Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge

This is a briefer version of "Nature For Better or Worse,"
of a length suitable for a public presentation.



The idea that nature can be harmed appears to be intuitively indisputable. Even so, some disturbing arguments contend that nature, human interests aside, can not meaningfully be said to be intrinsically "harmed." Two such arguments are critically examined: (1) that due to anthropogenic alterations in the atmosphere, "pure nature" no longer exists (McKibben), and (2) that because nature is in constant flux and thus achieves no "ideal" or "end-states," no state can be said to be better or worse than another (disequilibrium ecology). I conclude that nature ("itself") can be said to be "harmed" when natural ecological processes of self- organization, self-repair, self-maintenance, and negentropic "ascendancy" are disrupted, thus damaging the robustness, stability and sustainability of the system. "Disequilibrium ecology," far from refuting the concept of natural harm, enriches our understanding of it, and enhances our capacity to effectively manage wild areas.

1. Nature as Vulnerable

2. Does any "Nature" remain to be harmed?

3. "Disequilibrium Ecology:" The Revolution that Isn’t

4. Ecosystemic Health.

5. Can Nature be Harmed?



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" and "disintegrated."

I am not questioning the obvious fact that natural areas, as habitats or resources, can be more or less valuable or harmful to individual humans and to human societies. My question is more fundamental: can natural areas and systems, in any axiological or empirical sense, be said to be "harmed" intrinsically?

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 "graded," which is to say, judged to be in "better" or "worse" condition, and thus, in identifiable instances, worthy of "protection," or in need of "restoration."

The pre-supposition that natural areas and systems can be graded is fundamental to environmental ethics and policy, for if the science of ecology 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.

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. When the Amazon forest cleared and briefly farmed or ranched, the soil hardens to a brick-like laterite, and an empty wasteland remains.

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 lake-bed.

In such cases, and many more, thriving ecosystems have been destroyed and replaced by simpler and less abundant ecosystems. Furthermore, most individuals would observe that in such cases 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.

In this essay, I will critically examine two arguments that contend, implicitly or explicitly, that various states of nature can not meaningfully be assessed as "better" or worse," as "healthy" or "unhealthy," or as "benefitted" or "harmed."1 Through these analyses, I will gather grounds for concluding that natural ecosystems can, in fact, be "harmed," and conversely that nature can be meaningfully protected, preserved, and even restored.



The very idea that all nature on the earth’s surface has vanished 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, asteroid impacts -- are natural..

But life forms and life communities at the surface? None of these are "totally natural."

This, briefly, is the contention of Bill McKibben in his popular book The End of Nature.2

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.3 Today it is in excess of 370 ppm.4 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 (CFCs).

Not even the oceans are unaffected, for ultra-violet radiation, increased by ozone depletion, is deleterious to phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic trophic pyramid. Furthermore, the increased CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing the acidity of the ocean with devastating effects upon coral and crustaceans.5

"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" (i.e., most "natural") 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.

If we choose to identify all of the earth's surface as "equally artificial," we will stipulate the abolition of the concept, "natural," and the "natural-artificial" distinction that is essential to science, public policy, and ordinary discourse. Not unlike the opposite abolition of the concept of "artificial" by stipulating that "natural" is to mean according to natural law, which, by definition, includes all human activity.6

And yet the interior of the Amazon forest is surely more "wild" than the cut, tilled, and abandoned laterite wasteland that was once a part of that forest.

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. Accordingly, landscapes and ecosystems can be said to be more or less "natural" -- or, as I would prefer now to call it, "wild."

Defining "Wildness." With these considerations in mind, we might present and defend provisional criteria of "wildness" -- properties by which we might assess the degree of wildness of a landscape, region, or ecosystem. 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 life, photosynthesis.

The solar flux provides abiotic energy and its consequences: wind, precipitation, flowing and collected water (streams and lakes). Photosynthesis provides "the energy of life:" 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 herbivores, then the primary carnivores, then the higher-order carnivores, then the decomposers, back to the producers. In a fully "natural" ecosystem, there is no "pollution." One organism’s waste is another’s resource.

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.7  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, what Robert Ulanowicz (1992) calls "ascendance." 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, or very rarely, asteroid impacts) pass through a succession of staged development toward 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 we will discuss below, 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 in nature

By this account, nature can be "harmed" by catastrophic (entropic) "setbacks," both natural (earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids) and artificial (wildfires, clearcutting, overfishing, pollution, etc.). Conversely, natural areas and ecosystems are benefitted as natural forces, driven by solar energy and undisturbed by external perturbations, cause the resident life communities to increase (negentropically) in diversity, complexity and stability, through speciation, competition, symbiosis, co-evolution and other ecological mechanisms.



Suppose that natural ecosystems (undisturbed by human interventions) change constantly, never achieving a final "climax" stage, and never "in balance." This is the contention of "disequilibrium ecology," well articulated by Daniel Botkin: "Wherever we seek to find constancy, we discover change. [We find] that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space." (1990, 62).

