Posted by: chrismaser | June 27, 2011


Because the availability of choices dictates the amount of control we feel we have over our sense of security, a potential loss of money is the breeding ground for environmental injustice. This is the kind of environmental injustice in which the present decision-making generation steals from future generations by overexploiting a resource rather than facing the uncertainty of giving up some potential income. Still, there are six important lessons to be learned from the historical overexploitation of natural resources: (1) emphasize quality rather than quantity; (2) favor biophysical effectiveness over economic efficiency; (3) recognize that loss of sustainability occurs over time; (4) recognize that resource issues are complex and process driven; (5) accept the uncertainty of change, its novelty, and its potenial opportunities; and (6) understand that loss of material possions does not herald the end of the world.


Maximizing the quality of whatever we do with the Earth’s finite resources—and they are all finite—will always conserve them, thereby spreading Nature’s wealth among more people and generations. Conversely, maximizing the quantity of any material withdrawn from the Earth’s finite supply to feed the insatiable appetite of today’s consumer economy can only squander Nature’s limited wealth. This said, we must choose because we cannot maximize both quality and quantity simultaneously, as exemplified by bottom fishing in the ocean.

Bottom trawling and bottom dredging are two of the most disruptive and widespread human-induced physical disturbances to seabed communities worldwide. They are especially problematic in areas where the interval between events of dredging or trawling is shorter than the time it takes for the ecosystem to recover. Extensive areas can be trawled from 100 percent to 700 percent per year or more, and such a large amount of trawling affects the cycling of nutrients.

The frequency and extent to which nitrogen and silica in the bottom sediment are suspended in the water column by trawling and dredging has important implications for regional nutrient budgets. Trawling may also produce changes in the successional organization of soft-sediment infaunal communities. (An infaunal community is composed of aquatic animals that live in the substrate of a body of water, especially in the soft bottom of an ocean.) This type of bottom fishing can decrease habitat complexity and biodiversity.

Bottom trawling and the use of other mobile fishing gear on the seabed are, in a manner of speaking, similar to clear-cutting a forest, which is recognized as a major threat to biological diversity and economic sustainability. Structures in benthic communities, while generally much smaller than those in forests, are just as critical to structural complexity and thus to biodiversity. Nevertheless, mobile fishing gear can have large and long-lasting effects on benthic communities, including the young stages of commercially important fishes, although some species benefit when structural complexity is reduced.

Use of mobile fishing gear crushes, buries, and exposes marine animals and structures on and in the substratum, thereby sharply reducing structural diversity. Its severity is roughly comparable to other disturbances that alter biogeochemical cycles. Recovery is often slow because recruitment is patchy and maturation can take years, decades, or even longer for some structure-forming species, such as corals.

Recent technological advances (such as rock-hopper gear, global positioning systems, and fish finders) have all but eliminated natural havens safe from trawling. The frequency of yearly trawling on the continental shelf is orders of magnitude higher than the frequency of other severe seabed disturbances. In fact, trawling covers an area equivalent to perhaps half the world’s continental shelf each year, or 150 times the land area that is clear-cut on an annual basis.

In addition, fishing gear, which is used over large regions of continental shelves worldwide, can reduce habitat complexity by smoothing the micro-topography of the bottom, removing pebble-cobble substrate with emergent epifauna, and eliminating species that produce structures, such as burrows. (Epifauna are animals that live on the surface of sediments or soils.) The effects of mobile-fishing gear on biodiversity are most severe in areas least affected by natural disturbance, particularly on the outer continental shelf and slope, where damage from storm waves is negligible and biological processes, including growth, tend to be slow.1


As an economy grows, natural capital, such as air, soil, water, timber, and marine fisheries, is reallocated to human use via the marketplace, where economic efficiency rules. The conflict between economic growth and the conservation and maintenance of natural-resource systems is a clash between the economic ideals of efficiency and the realities of biophysical effectiveness. This economically driven divergence creates a conundrum because traditional forms of active conservation require money, which, in the United States at least, is highly correlated with income and wealth. That notwithstanding, the conservation and maintenance of biodiversity in all its forms will ultimately require the cessation of continual economic growth.2

Thereafter, the ultimate challenge will be to maintain biodiversity, especially in the wake of globalization, because the number of threatened species is related to per capita Gross National Product in five taxonomic groups in over one hundred countries. Birds are the only taxonomic group in which numbers of threatened species decreased throughout industrialized countries as prosperity increased. Plants, invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles showed increasing numbers of threatened species with increasing prosperity. If these relationships hold, increasing numbers of species from several taxonomic groups are likely to be threatened with extinction as countries increase in prosperity.3

