The balance of nature is a theory that says that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium (homeostasis), which is to say that a small change in some particular parameter (the size of a particular population, for example) will be corrected by some negative feedback that will bring the parameter back to its original "point of balance" with the rest of the system.
It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also sometimes applied to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's weather.
The Gaia hypothesis is a balance of nature-based theory that suggests that the Earth and its ecology may act as co-ordinated systems in order to maintain the balance of nature.
The theory that nature is permanently in balance has been largely discredited, as it has been found that chaotic changes in population levels are common, but nevertheless the idea continues to be popular.
This episode investigates how machine ideas such as cybernetics and systems theory were applied to natural ecosystems, and how this relates to the false idea that there is a balance of nature. Cybernetics has been applied to to human beings to attempt to build societies without central control, self organising networks built of people, based on a fantasy view of nature.
Arthur Tansley had a dream where he shot his wife. He wanted to know what it meant, so he studied Sigmund Freud. However, one part of Freud's theory was that the human brain was an electrical machine. Tansley became convinced that, as the brain was interconnected, so was the whole of the natural world, in networks he called ecosystems, which he believed were inherently self-stable and self correcting and which regulated nature as if it were a machine.
Jay Forrester was an early pioneer in cybernetic systems, who believed that brains, cities and even societies live in networks of feedback loops that control them, and he thought that computers could determine the effects of the feedback loops. Cybernetics therefore viewed humans as nodes in networks, as machines.
The ecology movement adopted this idea also and viewed the natural world as systems as it explained how the natural system could stabilise the natural world, via natural feedback loops.
Norbert Wiener laid out the position that humans, machines and ecology are simply nodes in a network in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, and this book became the bible of cybernetics.
Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum were brothers. Howard collected data from ecological systems and built electronic networks to simulate them. His brother Eugene then took these ideas to make them the heart of ecology, and the hypothesis then became a certainty. However, they had distorted the idea, and simplified the data to an extraordinary degree. That ecology was balanced became an unexamined and unscientific assumption.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s Buckminster Fuller invented a radically new kind of structure, the geodesic dome which emulated ecosystems by being made of highly connected, relatively weak parts. His other system based ideas inspired the Counterculture movement, and set up communes of people considering themselves as nodes in a network without hierarchy and applied feedback to try to control and stabilise their societies, and used his domes as habitats. These societies mostly broke up within 3 years.
Also in the 1960s Steward Brand filmed a demonstration of a networked computer system with a graphics display, mouse and keyboard that he believed would save the world by empowering people, in a similar way to the communes, to be free as individuals.
In 1967 Richard Brautigan published the poetry work All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which called for a cybernetic ecological utopia consisting of a fusion of computers and mammals living in perfect harmony and stability.
By 1970s new problems such as overpopulation, limited natural resources and pollution that couldn't be solved by normal hierarchical systems had arrived. Jay Forrester stated that he knew how to solve this, and applied systems theory to the problem and drew a cybernetic system diagram for the world. This was turned into a computer model, which predicted imminent population collapse. This became the basis of the model that was used by the Club of Rome, and the findings from this was published in The Limits to Growth. Forrester then argued for zero growth, to maintain a steady state stable equilibrium with the capacity of the Earth.
However, this was opposed by people since there were no parts of the model that permitted political change, and thus didn't permit people to change their values to stabilise the world, and also they argued that it tried to maintain and enforce the current political hierarchy. Arthur Tansley who had invented the term ecosystem had once accused Field Marshall Jan Smuts of theabuse of vegetational concepts. Smuts had invented a philosophy called holism, where everyone had a 'rightful place', which was to be managed by white races. The 70s protestors claimed that the same conceptual abuse of the supposed natural order was occurring.
At the time, there was a general belief in the stability of natural systems. However cracks were starting to appear, when a study was made of predator-prey relationship of wolf and elks, and it was found that wild population swings had occurred over centuries. Other studies then found huge variations, and a significant lack of homeostasis in natural systems. George Van Dynethen tried to build a computer model, to try to simulate a complete ecosystem based on extensive real-world data, so as to show how the stability of natural systems actually worked. The computer model however, did not stabilise. The scientific idea had thus been shown to fail, but the popular idea remained, and even grew as it apparently offered the possibility of a new egalitarian world order.
In 2003, a wave of spontaneous revolutions swept through Asia and Europe. Without any central control at all, nobody seemed to be in charge, except possibly the internet, and no overall aims except self-determination and freedom were apparent. This seemed to justify the beliefs of the Computer utopians.
However, the freedom from these revolutions in fact lasted for only a short time. The lessons of the hippy communes had been forgotten, where people had been bullied by others without any hierarchy to handle such issues.
Adam Curtis closes the piece by stating that it has become apparent that while the self organising network is good at organising change, it is much less good at what comes next, networks leave people helpless in the face of people already in power in the world.
A radio adaptation of The Use And Abuse
Of Vegetational Concepts,
the second part of Adam Curtis' excellent 3 part series,
Or watch here on Vimeo
He tells how the idea of the 'ecosystem' and the
'balance of nature' appealed to the public imagination
although they had no solid scientific basis,
and the US 'back to the land' movement
in the 1960s thought they were basing their ideas
on the natural world,
when in fact they were mimicking not the natural world,
but a shallow mechanistic