I’m re-reading a book on embryonic breathing and its fascinating how information in it makes more sense as a result of my own work plus other books I’ve been studying on the topic of breathing meditations.
The environmental historian Donald Worster writes about the fall of the ‘balance of nature’ as an idea, and points out that this disruptive world-view makes nature seem awfully like the human sphere. ‘All history,’ he notes, ‘has become a record of disturbance, and that disturbance comes from both cultural and natural agents.’ Thus he places droughts and pests alongside corporate takeovers and the invasion of the academy by French literary theory. If the idea of a balance resurrects Plato and Aristotle, the non-equilibrium, disturbance-inclined view may have its own Greek hero: Heraclitus, pagan saint of flux. ‘Thunderbolt,’ Heraclitus wrote in Fragment 64, ‘steers all things.’
In its brief history, the science of ecology appears to have smuggled in enough ancient metaphysics to make any Greek philosopher nod with approval. However, the question remains. If the handsaw and hurricane are equivalents in their ability to lay a forest low, it is hard to see how we can scientifically criticise the human destruction of ecosystems. Why should we, for instance, concern ourselves with the fate of the Western Ghats if alien introductions are just another disturbance, no different from the more natural-seeming migration of species? The point of conservation in the popular imagination and in many policy directives is that it resists human depredations to preserve important species in ancient, intact, fully functional natural ecosystems. If we have no ‘balance of nature’, this is much harder to defend.
If we lose the ideal of balance, then, we lose a powerful motive for environmental conservation. However, there might be some unintended benefits. A dynamic, ‘disturbance’ approach has fostered some of the most promising new approaches to environmental problems such as urban ecology and restoration ecology. That’s because it is much less concerned with keeping humans and nature separate from one another.
The thing is, both balance and flux are undoubtedly aspects of nature. A new view of nature that combines them in a way that both scientists and the public find compelling is needed. We should bridge the present disparity between ecology as a science and ecology as a romantic idealism about nature, not only for intellectual reasons but for the sake of robust public policy. Ecology, after all, needs to explain both the stability of a yew grove (a woodland that persists for more than 3,000 years commands attention), as well as the rapid transition of forest in the Western Ghats.
One promising middle path that integrates balance and disturbance has emerged in recent years. Referred to as ‘resilience thinking’, it builds on the work of the Canadian-born ecologist CS Holling and has been developed in recent years by an international collaboration called the Resilience Alliance. Resilience thinking assumes that change and disturbance are an integral part of every system, but that some systems are more resilient to destructive change than others. This might seem a subtle point, but if we understand the processes that promote or restore resilience, we have a much better chance both of mopping up after ecological catastrophes – or of avoiding them altogether.
Resilience thinking can be applied to economics (the capacity of financial markets to absorb shock), friendship (the capacity of our loved ones to tolerate our nonsense), and nature (the capacity of ecosystems to endure disruption). One of the striking findings is that diversity is crucial to success. When an ecological system is managed for just one factor (say, a single crop) or where a nation’s wealth is dominated by a single economic sector (say, the housing market before the 2008 global financial crisis), the result is a loss of resilience. Resilience thinking ultimately theorises about the limits of a system’s capacity to endure. Financial markets collapse, crops fail, love blanches, ecosystems unravel, and death, alas, is a part of every life.
Ecosystems that have been damaged are often damaged irreparably. The cost of restoration projects, we know, is very high, so if we value the diversity of the Western Ghats, we need to prevent this switch from ecological delight to impoverished catastrophe. The idea of resilience provides an ecologically accurate, powerfully intuitive reason for protecting species and habits everywhere, from Ireland to India.
Good management of these ecosystems will require extensive knowledge of those ecological forces (competition, predation, mutualisms and so on) that create the natural patterns we see. Managers also need knowledge of those disturbances — fire, pest, storms — that have historically rejuvenated the forests. What precisely we do with this knowledge calls for ethical judgments of the most practical kind. This is a conversation that involves all of us, scientist and layperson alike.
You’ve found a bookstore that will host your workshops. It’s pretty exciting, but now comes the tough part of marketing the event, plus doing due diligence on your part to make sure that both you and the store are successful. Both you and the bookstore owner need to be on the same page if your event is going to be successful and this isn’t always as easy as you’d think. The following tips can…