Wealthy, industrialized nations, such as the United States, left such a large ecological footprint in the last four decades of the twentieth century that the damage adds up to more than the poor, non-industrialized nations owe in debt. In fact, the rich nations have caused upward of $2.5 trillion in environmental damage to poor countries. The well-off disproportionately affect the poor through such things as exacerbation of climate change (a negative outcome to which China is now also contributing), depletion of stratospheric ozone, agricultural intensification and expansion, deforestation, overfishing, and destruction of mangroves.4


A biologically sustainable use of any resource has never been achieved without first overexploiting it, despite the lengthy catalog of disastrous historical examples (warnings, if you will) and the vast amount of contemporary data. If history is correct, resource problems are not environmental problems but rather human ones that we have created many times, in many places, under a wide variety of social, political, and economic systems, as exemplified by the whaling industry.

The whaling industry is illustrative because it exists in many nations, some of which persist in killing these huge creatures despite their precarious hold on existence, as initially acknowledged in 1946 by the fifteen nations that signed the “International Convention for the Regulation of [Commercial] Whaling.” Nevertheless, the politics of contemporary whaling is increasingly contentious and the effects far-reaching. A case in point: the Galápagos population of sperm whales illustrates the substantial negative impacts severe exploitation can have on an animal population well outside the range of its pursuit and for at least a decade after hunting has ended.

Although it was generally expected that whale populations would rebuild following the end of whaling, such is not the case with the sperm whales that visit the waters off the Galápagos Islands. In fact, the population is dwindling for two reasons: (1) the whales’ migrate into productive but depopulated waters off the Central and South American mainland and (2) the large breeding males (in their late twenties and older) have been virtually eliminated from the region through years of being hunted. Although other factors may be involved, both the high rate of emigration and the low rate of recruitment are probably related to heavy whaling in Peruvian waters, which ended in 1981.5


The fundamental issues involving resources, the environment, and people are complex and process driven. The integrated knowledge of multiple disciplines is required to understand them. These underlying complexities of the biophysical systems preclude a simplistic—symptomatic—approach to ecosystem manipulation. In addition, the wide, natural variability and the compounding, cumulative influence of continual human activity mask the results of overexploitation until they are severe and largely irreparable within a human lifetime or ever.

For example, the overall species richness of birds in Bogor Botanical Gardens, West Java, Indonesia, isolated since 1936, declined by 59 percent (from ninety-seven species to forty) by 2004. Of these, the forest-dependent birds had declined by 60 percent (from thirty species to twelve). Large-bodied birds were particularly prone to extinction prior to 1987, whereas the seven species of forest-dependent birds, which attempted to become established after 1987, perished. These dynamics are a result of this woodlot’s reduction in area and subsequent isolation, as well as the continuity of intense human use and perverse management: removal of the understory layer within the woodlot simplified its basic structure and thus reduced its ability to function as a quality habitat.6

Our management of the world’s resources is always to see their value in terms of maximizing the output of material products through the market place. In so doing, we not only deplete the resource base and degrade habitat but also produce unintended and unmanageable products, often in the form of hazardous wastes. In unforeseen ways, these unintended products (euphemistically called “by-products”) are altering the way our biosphere functions, usually in a negative way. Such unintended products include hazardous chemicals in our drinking water and several veterinary drugs with which farmers inoculate their livestock but which could kill scavengers—those species that clean our environment.7 Although habitat contamination by humans may seem distant from the ongoing dynamics in the Bogor Botanical Gardens, the economic incentives that drive exploitation destroy the quality of habitat wherever it is.


As long as the uncertainty of continual change is considered a condition to be resisted, nothing will be resolved. However, once the uncertainty of change (= perpetual novelty) is accepted as an inevitable, open-ended, creative process most decision-making is simply common sense. For example, common sense dictates that one would favor actions having the greatest potential for perpetuation ecosystem productivity, as opposed to those with little or none. The sustainability of ecosystem productivity can be ascertained by monitoring results of decisions and can be instituted by modifying actions and policies accordingly.


We interpret the perceived loss of choice over our personal destinies as a threat to our survival. This sense of material loss usually translates into a life-long fear of loss, which fans the flames of overexploitation through unbridled competition in the money chase and top-down, command-and-control “management” of natural resources.

