The Balance of Nature?
“This essay is dedicated to the memory of Smilodon Dave Foreman. He was a hero and I am glad I got to meet him and know him to the extent that I did. His bold powerful vision will have cascading effects for a long time to come. I feel lucky to be a small part of it all.” —Kirk Robinson
Recently I participated in an email discussion on “The Balance of Nature.” We have all heard the phrase and most of us take for granted that there is a balance of nature. But is there? Some of the discussion participants thought there is and others thought there is not. I argued that there is, though it is not easy to say what it is. I gave the example of a tightrope walker skillfully walking a tightrope for conveying the idea of a balance of nature. She must continually make minute adjustments to maintain her balance. If she loses her balance, either because of a misstep or a gust of wind, she crosses a tipping point and falls. As a result of the discussion, I read two books on the subject that were recommended to me or referenced by other participants, The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (2009) by John Kricher and Restoring the Balance (2021) by John Vucetich. Kricher argues that there is no such thing as the balance of nature; Vucetich tries to persuade us that there is.
This is an important issue for conservationists because the word ‘balance’ is value valenced: it is good to be in balance and bad to be out of balance. Therefore, so many conservationists believe, we have an ethical responsibility not to upset the balance of nature and to restore balance where we can—say, by reintroducing an extirpated apex carnivore.
It is easy to think that there must either be a balance of nature or not—that the word ‘balance’ refers to a definite state or condition that something is either in or not in. But ‘balance’ is used in various ways to speak, for example, of a bank balance, a balanced rock, a tightrope walker, and the palate of a fine tequila to mention just a few. These many different uses form a family through resemblance and need not share a common feature. An established practice of using the term, along with accepted criteria for its application, is unique to each context of use; and a speaker must master this use in order to be said to know the meaning of the term in that context. Despite this, we humans, with our craving for generality, tend to naturally presume that the word has a perfectly definite univocal meaning that it carries with it into all contexts since, after all, it is the same word that is used in all those different contexts. However, this is a false picture of linguistic meaning. The meaning of a word is partly determined by the context of its use. Therefore, if ‘balance’ is going to have meaning with respect to nature at large, that meaning must first be explained. (Imagine coming across a traffic stop sign deep in a trackless wilderness to get the point.)
This way of looking at linguistic meaning comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is widely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It has revolutionized many academic disciplines, e.g., linguistics, psychology, sociology, history, and communications by dislodging the quaint idea that linguistic meanings are some sort of mysterious mental entities that speakers learn to associate with words and that prescribe and guide us in their correct use like a set of rules.
Because the concept of the balance of nature is not a scientific one and there is no general theory of what constitutes a balance of nature, it makes no sense to say that there is a balance of nature or that there is not unless a particular meaning is clearly specified. Lacking this, even if this or that hypothesis about how nature works does not hold up, nothing whatever follows regarding whether there is a balance of nature. For example, if Frederick Clements’s theory of the succession of plant communities is not universally true, as Kricher reports, nothing follows one way or another regarding balance of nature.
What we can say as scientists and non-scientists alike is that nature is not totally chaotic—not a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in William James’s memorable phrase. Change occurs at all scales, but when it comes to biological systems, such as ecosystems and organisms, the change is systemic. Ecosystems are cybernetic systems. They display recurrent patterns involving feedback loops and are stable through extended periods of time. Similarly, individual animals and plants are homeostatic. And, as the Gaia hypothesis has it, Earth is a superorganism because life processes create the very conditions that support life. Such observations give rise to the idea of a balance of nature but they do not amount to a well-defined concept or scientific theory. By ‘idea’ I mean a notion that is too vague to count as an actual concept due to the lack of an established practice of use involving accepted criteria for the application of a word.
Kricher thinks the idea of the balance of nature is that of teleology à la Aristotle, meaning that an ecosystem, indeed the entire biosphere, is inexorably moving toward a final permanent state (like a ball bearing coming to rest at the bottom of a bowl) where it will remain forever unless an exogenous force intervenes – an asteroid impact, for example. Unfortunately, he never makes it clear that this is what Aristotle means by teleology. In any case, this strikes me as an unrealistic requirement for balance in nature. It does not surprise me that Kricher could find no clear instances of it. I think he commits the “straw man” fallacy.
It is not necessary to construe the balance of nature as having anything to do with teleology, and I doubt if many ecologists have done so. It is widely accepted that change originates within the biosphere itself from random gene mutations, genetic drift, and other endogenous causes, not only from exogenous causes. This change effects change in the non-living environment, which in turn effects change in the biosphere, and so on.
Given that he does not believe in the balance of nature, it is no surprise that Kricher sees no reason to engage in protection or conservation of biological nature other than to protect its potential usefulness to humans. This goes even for other animals. His environmental ethic is thoroughly anthropocentric: nature derives its value from being a potential human resource. From this perspective, the only argument for conservation is prudential: Use nature prudently so that you do not impair its ability to sustain continued use! (Given this view, I wonder why a person should not regard other people strictly as resources too . . . if he thinks he can get away with it!)
This is an unsatisfactory conservation ethic. It is inadequate for grounding an ethical obligation to conserve polar bears, for example. What if the ruling powers conclude, based on facts and plausible assumptions, that doing what it takes to conserve polar bears (or any other species) will not benefit humanity (or members of the ruling powers)? Furthermore, it is highly doubtful that many people will be motivated to conserve polar bears just because they believe it might turn out to be good for future humans.
