This blog is the last in a series of posts that focus on Nature’s organizing principles. The material in each of these posts has been condensed from the text of my new book entitled “Nature’s Patterns: Exploring Her Tangled Web“. The book will be published in both an Amazon Kindle edition and a soft cover edition in September of 2014.
The previous blog posts in this series are:
Blog #2: Everything Is Connected
Blog #4: Nature Is Both Ordered and Chaotic
Blog #5: Origins of Nature’s Complexity
Blog #7: Nature is Self Organizing
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not. Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect…our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” — Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”
“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man” — Rachel Carson
In the spirit of Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”, Janine Benyus, author of A Biomimicry Primer, counsels us to humbly seek Nature’s advice before acting. She urges us to “consult life’s genius” by following Nature’s role models. She admonishes us to let Nature be our teacher by suggesting that:
“..ecosystems that run on sunlight and feedback, create opportunities rather than waste“.
We’ve listed Nature’s six organizing principles in previous posts. They are:
- Everything In Nature Is Interconnected
- Nature Is Composed Of Complex Systems
- Nature is Both Ordered And Chaotic
- Energy Is The Operating Currency Of Nature
- Nature’s Systems Are Self Organizing and Emergent
- Nature Systems Are Self Similar
Nature’s organizing principles imply both guided limitations that Nature imposes upon man as well as opportunities. In her complexity Nature shows us that some knowledge is beyond the reach of humanity. But, Nature also reveals some of her secrets. It is in those revelations we see opportunity to conserve and protect the environment within which we depend for our very survival.
Nature offers us many clues and insights into how she operates. Through the science of complex systems, Nature has brought us new, interesting, and useful revelations about the unifying nature of connections in Nature and the vital importance of energy flow through these connections.
The underlying messages that are sent to us in these six organizing principles of Nature provide both cautionary advice and guiding principles:
Message #1: Don’t mess with Nature’s connections
In order to process energy, Nature’s is highly interconnected. If you mess with one thing, most likely you will affect something else. If the penguin parent is killed at sea while foraging for food, the chick on the shore will die of starvation while waiting for food. If you kill the wolf, a whole chain of energy networks in associated ecosystems are adversely affected. The energy connections are broken.
Message #2: Mankind cannot control Nature
Nature’s systems are highly unpredictable. Humans cannot control Nature. Despite our intelligence and increased knowledge, Nature seems quite capable of managing herself without any outside controlling intelligence. Human intelligence often does more harm than good.
The premise that man can control Nature is blatantly false. Complexity science teaches us that Nature’s complex systems cannot be predicted by mankind; chaotic systems cannot be reproduced; and small changes within complex systems can result in huge unpredictable effects.
The title “resource manager” that is utilized by many humans who oversee ecosystems is a gross misnomer. There is no such thing as a “resource manager” because complexity science teaches us that man cannot “manage” Nature. We must learn to accept and understand Nature’s constraints. We must learn to live within these constraints.
Message #3: Conservation is knowing where Nature’s energy flows
The message from complexity science is very clear. Man cannot predict or control Nature!! While we humans cannot “manage” Nature, we can understand and work with her connections. Complexity science suggests a pathway. In focusing our conservation efforts on energy flow, we are dealing with a concept that transcends all of Nature.
Much like those stewards of Nature who reintroduced the wolves at Yellowstone National Park, we can gain knowledge about an ecosystem by following how and where the energy flows. Conservation comes when we then act to preserve those energy flow conduits. This is an act of passive ecology – helping Nature take care of herself. This crucial point offers us guidance in how we can conserve and protect our environment in a way that is in synchrony with Nature’s six organizing principles. The watchword is “follow the energy”. Then, conserve those energy channels.
