The balance of nature

Anyone who has read widely in the literature of the environment recognizes that the phrase, “the balance of nature,” recurs throughout ecological texts and statements made by environmentalists over the past few decades.  Even a cursory glance at the canon of environmental writing reveals a plethora of usages, both implied and implicit, of the controversial phrase.  The phrase may even have roots in Alexander Von Humboldt’s attempts in the 19th century to understand man’s place in nature, not his dominion over it.  For the curious student or historian of 20th century environmental movements, it is worth a short visit back to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey.

Notable carriers of the balance flame include Carolyn Merchant, in the introduction to her ecofeminist text, The Death of Nature, who summarized how “[t]he vision of the ecology movement has been to restore the balance of nature disrupted by industrialization and overpopulation” (xx, xxi).  An implied harkening back to a time of homeostasis resonates through Rachel Carson’s famous passage in Silent Spring: “It took hundreds of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth — eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings” (Carson in The Palgrave Environmental Reader: 168).  And that ornery barnacle of a social thinker, Murray Bookchin, wrote in 1980 that “[t]ime is running out and the remaining decades of the twentieth century may well be the last opportunity we will have to restore the balance between humanity and nature” (Toward an Ecological Society 36).

It would be hard to argue that the balance of nature hasn’t become a “rhetorical structure” (Dobrin) woven into the fabric of the speech and writings of many environmentalists’ manifestos.  But what is the balance of nature or “ecological balance” as Bookchin calls it?  How does man live in harmony with nature?  Do these questions make sense in the 21st century?  I am looking forward to hearing from you.

One thought on “The balance of nature

  1. Personally I think it’s a false idea on two levels. Firstly the planet -with or without humans- does not remain in a steady state. Change is constantly occurring, on both a (relatively) slow evolutionary level and in the case of extreme events such as volcanoes or asteroids. Secondly I don’t believe humans have ever existed in a state of balance with, or within, nature. We could get away with behaviour such as hunting animals to extinction when our population was small by moving on to the next place. Now of course our population is too large to be able to go somewhere else, so we can no longer run a way from the damage we cause.

    The solution, if there is one, lies in completely changing our nature in the sense of changing how we view ourselves and our place on the planet. Current thinking, ideas such as sustainability, will only take us so far because they are still coming from an idea that we are somehow separate from the planet. Even the very notion of “Nature”, which is opposed to “human” or “society” or “civilisation” is a product of the way we look at the world as made up of objects or things rather than relationships.

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