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