Ecosystem Management: Understanding The Paradox of Creative Destruction

Beech tree in leaf among cedars in December snow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I understand something of paradox. I’m an ecologist.

Destruction in creation and creation in destruction lies ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. This brings to mind the Ouroboros, the mythical snake that swallows its own tail to sustain itself in the Greek prophecy of the Suntelia Aion, the calamitous “End of an Age”. 

Creative destruction was first introduced as a term in 1942 by the economist,Joseph Schumpeter. He used it to describe the process of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. According to Schumpeter’s view of capitalism, innovative entry by entrepreneurs sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power. An example is Xerox, who has seen its profits fall and its dominance vanish as rivals launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs, drawing customers away.

In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987) C.S. Holling applied Schumpeter’s term to ecology a model of ecosystem behaviour. His model recognized ecosystems as non-linear, self-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization.

Holling presented several paradigms that ecologists use to describe the causes and behaviour (and management) of ecosystems, including an equilibrium-centred view (based on the constancy of behaviour over time), which Simon Forge described as “driving using the rear-view mirror”—trying to judge the road ahead by what went on behind. Holling advocated a “nature evolving” view, which describes ecosystems as undergoing sharp, discontinuous changes that are internally organized and balanced. His mobius loop depicts the closed oroborus-like cycle of creation and destruction in nature. Holling described four phases of natural ecosystem succession within his “nature evolving” paradigm. 

  1. In the exploitation phase new opportunities are realized through rapid colonization and competition. 
  2. Natural forces of conservation (e.g., nurturing, consolidation) lead to a vulnerable system (e.g., old growth forests), as stabilizing factors lose strength and the system evolves from having few interrelationships to having many (serving as a rich repository for resilience through biodiversity). 
  3. The result is often an abrupt change that both destroys systems and creates opportunity (creative destruction) through fire, storms, pests, senescence. 
  4. Mobilization of bound, stored “capital” (e.g., carbon, nutrients and energy) through physicochemical and biological processes like decomposition and mineralization completes the dynamic cycle of a functional and resilient ecosystem.

What this means for the ecosystem manager is that efforts to detect responses to changes, including human interventions like restoration activities, are confounded. Traditional (equilibrium-centred) ecosystem management may be misdirected, resulting in pathological “surprises” of ecosystem response and a spiralling cost in control measures. Examples of traditional equilibrium-centred management of forests, fish and other organisms of terrestrial and aquatic environments with devastating consequences include:

  • Suppression of spruce budworm populations in eastern Canada using insecticides partially protected the forest but left it vulnerable to an outbreak covering an area and of an intensity never experience before.
  • Forest fire suppression reduced the probability of fire in the national parks of the United States but the consequence has been the accumulation of fuel to produce fires of an extent and cost never experienced before.
  • Protection and enhancement of salmon spawning on the west coast of North America may have led to some success regarding enhance stocks (e.g., hatchery-grown fish), and at best the fishing industry is left precariously dependent on a few enhanced stocks which are vulnerable to collapse.

In each of these examples, the policy succeeded in its immediate objective. But in each case the system evolved into something with different properties and each “solution” led to a larger problem. In short, the biophysical environment had evolved into one that was more fragile, more dependent on vigilance and error-free management. Something Holling called “Nature Engineered.”

In his classic 1987 paper, Holling suggested that ecosystems be viewed—and managed—as “Resilient Nature”, where the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; in other words, that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale. Which brings us back to Nature’s many paradoxes and the cycle of creative destruction.

New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether human-caused or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales.

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory. This is something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature; respect for richness and diversity of life; generation of complexity from simplicity; the need to understand the whole to understand the part.

I wish you a safe and wealthy 2021: a year’s wealth of unexpected wonder, of genuine love, of unguarded honor, and dazzling bravery. There is no wonder without tolerance; no love without humility; no honor without sacrifice; and no bravery without fear. I wish you the gift of unbridled compassion.

Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Beech tree in leaf among cedars in winter in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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