“Conservation is a state of harmony between man and land. By land is meant all things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism.” — Aldo Leopold
In this essay, we bring together ideas of the previous essays in order to talk about how we humans can prevent the ecological disaster that is facing us by about 2050. The theme of this essay is:
Conservation is the act, by humans, of identifying, understanding, preserving, and protecting Nature’s energy flow .
This is an action essay. The action word is “conservation”. Protecting nature’s energy flow is a powerful conservation strategy and an essential human activity because the flow of energy is the basis for all life on earth. Protecting Nature’s energy flow protects life. As we have learned in previous essays, energy flow within Nature requires relationships between living beings of all kinds. By protecting these relationships, we protect energy flow.
Conservation activities include:
- Direct or indirect physical action.
- Environmental education that builds a consciousness for Nature.
- Political action and activities. The goal of politics is not to get everyonr to think alike, but instead to get people who think differently to act alike.
In her “Essay on the Biological Sciences” written in 1958, Rachel Carson said:
“Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.“
In “Silent Spring“, Rachel Carson went on to offer many examples of man’s ignorance in tampering with Nature’s energy flow conduits. Here is her description of how the U.S.Forest Service used chemical weed killers to kill sagebrush and substitute grasslands for cattle ranchers that leased government land. In her own words, she described this folly by our government:
“The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and mammals…. It was no accident that the great plains of the West became the land of the sage. The bitter upland plains, the purple wastes of sage, the wild, swift antelope, and the grouse are then a natural system in perfect balance. …One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage (using weed killer) and substitute grasslands.
” ..it is clear that the whole closely knit fabric has been ripped apart. The antelope and the grouse will disappear along with the sage. The deer will suffer too… The spraying also eliminates a great many plants that were not its intended target. The sage was killed as intended. But, so was the green life-giving ribbon of willows… Moose had lived in these willow thickets, for willow is to the moose what sage is to the antelope. Beaver had lived there too, feeding on the willows, felling them and making a strong dam across the tiny stream. Through the labor of the beavers, a lake backed up. Trout in the lake thrived so prodigiously that many grew to five pounds. Waterfowl were attracted to the lake, also. But with the ‘improvement’ instituted by the Forest Service, the willows went the way of the sagebrush, killed by the same impartial spray. The moose were gone and so was the beaver. Their principal dam had gone out for want of attention by its skilled architects, and the lake drained away. None of the large trout were left. The living world was shattered.”
Due to human insensitivity and an ignorance regarding Nature’s interconnectivity that is necessary for energy to flow, government funds were used to “manage” our environment and create ecological disasters. Rachel Carson started it all with “Silent Spring“ by exposing the ignorance and the disastrous assumptions that biologists made about ecological interrelationships. She laid the foundation for a consciousness of interrelationships in Nature. Her legacy is the new and more productive ways in which we now holistically view Nature.
Kevin McCann, in a 2007 article in Nature, said:
“Scientists have focused on diversity at the expense of ignoring the biological structures that maintain ecosystems – networks of interactions between organisms that characterize ecosystems. The network of interactions between organisms, not diversity per se, breathes life into ecosystems. To understand the implications of biodiversity loss, it is crucial to monitor changes to the underlying biostructure. Perhaps the main reason why researchers and Nature’s stewards within government organizations have focused on diversity is that it is easier to count species than to document their interactions. Empirically mapping biological networks is no small chore. “
There is an ongoing debate between two schools of thought within the field of conservation science. One group believes that setting aside land tracts only for Nature’s sake, free from humans, will permit Her to take care of herself. This worldview is seen in designated wilderness areas. Yet, studies have shown that even as more land is set aside for protection from human influence, global biodiversity in the protected areas continues to decline. This is because the energy flow relationships between the designated wilderness areas and those areas inhabited by mankind have been either ignored or are impossible to control.
A second worldview in the conservation community values both Nature for herself and for human purpose. This view calls for the protection of Nature while working with business entities to find mixes of economic benefit and conservation success. The idea is to blend human development with Nature. This view accepts the ecological dominance of mankind as a permanent reality and seeks to protect natural habitat where people live and work.
Both strategies have a fatal flaw. That flaw is that modern conservation ideas fail to view Nature as a living system and fail to embrace the idea that every living thing on earth is inextricably interconnected to every other living being. These key facts are ignored by many workers in the field of conservation. As a result, modern conservation practices fail to acknowledge that it is impossible for humans to predict or control the future activities of Nature.
This essay offers a third worldview that encompasses both schools of thought within the field of conservation science as it focuses on the preservation of energy flow in Nature. This approach does not need any predictions by mankind because Nature continues to operate on its own without attempts by humans to control Nature. In other words, this third worldview lets Nature run Herself. It lets Nature decide. Her decision pathways are defined by Her energy flow.The job of humanity is to conserve energy flow and Her energy flow conduits. However, we need to first talk about passive restoration. Here is a passage from one of my blog posts entitled The Case For Passive Restoration.
“I often get frustrated with those who oversee our public lands. They are always trying to “manage” something in the ecosystems that they oversee. We read about things like controlling invasive species and establishing hunting quotas as if these people had done some precise calculation in order to take a certain action or to establish the limits they impose on the public. …These guys have no way of effectively determining limits because science has taught us that we cannot predict what Nature will do.
