Chapter 4: Assemblages, Ecosystems and Change

One of the topics addressed in Chapter 4 is Margaret Davis’ pollen work (pages 80-82 in the hardcopy edition). We people who study trees are familiar with the ideas of how different species came back from their refugia during glaciation, and how different assemblages of species have occurred through time. Many different groups of plants and animals have existed in different combinations on any particular piece of land through time. Changes can be due to changes in soil (e.g., Mt. St. Helens), changes in human activities (e.g., Appalachian “market-induced succession”) or invasive species (e.g., Chestnut blight) and changes are always going on (e.g., climate, development, etc.).

When I worked for the Forest Service, people would talk about how “ecosystems have evolved” and I would ask “what is the mechanism for an “ecosystem” to evolve?” If I had one critique with the ideas in Dan’s book, it is that he did not go far enough in talking about the Emperor’s missing clothes. Just reifying an “ecosystem” places natural phenomena within a human idea context and makes it possible to say all kinds of fuzzy things about an “ecosystem”. I think people use it as shorthand for more complex ideas, but the problem is that it lacks specificity and clarity.

I just ran across one this morning, that policies need to address “fire’s role in forest ecosystems.” My first question would be “fire’s role as to what aspect of plants, animals, water, soil and air?” Fire’s role, like climate or anything else, is not a constant. I like this quote from the book:
P 85. ..

we find that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure or proportion but change at every scale of time and space. The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded foresver, 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 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.

If you have been a reader and writer of Forest Service regulations lately, the “form, structure or proportion” will call back to your memory perhaps “ecosystem composition, structure and function”:

2012 Planning Rule: Alternative A would require plan components to provide for the maintenance or restoration of the structure, function, composition, and connectivity of healthy and resilient aquatic ecosystems and watersheds in the plan area.

2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule: Tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition, structure and processes.

These statements, in regulation, imply that certain characteristics should be “maintained or restored”; that is, maintained as they are today, or restored to what they used to be (yes, I realize that some in the FS is talking that “restoration” doesn’t mean that, it really means “resilience to change”, but English is English, and if you mean that you should put in in regulation, IMHO.)

Now, scientists reviewed all these regulations and did not say “hey, that doesn’t take into account current scientific thought, because there is no one unchanging way that composition structure and function is “supposed to be” and that “needs to be” maintained or restored.” I think in Dan’s book, he is again asking the question “if science tells us that everything is changing, why do scientists (including ecologists, I assume) review and accept regulations and other policies that seem to say the opposite?

I have three hypotheses. One is that the ecosystem idea has fuzzed everyone’s thinking. The second is that so much science is based on these ideas that scientists can’t imagine a world without them. Third is that scientists don’t study the “appeal to nature” idea in philosophy nor the history of its use (see Wikipedia here), so they don’t see that using it has conceptual problems way beyond the scientific community.

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Botkin on the Nekola Review

Here’s Botkin’s take on the Nekola review referred to by Guy here.

It is interesting that it arrived just a few days after I learned from the 2013 USA Best Book Awards that my book “has been honored as a ‘Finalist’ in the ‘Science: General’ category: The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered by Daniel B. Botkin Oxford University Press, USA 978-0-199913916.” There were only five such finalists. (See

The important position of Nekola is revealed in the middle of the article with his statement that “Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]). Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent [sic] one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.”

What the writer ignores and apparently misunderstands is that the destructive fires he refers to occurred after fire suppression widely promoted by Smokey the Bear. Within the level of detail appropriate for this kind of trade book, Chapter 10, “Fire in the Forest: Managing Living Resources,” reviews examples of just this type of misunderstanding and discusses the work by Wally Covington and the proper role of light, frequent fires. Since the book was published, I have been working with experienced forester Bob Williams, recently named Conservationist of the Year by the New Jersey Audubon society, for his decades of work developing management plans for commercial foresters in the pine barrens. These plans make continued use of carefully designed prescribed burns, which not only made the forest owners money but improved biodiversity and other ecologically desirable qualities. So this paragraph by Nekola is the tip-off to where he is coming from — although he claims to have long accepted non-steady-state characteristics of ecological systems, he continues to repeat one of the old refrains, that disturbance is ultimately bad.