Would it not follow that any condition of nature is just as "good" or "bad," as "healthy" or "unhealthy," or dare we say "natural" or "unnatural" as any other?8 If so, does it not follow that nature can not, in any meaningful sense, be "harmed"?

Simply stated, the disequilibrium model of ecology is almost certainly correct and is universally accepted by ecologists. However, as I will argue below, it does not follow that ecosystems can not be identified as "healthy," or that ecologists can not recognize a "harming" of nature. In fact, most conservation biologists, while affirming disequilibrium, are capable of evaluating and grading conditions of nature.

"Disequilibrium" is regarded by some as a "revolution," in ecology. As William K. Stevens reported in The New York Times, on July 31, 1990:

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 stable....

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

Now the accumulation of evidence is gradually led many ecologists to abandon the concept or declare it irrelevant, and others to alter drastically. They say that nature is actually in a continuing state of disturbance and fluctuation. Change and turmoil, 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....

Or consider Daniel Botkin's characterization of "traditional ecological wisdom:"

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

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

And, says Botkin, "it is wrong!"

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 in the 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 me9 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 "disequilibrium" in the title.

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.

The alleged proponents of "the old ecology," 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."10 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... " (1992, 52)

And so it appears that among active ecologists, or even their predecessors, there really isn't all that much "competition" between the concepts of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Furthermore, it is doubtful that any working ecologists believe in anything close to "perfect equilibrium" in natural ecosystems. And yet, prominent contemporary ecologists do not hesitate to recognize "harm" to ecosystems and natural areas. They accomplish this accommodation by pointing out that disequilibrium is not equivalent to chaos.

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. A commonplace 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."

Early ecological theorists posited similar mechanisms in life-communities. Given a constancy in all external factors (parameters), the population of a species is held constant by its food supply and its surplus reproductive rate. Above the optimum (the "carrying capacity"), starvation brings the numbers down. Below the optimum, "feeding opportunity" allows growth up to carrying capacity. This is the simplest type of equilibrium, involving a single species and assuming all other factors constant. The early theorists, however, went much further. The ecosystem as a whole, when disturbed, would return to its previous state, and this hypothesis involved numerous species and populations.

"Disequilibrium ecologists" reject the central premise of equilibrium theory: return to the previous state. Instead, they point out, disturbance in the system results in a new state. Still worse, there is no "perfect balance" in nature to be disturbed. The "natural condition" of an ecosystem is imbalance, and hence constant change. Furthermore, says the disequilibrium ecologist, while natural laws are (by definition) constant, the natural (and now the artificial) contexts of ecosystems are in perpetual flux. Climate changes, species migrate in, endemic species are decimated by pathogens, mutations lead to novel modes of adaptation, new niche opportunities appear leading to speciation, etc. Thus the equilibrium ecologist's theoretical frame of "all else being constant" is so far-fetched and unrealistic as to make the theory of ecosystemic equilibrium utterly inapplicable to "the real world."

However, the rejection of the equilibrium paradigm does not entail the abandonment of the concept of the ecosystem: of the dynamic interaction of species and populations in modes and patterns that can be identified, defined, abstracted, and applied to all systems.

For example, Daniel Botkin, a leading exponent of disequilibrium ecology, 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." (1990, 7)

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

Despite the "triumph" of the disequilibrium paradigm, there remains a lively ghost of "the old paradigm," that is worthy of some respectful attention. For while the "steady-state" equilibrial ecosystem may be a dead issue, on the other hand, it is equally doubtful that any ecologists believe that ecosystems are totally chaotic. 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.

And so, while no ecologists still maintain that "balance, equilibrium and resilience" are ever perfectly exemplified in nature, or that a "climax community" ever completely static, these concepts, after all, describe "tendencies." The difference in succession between "recovery" stages and a "climax" stage is the pace of change and growth in the recovery stages, vs. an equalization of gross production and respiration (growth and decay of biomass) in the climax stage.11 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.12

To further complicate matters, the term "equilibrium" is vague and ambiguous. In some interpretations, ecology is well rid of it. In other senses, it remains a useful concept. To put it another way, equilibrium "versus" disequilibrium might be regarded as a "glass half-full / half-empty" sort of "dispute" -- in fact, no dispute at all, but rather two sides of the same coin. The "equilibrium perspective" focuses on self-maintenance and self repair, mechanisms that draw the system toward (but never achieving) balance. The "disequilibrium perspective" deals with forces that constantly throw the system off-balance and in need of "repair." A complete ecological theory blends both perspectives.

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

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

Walking also illustrates two logically stratified "orders" of equilibrium/disequilibrium: a person who is walking is in a repeated state of disequilibrium, rhythmically interrupted by recoveries. This is first-order disequilibrium. But the (second order) activity of walking is stable, and the (first-order) fall-recovery sequence is secure, progressive and confidently goal-oriented. Thus a walk exhibits second-order equilibrium.

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

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 some 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 -- remains a tenable ecological concept, with the constant caveat that even this (higher order) sense of "equilibrium" is also never completely exemplified in nature.



