Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"Disequilibrium Ecology" -- Much Ado About Nothing

Ernest Partridge


This is the full version of a paper read at the Group Meeting of the International Society for Environmental Ethics (Pacific Division Meeting, American Philosophical Association), March 23, 2005.     The paper is adapted from Section 8 of Nature for Better or Worse, at this site.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation (Grant number: SES-9819617). The views and conclusions are those of the author.

Several ecologists, and some journalists, have proclaimed a “revolution in ecology,” whereby a central concept, “ecosystemic equilibrium” had been thoroughly discredited and replaced by the radically different concept of “disequilibrium.” This development, some suggest, promises to “transform” ecology.

Such dramatic possibilities might serve to advance the careers of the bold, cutting edge, ecologists and even spawn numerous research proposals (including mine, as it happens).

Unfortunately, on close inspection, it appears that there is much less here than meets the critical eye. Instead, as one wit put it, “the proposal is significant and innovative. Unfortunately, that which is significant is not innovative, and that which is innovative is not significant.”

And that, briefly, is what I will contend in this paper.

To begin, let’s define “disequilibrium ecology.”

We might best approach this task by identifying the polar opposite concept: “equilibrium.”

In the simplest terms, a system in “equilibrium,” when disturbed, will return to its condition prior to the disturbance. By implication, an “equilibrial” system contains self-correcting and self-repairing mechanisms.

The simplest example of an equilibrium would be a ball-bearing in a bowl. At rest, the ball is in the center. When jostled, it moves off-center, only to return to the exact same spot where it was before the disturbance. The shape of the bowl is the “self-correcting mechanism.”

Another example: The dyadic thermostat-furnace system. The sequence is both simple and familiar: furnace heats the air > thermostat shuts down furnace > air cools > thermostat turns on furnace > furnace heats the air ... moto perpetuo. Assuming constant external temperature, endless fuel supply, no mechanical failure, the system would continue forever. But of course, all external factors do not remain constant. When the season changes and the outside temperature rises, the duration of the “on” cycles of the furnace diminish until, eventually, the “system” shuts down.

Finally: The desert lake (with no outlet). Input by streams, output by evaporation. This is another “negative feedback” system. The amount of evaporation is a function of the surface area of the lake. Assume constant climate. The spring runoff expands the lake surface, evaporation increases until high inflow and evaporation are in balance (equilibrium). Then the dry season begins and inflow drops, followed by a reduction in the size of the lake surface and with it the amount of evaporation until a new point of balance is obtained between inflow and evaporation. But again, climate is never constant. If annual precipitation rises permanently, the lake may rise to the level at which it “finds” an outlet. If annual precipitation falls dramatically, the lake may disappear.

Early ecological theorists posited similar mechanisms in life-communities. Given a constancy in all external factors (parameters), the population of a species is held constant by its food supply and its surplus reproductive rate. Above the optimum (the “carrying capacity”), starvation brings the numbers down. Below the optimum, “feeding opportunity” allows growth up to carrying capacity.

This is the simplest type of equilibrium, involving a single species and assuming all other factors constant. The early theorists, it is claimed, went much further. The ecosystem as a whole, when disturbed, would return to its previous state, and this hypothesis involved numerous species and populations.

“Disequilibrium ecologists” reject the central premise of equilibrium theory: return to the previous state. Instead, they point out, disturbance in the system results in a new state. Still worse, there is no “perfect balance” in nature to be disturbed. The “natural condition” of an ecosystem is imbalance, and hence constant change.

Furthermore, says the disequilibrium ecologist, while natural laws are (by definition) constant, the natural (and now the artificial) contexts of ecosystems are in perpetual flux. Climate changes, species migrate in, endemic species are decimated by pathogens, mutations lead to novel modes of adaptation, etc.

Thus the equilibrium ecologist’s theoretical frame of “all else being constant” is so far-fetched and unrealistic as to make the theory of ecosystemic equilibrium utterly inapplicable to “the real world.”

And so the defender of equilibrium theory is led to repeat the lament of the theoretical economist: “The theory is beautiful; its reality that has me baffled.”

These, in stark contrast, are the two theories. Too stark, for they are more caricatures than accurate descriptions of the “competing” theories.

