Balance of Nature

Earlier this month I was linked to this article on Flower. As an ecologist who works in urban spaces it was fascinating to me, and described something close to my own experience playing Flower. I really wish I'd written something like it, particularly the parts about breaking down the separation between humans and nature. On another level, the article suffers from what I have been known to call 'Matrix ecology' -- a poor choice of terminology, since matrix usually means something else in landscape ecology. I should possibly call it something more like 'popular culture ecology'.

(Tangent: computers and ecology seem to have a few awkward terminology overlaps. We've also started talking about 'landscape defragmentation'.)

Most people probably remember this rant from Agent Smith in The Matrix:

I'd like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realised that humans are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. The only way for you to survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern... a virus.

Kyle MacGregor's Flower article follows a similar idea:

The earth once was a healthy functioning ecosystem. In many ways ecosystems function like individual organisms. If the earth were a single organism, than all life on earth would be in symbiosis with that ecosystem. Most terrestrial life has either a commensalistic or mutualistic relationship with the planet. However, in recent history the human race has become a parasite.

These views come back to the idea of the Balance of Nature, which suggests that in the absence of disturbances (such as humans messing with things), natural mechanisms will maintain a stable equilibrium. There is also more than a hint here of the form of Gaia theory that considers the earth like a single organism, with all parts working together in harmony.

That's sweet and all, but to me this is a mix of outdated theory and pseudoscience. There is nothing fundamentally different about the animal and human approach to resources, it's more a difference of scale. Yes, humans are having massive impacts on ecosystems, and I'd like to see us take more responsibility for that. But it's not because we are particularly different to other animals.

Ecosystems do not function like individual organisms, and do not tend to exist in a stable balance. Disturbance is a normal part of the world. People seem very attached to the idea of nature as stable rather than chaotic, though. Something about this balance idea has wormed its way into popular mindsets. Humans are attracted to balance and stability, while nature itself has no such preference.

Druids in Dungeons & Dragons must have a neutral element to their alignment and are concerned with maintaining the natural balance. These D&D druids will get into trouble with their society (and deity) if they set fire to vegetation, or fail to protect nature from that 'destruction' to the best of their ability. In reality, fire can be very important to vegetation, and many plants require it for reproduction (there are numerous examples of this here in Australia). The best caretakers of the land know how to manage disturbances like fire, not just suppress them. Well-meaning conservationists did a lot of damage before they worked that out.

Science has at least partly moved on, but the idea hasn't died away yet. Druid land management based on balance and preventing disturbance is probably found somewhere in just about every fantasy roleplaying game ever produced. There are a heap of quests in World of Warcraft that act as fairly recent examples.

Fantasy often presents nature as a kind of mystic entity, which is fine, but it's a benign, fair kind of nature that a lot of fantasy focuses on. I didn't think people really believed that, but that may well be because I'm too close to the topic. These ideas do seem to keep coming up in places where I don't expect them.

I don't know much about Kyle MacGregor, but his profile says he's working on a B.A. in Environmental Studies, so that's good reason to be interested in these ideas. The Arts approach to Environmentalism is likely to be rather different to my Science approach. I don't know what those courses involve, but here's hoping it sets some things straight. I don't really mean to pick on him specifically, since it's a very common view. But I'd like to see people learning and changing these ideas.

Further reading: How nature really works - new ecology (Their comparison to Galileo is poor though, he lacked good evidence for his theories and pushed them anyway, which really is arrogance.)