Nekola also writes, “The voluminous work done on neutral community assemblage, nonequilibrium disturbance, complex ecological systems, fracticality and other forms of nonlinear dynamics, and the role of stochasticism and entropy (e.g., [4–7]) is simply not discussed. Given these topics include some of the most active areas of ecological research over the past two decades, it is hard to justify why they were not reviewed.”

Given this focus on the importance of ecological scientific literature since the 1990s, it is odd that he does not mention my book’s lengthy discussions about stochastic processes, as in my own work with the JABOWA forest model and such things as the first quantitative estimation of the probability of extinction of any species. I am familiar with the literature Nekola discusses, but this was meant to be a trade book, not an academic review of all the relevant literature. Nekola reviews it as if it should be the latter. For example, he cites Gleick, J. (1987) Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin Books). I discuss chaos theory in Chapter 8, The Forest in the Computer: New Metaphors for Nature and explain the faults with the idea and what it could really mean. But citing and discussing in detail a book like Gleick’s was inappropriate for the level of discussion, and the intended audience, and the length of the book (which already exceeded what Oxford University Press considered appropriate for a trade book).

Nekola also cites John Harte (2011), Maximum Entropy and Ecology: A Theory of Abundance, Distribution, and Energetics (Oxford University Press). I have known John Harte since he and I were on the faculty at Yale, and we used to meet for lunch and discuss ecology. I believe those discussions helped John move from physics into ecology. His book is a highly sophisticated discussion of the laws of thermodynamics and ecology, but not so much about non-steady-state in the way that was appropriate for my book and its audience.

It is also unfortunate that although Nekola cites other from the 1990s and later decades, he does not cite the original 1990 edition of my book, Discordant Harmonies, which was an influential factor in the shift to thinking about non-steady-state systems, and which he cites others from that and later decades. Instead, he cites a reprint, which I had never heard of before, and have to check with Oxford University Press to find out if any permission was given for this reproduction, or whether this is an illegal reprint. (He cites Botkin, D.B. (2001) Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Replica Books.) Of course, the original was published by Oxford University Press in 1990, and had a significant effect on exactly the kind of thinking that Nekola says was common when he was a graduate student.

My primary concern about the books Nekola cites and much current ecological scientific literature is that they end up much more in the camp of a steady-state view of ecological systems than they argue for the kind of fundamental change that is my book’s thesis. The best analogy that comes to mind is the way climatological modelers on the one hand acknowledge, through the graphs they publish, the ever-changing characteristic of climate, but then go on to conclude—to make a moral warning of it— that we have “destabilized” Earth’s climate. You cannot destabilize a system that has never been stable, as I explain in the book. The range of literature that Nekola refers to tends to falls into this trap.

As another example, I just gave a keynote talk at an international Forest Biomass Conference sponsored by IUFRO, where I discussed current estimates of carbon sequestering used in both the basic scientific literature and in plans to develop carbon offset agreements. I and my coauthors show that the carbon sequestering estimates in use by IPCC and in the major scientific reviews are not statistically valid, have no estimates of statistical error and also assume that forests can store carbon at a fixed amount—i.e. in a steady state—taking us back to the balance of nature. Furthermore, these overestimate the realistic storage by as much as 2.7 times. (See for examples, Keith, H., B.G. Mackey, et al. 2009. Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the world’s most carbon-dense forests. PNAS 106(28):11635–11640, and Houghton, R.A., (2005). Aboveground forest biomass and the global carbon balance. Global Change Biology 11, 945-958.) This is an example of the way that the balance-of-nature idea keeps getting into the current scientific and applied literature, in indirect and therefore subtle ways.

Within the limits that are reasonable for a trade book, I did my best to present the value of looking at stochastic processes and other phenomena. If the book were intended to be an ecological monograph for researchers in the field only, I would have written it very differently, filled with academic details.

