The balance of nature, a millennial and naive tale

It was also at this time that science became increasingly data-driven and ecology began to assert itself as a discipline. “When the data doesn’t support an idea, you have to question it,” Kricher said, adding that this is exactly what happened with the balance of nature.

Later, ecologists replaced community-based sociological models with more mathematical and individualistic theories. In the 1970s and 1980s, the term “balance of nature” largely disappeared from the scientific lexicon. “Environmentalists have tacitly agreed on the largely metaphorical nature of this phrase,” Kricher reports.

However, the general public continues to use it heavily today. It is generally used to mean one thing … or its opposite. It describes a balance that is sometimes fragile, delicate and easily disturbed. At other times, it conveys the idea of ​​an all-powerful nature, so powerful that it can self-correct any imbalance. According to Cuddington, “both views are wrong. »

In Eternal Change

In the 1950s, Robert MacArthur traveled to the coastal forests of Maine, USA, to observe nightingale populations. He later discovered that five different species coexisted, each using different parts of the same tree. This phenomenon, known as the separation of niches, implied a certain weight, balance.

The research that presented these results was quickly considered fundamental to ecology, a must-have for any student worth his or her salt. Buck Wheeler was one of those students. He first became aware of these works a few years ago when he was in Master’s and realized that MacArthur lived near his study area; therefore, he suggested reproducing the study.

It was in 2014, more than fifty years after MacArthur’s work, that the forest he chose for research had barely changed. So apart from a few technological advances, such as the use of lasers instead of stopwatches, Wheeler was able to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Only here his results were very different.

Wheeler’s report is still awaiting peer review before publication, so he could not go into detail. However, he shows that he observed only two of the species mentioned by MacArthur, among other new species.

In other words, “it’s a dynamic system,” he says. “And it’s not static. »

The changes Wheeler observes reflect a broader change in ecology that affects real life. Whatever the interpretation of the term “balance,” fragility, or strength, both mean letting nature do its thing and minimizing human intervention.

A more modern view favors the idea of ​​”perpetual change,” as Columbia University ecologist Matt Palmer puts it. As this approach gained momentum, management and conservation policies adapted. “It has a stronger impact on the management of ecosystems or natural resources,” he said. “Human intervention becomes necessary. »

Among the commonly used conservation techniques that contradict the notion of balance in nature, Palmer mentions ecoducts or ecobridges, which allow animals to cross barriers such as roads or assisted migration, where humans move animals or plants from one habitat to another due to climate or climatic conditions. other difficulties. We can also mention the reintroduction of wolves in places like Yellowstone National Park or even prescribed burning in forest management to limit fire risk.

However, the most obvious and compelling manifestation of this phenomenon remains the ever-present climate crisis, says Illinois State University psychologist Corin Zimmerman. At a time when the vast majority of scientists agree that human intervention is necessary to solve the problems of climate change, this misconception about nature, firmly embedded in the minds of the general public, can become an obstacle to progress. “If nature is so strong and resilient, it will take care of itself, we have nothing to do with our carbon footprint,” he describes. “This is a very naive concept of nature. »

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