Botkin Introduction: O’Neill’s Critique of the Ecosystem Idea

Dr. O'Neill

Dr. O’Neill

As I read it, the key question in Botkin’s book is found on page xii on my Kindle..

“Whatever the scientist’s knowledge of the dynamic, changing properties of nature, the formal representations of these remove such considerations in most cases…whether or not environmental scientists know about geological time and evolutionary biology, their policies ignore them. It is strange, ironic and contradictory.”

My feeling is that the locus of these contradictions may lie in the competitive forces among scientific disciplines and ideas, competing for power and funding. When I was a graduate student at Yale, I shared an office with the Hubbard Brookians..they had a way of looking at the world measuring N P and K and applying systems thinking. But there were others around who simply observed or did experiments in manipulating organisms. At the time, these were all equally legitimate approaches to studying Nature- in our mind, if not those of the Big Funding Agencies, such as NSF. Since I had taken History of Science, I understood their (the BFA’s) peculiar attraction to the Mathematical and Abstract; and understood that the rest of us were little more than flower collectors in the hierarchy of Science. And that was OK with us, because our science was more of an interplay or conversation with Nature.. in population genetics we looked for mathematical equilibria but never found them. Ideas, measure, more ideas, more measurement, that was our conversation with Nature. We used math to explore ideas, but we did not have external ideas that we tested Nature against.

I do think the term “ecosystem” can be helpful; if we had talked about “prairies” in the past , the “prairie ecosystem” is handy because it denotes all the critters, plant, animal, insects, fungus, bacteria, viruses, water, soil- all of which we had studied before. We had studied them and their interactions with the environment, but at the time we might call ourselves “wildlife or fish biologists” “plant physiologists” “soil scientists” “entomologists” or “silviculturists”(applied vegetation ecologists). We even had a course at Yale called “genecology” but what else would creatures adapt to other than the environment? My point is that we were all studying things and their relation to the environment, which would make us all “ecologists” I guess. Except that our language was not about equilibria, attractors, functions, etc. These are all abstractions that came from systems theory. It’s legitimate, I think to question how helpful these abstractions have been and continue to be.

But don’t believe me. Check out this 2001 piece.. Is It Time to Bury the Ecosystem Concept? (With full military honors, of course) by Robrt V. O’Neill. The ideas he raised in 2001 are as current as the “ecosystem integrity” requirement in the 2012 Planning Rule.

The term ecosystem was coined by Tansley in 1935. But as Botkin (1990) points out, the underlying concept goes back at least to Marsh (1864). Nature was viewed as relatively constant in the face of change and repaired
itself when disrupted, returning to its previous balanced state. Clements (1905, 1916) and Elton (1930) offered plant and animal succession as basic processes that permitted relative constancy by repairing damage.
Forbes (1925) described the northern lake as a microcosm, a relatively closed, self-regulating system, an archetypic ecosystem.

Science emerged from the Second World War with a new paradigm, Systems Analysis (e.g., Bode 1945), which seemed uniquely suited for this ‘‘balance of nature’’ concept, and fit well with earlier work on the stability of interacting populations (Nicholson and Bailey 1935). Systems Analysis dealt with complex systems as interconnected components with feedback
loops (Hutchinson 1948) that stabilized the system at a relatively constant equilibrium point. Systems Analysis can be seen underlying E. P. Odum’s (1953) definition of the ecosystem as a ‘‘. . . natural unit that
includes living and nonliving parts interacting to pro duce a stable system in which the exchange of materials between the living and nonliving parts follows circular paths . . . .’’

The machine analogy, inherent in Systems Analysis, became a central paradigm for many ecologists (Odum 1971, Holling 1973, Waide and Webster 1976). The paradigm offered a practical approach to the enormous
complexity of natural systems (Teal 1962, Van Dyne 1969). The paradigm helped harness the power of the computer in ecosystem models (Olson 1963). The paradigm permitted a holistic view of system properties
such as nutrient cycling (Webster et al. 1974). The familiarity of the machine analogy facilitated the communication of ecological concepts to the public.
If the ecosystem concept has held such a central place in ecology and been so productive of new ideas, why call it into question? The simple fact is that the ecosystem is not an a posteriori, empirical observation
about nature. The ecosystem concept is a paradigm (sensu Kuhn 1962), an a priori intellectual structure, a specific way of looking at nature. The paradigm emphasizes and focuses on some properties of nature, while ignoring and de-emphasizing others. After a half century of application, the paradigm is showing some rust. Limitations in the concept are becoming more apparent and leading to a vigorous backlash toward ecosystem concepts in particular, and ecology in general.

One more story. When I was working for the FS in R&D we did a review of one of the Research Stations. One of the administrators there was a big aficionado of systems thinking. One of the scientists had done this fascinating study (to me) of how fish move around in streams and discovered something very useful that hadn’t been known before. I thought it was great work. This administrator, though, felt that “organismal biology is passe, it’s all about systems, now.” In arguing that this scientist should be better appreciated, I stated “you can’t understand systems without understanding their components” to which he replied “oh, yes you can.. it’s about flows among boxes and you don’t need to understand what’s in them.”

