IMPLICATIONS OF DISEQUILIBRIUM ECOLOGY
FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS AND POLICY
University of California, Riverside
The essential task of this research project will be three fold: (1)
Putting this in the simplest of terms, we will ask of "the new ecology:" (a) What does it mean? (b) Should we believe it? And (c) What does it matter, and what should be done?
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise." This maxim by Aldo Leopold is arguably the most frequently quoted sentence to appear in the literature of environmental ethics and policy since its publication a half-century ago. Indeed, the central concepts of that maxim -- the integrity and stability of nature, along with the related concepts of ecosystemic balance and equilibrium -- stand as the unquestioned foundations of most of that literature.
These are old and venerable ideas, expressed eloquently by George Perkins Marsh, over a century ago: "Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions; and, in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage, and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her dominion." (Marsh, 29)
Other prominent "old paradigm" ecologists are Arthur Tansley (who coined the term "ecosystem" in 1935, though the concept precedes him by several decades), Frederick Clements (who developed the concepts of "ecological succession" and "climax community"), Raymond Pearl, Alfred Lotka (who developed a mathematical model of equilibrium), Charles Elton, and Eugene and Howard Odum (about which, much more later). From Eugene Odum, we have one of the most widely quoted and influential "old paradigm" definitions of ecosystem: "...any ... natural unit that includes living and nonliving parts interacting to produce a stable system in which the exchange of materials between the living and nonliving parts follows circular paths is an ecological system or ecosystem. The ecosystem is the largest functional unit in ecology, since it includes both organisms (biotic communities) and abiotic environment, each influencing the properties of the other and both necessary for maintenance of life as we have it on the earth." (1953, p. 9).
In stark contrast, an emerging and influential school of contemporary ecologists claim that these concepts are inapplicable to natural ecosystems, and thus the resulting ethical theories and policies are false and misguided. Accordingly, this claim of "the new ecologists" (as we shall call them ) puts in peril the foundations of much of a half-century of philosophical, moral, political, journalistic, and legal contention regarding humanity's responsibility to nature. ("New ecology" is a term that I will employ in this narrative for a point of view also described as "the new paradigm" and "disequilibrium ecology" by Pickett, 1992, and "disturbance ecology" by Woods, 1998).
The challenge of "the new ecology" is articulated with admirable clarity by the conservation biologist, Michael Soulé: "... the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth... Living nature is not equilibrial... [N]ature at the level of local biotic assemblages has never been homeostatic." (1995, p. 143)
Donald Worster concurs: "Over the past two decades the field of ecology has pretty well demolished Eugene Odum's portrayal of a world of ecosystems tending toward equilibrium, leaving us with no model of development for human society to emulate." (1992, p. 72).
Also Pickett, Parker and Fiedler (1992): "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. The new paradigm, with its recognition of episodic events, openness of ecological systems and multiplicity of locus and kind of regulation, is in fact a more realistic basis for conservation planning and management." (p. 84).
Daniel Botkin, a leader of "the new ecology," strikes at the very heart of "traditional ecological wisdom," which he thus describes (and rejects): "... 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 is a crucially important belief, writes Botkin, for "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."
Nonetheless, Botkin insists, this view is "wrong!" He writes: "Essentially all biological records for long-term histories of wild populations and wilderness ecosystems are in contradiction of this view. Populations of wild creatures and entire wilderness ecosystems are characterized by change rather than constancy." (1981, p. 1).
While there are many additional disequilibrium ecologists, space constraints require us to limit our example to these four. (Among the others, cf. in the References, M. Davis, Hobbs and Huenneke, Simberloff, Stevens, Tarlock ).
A Cautionary Note: The space requirements of this proposal
also force an oversimplification of concepts and positions and a
suggestion of polarization of positions in a scientific field
(ecology) that is better described as a spectrum than a dichotomy of
views. While this simplification can not be avoided, I wish to assure
the reader that I am quite aware of elaborations and subtleties that
I can not detail here. However, it is worth nothing (as the above
quotations indicate) that many proponents on the "disequilibrium" end
of the "spectrum" (e.g., Botkin, Pickett, Soulé, and Worster)
do not hesitate to draw attention to strong points of contention
between their positions, and those of traditional (i.e., "old")
ecologists. Accordingly, we will give special attention to those who
see themselves as "revolutionaries" overturning an established
"paradigm" (cf. Kuhn, 1970) - i.e., those who contend that "the old
paradigm" is a "myth" (Soulé), "[an inadequate]
foundation for conservation" (Pickett, et al.), "in contradiction" of
biological data (Botkin) and therefore "pretty well demolished"
Some philosophers have recently joined the biologists' criticism
by launching against "the old ecology," some devastating ammunition
from the armory of analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science.
