Scientist claims balance of nature doesn't exist Professor to speak at UMBC tonight

February 11, 1992|By Michael Hill

When Daniel Botkin looks at nature, he doesn't see a delicate, self-regulating structure that would be in perfect balance but for the presence of humanity. His vision is more that of a pinball

machine that people -- whether they know it or not -- are always playing, with balls that bounce in seemingly unpredictable directions as the warning flashes "TILT."

"We look at the environment and think that if we would just leave it alone it would go to the best possible condition and remain there," said Dr. Botkin, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who will speak tonight at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"This is the balance-of-nature idea. Most of our policies and federal regulations are based on the idea that nature should never change, that it is best if it is left alone."

Dr. Botkin disputes the idea, which he contends comes from religion and mythology and not science.

"There is an abundance of scientific studies and other data to show that this is not the case, that the balance of nature does not exist. But it still persists in our public policies and popular notions," he said in a telephone interview from California.

Dr. Botkin, who teaches biology and environmental studies, first advanced his ideas in a 1990 book, "Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century." He attacks the basic precept of many environmentalists that nature knows best and that everything possible should be done not to interfere.

In arguing for a more dynamic view of nature as constantly changing, never in balance, Dr. Botkin claims that the traditional view might cause people and their governments to shirk their environmental responsibility by separating humanity from nature.

Slobodon Petrovich, director of UMBC's Interdisciplinary Studies program, said UMBC invited Dr. Bodkin because his ideas "challenge many popular assumptions."

"I see him as being ahead of his time," Dr. Petrovich said. "I think that you won't realize the impact of his ideas for another 10 years."

Dr. Botkin's talk, the first of four in a month-long series focusing on the environment, begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Recital Hall. It is free and open to the public.

A fundamental problem with the balance-of-nature view, according to Dr. Bodkin, is that it leaves humanity out of the equation. "What we have to do is figure out what our role in nature is. The traditional environmental position is that we just leave it alone completely. One result is that people don't want to know any information about what is happening in the environment; they think that it will take care of itself."

Dr. Botkin argues that environmental policies based on the balance-of-nature idea are doomed to fail. Instead, he contends, humans should try to learn what changes they can make without damage.

"I think we should look to the types of changes that occur in nature for our model," he said. "On global warming, for instance, we should see what sort of temperature rise nature has absorbed in the past to see what should be tolerated in the future."

In his view, a change in global temperature, even if caused by hydrocarbon emissions, might be less harmful than the effects of a farming implement widely regarded as benign. "We should recognize that there is no equivalent in nature to the plow," he said. "Most people look at plowing as an ancient part of agriculture, a natural practice, but it actually can be very destructive."

Dr. Botkin recognizes that his views can be taken as succor for developers who want to alter the environment in ways designed to improve only their bank accounts.

"Anyone with a political agenda can use these ideas for their own purposes," he said. "It's something like flying an airplane. Taking no action is not the right course because eventually you're going to crash. But that doesn't mean that taking any action is therefore correct because plenty of things that you do will also cause you to crash. You have to decide what the right things to do are, and with the environment, that's a big responsibility.

Dr. Botkin said that he first became interested in pursuing these ideas when he heard top scientists supporting the balance-of-nature concept in advice to Congress and other government bodies. "I respected these people and their work," Dr. Botkin said. "I knew that the evidence didn't support what they were saying so I wanted to figure out where it came from."

His studies concluded that the balance of nature came from mythic and religious beliefs that are so deep-seated that even experimental observations could not shake them.

Though he can trace the origins of these beliefs back to Greek and Roman days, Dr. Botkin contends that the basic view of nature that holds today is a mechanical one, a product of the industrial revolution.

"According to this view, nature is like some big, complex machine that, if left alone, will work perfectly, the predators in balance with the prey, the plants with the rain and nutrients and so on," he said.

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