As the human population grows, with a corresponding decline in the availability of natural resources, the pressure grows to increase top-down, command-and-control management of those resources. The fallacy of attempting to control ecosystems through management—which is just another word for “control”—is that we humans are not in control to begin with—and never will be. We are, therefore, destined to fail whenever we attempt to enclose Nature in a designer straightjacket: witness tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and fires.

Nevertheless, our socioeconomic institutions are inclined to respond to Nature’s seeming erratic or surprising behavior by attempting to exert ever-more direct control. Command-and-control, however, usually results in unforeseen consequences, both for ecosystems and for human welfare, in the form of collapsing resources, social and economic strife, and the continuing loss of biological diversity—along with the ecosystem services such diversity provides. Moreover, if the potential variability of an ecosystem’s behavior is reduced through command-and-control management, the system becomes less resilient than it was to perturbations, and the outcome is an unwanted biophysical disaster.

The ultimate pathology of fear and arrogance emerges when resource-management agencies lose sight of their original purposes and become obsessed with their initial command-and-control success. To protect their accomplishment from unwanted scrutiny, they eliminate research and monitoring and focus on the efficiency of control rather than the effectiveness with which they discharge their original mission. And in the process they become increasingly isolated and inflexible. Simultaneously, through over-capitalization, society becomes dependent on the command-and-control ideology of management, while demanding ever-greater certainty in supply, even as it ignores the visible warning signs of developing ecological change or collapse.8

Thus, people with the command-and-control ideology tend to think that any resource not converted into some sort of immediate profit is an economic waste, and therefore they view salvage logging and preemptive thinning as the only viable alternative to a biophysical disturbance, such as a hurricane or a beetle infestation. Nevertheless, forest managers initiate substantial changes in ecosystem structure and function when they initiate salvage logging in areas affected by windstorms, fires, or other ecological impacts. Similarly, harvesting potential host trees in advance of insect infestations or disease or preemptively thinning or cutting forests in an attempt to improve their resilience to potential stress and future disturbances may fill coffers in the short term, but they come at the long-term ecological expense of lost biological capital in the soil bank.

Despite dramatic physical changes in forest structure that result from hurricanes and insect infestation, little disruption of biogeochemical processes or other ecosystem functions typically follows such disturbances. The natural restructuring of a forest after such disturbances provides a long-term, biophysically rich context of habitat diversity and landscape heterogeneity, which is often lacking because of centuries of cultural land use.

Clearly, there are valid, short-term reasons for salvage or preemptive logging, such as a financial desire to capture an immediate opportunity for unexpected profits before the possibility deteriorates, to enhance human safety, or to shape the characteristics of a forest’s composition and structure to fulfill the product mode of an economic tree farm. However, if one were to catalog the long-term ecological benefits derived over space and time from leaving a forest alone when it is affected or threatened by Nature’s disturbances, it would quickly become apparent that allowing Nature to take its course by doing nothing, which is a viable alternative, results in overall benefits that greatly outweigh those that accrue from any short-term management strategy based on symptomatic thinking.9 Implementing such strategies allows us to think we are somehow in control of events, which clearly we are not.

Put simply, interactive systems perpetually organize themselves, with infinite novelty, to a critical state in which a minor event can start a chain reaction that leads to destabilization and collapse, such as that of a forest following a fire. Following the disruption, the system will begin reorganizing toward the next critical state (e.g., forest succession), and so on, and so on indefinitely.

Another way of understanding this phenomenon is to ask: If change is a universal constant and nothing is either static or reversible, what is a natural state? In considering this question, one soon begins to realize that the conceptual balance of Nature, in the classical sense, is untenable—disturb Nature and Nature will return to its former state when the disturbance is removed.

Although one may perceive the pattern of vegetation on the Earth’s surface to be relatively stable, particularly over the short interval of one’s lifetime, in reality the landscape and its vegetation are in a perpetual state of dynamic imbalance with the forces that sculpted them. When these forces create novel events that are sufficiently rapid and large in scale, they are perceived as disturbances.

Perhaps the most outstanding evidence that an ecosystem is subject to constant change and ultimate disruption, rather than existing in static balance, comes from studies of naturally occurring external factors that dislocate ecosystems. For a long time, ecologists failed to consider influences outside ecosystems. Their emphasis was on processes internal to an ecosystem even though what was occurring inside was driven by what was happening outside.