That attack, by undermining the basic tenets of "the old ecology"
(i.e., ecosystemic integrity, stability, and balance) provides
explicit support to the new. Prominent among these critics is Mark
Sagoff who contends that the old (he calls it "theoretical") ecology
is not, strictly speaking, a "science" at all. Conspicuous among his
criticisms are the following:
Joining Sagoff's challenge to the scientific legitimacy of ecology are K. S. Shrader-Frechette (a philosopher) and E. D. McCoy (a biologist), who argue that ecology fails as grand and comprehensive theory, since it can not predict events, nor can it explain deductively -- i.e., "down" from general theory to particular events. They observe that "... ecologists have defined and used two of the concepts most basic to community ecology -- "community" and stability" -- in ambiguous and often inconsistent ways... Ecologists are likewise divided on what structures communities or holds them together." Accordingly, they argue, we are thus best advised to confine our ecological attention to empirical "natural -history knowledge" and "individual case studies." 
R. V. O'Neill and his associates (1986, p. 3) suggest a third view which we find attractive; namely, that the apparent "opposition" between old and new ecologies may turn out to be little more than alternate examinations of opposite sides of one coin. Or, to change the image, a "half-empty" vs. "half-full" assessment of the same "glass." Elements of each position can be found in the opposition. For example, the "old" ecologists have always noticed change and patches, and generally treat "climax stage" and "equilibrium" as "ideal types," nowhere perfectly exemplified in nature. For their part, the "new" ecologists acknowledge limits to ecosystemic response and the interdependence of life forms in a bio-region. As O'Neill et al observe, "Our conclusions are biased by the way we observe ecosystems. For example, if we focus on interactions among individual organisms, ecosystems seem relatively constant backgrounds, contexts within which the interesting phenomena occur. If we focus on succession, ecosystems appear to change continuously through time. In fact, both impressions are correct, depending on the purpose and the time-space scale of our observations."
The implications for public environmental policy of "the new ecology" and its criticisms of the old ecology are profound. If "disequilibrium ecology" is correct, then it is difficult to find a justification for wilderness preservation, and still more difficult for 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 raises the question, "restore to what condition?" If no definable "baseline" condition 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 extinction is of no great practical significance. After all, it is suggested, nature has proven itself to be wondrously redundant, and if one species is lost, there is an abundance of others to take its place. There is no "balance" to be upset, or "system" to be disrupted by an alteration of the content of an ecosystem.
"The new ecologists" support their position with a wealth of empirical data, years of assessment and interpretation of that data, and with the advantages of critical hindsight upon the classical "equilibrium" theories which preceded them. "The old ecology," apparently vague and oversimplified, should not and will not stand unaffected by these criticisms. But those who proclaim a Kuhnian "paradigm shift" (the extreme end of spectrum of opinion, let us recall) are also due for a scrupulous critical examination. The aforementioned policy implications (which we will detail in the final section) are both practical and momentous, dealing with issues of population control, wilderness management, biodiversity and extinction, agricultural practices, and bio-resource research, development and investment. Rarely does one encounter a scientific controversy with clearer and more compelling stakes.
The essential task of this research project will be threefold:
Putting this in the simplest of terms, we will ask of "the
a. What does it mean?
b. Should we believe it?
c. What does it matter?
It should be noted that these tasks are iterative - that is, advancement on the "higher levels" will "feed back" to enrich content of the lower levels. (This is especially true of levels (a) and (b)). And yet, this is also a "storied structure." Fact claims (b) rest upon a vocabulary and analysis of concepts (a), evaluation (c) upon a basis of facts, and finally sound policy is based upon established fact and evaluation.
A fundamental assumption of this study is that a sizable portion of environmental philosophers and policy-makers must come to terms with the new ecologists. By so doing, they must either, on the one hand, accept the conclusions of "disequilibrium ecology," which will entail abandonment or radical revision of these philosophical theories and policy practices or, on the other hand, they must answer and refute the challenges of the new ecology with superior arguments.
In my research, I have found few policy-makers or philosophers who fully appreciate the significance of "the new ecology" to environmental ethics and policy. Among the noteworthy exceptions are Brian Norton, Mark Sagoff, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Holmes Rolston, and Baird Callicott - the last of whom has published one of the few papers that I have encountered that deals directly with the topic of this proposal. (Callicott, 1996).
We agree with these ecologically informed eco-philosophers that
the encounter between the new ecologists and "mainstream"
environmental ethicists and policy-makers may constitute the most
significant issue to arise in environmental ethics since the
publication of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, a half century
Analytic philosophy is correctly characterized as a "second-order
activity." With regard to ecology and bio-science, this means that
the philosopher studies, not ecosystems, but the study of ecosystems
- i.e., the vocabulary, concepts, presuppositions, methodology and
theoretical structure of eco- and bio-science. The philosopher's data
are not life forms and their functions, but rather what scientists
say and write about these forms and functions. Accordingly:
And while a philosopher of science might occasionally visit a laboratory or a "field," it will not be to study the specimens therein that engage the attention of the scientists. Instead, the philosopher's object of inquiry will be the activity and behavior of the scientists: their methods, their concepts and language, and the unacknowledged and unexamined presuppositions of their inquiry. Philosophers have long-since ceased to be rivals of scientists and now serve as their complements.
