The Pole Star for Environmental Evaluation

It’s been said the pole star that guides evaluation is values (Picciotto 2020). But all too often, in Western culture it’s human values rather than those of nature — whether the pole star or a forest ecosystem — that guide environmental evaluation. And the difference between what humans value as “good” and what nature itself values as “good” can create problems.

Resilience ecologist Donald A. Falk points out that it’s increasingly difficult for restoration ecologists to evaluate whether an ecological phase change — for instance, from Ponderosa pine forest to scrub oak grasslands — is a “good” thing such as an adaptation that permits life to continue in a place that has dramatically changed, or a “bad” thing such as environmental degradation in which humans are ethically or morally obligated to intervene (Falk 2017:209).

Until about 1970, ecologists generally thought about ecosystem change using a model called ecological succession. The classic idea is that a standard series of plant communities (and associated animal communities) succeed one another in a given place over time, always in the same general sequence. The succession was seen as culminating in a climax community that was something like “the highest and best” form of life for that particular habitat, and the climax community was seen as remaining stable rather than continuing to change. The ecological succession model is a one-way, linear process that moves through both time and space, with the succession of plant communities advancing in waves across land that’s been denuded by volcanic eruption, wildfire, or some other type of disturbance. In this view, a permanent phase change from Ponderosa pine forest to scrub oak grasslands after a wildfire is something “bad.” The Ponderosa pine forest is seen as the climax community and the natural end point of ecological succession in that location. So the scrub oak grassland is seen as being “less advanced” than the pine forest and therefore not as “good.” Its continued presence indicates that something has happened to prevent the natural final stage of succession into a Ponderosa pine forest. The general assumption is that land management personnel need to figure out what’s blocked normal succession and fix it so the process can be completed.

Notice the connection between the value “good” and the evaluated characteristic “more advanced.” “Advanced,” “developed,” and “newer” are all terms that describe an evaluated characteristic that’s accorded very high value in Western culture in general. Consider how many products on store shelves supposedly acquire more value (and a higher price tag) simply by virtue of being “new and improved.”

The same value accorded to things that are “advanced” also colors the other primary way that ecologists see change in ecosystems, which is based on complexity theory. (Notice this means there are two separate paradigms interacting with one another here.) Resilience ecologists see Ponderosa pine forest as the emergent result of a complex web of relationships that generates self-organization of this particular ecosystem as the end result. In this view, the idea is that wildfire can break the system down so far that it drops below threshold and the pine forest disappears from the area — unless and until the system regains enough complexity to reorganize itself back over the threshold in the other direction. So the emergent view of pine forests has been influenced by the same directional value paradigm we saw in ecological succession.

The two ways of seeing a pine forest and its disappearance from a landscape after wildfire therefore exist within a single larger paradigmatic value system. They differ in terms of what has to happen to restore the vanished forest but not in terms of whether disappearance of the ecosystem is “good” or “bad.” (It’s “bad” in both.) In an ecological succession view, the trees can be re-seeded or replanted, and competing “lesser” plants such a scrub oak can be uprooted by mechanical means to restore the climax community. This view has lost some traction in ecological circles precisely because that strategy has very often turned out not to work: the planted pine seeds do not germinate and the planted pine seedlings die. So the paradigm of succession has started to collapse. In a complex ecosystem view, the Ponderosa pines disappear because the forest can only exist if the web of connections is restored. Research therefore focuses on identifying and understanding¬† components of the ecosystem such as mychorrhizae, that are less visible to human eyes but that may be essential to pines. Again, the idea is that humans will (at some point) learn how to successfully intervene in ways that restore the “better” pine forest ecosystem instead of the scrub oak grassland (Policelli et al 2020).

Falk is pointing out is that regardless of whether ecologists use the old linear succession model of ecosystems, or the new complex emergent model of ecosystems, we are still applying human values — he actually means “Western cultural values” —¬† to the ecosystems in question, regardless of whether we’re seeing pine forests through the lens of ecological succession or the lens of complexity theory. He’s asking whether a more meaningful value system would be that of the earth itself.

If the climate changes, for example, he points out that a scrub oak grassland might be actually “better” than a Ponderosa pine forest in some way — more stable, more productive, or more something else that humans don’t even see. What he’s realizing is that people are operating out of the assumption they can somehow stand outside of the natural world and evaluate it objectivity and, at the same time, according to their own Western cultural values.

Of course, what’s engendered all this is the fact that people of Western culture have lived with a wall between themselves and nature for a very long time — and that wall makes them think they are literally standing outside of nature and therefore can reach in and tinker with or judge it as if it was a mechanical object. This core tenet of Western epistemology is expressed very strongly in science (which grew out of and strongly manifests Western culture).

Of course a wholly objective view of nature from outside of it is not ontologically possible. Observation can happen, but it can only be participatory. Science actually knows this but simply doesn’t admit it in mixed company (Adams 2016). So people of Western culture cannot simply stand where they are and evaluate whether a given post-phase-change ecosystem is engaging with its environment in an adaptive or pathological way. Only the Land itself — the wisdom available in the complex network of relationships that make up the reality of that ecosystem — can know the situation and whether it requires assistance from human beings, or merely their affirmation of the choice it has made. Indigenous people who live in close relationship with that particular ecosystem may, with diligence and ceremony, ascertain which response, if any, the Land needs and wants from humans.

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