The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Revisited
Daniel B. Botkin
Daniel B. Botkin is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. The author of numerous books on environmental science and policy and energy, his latest- the first I have read by him- is a return to themes about humans and our relationship to nature first explored in an earlier book Discordant Harmonies (1990).
Bringing the measured tone of a life-long scientist who has thought deeply about how we are changing nature and how nature changes, Botkins’ central thesis is that conservation policies are failing because we have failed to understand how strongly deeply felt mythologies about nature, which we often mistake for science, still influence and underpin them.
Botkin draws on more than 40 years experience in ecology bringing an extensive scope to his book, covering a wide range of environmental and conservation issues in the context of a much bigger picture of our understanding of nature, science, ecology,and environmentalism and how they are shaped by mythology.
I had previously come across Botkin in this episode of Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
This fascinating documentary actually covers very well many of the ideas Botkin discusses, weaving together the emergence of ecology as a science in the 60s as being based largely on cybernetics and the burgeoning study of systems theory, and the influence these ideas had on the environmental movement. Thus, the early scientific study of nature- which was itself shaped by emerging technology of machines with which to study nature- embedded within it the powerful metaphor of nature as machine.
Curtis explains that in the computer age these ideas have lead to a dominant ideology that we cannot really change things for the better ourselves, but that we can replace the traditional oppressive hierarchies of the past with self-regulating systems beyond our control. In the introduction to the film he says
But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human ‘self-organizing networks’ – dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory.
Botkin’s begins his story about our mythologies about nature much earlier, from the time of classical Greece philosophy which saw nature is a “Great Chain of Being”. Nature was seen as constant, in an ideal state and unchanging, with
a place for every creature, and every creature in its place; in modern parlance, that every creature and every species has its place (that is, its role and its location—its habitat) in the harmonious workings of nature and is well adapted to that habitat, and to that role, which ecologists call today a species’ niche.
This view of nature, Botkin argues, has been retained down through history, taking many different forms in theology and philosophy, and slipping almost seamlessly into the machine metaphor of the modern scientific era.
Botkin himself began his career as an ecologist in the 1960s with these traditional views firmly embedded in his mind, and as he explains in an early chapter concerning Isle Royal, a large forested island 15 miles off the shore of Lake Superior. Botkin had gone there to study moose populations in the implicit belief that there was some kind of self-regulation of vegetation, herbivore and predator populations that would always revert in time to a natural balance:
I came to the island believing what I had been taught by my ecologist mentors, that there was a balance of nature. Here, I thought, was the opportunity to find out how that balance of nature worked—what were the mechanisms by which nature in its entirety could sustain itself in constancy indefinitely? That is, I arrived with the idea that here was a place where we could come to understand how a balance of nature might be achieved by the interaction of many species with one another and with their local, nonliving environment, the assumption being that the entire island was in such a balanced state.
Of particular note was the ecologists’ use of one of the earliest computers to model population dynamics, large and cumbersome equipment in those early days that had almost laughably limited functions- “The calculator worked slowly with a great deal of whirring and clicking. It was especially slow at long-division…” The machine was “unwieldy and seemed out of place in the wilderness but the machinery within it was an apt metaphor for the concepts that dominated the science of ecology at that time. It was a machine made up of many parts, each with a place and role and each within that place and role.”
This was one of the first attempts to use models to understand natural systems, but like all models they depend on the information put into the model at the beginning, which in this case was a “balance of nature” theory. Even as the machines which by their very nature reinforced through metaphor this notion of steady-state and natural balance rapidly improved through the 1970s and 80s, yet their results were not supported, Botkin claims, by observations. As he found on Isle Royal, populations of moose and wolves and vegetation patterns proved far more random than expected. They turned out to be far more unpredictable than the models assumed.
And yet, as the science of ecology developed, its mythological basis seemed to become ever more entrenched in the minds of ecologists, and this extended into the political offshoot of ecology, environmentalism.
In the social and political movement known as environmentalism, ideas of stability may have been less formal, but the same underlying beliefs in a balance of nature dominated. It should be clear by now that although modern environmentalism seemed to be a radical movement in the 1960s and 1970s when it rose to great popularity in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, the ideas on which it was based represented a resurgence of pre-scientific myths about nature blended with early-twentieth-century studies that provided short-term and static images of nature undisturbed.
Environmentalism as a political movement then became focused around conservation, predicated on the assumption that we can know what state any given eco-system “should” be conserved at, something that becomes very problematic if the reality is that nature is always changing, and not in any kind of regular or cyclic pattern, but largely erratically and unpredictably. How is it even possible to keep a system that is changing in one state, and why? Botkin’s answer is: because deep down we still believe in the balance of nature idea inherited from pre-scientific ideas.
In the documentary Machines of Loving Grace above Adam Curtis examines this idea beyond the principle idea of conservation policies into anther idea of radical environmentalism in the 1960s, that of the commune movement, when a million young people rejected the modern urban lifestyle to move into self-built rural communes, building geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller.
