Project" is The Gadfly's informal name for his research
project, supported by a grant from the National Science
Foundation (SES-9819617) and in conjunction with the Philosophy Department
and the Conservation Biology Program of the University of
California, Riverside. The formal title of the project is
Implications of Disequilibrium Ecology for Environmental
Ethics and Policy.
While the formal term of the grant has
expired, work continues on the project. A book on the research topic is
now in progress.
This page of The Online
Gadfly will report progress with this research, beginning
description of the
adapted from the proposal
submitted to the NSF, and the "full text" of a published paper,
Ecology." (At the
insistence of the editors and publisher, the published version
will be about two thirds as long as this "full text." We prefer, and
recommend, the version available here).
A brief summary of the project, the
issues which prompted it, and the implications thereof, follows
Can Nature be Harmed?
A Brief Summary of the Problem and the Project
Disequilibrium Ecology - The Issue:
According to the "received conventional wisdom," the science
of ecology describes an "order of nature" which is characterized by
integrity, stability, equilibrium, and self-regulating
mechanisms . These assumptions have motivated an army of
citizens to enlist in a campaign to "save the natural environment."
The same assumptions have produced a library of national and
international environmental policies, laws and regulations. And yet,
each of these assumptions about the nature of "life communities" have
recently been seriously challenged by ecologists and analytic
philosophers. For example, proponents of this "new paradigm" in
ecology have stated (a) that "the idea that species live in
integrated communities is a myth... living nature is not
equilibrial..." (Michael Soulé), and (b) that "the classical
paradigm in ecology, with its emphasis on the stable state, its
suggestion of natural systems as closed and self-regulating, and its
resonance with the nonscientific idea of the balance of nature, can
no longer serve as an adequate foundation for conservation" (Pickett,
Parker and Fiedler.).
Some philosopher's criticisms of "old paradigm ecology" are, if
anything, more severe. Shrader-Frechette argues that because ecology
can not predict events nor explain phenomena deductively (from
"covering laws"), it fails as a scientific theory. And Sagoff adds
that theoretical ecology lacks a classification system, boundaries,
and "baselines" (norms from which to assess deviations), and thus
cannot be assessed in terms of "integration," "health," or
"normality." Indeed, he writes, "the terms 'eco' and 'system', when
conjoined, constitute an oxymoron."
Clearly, the challenge of "the new (disequilibrium) ecology"
reaches to the very foundations of ecological science and
environmental policy. This research project addresses both the
scientific and the policy issues which arise from this challenge to
the conventional ecological paradigm.
Implications for Ecological Science:
our research to date, we have found in the published work of the
ecologists, some warrant for the criticisms of the philosophers.
Considerable vagueness and ambiguity is encountered in the use
among ecologists of such terms as "community," "stability,"
and "integrity," and this conceptual inconstancy is compounded as
these terms are directed away from the scientists laboratory and the
scholar's seminars and toward the arena of public policy debate.
Furthermore, it appears that ecological science does, in fact, lack
clear baselines, boundaries, explicated concepts and theoretical
rigor. What is uncertain is how much these problems are due to the
nature of the subject-matter ("life communities"), and how much they
are due to shortcomings in the methods, concepts and theories of
ecological investigation. Biology before Linnaeus, and Chemistry
before Mendeleev, seemed similarly chaotic before Linnaeus and
Mendeleev discovered their classification schemes. Is there a similar
scheme awaiting discovery by ecologists, or are "life communities"
chaotic "in nature" - thus devoid of any order or structure "out
there" available to discovery, classification, and theoretical
articulation? The emerging dispute between the "old-paradigm" and
"new-paradigm" ("disequilibrium) ecologists suggests that there is an
urgent need for a "meta-scientific" assessment of the methods,
concepts and theoretical structures of ecology, if that science is to
advance beyond this dispute. Such "meta-scientific assessment" is the
task of the analytic philosopher - and a primary objective of this
NSF research grant.
Public Policy Implications:
"Disequilibrium ecology" places the foundations of "the received
ecological wisdom" in question; namely, the assumptions that "natural
ecosystems" exhibit stability, equilibrium, and
self-regulating mechanisms, and that, by implication,
ecosystems can be evaluated in terms of "health" and "natural
integrity." Thus numerous citizen concerns and public policies, based
upon these very assumptions, may now be open to question and
re-evaluation. Among them.
Wilderness preservation and renewal: "The new
paradigm" states that because ecosystems are in constant change,
there are no "normal" or "natural" conditions, and no "climax
stage" of ecological succession. If so, then what is to be
"preserved" in wilderness areas? What can be identified as the
"target condition" of ecological "restoration?"
Extinction and loss of biodiversity. If ecosystems
simply change, with no identifiable means of identifying them
"better or worse," or more or less "healthy," and if extinction
and speciation are "natural processes," why should we be concerned
about the loss of species?
Limits of growth. With no serious consequences
following from the alleged "disruption of finely tuned and
adjusted ecosystems" (since, according to the "new paradigm" such
"systems" are allegedly neither integrated nor systemic), the only
practical limitation on economic and population growth is human
ingenuity and information. (Cf. Julian Simon, and our critique
thereof "Holes in the
The sustainability of industrial agriculture. "Old
paradigm" ecologists argue that traditional methods of
agriculture, while inefficient by modern standards, are
sustainable indefinitely, for they preserve the soil
"microecology" which sustains fertility. Unconstrained by the "old
ecological dogma" in the "inscrutable workings" of complex,
integrated and balanced soil ecosystems, industrial agronomists
with their genetically engineered organisms and inorganic chemical
fertilizers, will claim to have a better way to feed the growing
The burden of proof in pollution control. If there is
no "inscrutably complex life-support system" believed to be
imperiled by our industrial technology, the "precautionary
principle" might be set aside. No longer must the manufacturer
prove that his emissions are safe. It becomes the burden of the
government and/or the potential victims to prove significant
Space constraints have led to distortions in this summary. In
fact, the "old" and "new" paradigms sketched here suggest a dichotomy
of opinions, whereas they are in fact extreme ends of a spectrum of
opinions among ecologists. (My preliminary inclination is to accept a
moderate position, midway along this "spectrum"). Moreover, many (I
suspect most) of the so-called "disequilibrium" ecologists
would adopt the "liberal/environmentalist" approach to many of the
policy issues listed above. Nonetheless, that approach is clearly
undermined by a "new paradigm" in ecology that denies that
integrity, stability, equilibrium, and
self-regulation are significant, or even meaningful,
features of ecosystems.
If "disequilibrium ecology" is correct, then a new foundation may
have to be built and new strategies developed to defend traditional
environmental and conservation policies. At this stage of the
research, this investigator is suspicious of simplified views at
opposite ends of the "spectrum." On the one hand, "the old-paradigm"
is due for considerable refinement, qualification, and elaboration.
On the other hand, we are disinclined to believe that the life
community out of which we evolved is totally chaotic, and that there
are no rules at work in this community with which we must come to
terms, if our species is to continue to thrive on this planet. We
suspect that a synthesis will emerge from this debate that will both
advance ecological science and establish more secure foundations for