Who cannot wonder at this harmony of things, at this symphony of nature which seems to will the well-being of the world? — Cicero (1st c. BCE)
The notion that nature has balance and harmony, while still figuring prominently in the lay understanding of ecology and the environment, has come into decided disrepute among professionals. Flux, drift and novelty have obviated such static conceptions of nature. Nature doesn’t hold still and we cannot make her. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education pleads with us to please stop talking about balance (Flinn 2015). But this is a mistake. Balance is still a helpful, even accurate metaphor, and denouncing it is more misleading, of thought and practice, than keeping it.
Notice that I say more misleading than keeping it, for I grant that there are perils either way. One of the chief complaints against balance is that it is a panchreston — it means too many contradictory things to too many people. Asserting that nature has balance is therefore problematic, as at least several widely accepted interpretations are demonstrably false and others are dubious. But what is not generally recognized in this line of reasoning is that asserting that nature has no balance is just as problematic, for just the same reasons. At least several other widely accepted interpretations of balance are either obviously or possibly true, and denying them can also cause confusion and misunderstanding. The better though harder way is to carefully sort out what nature does have or may have, and in what senses those could constitute balance or harmony. Only carefully qualified assertions or denials of balance are responsible, and getting clear about what balances nature does have to what degree and the ways it is subject to disturbance is arguably the more urgent and helpful project. For if there is no balance or harmony in nature, what could it possibly mean to disturb or disrupt it?
I confess that my inclination to leap to the defense of balance is part of a broader conviction about science and values. I worry that under the long shadow of positivism, scientists are still trying to rid their vocabulary of any moral overtones. In order to be objective and thus legitimate, they reach for a value neutral vocabulary. And then we struggle to get the public to care about value neutral findings. Rather than seek value neutral concepts, I think we do better to build what Bryan Norton calls bridge concepts — concepts that have some moral investment from the community but also empirical components, operational for policy (38). Balance could function as a bridge concept, ambiguity not withstanding.
The idea of balance, order and harmony in the natural world is ancient and ubiquitous. It has been posed in both sweeping generalities and the very specific. Herodotus, for instance, spoke of the balance of the comparative abundance of predators and prey. Psalm 104 explores the contrasting balances of wild and domestic, nocturnal and diurnal, predator and prey, creation and destruction, of the stabilities of foundations and boundaries and of the terror of an earth that trembles and smokes. The Stoics put great emphasis on the logos — the logical order — immanent in nature, including our own nature, and the importance of acting in harmony with it. The great chain of being is shorthand for a suite of ideas developed through ancient and medieval thought about the order of nature. Each piece not only had a fixed place, but there existed a hierarchical ranking of superiority, where the lesser exists to serve the greater. In particular the non-rational was supposed to exist only of the sake of the rational, thus everything could be known to exist for the use and enjoyment of man “Nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain,” as Aristotle says.
Daniel Botkin’s now classic work, Discordant Harmonies, lays out the modern charge against balance. The received idea of balance he defines as including three ideas: “nature undisturbed is constant; when disturbed but released from that disturbance nature returns to its original constant condition; that constant condition of is good and desirable” (229). This idea of constancy saturated early ecology, due, he says, both to the “prescientific desire to find order and stability in nature; and a dependence on the physical sciences and engineering for theory, mathematical approaches, concepts, models, and metaphors” (33). Increasingly in the machine age, the world was thought of as God’s machine. Running well for a machine means running according to the original specs. The movement of a balanced turbine doesn’t exhibit stochastic fluctuations.
The problem with this, put bluntly, is that “Nature changes over essentially all time scales, and in at least some cases these changes are necessary for the persistence of life …” (9). Not only has Clements’s idea of a fixed and stable climax community not held up, fossil pollen analysis has revealed that striking fluctuations of tree range and associations have been the norm for deep history, whether temperate or tropical.
