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The Persistence of a Popular Environmental Meme

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDecember 2, 2013 11:50 PM


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There are certain tropes that linger in the public imagination long after they've been discredited. Such is the case with the "balance of nature." In 2009, the ecologist John Kricher wrote a book about this "enduring myth," and years before that, another ecologist, Daniel Botkin, published his seminal Discordant Harmonies in 1990, which I think was the first mainstream book "to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence." The shelf life of this outdated ecological concept rankles Botkin, who last year wrote:

People give lip service to the idea that nature may not be constant, but when it comes to passing laws, setting down policies, giving advice, and deciding what to do, most of the time we act as if nature was balanced — constant. That is, as long as we stay out of the way.

He's right. The meme is still very much part of our popular environmental discourse, thanks in part to journalists (and scientists) who continue to use the term, as in this 2009 Smithsonian article and more recently, in today's New York Timespiece on the beetle infestation in New jersey's Pine Barrens:

Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature.

That scientists are still perhaps framing ecological problems this way is troubling. Botkin took note on Twitter.

Belief in the balance of nature continues, even though it never existed. See NY Times today — Daniel Botkin (@danielbotkin) December 2, 2013

Overall, though, I thought the Times story was pretty good, despite the unfortunate use of an anachronistic term that some scientists apparently remain wedded to. As it happens, earlier this year Botkin wrote (with a co-author) a nice piece about the history of the Pine Barrens and how the landscape has been shaped by both nature and humans. Today, the forest's stewards are managing multiple uses of the Pine Barrens while introducing prescribed burns to reduce the landscape's flammability (a similarly daunting challenge for land managers in the Southwest). As the Nature Conservancy observes on its science blog, environmentalists have in recent decades redefined the meaning of wetlands. Centuries ago, such waters were commonly referred to as fetid "swamps"; today, these "wetlands" are valued for their ecological services and the habitat they provide for a diversity of species. If greens can change a negative mindset about an ecosystem, as has happened with our contemporary conception of wetlands, then surely it's possible for them to help foster a less romanticized and more nuanced perspective of nature.


[Cranberry bog harvest in New Jersey Pine Barrens. Photo/NJPineBarrens]

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