John Kricher


On his book The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth

Cover Interview of July 16, 2009

A close-up

Of my various publications, this is the work that is most meaningful to me; the book is my synthesis of what I believe ecology to be, and why it is essential that ecology be more widely understood outside of the immediate field.

I wrote The Balance of Nature also as a personal account; I discuss actual events in my ecological life that influenced me with regard to the various topics in the book.

The second chapter, for example, is “Of What Purpose Are Mosquitoes.”  Even to a casual browser this chapter would provide the flavor and essence of where I take the reader on this journey.

I begin by recounting an event that happened to me early in my career when I was shouted down at a local town meeting because I advocated that the town not spray for mosquitoes.  The issue was eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) and my position was based on the fact that EEE had not been shown to be present in local mosquitoes that summer.  I said that spraying would just select for more resistant mosquitoes and thus create a larger problem if EEE ever did show up in the population.  One woman rose and shouted at me, asking if I wanted “to kill her baby.”

I start here to develop the notion that mosquitoes are part of nature; though they are important and abundant members of many ecological communities, like all of nature, mosquitoes merely exist, without purpose.  I use mosquitoes to introduce the distinction between purpose and function, between teleology and organic evolution, to show that nature is not balanced, and to introduce the topic of ethical choices regarding the environment.

Another good browse is a chapter called “A Visit to Bodie.”  Bodie is a ghost town in eastern California, in the Great Basin Desert.  I went there some years ago with my family and, in a run-down building in this historic old town, I found a sign saying “nothing endures but change.”  That is a quote from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  This inspired the chapter.

I use Bodie as a starting point for exploring ecological perspective in space and time.  I try, as I do throughout the book, to show the reader that any form of balance of nature is purely a human construct, not something that is empirically real.  Ecosystems are always in some state of dynamics, sometimes very obviously so, sometimes not.  An analogy can be drawn with watching the second and hour hands on a clock.  Both hands move, but you can only detect movement in the second hand.  Stare at the hour hand all you want: it never seems to move, though it obviously does.  Ecosystem change ranges from “watching the second hand” to “watching the hour hand,” depending on what sort of change is occurring.

Finally, most readers will likely seek something of a “bottom line.”  My final chapter, “Facing Marley’s Ghost,” would provide that.  I use the analogy from “A Christmas Carol” to impress on the reader that although there is no balance of nature as such, there is much about nature with which to be concerned.

We humans, like Scrooge’s partner Marley, are in effect “forging a chain” of a sort.  In this case the chain reflects our need to move more forcefully in the direction of environmental ethics.  Doing so will help assure the continuation of ecosystem services that we depend upon, whether we know it or not, and will help us deal meaningfully with the reduction in biodiversity evident today.

In the last chapter I also include examples of how ecology and economics may unify toward a more sound use of environmental resources and how such a unification can translate into a change in paradigm regarding how humans view nature.