Discordant Harmonies

A New Ecology for the 21st Century

By Daniel B. Botkin

Discordant Harmonies
Considered by many to be the classic text of the environmental movement, Discordant Harmonies was the first book to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence.

Nature was believed to achieve a form and structure that would persist forever; if disturbed, it would recover, returning to that state of perfect balance.
In Discordant Harmonies, Daniel Botkin argues that natural ecological systems are constantly fluctuating and our plans, policies, and laws governing the environment must change to reflect this new understanding.

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In July 2012, Oxford University Press will release The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered, with an update from Daniel Botkin.
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More About the BookReviewsExcerpt
Considered ahead of their time in 1990, the ideas in Discordant Harmonies are now timelier than ever. The belief in a balanced nature is alive and well, though those who hold it are constantly confronted by scientific evidence that stands in opposition.Global warming, acid rain, the depletion of forests, the polluting of our atmosphere and oceans–the threats to our environment are numerous, raising justifiable concern among most of us and genuine alarm in some. But as scientist Botkin argues in this provocative book, our ideas about nature are 4,000 years old, dominated by the ancient myth of the Balance of Nature. Indeed, our beliefs about nature have fallen well behind our knowledge. Even our “scientific” approaches to understanding nature and solving environmental problems are based on this belief, rather than on scientific fact. Discordant Harmonies tells stories about successes and failures in our attempts to solve environmental problems, and how new scientific understanding leads us to successes.

In Discordant Harmonies, Daniel Botkin combines his considerable expertise with the well-honed eye of the nature writer and a philosopher’s sense of how ideas shape our perceptions of reality to take us on a marvelous guided tour of the natural world. His method is to introduce a problem in our beliefs about nature by giving us a fascinating case study: of predator-prey relationships, of forests evolving over centuries, of species nearing extinction, of the ways our “protection” of nature has had surprising–and often disappointing–results. Botkin’s revealing case studies also highlight controversial present-day issues–like controlled burning in national forests, fishing and hunting quotas, and policy-making for management of natural resources. He looks at each of these cases in the light of past thinking and current research, revealing how old myths often blind us to the new technology and to the ways of thinking we need to solve our environmental problems. Above all, Botkin is concerned with redefining the relationship between human beings and nature, so that our needs can be met and the intricate systems of nature can persist.

Whether discussing moose herds on Isle Royale or Yosemite’s famous Mariposa Grove of Sequoias, Botkin writes vividly and insightfully about nature, challenging us to rethink some of our most cherished notions. Anyone who is concerned about the environment will find much here to ponder as well as the pleasure of meeting a stimulating and thoughtful mind at work.

Thesis of Discordant Harmonies
The ancient idea of the Balance of Nature is:

  • Nature undisturbed by people achieves a permanent form and structure that would remain for countless ages.
  • When disturbed by human action but then left alone, nature recovers to exactly the same balance it had before.
  • That balance is best for nature and for us. It is most diverse. It has the most organic matter.
  • Within this great balance is a great chain of being — a place for every creature and every creature is in its place.

The consequence of these ideas is that:

  • Nature is best without human intervention.
  • Only people are bad for nature.
  • People and nature are separate. What people do is unnatural.

Modern science demonstrates that:

  • Nature is always changing.
  • Many species are adapted to these changes and require them.
  • When we prevent natural changes, many species therefore decline and may become extinct.
  • The way to “save” nature and to solve environmental problems is to accept natural changes, let them occur.
  • People are integrated into nature. Many places that we think of as “primeval” nature are in fact heavily affected by people and have been so for a long time.

Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (March 11, 1992)
ISBN 0195074696

Wonderfully subversive, slyly informative — The Toronto Globe and Mail
A concise, lucidly penetrating examination of mankind’s maddening mix of feelings — love, hate, fear and infatuation — for the multitude of other residents of the planet….Speaks eloquently to the issues raised as the exploding human population pushes on every habitable corner of earth. –San Francisco Chronicle
“Dramatic….Fascinating…reveals there may be some hope after all”–The Oregonian
“A fascinating, in-depth study….Highly recommended”–Booklist
“This book is well-written and deeply provocative. It presents a realistic point of view of the world we live in. If this is going to be the environmental decade, then Botkin has given us a marvelous opening statement suggesting what we have to do and what we have to learn. Every scientist who is concerned with the environment ought to read this book and make sure his or her friends do so as well.” –BioScience
“Botkin provides fascinating insight relevant to a huge greenhouse issue–how the world’s forests and wildlife will respond to the coming climate change”–James E. Hansen, Director of the Institute for Space Studies, NASA/Goddard Flight Center
“Groundbreaking study of environmental issues….Botkin draws on some revealing case-studies…in order to illuminate his argument.”–Ethology Ecology and Evolution
“Those interested in broad environmental questions but not abreast of the most recent papers in ecology will find this book an important overview of what appears to be an emerging consensus.”–Choice
“In the iconoclastic tradition of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and James Lovelock, Daniel Botkin has used a lifetime of research in the ecological sciences as a basis for reexamining the human-nature relationship. Discordant Harmonies will be provocative to historians and philosophers as well as scientists. It is a book to pack in our intellectual baggage as we prepare for the journey into the 21st century”–Roderick Frazier Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind
From Postscript: a Guide To Action

Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable. What is the likely outcome of our modern role in nature? We can envision several specific futures. The worst, nature after a nuclear war, might be a nature like that of 2 billion years ago, a biosphere of only bacteria, which we would not want for ourselves.

A more likely future lies on the path that we have followed, in which we continue to treat natural history as a hobby not to be taken seriously and to deal with environmental problems after they have arisen using whatever tools and knowledge we happen to have with us at the moment, assuming that nature can be taken apart and repaired and put back together again, following a machine analogy.

A third future is one that we might achieve if we were to begin a massive effort today to make up for what we have not done in the past: to obtain the information, knowledge, and understanding to manage nature wisely and prudently. To this end, we must set aside enough lands so that we have baselines from which to measure our actions and to conserve as much of the remaining biological diversity as possible. We must train professionals and allocate large amounts of funds for the right kinds of research and management.

Even if we adopt the third approach, the changes that are taking place now and will continue to take place as the result of our past actions will lead to major dislocations in nature. If the present projections of the global climatic models are realistic, the climate will change so rapidly, especially in northern latitudes, as to pose serious problems for the persistence of large areas of forests as well as for the present distribution of agricultural lands. Projections suggest that forests may begin to experience significant changes in species composition within the next 20 or 30 years. The rate of climatic change will exceed the natural rate of seed migration, and forests may not be able to regenerate. A seedling of a species suited to the climate at the time of its planting may find itself in a climate too warm for the seeds it produces by the time it reaches maturity several decades in the future. The severity of the problem is unknown at this time, but might exceed our ability to plant and maintain forests. In this case, clearly, considerable research is necessary if we are to conserve the forests of the higher latitudes.

Global warming represents one of the extreme problems that will confront us during the next decades. As many ecologists have warned in the past decade, acid rain; pollution of the oceans, fresh waters, air, and soils with toxic substances; reduction of ground waters; deforestation; and destruction of habitats, including those of most coastal areas will continue to threaten not only us, but all other organisms in spite of our best efforts. We can expect only limited improvements in the next decades in many areas. These large-scale problems make the approaches to conservation discussed in this book necessary.

Wilderness in the Twenty-first Century

Since there is no longer any part of the Earth that is untouched by our actions in some way, either directly or indirectly, there are no wildernesses in the sense of places completely unaffected by people. But there are three kinds of natural areas that we must maintain in the future, two of which we can regard as wilderness and designate legally as protected wilderness areas: no-action wilderness, preagriculture wilderness, and conservation areas. The first is an area untouched by direct human actions, no matter what happens. This kind of wilderness is necessary for observation as a baseline from which scientists can measure the effects of human actions elsewhere; it is an essential calibration of the dials we should set up to monitor the state of nature. Such areas are also important because they will help in the maintenance of biological diversity. Some of them may be pleasant for recreation, but some may not be, and some may become a nature never seen before. As in Hutcheson Memorial Forest, this kind of wilderness might be occupied by introduced species and native species in novel combinations.

