The Persistence of a Popular Environmental Meme

There are certain tropes that linger in the public imagination long after they’ve been discredited. Such is the case with the “balance of nature.”  In 2009, the ecologist John Kricher wrote a book about this “enduring myth,” and years before that, another ecologist, Daniel Botkin, published his seminal Discordant Harmonies in 1990, which I think was the first mainstream book “to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence.”

The shelf life of this outdated ecological concept rankles Botkin, who last year wrote:

People give lip service to the idea that nature may not be constant, but when it comes to passing laws, setting down policies, giving advice, and deciding what to do, most of the time we act as if nature was balanced — constant.  That is, as long as we stay out of the way.

He’s right. The meme is still very much part of our popular environmental discourse, thanks in part to journalists (and scientists) who continue to use the term, as in this 2009 Smithsonian article and more recently, in today’s New York Times piece on the beetle infestation in New jersey’s Pine Barrens:

Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature.

That scientists are still perhaps framing ecological problems this way is troubling. Botkin took note on Twitter.

Overall, though, I thought the Times story was pretty good, despite the unfortunate use of an anachronistic term that some scientists apparently remain wedded to. As it happens, earlier this year Botkin wrote (with a co-author) a nice piece about the history of the Pine Barrens and how the landscape has been shaped by both nature and humans. Today, the forest’s stewards are managing multiple uses of the Pine Barrens while introducing prescribed burns to reduce the landscape’s flammability (a similarly daunting challenge for land managers in the Southwest).

As the Nature Conservancy observes on its science blog, environmentalists have in recent decades redefined the meaning of wetlands. Centuries ago, such waters were commonly referred to as fetid “swamps”; today, these “wetlands” are valued for their ecological services and the habitat they provide for a diversity of species.

If greens can change a negative mindset about an ecosystem, as has happened with our contemporary conception of wetlands, then surely it’s possible for them to help foster a less romanticized and more nuanced perspective of nature.


[Cranberry bog harvest in New Jersey Pine Barrens. Photo/NJPineBarrens]

5 Responses to “The Persistence of a Popular Environmental Meme”

  1. J M says:

    The same seems to apply to climate. What was so great about preindustrial temperatures? If you think melting glaciers are bad, try expanding glaciers.

  2. Buddy199 says:

    Nature just looks balanced if you view it over very short, human-scale time frames. The more you broaden your time perspective, the more the wild variations in geophysical and bio-systems become evident. What’s balanced about mile thick glaciers scraping across what is now New York City or the several mass extinctions that destroyed the majority of species over the millennia?

  3. Linus Blomqvist says:

    Robert Kirkman explains the attachment to the concept of ecosystems as organisms thus:

    “…living things engage in goal-directed activity. Because organisms have goals and interests of their own, they can be harmed. If nature as a whole is really a kind of organic unity, then it has ends and interests of its own; nature can be harmed.”

    If ecosystems are just a random collection of entities in a constant state of flux, then it’s harder to say with certainty that human impacts are harmful. The privileged role of the expert – who alone can divine what the ‘correct’ state of an ecosystem is – also becomes diminished. So the persistence of the balance of nature trope is no accident; it has a sort of political power for conservation. (To be clear, a lot of ecologists have moved beyond the balance of nature, so its persistence is far from universal.)

  4. jh says:

    Nice piece, Keith. An excellent point.

    But let’s not give green groups too much credit for rebranding swamps into “wetlands”. I suspect a key factor in this transition was the fact that a) most serious mosquito-borne diseases had been eliminated from the US by the time green groups launched this campaign; and b) bazillions of acres of wetlands that were once close to population centers were long, long gone.

    A good example of the latter is Seattle’s SODO industrial district. The Seahawks are whuppin’ the Saints in what used to be mostly tide swamp. From Century Link Field all the way south to Boeing field and beyond – an area at least 6 miles long and over a mile across – used to be mostly wetland and tide flat. My recollection of the details is a bit fuzzy, but I suspect that extended all the way to Boeing’s Renton plant.

  5. RogerSweeny says:

    Kricher’s book is good but a more fun read is Emma Marris’ Rambunctious
    Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2011). It has a similar theme. Among other things, it is full of examples of places that seem “wild” and “untouched” but are suffused with human action.

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