To put the matter more bluntly, the disequilibrium ecologists are hard-pressed to find any active and practicing “targets” of their critique of equilibrium theory, at least among those who are scientifically informed. Admittedly, however, the “equilibrium” concept persists with some naive activists and popular writers.

For example, in their excellent textbook, Principles of Conservation Biology, Gary Meffe and Ronald Carroll (1997) repeatedly defend disequilibrium (they call it “dynamic” and “nonequilibrium”) ecology against the “classic ... equilibrium paradigm:” “the idea that ecological systems are in equilibrium, with a definable stable point such as a climax community.’ This paradigm” they write, “implies closed systems with itself regulating structure and function, and embraces the popular "balance of nature" concept.” (P. 16).

But in their several descriptions and critiques of “the classic paradigm,” they never cite a source – a defender of the “paradigm.”

Or consider Daniel Botkin’s characterization of “traditional ecological wisdom:

... nature undisturbed by human influence is characterized by a certain kind of harmony, balance and order... [W]ilderness is presumed to have three attributes: (1) ... [it] remains in a constant state; (2) when disturbed and then left to its own devices, wild nature returns to that original state..., and (3) finally, an ethic is attached to this natural state [which is] assumed to be preferable to all others." ...

"This view of nature is espoused in textbooks on ecology and in popular environmental literature. It is the basis of twentieth century scientific theory about populations and ecosystems. It is the basis of our Federal and state laws and international agreements that control our use of wild lands and wild creatures." (1981)

Regarding some “popular environmental literature, Botkin is no doubt correct. We’ve all encountered “green” rhetoric about “defending the ‘balance of nature.’” As for “this view” being ‘the basis of our Federal and state laws and international agreements, I am less certain – though the assertion is worthy of some study.

But as for the “traditional ecological wisdom” being espoused in ecological textbooks and the basis of twentieth century scientific theory – at least late twentieth century – it appears that Botkin is clearly in error. At least this seems so, as I examine my own personal library.

Of the half dozen standard ecological texts before me (Raven-Berg-Johnson (1993), G. Tyler Miller (1996), Meffe and Carrol (1997), Odum (1997), among them) I find no defense of “the equilibrium paradigm,” while there is undisputed acceptance of disequilibrium theory. Nor is “equilibrium theory conspicuously defended in my large file of articles about ecology (from such publications as Nature and Science). Among the hundreds of articles in the five-volume, 9000 page Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (Academic Press, 2000) , none contain either “equilibrium” or “dis-equilibrium” in the title. Admittedly, the textbook sample is small, and so Botkin’s assertion deserves testing against a larger collection.

But these are contemporary sources. What about a generation ago, at about the time of the first Earth Day (1970)? The best sellers at the time were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle. A prominent text of the time was the Ehrlichs’ Population, Resources, Environment. No “equilibrium” or “disequilibrium” in the indexes. And Barry Commoner’s famous “four laws of ecology” in no way presuppose ecosystem equilibrium.

On closer inspection, the alleged proponents of “the old ecology” that I cited in my NSF funding proposal, Frederick Clements, Charles Elton, and Eugene Odum, are not completely “sold” on the equilibrium paradigm. Clements: “Even the most stable association is never in complete equilibrium, nor is it free from disturbed areas in which secondary succession is evident. Elton: “The ‘balance of nature’ does not exist and perhaps never has existed. The numbers of wild animals are constantly varying to a greater or less extant, and the variations are usually irregular in period and always  ...  irregular in amplitude.”1    And Odum: “An ecosystem is a thermodynamically open, far from equilibrium, system... In hierarchical organization of ecosystems, species interactions that tend to be unstable, nonequilibrium, or even chaotic are constrained by the slower interactions that characterize large systems... “ (Odum, 1992, 542)

And so it appears that among active ecologists, or even their predecessors, there really isn’t all that much “competition” between the concepts of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Furthermore, it is doubtful that any working ecologists believe in anything close to “perfect equilibrium” in natural ecosystems.

And so, I must confess now, that when I wrote my original proposal, I may have been seduced by the proud and apparently exaggerated announcement by Botkin and others, that they had “triumphed” over the “reigning” ecological paradigm of ecosystemic equilibrium and “natural balance,” and further, that there may have been enough of a live contest remaining, that some essential issues of environmental ethics and public policy might still be in the balance.

