. "I imagined it would grow up to equilibrium. This has changed my world view, to be blunt about it." And the more species an ecosystem holds, he says, the more likely we are to find that instead of balance we have chaos. Dr. William M. Schaffer, a pioneer in the application of chaos theory to biological systems, says an experiment like the pant creeper project "really cuts the legs out from under this position that all we really have to do is leave these systems alone and everything's going to be ducky. What we have to do is understand how these systems behave and then we as people can decide what we want, how to manage them appropriately." Several reasons explain why we haven't seen the real dynamics of change in biological systems. Dr. Schaffer says the signs are obviously much harder to detect in a forest or ocean than among the stars and galaxies. Rather than dealing with the relatively neat measurements of energy, gravity and motion, the variables in an ecosystem are more numerous and much harder to observe and measure. And oddly enough while scientists have been watching and methodically recording changes in the heavens for centuries, no one has made the same careful observations of forests. Our inability to say how much forest is growing in the Pacific Northwest is a small corner of our ignorance about forests. With everyone talking about sustainable development, it would seem that examples would be easy to find, however local. Botkin says that for twenty years he has been trying to get a reliable set of statistics on sustainable use of a forest. He asks for a forest that has had three harvests, the third being equal or greater than the first. He has been assured that forester Jones or Smith over in such and such a forest has the data. But each time he follows the lead, the data turn out to be inconclusive or non-existent. The assumptions we have made about forests and other ecosystems mislead us into viewing nature before the age of European exploration and industrialization as an ideal state. How stubbornly environmentalists and some scientists stake their credibility on this ideal was illustrated by a meeting of scientists and religious leaders in Washington in May 1992. An unusual coalition of religious leaders representing some 330,000 congregations issued the Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Enviornment. They declared that nature is God's gift and "the future of thiis gift so freely given is in our hands, and we must maintain it as we have received it. This is an inescapably religious challenge." But how did we receive it? The words of the religious leaders mean little if we can't answer that question. And so far science has no answer. New evidence from historians, paleontologists, archeologists, and geneticists have clobbered the notion that is common from George Perkins Marsh in the 19th century to Vice President Al Gore today that the mentality of Western materialism destroyed a natural paradise. The supposed virgin ecosystems of the past have been the ideals that have driven environmental activism. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," Thoreau proclaimed, and the words have come to summarize a sacred commandment of environmentalism. They are the title of one of the Sierra Club's first and most durable books. They grace beautiful posters of wilderness scenes. Alas, the wildness that Thoreau saw in New England, that is captured in a library full of coffee table books, and that we think we see in other areas of the world may not be wildness at all. A lot of the world's most admired "wilderness" may have been the intentional or defacto creation of humankind. The great herds and predator populations of Africa's Serengetti savannahs, for instance, may owe their abundance to the primitive practice of using fire to maintain grassy fields for hunting. Amazonia's "virgin" rainforests have been extensively populated by humans for over ten thousand years. And these humans imported, planted and transplanted a variety of plants and perhaps introduced new species of animals. Dr. Lee M. Talbot of the World Resources Institute has worked in over 100 countries and has come to the conclusion that "In a real sense, human beings have been changing the face of the Earth since their earliest times." The use of fire to change large areas of land may go back more than a million years, he says. And early humans may have changed more than local hunting grounds. Carl Sagan writing in Science in 1979 suggested that "humans have made substantial contributions to global climate changes during the past several millennia, and perhaps over the past million years." Yale historian William Cronon says that for years ecologists beat their heads against a wall trying to agree on a definition of New England's climax forests, its pre-European natural state. Recently scholars have accumulated overwhelming evidence that Native Americans exerted a huge influence on the forests. Nature itself, Cronon says brought "environmental changes on an enormous scale, many of them wholly apart from human influence." He concludes, "There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis." An environmental community used to reading about Waldsterben (forest death) in Europe was surprised by a Finnnish study that showed the rate of tree growth in Europe between 1971 and 1990 had increased by 30 percent. Trunk volume had increased by 25 percent. The researchers from the Finnish Forest Research Institute speculated that chemicals released by industry might actually be fertilizing forests, at least for the short run. Pollution may eventually catch up with the new growth, but the study underlines the fact that trends in nature are seldom straight lines or smooth curves. Even without humans playing with fire, industrial chemicals, chain saws and bulldozers, nature undergoes frequent small as well as catastrophic changes. Some take thousands of years, others happen within a single year. Some are triggered by small events. A chance combination of genes produces an aggressive male wolf adept at hunting. It takes the lead in a pack. The kill rate multiplies, and local deer populations crash. A hurricane crosses Hutchinson Memorial Forest and old growth suddenly gives way to pioneer