Send a Tweet
Most Popular Choices
Share on Facebook 3 Share on Twitter 3 Printer Friendly Page More Sharing
Life Arts    H2'ed 5/8/12

What do you mean, "ecology?"

By       (Page 1 of 3 pages)   9 comments
Message robert wolff
Become a Fan
  (30 fans)

Americans are perhaps the only people who do not believe in climate change, despite unusual warm winters, unheard of high temperatures in summer,, floods, storms, out of season tornadoes. And so they are also kept ignorant of ecology, how nature works on this planet. A long time ago, when I studied ecology, came across this example about the dynamic interactions between sun, rain, grass, rabbits and hawks. Rabbits eat grass and so keep grass from getting out of hand. Hawks eat rabbits and so keep rabbits from multiplying so they won't eat too much grass. But if one year there is not enough rain there won't be enough grass to feed the rabbits sufficiently to reproduce their number. The next year fewer rabbits; hawks go hungry and the year after that there will be fewer hawks. Fewer hawks leave more rabbits to reproduce, who eat more grass than can regrow. Whenever I tried to understand these complicated relationships of such a simple story I got only wild swings, not the balance that the book said ecologies make. The example, of course, was of an ecology much too small.  An ecology with only three species would be wildly unstable. The more variety an ecology has the more stable it is. 

The Hawaiian islands are so isolated, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2500 miles from the nearest continent, that it must have taken a long time for Life to reach these volcanic islands. Coconuts float and may live long enough to maintain their ability to grow a tree when they happen upon a shore. Some plants and insects could have floated on a piece of driftwood. Larger animals must have come much later, brought by floating trees or floating mats of wood and a bit of soil torn off by a storm. or even by humans who came long before Captain Cook in 1776. People who have studied this found that for a while there was only one bird species in these islands; called honey creepers. A small island's growing ecology needs more than one kind of bird. And so it happened that from that single honey creeper species more than forty, now considered distinctly separate species, evolved. In a remarkably short time. 

An ecology needs variety. A threatened ecology speeds up evolution. That means ecology and evolution are closely tied, aspects of the way Life on this planet lives. Life needs many forms, shapes, functions to be alive. Too little variety is a threat to Life, which evidently then results in making new forms, shapes, functions, in a hurry--relatively speaking, of course. 

Scientists have studied planet-wide extinctions of many species in the distant past, always followed by accelerated evolution forming new species. The balancing act of ecologies needs the creativity of evolution, which is simply the consequence of very small (maybe, probably, random) changes in new individual life that sometimes give an advantage and so reproduces. Evolution and ecology must be aspects of the same principle. The two concepts belong together.

In other essays I have expressed my idea that Einstein's formula of matter and energy leads to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which says that all energy slows down to eventually die: entropy. I think of the stream of Life as anti-entropic. Life renews where matter/energy is death. Somehow, somewhere, Life belongs in E=MC2. But I am not a physicist nor a mathematician, just an imaginative human.

Those who have observed, studied, reported on the intricate balances of the natural world have noted that all ecologies need and make balance. The balance of plants and animals. many different kinds of plants and many different kinds of animals. The balance of what we call predators and prey. The balance of flowers and the flying or creeping animals that fertilize pollen to make seeds that can grow into  new life. All ecologies, including the planetary ecology, need variety of species to maintain that essential balance. Evolution makes the variety.

We have many stories of what happens when, for instance, predators are eradicated. The big predators, lions, tigers, wolves, keep their prey, grazers, balanced so that the grazers do not denude the earth from green. Where we eradicate the predator the deer multiply beyond the ability of plants to feed them. Deer raid suburban gardens when there are no mountain lions any more. The current epidemic that kills bees is affecting the fertilization of plants that rely on bees. There are other fertilizing animals of course, birds, butterflies, but it takes a while for a species to change its normal partners. 

The planetary ecology is full of examples of "co-evolution," a flower and a bird that have evolved together so that the flower can only be fertilized by the bird that has a beak with exactly the same curve that the flower requires. If one, for whatever reason, dies out the other dies out as well. But nature makes new species when needed.