If I were thus misinformed, then I was not alone. Consider this July 31, 1990 report in the New York Times, by William K. Stevens (my emphases):

In a revision that has far-reaching implications for the way humans see the natural world and the role in, many scientists are for forsaking one of the most deeply embedded concepts of ecology: the balance of nature.

Ecologists have traditionally operated on the assumption that the normal condition of nature is a state of equilibrium, in which organisms compete and coexist in an ecological system whose workings are essentially stable....

This concept of natural equilibrium long ruled ecological research and governed the management of such natural resources as forests and fisheries. It led to the doctrine, popular among conservationist, the nature does best and human intervention in it is bad by definition.

Now the accumulation of evidence is gradually led many ecologists to abandon the concept or declare it irrelevant, and others to alter drastically. They say that nature is actually in a continuing state of disturbance and fluctuation. Change and turmoil, or the constancy and balance, is the rule. As a consequence, say many leaders in the field,
textbooks will have to be rewritten and strategies of conservation and resource management will have to be rethought....

This was a dispatch from a battlefield, after the battle was over and the armies had departed.

In addition, I was apparently obsessed with Mark Sagoff’s extreme but nevertheless carefully and extensively argued refutation of the scientific status ecology, and even of the coherence and validity of the ecosystem concept – what I will call “ecological nihilism.” (Sagoff: “The terms ‘eco’ and ‘system,’ when conjoined, constitute an oxymoron”(Muddle, 923)). This Sagoff-obsession was due, no doubt, to the circumstance that I prepared the proposal immediately after completing a thorough examination and meticulous criticism of Sagoff’s dismissal of “theoretical ecology.” (That paper. “Reconstructing Ecology,” was published the following year).2

I have since learned that Sagoff’s views are essentially sui generis, and have failed to factor significantly in ongoing discussions of either ecological science or environmental policy. His position is a thing apart from disequilibrium ecology, which most assuredly does not agree with Sagoff’s conclusion that “the ecosystem ... is just a pointless hodgepodge of constantly changing associations and organisms,” and that “there are no general truths about ecosystem organization.” (Sagoff, Muddle: 901, 931) And, of course, from my perspective, I feel that I answered Sagoff sufficiently in “Reconstructing Ecology.” But that is for others to judge.

This radical disconnection between “disequilibrium ecology” on the one hand, and ecological nihilism on the other, is essential. Once that disconnection is accepted, it becomes plausible for the disequilibrium ecologist to engage in the valid and productive study of life communities. Consider again, Daniel Botkin, who, as we have seen, is a conspicuous and influential proponent of the “new” disequilibrium paradigm. But does “disequilibrium” incline Botkin to abandon the concept of the ecosystem – a vulnerable “web” of interdependent parts – in favor of Sagoff’s “hodgepodge.” Not in the least. Rather, Botkin observes:

"We are accustomed to thinking of life as a characteristic of individual organisms. Individuals are alive, but an individual cannot sustain life. Life is sustained only be a group of organisms of many species -- not simply a horde of mob, but a certain kind of system composed of many individuals of different species -- and their environment, making together a network of living and nonliving parts that can maintain the flow of energy and the cycling of chemical elements that, in turn, support life." (1990, 7)

Meffe and Carroll concur: “our emphasis on non equilibrial processes does not imply that species interactions are ephemeral or unpredictable, and therefore unimportant. Communities are not chaotic assemblages of species; they do have structures.... change at some scale is a universal feature of ecological communities.” (1997, 7)

Despite the “triumph” of the dis-equilibrium paradigm, there remains a lively ghost of “the old paradigm,” that is worthy of some respectful attention.

For while the “steady-state” equilibrial ecosystem may be a dead issue, on the other hand, it is equally doubtful that any ecologists believe that ecosystems are totally chaotic – that, as Mark Sagoff claims, “the terms ‘eco’ and ‘system,’ when conjoined, constitute an oxymoron.” (Muddle, 923)  Species and populations (if not individual organisms) in fact interact dynamically to mutual advantage (which means “systematically”). Symbiosis, mutualism, competition, co-evolution, “keystone species,” etc. are established facts, fully acknowledged by disequilibrium ecologists.   Species that do not fit in to an ecosystem, either evolve to establish viable niches, migrate out, or become locally extinct.