species. A volcano erupts and temperatures fall around the world. For the new ecologists the human influence has to be seen as one of many changes. In the case of global climate it may be one of the greatest changes, but our influence cannot be understood or managed apart from other changes. Scientists who see conservation from a Third World perspective have welcomed the recognition that humans have always played a role in nature as we know it. To them the new ecology liberates environmental thinking from the elite urban fantasies of northern industrialized environmentalists. In a recent issue of BioScience Botanist Arturo Gomez-Pompa and anthropologist Andrea Kaus argued that the high value placed on supposedly climax forests and their value as wilderness preserves "represent mostly urban beliefs and aspirations. All too often they do not correspond with scientific findings or first-hand experience of how the world works." CONTRARY TO EXISTING METAPHORS AND THINKING The resistance to the new ecology among environmentalists is as strong as it is from industry and government. Industrial scientists would like to think the same forests can be planted again and again, that technology can offset pollution and restore the environment to a known natural state. Industrialists makes products, and if the by-product of their work must be protecting the environment, they want that by-product to be just as definable as an automobile or a computer. The conservation community seems just as hesitant to catch up with the new ecology. After Dan Botkin argued his case in a keynote address to American Forests' November forum, "People as Positive Agents of Environmental Change," the panelists who followed him went on to talk about preserving the balance of nature. Botkin's plea for sophisticated analysis of changes using earth satellites and computer analyses, panelists they still suspected computers were a trap. While Botkin argued that resource decisions have to be opened to users like loggers, fishermen and hunters, panelists talked disparaging of "Joe and Jane Sixpack" and of converting the unconverted, of getting industry's attention by hitting it with a figurative two-by-four, and of making leaps of faith. They left the clear impression that for them nature was a set of beautiful landscapes and things, much more than processes. The dominant idea of "People as Positive Agents" was keeping people away from nature and its management. Magazine pundit Calvin Trillin once said he got a life changing shock from reading the morning paper the names of people governing the country and making international treaties. He realized many of them had been his college classmates. Then and there he decided to retreat to the woods if the world were to be run by such ordinary people. Environmentalists share the same distrust of our ability to manage nature. To ecologists their protests often sound like pleas for anarchy, or maybe chaos. From Botkin's perspective the environmental community as well as the rest of society has a lot of catching up to do, and it better catch up fast. Perhaps doomster Bill McKibben is right, that the end of nature has come. Humankind has the power to determine nature's future. While McKibben argues we ought to set back our thermostats and do as little as possible, Botkin and others feel we ought to use all the power we have, but wisely. Nevertheless Botkin, who took his masters degree in English literature, understands the resistance. It is rooted deeply in our culture. The old metaphors that embodied our understanding of nature our place in it no longer work, and we have not yet found a new vocabulary or a new metaphor. When Sir Isaac Newton explained laws of gravity and motion in the 17th century he helped convince people to think of nature as a finely made watch, Botkin says we have thought of nature as a machine, predicting its future from its past workings. This mechanical understanding was a variation on the idea of the earth as a divinely ordered creation. Both implied the idea of nature that was constant unless disturbed. Botkin says that a third image of nature--as an organic creature--accepted change as an inevitable process to which humans had to yield. But none of these metaphors fit the world we are rediscovering with computers, biotechnology, and space travel. "We can no longer rely on nineteenth-century models of analysis for twenty-first-century problems. More than any other factor, confronting and recognizing these changes in our deep-seated assumptions is the major challenge that faces us in interpreting nature and in dealing with environmental issues." The message of the new ecology for environmentalists is simple and demands action: if you do nothing, you'll get something you didn't expect. THE CHALLENGE TO MANAGEMENT Botkin distills from the new ecology a simple question that is the biggest challenge to conservation thinking in our time. "How do you manage something that is always changing?" The first step toward wise management, he says, is to accept the idea not only that nature is constantly changing, but that this change is not simply variations from an ideal norm. In fact, Botkin looks at it not too differently than the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said no man could step in the same river twice. Natural history, Botkins says, is a "one-way history." Accepting the fact that nature constantly changes, often in unpredictable and undesirable directions, doesn't mean we have to accept all change. Botkin says, "We must focus our attention on the rates at which changes occur, understanding that certain rates of change are natural, desirable, and acceptable, while others are not. As long as we refuse to admit that any change is natural, we cannot make this distinction and deal with its implications." Looking for environmental solutions without understanding the kaleidoscope of changes is a futile task. It's the situation Botkin recently found when he began studying salmon and forests in Oregon. Trying to manage resources like these with existing data is "like suddenly being thrown into the cockpit of an airplane with no instruments," Botkin says. Until now, he says, public policy was being made on pitifully weak data. No one had maps of forest regrowth