Among the more useful activities of critical philosophy is what I
call "excavative analysis" -- the "uncovering" and explication of
presuppositions of scientific hypotheses and theories which, when
brought to light, may be found to be unfounded, or mutually
contradictory, or bearers of implausible implications. A noteworthy
example in physics is the "common sense" assumption that velocity is
additive without limit, and thus that the speed of light can be
exceeded. Einstein's questioning of this assumption led to a
revolution in physics.
A Plan of Investigation. As the NSF guidelines correctly point out, the promise that "we will review the literature and then proceed" is a lame and vacuous statement of method. It is also, unfortunately, quite accurate - as far as it goes (i.e., not very far). A scrupulous identification of that "literature" is in order, along with the questions that will guide that "review."
The "literature" in question will be in the fields of ecology
("old" and "new" paradigms), environmental ethics, philosophy of
science, and policy studies.
This list outlines a program of study, not an anticipation of
results. While our preliminary work inclines us toward some tentative
positions, we are far more cognizant of the vast territory of data,
opinion, conjecture and theory that we have yet to explore before we
can state our as-yet unformulated conclusions with confidence and
Without language, human thought and culture, and therefore philosophy and science, would be impossible. Yet this most fundamental institution so pervades our lives that it becomes transparent and even invisible to our ordinary thought processes. This tendency to "see past" conceptual issues has far more than pedagogical significance: in fact, it confounds most legal and public policy debates. Perhaps there is no better example than the issue of "When does life begin?" which so dominates public debate today. (Cf. our editorial, "The Right to Life and the Right to Love").
In the spring of 1981, the late Sen. John East of North Carolina
convened senate hearings on that very question -- "When does human
life begin?" Biologists, physicians, geneticists, legal scholars and
theologians were all brought in to testify; many months of time and
millions of dollars were expended, and a library of testimony
transcript accumulated. At the end, no resolution of the issue was in
sight, and there was little apparent awareness that the issue was not
factual, but conceptual (unintended pun). A journeyman philosopher
might have cut through the verbiage with a few simple questions:
"what facts are in dispute here?" "Just what imaginable sort of
information would answer your question, "when does life begin"? And
if you are not prepared to recognize an answer to the question, then
why ask it? Put simply, just what is it that you are asking anyway?"
(This example is instructive, and we will have occasion to return to
Concept analysis and ecology: As our opening section ("The Issue") indicates, the dispute between the "old" and "new" ecologies seems to revolve around a short list of concepts: integrity, stability, balance, equilibrium and system. How much of the dispute is over "the facts" of ecosystems -- their components, structure, function and development -- and how much over the analysis of these fundamental concepts, and of their function in theory formation?
The ontological status of concepts is surely one of the deepest and most intractable issues in analytic philosophy. Fortunately, it can also be bypassed (as it must in this proposal). Let this much suffice: concepts appear to be objects of cognition - (roughly, "meanings"). Yet they are not simply objects of mind, since concepts are both discovered and invented. (Question: did the concept of "square root" exist before minds evolved?). Neither are concepts linguistic entities: one word or phrase can designate many concepts (it's called "ambiguity"), and many words can designate a single concept (e.g., "sister" and "female sibling," or "freedom," "liberté," "freiheit," "svoboda"). And most amazing of all, we are quite able to use words and communicate with full understanding, and yet be quite unable to analyze the concepts to which they refer. For example, the words "justice," "beauty," "courage," "piety," are all employed without difficulty in normal conversation, yet Plato's Dialogs - and all succeeding philosophy - testify to the difficulty in defining these words.
That task of definition - more precisely, of identification of the concepts referred to - is the work of the analytic philosopher. (Not to be confused with the work of the lexicographer - a "sociologist of language" who reports how words are actually used). While concept analysis is a multifaceted occupation, space constraints permit mention of only two primary and interrelated aspects thereof: the search for criteria, and the determination of boundaries of application.
"Criteria" (also called "defining characteristics") are sine qua non qualities which must be present for the term to be applicable to its referent: e.g., unmarried in the case of "bachelor," three-sided in the case of "triangle". Individual criteria are normally understood to be necessary conditions of application, though the goal of concept analysis is to collect several criteria which, together, are sufficient for application. (2) While the explication of criteria seems to be a straightforward task, it has proven to be devilishly difficult throughout the history of philosophy (cf. The Dialogs of Plato).. Two contemporary examples are illustrative: "What do I mean when I say that 'I know something (X)'?" One of the most prominent (but still controversial) philosophical analyses of knowledge concludes that knowledge is "justified true belief: i.e., that the analysis of "I know X" is as follows - (a) "I believe X," (b) "I have justification for this belief," and (c) "X is true." (Ayer, 1954). The "thought experiment" that validates this analysis combines a vain attempt to imagine an item of knowledge that lacks one of the three criteria, along with a failed attempt to identify a content of mind that meets all criteria ("justified true belief") and yet is not knowledge. (Try it!)
