“Harmony and balance” seem like good goals. You may be attracted to yoga and Taoism because they are philosophies of harmony and balance. Balance is something most of us strive for in our lives, our work, our relationships. Unstable, unbalanced people are usually to be avoided.
We are attracted to concepts like balance of nature and climax communities. Many of us like to think that balance and stability are good and natural in the world and its ecosystems. Once upon a time, this view was promoted by eminent ecologists such as Eugene and Howard Odum once viewed the mature climax community, e.g. an oak-hickory forest in the American Midwest, as a steady-state system which is far more sustainable than a growth-oriented ecosystem. Many modern agroecologists seem to also see the most sustainable system as a well-developed, stable, mature system which recovers from disturbance and adapts to change.
But disturbance and transformation and change underlie the ability of us and our ecosystems to achieve stability and balance. In fact, stability and balance of our bodies or an ecosystem are the net result of the ongoing adaptation and change of hundreds of subsystems. These subsystems are constantly adapting and changing to enable you to feel balanced and in harmony. Your body is constantly repairing itself and regenerating itself and fending off microscopic attack.
The calmness and inner peace which most religions urge us to achieve are attitudes which enable our bodies to fend off and adapt to disturbance. But none of us and no ecosystem can just maintain the status quo forever. All people and all ecosystems have adaptive cycles characterized by phases of rapid growth, mature stability, release and disorganization, and reassembly and reorganization leading back to rapid growth, stability, release and reassembly ad infinitum.
In fact, too strong a focus on stability can undermine personal and ecological resilience. This was learned first in forest management. A stable, mature forest in which fires are suppressed will eventually become a raging inferno which scours the landscape. The result is often massive erosion and destruction of seeds and roots. Artificially maintained stability of the forest results in reduced capacity of the system to regenerate. An unstable ecosystem, with small fires and other disturbances occurring every year, maintains a variety of systems from meadow to savanna to forest. Disturbance is required to maintain the diversity needed for resilience.
In our own lives, we often don’t want to see our children grow up, we don’t want to change occupations, we don’t want to change our habits. Yet the healthy person, just like the healthy ecosystem is always adapting, changing, growing.
Every system has a temporal dimension which requires both phases of rapid growth and phases of disassembly. The mature forest seen as a natural climax community by early ecologists and held up today as a model for sustainable systems by some agroecologists was known by both aboriginal Americans and Australians to be a much less productive phase than the grasslands and savannas which precede it. Consequently they each regularly burned their landscapes creating more open areas for pasture and deeper soils through the incorporation of manure from the increased populations of ruminants.
Disruption and disassembly is required to induce a new growth phase. When ecosystems are allowed to be composed of a series of growth and disassembly-release phases, they are usually more productive, increase soil quality and water conservation capacity, and store more carbon than systems permitted to progress to steady-state maturation. Aborigines found that the technology of fire enabled them to maintain their ecosystem primarily in a growth phase.
Today’s ecosystem managers are similarly using technology to continue rapid growth phases instead of settling for mature, steady-state phases. Paradoxically, the disruption and growth phases must be balanced lest they destroy resources (soil and water) instead of enhancing them. This often happens when greedy managers convert the increased productivity into extracted profit.
The conventional wisdom in many sustainability circles that stability and balance are good and growth is problematic should be leavened with the reality of ecosystems. In fact, trying to maintain stability and a climax community may actually erode resilience. By keeping one particular system stable, the resilience of the larger system may crash. U.S. agricultural commodity policy–promoting stability while decreasing diversity, redundancy and flexibility—is widely believed to undermine ecological resilience of our agricultural system.
The inability of some to escape the siren call of stablity has led to a misinterpretation of ecological resilience in most sustainable agriculture circles. Resilience in sustainability circles is often the materials science sense of ability to bounce back from disturbance and maintain key functions and components. In that sense our commodity production system is very resilient. By maintaining commodity support payments through effective lobbying efforts, the system continues to bounce back and retain all its key functions and components.
As resilience becomes a term more widely bandied about, we can be sure the materials science definition of resilience will be most attractive for those trying to uphold the status quo—just as ag administrators in the early 1990s declared that “everything our college does is sustainable agriculture.”
Some sustainable agriculture advocates are also intent on preserving particular practices and systems. As such advocates become more familiar with adaptive cycles and ecosystem resilience, may they embrace the creative destruction at the heart of all resilient ecosystems.
Just as you, in your search for harmony and inner peace, may come to realize it is an attitude which promotes the most creative destruction. You may even see that inner peace requires creative destruction.