“The Great Pan is dead”: A rebuke of the myth of natural balance. Part 1

David Suzuki’s book The Sacred Balance, is a fairly basic overview of environmental issues explained at about the level of High school science and New Age spiritual mythology. It is rich in statistical tables and analysis that charts the changes in the earth’s biodiversity, the origins, expansion and complexity of the universe and the multitude of ways that human beings are polluting, damaging and destroying habitats on land and marine life. It intersperses this with several myth stories of creation, with particular focus on the Homeric myth of Gaia, Mother earth and Father time and quotes from the Bible scriptures and Eastern texts. There is a running theme of animosity towards technologies that promote wasteful polluting practices. While he also pleas for a reconsideration of values against the excesses of global capitalist consumerism in favour of a ‘think global act local’ approach to ‘organic’ green living. This coincides with the equation of the ‘singing spirit of nature’ with poetry and the beauty of Romanticism against the horror of science. The obligatory swipe at Descartes and the Cartesian ‘grip on the West’ is present here, too. I find it incredible ironic that the book charts out the fluctuating changes in the formation of the universe and the evolution of types of cells which transmogrified the atmosphere to support new exotic formations of organisms, such as eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, yet insists on the idea that there is a ‘sacred balance’ at the heart of ‘Mother nature’. After 300 pages of explaining the contingency of life and the precariousness of existence, why conclude that nature is in balance? What is nature if it is something that can be balanced? Where does this fantasy of balance come from and why does it persist?

The nexus for the argument for balance comes down to two central theoretical misunderstandings: 1) evolutionary theory 2) reading the ‘relative” stability of ecosystems as a necessity. Firstly, Suzuki’s reading of evolution seems to follow a common misreading of evolutionary theory when explaining the responses within ecosystems to the introduction of new organisms and mutations. He suggests:

a kind of biological warfare is constantly waged between predator and prey, host and parasite, as each species jockeys for an upper hand. Mutations or new gene combinations conferring an advantage for one species are soon matched by countering response in the other species to restore the balance” (p.200).

Organisms do not respond to other species to restore ‘balance’. Each organism works tirelessly within the contingent conditions of its environment in order to sustain itself. Evolution is a theory of change mutation, not of a teleological correcting mechanism that sustains the delicate balance of nature. For time a cell divides the process of mitosis introduces genetic variation and the possibility of mutation. The effects of these mutations can take many generation to emerge. Successful species are those which are lucky enough to sustain mutations that benefit the survival of the species. The traits and properties of the mutations can promote the chances of successful procreation for the mutated organism, which will then multiply the number of organisms with this mutation.

Balance is an illusion derived from the finite time of any human observation of an ecosystem. Balance between species is not something that should be seen in isolation but as part of larger geological and meteorological patterns which provide rhythms of rainfall, temperature changes and soil nutrient conditionals. If ecosystems give the impression of balance then geology certainly shouldn’t. As evidence from plate tectonics suggest, the Himalayas was once under water and home to thriving aquatic organisms. The geological changes occurring slowly over millions of years change the possibilities of organisms, which can spread to new area as land connects up. Or can become cut off from the main land and so become isolated ecosystems, such as the Galapagos islands. Volcanic ocean activity can create new Islands which become inhabited and then deserted by opportunistic birds drop seeds onto these fresh fertile soils which then attracts new creatures of all kinds. There is no balance here, only opportunism.

Before human beings occupied the earth, eco-systems big and small were destroyed, displaced and lost forever due to the contingencies of object systems which extend beyond the interests of living organisms. This is why it makes no sense to suggest that human beings should live in balance with nature, when ‘nature’, through extreme weather, droughts, asteroid devastation, tectonic plate collisions and submersions, provide anything but ‘balanced’ systems. What is obvious is that the illusion of balance is due to an observed ‘relative’ consistency in certain climatic and geographic areas, which, given a finite amount of time, appears not to be going through damaging convulsions of change, but instead, support extremely complex networks of species. Suzuki interprets this as a principle of biodiversity, which is part of an automatic process of balancing environmental conditions. Suzuki, who quotes the work of James Lovelock, testifies to the harmonizing effect of Gaia against contingent perturbations. Yet from what I can conclude, if his thesis is correct, then the global balance of properties which sustains the diversity of life does so to provide the optimum conditions for “a kind of biological warfare” at the level of each organisms trying to get the upper hand. It appears that a return to nature, for Susziki, is more attuned to a Hobbesian notion of the state of nature, above any notion of a harmonious global environment.

What are the solutions Suzuki suggests for us? He has ten suggestions on page 303, that range from ‘Buy a fuel efficient, low polluting car’ to ‘eat meat free meals once a week’. Earlier in the book he admits to owning all the mod-cons of modern living (microwave, washing machine, etc) not to mention promoting the publishing industry through book authorship (and thus the contributing to the destruction of woodlands and the huge amounts of energy required to power the industry itself, with all its energy consuming sectors), but he seems to think that he will be able to look his children in the eye and say “I did my best” because his father taught him “that I am what I do, not what I say”. This is classic fetishist disavowal, the believing of another words over what you see, clearly under the gaze of the Father (whose words are repeated by Suzuki as a maxim to follow, which resonate ironically throughout this work as a ‘saying’ not a ‘doing’). There is clearly a strange gap between his understanding of global environmental and evolutionary change, and how these mechanisms supposedly create a balance. The idea of a balance is a fantasy projected onto a pre-human world of organic creation. A naturalization of nature is not a nature of balance but a recognition of a nature of contingent hyper-chaos of storms and doldrums. Suzuki provides plenty of condemning evidence as to the scale of environmental damage and the rate of species extinction, but this is not a condemnation of man putting nature out of joint: Nature was already out of joint with it self, we just haven’t been around long enough to notice.