Climate appears to be foremost among these factors. By studying the record laid down in the sediments of oceans and lakes, scientists know that climate has fluctuated wildly over the last two million years, and the shape of ecosystems with it—witness what is going on today around the world. The fluctuations take place not only from eon to eon but also from year to year and season to season and at every scale in between; thus, the configuration of ecosystems is continually creating different landscapes in a particular area through geological time—and this includes the oceans, which in turn affect the land through the dynamics of myriad self-reinforcing feedback loops.


What then are we to learn from all of this? In a word, humility. What, you might wonder, does this mean? It means that, “the change we must create is not first and foremost in nature, science or technology: it is within ourselves and how we look out at the world around us.”10 Put differently, there are no problems “out there” that do not originate in the self-centered narrowness of our thinking about wanting more—always more.

Oceans in Crisis:

• Meeting The Ocean

• Resource overexploitation

• Acidification

• Overfishing

• Marine Protected Areas

• Chemical Pollution

• Human Garbage

• Noise

• Temperature

Related Posts:

• Principle 6: All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops.

• Principle 8: Change is a process of eternal becoming.

• Principle 11: All systems have cumulative effects, lag periods, and           thresholds.

• Principle 13: Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality.

• Principle 14: Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems.

• The Ongoing Struggle To Govern The Commons


1. The preceding three paragraphs are based on: (1) Jonna Engel and Rikk Kvitek. Effects of Otter Trawling on a Benthic Community in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Conservation Biology 12 (1998): 1204–1214; (2) Peter J. Auster. A Conceptual Model of the Impacts of Fishing Gear on the Integrity of Fish Habitats. Conservation Biology 12 (1998): 1198–1203; (3) Cynthia H. Pilskaln, James H. Churchill, and Lawrence M. Mayer. Resuspension of Sediment by Bottom Trawling in the Gulf of Maine and Potential Geochemical Consequences. Conservation Biology 12 (1998): 1223–1229; and (4) Les Watling and Elliott A. Norse. Disturbance of the Seabed by Mobile Fishing Gear: A Comparison to Forest Clearcutting. Conservation Biology 12 (1998): 1180–1197.

2. Russ Beaton and Chris Maser. Economics and Ecology: United for a Sustainable World. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 2011.

3. (1) Robin Naidoo and Wiktor L. Adamowicz. Effects of Economic Prosperity on Numbers of Threatened Species. Conservation Biology 15 (2001): 1021–1029 and (2) Oliver R. W. Pergams, Brian Czech, J. Christopher Haney, and Dennis Nyberg. Linkage of Conservation Activity to Trends in the U.S. Economy. Conservation Biology 18 (2004): 1617–1623.

4. U. Thara Srinivasan, Susan P. Carey, Eric Hallstein, and others. The Debt of Nations and the Distribution of Ecological Impacts from Human Activities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (2008): 1768–1773.

5. The foregoing discussion of whaling is based on: (1) Hal Whitehead, Jenny Christal, and Susan Dufault. Past and Distant Whaling and the Rapid Decline of Sperm Whales off the Galápagos Islands. Conservation Biology 11 (1997): 1387–1396; (2) Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya. Inuit, Whaling, and Sustainability (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 1998); and (3) Calestous Juma. The Future of the International Whaling Commission: Strengthening Ocean Diplomacy. Report prepared for the International Whaling Commission (Cambridge, U.K.: International Whaling Commission, May 16, 2008).

6. Navjot S. Sodhi, Tien Ming Lee, Lian Pin Koh, and Dewi M. Prawiradilaga. Long-Term Avifaunal Impoverishment in an Isolated Tropical Woodlot. Conservation Biology 20 (2006): 772–779.

7. (1) Stuart W. Krasner, Howard S. Weinberg, Susan D. Richardson, and others. Occurrence of a New Generation of Disinfection Byproducts. Environmental Science & Technology 40 (2006): 7175–7185; (2) Susan Milius. Birds Beware. Science News 170 (2006): 309–310.

8. The preceding three paragraphs are based on: C. S. Holling and Gary K. Meffe, Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management. Conservation Biology 10 (1996): 328–337.

9. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: David R. Foster and David A. Orwig. Preemptive and Salvage Harvesting of New England Forests: When Doing Nothing Is a Viable Alternative. Conservation Biology 20 (2006): 959–970.

10.Tony Juniper. Inspiring Change. Resurgence, 227 (2004)28-31.

Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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