In fact, “equilibrium,” or much better, its successor concepts “self-regulation” and “self-repair,” seem to be indispensable components in ecological theory. Disequilibrium ecology acknowledges that mechanisms of self-regulation and self-repair are constantly at work in “healthy” ecosystems. True, they never completely restore the system to a previous state. However, these mechanisms “drive” the system to new states. Without such mechanisms, the system would unravel and collapse.

The overkill of the “challenge” of disequilibrium ecology is well exemplified by Daniel Botkin’s research into the Boundary Waters region of northern Minnesota and western Ontario. It is a brilliant study that has significantly advanced the science of ecology. But as a refutation of “old ecology,” it is less successful, for what it “proves” – constant change -- is not seriously disputed by any ecologists, old or new.3

"Wherever we seek to find constancy," Botkin writes, "we discover change." Perfect equilibrium and balance are nowhere to be found in nature. "Nature is in constant flux." (1990, 8)

But of course nature is in constant flux. What self-respecting biologist would deny this – “old” or “new”? It's called "evolution." But this does not preclude us from recognizing significant differences in the pace and scale of change. After all, species change through evolution. But this does not forbid biologists from utilizing the concept of species, nor to develop a taxonomy of species. In fact, without that taxonomy, the theory of evolution might never have been developed.

Botkin then gives this account of the biotic history of the history of the "Boundary Waters" region:

... the last glaciation was followed by a tundra period in which the ground was covered by low shrubs now characteristic of the far North, as well as reindeer moss and other lichens and lower plants. The tundra was replaced by a forest of spruce, species that are now found in the boreal forests of the North, where they dominate many areas of Alaska and Ontario. About 9,200 years ago the spruce forest was replaced by a forest of jack pine and red pine, trees characteristic of warmer and drier areas. Paper birch and alder immigrated into this forest about 8,300 years ago; white pine arrived about 7,000 years ago, and then there was a return to spruce, jack pine, and white pine, suggesting a cooling of the climate. Thus every thousand years a substantial change occurred in the vegetation of the forest, reflecting in part changes in the climate and in part the arrival of species that had been driven south during the ice age and were slowly returning. Which of these forests represent the natural state. If one's goal were to return the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to its natural condition, which of these forests would one choose? Each appears equally natural in the sense that each dominated the landscape for approximately 1,000 years, and each occupied the area at a time when the influence of human beings was non-existent or slight." (Botkin, 1990, 57-59)

Botkin asks, rhetorically, "which of these forests represents the natural state," as if to suggest that, due to the multiplicity of states thus described, there is no so-called "natural state." But this very passage suggests a non-rhetorical rebuttal: "the natural state" is that which is brought about by the climatic (and other) conditions that prevail at the time. That "state" is established by (relatively) undisturbed abiotic nature, and then is succeeded when natural circumstances change.

Put bluntly, I suggest that a critical examination of this passage will yield us less here than meets the eye, and less than Botkin intended. For what is Botkin asserting that any informed “old ecologist” would deny? All ecologists are well aware that North America undergoes periodic recurrences of ice ages and other climatic changes, measured in tens of thousands of years. But "balance," "equilibrium" and "resilience" are “ideal type” concepts posited within stable abiotic (e.g., climatic) conditions -- or as the popular phrase has it, "all else being equal." However, as all ecologists agree, "all else" is never "equal," and so ecologists write of "tendencies" toward balance, equilibrium and resilience. Still, these ecosystemic concepts are quite enough guide us as we seek explanations of the past and predictions for the future.

No one suggests that "balance, equilibrium and resilience" are ever perfectly exemplified in nature. Nor is a "climax community" ever completely static.4  These concepts, after all, describe "tendencies." The difference in succession between “recovery” stages and a “climax” stage is pace of change, and growth (in recovery) vs. steady-state (in climax stage). Surely these concepts, albeit approximate, are scientifically useful, as they describe significant conditions and differences. True, there is no "perfect balance and equilibrium" in nature. Still there is a significant difference between the "imbalance and disequilibrium" of the slowly evolving Pacific Northwest forests of, say, four hundred years ago, and that of the same forest today as it is assaulted by Weyerhauser's chain saws. The former is measured on a time scale of millennia, while the latter is measured in years.5

To further complicate matters, the term “equilibrium” is vague and ambiguous. In some interpretations, ecology is well rid of it. In other senses, it remains a useful concept.