The second example is a criteria list for the concept of moral responsibility, that I have developed over the years: "P is morally responsible for X, if and only if:" (a) P has knowledge of the consequences of X, (b) P has the capacity to bring about X, (c) P has the choice not to bring about X, and (d) X has value significance. (For a recent application of this concept analysis, cf. Partridge, 1995).
In the "Senator East example," there was no agreed upon concept analysis (criteria list) of "human life," and thus it was not possible to arrive at a mutually agreeable answer to (or even to make sense of) the question, "when does human life begin?" Thus the issue involved neither facts, science, ethics, or theology - just "words." By failing to address the conceptual analysis, the Senate Committee was unable to complete its investigation - because, of course, it was unable even to begin its investigation. And yet the hearings went on, as if no one were aware of this elementary obstacle.
Criteria and Ecology: In ecological science, the contest between the "old" and "new" paradigms is joined as to whether bio-regions (3) contain "ecosystems," and if so, whether these systems "tend" toward "climax" stages that are stable, in equilibrium, and capable, when disturbed, of recovering and returning to these "optimum conditions" of ecosystemic "integrity" and "health."
It won't do simply to "go out there and look." Not if the investigators do not know, beforehand, what they are looking for. Not unless these key concepts - ecosystem, equilibrium, stability, integrity, bio-community - are analyzed and defined with sufficient clarity can their presence or absence be determined through empirical examination. Such analyses of these key concepts of ecology were not conspicuous in my reading of the classical and the recent ecological literature. (4)
The boundaries of application of a concept are closely associated with its criteria, and with the falsification rule. If a scientific term, or an expression in ordinary language for that matter, is to have a clear meaning, one must not only know what it refers to, but also (at least implicitly) what it does not refer to. Thus, for example, the meaning of "democracy" is enriched by our appreciation of its absence - tyranny. In science, the boundaries of terms are clearly enunciated by their opposites and alternates: organic/inorganic, igneous/sedimentary/metamorphic, positive/negative, and so on. This clarity of meaning follows directly from an explication of criteria: the absence of a criterion indicates a boundary of meaning and application. For example, if our analysis of the concept of knowledge is valid, an idea that lacks justification, or truth or belief, is an idea that can not be said to be "known." Analogously, an organism that receives its nourishment from living organic matter is clearly distinguished from an autotroph or a saprophage. Clear criteria of meaning tells us both what a term does and does not refer to.
The use of terms without boundaries of application constitutes what Passmore (1969, Ch. 6) calls "the fallacy of excluded opposites." Three examples, much appreciated by teachers of Introductory Philosophy, are "psychological egoism," "hard determinism" and "subjective idealism." The first claims that "all voluntary human action is selfish, including the acts of all saints and heroes," the second that "no human actions are free," and the third that "all that exists are minds and their ideas -matter is an idea without meaning." The standard criticism of all three is that by setting no boundaries to the application of the terms "selfish acts," "unfree acts," and "ideas of minds," the proponents of these doctrines exclude a priori (i.e., by stipulated definition) the logical possibility of refutation. In other words, all three doctrines are non-falsifiable in principle. This can be readily seen as we ask: "assuming you are correct, what would it be like for your assertions to be false? What would it be like to encounter (respectively) an unselfish act, a free act, or a material object?" The standard criticism continues that there is no answer to these questions, because falsification has been ruled out by definition, not because the facts of human nature, nor of the nature of ultimate reality. Thus "psychological egoism," "hard determinism" and "subjective idealism" are devoid of meaning. (The intuitive plausibility of these doctrines is accomplished through equivocation - i.e., by using the familiar words, "selfish," "free," "matter" in unfamiliar ways).
Boundaries of application, falsification and ecology: Is "the old ecology" similarly meaningless? If all "mature natural ecosystems" (i.e., in "climax") "tend toward" a state of "equilibrium," what would it be like to encounter a mature and undisturbed natural community that does not "tend toward equilibrium"? But is it not possible that close analysis will disclose that the concept of "ecological equilibrium" is a restatement of the conditions of "mature and undisturbed." If so, then the claim that "all mature natural ecosystems tend toward equilibrium" will turn out to be an empty tautology - and thus, of course, unfalsifiable. (Because "tend toward" is a troublesome "weasel term" that serves to explain away apparent falsifications, talk of "tendencies" arouses the suspicions of analytic philosophers).
Furthermore, when the Odum brothers claim that "mature" ecosystems "tend" to return to a prior equilibrial state (though never exactly so), we are entitled to inquire about the nature of the "self-regulating mechanisms" that allegedly effect this "return." (5) If these mechanisms exist, what will we find in nature that is identifiably different from what we might find if there are no such mechanisms? And if "ecosystem equilibrium" is an "ideal type," never fully realized in nature, how much so-called "tendency" must be found to validate the theory? Physicists have no trouble thus incorporating (physically nonexistent) "ideal types" such as "absolute zero" or "perfect vacuum" into their theories. Can ecologists do as well. It clearly appears that they can not. Why not?