This is not a criticism aimed only at Suzuki, but the whole environmentalist mentality that relies on a mythological belief in balance and the utopian vision of living in harmony with nature achievable through the adoption of greener consumer practices. It seems that these suggestions are totally impotent and insincere if the solution relies on the ‘natural checks and balances of Gaia’ to control and order a limited production of pollutants and greenhouse gases of green capitalism together with the movement into gentle pastoral poetry.

The problem comes from a confused notion of nature and the natural. I will address this in part 2, which will look at the work of Bruno Latour, Heidegger, Zizek and object-oriented philosophy.

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7 Responses to ““The Great Pan is dead”: A rebuke of the myth of natural balance. Part 1”

  1. Ironspider Says:

    As you suggest, there is no real ‘balance’ in nature, it is a factor of prolonged observation. We generally record a balance as it is observed swinging one way, then another – so no real balance at all. I’ve long considered mankind and it’s potential impacts to be another form of evolutionary impetus on species.

    However, there is no harm in taking an overview, even if erroneously attributed with some mythological aspect, if it enables us to grasp the impact we can have on the ecosystems, species and habitats that surround us. If such a view provides a focus for discussion then, surely, it’s to the good. And I agree with your comment on the confusion of nature as opposed to natural.

    • avoidingthevoid Says:

      Hi Ironspider, thanks for your comment.
      I enjoy the old myths and stories very much, as they tend to emphasize the phenomenological understanding of their life-world through narratives that envelope human and non-human actors into something with meaningful coherence. The irony of the Suzuki’s book, and many holistic views of nature, is that they tend to rely on scientific research to prove their points and then layer on the mythical narrative for, what seems to be, aesthetic affect.

      Suzuki’s book gathered a lot of interesting information together, but I felt any truly active response to the continuing environmental disasters seemed to be completely castrated because of the notion of natural balance (i.e. we can still pollute but not that much otherwise nature can’t balance herself out). There was no real desire to look for the systemic reasons for the problems, other than myopic swipes at technology and Descartes. Relapsing into Romantic poetic fantasies of perfect green pastures and buying eco friendly cars seems more to be a symptom of the city dwelling bourgeois to anesthetize anxieties, rather than any actual radical stance. Environmental concerns should not be normalized into green party politics, nor left to powers of spiritual mythologies to dissuade us.

  2. Errata « Naught Thought Says:

    […] Two posts at Avoiding the void on Nature. […]

  3. Fhaye monique Almadin Says:

    I comment that its good,but I need your help because we are having our debate about proving that the nature can not balance itself.can you give some statements.please this is only a debate.Thank you very much!

  4. Ironspider Says:

    I disagree that nature (whether you choose to capitalise it or not) cannot balance itself, given that we’ve established the concept of ‘dynamic balance’.

    What nature is unable to do is easily balance out or accommodate massive disruptions to its systems – these take much longer to correct (an obvious example being the Exxon Valdez crude oil contamination) – and if the disruption is continual then the balance may not settle at all. The system remains unstable with whatever further disruption this might impart to sub- or related systems. If you accept the Gaia hypothesis of global feedback mechanisms, it becomes clear that to return to any form of ‘balance’ might well require the establishment of a whole new dynamic state, and one totally at odds with our current (erroneous) concept of “the balance of nature”.

    The Great Pan is probably very unwell, rather than dead. Though the condition may well be terminal…

  5. Claude Genest Says:

    This article and some of the comments illustrate perfectly the divide between Cartesian, fragmented, atomistic thinking and the whole-systems, holistic thinking that Gaia Theory points to.

    Balance, as understood by the machine-mind of a Cartesian seems to mean “stasis” i.e if it’s balanced, it doesn’t move. Applied to the messy, non-linear reality of nature, this clearly does not stick.

    Enter the notion of “dynamic equilbrium” and the intricate balancing act that is life on earth.

    The Cartesian sees a bacteria in a petri dish multiply and multiply until it consumes all in it’s path, and extrapolates from this some kind of Darwinian analogy for all species.

    But the Cartesian misses the bigger picture, bacteria, Man, indeed any species does not live in a petri dish but in relationship to everything else.

    The simplest proof of this is that there is life at all. If every species was running rampant fulfilling it’s individual selfishness, then life could not flourish, much less sustain.

    Think simply of the human body and the myriad bacteria, viruses, systems and processes that run smoothly within it. Clearly there are self-correcting measures that allow it to operate, for a time, in balance….

    But what of death ? Does not the fact that we die counter the notion of balance?

    And there’s the rub, how to get a Cartesian to understand that we are not operating as individuals but as part of a much larger system? We are not the web, merely strands in it and whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

  6. rockwell Says:

    Good post. Hope to see much more good posts in the future.

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