No Climax, Perhaps: Ecosystems Must Be Intensively Managed

Here’s an interesting article I read the other day that has bearing on the ecological principle of succession. The author of a new book, Emma Marris, challenges the concept of climax and the notion of some ideal state of equilibrium. This has bearing on our model of school as ecosystems in that we should bear in mind that there is no perfect, steady state that all schools must be expected to conform to. Rather, it is the outcomes that we seek to achieve and the values we cherish from the outset that must guide us.

Article: Nature Has No ‘Balance’ for Us to Keep

Author: Matt Ridley

Big Idea: There is no ideal state of equilibrium towards which succession must necessarily climax. However, through transparency and clarity on goals and outcomes, we can target how to best cultivate and stagger growth to reach those goals.

In her remarkable new book “The Rambunctious Garden,” Emma Marris explores a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology, namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings. “A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem,” she writes. “The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild.” 

. . . Ms. Marris’s book goes further, challenging the very idea of a balance of nature. In the first half of the 20th century, ecologists came to believe in equilibrium—that natural systems tended toward a steady state. So, for example, a bare patch of ground would be colonized by a succession of species—annual weeds, then grasses, then shrubs, then trees—until it reached its “climax” state. Conservation, therefore, was a matter of restoring this climax.

Academic ecologists have abandoned such a static way of thinking for something much more dynamic. For a start, they now appreciate that climate has always changed, and with it, ecology. Twenty thousand years ago the spot where I live was under a mile of ice. Then it was tundra, then birch forest, then pine forest, then alder, linden, elm and ash, then most recently oak, but beech was coming.

Which is its climax? We now know that oak seedlings rarely thrive under mature oaks (which rain caterpillars on them), so the oak climax was just a passing phase.

. . . So what’s a good conservationist to do? Ms. Marris sets you free: “In a nutshell: Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development and try just about everything.

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