Reading this review, I am reminded of what Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, wrote and I quote in my book: When something is suggested, or some evidence is produced, the first response [of scientific colleagues] is “It can’t possibly be true.” And then, after a bit, the next response is, “Well, if it’s true, it’s not very important.” And then the third response is, “Well, we’ve known it all along.” The basic message of Nokela’s review is: Okay fellows, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing—despite our use of certain methodologies, we can continue to work using the old assumptions In Salk’s phrasing, “we’ve known it all along.”

So that the book can be completely dismissed, Nekola writes that “Botkin uncritically recounts a now 35-year-old paper that purports to show the importance of multiscale interactions, with planetary orbital factors influencing the construction of individual cephalopod shells. Unfortunately, immediately upon publication, this work was shown to be based on faulty assumptions and has now been widely discounted [11].”

Although my book was published in 2012, the writing of it was essentially done before 2010. (I actually had started with a different publishing house but then returned to Oxford, so the book took quite a while from writing to publication.) The citation Nekola refers to— Landman, N.H., and Cochran, J.K. (2010), Growth and longevity of Nautilus, in Nautilus: The Biology and Paleobiology of a Living Fossil (Saunders, W.B., and Landman, N.H., eds), pp. 401–420, Springer- Verlag— was therefore not available to me. The article I was aware of, relevant to this story was “Natural Rates of Growth and Longevity of Nautilus belauensis. W. Bruce Saunders, Paleobiology, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 280-288. In that article the authors wrote, “The growth line counts of Kahn and Pompea (and their resulting claims regarding lunar orbital evolution) have been criticized by several authors (Hughes 1979; Jones and Thompson 1979; Saunders and Ward 1979): growth lines are difficult to count objectively, they may fluctuate in spacing and strength, and they are not known to be daily.” I had interpreted as critical, but not as dismissing the moon in the nautilus shell story. Not being an expert on marine invertebrates, I will now have to do a literature review of this book and its citations and see if it is consistent that the story should be completely dismissed. Science is a process, and science marches on. As I write in my textbook, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, chapter 2 on the scientific method, “Science is a process of discovery—a continuing process whose essence is change in ideas. The fact that scientific ideas change is frustrating.” Having put my heart and soul into this book, I hope that the strengths of the book elsewhere will compensate for the fact that science is a process and that what appears to be correct in one time may later be shown to no longer be the case.

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Exploring Botkin’s Book: Bring Your Stories and Your Right Brain

This is not the Chapter 4 post I promised but will post this weekend, with Chapter 5 right behind it.

Rather, it is a bit of a reflection on the discussion that Guy started here, which started me back to talk about what I thought we might do with book club. What Botkin sees as some kind of philosophical disconnect is, perhaps, a journey of discovery (to echo one of his other books) into the right brain, into the complexities of our thinking and feeling. So when I read this book, I saw the repetition as leading to rumination and calling forth from us something deeper and intuitive, which we could learn through right-brained activities like story-telling and personal experiences. Botkin shies away from theology; but I am a theology student and John a theology graduate. So, indeed, we, here in Book Club, are positioned to go deeper.

So when people say things like “it’s too repetitive”, I think that you could say the same thing about many books. That’s not the question, in my mind, ..I’m interested in what the book calls forth from you. If you don’t want to read it because it’s too repetitive, that’s fine. The book struck me as something for sitting down and meditating, a kind of non-spiritual Lectio Divina.
But, of course, I never really explained that, and it was only when I read the discussion that started with Guy’s post did I realize that I had never made those points very clearly.

Another critique that came up is “Botkin is too self-confident” or something along those lines. Indeed, we could argue his personal virtues or lack of them all day. But that’s what’s called an Ad hominem argument (see this Wikipedia entry).

Now I don’t expect any of us to necessarily know that. I went into forestry (probably like many of us) to provide for my family, and philosophy (and learning how to construct arguments) was not required. Indeed, when I taught Environmental Ethics, I found that the natural resources mind seems generally more aligned to practicality than to philosophy.

I should point out that Botkin was on the USDA Advisory Committee for Agricultural Biotechnology and made many valuable contributions (my only successful effort at getting someone on a FACA committee). And who among us is not irritating in some way? I’m not casting any stones.

As Bob Zybach said in the comments, the point that Botkin was making was not that ecologists don’t know about dynamics. The point Botkin was making was that some of them don’t behave as if they do, especially when it comes to public policy.

