Discordant Harmonies - Daniel B. BotkinsteemCreated with Sketch.

in nature •  8 months ago


Is nature intrinsically harmonious or inharmonious?

Mainstream ecologists would probably reply, "Harmonious, of course. Everything is interconnected in a beautiful web of smoothly running adaptation."

Others might reply, "Inharmonious, of course. Upheavals and black swans abound, and nature is replete with fits and starts of evolution and abrupt climate alterations."

I would probably reply, "Both, in due course. Everything, from the living to nonliving realms, are tightly interconnected and codependent, but the one does not always help the other. For example, take non-avian dinosaur extinction at the hand of a comet. Very inharmonious. Symbiosis, on the other hand, is harmonious by definition."

Ecology has a problem that a lot of other sub-disciplines of biology are not plagued with: scale. Whenever an idea or problem or solution is scaled up, it is rarely harmonious because of the multiplying complexities at each "higher" level. For example, ecology is the interaction of every living organisms with every nonliving entity in a given area, and scaled all the way up, at the level of the entire biosphere. Given the fact that we can't predict the weather tomorrow with much accuracy, it's not really surprising that ecology is a messy science at best.

Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century by Daniel B. Botkin is a study in the inharmonious nature of, well, nature. He poses four central questions ecologists attempt to answer, adapted from C. J. Glacken's Traces on the Rhodian Shore:

  1. What is the character of nature undisturbed by human influence?
  2. What are the effects of nature on human being [sic] - on individuals as well as civilization and culture?
  3. What is the role or purpose of people in nature?
  4. What are the effects of human beings - as individuals and as societies - on the living nonhuman world?

Let us briefly and superficially explore each in turn.

What is the character of nature undisturbed by human influence?

It should be obvious that we cannot answer this question. We'll never be able to observe anything we're present to observe. However, I believe there is value in attempting to answer this question as best we can.
Let us return to dinosaurs. An extreme example, it shows that even without human influence, many species can go extinct rather rapidly. Indeed, most species go extinct, and that probably is the destiny of all species, including our own (if one looks far enough into the future, i.e., the heat death of the universe). Therefore, we should not assume that nature undisturbed by human influence is static and Utopian.

What are the effects of nature on human beings - on individuals as well as civilization and culture?

Many, I would answer. Nature and the services it offers (clean air and clean water, foremost) are invaluable to humans. Weather and geologic forces can have catastrophic effects on individuals and civilization. More ethereally, we associate those "close with nature" to be more balanced and insightful individuals (think Thoreau). I am no expert in anthropology, so my thoughts on this question end here.

What is the role or purpose of people in nature?

On an individual basis, people play the same role as every other living thing - to survive and reproduce. Using this truth as a springboard, people's role in nature is clear: use nature to your advantage and benefit, which may seem callous. Luckily, however, many people find solace in nature and satisfaction in conservation, and everybody understands the intrinsic value of nature, so I'm going to take an unorthodox stance: despite our massive population size, I don't think we're in much danger of overusing or abusing nature, because so many of us understand the intrinsic value of nature, and we have astonishing technologies to mitigate our impacts (think carbon emissions).

What are the effects of human beings - as individuals and as societies - on the living nonhuman world?

This question reminds me of an old story. It goes something like this (creative liberties taken!): a girl is walking along a beach at low tide, tossing seashells back into the sea. A woman approaches, and asks "Why bother? There are so many seashells washed up, you'll never get them all back into the ocean." The girl replies, "It matters to this one" as she tosses one in.
Despite the obvious flaw in this story (clams etc. can obviously have some nonzero survival rate at low tide, since the tide eventually comes back up), it illustrates an important point: individuals can and do have an impact on the environment, despite our seeming insignificance. Societies have an even greater impact, which we usually think of in negative terms. Think of the droughts and wildfires in California, brought about (presumably) by overuse of water and depletion of aquifers in the case of droughts and by reduction (micromanagement) of wildfires and droughts in the case of wildfires. However, individuals and societies can have positive impacts. The strange case of Pere David's Deer illustrates the positive impacts an individual can have on preventing the extinction of an entire species. Pere Armand David, a French missionary to China in the 1800's, either diplomatically or illegally (depending on which narrative you read) transported or facilitated the transport of a few (probably 15) to Europe, whereby after a series of mishaps, including the Boxer Rebellion, wiped out all the deer in its native China. Eventually, the deer were reintroduced to China from the tiny population in England. Here is a YouTube tale of them, and here is a blog about them.
The binational (U.S. and Mexico) agreement in 1978 to save Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles is evidence for how societies can cooperate to save species from extinction. Since then, Kemp's Ridley numbers have rebounded markedly, from ~ 100,000 nests in 1947 down to 702 nests in 1985 back up to 20,000 nests in 2011 at a single nesting beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico.

In Conclusion

These are four succinct and important questions that every ecologist must address. I am looking forward to educating myself further in each of these areas of inquiry. In my vastly uninformed opinion, however, I think that more specific questions such as "How do we combat negative anthropogenic effects on the climate?" and "How do we resolve conservation conflicts between the geographic and political borders of species?" must be framed in terms of these four overarching questions. Our species, unarguably the most powerful species ever to have existed, is likely here to stay, at least until the heat death of the universe.

Postscript

As an interesting exercise, go to Pixabay (where I retrieved the image for this article) and type in "harmony," then compare the number of results that include musical references versus references to nature.

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