Author: Robert D. Brinsmead

August 2008


On every hand we see measures advocated and even supported by some governments around the world to stop climate change. Leaving aside the debates about the causes of climate change, there is an unspoken assumption in all of this that change is bad for world, bad for people and bad for the environment.


A little reflection ought to remind us that throughout the very long history of this planet, change has been the norm rather than the exception. During the history of our planet, continents have been torn apart and stitched together, and destructive meteorites have wrought horrendous upheavals in the natural order of things. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have radically changed the planet.  During recurring ice-ages, most of the earth has been covered in ice for periods that have lasted on average about 100,000 years.


Change has been a tool that the evolutionary process has used to discard those forms of life that could not adapt and to select those species that could adapt. Change has eliminated more than 99% of all the species that have lived on earth, and all this before humans arrived. We do not live on a static planet, but on a dynamic one which continues to evolve like the universe itself.


It is in this context of a dynamic, ever changing planet and an ever changing climate that we look at the beneficial results of change.


In 1971 the Sierra Club published a book by Barry Commoner (The Closing Circle) which sets out the vision of an ideal environment. This environment would be insulated from disruptive changes, especially from those changes that result from human impacts. This state of nature, however, is one that has never has existed and never could exist.


Barry Commoner argued that eco-systems should be returned to their primitive state of “balance,” that was supposed to exist before humans disturbed them. The only way to achieve this, he said, was to “let nature take its course” and to keep humans out. Left alone, ecosystems remain stable. When people meddle, systems collapse. Preservation therefore requires isolating eco-systems from people. So goes the theory.


I’m sure you have not only heard this, but seen it in action through the work of environmental bureaucrats who operate from government departments such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service.


This has all been based on the theory that eco-systems prefer “the steady state” to one that is disturbed, especially by humans. But in more recent years, a new consensus has emerged among ecologists who now say that natural areas have for millennia been shaped by constant and often cataclysmic disturbances in the form of climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, fire and many human activities.


“The evidence is clear: random disturbance, not permanence and order govern nature,” writes Alston Chase (In a Dark Wood, p.109) Instead of a “steady state,” the ecologists found that “an unceasing barrage of perturbations” is “an absolute requirement for sustaining life.” (Ibid. p.361)  The New York Times reported that this new evidence-based science has led many ecologists to abandon the “steady state” ecology in recognition that “nature is actually in a continuing state of disturbance and fluctuation. Change and turmoil, more than constancy and balance, is the rule.” (Ibid.p.361) And what is more, they found that biodiversity flourishes in these conditions.


To give two quick illustrations: A few years ago, millions of acres of old growth forests in the West Coast of the US were locked up and whole logging communities were left unemployed - all in the interests of saving the Spotted Owl. But later research established that the Spotted Owl preferred habitat where human activities had disturbed the vegetation in a whole variety of ways, producing a patchwork of open grasslands and under-story vegetation. This kind of landscape fostered more variety in the wildlife populations and better hunting conditions for the Spotted Owl. The same thing was found about the Condor.


There is a place, of course, for wilderness and old growth forests, but we can no longer assume that these conditions support the most biodiversity. They generally don’t.


The most amazing research on biodiversity was reported in Newsweek International in July 2006. Under the title of New Jungles, the article reports that many animals, birds and plants now prefer the city. Berlin hosts two thirds of the 280 bird species existing in Germany.  “You can take any big city and find more species and more diverse habitats than in just about any national park or nature reserve,” says Josef Reichholf, professor of ornithology at Munich’s Technical University. Both in animal numbers as well as species diversity,” he says, “cities beat the countryside hands down.” So animals like to be around humans a lot more than some wildlife lovers think!


The urban colonies of “Flying Foxes” or Fruit Bats in the Tweed-Gold Coast region have nothing to do with the supposed destruction of their habitat. This region boasts five World Heritage National Parks comprising thousands of hectares of rainforest. You would be hard put to find a fruit bat in this vast rainforest habitat. Nowadays they prefer to live in town.


As an interesting aside, it seems that about the same time as the new cosmologists were blowing “the steady state” universe of Fred Hoyle and company out of the water with evidence of the rapidly expanding universe of the Big Bang, the new ecologists were making nonsense of the old theories of a “steady state” eco-system. The pity is that most of our current EPA’s, planning instruments and NPWS authorities are based on the outmoded myth of the “steady state” that has never existed nor will ever exist on our planet.





Web Published – August 2008

Copyright © 2008 Robert D. Brinsmead