Conversely, when Soulé proclaims the equilibrium model a "myth," and Pickett announces that this model has been "demolished," we are entitled to ask them what we would expect to find in nature if, contrary to their claims (thus allegedly contrary to fact), they were wrong, and the Odum brothers were right. In short, are they prepared to describe "Odum-nature" and then alternatively "Soulé/Picket-nature" in terms that are discriminably different, such that empirical field studies and laboratory experiments can determine which model more accurately describes nature "as it really is?"
These are not simple empirical questions. In fact, they logically precede empirical investigation, for, as the Sen. East example illustrates, one can not go into the field of empirical research without a prior understanding of what one is looking for, and of what will and will not validate their hypotheses. Do the "old" and "new" ecologists, the contestants in this debate, have such an understanding? The answer is to be found through a careful, "second order" (philosophical/conceptual), analysis of the vocabulary, the methodology, and the data base presented in the published work of the contestants. And that describes the enterprise here proposed.
"Ecosystem:" A sample conceptual analysis: At the core of the dispute between the old and new paradigms, it seems, is the concept of "ecosystem," and by implication, the concept of "system." As both a sample of conceptual analysis, and in anticipation of further investigation, I would suggest the following criteria: (a) ecosystems are emergent wholes - which means they possess qualities that are qualities of none of their component parts. (This is the central theme of Frank Golley's History (1993)). (b) Ecosystems contain both biotic and abiotic components, and are characterized by nutrient recycling and energy flows (E. Odum, 1953 - cf. quotation on p. 1, above). (c) (At the center of the controversy), ecosystems when mature, contain negative feedback mechanisms which lend self regulation and resilience to the system. And finally (for the moment), (d) ecosystems are systems, which means, at the very least, that the components accomplish in concert what they cannot accomplish separately. (In this sense, a football team is a system, and also that most primitive of binary systems, the thermostat/furnace. Cf. my "Reconstructing Ecology.").
This analysis escapes the trap of nonfalsifiability, since it is possible to imagine a collection of biota that is not an ecosystem: namely a line of cages in a zoo, or a collection of potted plants. The question of what types of systems (if any) exist in nature remains open to empirical investigation. At the extremes (both highly unlikely) is what we might call the "arbitrary system" suggested by Sagoff, and at the other, the "super-organic" system suggested by Clement and the early James Lovelock ("Gaia"). In the "arbitrary system," species are interchangeable, there are no "keystone species," and synergisms and symbioses are inconsequential. Within these extremes are the contending "old" and "new" paradigms, and, just possibly, the modes of accommodation between them. But again, that is in issue open to empirical investigation.
Even so, a few general principles of scientific investigation that will guide our investigation are worth mentioning here.
First of all, the critics' complaint that theoretical ecology lacks an effective classification system, seems to me to be well founded. Ecology may be at a stage of development similar to that of biology before Linnaeus, or chemistry before Mendeleev -- an anecdotal, "case-study" approach that Shrader-Frechette and McCoy characterize as "natural history." (1993, ch. 5). Still, ecology is not without some crucially important classification schemes: the functional distinction between producers, consumers, and decomposers comes to mind. Are there others? How do they function in ecological theory construction and investigation? How might these functions be improved?
A well-considered classification scheme is essential to productive laboratory and field work, for without it the investigator may be at a loss as to what to look for. As both scientists and philosophers have long realized, the ideal of "the completely objective and unbiased observer" is a myth -- not only impossible, but undesirable even if possible. All effective scientific observation presupposes theory, if only a implicit theory of what is and is not relevant to the investigation. There are no "immaculate perceptions." "Seeing is seeing as."
The philosopher's task, then, is to identify and explicate the classification schemes employed by the ecologists, and then to "analytically excavate" the concepts and theoretical structures that they presuppose.
Evolution and ecosystems -- a suggestion: The "new ecologists" and critics of the old deny, in ecosystems, qualities that they readily acknowledge in organisms: namely, integrated structures and functions, self-repair mechanisms, goal-oriented activity, etc. To achieve this conclusion, they are obliged to detach ecosystems from the mechanism that gave all these qualities to organisms: organic evolution. It thus follows that a rebuttal by the old ecology would be well advised to include evidence and an argument strategy that would establish an integral linkage between organic evolution and ecosystemic evolution. (I have suggested as much in my "Reconstructing Ecology" (1999)) and furthermore that evolution suggests modes of accommodation between the "two ecologies." And yet the evolution-ecosystem connection is conspicuously absent in the discussions that I have read. I hope to have the opportunity to follow this lead and examine this argument much further.)
