The myth of ‘The Balance of Nature’

Nature does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar. Little Egret, Bridge. 2016. Image © copyright 2016

“The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In fact Nature is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth’s history.”
John Kricher. ‘The Balance of Nature; ecology’s enduring myth.’

On 7 February 2017 we finally had to concede that the Nailbourne had dried up. Not a trickle ran in constant flow through Bridge. Since it is a bourne, an occasional stream, which leaks from fissures in the chalk beneath East Kent, this is not to be unexpected; but it spells disaster for our local wildlife and the precious ecosystem of a rare chalk stream. A rich and varied biodiversity nurtured by the cool springwater will be lost: a delicate, heirarchical food chain which was gradually establishing itself in the heart of our valley will break and fail. Many species will either die or move elsewhere.

It is a populist notion that such events are all part of what some people call the ‘Balance of Nature’. They are not. Balance implies a system of self-correction, a sustained position of equilibrium. This is not what happens in Nature. The natural world does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar; it reels and lurches from one disaster to another, like a confused boxer losing badly in a fight.

“Nature is not a balance, it is just one catastrophe after another!”
Professor Richard Dawkins

When a natural catastrophe occurs on a large scale in a meteor strike, a flood, a volcanic eruption, or, on a smaller scale, perhaps the drying up of a village pond or a local spring, there is destruction and there is death. This creates a vacuum in the natural world and Nature abhors a vacuum. Something, in a quest for survival, will fill it; this invariably will be some species of plant or creature which is more suited to the new environment. An opportunity arises, something seizes it, but this opportunism must not be confused with ‘balance’, for the state of things will now be different, the equilibrium has not somehow been restored. Things have changed and in consequence there may now be a new order in the food chain, a new king ruling the jungle. He will rule as long as the new conditions remain or until the next catastrophe arrives to topple him from his place. It’s a continuing struggle for survival in which each individual in each species fights for itself in the face of ever looming death. In the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, over 99% of all the species that ever lived here are thought to have become extinct, either because they just couldn’t live in the environment in which they found themselves, or because a new, more advanced or adapted species was able to out compete them. This is a process called ‘speciation’ and we modern humans may face it one day as did Neanderthal man who failed to compete with us.

Mother Nature is not of gentle mind, she is a violent and ruthless ruler in her empire of the sun. Her flowers bloom sublime, but don’t be confused by her apparent charm and her fondness for the young: she has no compassion. Her disasters appear random, but they are all a consequence of her brutal rule. There is an order in the chaos, but it is heartless, inequitable and cruel. Life on Earth staggers on, trying to navigate through constant adversity and change: ‘carpe diem’, seize the day and do your best to survive, but be assured your death will come and you won’t be calling it a balance when the reaper swings his scythe.

Sometimes we think we see Mother Nature as a beauty, dancing elegantly to illuminate our lives in the darkness of her universe. Her beauty, her dancing and even the colours of her dress are mere mirage; but the miracle, the sublime, spectacular miracle, is that she ever manages to stand at all. We must hope we never live long enough to know when she finally collapses and her empire turns to dust.



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