In Botkin’s own words, page xii, of the Introduction, he says

“If you ask ecologists whether nature is constant, they will always say “of course not”. But if you ask them to write down a policy for biological conservation or environmental management, they will almost always write down a steady-state solution.”

I don’t think the review Guy mentions here addresses that. In fact, the author seems to blame “applied” ecologists and natural resource managers for not keeping up with the “pure” ecologists. I get the feeling he doesn’t understand what Botkin is really saying, nor the problem he identifies in the paragraph above. But that’s fine because it won’t be hard for us to find examples. Then we can observe them and determine what kinds of scientists are doing this; they might be “applied” ecologists or not ecologists at all. But I learned something I had never heard before from this review…

Second, Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]).
Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.

But that’s probably a topic for the NCFP blog. I was pretty surprised when I read the author’s biosketch here, because it seems like his research tends to be about real critters and their diversity, and not necessarily theoretical models. So not that different from applied people, nor from people who are in Book Club. More fodder for rumination.

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Virtual Book Club: Back From Elk Season

All, thank you for your ongoing comments and discussion while I’ve been off. Due to other commitments I did not get “back” as early as I originally intended and won’t have time to get into posting more thoughts until my last paper is done on Nov. 11.

I do like the gentler and more reflective pace of this discussion group compared to the NCFP blog. I like that it allows us time to find related papers, books and articles to bring into the discussion. Nevertheless, I do feel a need to complete a plan, so we will be done with the book before February when the work for my next class will heat up.

So here is a schedule that I plan to adhere to to get through the book.

Nov. 11 Chapter 4 Oaks in New Jersey
Nov. 18 5. Mountain Lions and Mule Deer
Nov. 25 6. Earth as a Fellow Creature
Dec. 2 7. In Mill Hollow
Dec. 9 8. The Forest in the Computer
Dec. 16 9. Within the Moose’s Stomach
Dec. 23 10. Fire in the Forest
Dec. 30 11. Salmon in Wild Rivers and Grizzlies in Yellowstone
Jan. 6 12. The Winds of Mauna Loa
Jan. 13 13. Life on a Climate-Changing Planet
Jan. 20 14. The Moon in the Nautilus Shell
Jan. 27 15. Postscript: A Guide to Action

If you want to go ahead and author a post for any of these weeks, please send to me and I will hang onto it. Otherwise, I will post something to discuss each week.

Some of the ideas that, for example, Guy brought up are broader than any individual chapter and those are fine to send to me to post and discuss anytime. I just want to have a plan so everyone can see where we’re going and when we might get there.

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One critique of Botkin’s Book

By Guy Knudsen

Probably posting this in the wrong place, but the only place where I could figure out how to post it. I did buy Dan Botkin’s book (Moon in nautilus etc), got the kindle version which was cheapest, and am still deciding whether it was a good purchase or not. Anything that makes me think has some value, I guess. My three main problems with the book are 1) Very wordy, he goes on endlessly elaborating on isolated examples (wolves on the island as one instance), they are anecdotally interesting but his use of them to derive grander principles seems contrived. “Cherry-picking” is the term that comes to mind; 2) He repeatedly states the obvious and well-known (e.g., change rather than permanent steady-state is the ecological norm), sets up straw men to compare himself with (e.g., the idea that most ecology is based on, and ecologists believe, that nature is a steady state phenomenon, which is patently false, similarly his trivial and inaccurate exposition of the logistic equation in population biology, which he then proceeds to knock down), thereby proclaiming himself a “renegade naturalist”; 3) endless self-promotion (I guess that’s really just a variation on #2). When I read him, I’m reminded of Walter Mondale’s comment on Gary Hart’s self-proclaimed “big ideas”: Where’s the beef? One example that’s about as vegan as an idea can get, not in his book but on his website (modestly titled “Daniel B. Botkin: Solving Environmental Problems by Understanding How Nature Works”), where he provides “The Rules of Ecology” (so far there’s only one), which includes statement such as “The evolutionary goal is simply to stay around.” If you think just a little bit about that statement, you hopefully realize either that it’s flat-out wrong, or else he’s using the term “goal” metaphorically, much as Dawkins did when he talked about “genes maximizing their representation in the gene pool.” Again, this is metaphor, which is not explanation, and it would be helpful if Botkin would explain and acknowledge that, rather than throwing it out as part of “Botkin Rule of Ecology #1”.