Finally, Stuart Pimm (1991) directs our attention to "the scaling-up problem:" the fact that research ecologists deal, as they must, with changes over brief periods of time (usually within five-years), and with communities confined to small areas - e.g., a pond a meter deep and 14,000 square meters in area (Lindeman, 1941), a spring in Florida (H. Odum, 1957), or a mountain watershed (Boorman and Likens, et al, 1974). Yet from such studies they boldly pronounce on "the state of the world's ecosystem," or "the future of life on earth." Are such leaps warranted? If so, on what grounds. We eagerly look forward to searching out the answers - of any.
In Sum: For several decades, environmental philosophers and activists have regarded the "integrity, stability and beauty" of nature to be too obvious to merit serious debate. Today, a new generation of ecologists has challenged these cherished concepts, and has put in question even the "systemic" nature of ecosystems. Perhaps the "old paradigm" is correct, and natural ecosystems do have integrated structures, and evolve mechanisms that "tend" toward stability and equilibrium. But if so, we no longer can regard this as "obvious" to the trained observer. On the contrary, these mechanisms and structures, if they exist, are very subtle and in need of scrupulous definition and confirming evidence. The "old ecology" may or may not prevail in this encounter with the "new ecology." My suspicion is that neither extreme in the spectrum of ecological opinion will prevail, but that a synthesis will emerge out of this controversy that will result in a significant advance in the conceptual vocabulary and theoretical structure of ecological science. If so, then there must first be a scrupulous review and then a refinement of the concepts and methods that led to this confrontation. And that is the task here proposed.
Environmental Ethics: The impact upon environmental ethics varies with each "school" of that discipline. At one extreme, "strong anthropocentrists" might welcome the message of the "new ecologists," and find license in that position to accelerate the exploitation of nature for human ends. (Simon, Sagoff 1998) "Animal liberation" approaches might take little note of this controversy, since they tend to focus more of their attention on the intrinsic values and rights of individual organisms, rather than the "life communities" that support these organisms.
By far the gravest implications fall upon "the land ethic"
position of Aldo Leopold and upon "deep ecology," since the presumed
"integrity," "stability" and "balance" of nature -- the so-called
"web of life" -- is the very foundation of these environmental
philosophies. For consider, if life forms are supported, not by an
integrated "system," but rather by a chaotic "hodgepodge," what
remains of Leopold's admonition: "We abuse land because we regard it
as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to
which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect"? What
content remains to his most memorable maxim, which opened this
proposal: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it
tends otherwise." (Leopold, viii, 224-5).
Public Policy: As Daniel Botkin suggested in a passage quoted earlier, the implications for public environmental policy are no less profound.
Wilderness preservation and renewal. "New ecology" states that because ecosystems are in constant change, there are no "normal" or "natural" conditions, and no "climax stage" of ecological succession. If this is so, then what is to be "preserved" in so-called wilderness areas? Mark Woods (1997) clearly presents (but does not endorse) the implications for wilderness policy of "the new ecology:" "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 ... because wilderness is in perpetual change."
Extinction and the loss of biodiversity. The generation now alive is causing an "extinction spasm" to rival that which ended the Cretaceous period and the end of the age of the dinosaurs (believed to have been the result of an asteroid collision). E. O. Wilson believes that unless this "spasm" is halted and reversed, future generations may judge this loss to be the greatest crime of this generation against all its successors. (Wilson, 1992, Myers, 1988). "Not to worry," is the clear implication of the "new ecologists:" As Mark Sagoff observes, "... 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." (1997, 904) 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." (967) (Regarding the biodiversity crisis, Sagoff parts company with most of the "new ecologists," who are as alarmed and appalled as most biologists at the current "extinction spasm.")
The limits on the growth of human consumption or population. With no serious consequences following from the alleged "disruption of finely tuned and adjusted ecosystems" (since such "systems" are allegedly neither integrated nor systemic), the only practical limitation on economic and population growth is human ingenuity and information. As Julian Simon puts it, "we now have in our hands -- in our libraries, really -- the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years... We [are] able to go on increasing forever." (Simon, 1981, 48). Sagoff (1998) endorses this optimism: "... technology can deliver greater and greater abundance..., [and] ... the endless expansion of the global economy is physically possible." In a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, five traditional ecologists took strong and explicit exception to Sagoff's optimism, complaining that "he [Sagoff] has done a disservice to the public by promoting once again the dangerous idea that technological fixes will solve the human predicament." (Ehrlich, et. al, 1998. For my position on this issue, see "Perilous Optimism". and "How Much is Too Much?").
The sustainability of industrial agriculture. Vast regions of Europe and Asia have sustained agriculture for several millennia, and, by continuing traditional methods, can presumably be sustained indefinitely. This is accomplished through the maintenance of a robust soil "microecology" -- through the services of what E. O. Wilson calls, "the little things that run the world." But these agricultural methods depend upon human and animal labor, and they are inefficient. The importation of fossil fuel energy to drive farm machinery, and the use of inorganic chemical fertilizers, greatly multiplies the per-acre crop yields while eliminating the need for pasturage. Unconstrained by "old ecological" belief in the "inscrutable workings" of an allegedly complex, integrated and balanced soil ecosystems, industrial agronomists, "green revolutionaries," can claim to have a "better way" to feed a constantly growing population.
