Nature for Better or Worse
June 14, 2004
This paper is a "snapshot" of a work in progress: a progress report,
with impressions and tentative conclusions based upon the research that
has preceded, and with anticipations of work to come. Qua "tentative," I
will set down here some ideas that are insufficiently documented and
defensible for me to willingly send this out for peer review and
publication. In a sense, these are "promissory notes" conveying an
intention to supply supporting evidence and argument "to put up or shut
up." To be sure, as research continues, these ideas will at the very least
be refined, perhaps revised, while the possibility remains forever open
that they might be abandoned. "Falsifiability" is both a basic criterion
of scientific inquiry and a controlling disciplinary rule of my scholarly
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the National
Science Foundation (Grant number: SES-9819617). The views and conclusions
are those of the author.
This research project began as an exploration of "the
implications of disequilibrium ecology for environmental ethics and public
policy" (the title of the project funded by the National Science
Foundation). It expanded into an examination of a more fundamental
underlying issue: the analysis of the concept of "nature" in general, and of
ecosystems in particular, and the normative question of how natural areas
and ecosystems might be "graded" as in some sense "better" or "worse" -- or,
as some have put it, more or less "healthy," or "integrated."
The "grading" question is fundamental to environmental ethics and policy,
for if ecology, ("disequilibrium" or otherwise), is to have "implications
for environmental ethics and policy," it must offer insight and direction
for policy decisions regarding, among many other things, resource management
(e.g., of forests, wildlife and fisheries), wilderness preservation, and
ecological restoration. Because these are all goal-oriented enterprises,
evaluations of existing conditions and of end-state objectives are
essential. Values are implicit in the identification of environmental
"problems" and in the determination of success or failure in dealing with
these problems. In particular, if ecosystems are deemed worthy of
protection, or if damaged areas are judged to be in need of "ecological
restoration," the evaluations of the ecosystems are implicit in the
recognition of these policy issues, and in the assessments of the success of
the policy implementations.
"Disequilibrium ecology," as some interpret it, might complicate these
policy assessments. For if nature and ecosystems are in constant flux, then
there would seem to be no optimal and identifiable "end states" of
protection or restoration toward which management policy should be directed.
To take a familiar example, what condition of Yellowstone National Park
should be worthy of "preservation," if the conditions are constantly
changing? Is the "natural condition" best preserved by fire suppression or
by fire tolerance? Is a "natural" ecosystem enhanced by artificially
introducing wolves and grizzly bears, and is it damaged by allowing
snowmobiles? Given the history of human impacts in the Park, and along its
boundaries, is a "natural condition" at all attainable? In general, how is
one to judge successful management of the ecosystem of the Park?
"Disequilibrium ecology," then, will be evaluated in the context of concept
analyses and evaluations of the basic concepts of "nature," "wildness" and
The reader's journey through this essay might be made less burdensome if I
were to offer, at this outset, a sketch of the destination.
About "Disequilibrium ecology."
Disequilibrium ecology is much more a challenge to popular
conceptions of ecology and ecosystems (held, for example, by environmental
activists and some policy-makers), than it is an active controversy
amongst trained ecologists.
Ecosystemic "equilibrium" is (a) never perfectly
exemplified in nature, and (b) is more likely to be found (imperfectly) as
a second-order phenomenon.
Were perfect equilibrium to exist in an ecosystem (which
it never does), evolution would virtually cease.
Were ecosystems totally chaotic, random and arbitrary,
organisms could not survive -- hence, of course, no ecosystems.
Disequilibrium is not chaos. Rather, it is wholly
consistent with ecosystemic complexity and stability. Thus disequilibrium
ecology need not undermine most varieties of environmental ethics or
established environmental policies.
Disequilibrium ecology must not be confused with
"ecological nihilism" -- the assertion that life communities are without
system, are chaotic, and are arbitrary.
Ecosystems can be identified as more or less "healthy,"
according to identifiable criteria of "health."
Ecosystemic "health" is analogous to the life sequence of
a healthy human. Constant change in the first order: infancy > childhood >
adolescence > maturity > old age. Stability at the second order: vital
signs (temperature, blood pressure, blood pH, etc.) remain within strict
limits, organs and immune systems remain fully functional, etc. Similarly,
ecosystems can be said to remain "healthy" while undergoing constant
change. Ecosystemic "health" is a difficult and highly controversial
concept, which will be examined at length in this essay.
The paradigm of a "healthy" ecosystem is a "natural"
ecosystem in a climax stage (no anthropogenic influences past or present,
with production and respiration equal and a rate of structural and
functional change diminished though not static). The concepts of "totally
natural" and "climax stage" are "ideal types" (like perfect vacuum and
frictionless machine in physics) -- approximated but nowhere found in "the
Artificially affected ecosystems -- regenerated or
restored or maintained -- can be evaluated as "healthy" or "unhealthy" to
the degree that they exhibit the qualities of mature "natural" communities
-- sustainability, self-maintenance, self-repair, etc.
Ecosystems can be graded better or worse, along several
dimensions: aesthetic, ethical, economic, and intrinsic ("naturally"). "Ecosystemic
health" is an empirical concept, based upon the model (above) of a natural
ecosystem at climax stage.
Ecology is more than a collection of particular "natural
histories." It is a "loose science," grounded in exact sciences, and with
a vocabulary of general concepts, with laws, with confirmable predictions,
and with falsifiable propositions. (This issue was briefly dealt with in
an earlier publication, "Reconstructing Ecology," and will be examined
much more thoroughly in an expansion of this current essay).
Therefore: what we do to ecosystems matters -- in ways
that can objectively determined and evaluated. One ecosystem in not just
as good as another.
Environmental ethics and policy may be "grounded" in both
scientific descriptions of ecosystems and ethical evaluations of
2. CAN NATURE BE HARMED?
Can natural areas be degraded, or conversely, can "damaged"
areas be "improved" and even "restored" to a "natural condition"?
To both untrained ordinary citizens and professional conservation
biologists, these questions are "no-brainers." Of course natural
areas can be harmed. Life communities -- ecosystems -- can be judged to be
"stable," "healthy," "integrated," and conversely, "endangered," "injured"
The very concepts of "environmental protection," "wilderness preservation,"
and "conservation biology" presuppose that environments -- ecosystems,
landscapes, wilderness areas, lakes and rivers, the ocean -- can be judged
to be in "better" or "worse" condition, and thus, in identifiable instances,
worthy of "protection," or in need of "restoration."
It was once believed that "optimally natural" environments and ecosystems
are, in their final "climax" stages, stable, balanced, capable of
self-repair, and thus in a state of "equilibrium." This last concept,
"equilibrium," means that once-disturbed, the system has the "internal
mechanisms" to restore it to its previous condition.
As I will explain later in this essay, the concept of "ecosystemic
equilibrium" survives in the literature and rhetoric of environmental
activists, but not in the published work of the scientifically informed.
Among professional and academic ecologists, the equilibrium paradigm has
been almost universally rejected.
Examples of environmental destruction are apparent to any who pay even
casual attention to national and world news.
The annual loss of tropical forests, the habitat of most
of the earth's biodiversity, is estimated to be from 1% to 4% annually.
The land thus acquired is useful for agriculture for 3 to 5 years, after
which it is abandoned. In the Amazon forest, the soil is poor and most of
the nutrients are contained in the abundant biomass. Thus after the forest
is cleared and briefly farmed or ranched, the soil hardens to a brick-like
laterite, and an empty wasteland remains.
The biotically abundant prairie in the mid-west United
States was transformed in a few short decades into the desolate "Dust
Bowl," and only with sustained effort and investment restored to
Passengers flying over the Pacific Northwest will find a
checkerboard pattern of forests and clear-cuts, the latter in various
stages of recovery and regrowth. On close-up inspection, the clear-cut are
found to be cluttered with snags, stumps, and brush.
Acid rain has severely reduced biodiversity of lakes in
northeastern United States and in Eastern Canada.
In the Great Lakes, pollution from agricultural
fertilizers, sewage, and numerous other industrial and residential
sources, cause a "nutrient overload" which in turn causes algae blooms
followed by decomposition by anaerobic bacteria. The resulting loss of
dissolved oxygen makes these areas uninhabitable by fish and other aquatic
The Aral Sea of central Asia, which once supported a
thriving fishing industry, has shrunk to a third of its original size and
is barren. A desert of salt-tolerant grasses now grow on what was once the
The hills of Lebanon, on which the fabled cedars of
Lebanon once grew, are now barren. The Mediterranean shore of North
Africa, the orchards and fields of which once exported food to the Roman
Empire, are now deserts.
In all these cases, and many more, thriving ecosystems have been destroyed
and replaced by simpler and less abundant ecosystems.
In all these cases, and many more, most individuals would observe that nature
(or "the environment") had suffered a loss, and that the areas described
deteriorated into a "worse" condition.
How could anyone conclude otherwise? And yet, it appears that some do.
Consider the comments to two respected eco-philosophers:
"Nature, having neither design nor direction, is not the
sort of thing that can suffer harm." (Mark Sagoff)
[N]ature is going nowhere, has no "integrity" or "well-being" of its own,
and is utterly devoid of any meaning, order, purpose, or end. ... Nature
does not know ...and Nature does not care. (Sagoff)
"It is not clear (apart from human interests) how we ought to define the
good for ecosystems... [It] would be very difficult, in every case, to
specify purely ecological or solely non-anthropocentric, criteria for
praising or blaming moral actions that have effects on ecosystems."
Does it then follow that ecosystems can not be "harmed," for
example, by the introduction of virulent exotic species, such as the zebra
mussels to the Great Lakes, the Chestnut blight to the eastern hardwood
forests, water hyacinth to the Florida rivers, rabbits to the Australian
All these caused profound and irreversible changes to the ecosystems. But
can they, in any sense, be said to have "harmed" these systems themselves
-- apart from how they might have harmed human interests in these systems?
Further: Was the ecosystem of Prince William Sound in Alaska "harmed" by the
Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989? Or was it merely "changed" to a different
system? Can the ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in
any sense be "damaged" by oil exploration and extraction, which admittedly
will permanently alter the permafrost under and alongside the construction,
and will significantly disrupt the migration routes of caribou and wild
birds? Or would such exploration merely replace one ecosystem with another
-- neither better or worse, since, as alleged above, ANWR , as a "natural"
area, is not the sort of thing that can suffer harm." (Sagoff).
On the other hand, if, as is generally (if intuitively) believed, ecosystems
can be "harmed," in what sense can they be "harmed" -- i.e., what are
the criteria of "ecosystemic harm?" In other words, how are we to
distinguish ecological "harm" from harmless ecosystemic change?
Conversely, if a project is undertaken to "restore" a damaged ecosystem to a
"healthy" (or "integrated") state, what constitutes success or failure in
such an enterprise?
Underlying all such questions is the foundational issue: can natural
ecosystems be recognized, and can they be "graded" -- i.e., evaluated as
"better" or "worse" -- in terms of their identifiable characteristics, and
not merely in terms of the human "uses" that might be gained from them.
Must ecosystems be static, "settled" and in equilibrium to be valued, or are
they of less (or even no) value if they are in a state of constant flux and
These questions, and challenges, strike at the very heart of environmental
activism, ethics and public policy.
As I have noted above, it is easy to recognize, to our
personal satisfaction, "better" and "worse" states of nature -- "healthy"
and "disturbed" ecosystems -- success and failure in "protecting the
environment," "preserving wilderness," and "restoring" damaged areas to
their "natural" condition. However, giving an explicit account of "better"
and "worse," which is to say, the "good" for natural areas and systems, is
quite another matter.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, we are all too often capable of using words
"correctly" without being able to define them. A paradox to be sure, but nonetheless
true. We easily speak of "virtue" and "justice" and "loyalty" and "beauty"
and the like and are readily understood. And yet when asked to define these
words, we soon find ourselves deep into perplexing philosophical reflection.
Plato attempted in his dialogs to define all these concepts and many more.
Philosophers ever since have carried on Plato's quest, indicating that none
have come up with compelling and final answers.
Similarly, the task of supplying an analysis (i.e., a list of defining
characteristics) of such concepts as ecosystem "health" and "integrity," or
even the concept of "nature," will not be an easy task, even though we
freely use these words in conversation and are generally well- understood
when we do.
We begin with an examination of the concept of "nature."
3. IS EVERYTHING NATURAL?
"Nature changes the environment every day of our lives - why
shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature." (173) This remark of Floyd Dominy
(ex-Commissioner of Reclamation), recorded by John McPhee in his book, Encounters with the Archdruid, typifies an evasion familiar to most
environmental activists and scholars. "Human beings are natural," goes the
argument, "therefore everything humans do is 'natural.'" It then follows
that human projects cannot "harm nature," and thus the qualms of the
environmentalists are without meaningful foundation.
No less an environmental philosopher than Baird Callicott has been enticed
by this ploy, as he writes: "we are part of nature, so our recent habit of
recycling sequestered carbon [i.e., through the consumption of fossil fuels]
is not unnatural."2 (In fairness to Callicott, we must also note that he
acknowledges that some human interventions in "nature" are clearly immoral).
In an identifiable sense of the word "natural," both Dominy and Callicott
are entirely and indisputably correct. But this is not the only, or even the
most relevant sense of "natural" found in environmental debates. And this
equivocation is at the root of a great deal of rhetorical mischief in
environmental debates and policy.
The sense of "natural" apparently intended by Dominy and Callicott in the
above citations is this: "a condition in accordance with natural law." By
implication, "unnatural" can only mean "contrary to natural law," which is
to say physically impossible. (When a scientist encounters a validated
"exception" to an assumed "natural law" he has in fact proven that the
putative "law" was no such thing).
It follows, as Dominy suggests, that everything that human beings create and
do is "natural," including transuranic elements, DDT and chloro-fluorocarbons,
atomic reactors, genetically modified organisms, exponential population
growth, etc. The "unnatural" includes perpetual-motion machines, time
travel, faster-than-light velocities - unless and until, that is, these
sci-fi notions are found to be possible, whereupon they are acknowledged to
"Artificiality" is thus abolished by semantic fiat, and with it all cause
for concern about the warnings of the environmentalists. "If it can be done,
go ahead and do it - don't worry, be happy, after all it's natural." To
repeat Dominy's cheerful reassurance, "nature changes the environment every
day of our lives - why shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature."
This argument, which I have heard from numerous students throughout my
thirty years of teaching Environmental Ethics, has a superficial
plausibility, accompanied by a suspicion that there is some sort of logical
hocus-pocus at work at a deeper level.
There is indeed, as I now propose to explain.
The "all-is-natural" argument is reminiscent of another, familiar to most
students who have taken an introductory course in ethics: psychological
egoism. This theory is simplicity itself: All human action is selfishly
motivated. The immediate rejoinder is obvious: what about saints and heroes?
- what about the soldier who falls on a live grenade to save his buddies, or
of a Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi who willingly accept
imprisonment? Surely their voluntary acts were not selfish!
"Oh yes they were," replies the psychological egoist. "King and Gandhi and
all the rest, did what they did because they wanted to - these were their
The dissolution of this nasty bit of sophomore ideology is simple: the
maxim, "all voluntary human acts are selfishly motivated " is "true" because
it is a plain tautology - i.e., it is "true by definition," and thus devoid
of any empirical content. "Selfish motivation" is defined by the egoist as
equivalent to "preferred by the agent" which is equivalent to "voluntary."
Ergo: by substituting equals with equals, we find that psychological egoists
simply state that "all voluntary acts are voluntary." Big Deal!3
The capper then is straightforward: Ask the psychological egoist, "if what
you say about human motivation is true - 'all acts are selfish' - then what
would it be like, contrafactually, to encounter an unselfish act?" If, as we
contend, psychological egoism is a tautology, there is no answer to that
challenge because the theory is empty of empirical content.4 In other words,
because all imaginable behavior is so indicated (denoted), no particular
behavior is described (designated). In the jargon of the Philosophy of Science,
Psychological Egoism is empirically meaningless because it fails "the
The crucial challenge to the egoist is
this: "what is to be gained, and what is to be lost, by abolishing the
distinction between "selfish behavior" and "unselfish behavior" Do we
gain or lose moral insight by examining and contrasting, for example,
the motives and behavior of a self-serving scoundrel on the one hand,
with lives and ideals of saints and heroes on the other hand? I suggest that if the lives of Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth,
Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, King, Mandella, Sakharov and endlessly more,
have nothing to teach us (since, allegedly, their lives were entirely
"selfishly motivated"), then we are in a sorry moral state indeed.
(Incidentally, "psychological egoism" is not a mere ideological curiously,
of interest only to Philo.1 students and their professors. It has, in fact,
infected and captivated much of a major academic discipline, "neo-classical
economics," and through it much of public policy theory.) (See my
"Twentieth Century Alchemy,"5 and
"In Search of Sustainable Values,"6 and
follow the links therein).
Time now to "cash in" our comparison between psychological egoism ("all
human motives are selfish") with the naturalism evasion ("all human
activities and products are natural").
In a similar mode, we should ask such technocrats as Floyd Dominy, "what is
to be gained by abolishing the distinction between "artificial" (conditions
and substances of human origin) and "natural" (conditions and substances not
of human origin)?" Granted, all human acts and products are "natural" in the
sense of being constrained by natural law (call it "natural1"). But within
this category of "all-things-possible" there is a distinction, essential to
science, technology and public policy, not to mention common sense - a
distinction between conditions and substances of human origin (e.g., anti-biotics,
genetically modified organisms, nuclear waste, CFCs, etc.) and conditions
and substances not of human origin (e.g., old-growth forests, plate
tectonics, solar flux, DNA, thermodynamic laws, etc. - call it "natural2").
"All human acts and products are natural" is true - but trivially true, if
it is understood to mean "constrained by natural law" (i.e., physically
possible). But it is a mischievous truth if it leads us to overlook another
sense of "natural," namely "not of human origin."
It is true that Dominy's triumph, Lake Powell of the Colorado, along with
genetically modified organisms and atomic power, is "natural1"). So too was
the Black Plague which consumed one third of the European population, as
well as any and every ecological devastation that we might bring upon
ourselves and our planet. If, like the dinosaurs, we are annihilated by a
collision with a comet or asteroid, this too will be a "natural" event.
"Natural1" makes no moral or value distinctions.
It is within the semantic domain of this second sense that the environmental
scientists and activists make their warnings - the sense that utilizes the
familiar distinction between the artificial ('of human origin") and
"natural2" (not of human origin). With this essential distinction as part
of our conceptual arsenal, we can meaningfully raise questions about the
practical and moral implications of our "artificial" interventions in
"nature2," and thus make informed choices among the alternative futures
Environmental scientists tell us that global population growth, atmospheric
carbon loading, loss of biodiversity and tropical forests, are all
proceeding at unsustainable rates. All this activity is "natural1" -
namely, according to natural law. But are these anthropogenic alterations
any less worrisome, if we choose to ignore the common-sense
These interventions are no less worrisome to informed and morally concerned
earth-citizens, well-aware that "artificial" interventions into, and
alteration of, the natural order that created and sustained us, are qua
"artificial" our moral responsibility.
4. IS NOTHING (ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH) NATURAL?
The very idea seems outlandish on its face. And yet, on
reflection, it is not easily dismissed.
The contention that there is nothing natural on the surface of the earth
follows directly from the assertion that the earth's atmosphere is not
"natural" -- that it is an artifact. And if the atmosphere is an artifact,
then so too is climate. Thus, if that "artificial" atmosphere touches and
interacts with the entire surface of the earth, then nothing on that surface
is entirely "natural."
What, then is "natural?" Isolated ecosystems at the thermal vents at the
deep ocean floor are completely natural. Strata below the surface of the
earth are natural. Events totally independent of human control -- e.g.,
earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions -- are natural..
But life forms and
life communities at the surface? None of these are "totally
This, briefly, is the contention of Bill McKibben in his popular book
End of Nature.
In the years since the Civil War, and mostly in the years
since World War II, we have changed the atmosphere -- changed it enough so
that the climate will change dramatically... [Formerly] man's efforts,
even at their mightiest, were tiny compared with the size of the planet --
the Roman Empire meant nothing to the Arctic or the Amazon. But now, the
way of life of one part of the world in one half-century is altering every
inch and every hour of the globe. (45-46)
The atmosphere an "artifact?" How can this be? This is so,
simply because industrial civilization has changed the chemical composition
of the atmosphere. The amount of CO2 in the pre-industrial
atmosphere is believed to have been about 280 parts per million.7 Today it is
in excess of 370 ppm.8 Methane, a greenhouse gas
more than twenty times more potent than CO2, has increased
in concentration from 730 parts per billion in 1750 to 1843ppb in 2003. Add to
that chemicals unknown 250 years ago, notably the ozone depleting chloro-fluorocarbons
Not even the oceans are unaffected, for ultra-violet radiation, increased by
ozone depletion, is deleterious to phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic
Accordingly, McKibben concludes:
The idea of nature will not survive the new global
pollution -- the carbon dioxide and the CFCs and the like... We have
changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing
the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have
deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning.
Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.
"Every spot on earth man-made and artificial?" Perhaps,
but equally so? Does the "touch" of the artificial atmosphere
render every spot on earth totally artificial -- just as the law of the
State of Mississippi once classified as "negro" anyone with "a drop of negro
blood" (i.e., any negro ancestry whatever)?
Surely not. The center of the Amazon rain forest, the tundra of the Arctic
National Wildlife Reserve, the interior of the Australian outback -- all
these are surely more "natural" than an abandoned and eroded farm in
southeastern United States, a clear-cut forest in the Pacific Northwest, or
the saline wasteland that was once the lake-bed of the Aral Sea.
Totally pure and pristine nature is gone -- the artificial atmosphere and
climate have accomplished that much. In that "wildest" of regions, the
central Amazon forest, the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has
variously altered the growth rates of the flora, resulting in a different
composition of the forest community. So too the altered acidity of the
rainfall and the changes in numbers and types of the in-migrating and
colonizing species -- changes brought about by advancing edge of
deforestation and settlement.
And yet it is surely more "wild" than the cut, tilled, and abandoned
laterite wasteland beyond the forest border, that was once a part of that
By identifying all of the earth's surface as "equally artificial," we
stipulate the abolition of a concept and a distinction that is essential to
science, public policy, and ordinary discourse. (Not unlike the abolition of
the concept of "artificial" by stipulating that "natural" is to mean
according to natural law. See above).
Far better that we treat "artificial" and "natural" as end-points of a
continuum. McKibben's point, then, is that the extreme totally "natural"
end of that continuum, due to the consequences of industrialization, no
longer exists on the face of the earth.
Nonetheless, landscapes and ecosystems can be more or less "natural" -- or,
as I would prefer now to call it, "wild."
Our next task, then, is to present and defend criteria of "wildness" --
properties by which we might assess the degree of wildness of a landscape,
region, or ecosystem.
My proposal will be startlingly obvious, even simple-minded. But I can think
of nothing better.
5. DEFINING "WILDNESS"
Based upon what we know from the physical and life sciences:
A wild area is a place where natural forces are allowed to act and
evolve, undisturbed by artificial interference.
By "natural forces" I mean action describable by innumerable physical and
chemical laws: gravity, precipitation, erosion, oxidation and reduction, the
conduction, convection and radiation of energy, and most fundamentally to
The solar flux provides abiotic energy and its consequences: wind,
precipitation, flowing and collected water (streams and lakes).
Photosynthesis provides "life energy" -- by which, I urgently add, I do not
mean a Bergsonian elan vital. I posit no metaphysical entities. "Life
energy" is nothing more than solar energy captured by photosynthesis and
bonded into complex organic molecules -- combining the simple molecules of
free oxygen, free nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water plus other elements from
the atmosphere, soil and water (in solution or suspension) into hydrocarbons
which "fuel" the trophic pyramid that rises "above" basic biotic
"production" -- the "producers," which feed the
then the primary carnivores, then the higher-order carnivores,
then the decomposers, back to the producers.
The fundamental distinction between abiotic activity and biotic activity is
that the former is entropic and the latter is negentropic. Abiotic activity
leads to chemically simple and "probable" substances -- it is entropic.
Biotic activity produces chemically complex and improbable substances -- it
is negentropic.9 (An apparent exception: atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen,
biotic products, are both the simplest forms of these elements and
improbable -- their "natural tendency" is to combine with other elements.
These free elements exist in the atmosphere as both the byproducts of and
the resources for biotic activity). Biotic substances, and the energy
contained within, fueled by the solar flux and fed by chemical nutrients,
evolve into ever-more complex and improbable life forms and life
communities. Life, in short, is an "entropy pump" and life communities are
"entropy eddies," locally reversing the universal entropic flow toward
disorder and "heat-death."
The energy in ecosystems "drives" the system toward complexity. This
phenomenon is evident in all regions that recover naturally from
devastation, for example from fire, flood (tsunami), or volcanic eruption.
Complexity and diversity are the result of the struggle for survival, as
organisms evolve or immigrate to occupy and sometimes create viable niches
(ecological functions). Failing that, they become locally extinct. The
proliferation of ecological niches, and reciprocally of species, manifests
the negentropy -- the evolution from simplicity to complexity, from
probability to improbability -- that is driven, ultimately, by the
energy of solar radiation.
Regions that are recovering from catastrophic "setbacks" (fire, flood,
earthquakes, volcanoes -- very rarely, asteroid impacts) pass through a
succession of staged development to achieve a stable and persistent state,
called a "climax" stage, at which the pace of further evolution of the
ecosystem composition and structure would radically diminish -- given, of
course, constant climate, no migrations, and no further natural disruptions.
But, as disequilibrium ecologists persistently and correctly remind us,
these "constants" never occur in nature. Thus, like the concepts of perfect
vacuum and absolute zero in physics, the "climax stage" is an "ideal type"
-- a theoretical abstraction, possibly approximated but never fully achieved
And why do these natural forces, in various chemical (nutrient) and climatic
environments, develop in one direction rather than another? Why deserts
rather than hardwood forests in Nevada? Why prairie rather than desert in
South Dakota? Why forest rather than prairie in Amazonia?
Were mankind not to interfere, what life community (rather than another)
might arise from the lateritic wasteland at the exploited and abandoned
outskirts of the Amazon forest? What life communities might similarly arise
from artificial wastelands of the Pacific Northwest clear-cuts, and the
similar and adjacent natural wasteland of the north slope of Mt. St. Helens?
Given the climate, geomorphology, and available nutrient resources of a
region, what options of community development are open, and what other
options are closed -- and for what reasons? Just what is the meaning of
"community development"? Presumably, this would include proliferation of
life forms, patterns of interaction (competition, symbiosis, co-evolution,
etc.), paths of energy flow and nutrient recycling.
These questions suggest a response to those who are disinclined to regard
ecology as a science.
The foundational "natural forces" are described and measured by the "exact"
sciences of physics and chemistry. Photosynthesis is similarly studied by
the science of biochemistry.
Ecology is the study of the life communities: of the life forms that
proliferate from the base of photosynthesis and that interact with each
other and with their abiotic environment. The above phrase, "rather than
another," indicates that ecological science is comprised of falsifiable
propositions -- a logical requirement of all empirical science.
Generalizations ("law-like statements") drawn from field and laboratory
studies, that simultaneously describe and exclude conditions in life
communities, predict confirming or refuting conditions in unexamined
communities. (For more on "falsification" and the scientific status of
ecology, see my "Reconstructing Ecology").
Thus, for example, ecological science can predict the succession of life
communities that will take place on the devastated northern slope of Mt. St.
Helens, given a constant climate. But how was an account of this particular
succession arrived at? This was accomplished by examining the stages of
restoration found today on the slopes of other Cascade Range volcanoes, the
past eruptions of which are accurately dated by volcanologists. And how is
this account of ecological succession at Mt. St. Helens confirmed when, in
fact, it must take place over many centuries? By predicting what sequences
will be found in other, yet unexamined, successional sites, as well as by "paleo-ecological"
examination of soil strata -- some, no doubt, at Mt. St. Helens, which
will yield evidence of successions following previous eruptions. (For an
outstanding example of paleo-ecological study of succession in the Boundary
Waters region of Minnesota/Ontario, see Daniel Botkin's "Discordant
6. VALUES IN NATURE.
We digress now to examine the problem of the status of
values in nature. The product of this analysis will have bearing upon the
later development and the conclusion of this essay.
Because I have published elsewhere an argument in support of my position on
"natural axiology,"10 I will let a brief, and essentially undefended,
statement of that position suffice.
To the familiar question, "are values in nature objective or subjective," my
answer is "not one or the other, but both." Values in nature arise out of
transactions between subjective "evaluators" and the natural objects of
evaluation. Qua "subjective," there are no values without an
evaluator. (The evaluator must be minimally sentient, while an evaluator
that is sentient, conscious and reflective has a vastly larger inventory of
values). Qua "objective," values in nature are discovered, not
invented. (But not all values about nature. Arguably, aesthetic values
are largely, and possibly is some instances entirely, subjective. But
aesthetic values are not the subject of this analysis).
Natural values are thus similar to Lockean "secondary qualities" such as
color, or taste. The perception of blue requires both an "objective"
propagation of light waves (4700-5100 Angstrom units), and a "subject's"
normally functioning retina and brain. Absent the "subject," there is no
color blue. Absent the light waves of the prescribed wave-length, there is
no perception of blue. The subjective component of "blue" does not allow the
subject to "will" the perception of another color. Ask someone (with normal
color perception) to bring you the only blue book in the next room, and you
will get what you asked for. Natural values (some at least) are like this:
once again, they are discovered, not invented, yet they presuppose a
The implications of this axiological theory can be disquieting to an
environmental ethicist (as, quite frankly they were to me -- and still are).
It suggests that we can be totally indifferent to the fate of an
undiscovered planet, teeming with life that is entirely insentient'
similarly, that the fate of the earth, once sentient life has departed, need
be of no concern to us.
Suppose, for example, due to nuclear war or a pandemic, all sentient life
disappears from the face of the earth. Does it matter that great cultural
and architectural treasures, like the Taj Mahal, will fall into ruin? Those
who are discomforted by such a thought, "cheat" by importing themselves into
the landscape through their imaginations. But the ghostly presence of the
hypothetical evaluator evokes, not value, but "hypothetical value." The
transactionalist view that I accept insists that we take the stipulation and
challenge seriously: no sentient or intelligent beings are to observe or be
affected by these events or circumstances. In such a case, do values apply?
To whom? If values are alleged to "apply," but to no one, then just what
might this mean? Can we make sense of this assertion?
In defense of objective, "inherent" (and subject-less) values, Tom Regan
cites the example of a gardenia:
A luxuriant gardenia, one with abundant blossoms and rich,
deep, green foliage is a better gardenia than one that is so deformed and
stunted that it puts forth no blossoms at all, and this is quite
independently of the interests other beings happen to take in them.11
If the flower in question is to be found in a florist shop,
it is worth noting that it is an artifact -- an artificial creation, by a
botanist, "assembled" from natural (genetic) "media," and designed to appeal
to human tastes. As such, the "better" gardenia must mean "better for us,"
since we (or better, "our horticulturists") selected these qualities for us.
Another plant with less blossoms and foliage might produce more pollen --
better for a bee. Or more seeds -- better for a finch. It might be "better
for" the gardenia and/or its species (whatever that means) if it were
allowed to go to seed and reproduce!
And would this cultivated plant survive in the wild as well as it's wild
relatives? Probably not. Does that mean that it is not, after all, a "better
gardenia"? Note that these alternative "evaluations" apply differing
contexts to our analysis of the gardenia "per se." Without context, and a
relatum, it just makes no sense to talk of something as blankly "better."
Summing up: The issue in question amounts to this: Does nature, by itself,
have value? Can there be "natural values" without at least a sentient, and
better still a personal, evaluator? But when someone asks: "Does nature, 'by
itself,' and/or apart from persons or sentient beings, have value
significance?", the next, crucial responsive question might be: "Who Asks?!
Of course a person asks. That the question of "the inherent value of nature"
be asked at all means that a person is part of the landscape, if only in
imagination. In a sense, then, inquiring, morally conscious persons have a
"Midas touch" in that by simply inquiring about the value significance of an
object or a landscape, that object or landscape gains at least potential
value significance -- whether the inquiry by a potential beneficiary, or
simply by a disinterested "value spectator."
In a direct response to my paper, "Values in Nature," Holmes Rolston writes:12
Partridge has a light-in-the-refrigerator theory. Nothing
inside is of value until I open the door and the light comes on. Put a
little differently, we humans carry the lamp that lights up value,
although we require the fuel that nature provides. In Partridge's
metaphor, humans have "the Midas Touch;" nothing is worth anything until
our touch turns it into gold. Actual value is an event in our
consciousness, though natural items while still in the dark of value have
potential intrinsic or instrumental value.... But in nature a great deal
is going on in the dark, outside of our evaluating consciousness...
The "no value without a valuer" account can seem persuasive,
just as there are no thoughts without a thinker, no tickles without somebody
there. The claim is indeed true of some kinds of value. But values are not
always felt, unlike tickles; and values do not always have to be thought
about. Insentient organisms are the holders of values, although not the
beholders of value.
I replied13 that I have rarely felt more troubled while composing a paper,
than I felt while at work on "Values in Nature," for that analysis of the
concept of "value" led me toward a conclusion that I dearly wished to avoid,
and away from positions that I cherished -- positions defended and expounded
by first-rate eco-philosophers such as Holmes Rolston.
And yet, how could I make any sense of a "value" without an "evaluator" that
was in any significant sense different from a simple "property"? Try as I
might, I could not. And so, what remained was a steadfast attempt to avoid
the traps of anthropocentrism and subjectivism that seemed to be entailed by
the [transactional view] to which my argument apparently led me. If I was to
avoid those "traps," it would be by insisting that a sentient "evaluator"
was not the center of evaluation but rather a necessary ingredient thereof;
in other words, that nature is indeed rich in valu-able things,
properties, potentialities and events, ready to be discovered -- all of
great worth, once an evaluator enters the picture, even if only
hypothetically and in contemplation.
If values in nature are as I describe them, then they exist all around us,
in (by definition) all the nature that we can ever encounter, think about,
imagine and cherish. What more value could we possibly need to totally
involve our environmental concern, our commitment, and our love?
7. ECOSYSTEMIC HEALTH
What word might best apply to an ecosystem that is stable,
robust, and sustainable -- albeit (as disequilibrium ecologists insist), in
In addition to the words just enumerated ("stable," "robust,"
"sustainable"), the words "integrity" and "health" have been suggested. Of
these, "health" appears to have "caught on" more than the others, and so I
will use it.
In June, 1994, a meeting was convened in Ottawa, Canada, to examine the
concept "ecosystem health." The gathering of nearly 900 individuals included
scientists, policy makers, and resource management professionals. Not
surprisingly, they conference did not come up with a clear and unanimous
agreement as to the meaning of "ecosystem health."
The following year, the journal
Ecosystem Health commenced
As Kristin Shrader-Frechette reports, while ecosystem health "is an
important policy concept" there are several reasons while it will not do as
a scientific concept. She continues:
... ecologists cannot specify a precise reference point
against which to measure loss of ecosystem health. Also, because there is
no precise consensus on what constitutes vital signs of ecosystems, there
are no agreed-upon state variables and therefore no simple rigorous models
for measuring the ecosystem health.
Obviously, it is unclear whether ecosystem health can be applied to the
precise degree that some scientists and policymakers would like. Consensus
is not yet possible, in part, because there is disagreement about the
extent to which ecosystem health is a qualitative as well as quantitative
concept, art as well as science. (457).
As Shrader-Frechette suggests in her critique of Westra's
similar concept of "ecosystem integrity," the concept of "ecosystem health"
suffers from the problem of "stipulation. Ask a few ecologists, or resource
managers, or educators, or activists, how they would prefer to define
"ecosystem health," and you would get as many different answers, likely more
or less drawn from a medical analogy of personal health. And, of course,
there are no available "objective" grounds for choosing among these
Here is a sample of some of those stipulations.
Ecologist, James Karr:
Webster's dictionaries define health as a
flourishing condition, well-being, vitality, or propensity. A healthy
person is free from physical disease or pain; a healthy person is sound in
mind, body, and spirit. An organism is healthy when it performs all its
vital functions normally and properly, when it is able to recover from
normal stresses, when it requires minimal outside care. The country is
healthy when a flourishing economy provides for the well-being of the
citizens. And environment is healthy when the supply of goods and services
required by both human and nonhuman residents is sustained. Health is
short for "good condition." (Karr, 211).
A biological system, whether individual or ecological, can be considered
healthy when its inherent potential is realized, its condition is stable,
its capacity for self repair when perturbed is preserved, and minimal
external support for management is needed.14 (229)
...an ecological system has maintained its integrity -- a
stronger concept that includes the conditions of health -- if it retains
(1) the total diversity of the system -- the sum total of species and
associations that have held sway historically -- and (2) the systematic
organization with maintains that diversity, including, especially, the
systems multiple layers of complexity to time."
Complexity is directly related to self-organization, and these
characteristics are the essence of ecosystem health and integrity.
Finally (and my favorite), Robert Costanza:
An ecological system is healthy and free from "distress
syndrome" if it is stable and sustainable -- that is, if it is active and
maintains its organization and autonomy over time and is resilient to
stress. Ecosystem health is thus closely linked to the idea of
sustainability, which is seen to be a comprehensive, multi-scale, dynamic
measure of system resilience, organization, and vigor. This definition is
applicable to all complex systems from cells to ecosystems to economic
systems (hence it is comprehensive and multi-scale) and allows for the
fact that systems may be growing and developing as a result of both
natural and cultural influences. According to this definition, the
diseased system is one of that is not sustainable and will eventually
cease to exist. The time and space frame are obviously important in this
definition. Individual organisms are not sustainable indefinitely, but the
populations and ecosystems of which they are apart may be sustainable
indefinitely. Distress syndrome refers to the irreversible process of
system breakdown leading to death. To be healthy and sustainable, a system
must maintain its metabolic activity level as well as its internal
structure and organization.
Prominent in my definition of a "healthy ecosystem" would be
these properties: self- organization, self-repair, self-maintenance,
robustness (strong defense), stability and sustainability.
But which to choose? They are all, as noted,
stipulations -- personal
Perhaps our elaborated account of "wildness" might provide an empirical
grounding, with which we might sort these out and identify the most
prominent criteria, or "markers," of ecosystem health -- the means, that is,
by which we might "diagnose" the state of health of "disease" of the next
ecosystem that we encounter and study.
I propose, then, that we call "ecosystemic health" the condition attained by
natural ("wild") ecosystems (with no anthropogenic influences, past or
present), at the "climax" stage (production and respiration equal and a rate
of structural and functional change diminished though not static), in a
constant abiotic (climatic and geomorphological) environment. Once again,
these are "ideal types," approximated but never fully attained in the
Given this "model" of ecosystemic health, "the stipulation problem" is
avoided, as the question of additional characteristics -- complexity,
robustness, stability, inter-relatedness, etc. -- becomes an empirical
question: Do these "wild" areas have these putative additional qualities, or
do they not?
How then are we to evaluate the "health" of artificial ecosystems -- in
particular, three types of artificial ecosystems:
Recovered: The area has been severely damaged by
human activity, and is allowed to regenerate undisturbed, as natural
processes "take over." (Examples: Abandoned and eroded farms in temperate
climates, forested tropical agricultural plots that "give out" and are
abandoned, some clear-cut forests).
Restored: The damaged area is "nurtured," as
species are "planted" and successional stages "sped up." (Examples: other
clear-cut forests and abandoned farms, "dust-bowl" prairie regions).
Managed: Areas maintained in a steady state by
human interventions. (Examples: farm wood lots, some national parks).
Such systems can be judged to be "healthy" if they exemplify conditions,
noted above, that are found in natural ecosystems.
However, there is a paradox here: "natural recovery" and "natural
restoration" might be impossible, due to area and boundary conditions. For
example, mega-fauna (large top carnivores, such as grizzly bears and lions,
or large ungulates such as moose) can only survive in expansive habitats. In
addition, the boundaries of the area may be settled, and may contain exotic
species that "invade" the protected area. (Yellowstone Park is an excellent
Thus, although "self-management" is a condition of paradigmatic "wild
ecosystems," managed introduction and protection of some species, and
managed culling of others, may be necessary to maintain an apparently
But would this be "wild," or merely what Robert Eliot calls a "faking" of
This opens large bundle of issues, which I can't explore here. Perhaps
later, as this project develops.
8. THE CHALLENGE OF "DISEQUILIBRIUM ECOLOGY"
It is past time to identify "disequilibrium ecology."
We might best approach this task by identifying the polar opposite concept:
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
This is the simplest type of equilibrium, involving a single species and
assuming all other factors constant. The early theorists, however, went much
further. The ecosystem as a whole, when disturbed, would return to its
previous state, and this hypothesis involved numerous species and
"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
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
These, in stark contrast, are the two theories. Too stark, for they are more
caricature than an accurate description 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 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
... 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."
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,
G. Tyler Miller, Meffe and Carrol, Odum, 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 recently
published five-volume Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, 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 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."15 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... "
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
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
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
In a revision that has far-reaching implications for the
way humans see the natural world and their role in it, 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
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, more than 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"). 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).16
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." 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 by 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."
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."
Despite the "triumph" of the dis-equilibrium paradigm, there remains a
lively ghost of "the old paradigm," that is worthy of some respectful
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." 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.
Species that do not fit into 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.17
"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."
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 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: following
our account above of "wildness," "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.18 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.19
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
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
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
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.20
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.
9. 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? Recall what Sagoff had 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 [as Sagoff affirms] 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.
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, to be fair, does not condone exploitation, and in fact is, in his
own unique way, a 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." 
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
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."
I see now that this was a colossal blunder. These were not
"implications of the new ecology;" they were implications of Sagoff's
ecological nihilism. In the most important correction that I have
acknowledged since I submitted the proposal, I have determined that 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
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. When those processes
are “naturally” active, the region may be said to be “wildernessing.”
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.
In "Reconstructing Ecology," I listed these implications:
Most vulnerable is "the land ethic" of Aldo Leopold, who,
in that most quoted of all environmental maxims, wrote: "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."(7) From this,
Sagoff would strip integrity, stability and community, leaving only beauty
-- but a beauty, not of the whole, but of the component organisms and
Gone too is "Muir's maxim:" "You cannot disturb a pasque
flower without disturbing a star" -- an affirmation that "all things are
connected." Instead, we have a disconnected "hodge-podge" of independently
Furthermore, "the new ecology" challenges the notion that
"integrity" is a recognizable condition in ecosystems, and thus a
meaningful goal of environmental policy. "An ecosystem in a state of
integrity," writes Laura Westra, "comprises self-organizational processes
both in its internal relations and its external ones with adjacent
ecosystems." (9) To the contrary, Sagoff rejoins, "nature has no
'integrity' or 'well-being' of its own, and is utterly devoid of any
meaning, order, purpose, or end." 
And if Sagoff is correct, the attention of
conservationists and preservationists should be directed, not to
ecosystems, but to individual organisms and to species. In particular,
"wilderness preservation" is a meaningless and pointless enterprise.(8)
If one reviews these items carefully, it should become clear
that it is Sagoff's ecological nihilism, not disequilibrium ecology, that
bears these implications. Meanwhile, "the new 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 these maxims of
environmental ethics essentially untouched.
Also untouched is the unresolved environmental ethical problem of "grading"
-- of establishing criteria of "ecosystemic health" and "integrity" is a
practically urgent enterprise. And yet this issue is implicit in all
environmental activism and policy-making -- a point that we stressed at the
very beginning of this essay.
It is the issue that I will be most concerned with in the continuing work on
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.
Several topics have been bypassed in this paper which
clearly belong here. Among them:
Are "nature" and "wildness" social constructs? Here we address
challenges brought forth by "post-modernists" -- in particular, the degree
to which we can get outside our cultural "skins" and achieve authentic
This is how I perceived the issue in the supplement to the project proposal:
" whether concepts such as "wildness" and "natural ecosystems" refer to
conditions that are objectively defined and determinable, or whether, on the
other hand, they reflect historical and cultural factors, or even political
agendas. In other words, the issue is whether "wild" and "natural"
ecosystems are "discovered" and identified, or whether they are
"constructed" from our biases and norms. Or (still more likely) whether such
concepts as of "wildness" and "naturalness' somehow combine both objectively
identifiable conditions and cultural constructions. If so, [then] what is
the mode of this "combination"?
"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"?
What is the scientific status of ecology? If, as I intend, this paper
serves as the scaffolding of an eventual book, my published papers "Values
in Nature" and "Reconstructing Ecology" will be incorporated (revised and
expanded, of course). Because the latter paper has addressed Sagoff's
challenge to theoretical ecology, I will turn to another serious challenge:
that of Shrader- Frechette and McCoy who argue, in their book, Method in
Ecology, 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." I am not convinced. First of all, contrary to
their allegation, there appear to be too many "deductively useful"
hypotheses and theories that are put to work by ecologists; and second,
"natural history" is not simply a "first stage" that comes "before" a mature
theoretical science. Instead, theory and observation are iterative: without
theory supplying criteria of "relevance" in observation, field work is
random and unproductive. Theory guides observation, which in return enriches
These topics, and more, will be incorporated into the work in progress.
The largest task before me is to analyze, clarify, and if possible establish
an empirical foundation for "the wildness criterion" -- the suggestion that
the structure and functioning of "finished" natural ecosystems are the best
available models of ecosystemic "health" (or whatever term one chooses to
refer to an objectively "good" ecosystem). Some of the most recent work of
E. O. Wilson promises to be very useful for this purpose. A serious
complication to this enterprise is the difficulty in finding suitable
"samples" of undisturbed ecosystems, in a world that is becoming ever-more "artificialized."
"Pristine nature" is an ideal that can only be approximated. It is an open
question whether or not a study of the "most wild" areas can provide
sufficient data to reconstruct a conceptual model of "nature before and
apart from humans."
This paper has turned out to be both more and less than I anticipated when I
began it. I had hoped to come up with one or two publishable papers, and to
have them submitted soon after completion of this paper. I have failed to
accomplish this goal -- perhaps fortunately, for this paper may be a
"seedbed" for many papers to follow. It has defined several topics worthy of
exploration and refinement, it has assembled the work that I have done on
these topics, clarified and organized my thoughts about these issues, and it
has clearly indicated the work remaining. That is a worthy accomplishment.
1. Incorporating my unpublished essay of the
same name, found at The Online Gadfly.
2. J. Baird Callicott, "Do Deconstructive Ecology and
Sociobiology Undermine Leopold's Land Ethics?" Environmental Ethics 18
(1996), p. 371. In the Summer, 1999 issue of the same journal, Max Oelschlaeger replies with an argument similar to mine ("On the Conflations
Humans and Nature"). However, the ideas that I express in this piece, and
have routinely presented to students over the past twenty years, extend back
at least to the publication of McPhee's book in 1971.
3. Psychological Egoism ("all acts are selfishly motivated")
should not be confused with Ethical Egoism ("one's primary moral obligation
is to oneself"), notoriously championed by Ayn Rand. The arguments against
Ethical Egoism are subtle and complicated, and far beyond the scope of this
piece. While I have not published lengthy arguments against this ethical
theory, my dissent is evident in "Why Care About the Future?," (in Partridge
(ed), Responsibilities to Future Generations, Buffalo: Prometheus Books,
1981), and Sections V - VII of "Nature as a Moral Resource." (Environmental
Ethics, 6:2 (Summer, 1984).
4. A similar argument may be made against George Berkeley's
subjective idealism, also familiar to most students of Introductory
Philosophy: "to be is to be perceived," i.e. all that exists are mind and
their ideas - matter is illusory. But that too is beyond the scope of this
http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/sustain.htm . Ernest Partridge, “In
Search of Sustainable Values,” The International Journal of
Sustainability, 6:1, 2003
7. D.M. Etheridge, L.P. Steele, R.L. Langenfelds, R.J.
Francey, J.-M. Barnola and V.I. Morgan. 1998. “Historical CO2 records from
the Law Dome DE08, DE08-2, and DSS ice cores. In Trends: A Compendium of
Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center,” Oak
Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn.,
8. “Current Greenhouse Gas Concentrations,” T.J. Blasing and
Sonja Jones, Updated November 2003.
9. See “The Entropy Trap” section of my “Perilous Optimism.”
http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/cornuc.htm . “Gefaerlicher Optimismus,”
Natur und Kultur, Summer, 2001 (in German). Reprinted as “The Perils of
Panglossism,” Global Dialog, Winter, 2002.
10. “Values in Nature: Is Anybody There?”
Inquiry, 8:12 (Winter-Spring, 1986). Reprinted in Louis Pojman (ed):
Environmental Ethics, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998). In
the following text, I will “import” a few paragraph-size “chunks” of the
published paper (1998). While I will identify the “borrowings” in end notes,
I will not indicate them with quotations or indentations, on the assumption
that “auto-plagiarism” is forgivable.
11. Tom Regan: "What Sorts of Beings Can Have Rights?", in
All that Dwell Within, University of California Press, 1982, p. 179.
12. Holmes Rolston: “Values at Stake: Does Anything Matter”
A Response to Ernest Partridge,” Environmental Ethics, ed. Louis Pojman,
Wadsworth, 1989, pp. 88-90.
13. The remainder of this section is taken, word for word,
from my “Discovering a World of Values: A Response to Rolson,” Pojman, op.
14. Similarly, Karr defines biological integrity as “the
capacity to support and maintain a balanced, integrated, adaptive biological
system having the full range of elements (genes, species, and assemblages)
and processes (mutation, demography, biotic interactions, nutrient and
energy dynamics, and meta-population processes) expected in the natural
habitat of a region.” Karr and Chu, 1995. (See Westra, Miller, Karr –
Integrity, p. 23).
15. Cited by Woods. P. 22-3.
16. 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.
17 Due to time constraints, I am “importing” the following
six paragraphs, with some alterations, from my published paper,
“Reconstructing Ecology” (pp. 82-3).
18 “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)
19 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
20. 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,
Botkin, Daniel B., Discordant Harmonies, Oxford
University Press, 1990.
Botkin, Daniel B., “A Grandfather Clock down the Staircase: Stability and
Disturbance in Natural Ecosystems,” Forests: Fresh Perspectives from
Ecosystem Analysis, Proceedings of the 40th Annual Biology Colloquium,
Oregon State University, 1980.
Botkin, Daniel B., “The Biology of Wilderness,”
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.
Callicott, J. Baird : "Do Deconstructive Ecology and Sociobiology Undermine
Leopold's Land Ethics?" Environmental Ethics 18 (1996).
Silent Spring, Fawcett Crest, 1962.
Costanza, Robert: “Toward an Operational Definition of Ecosystem Health,”
Ecosystem Health, R. Costanza, B. G. Norton and B. D. Haskell eds.,
Washington: Island Press, 1992.
Dobson, Andy P. and A. D. Bradshaw, A. J. M. Baker: “Hopes for the Future:
Restoration Ecology and Conservation Biology,” Science, 277, July 25,
1997, p. 515-522.
Elliot, Robert: Faking Nature, London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1997.
Helford, Reid M., 1999, "Rediscovering the Presettlement Landscape: Makeing
the Oak Savanna Ecosystem 'Real,'" Science, Technology and Human Values,
(24:1, Winter, 1999), p. 25
Karr, James R.: “Health, Integrity, and Biological Assessment: The
Importance of Measuring Whole Things,” Ecological Integrity, D.
Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss, eds, Island Press, 2000, p. 209.
Karr, James R and E. W. Chu, “Ecological Integrity: Reclaiming Lost
Connections,” Perspectives on Ecological Integrity, Netherlands:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995, p. 34.
Kaiser, Jocelyn: “Rift Over Biodiversity Divides Ecologists,”
289, August 25, 2000, p. 1282.
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.
Miller, Peter and William E. Rees: “Introduction” (to Ecological Integrity),
Ecological Integrity, D. Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss, eds,
Island Press, 2000, p. 3.
Norton, Bryan G.: “A New Paradigm for Environmental Management,”
Ecosystem Health, R. Costanza, B. G. Norton and B. D. Haskell eds.,
Washington: Island Press, 1992., p. 23.
McPhee, John: Encounters with the Archdruid, New York: Farrer,
Strauss & Giroux, 1971.
Moore, Peter D.: “A Never-Ending Story,”
Nature, 409, February, 2001,
Odum, Eugene P: Ecology, Sinauer, 1997.
Odum, Eugene P.: “Great Ideas in Ecology for the 1990s,”
42:7, July/Augustm 1992, p. 542
Odum, Eugene P.: “The Strategy of Ecosystem Development,”
164, April 18, 1969, p. 262.
Partridge, Ernest: “Reconstructing Ecology,”
Ecological Integrity, D.
Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss, eds, Island Press, 2000, p. 79-97
Pimm, Stuart L.: “The Value of Everything,” Nature, May 5, 1998.
Raven, Peter H. and Linda R. Berg, George B. Johnson: Environment,
Saunders College Publishing, 1993.
Sagoff, Mark: “Ecosystem Design in Historical and Philosophical Context,”
Ecological Integrity, D. Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss, eds, Island
Press, 2000, p. 61.
Sagoff, Mark: “Has Nature a Good of its Own?,” Ecological Integrity,
D. Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss, eds, Island Press, 2000, p. 57.
Sagoff, Mark: “Muddle or Muddle Through? Takings Jurisprudence Meets the
Endangered Species Act,” College of William and Mary Law Review, 38:3
Sagoff, Mark: “The Value of Integrity,” Perspectives on Ecological
Integrity, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995, p. 162.
Shrader-Frechette, Kristin: “Ecosystem Health: A New Paradigm for Ecological
Assessment?,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 9:12, December, 1994,
Shrader-Frechette, Kristin: “Hard Ecology, Soft Ecology, and Ecosystem
Integrity,” Perspectives on Ecological Integrity, Netherlands: Kluwer
Academic Publishers, 1995, p. 125.
Shrader-Frechette, Kristin and E. D. McCoy,
Method in Ecology,
Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Soule, Michael E. and Gary Lease:
Reinventing Nature?, Island Press,
Stevens, William K.: “New Eye on Nature: The Real Constant is Eternal
Turmoil,” New York Times, July 31, 1990.
Westra, Laura and Peter Miller, James R. Karr, William E. Rees, Robert E.
Ulanowics, “Ecological Integrity and the Aims of the Global Integrity
Project,” Ecological Integrity, D. Pimentel, L Westra, and R. F. Noss,
eds, Island Press, 2000, p. 19.
Woods, Mark: “Upsetting the Balance of Nature: Can Wilderness Preservation
Survive the New Ecology?” paper presented at a meeting of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, March 1998, Los Angeles.