It is a belief system that has burrowed deep in our psyches; a way of thinking that is extremely resistant to serious challenge. Yet it may be hindering our ability to intelligently consider the consequences of climate change.
It is the "balance of nature," a concept pretty much everyone accepts — with the notable exception of ecologists. The natural environment, as it is currently understood by science, is in a constant state of flux.
Upheaval, not balance, is the norm.
That we believe otherwise has proven problematic for the teaching of basic ecological literacy, according to a just-published paper by psychologist Corinne Zimmerman of Illinois State University and ecologist Kim Cuddington of Ohio University. Their study of students at two major Midwestern universities found the discredited "balance of nature" idea is widely held among both science majors and the general student population. What's more, it is extremely difficult to dislodge.
"They're almost unable to reason logically about environmental problems because they keep bumping into this cultural concept," Cuddington said. "It's influencing their thought processes."
While it is tempting to blame Walt Disney, given the balance-of-nature theme in The Lion King (where it is called the "circle of life"), the concept can be traced back to the beginnings of Western thought. Herodotus, the ancient Greek who is widely considered the first historian, "describes the relationship between predator and prey species," Cuddington said. "He calls it wonderful that they're exactly balanced — that the predators never eat too many of the prey."
The staying power of this idea became clear when she asked students in her introduction to ecology course, "Do you think a predator could ever drive a prey species to extinction?"
"They uniformly answer no — even though it does happen all the time," she said.
"You get the sense from their responses that the cheetah and the antelope meet out on the savannah, shake paws or hooves and say, ‘Make sure there are enough of you to eat, and we'll make sure you don't go extinct. Deal?' That's the level of reasoning they have about the predator-prey dynamic."
The concept filtered down through the ages in various forms. Nineteenth-century Christian thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and William Paley considered it proof of a divinely inspired order in nature. In the 1960s and 1970s, it became the mantra of the environmental movement; the pollution caused by human beings, it was argued, was upsetting the planet's natural balance.
"In its classic formulation, the balance-of-nature concept holds that an ecosystem maintains a constant equilibrium and when disturbed, it returns to its former status when the cause of the disturbance is disturbed," William K. Stevens wrote in the New York Times in 1990. He was, in a sense, writing the idea's obituary. "Many scientists now say it is clear that this is not the way things work," Stevens continued, adding that "nature is actually in a continuing state of disturbance and fluctuation."
Nearly two decades later, this new understanding has yet to filter down to the general public — or, for that matter, the educational community.
"I did a search of science standards issued by state education boards, which list the things we need to teach our students about biology and ecology," Zimmerman said. "The national standards don't say anything about the balance of nature, but there are state and school-board documents that list the concept as something students should exit a particular grade level knowing."
Given that the pervasiveness of that "deep-seated cultural notion," Cuddington was not surprised to discover it was widely believed by students in her introduction to ecology class. She was surprised, and disappointed, by her lack of success at convincing the students — even the science majors — that they were mistaken.
"We had students consider a scenario where a lake was contaminated with copper due to either a train derailment or a landslide," she said. "This would profoundly influence the ecosystem. But 93 percent of them (mistakenly) thought the system would recover."
Zimmerman believes such findings may explain why it has been so difficult to forge a consensus on combating climate change, in spite of widespread predictions of unprecedented events such as the melting of the polar ice cap. "People think, ‘Everything will be OK. It'll all balance out in the end,'" she said.
"There are two (mutually contradictory) ideas inherent in this balance-of-nature concept," she added. "One is that nature is really robust. You can dump copper in a lake and it'll recover! The other is that nature is really delicate, and practically anything you do to it will destroy it. You can have two people talking about ‘the balance of nature,' but one could be using a robust conception and the other a delicate conception."
This muddying of the metaphorical waters is hardly conducive to intelligent consideration of the environmental challenges we face. As Stevens wrote in 1990: "The real question, ecologists say, is which sort of human interventions should be promoted and which opposed." The "balance of nature" idea, with its implication that the natural world would revert to a peaceful, idyllic state of man simply kept his hands off, does not lend itself to a serious exploration of that question.
The first step in solving this problem, the authors of the study contend, is educating the educators — specifically, middle-school and high-school teachers, many of whom are currently spreading misinformation. "Perhaps if they really understood the concepts (of contemporary ecology), they can teach them to kids before their minds are totally locked," Zimmerman said.
"If we better educate our science teachers, hopefully they will better educate our science students," Cuddington agreed. "I don't know what is required in terms of changing instructional techniques. But certainly the first step is to make sure students are getting accurate information — regardless of whether or not they take it in."