The holistic approach to conservation is to closely examine the system details in search for a deeper understanding of how the energy conduits are organized and interrelated. Then, with this “connectivity consciousness”, act in a way that is in empathy with Nature rather than bowing to the controlling politics of humanity’s special interest groups. It is with this point of view that we insure our own survival. We’ve used the example of Yellowstone Park. Man’s killing of the wolf destroyed energy links within the ecosystem. The reintroduction of the wolf became a living demonstration of passive restoration of the ecosystem’s energy conduits. The powerful lesson we must learn from Yellowstone is that Nature is fully capable of passively restoring herself once mankind offers the catalyst. In this case, the catalyst was the restoration of the wolf. Then letting Nature follow her own course through passive restoration.
Passive restoration is allowing natural succession to occur in an ecosystem after removing or correcting a source of disturbance. Passive restoration allows Nature to find her own way through her own complex ecosystems that we humans are unable to adequately define. In embracing this approach, it is not necessary for man to engage a complex ecosystem where his knowledge is limited or absent. He does not need to employ the futile acts of predicting or controlling. Identification of the cause of disturbance in the first place is an easier task than one of trying to understand a complete system where only limited knowledge is available.
One of the founders of the modern ecology movement, Barry Commoner, has provided some useful guidelines through his four laws of ecology:
1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
2. Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
3. Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon Nature, but such change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.
4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Exploitation of Nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
“Connectivity consciousness” is a sense of how and why everything is interrelated. It is also an internal map of how to act when addressing ecological issues. Hopefully for you, this sense has been developed. With your “connectivity consciousness”, you are equipped to ask the right questions when you approach any ecological issue. Those questions are:
- What are the conduits of energy that exist in the ecosystem under study and how can these energy connections be preserved?
- What might happen if changes are made to these conduits either by mankind or by Nature?
These important and difficult questions are two challenges that I ask you to consider. But, asking and seeking answers to these very important questions is only the beginning of any successful conservation effort. Many conservation projects have faltered or failed because three vitally important factors were missing. In the spirit of stimulating your thinking and providing you with an outline for success, I end this blog series by elaborating on these factors.
Good science is an absolutely essential foundation for any conservation project because it is the science that defines a conservation problem and provides the basis for a conservation goal. Good science means unbiased science conducted by neutral scientists. There is way too much bias in scientific investigation. The employment of “friendly” scientists by oil and agricultural interests is a common practice that is self-serving and dishonest. Even honest bias in a scientific investigation must be avoided. Many honest folks who work for government conservation organizations were raised in agricultural communities and naturally favor the farmer and rancher when tough ecological decisions must be made. Peer-reviewed and transparent scrutiny is an essential part of good scientific practice. All good environmental plans start with a neutral, competent scientific team.
The positive effects of strong community influence are essential. The missing component in poor community support is usually inadequate community education. Community education , in turn, is tied to the generation of well researched scientific fact by respected individuals.
Skilled facilitation is assisting a group or groups of people to determine and or achieve a particular task such as clearly identifying and solving a conservation issue together. Effective facilitation is about working with people, allowing participants to provide the content, and assisting individuals and groups to find results that are agreeable to most or all stakeholders. Facilitators should not be part of or associated with any of the stakeholders. Trained, skilled, and independent professional facilitators are available. Many times, facilitators are non-government organizations such as The Nature Conservancy who serve to bring parties together to develop a mutually agreeable conservation plan. This was the case with the various non-lethal predator projects involving wolves in the mid-western United States. Here, the result was adversaries joining forces. Environmental groups became partners with ranchers in installing non-lethal predator control methods. In contrast, the intensely adversarial and dysfunctional opposing positions of environmentalists and ranchers in the Western United States is present because skilled facilitators are absent. The same conservation problem is addressed differently in two separate settings.
Many of my readers have great experience and skill in the field of conservation. The purpose for these blogs is to develop a dialog between myself and my readers. For the benefit of all, I urge you to express your views on what was presented in this post and in this series. Please take time to write your comments. Your voice will be heard by a regular group of about 4,000 readers each month as well as some who receive and respond to about 20,000 retweets each month.
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.