“Passive restoration is an idea that preserves our ecosystems where Nature is allowed to make the decisions for her own welfare. In basic terms, passive restoration means ‘Let Nature take her own course’. Passive restoration means simply allowing natural succession to occur in an ecosystem. The recovery of the deciduous forests in the eastern United States after the abandonment of agriculture is a classic example of passive restoration. So is the wolf recovery story at Yellowstone National Park.”
There is a blog post entitled “Wolves, Cougars, and Rivers” which features a great video entitled “Lords of Nature” . The blog post and the video provides a real life example of passive restoration. The story is about the great predators and how things changed after the Gray Wolf was reintroduced and allowed to multiply and roam on its own, without human interference, in Yellowstone National Park. This wonderful story tells how Nature carried out Her own restoration by restoring Her own pathways for energy flow without the help of man.
High Country News has offered an article that interviewed Oregon State University ecologist Bill Ripple who collected data on this wolf reintroduction project.
“As wolves reduced the size of the elk herd in the Yellowstone ecosystem, chokecherry, serviceberry and huckleberry flora began to rebound and flourish in a long-term phase of “passive restoration”, Ripple said. In time, and as other food sources declined, berry production might become more and more important as a source of nutrition in the grizzly bears’ diet. It’s humbling, Ripple added, to realize that the cascading effects of wildlife management, or mismanagement, roll in both directions. If too many wolves are killed, the consequences could affect many other species.
“But if we let passive restoration run its course, we might just see some remarkable things happen,” said Ripple. The riparian environment could once again become vibrant nurseries for birds, beaver, and a number of smaller critters. If you kill too many wolves in Yellowstone, however, their population could drop below the threshold essential to maintaining a vigorous and resilient ecosystem. If that happens, we might as well paint over the petroglyphs, cage the animals, pave the parks, dam the last free-flowing rivers, turn the last old-growth forests into toothpicks and stop pretending that we cherish the wild. There is a lot to be said for we humans just backing off and letting Nature do her thing. “
The previous essays in this essay series emphasized that we humans cannot “manage” or predict Nature. However, we can identify, work with, and passively protect Her energy flow conduits. A “connectivity consciousness” is a sense that can be developed within ourselves that addresses how and why everything is interrelated. It is also an internal map of how to act when addressing ecological issues. With a “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?
Asking and then seeking answers to these two very important questions is the beginning of any successful conservation effort. But any conservation project will falter or fail if the following two vitally important messages are not heeded:
Message #1: 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. Rachel Carson once said “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man”
Message #2: Don’t mess with or change Nature’s connections, instead work to protect them.
In order to process energy, we have noted that Nature is highly interconnected in very complex ways. Nature’s “genius” does not respond to human ideas of control where one simply pushes one button to get one predictable result. Instead, Nature’s “genius” is in her ability to transport and transform the energy which is her lifeblood. If you mess with one thing, most likely you will affect something else. The result will be that energy connections are broken or inadvertently redirected in unintended and disastrous ways. We are tinkering with Nature. Look to Aldo Leopold’s admonition that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering“. Nothing stands alone and humans messing with Nature leaves tracks.
First, we offer some comments for environmental educators who are reading this essay. The process of identifying and describing a connection in Nature can become a useful assignment for your students.
1) Start by looking at any ecosystem such as a forest, a body of water, or a beach.
2) Ask yourself:
A) What and where are the connecting energy flow conduits within this ecosystem? Draw a food web diagram.
B) What do these conduits do?
C) How do they operate?
D) What would happen if an energy conduit were damaged or destroyed?
3) With each question, take time to look for detailed answers from experts. Make heavy use of the Internet. Then write out your detailed description of the energy flow conduit that you are studying.
4) Present your writing to others for examination, group study, and discussion as you refine your findings.
For stewards of Nature who are suggesting or implementing a conservation program, the goal is to protect biostructure by defining an ecosystem’s network structure and conserving the energy flow within that network. For anyone who is charged with the responsibility of conserving an ecosystem, the primary question one must ask when faced with a request that might impact Nature is: How does current activity or a proposed action affect the energy flow of the ecosystem under question? To develop a conservation program for a specific ecological threat:
1) Identify an ecological threat within the ecosystem.
2) Describe why it is a threat.
3) Define all components of that ecosystem by developing a list of all flora and fauna.
4) Build a food web diagram that defines the energy transportation and transformation between the flora and fauna in the ecosystem.
5) Define which energy flow conduits are threatened and explain why.
6) Present and defend your food web diagram and your solution for preserving and protecting each threatened energy flow conduit.
7) Ask yourself the question: Will my conservation effort change or break any energy flow conduits?
Along with this list of action items, a steward of Nature must consider the following:
- 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. Be very careful to identify the human biases that might be present within any scientific study.
- Identify and assess political influence and human bias. Special interest groups are common in scientific investigations. The cattle industry is a prime example where federal grazing allotments are justified based on questionable facts. The bias extends beyond the ranchers to the government employees who oversee allotment programs. Many times, these folks were born and raised on ranches. Their continued employment depends upon the continuation of the grazing allotments.
- Strong community influence and support is essential because the cooperation of the community is needed to carry out a conservation program. 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 snd unbiased individuals.
- Skilled facilitation. Effective, experienced facilitators serve to bring parties together to develop a mutually agreeable conservation plan. Many times, facilitators are non-government organizations such as The Nature Conservancy.
Worth Your Extra Attention
Why Do I Write These Essays?
Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.
If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.
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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.