Botkin particularly takes population ecology to task for continued reliance on mathematically idealized models of equilibrium, no matter how badly they fit real world populations. The real picture is closer to that described by Elton in 1930, when he wrote that:
The balance of nature does not exist, and perhaps has never existed. The numbers of wild animals are constantly varying to a greater or lesser extent, and the variations are usually irregular in period and always irregular in amplitude. Each variation in the numbers of one species cause direct and indirect repercussions on the numbers of the others, and since many of the latter are themselves independently varying in numbers the resultant confusion is remarkable. (cited 15)
What Botkin most clearly argues against is the widespread assumption of machine like equilibrium, or stasis. Although he at times lists balance, order and harmony in the same breath, it is only balance that he cares to reject. By the end of the book he is eager to explain what the “true harmony” of nature consists in. For him it seems that balance is a static, machine like order, while harmony is a more dynamic sort of order, consistent with change and chance. But there is nothing in the metaphor of balance that suggests such stasis. Sure, the Balanced Rock in Arches National Park is pretty static (at least until it isn’t).
But consider for a moment the case of a unicyclist. I ride a little, but not well enough to offer myself as an example of balance. So picture some other unicyclist at the head of a parade, or even a trail unicyclist hopping up a rocky slope, if you have seen that. This is not a picture of stasis. It has directional change, open possibilities, even a fair bit of chaos. But it is obviously a feat of balance. Even the somewhat less chaotic path of the tightrope or slackline walker has the kind of directional change, which Botkin apparently finds incompatible with the concept of balance.
Or consider the other ordinary ways we use the metaphor of balance, such as work-life balance. Who thinks of machine like stability or chemical equilibria when they imagine a work-life balance? It is always seen as a struggle for a modicum of balance held against the chaos. We at least hope that it is possible to maintain such balance through the irreversible transitions of family and career development. Resilience? Yes. Sustainability? Yes. Stasis? No. Stasis could only be achieved by sacrificing growth. Balance is a flexible metaphor, but it doesn’t mean just anything. Probably many of us feel some difficulty in achieving or maintaining a sense of work-life balance. We would hardly account just any arrangement as balanced. The idea of balance stays meaningful because we have a pretty good idea, both for the unicyclist and for our lives, of what it means to fall down. And also because it is often something which is fine when kept in proportion that threatens to cause a crash when out of proportion. Balance implies a desirable stability, sustainability or resilience achieved through proportionality. And this sense of balance is both real and possible in nature in many ways, even sometimes in ways that are susceptible to disturbance or restoration by humans. Even sometimes in ways that are inclusive of humans.
The Balance that isn’t
From Aristotle’s fixity of species to Lovelock’s gaia hypothesis, we have tended to attribute a more absolute order to nature than is there. We have been tempted to capitalize both Nature and Balance, and to use the definite article. So, if only to avoid misunderstanding about what I’m defending, I’ll say a few words about what the balance of nature is (probably) not. The balance of nature is neither unitary, totalizing nor fixed. It is not absolute or unchanging. It is not essentially contrary to human influence, nor essentially for the sake of human benefit. All of these things have been held to be so by some, and the anti-balancers are right to challenge them. Those are not the ways nature is balanced.
Nature is not one thing but many things in relation. Many of these relations exhibit different forms and degrees of balance and harmony. To say that a certain population is kept in balance through certain mechanisms is not to say that all populations are kept in balance by that or any mechanism. To say that an organism is fit well to its niche is not to say that all organisms are fit well to all niches, and certainly not to say that all niches are fit well together. One problem with Clements’s work was that he took the communities he saw, with what degrees of balance they exhibited, and universalized them for all time. Aristotle saw clear adaptive functions in organisms, but went beyond what that supported when he extrapolated to a comprehensive hierarchy of absolute function. George Perkins Marsh saw clearly that people had disturbed the balance of nature in many ways and places, but it’s another leap to the claim that we always disturb or that we are the sole source of disturbance.