All ecologies need species that clean up the messes that "higher" species leave. Plants need the excrements of animals, but too much would kill them. The garbage brigade usually is small but plentiful: beetles, other creepers, bacteria. Recently I read that our human body includes more bacteria of more different kinds than muscle, fat and bone tissue combined. We need bacteria, but the right kind in the right quantity in the right place. We are unaware of that; probably a good thing, because now we canot meddle. Unfortunately many of the new chemicals that drug companies invent to kill one particular bacterium has "side effects." Side effects of our meddling are often more dangerous than what we meant to kill. 

Our great talent has become meddling with pieces of the whole that we don't know enough about. And so we have destroyed or critically damaged many local ecologies and now the planetary ecology. We've done a great job eradicating most of the large predators. We are doing great jobs eradicating plants and bacteria we do not like. Probably in every case our meddling causes side effects we did not think about. We have become expert at killing but ignorant about keeping the flow of life alive.

For thousands of years we, humans, fitted somewhere in the middle of the ecology of the planet as well as in the local ecologies we happened to find ourselves in. We fitted in by eating plants and occasionally animals but never more than nature could easily replace. Our numbers were fairly stable for many thousands of years. If we produced too many offspring all but two did not make it to when they could reproduce. We ate what we found, made shelter, clothes, a tool, from what there was.

Now we think ourselves outside the planetary ecology, the biosphere. We imagine ourselves totally different from animals, the boss of this planet. We think we own the planet and can do with it as we will. The consequences of this exceptionalism are dire.  

A few centuries ago we made a concerted effort to eradicate buffalo, wanting to make what we imagined to be an enormous area of fertile grass land into farms. For a short while we did have fertile farms on small lots. Then we pushed farmers off the land and made agribusinesses with ever larger farms, growing one crop on thousands of acres. I'm sure we learned after a year or two that the soil was not as rich as we had thought it was. Because growing one crop on a thousand acres takes certain minerals and biomass out of the ground, and of course also stimulates whatever pests there are for that one crop to multiply manyfold. I remember in the middle years of the last century that farmers--still relatively small farmers--thought of alternating crops. Corn one year, wheat, barley, the next.  But when the really big farms took over we invented chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What once was a balance between buffalo and grass and, I am certain, a variety of predators to keep the buffalo in balance, now is a totally artificial chunk of land that can only be used with enormous amounts of chemical. For at least half a century we have known that monoculture is not sustainable. It does not work as nature works. Nevertheless, the huge agribusinesses continue this artificial process that needs ever stronger chemicals, many if not all of them made from oil.  

Somewhere I read there are only six corporations that control most of the food production of the entire planet. Books have been written about food in the 21st century. Unless you buy food at a farmers' market all food sold in America and probably in at least half of the rest of the world is factory produced, wrapped in one, two, or more layers of plastic. Our landfills are filled with tons of mostly not biodegradable plastic -- that means the plastic remains, does not disintegrate, for 50,000 years. 

Next Page  1  |  2  |  3

(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).

Must Read 1   Well Said 1   Supported 1  
Rate It | View Ratings

Robert Wolff Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

robert wolff lived on the Big Island, called Hawai'i

his website is He passed away in late 2015. He was born in 1925, was Dutch, spoke, Dutch, Malay, English and spent time living and getting to know Malaysian Aborigines. He authored numerous books including What it Is To Be Human, (more...)

Go To Commenting
The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.
Writers Guidelines

Contact AuthorContact Author Contact EditorContact Editor Author PageView Authors' Articles
Support OpEdNews

OpEdNews depends upon can't survive without your help.

If you value this article and the work of OpEdNews, please either Donate or Purchase a premium membership.

If you've enjoyed this, sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter to get lots of great progressive content.
Daily Weekly     OpEd News Newsletter
   (Opens new browser window)

Most Popular Articles by this Author:     (View All Most Popular Articles by this Author)

Have We Lost Our Humanity?


Have We Lost Our Humanity?

Is there an alternative to constant economic growth?

Strange, very strange, dangerously strange

Money - and why we must learn to do without

To View Comments or Join the Conversation:

Tell A Friend