December 11, 2023

Is It Time to Bury the Ecosystem Concept?

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ecosystem*Editor’s Note* – Below, I took the liberty of copying the “conclusions” of an academic piece by Robert V. O’Neill. But, please either before or after reading the conclusion, or both, go to the link provided and read the entire article. It is not that long and better explains the “conclusions.”

It is my opinion, after reading this piece and comparing the conclusions with what is written in the article, that within the conclusions there exists, to some degree, the limitations of which the author writes of the problems that exist in attempting to work within a theory of “ecosystem” balance or stability. The author describes the theory of an ecosystem as a paradigm, or, “a convenient approach to organizing thought.” (a difficult concept to escape I’m afraid.)

O’Neill also recognizes, rightly so in my lay opinion, that the human is not separate from the “ecosystem” but a part of it, and yet, perhaps in an inescapable way, due in part by “a convenient approach to organizing thought”, points a finger at the human as perhaps a future cause of ecological collapse. I am often left with the question, “If man is part of the ecosystem then how can the presence of man naturally effect, through positive and negative feedback mechanisms, if he is, by law and regulation, removed and/or limited from that ecosystem?”

But we should not lose sight of what is being offered in this piece. Different than some pieces of academic, this writer doesn’t attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater but to better define “ecosystem”, by first understanding what it means and how it got here, while dispelling myths propagated by “a convenient approach to organizing thought.”

Please find this link to the whole article. (Note: This link was provided in the “Open Thread” by a reader.)


Is it time to bury the ecosystem concept? Probably not. But there is certainly need for improvement before
ecology loses any more credibility. This paper suggests some of the key problems. Spatial pattern, extent, and heterogeneity are critical to stability. You cannot get a predictive theory if you assume them away. Temporal variability and scale are critical to stability. You cannot get a predictive theory if you assume them away either. It is the interplay of natural selection and internal feedback mechanisms that determines dynamics. Again, you cannot get a predictive theory if you assume either away. Basically, all the processes and constraints needed to explain stability are not encompassed within the boundaries of the local ecological system.

An improved paradigm would have many implications for ecological applications, such as conservation.
Increasing the size of an isolated preserve only increases the length of time until the cumulative probability of a disruption approaches 1.0. Maintaining dispersal pathways might better conserve sustainability by keeping the potential dispersal range near its original, undisturbed scale.

There are also important implications for monitoring. Current theory leads us to focus on average rates and standing crops at a location. Yet scale and variability in space and time may be more important in determining sustainability. Mean values at two locations may indicate that no significant change has occurred, but if dispersal pathways between the sites have been disrupted, one has reduced by orders of magnitude the scale of a catastrophic disturbance.

Perhaps the most important implication involves our view of human society. Homo sapiens is not an external
disturbance, it is a keystone species within the system. In the long term, it may not be the magnitude of extracted goods and services that will determine sustainability. It may well be our disruption of ecological recovery and stability mechanisms that determines system collapse.

Certainly, we don’t want to dismiss the current theory prematurely. But we must understand that the machine analogy is critically limited. In so far as the local system maximizes environmental potential, it necessarily sacrifices stability when that potential changed. The challenge to the ecological system is optimization to a moving target. Optimize too rapidly and the system is trapped in a local attractor and, like an overspecialized species, cannot adapt when conditions change. So, it would not be wise to send the old dobbin to the glue factory before we determine how well the new one takes the bit. But it certainly seems to be time to start shopping for a new colt.