So you may say “this guy was off the wall, and not in the mainstream.” Well, that could be true. Still the reason I’m telling the story is that to point out that people can cross the line from systems being 1) one way of conceiving of how nature works, to 2) the best way of conceiving how nature works, to 3) how nature works. And somewhere along that line, the empiricism that “science” claims as its basis for legitimacy gets left behind.

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Botkin’s Title: Where Did It Come From?

moon and naut shell

This video explains it.

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Forest Policy Pub Book Club: Introductions


To be honest, I’ve never been in a book club before. So this is an adventure. I thought we should start by introducing ourselves and telling our stories or, at least, some stories. One of the great things about Dan’s book is the stories he tells, and what a great story-teller he is. When you tell stories, say Dan’s triggers yours and yours triggers someone else’s and so on. This is a different kind of thing, and much more right-brained, than what we usually do on the blog. Not that we won’t challenge Dan’s knowledge claims, nor each other’s, through this process. But today let’s take a break from all that and listen to each other’s stories.

Why are stories important? This came across my email a while back from Ronna Detrick, who, I think, said it beautifully.

We live in a world of stories. Childhood fairytales shape our dreams and hopes. Family legends, imparted over kitchen table conversation, at reunions, and during road-trips, build our memory and craft our beliefs. Historical narratives inform our understanding of culture, politics, our larger world. Film, music, literature, and poetry mysteriously and continuously speak to our deepest heart – communicating truths we implicitly know and others we long to grasp.

Stories serve the way in which we are able to make sense of our world, our relationships, our behaviors, everything. They are how we speak of our circumstances, our deepest emotions, and our biggest questions; how we create and apply meaning. And they connect us to one another, bridging differences in language and perspective, time and place, past and future.

Most of us acknowledge that it’s less about a particular story and more about story, itself. It is the device, the vehicle, the means through which we express, listen, and even participate in our own life and others’. We admit (and even enjoy) that most stories, when told over and over again, not only shift and morph over time, but take on a life of their own.

“The fish gets a little bigger, the storm gets a little wilder, the love gets a little stronger, our bravery or disappointment gets a little exaggerated in the telling over time. There is creative tension in story. When we hear it, when we read it, when we speak it, when we write it, we filter words through our own experiences and our need for meaning. We shape the tale to reinforce our understanding of how life is. ~ “Christina Baldwin

This is what we love about them. This is why we tell them. This is why we live our lives within them. This is the power of story.

So, in the form of introduction, please say something about yourself and tell us one story about your relationship to the ideas of the balance of nature or systems ecology, and how they developed.

I’ll do a brief example:
I am a forester and plant geneticist/evolutionary biologist; I worked for the Forest Service for 32 years; I am running for Vice President of the Society of American Foresters; and I am a part-time theology student at Iliff.

When I was a freshman at Yale, I took two courses that were key to my future in forestry, and to my understanding of Nature. One was with Alison Richard, called “Primate Population Adaptations”. Another was “Man and the Environment” (no, I am not kidding; this was 1973 and we were one of the first classes after coeducation at Yale College). As I recall, Dr. Richard was the first, last and only female professor I had for the rest of my college career, which ended with a Ph.D. in Genetics in 1982. This experience (and reading gender studies of science) helped me understand the difference between the aspirations of “objective science” and the down and dirty reality of how it’s produced.

If your first framing of empirical, observational science is adaptation and evolution, as in the Primate class, the idea of a steady state is .. well..very odd. Evolution is change. Equilibrium is “not change” or change such that the results are still somehow “contained” in some abstract sense.

Probably the most important class I took in my college career was the next year at UCLA (I had run out of money so had to stay home and work full-time). It was called “History of American Science” and introduced me to the historical conceptions of science.. Like “applied science” was looked down upon because the upper classes focused on “basic” and could afford to study things without direct outcomes. Or the very real, continuing idea of Physics Envy. Having this class early, before most of my scientific training, helped me understand why different disciplines had more power and funding than others. I was able to watch funding for “science fads” flow and ebb across the forest science community and look at how the community and its different populations (disciplines) competed and evolved.

It is odd to me that history and philosophy of science are not required classes for trainee scientists. Also, remember that in those days “environmental science” was not separate. There was just “science,” and you applied it to whatever issue you had.

Much later one of my colleagues said to me “you’re not a conservation geneticist, you’re an exploitation geneticist!” because she disagreed with my ideas of What Should Be Done. But the key historical fact I’m trying to focus on here was that in the 70’s, there was just plain old genetics, silviculture, physiology, entomology, pathology, ecology, wildlife biology, range ecology, hydrology, fish biology, etc. At least that’s my memory.

Tell us a little about yourself, and what’s your story?

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