To put it another way, equilibrium “versus” disequilibrium might be regarded as a “glass half-full / half-empty” sort of “dispute” – in fact, no dispute at all, but rather two sides of the same coin. The “equilibrium perspective” focuses on self-maintenance and self repair -- mechanisms that draw the system toward (but never achieving) balance. The “disequilibrium perspective” deals with forces that constantly throw the system off-balance and in need of “repair.” A complete ecological theory blends both perspectives.

To illustrate this point, consider the act of walking. When a person walks, he “falls forward” off-balance, whereupon the extended foot recovers balance, only to have the balance “lost” again, and recovered again, etc. – all the while, forward motion is accomplished. “Tripping” occurs when the recovering foot is prevented from being in its “recovery place.”

A healthy ecosystem proceeds “at a walk” – off-balance > recovery > off-balance > recovery, etc. Disturbances (climate, species imports, fire, etc.) throw the system off-balance, then it recovers – into a new system. But not any new system. Importing species and mutations succeed or die, depending on the state (the “hospitality”) of the system – i.e., on the presence or absence of “open” niches or competitive advantages.

Walking also illustrates two logically stratified “orders” of equilibrium/disequilibrium – an essential qualification, as we will discover.

A person who is walking is in a repeated state of disequilibrium, rhythmically interrupted by recoveries. This is first-order disequilibrium. But the (second order) activity of walking is stable, and the (first-order) fall-recovery sequence is secure, progressive and confidently goal-oriented. Thus a walk exhibits second-order equilibrium.

Consider now the sequence in a chaparral ecosystem. The system requires fire to release the chaparral seeds from their pods. No fire, no regeneration, and the chaparral community will be succeeded by a different community. So if the chaparral community is to persist through time, it must “walk” through a sequence of inflammable maturity, fire, regeneration, maturity, etc. Clearly no equilibrium at the first level, but there is an equilibrium at the second level – a constant, repeated sequence. In this sense, it is like the “equilibrium” of the furnace thermometer: constant change (first order) according to a constant pattern (second order).

Perhaps such a realization has finally led the National Forest Service to retire Smokey Bear, and to treat fire as a natural recurring phenomenon. The consequences are often not very pretty, as anyone who has seen the aftermath of the Yellowstone fires will testify. Moreover, the reign of Smokey has led to an “unnatural” build-up of fuel, so that fires that might “naturally” “clear the ground,” now threaten the entire forest.6

Summing up: First-order equilibrium – a return of a disturbed ecosystem to the prior structure, and species population and inventory – is at worst a myth, and at best an “ideal type” (like a “frictionless machine” in physics), never exemplified in nature. Few ecologists have believed otherwise in the past, and none believe this today. Unfortunately, this understanding has not been universally acknowledged by environmental activists, popular writers, educators, and even policy-makers.

Second-order equilibrium – the return of an ecosystem to a state of “health” and “integrity,” though with an altered structure and component species – this remains a tenable ecological concept, with the constant caveat that even this (higher order) sense of “equilibrium” is also never completely exemplified in nature.

Implications for Environmental Ethics and Policy

On the merits, “disequilibrium ecology” leaves environmental ethics and public policy essentially as they were. However, what skillful propagandists might make of it, is quite another matter.

An apologist for the economic exploitation of the natural environment might draw the inference from “disequilibrium” (i.e., constant change) to the conclusion that there is no “natural” state of nature, no state that is “better” or “worse,” just “one damn thing after another.”

Extreme? Consider what Mark Sagoff has to say about “ecosystems” and “nature:”

— nature is going nowhere, has no “integrity” or “well-being” of its own, and is utterly devoid of any meaning, order, purpose, or end.

— If ecological systems and communities are just random, accidental, contingent, and purposeless collections of biological flotsam and jetsam, then there is no general instrumental reason to preserve them.

— Furthermore, no prima facie, general, or theoretical reason can be given, then, to suppose that the extinction of species now feared will in any meaningful way harm nature, because nature, having neither design or direction, is not the sort of thing that can suffer harm. (Sagoff, “Muddle” 923, 931n, 967).

Sagoff, to be fair, does not condone exploitation, and in fact is, in his own unique way, a dedicated conservationist. But his moral attention is directed toward species and individual organisms, not ecosystems.

