Thinking like an Ecosystem: The Inherent Uncertainty of Natural Systems Calls for the Integration of Resiliency and Diversity in Environmental Management

By McLaughlin, Chris | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Thinking like an Ecosystem: The Inherent Uncertainty of Natural Systems Calls for the Integration of Resiliency and Diversity in Environmental Management


McLaughlin, Chris, Alternatives Journal


Do you suppose that Humpty Dumpty saw it coming? Did he have any advance warning of his impending fate? Even the slightest wobble to tip him off? I mean, as it's told, he went straight from sitting to falling without a single intermediary step. And with no means of reversal, the results point to a change in his circumstances that was as dramatic as it was sudden.

But life's like that--one surprise after another. Surprises, in fact, are a normal part of the linked systems of humans and nature, or socio-ecological systems, to which we all belong. So imagine that what happened to Humpty represents a potential future for the systems that you and I inhabit, and you've got a very bleak picture. Ecologists would suggest that Humpty had suffered a "regime shift." That's a delicate way of saying that you can't go home again. Clear waters full of fish, for example, can be polluted or emptied by humans with remarkable efficiency and with tragic consequences for the livelihoods once buoyed by those waters. The important message for us is that the precariousness and surprise involved in Humpty's sudden drama represent a reality for natural systems that has, for too long, been resource management's dirty little secret. We must reveal that secret and acknowledge its implications in order to change the way we manage our resources in the future.

My title will be recognizable as a play on Aldo Leopold's Thinking Like a Mountain. That essay was a reflection on traditional motives and approaches to resource management. It spoke to our propensity to simplify and control. Leopold heard complexity echo from the howl of the wolf, a "deep chesty bawl" whose "deeper meaning" invites us to question our own assumptions about how the world works. Thinking Like a Mountain evoked a sense of what we now know: that natural systems are subject to unpredictability and therefore possess inherent uncertainty. It's an ecological expression of the Law of Unintended Consequences, if you will. And the ongoing inability of resource management to break from those traditional assumptions and modes of control, contends Canadian ecologist C.S. "Buzz" Holling, is pathological.

Not that those traditions don't appear to have been a raging success. Look around at our material wealth and you'll be forced to admit that it's been a very good run. But we've borrowed heavily against those gains. Incredible concomitant increases in human population, freshwater withdrawals, grain and timber harvests, landuse changes, and species extinction in recent decades suggest that further command in such circumstances will encounter diminishing returns at best. The reason, largely unacknowledged in the traditional modus operandi of resource managers but there nonetheless, is that our natural windfall has been achieved in part by creating efficiencies and eliminating redundancies in production--where the products are ecosystem services such as a stable climate or the food that we eat. But nature is not just-in-time by nature. Furthermore, our attempts to schedule it to our liking only increase the chance of unhappy outcomes. Such realities, where success creates its own failure, can be difficult to reconcile given our generally rosy outlook.

Few Canadian examples more clearly illustrate this pathology than the early 1990s collapse of the cod fishery that continues to deprive Newfoundland of its lifeblood. An overenthusiastic approach to hauling cod out of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean was, according to Jeff Hutchings, solely responsible for the practical disappearance of the cod. Hutchings is a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University and a leading expert on the causes of the cod's demise. "Cod have a natural bet-hedging life history. It's like a lottery," he explains. "If you deposit your eggs directly into the water column, how can you persist? By having as many offspring as you can." It's the cod's survival strategy. But decades of sifting those waters for the most profitable individuals reduced the range of sizes and ages in the population, truncating the cod's variability, its built-in defence against just such threats, Hutchings explains. …

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