What word might best apply to an ecosystem that is stable, robust, and sustainable, albeit (as disequilibrium ecologists insist), in constant flux?

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 furthermore, it incorporates these concepts. And so I will use it.

Prominent in my definition of a "healthy ecosystem" would be these properties: self- organization, self-repair, self-maintenance, robustness (strong defense), stability and sustainability.13

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 natural world.

Given this "model" of ecosystemic health (natural ecosystems at a climax stage), the existence of the additional characteristics -- complexity, robustness, self-repair, self-maintenance, etc. -- is open to empirical investigation: Do these "wild" areas have these putative additional qualities, or do they not? In other words, this proposed definition of "ecosystemic health" is falsifiable, and thus is not a mere stipulation.

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 example.

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 "wild" ecosystem.



We conclude that nature – not as a human resource, but nature "itself" – can meaningfully be said to be vulnerable to "harm." Nature is "harmed when external "pathogens" such as chemical pollution, sudden climate change, exotic species, human settlements, or natural catastrophes significantly alter, decrease or even stop altogether, natural processes and ecological functions that promote self-organization, self-repair, self-maintenance and thus the sustainability of the system.

The fate of the Aral Sea in central Asia is a paradigm case of ecological harm. In fact, "disaster" is a more appropriate term. Intense cotton cultivation in the watersheds of the source rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, radically reduced the inflow and brought pesticides and fertilizers into the sea. Today the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea and the site of a thriving fishing industry, has been reduced to one-tenth its original size, and only one of the remaining three lakes in the Aral basin contains fish.14

The "disequilibrium paradigm," now generally accepted by ecologists, is entirely compatible with the concept of ecological harm. However, the disequilibrium model implies a rejection of traditional "preservationist" management policies of natural areas. Consistent with Bryan Norton’s observation (1991) that "nature is more profoundly a set of processes than a collection of objects," "the new ecology" does not condone the permanent preservation of natural and wild conditions "as they are now." Instead, the disequilibrium paradigm propose the preservation of conditions that facilitate ongoing natural processes.

Proposals to 'restore' wilderness raise the question, 'restore to what condition? In the context of a theory that posits constant change, the answer is difficult, to say the least, and perhaps even meaningless. Fortunately, the question need not be answered. Instead, the contemporary ecologist replies: "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.15 Put simply, to the "old ecology," or more accurately the naive popular conception of ecology, "wilderness" and "wildness" are nouns, denoting a state of being. To today's informed ecologists, "wilderness" is a verb, denoting a bundle of processes. When those processes are "naturally" active, the region may be said to be "wilding." It thus becomes the task of the managers of national parks, wilderness areas, and other parcels of land set aside for "the preservation of nature" to promote and protect, not "wilderness," but "wilding."


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

1. Space constraints require me to set aside two additional arguments that assert that nature can not be harmed. (1) Humans are part of nature, therefore everything humans do is natural. (2) “Nature is going nowhere, has no ‘integrity’ or ‘well-bing’ of its own, and is utterly devoid of any meaning order, purpose, or end.... The terms ‘eco’ and ‘system,’ when joined, constitute an oxymoron.” (Mark Sagoff, (1997, 923). I have attempted to rebut both arguments elsewhere, the second at considerable length.  (See "Reconstructing Ecology" this site)

2.“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.” (McKibben, 45-46)

3. 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., U.S.A. http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/co2/lawdome.html 

4. . “Current Greenhouse Gas Concentrations,” T.J. Blasing and Sonja Jones, Updated November 2003.  http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/pns/current_ghg.html 

5. . “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.” (McKibben, 58)

6. "Nature changes the environment every day of our lives - why shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature." (173) Floyd Dominy (ex-Commissioner of Reclamation), recorded by John McPhee in his book, Encounters with the Archdruid. (173)

7.      "Reconstructing Ecology" this site.

8. . As Mark Sagoff poses this question: “What do w use as a baseline? Where in the flux of a biological community do we take a ‘snapshot’ and say ‘here it is in equilibrium,” or ‘here it has integrity”? ... Is th ecosystem developing toward a ‘healthy’ condition? ... “What is the criterion? These questions are unanswerable because we do not know which qualities of ecosystems are the identifying, genuine, or defining ones.” (1997, 900).

9, Among them: Eugene P,. Odum: Ecology (Sinauer, 1997), Peter Raven, Linda Berg, George Johnson: Environment (Saunders, 1993), G. Tyler Miller: Living in the Environment (Wadsworth, 1996), and Gary Meffe and C. Ronald Carroll: Principles of Conservation Biology, 2nd ed. (Sinauer, 1997).

10. . Cited by Woods. P. 22-3.

11. . “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)

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

13. . This definition of ecosystemic health closely approximates that of an interdisciplinary workshop, sponsored by the Aspen Institute in October, 1990, and reported by Robert Costanza (1992): “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.”

14. . “The Aral Sea,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_Sea

15. 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. (Meffe and Carroll, 309)


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