" ... the unlikelihood -- not the perfection -- of the living world amazes us; the improbability of every plant and animal leads us to treasure its existence. Species -- even those not yet named -- command our moral attention because they have emerged through a billion year old toil of evolution." (Muddle, 966).

Well and good, but it is a very flimsy justification for environmental ethics or a policy of conservation.

So we ask once more: what might a promoter of exploitative industry do with an ecological nihilism, such as that defended by Mark Sagoff. No need to speculate, it’s already happened.

Faith Bremner of the Seattle Times (September 1, 2002) writes:

The man chosen to head the Bush administration’s wildfire prevention program doubts the existence of ecosystems and says it would not be a crisis if the nations’ threatened and endangered species became extinct.

Allan Fitzsimmons has named yesterday to be in charge of reducing fire danger on lands managed by the Interior Department. But Fitzsimmons’ background as a free-market policy analyst and his writings for libertarian and conservative think tanks have alarmed environmental groups across the West....

In “The Illusion of Ecosystem Management,” published in 1999 by the Political Economy Research Center, ... Fitzsimmons says ecosystems exist only in the human imagination and cannot be delineated. Federal policies, therefore, should not be used to try to manage or restore them, he wrote.

In the “Reconstructing Ecology,” I believed that I foresaw such a possibility:

The implications of "the new ecology" for public environmental policy are profound. Gone is a justification for wilderness preservation, much less of wilderness restoration. For if ecosystems are in constant but aimless flux, then attempts to "preserve" (i.e., protect from change) an allegedly "pristine" state, are "contrary to nature." And proposals to "restore" wilderness raise the question, "restore to what condition?" If there is no definable "baseline" condition that describes "wilderness," then that question has no answer and thus "restoration" policy has no foundation or meaning. Finally, endangered species legislation loses its justification for, according to Sagoff, extinction is of no great practical significance. After all, he writes, "... no extinction of any species in the United States seems thus far to have altered the capacity of the ecosystems to provide these services. The reason may be that for any species that is lost, tens, hundreds, or thousands of others are ready, willing, and able to perform the same functions and services valuable to human beings." And, human beings aside, "no prima facie, general, or theoretical reason can be given, then, to suppose that the extinction of species now feared will in any meaningful way harm nature, because nature, having neither design or direction, is not the sort of thing that can suffer harm." (81)

When I wrote this, I regarded Sagoff as an exemplar of disequilibrium (“new”) ecology. Further research has taught me that this assumption was erroneous. The implications noted above were not “implications of the new ecology;” they were implications of Sagoff’s ecological nihilism. In fact there is a total logical and empirical disconnection between “disequilibrium ecology” and “ecological nihilism.”

This is a point that cannot be over-stressed.

After all, Daniel Botkin, Eugene Odum, Gary Meffe, Ronald Carroll, Stuart Pimm, Stewart Picket, all these ecologists and more, are both dedicated conservationists and proponents of disequilibrium ecology. Are they all simply confused and inconsistent? Of course not! Meffe and Carroll, for example, are totally committed to disequilibrium ecology, and have succeeded in integrating this paradigm into their outstanding textbook, Principles of Conservation Biology. It is a long and comprehensive book (673 pages) in which one finds no hint of incoherence between the “nonequilibrium paradigm” (as they call it) and conservation biology.

These “new ecologists” all recognize the “systems” in ecosystems – the dynamic and mutually advantageous interactions among organisms. (Advantageous for species, that is, not for individual organisms. “The wolf is the enemy of the deer, and the friend of the deer species”).

However, these ecologists are conservationists, not preservationists. They believe in preserving conditions that facilitate ongoing processes and change; they do not condone the permanent preservation of natural and wild conditions “as they are now.” This has clear implications for the management of wild areas, such as National Parks. Meffe and Carroll write:

The conservation implications of the nonequilibrium paradigm include the following: (1) a particular unit of nature is not easily conservable in isolation from its surroundings, and therefore the matrix must be incorporated into conservation planning; (2) reserves will not maintain themselves in a stable and balance configuration over long periods of time; and (3) reserves will incur natural disturbances (as well as human disturbances) and are likely to change state as a result. The nonequilibrium paradigm tells us that reserves will not succeed simply by being locked up and protected from humans; disturbances and influences from the matrix, including human societies, will affect reserves, resulting in changing species compositions and changing rates and directions of natural processes. This dynamism needs to be accommodated when managing conservation reserves.