Fuller’s idea about architecture and “space-ship earth” were then extended as organizing principles for the communes themselves. Humans were to model themselves on the same ideas of natural balance that ecological scientists believed explained the natural world. There were to be no hierarchies or rules, but rather the social arrangements were to be allowed to “self-organise” on the belief that natural order will emerge spontaneously amongst groups of people just as it does in nature.
I have some experience of this myself, having been involved for a few years in a couple of different communal living experiments in my younger years, both more or less based on similar utopian ideals. Everything was to be decided by “consensus” – we believed that decisions affecting the whole group could be made that would suit everyone. Any one person could block or veto a decision, as it was felt that the one dissenter might hold an important piece of wisdom for the whole group. These ideas are still influential in environmental groups today.
Consensus can and does work in some situations of course, but in the context of a live-together decide-everything-together commune, it is a recipe for disaster: as Curtis shows from archive footage and testimony from the hippy era in America, and was also certainly my own experience, an assumption of egalitarianism and non-hierarchical structures can all-too easily lead to oppression of various kinds, as power structures emerge spontaneously. The danger in the commune- and this applies also in cultish situations such as monasteries and ashrams- is that no-one is permitted to complain about it, because it is assumed to be there in any case: to challenge power in such situation would be to betray the faith in the self-regulating balance of the system.
Another early computer modeller of this era whose ideas became immensely powerful both within and without science was J.W. Forrester who developed “system dynamics”. This approach was used in the hugely influential 1972 Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth. According to Botkin,
Although the authors saw the book as forecasting a Malthusian future—exponential growth of populations, especially the human population, and linear growth of resources—they made fundamental steady-state assumptions….
At the level of metaphor, Limits to Growth repeats and reinforces the ancient balance-of-nature idea with its first interpretation of the role of man in nature: Nature achieves a perfect balance until people get into the act and, because of exponential growth, destroy that balance. Whether or not it was the intention of the authors, whether or not it was an idea so deeply embedded in their way of thinking that they were unable to formulate the dynamics of the biosphere with people in it in any other way, the result—the “output,” to put it in their terms—was to reinforce the ancient belief that had underlain the West’s approach to nature.
Also influential in bringing cybernetics and systems theory into the science of ecology were the Odum brothers, Eugene and Howard, also featuring in Curtis’ documentary. This is of particular interest to me as my own field, permaculture, is based largely on these ideas: David Holmgren’s 2003 book <em>Permaculture” Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability is dedicated to Howard Odum. The basis of permaculture is that, to redress the negative impacts humans have had on nature, and especially industrial humans, we should instead design human systems, including farming and agriculture, based on the principles of how nature works.
But how can we copy nature if we have the wrong view of nature in the first place? In much of environmentalism, perhaps most clearly in permaculture, the assumption is, if there is an ideal steady-state balance in Nature, then so must there be in human society. The problems of nature are imbalance caused by a malevolent outside influence- us- and all social malaise and disharmony has the same root cause: we have upset the balance of nature, and so we too are out of balance.
At the very core of environmentalism is the notion of sustainability- an implicit assumption that there is a knowable and desirable steady-state or end goal that can be reached. This concept exists in economics as well, and is responsible for static views of our use of resources, assumptions around a fixed carrying capacity of human population- and consequent Malthusian policies- and ideas such as Peak Oil, which fail to take account of the dynamic nature of human economies and their interplay with the environment.
How many hippies seeking to escape authority and create new utopian living arrangements, or environmentalist greens fighting to preserve a “pristine nature” that doesn’t really exist anymore, are aware that these ideas have their roots in firstly classical ideas about the great chain of Being, and secondly cybernetics, which sees nature as an orderly machine?
Both environmentalism and ecological science then are rooted in religious ideas. “even today,” says Botkin, when few ecologists subscribe anymore to the “balance of nature” thesis, “in this age when we seem to have persuaded ourselves that we have risen above mythology, most environmental policies, laws, and ideologies are consistent with (to say the least) and arguably a restatement of the beliefs about nature in that Judeo-Christian tradition.”
This attitude is perhaps most clearly expressed in Lovelock’s 2003 book The Revenge of Gaia on which Botkin comments
Therefore we must do penance, suffer for our sins, which in this case means living minimally, using only enough energy to provide the bare necessities of life and disallowing us enough energy to be creative, to develop more science and technology and further exploit and damage Earth; nor should we, by implication (perhaps unintentionally) have enough energy to be otherwise creative, even enough energy for Lovelock to write his book.
Perhaps one of Botkin’s more worrying suggestions is that much of science is so dominated by these mythologies, that we may even be at the end of a very short age of rationality.
Botkin’s most controversial application of these ideas come when he discusses climate change. His view of climate modelling is no different for the climate than for ecological populations: the are based he believes fundamentally on steady-state assumptions, which are meaningless in an ever-changing world. There is no “ideal, balanced” climate any more than there is an ideal balance in moose populations. A belief that there is can lead to disasterous policies. In an extreme case, some scientists have argued that the planet should be restored to the state in past history when its carbon stores were at the greatest they have ever been- an absurd impossibility.
this is my primary concern about the climate models, the general circulation models. When computer models are based on assumptions that contradict nature, they become a kind of pseudoscientific forecast, more like methods used by astrologers. This failing happens not only with ecological models but also with stock market forecasting methods, as was demonstrated in recent years. This is the great irony of computer models.
Although Botkin accepts that we need to be cautious about the rate and degree to which humans impact nature, he rails continuously against what he sees as a dogmatic, yet largely unconscious adherence to religious beliefs about nature, which far from being confined to the more extreme end of the environmental movement, he believes still dominates both environmental science and policy.
What we have seen since the 1970s, and are seeing more so today, is the manipulation of science to push political and ideological ideas. This motivation has often existed among those fascinated by nature—you can see it in the debate between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, between Thoreau and Agassiz, and among ancient Greek philosophers. But it has become a major political force in our societies, has led to misdirection of policies and actions, and has debased science.
Botkin calls himself “agnostic” as regards the degree of human-induced global warming, arguing that the uncertainty is far greater than either the media or many scientists would have us believe.
Is it natural or unnatural that our species is or may be causing the climate to change? To believe it’s unnatural, you have to believe that human beings have a special place among all living things, a special place within the great chain of being, as the ancients put it, and that our special place is an evil one. As Arne Naess (1912–2009), the leading philosopher of the “Deep Ecology” movement, put it: “Mankind during the last nine thousand years has conducted itself like a pioneer invading species” that is “individualistic, aggressive, and hustling. They attempt to exterminate or suppress other species. They discover new ways to live under unfavorable external conditions—admirable!—but they are ultimately self-destructive. They are replaced by other species which are better suited to reestablish and mature the ecosystem.
Despite this however, elsewhere he seems to have replaced the threat of climate change with perhaps misplaced concerns about genetic engineering; and advocates intermittent and diffuse sources of “clean” energy such as solar and wind as beneficial replacements for fossil fuels, despite these having serious questions about their ability to deliver energy on the scale we need.
As a working ecologist, Botkin goes into a lot of detail in examining why steady-state views of eco-systems do not match the evidence, and why policies based on these erroneous beliefs do more harm than good. A classic example that he examines is the policy of “do nothing” in the Tsavo park in Africa with regard to elephant populations, in the assumption that they would find a natural balance- culling was proposed, but rejected by Sheldrake, the then warden, resulting in a far greater number of deaths in a subsequent drought. Another example would be the discovery by Hartesveldt in 1964 that the Sequoia groves require fire to regenerate, flying in the face of the conservation policy of the time to clear away brush and prevent fires. On this occasion, policy has moved in the direction of seeing human intervention in the form of controlled burning as being benign.
In this Botkin is joined by a growing number of voices in a kind of new-conservationism, including Emma Marris, author of Rambunctuous Garden. She refers to Botkin and agrees that most ecologists do not accept balance-of-nature ideas. She quotes paleoecologist Feng Sheng Hu who likes to quote Heraclitus, “The only constant in nature is change itself”. The old-growth Douglas Fir forests in the Pacific North West look timeless to the Deep Ecologist, but to the paleoecologist are *only* seven hundred years old.
The biggest driver of change in these forests, within the past couple of million years or so, has been what some researchers call secular climate change—climate changes that were not humanity’s fault. Seven hundred years ago marked the end of the Medieval Warm Period, a dry and warm climatic episode that would likely have seen frequent fires.
Here the climate changes faster than the life span of a single generation of trees
The Nautilus Shell provides the image that defines Botkin’s ideas: the nautilus- a deep-sea mollusk . The nautilus lives in the outer chamber of its shell and each lunar cycle constructs a new chamber and moves into it; this provided evidence from 400 million-year-old fossils that the lunar cycle was only 9 days when the moon was much closer to the earth than now; but every day, a new growth ring is added to the chamber, and thus the nautilus shell combines both solar and lunar calenders. For Botkin this reminds us of how deeply we are connected to nature, even beyond the earth.
The book ends with a “guide to action” with some more specific policy recommendations that go beyond old balance-of-nature ideas. Already in 1975, together with with mathematician Matt Sobel Botkin had proposed an alternative model:
We proposed two concepts, which we called persistence and recurrence, to replace carrying capacity, optimum sustainable population, maximum and optimum sustainable yields.
Botkin calls for a designed approach, which connects humans to nature as designers. The influence of this approach can be seen perhaps in the wave of new landscape management designers such as Tomas Rainer.
The shift in thinking will not be easy:
Acceptance of the idea that we might benefit by viewing nature as characterized by chance and randomness is a deep and unsettling change….
No doubt the assertion that nature poses a problem of design, not of truth, will affront people who view environmentalism as the pursuit of a single morally just and right nature. But I assert it is the reality, a conclusion I have reached by my examination of nature for more than 40 years.
Ultimately though we have no choice:
The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded forever, must be abandoned, for such a landscape never existed except in our imagination. Nature undisturbed by human influence seems more like a symphony whose harmonies arise from variation and change over every interval of time. We see a landscape that is always in flux, changing over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger-scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another, and to the slower alterations of soils and yet larger variations between glacial ages.
This is an important book that explains a lot about how modern environmentalism has come to take the form that it has, and provides inspiration based on great experience for a new vision for our relationship with nature.