Unlike Kricher, Vucetich thinks there is something we can reasonably call the balance of nature, specifically the predator-prey relationship and the phenomenon of the trophic cascade: predators control the number and demographics of prey animals, which in turn keeps the plant community healthy and capable of supporting a diverse biota. It is well known that the slaughter of predators on the Kaibab Plateau in the early 20th century was intended to increase the mule deer herd but had a deteriorating effect on the habitat, leading instead to mass deer starvation. That was an example of what happens when you upset the “balance” by shutting down a trophic cascade. It was also one of the reasons for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park (to control the elk population), and more recently to genetically rescue the dwindling wolf population in Isle Royale National Park (to control the moose population). Whether we want to call this restoring the balance, as Vucetich does, is not terribly important, but it has nothing to do with teleology. What is important is that an ecosystem is a self-renewing homeostatic system, analogous in this respect to an organism. In addition, Vucetich points out that all organisms are related as members of the family of life that descended from a common ancestor. In this way, he hopes to persuade readers that they have an ethical obligation to care for other creatures and their habitats just as they do for members of their own immediate family. Personally, I doubt if this alone is motivationally powerful enough to do the job.
Motivation aside, do these facts place us under an ethical obligation to care for other creatures? Am I my brother’s keeper, so to speak, even where my “brother” is a species of snail on an island in the ocean? Again, I am dubious, though this concern is largely ameliorated if my obligation is limited to matters that I can influence. Bottom line: I think this view has a lot more going for it than Kricher’s but still falls short of what we need.
However, Vucetich develops his view further by recognizing that many other creatures besides humans have interests. For example, squirrels have an interest in storing nuts; wolverines have an interest in scavenging carrion; etc. Whether they reason about what to do is beside the point. It is enough that they consciously and purposely pursue what helps protect and sustain their lives and the lives of their offspring, as well as what gives them pleasure, such as play. And just as we recognize an ethical obligation to other humans not to interfere with their ability to freely pursue their interests (with some exceptions), Vucetich thinks we ought to recognize a similar obligation with respect to other creatures.
This seems plausible enough with respect to mammals and birds, and perhaps reptiles and amphibians, but do insects, plants, and ecosystems have interests? We can say that some things are in their interest, in the sense of contributing to their survival, maintenance, or flourishing, but this is different from them literally having interests. The difference is illustrated by a bear who is interested in what’s on offer at a bait station where a “hunter” waits to kill her. What she is interested in is not in her interest. I think Vucetich tends to conflate the two senses of “having an interest,” but for the most part they no doubt tend to naturally coincide: wild animals are mostly interested in what is in their interest.
Also, while I am sympathetic to the needs of other creatures, it is not obvious to me why I am obligated to care about them enough to help protect them. After all, I have my own interests to look out for. Therefore, if I am obligated to care about the interests of other creatures, I think the reason must be more basic than the mere fact that they have interests (in either sense).
A Good Alternative
Suppose we focus more broadly on what is good for a plant, animal, or ecosystem. It is good for a tree to receive sunshine and moisture (even though, like an ecosystem, it is presumably incapable of conscious experience or agency). It is good for a mountain lion to have cover for stalking prey. It is good for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem with its millions of migratory birds to receive inflow from rivers and streams. This use of ‘good’ is different from saying, for example, that it is good for a knife to be sharp. It makes no difference to a knife whether it is sharp, only to the user of the knife. We might express this by saying that plants, animals, and ecosystems have a good of their own. A knife does not have a good of its own. It’s just a thing.
Following Aristotle, it makes sense to say that what is good for a creature is what is in accord with its nature. It is good for a golden retriever to have a compassionate human caretaker. It is good for a wolf to live in the wild (unless it has been raised in captivity), even though it might starve or get a broken jaw from the kick of an elk. And similarly for an elk, even though it might get killed by wolves. Life in the wild is the best possible life for both wolf and elk because that is what evolution has equipped them for and what allows them maximum potential to flourish as the kinds of creature they are. And this is itself good—not instrumentally good as in “good for,” but good in the sense of being fitting or right.
Now to the crucial question: Do we humans have an ethical obligation to not damage what is good? Clearly, a justification is needed—and a good one—for purposely doing so. I do not see how this can be cogently denied. The sentence “It is not wrong to wantonly damage what is good” is close to an outright contradiction. Furthermore, if we humans have an obligation to not damage what is good without good reason, then, I submit, we also have an obligation to repair what we have damaged where we can. I think this is axiomatic. If not, then what is the point of the obligation to not damage in the first place? (Vucetich argues to the same conclusion in a more roundabout way based on a theory of restorative justice.)
This view is consistent with Vucetich’s point about interests but goes further by (1) more explicitly including plant communities such as old growth forests, and ecosystems, in the class of things to which we have an ethical obligation; (2) by grounding the obligation more firmly and transparently in what is good; and (3) by directly implying an obligation to undertake rewilding efforts where we can, even when we are faced with a competing obligation to not harm individual creatures—as when it must be decided whether or not to lethally remove an invasive species that is causing damage to an ecosystem. In such cases, we must decide which of competing obligations ought to take precedence while keeping in mind that “goods-of-its-own” are not necessarily all equally good in an absolute sense. There is a vast difference between pulling weeds in your garden and clear-cutting an old growth forest, for example; and between swatting a housefly and murder. However, this complicated issue lies beyond the scope of this essay.
If someone is convinced, based on established facts and sound reasoning, that she has an ethical obligation to do (or not do) something, it can motivate her to act accordingly—even against a powerful contrary inclination. As well, the best available science and sound ethical reasoning should inform and guide government conservation policies & programs. But the overarching challenge for us conservationists is to foster the growth of a cultural conservation ethos à la Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” that also teaches compassion for individual creatures. I hope this essay imparts some impetus toward that goal.
Kirk Robinson is the founder and executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to founding Western Wildlife Conservancy, Kirk earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and taught courses at universities in Montana and Utah for 15 years. His favorite activities are exploring the wildlands of the American West and trying to learn to play fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar. Kirk is a charter member of TRI’s Rewilding Leadership Council.