Application of the nonequilibrium paradigm makes conservation and reserves a more difficult because reserves must be able to incorporate often unpredictable magnitudes and directions of change and still maintain species diversity and ecological processes.... The nonequilibrium paradigm should be the underlying model and motivation for all decisions affecting selection and management of conservation reserves. (309)

And so, when I noted above that “proposals to ‘restore’ wilderness raise the question, ‘restore to what condition?,’ I posed a problem for nihilism, not for disequilibrium ecology. The answer of the latter is straightforward: “the point is not to search for a frozen ‘condition’ of wilderness, but rather to restore and/or protect, as much as possible, the natural dynamic forces and contexts that bring about the “flux” we call wilderness. Put simply, to the “old ecology,” or more accurately the naive popular conception of ecology, “wilderness” is a noun – it denotes a state of being. To today’s informed ecologists, “wilderness” is a verb – it denotes a bundle of processes.

As with environmental policy, so too with environmental ethics: the implications of ecological nihilism (to most, not all, varieties of environmental ethics) are profound; while the implications of disequilibrium ecology, are minimal. For disequilibrium ecology, which embraces fully the established acknowledgment of the complex interdependence of the component organisms of and ecosystem, along with the fundamental concepts of energy flow, nutrient recycling, and so forth, leaves the premises of most theories of environmental ethics essentially untouched.

Also untouched is the unresolved environmental ethical problem of “grading” – of establishing criteria of “ecosystemic health” and “integrity” as a practically urgent enterprise. And yet this issue is implicit in all environmental activism and policy-making.

In sum: the “threat” to established perspectives in environmental ethics, and progressive principles of environmental policy, comes from “ecological nihilism,” not “disequilibrium ecology.” The disconnection between the two must be emphasized, if exploitative mischief is to be held at bay.

And disequilibrium ecology leaves that science essentially as it was. “Disequilibrium ecologists” promise advancement, but do not pose a threat of a revolutionary paradigm shift.


1.    Cited by Woods. P. 22-3.

2.    Partridge, 2000. The paper suffered from abridgement due to severe space constraints imposed by the publisher. A much longer and superior version may be found at my website, The Online Gadfly.
 www.igc.org/gadfly/papers/reconeco.htm .

3.    Due to time constraints, I am “importing” the following six paragraphs, with some alterations, from my published paper, “Reconstructing Ecology” (pp. 82-3).

4.    “In 1969, Eugene P. Odum set out an energetic model for succession by concentrating on the general features of the process. Energy balance in the ecosystem progressively changes, with ecosystem respiration lagging behind production. When the two eventually coincide, equilibrium -- climax -- is attained. Biomass is generally greatest at this equilibrium stage, nutrient imports to the ecosystem are equaled by exports, and species richness and general complexity are at their peaks. The model has been attractive and useful features, although the final stage of equilibrium of the still be regarded as a dubious ideal." (Moore, 565)

5.    Mark Woods (1998) expresses this view (of which he is critical) with admirable clarity: "We cannot identify what can harm wilderness because there is no such thing as a static, baseline wilderness against which harm can be measured, and we cannot identify what can disturb wilderness because everything can. Further, it may be impossible to characterize what wilderness is (as it now exists) because wilderness is in perpetual change."

6.    This point “hits close to home” – literally. As I write this at my home, about 200 feet to the east of me, at my property line, is the edge of “the Old Fire,” which burned 91 thousand acres of the San Bernardino mountains, including the poorly managed San Bernardino National Forest. Only the determined voluntary effort of the fire-fighters saved my home and that of my neighbors. It was a very close call. See “If it burns, it earns.”
 www.crisispapers.org/Editorials/old-fire.htm .


Botkin, Daniel B., Discordant Harmonies, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Botkin, Daniel B., “The Biology of Wilderness,” Discussion Paper: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January, 1981.

Bremner, Faith: “‘There are No Ecosystems:’ New Wildfire Plan Watchdog has Unorthodox View,” Seattle Times, September 1, 2002.

Meffe, Gary K. and C. Ronald Carroll: Principles of Conservation Biology, Second Edition, Sinauer, 1997.

Miller, G. Tyler: Living in the Environment, Ninth Edition, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996.

Moore, Peter D.: “A Never-Ending Story,” Nature, 409, February, 2001, p. 565.

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .