By Jamie Steer 17/12/2018 8

This is the idea that people have upset the balance or equilibrium of nature, but that we can return that balance in future if appropriate steps are taken.

This belief is very much supported in New Zealand by this notion that our environment is Gondwanan and that it hasn’t changed much in the last 80 million years. Or if it has changed, it’s changed only very slowly and incrementally.

This notion of balance again came through very strongly during my PhD research and was commonly reflected in peoples’ attitudes towards introduced wildlife. And that’s a little surprising because the idea of balance or equilibrium fell out of favour in the ecological literature as early as the 1970-80s. Yet it’s remained extremely popular both among the public and even still among many scientists.

That’s partly because the myth that there is a balance of nature is part of most cosmologies and central to a lot of religious beliefs. The idea of balance also imagines this orderly, predictable little world that we can control and manipulate if only we can get our hands on that elusive instruction manual.

Exploring this notion of ecological balance, biogeographer Stephen Trudgill recently wrote that:

‘The ‘balance of nature’…is untenable when faced with evidence, but the idea is a strong article of faith. In Western society we readily reach for an Edenic myth of humans causing disharmony in the putative natural order of things…we shoulder the guilt laden notion that we have disturbed the natural order and it is now all wrong and our fault. This becomes very much a situating narrative and a personal motivation…’ (Trudgill, 2008).

In contrast, the consolidating flux of nature or disequilibrium paradigm emphasises that most ecosystems are actually characterised by unpredictability and constant change.

As American ecologist Mark Davis recently put it:

‘The natural world is more like a swirling and boiling cauldron than an integrated super-organism’ (Davis, 2005).

Our environments in New Zealand really epitomise that, perhaps more so than many other places in the world, being characterised on so many levels by constant change and reassembly. New Zealand, for example, is one of the most geologically active countries in the world, constantly disrupted and provoked by eruptions and earthquakes, most notably in recent times by the Hatepe eruption in 180AD which famously turned the sky red as far afield as Rome and would have literally obliterated life over large swathes of the North Island.

New Zealand has also experienced prolonged freeze and thaw events. At the last glacial maximum – around 20,000 years ago – sea levels were about 120m lower than they are today. This is significant because it means that most of the lowland ecosystems that we have in this country have formed in relatively recent times. And because ecosystems don’t tend to migrate as intact units, it reminds us that many of the systems we are apt to define as pristine or ancient now are, more often than not, actually much more recent compositions.

We also now know that most of our fauna likely migrated to New Zealand by transoceanic dispersal in the last few million years – so most of our biota is not representative of Gondwana. Many of our more common native species – silvereyes, fantails, white-faced herons and so on, colonized the country only within the last few hundreds or few thousands of years.

Now, all of this shouldn’t give us license to promote further deliberate changes, of course, but it should remind us that the changes we have wrought actually aren’t unprecedented. New Zealand’s environment has been characterised – probably more than many other places in the world – by often rapid and violent upheavals. Keeping on with the notion then that the country was ecologically perfect, balanced and especially stable before people came along is in many respects not very helpful or accurate.

From a social perspective, educating people that our environment was perfect before they came along and that the only way they can help is by making it more like it was before they arrived is also, in my and many others view, a really misguided and misanthropic strategy in the long-term.

Read the next instalment here. Or begin at the start of this series.

Featured image: The 1995 eruption of Mt Ruapehu © Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

8 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 4 – We need to restore the balance”

  • Thanks for reminding us of these known facts about the history of NZ and its species.

    But what is your conclusion? Do you argue that because volcanic eruptions and ice ages have caused great changes to life in NZ in the past, that we should participate fully in the great anthropogenic dying in NZ at present?

    • Perhaps everyone isn’t as wise and learned as you Sue. In any case, a belief that people no longer subscribe to the balance of nature paradigm (or some remodeled version of it), here or elsewhere, would be misguided. It retains considerable social and intellectual currency.

      My related point is about the consistency of flux and change in our country’s ecological history. I think recognition of this tends to be poor (i.e., not a ‘know fact’). And that is reinforced by an ongoing tendency to use Gondwanaland, with its connotations of relative isolation and stasis, as a point of emphasis. As I clearly note in the post, this is no argument for just blindly accepting further human-mediated changes. It’s about recognising that change, and even rapid change, in itself is no aberration here. I think our influence is less of a break in history than we flatter ourselves to believe.

  • New Zealand fantails are an endemic species that have been here for thousands of years; they are not in the same category as silvereyes, white-faced herons, nankeen night herons, royal spoonbills, pied stilts, spur-winged plovers, welcome swallows, etc., which all colonised New Zealand less than 200 years ago. The same goes for grey warblers and pipits. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this mistake, and the lack of attention to detail is very noticeable to me. I don’t think this qualifies as ‘nit-picking’.


    • Nitpicking it may be, but no worse than the dispute over the identity of the reputed ‘face in a turd’ in a neighbouring blog.

      Yep, my point here is really just that many native species (as opposed to endemic) are either recent arrivals or regular migrants from Australia and elsewhere. This resembles our conversation about grey ducks in some senses (fantails are defined as native in the the Field Guide and in HANZAB). I definitely could have selected a less contentious example.

  • Again, Jamie, you are ignorant of a taxonomic revision. New Zealand fantails, Rhipidura fuliginosa, are an endemic species; currently considered distinct from the Australian grey fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa). I don’t remember whether or not the newest edition of the Robertson & Heather guide refers to fantails as ‘native’ and not endemic, but in any case, it is not flawless; for example, it lists the oriental pratincole as a ‘migrant’ when in reality it is a very rare vagrant. Additionally, the HANZAB series is outdated in several respects now, and you should have known that using it as a reference here was not sensible. The series lists the stitchbird as being a species of honeyeater; I certainly hope that you don’t consider this to currently be true.
    Even if another taxonomic revision happens in the future and New Zealand fantails get lumped with Australian grey fantails again (which is what happened in the case of red-billed and silver gulls), I don’t see why this means that it is okay to let fantails in New Zealand go extinct.
    No Australian grey fantails have ever been seen in New Zealand. That ought to tell you something.


    • I’m sure you mean well Simon but nitpicking over taxonomy is definitely not the purpose of this post. As I’ve said, I could have chosen a better example here (of which you agree there are plenty of others) and repent my sins for doing otherwise. I’ll do my best to keep up with the ongoing revisions.

      There is no indication that fantails will be declining to extinction any time soon. They are one of many native species that continue to do well in NZ and, for this species, often in the absence of pest control too.

  • So you consider an endemic species continuing its survival in the presence of introduced predators, regardless of its numbers, to be equivalent to ‘doing well’. Perhaps that’s what you thought when there were still several blue-wattled crow populations that were mostly composed of post-breeding-age males?
    Just because some endemic species appear to currently be surviving in the presence of introduced pests means nothing in the long term.


  • I get the impression that Jamie thinks it poor form to care about the survival of any NZ species, whether native or endemic.