The Balance that is
In 1933 AJ Nicolson wrote in the Journal of Animal Ecology that “Animal populations must exist in a state of balance for they are otherwise inexplicable” (cited in Botkin 15). And it is worth asking just how much balance or stability can be inferred by the mere persistence of populations and species, particularly because the loss of species is so clearly and tragically possible. For each species that persists, environmental conditions have remained within its limits of tolerance in at least some reachable places since the appearance of that species. For some species with broad tolerances this might not seem so remarkable. But for others those limits of tolerance can be quite narrow, as with the fantastical niches of some parasites. And for many these limits include the requisite coexistence of some other species or suite of species, whether to eat, to nest in, to leave burrows available or to pollinate one’s flowers. For many species environmental conditions have stayed within these boundaries, at least in patches, for a very long time through many changes, only to be pushed to or over the brink now. By breaking it we have demonstrated that the balance which has persisted is sometimes a delicate one.
I am suggesting that the balance of nature exists as a patchy fabric of smaller balances, and that we do better to interpret them in the particular. In other words, populations in general don’t hold to particular levels of density, but coyotes populations seem to, at least in some conditions, through remarkably flexible litter sizes. Species don’t generally keep with the same set of neighbors across their range, but flowering plants with specialized pollinators keep with them pretty tightly.
In fact, here on the subject of pollination is a great example of something that would meet the lay environmentalist’s conception of the balance of nature, and our capacity to disturb it, without fudging the ecological rigor: phenological mismatch due to climate change. The emergence of the pollinating insect and the blooming of the flower have been kept tightly in sync since their evolutionary pact was sealed — a balance of not too early and not too late on the part of both. Anthropogenic warming causes one to be too early; they are out of sync and the balance fails. Species may be lost this way. Other relationships, such as predator-prey relationships, may be disturbed through phenological mismatch as well. But I would like to offer mutualist relations, such as pollination, as paradigm example of balance in nature.
Balance exists in nature above the level of the individual or the species, but not necessarily at the level of the whole — pollination; mutualisms generally; soil and nutrient cycles in a watershed. These are the scales at which we should talk about natural balances. Mechanisms by which such moderate balances are achieved are the familiar processes of ecology and evolution. Organisms find and exploit niches in their environment. Their suitability to that niche stabilizes and builds through natural selection. In doing so they alter and become the environmental conditions to which other organisms adapt. As each adaptation builds on the conditions built so far, functionality becomes entangled. The mushrooms adapt to the tree roots which adapt to the mushrooms — a mutual entanglement. The Indigo snake adapts to the presence of Gopher Tortoise burrows, but may not be relied on by the Tortoise in return. Still, the web of dependencies is built.
These dependencies could almost be imagined as a balanced stack of blocks, with each new block balanced on some set of pre-existing ones. The trillium block rests on blocks of soil fungi, pollinating insects and shade trees. The structure will not be organized around some unified plan or function, for each block finds its place ad hoc. And sometimes pieces fall down, or the structure shifts. This picture falls short though, since the many paths of ecological dependence would require that we picture the stack of blocks in n-dimensional space for some undeterminable n. And unlike passive blocks, living organisms exhibit some agency in holding on to that balance.
Harmony and the Musical Metaphor
Botkin’s favored metaphor for the order of nature is musical harmony, with its dynamic changes and open possibilities for both further harmony and discord. There is much to say for harmony. But it is not a new or radical proposal. And I suspect that for the lay environmental mind, there is little to distinguish it from balance. The Cicero quote I stole from Botkin for my head text speaks in terms of harmony rather than balance. The idea that balance and stability in nature is the product of tension, strife and change runs from the presocratic Heraclitus straight through to The Last Jedi.
Heraclitus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the whole of things flows like a stream.” (circa 500 BCE)
Luke: Breathe. Reach out with your feelings. What do you see?
Rey: The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.
Luke: And between it all?
Rey: Balance and energy. A force.
(circa a long time ago …)
Musical harmony is also the favored metaphor for Aldo Leopold, a canonical source for American environmentalism’s sense of the order of the nature. There is a place in Chihuahua, Mexico, that had been sheltered from logging and ranching long after the surrounding region had been cut, largely due to the last stand of the Apache and then the Mexican Revolution. Leopold visited this area, along the Rio Gavilan, twice, just before it too was finally timbered. Similar to the grazed and cut-over forests he had managed in New Mexico, and yet radically different — here the streams ran clear, abundant fire coexisted with abundant timber, and abundant predators coexisted with abundant game. He wrote to a friend that this was the first place that he realized that land could be healthy and that all the land he had seen up to this point was sick.
So what metaphor does Leopold use to describe this health? How does the Gavilan appear in The Sand County Almanac? As the song of the Gavilan:
This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. … a vast pulsing harmony — its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries. 149
Botkin seems to leave the professional ecologist in an awkward spot: ‘Balance is an old, prescientific idea, a panchreston too vague to be meaningful, and falsified whenever made into an empirical claim. But harmony, that’s good, go with that. There is no balance of nature, only harmony.’ (my paraphrase)
The metaphors are subtly different at best, with harmony and melody suggesting more change and balance suggesting more stability. Balance, more than harmony suggests that pulling out one piece can cause others to fall. That is, balance can suggest interdependence in a way that harmony does not. They are equally vague and both ancient and ubiquitous. Affirming harmony while denying balance is a recipe for confusion at best.
Therapeutic Nihilism and ‘Nature Knows Best’
Part of what attracts Botkin to the musical metaphor though is its greater openness to participation. If there is harmony in nature, than we can act in harmony with it. If nature is delicately balanced, on the other hand, maybe it’s best not to touch it. This tendency to prefer a hands-off approach, which Barry Commoner defended as recognizing that ‘Nature knows best’, and which Eugene Hargrove diagnosed more critically as therapeutic nihilism, Botkin treats as an obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of harmonious coexistence with nature. Only by understanding the local balances and harmonies can helpful touches and harmonious actions be distinguished from violent or discordant ones. Inaction itself is quite capable of being either, and is no safe default.
But while balance may be interpreted as averse to human touch, it need not be. The idea of lending a steadying hand is quite applicable. And recognizing the deep human presence in a landscape carries with it the possibility that we are in some times and places a block that has been built on, that human presence and action is an environmental condition to which other organisms have adapted.
Returning with Leopold to the Gavilan, where I had the privilege of visiting last year, he offers no suggestion that this land was untouched. It had been sheltered from modern timbering and grazing, but its peopled history was evident. In the “Song of the Gavilan,” He writes that
There once were men capable of inhabiting a river without disrupting the harmony of its life. They must have lived in the thousands on the Gavilan, for their works are everywhere. Ascend any draw debouching on the any canyon and you find yourself climbing on little rock terraces or check dams … 150
These ancient Mogollon terraces and retaining walls are still evident, slowing the flow of water and holding back the soil. They are still functionally contributing to the stability, the balance, of the land. The region today has begun to recover some from the intense logging that peaked in the 50s. The parrots that Leopold admired were adapted to the old pines, and were locally lost with them. Restoration projects are underway, as the Gavilan is now in the Campo Verde Natural Protected Area. Wolves have been reintroduced, and there is hope that the parrots will return as the trees age. And the low erosion barriers of the modern restoration projects look strikingly like the check dams of the Mogollon. Who knows how much recovery has been helped by the resilience of an ancient human touch and the helping hand of a modern one?
There is no reason that contemporary human presence in the landscape could not also contribute to the balance of nature, adding stability and harmony. We are not doomed to be ecologically destructive and violent. But if professional ecologists convince us that there is no balance of nature, no stability to guard or to buttress, no harmony to join, then we won’t have much chance of doing it. When we meet with vague and ambiguous concepts, like balance, don’t throw them out too quickly. All meaningful concepts have fuzzy edges somewhere. If they have been used improperly or in unexamined ways in the past, then do a little work to refurbish and reconstruct them on firmer ground. If the public is morally invested in the term, then be all the more eager to develop a responsible interpretation.