and no one had been tagging natural salmon populations. Environmentalists assumed a balance had been destroyed. Industry assumed a balance would re-establish itself. As a practical matter, Botkin says, there was "no basis on which to have a discussion." To expand efforts to apply the new ecology to environmental problems Botkin founded the non-profit group, The Center for the Study of the Environment in 1992. The Center's guiding principle is that "Humans are an integral part of the ecology of the planet. The only lasting environmental solutions are those that take into account the dynamics of human society as well as those of natural systems." At the core of the Center's methods are computer projections that absorb data from satellites as well as field studies, then use the data to model the likely consequences of political and business decisions. This approach worked for Botkin in 1987 when he convened a blue ribbon panel of scientists to study the impact of Los Angeles huge water withdrawals from Mono Lake in the estern Sierras. As a result the Forest Service changed its plans for the drainage basin and Los Angeles took less water. At the World Bank Botkin and L.M. Talbot demonstrated that sustainable forestry claims had yet to be proven and made the case for testing proposed methods by computer simulation. The best practices would be carefully tried and monitored. Following their paper the Bank directed its lending divisions to stop making loans to projects that encourage deforestation. Private industry can also use the new ecology's insights to insure its long-term survival. In Costa Rica Botkin is working with a door manufacturer called Portico to put the company's forest lands on a sustainable yield basis. The company has brought in forest scientists to study the natural fluctuations in forest growth and the interrelations between species in the ecosystem. Portico hopes its analysis and monitoring will establish a harvest pattern and evaluation process through which it can maintain a healthy forest as well as a constant supply of mahogany. Since government's are practically the only institutions that can extensively monitor the global environment and deploy satellites, Botkin feels it is urgent that they catch up with ecological science. For instance, he points out that satellite monitoring of oceans can provide information on the changes in currents and temperatures that cause big changes in fish populations. If fishing fleets had to use this information rather than abide by fixed quotas, we could approach sustainable management of our disappearing marine resources. Botkin has made a proposal that should appeal to the new administration--a National Ecological Survey similar to the present Geological Survey. The new agency would assume the monitoring functions now scattered around in EPA, NASA, NOAA and other places. It would provide permanent monitoring of the environment and analyze its dynamics. Funding would come from user fees, recreation and the sale of natural resources. Using new technology to redefine nature has always been a scientist's riskiest work. Industry, government, environmentalists, and even churches bet a lot of prestige and money on their vision of nature. In some ways the philosophers of the environmental movement have functioned like the medieval church, opposing the idea that science can discover nature's secrets or manage the global environment. Many environmentalists argue for a "hands off" policy on the grounds that we can never know how nature works. Nevertheless the new ecologists follow in the tradition of Galileo, the first modern scientist to argue that we can know how the world works and he was condemned by the church for his arrogance, had to smuggle his last works out of Italy, and died under house arrest. Now that the former political enforcers of dogma have gone--the Inquisition, the Nazis, and the Communists--modern ecologists are not risking their lives or even their jobs, but the conclusions we must draw from their work are not always welcome. One of the most important conclusions new ecology leads to is that with the exception of human beings, all of nature's other creatures have been living with a very unpredictable planet where changes are often swift and devastating. If you happen to be a goose looking for a nest in an unusually cold arctic spring or a spotted owl in a forest fire that kills a whole stand of fir, nature is neither compassionate nor wise. As far as we know no creature but the human animal has been able to imagine things any differently. Now that we have imagined things differently and fallen in love with our vision, we must learn how to intervene in nature's chaos to bring forth our preferred order. The changes we want in nature are quite grand and they will get grander as our population grows. Managing nature for the effect we want will have to be a hands-on effort. The great political question is "whose hands?" The answer will depend on how well the conservation movement can keep up with and absorb the new ecology, and then how well it can communicate the message to the general public. When environmentalists talk about this final decade being a make or break time for saving the planet, they often talk of "converting" government and industry and the public to a new way of thinking. Few realize that maintaining a healthy and beautiful planet may first depend on their own conversion. We talk about the spaceship Earth, but who is monitoring the dials and turning the knobs? No one; there are no dials to watch, only occasional alarms made by people peering out the window, who call to us that they see species disappearing, an ozone hole in the upper atmosphere, the climate change, the coasts of all the world polluted. But because we have never created the system of monitoring our environment or devised the understanding of nature's strange ecological systems, we are still like the passengers in the cabin who think they smell smoke or, misunderstanding how a plane flies, mistake light turbulence for trouble. We need to instrument the cockpit of the biosphere and to let up the window shade so that we begin to observe nature as it is, not as we imagine it to be."

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