The second kind, preagricultural wilderness, is an area that has the appearance of landscape or seascape that most closely matches the ideal of wilderness as it has been thought about in recent decades. In North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and other places in which the time of arrival of modern technological man is readily dated, the idea is to create natural areas that appear as they did when first viewed by the European explorers. In the Americas, this would be the landscape of the seventeenth century. It is necessary to choose a time period that has the desired appearance; if we do not, then we face the situation that I discussed for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which, from the end of the last ice age until the time of European colonization, passed from ice and tundra to spruce and jack pine forest. If natural means simply before human intervention, then all these habitats could be claimed as natural, contrary to what people really mean and really want. What people want in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the wilderness as seen by the voyageurs and a landscape that gives the feeling of being untouched by people.

The conservation area, the third type of natural region, is set aside to conserve biological diversity, either for a specific species–for example, the Kirtland’s warbler–or for a kind of ecological community. Because we have so altered the landscape and have allowed inadvertently only small patches of former habitats to remain, most of these areas require active intervention on our part if they are to persist. For example, to manage the habitat of the Kirtland’s warbler in a way that allows the species to survive, we must pay attention to the frequency of fires and increase or reduce the rate so that it best suits the needs of that species. When and if climate changes through our actions, we might have to relocate the natural area for the warbler and learn how to persuade it to move as well.

It is important that we understand the distinctions among these three kinds of natural areas, each of which represents a different aspect of the older meanings attached to wilderness. Each is quite different from the others, and it is generally not going to be possible to manage the same area to be all three at once: truly undisturbed, appearing as in a presettlement landscape, and functioning to conserve endangered species or biological diversity. Under the old perspective on nature, one could assume that all three goals would be accomplished in any area simply by removing all human actions. Each kind of natural area must be a certain (and generally as yet) undetermined size to be viable. For example, Kirtland’s warbler conservation areas must be large enough to support the breeding territories of hundreds of males.

The smaller the size of a conservation area, the more diverse and more intense must be our actions. The amount of intervention required increases as the size of any specific preserve decreases.1 The smallest area is simply a zoo within which we provide all the necessities and remove all the wastes for the forms of life that we maintain there. At the opposite extreme is nature before technological civilization, where vast areas unaffected by human beings existed. The amount of effort required to maintain a preserve of any size depends also on the characteristics of the species found there, including life history characteristics such as size and longevity. As a general rule, large and longer-lived organisms require large habitats. Tsavo, which is the biggest national park mentioned in this book, was not extensive enough to function as an independent preserve for the African elephant without active intervention by people. Of the examples discussed in this book, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is perhaps the area that could persist with the least direct human action. The largest mammal within the Boundary Waters is the moose, which is much smaller and shorter-lived than the elephant. (A moose weighs about 1,000 pounds and lives for about 17 years; elephants weigh as much as 6 tons and can live for 60 years.) The number of actions required of us will increase as our global impacts create more indirect effects on natural areas, and therefore our actions will have to increase in the future. This is especially true if global warming takes places in the next century.

To maintain wilderness areas in the future will require that we develop means to make these lands secure from undesirable uses. As resources become limited and the human population continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure on natural areas for the extracting of timber, harvesting of wildlife, and mining of minerals. As an example, the poaching of elephants, a crisis whose countermeasures required so much effort when Tsavo National Park was established, remains a serious problem. Elephant populations are undergoing a severe decline because poaching has continued widely, and it is unclear whether the African elephant will be able to survive in the wild in the twenty-first century unless new approaches are found for their security. Elsewhere, as resources such as firewood and valuable furniture timber become scare, there will be more and more pressure for people to simply take them from an area even if it was set aside as a preserve. How to ensure that large natural areas are physically secure is an issue that has received very little attention and is not a simple problem. A nature preserve surrounded by police with weapons seems to violate the idea of the preserve and to require funds that would seem impossible to obtain.

1This point is made in L. B. Slobodkin, D. B. Botkin, B. Maguire, Jr., B. Moore III, and H. J. Morowitz, “On the Epistemology of Ecosystem Analysis,” in Estuarine Perspectives, ed. V. S. Kennedy (New York: Academic Press, 1980).

Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 1990 – 2009. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy, circulate, or publish without the author’s or publisher’s consent.

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