The burden of proof in pollution control. With no "inscrutably complex life-support system" believed to be imperiled by our industrial technology, the "precautionary principle" may 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 risk.
Public and political debate on environmental policy may be
transformed. The publication in scientific and scholarly
journals of the opinion that "the balance of nature," "the web of
life," and "Gaia" are unsupportable popular myths, will be greeted
with enthusiasm by special interests that have been fighting
environmental protection legislation, regulation and policy since the
first Earth Day in 1970. So-called "junk science" (science that is
simplified, unqualified, and distorted to serve rhetorical purposes)
was used for decades to successfully postpone government action
against the health risks of smoking, and it is being employed today
by energy interests to downplay the threat of global warming. The
temptation to similarly degrade and employ "new" ecological theory
will likely prove irresistible to individuals and institutions whose
interests are anything but scientific.
The six "policy implications" of new ecology listed above are, as presented, oversimplified and vague. They also suggest a "united front" among new ecologists, which surely does not exist in fact. (For example, Botkin, Soulé and other "disequilibrium ecologists," emphatically affirm, contrary to Sagoff, that ecosystems are in fact complex systems). These "policy implications" are not "necessary entailments" of "a new ecology platform." After all, we have not yet prepared a scrupulous explication of "the new ecology," and when we do we shall no doubt find, not "a" position, but rather a variety of points of view expressed by this collection of independent scholars and scientists. There is not, should not be, and will not be, a unifying "Credo" of new ecology.
Nevertheless, these six "implications" are all plausible environmental policy issues that we might expect to encounter in public debate, as the concepts and positions of "the new ecologists" -- or rather, the distilled oversimplifications thereof -- become better known to scholars and their students, to journalists, to the general public, to legislators, and thus to policy-makers. Wilderness management, the Endangered Species Act, The Global Warming Treaty, sustainable development, food and agricultural aid, population policy, pollution control regulations -- all of these may undergo reevaluation, if faced by the challenges brought forth by "the new ecology." No doubt, much of this policy debate will have consequences that were not expected or intended by the defenders of "the new ecology" -- indeed, we may fully expect that many of these scholars and scientists will be appalled by what others will make of their words and ideas. This problem leads to our final consideration.
EcoScience and Public Policy -- the Concluding Task: As I have studied the development of ecological science, and the contending schools within, I have been struck by the gap between the carefully qualified and contained findings of eco-science, on the one hand, and the bold pronouncements of "compelling ecological facts and principles" that are heard in public debates. Often these contrasts are found within single individuals: scientists speaking "from the lab bench or the field," on the one hand, and in public and political fora on the other hand. And while I have been personally and professional involved with environmental ethics and policy for more than thirty years, it took the preparations for this proposal to alert me, as never before, to the gap between scientific advancement and public pronouncement.
It is a sad but commonplace fact that complex and subtle scientific findings are winnowed and filtered into gross simplifications (perhaps necessarily so) before legislators and administrators can assimilate these findings and apply them to laws and policies. (Indeed, as noted at the outset, space constraints force such oversimplification in this proposal). This process is unavoidable, even with the best of intentions by the policy-makers, and more often than not their intentions are not "the best." The problem has been severely aggravated by the abolition of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, cutbacks in government-sponsored research, and the concurrent rise of journalist and political "junk science" (i.e., distorted and selected scientific "data" used for political or commercial advocacy).
Examples of this "filtering and winnowing" are found in attempts
to apply findings of atmospheric sciences to "global warming" policy.
It is also found in the "filtering out" of economists' qualms and
qualifications about cost benefit analysis and market mechanisms
(e.g., "market failures" distributive issues, and "externalities") in
policy guidelines. Finally, closest to our project, we encounter an
uncritical application of classical ecological concepts such as
"balance," "equilibrium," climax community" in environmental policy
and public debates. Thus we are led to ask: Given the limited time,
attention-span and expertise of both public and legislators, what is
the most valid and relevant message that the developing science of
ecology can deliver to public policy makers? This task of linking
eco-science to public policy, will be based and will follow upon our
study of the meaning of ecological concepts and the methodology of
ecological science, and it will occupy our attention following the
formal completion of the NSF grant.
APPENDIX: SUPPLEMENTARY REPORT
On the dichotomy between "old" and "new" ecology. The NSF evaluating panel and some referees raised concern about the polarization between "old" and "new" ecologies, presented in the proposal. This is, the Panel notes, a "false dichotomy."
I agree, though it is apparent that I did not make this agreement sufficiently clear in the proposal. Early in the proposal, I noted that ecology "is better described as a spectrum than a dichotomy of views." However, I also pointed out that many contemporary ecologists on the disequilibrium "edge" of that spectrum (e.g., Botkin, Soule, Pickett, etc.), took pains to disassociate themselves from what they variously described as "the old paradigm," "the equilibrium model," and "traditional ecological wisdom." The target of their criticism, at the opposite "edge" of the spectrum, is the popular concept of natural ecosystems as "balanced," "integrated" and "healthy" "communities." This latter conception is conspicuous in public policy, among environmental activists, and in the media, where the term "balance of nature" is routinely encountered.