Wondering if maybe I was alone in my discomfort with this book, I did locate one review (coincidentally in one of my favorite journals, Trends in Ecology and Evolution) which takes on Botkin’s book, both the good and bad aspects, much more eloquently than I could:



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Chapter 4- Break for Western Annual Sacred Rite

elk image

We all celebrate the holiest of times in the Interior West- Elk Season- at different times. In honor of second season Colorado, we will take off until October 28th.

At that time we will take up Chapter 4, which is really about changes in forests and forest species through time, as well as changes in climate. So if you have particular thoughts, yard them up and be ready to go on the 28th. If you are not hunting or going to the SAF Convention, and would like to summarize your thoughts on the chapter as a post, you are welcome to do so! Send to me.

My old boss, Rick Cables, used to refer to this time away as his “spiritual retreat.” Hoping that you and your freezers are both refreshed when we return.

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Botkin Chapter 2: Nature is Good; People Are Bad

Bob did an excellent job of summarizing Chapter 2 here. However, instead of answering his questions, I would like to explore another idea that arises (albeit peripherally, perhaps) in Chapter 2. (This is OK in Virtual Book Club; you, too, can post a topic, just send your post to me or Bob). This book is chock-full of post-worthy quotes, paragraphs, and digressions; which is why it makes such a good Book Club book.

I was intrigued by this quote from Daphne Sheldrake in the Tsavo Story (on page 28 of the print edition).

“hasn’t man always had a regrettable tendency to manipulate the natural order of things to suit himself?”
“With amazing arrogance we presume omniscience and an understanding of the complexities of Nature, and with amazing impertinence we believe that we can better it.. We have forgotten that we, ourselves are just a part of nature, an animal which seems to have taken the wrong turning, bent on total destruction.”

There are a couple of ideas in this quote.. first there is the breast-beating misanthropic tone..and the use of “we”.. as I said in this essay..entitled “Breast Beating of Others is Neither Attractive Nor Particularly Useful.”

You mean people have hunted, fished, grown crops and livestock to feed and clothe themselves? So whassup with the negative tone of “manipulate the “natural order” of things to “suit himself”? Would the world be a better place if we all killed ourselves? There is something behind this that deserves deeper exploration. We hear the same language today, even, sometimes, on the NCFP blog.

The idea of bad humans using resources seems to be a fairly recent idea (Botkin mentions Marsh in the late 1800’s, which makes sense because there were notable negative impacts from people’s uses). “People can have a variety of impacts on the land and its creatures, and we should be careful not to have severe negative effects on the environment” (my framing) is different than “we are an animal bent on total destruction.”

Where does this “nature is best” philosophy lead us? To all killing ourselves for the good of Nature? Just to feel bad that we exist? Does this go back to deeper philosophical questions about the Nature of Humankind, fundamentally good or bad, that have traditionally been addressed by religions (on both sides of the argument)? Has the rise of this belief come about since the “death of religion” due to a fundamental need some humans have to feel bad about themselves (brain chemistry) or to tell other people they are bad (bossiness), normally expressed through preaching fire and brimstone, but in the post-religion era needing some other framework for expression?

Those of us who are involved in religions may feel that this drill is very familiar. “We” have sinned by existing and using resources. By appropriate self-mortification, like riding your bike to work, as determined by the Environmental Curia, you may atone for your sins.

One more thing I’d like to address.. how the word “nature” is used to determine “what should be” is as old as the hills, and has been used in a variety of contexts, including “human nature”. “Nature” tends to be an argument used when more rational arguments for what you want to do fail to convince others that you are right. Is this the case today?

And first, where I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature, I mean not only that God, by the order of his creation, has spoiled [deprived] woman of authority and dominion, but also that man has seen, proved, and pronounced just causes why it should be.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women 1558 John Knox

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