Daniel Botkin (1981), a leader among the "disequilibrium ecologists," could not be more explicit about this polarization: "There are two contradictory beliefs about wilderness. One assumes that nature undisturbed by human influence is characterized by a certain kind of harmony, balance and order. The second assumes that the essence of wilderness is change. This [first] view of nature is espoused in textbooks on ecology and in popular environmental literature. It is the basis of 20th century scientific theory about populations and ecosystems. It is the basis of our Federal and state laws..... It is wrong.
This perceived "dichotomy" is not, I believe, supported by the mainstream of ecological research, concepts and theory. Both "edges" of the spectrum engage in oversimplifications and "straw man" caricatures of each other. Even so, the "disequilibrium edge" has correctly identified oversimplifications and even falsehoods in the opposite edge - what Botkin calls "traditional ecological wisdom." And "mainstream" ecological science has further undermined the conceptual foundations of much public environmental policy and the public opinion which supports it. Concepts such as "balance of nature," "natural ecosystems," "life community," "ecosystemic health and integrity" - lack the scientific solidity they were once believed to have. Thus established policies of land management, wilderness preservation, endangered species protection, and so forth, appear to be vulnerable to reassessment and reevaluation in the light of new and ongoing developments in ecological science.
What are the evolving concepts and theories of ecological science, and in contradistinction, of public policy and environmental ethics? What established public policies and theories of environmental ethics can withstand the new developments in ecological science? On the other hand, what revisions of policy and ethics might be entailed by these new scientific developments? These questions define, in part, the task of the research here proposed.
Are "wild" and "natural" ecosystems Discovered or Constructed?
This is a significant issue, for it goes to the heart of policies of wilderness preservation, of land and aquatic restoration and management, of species protection, as well as numerous other environmental issues. This issue involves no less than the question, "just what are we attempting to preserve, protect, and manage, and how do we identify and assess success or failure in these endeavors"?
At one extreme of this debate is Martin Krieger and his 1973 essay which environmentalists love to hate, "What's Wrong with Plastic Trees?" "What is considered a natural environment," writes Krieger, "depends on the particular culture and society defining it.... A wilderness may be viewed as a state of mind, as an attitude..." (Krieger).
At the other extreme are what we might call "the John Muir purists" who proclaim that "nature," far from being an "invention" of human beings, is the independent progenitor of humanity. In the words of Howard Zahniser, "out of wilderness [man] has fashioned his civilization. It is the raw material of his culture." (Zahniser, p. 346) Thus wilderness precedes and transcends culture, and is best encountered "as it is - on its own terms."
Both extremes are mistaken, I believe, for the concepts of nature and wildness and our understanding thereof necessarily combine an objective and independent "material" with a subjective and culturally constructed "form." Even Aldo Leopold recognized that an "immaculate perception" of nature is a myth - that our encounter with nature is colored by the life experiences and learned concepts that we bring to it. "Daniel Boone's reaction [to nature] depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he saw it. Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes.... We may safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of the present day, Boone saw only the surface of things..." (Leopold, p. 174).
Leopold's account suggests a distinction familiar to students of the Philosophy of Science: namely, the distinction between, on the one hand, the discovered "objective" and "independent" facts, and, on the other hand, the "constructed" theories (or "models") that organize and coordinate these "raw facts" to yield predictions and confirmations. Thus science, by this (vastly oversimplified) account, consists of both discoveries and inventions("constructs").
In a provocative paper just published, Reid Helford (1999) has vividly illustrated the problem of "the social construction of nature" as it arose in an attempt to "restore" in Illinois, the oak savanna ecosystem which presumably existed there prior to European settlement. As work on the restoration project continued, the project managers came face to face with the problem of identifying the ecosystem that presumably existed in pre-Columbian times (not, by the way, a completely "natural" system, for it too was affected by the native American inhabitants of the area). They found that they were faced with a seemingly inseparable mix of an "objective" scientific account of what that lost landscape "really" was, and their preconceived notions of what a natural ecosystem "should be." Eventually, they were faced with a remarkable paradox: if the restored "natural" (therefore originally "unmanaged") ecosystem were to survive, it would have to be intensively managed by the restorers - e.g., by removing invading non-native species, and by simulating natural processes such as predation and fire which for safety and political considerations could not be allowed to occur "naturally." What then remains of the "naturalness" of this restored "natural landscape?"
The "Ecology Project" will therefore deal with such questions and the following: In what sense and degree are the concepts of nature, wilderness and ecosystem "objective" and culture-neutral, and to what sense and degree are they socially constructed? Is an objectification of these concepts possible, say through rigorous scientific procedures? Is such objectification possible or even desirable in the formulation and implementation of public environmental policy?
Identifying the concepts and presuppositions of environmental