Myth 16: Wilderness is an idea based on outdated equilibrium ecology

Myth: Wilderness is an idea based on outdated equilibrium ecology (Gomez-Pampa and Kaus 1992, Adams and Mulligan 2002)

Truth: Wilderness does not rely on equilibrium ecology to justify its existence. In any case, punctuated equilibria theory (suggesting some disturbance can maintain high diversity) does not legitimize the major stresses humans are putting on natural areas (else why are half the world’s species in danger of going extinct, Wilson 2003). There are a number of other authors who disagree with the claims that equilibrium ecology theory dominates conservation, or who point out that the debate is far more complex than some have argued. One of the leaders of the ‘intermediate disturbance’ theory was Connell (1979), who argued that equilibrium was seldom attained in rainforests and reefs. However, he emphasized that the disturbances that maintain high diversity are natural ones to which species have evolved, whereas large scale removal of tropical forest, pollution by biocides, heavy metals and oil are ‘new’ disturbances against which most organisms lack a defence. It has been noted that Callicott writes as if wilderness advocates had ‘studied ecology and never heard of evolution’ and also seek to prevent natural change (Rolston 1991). A detailed study of equilibria and disequilibria theories within ecology was made by Worster (1994), who pointed out that such theories often tie in with the worldviews of their promoters. In other words they develop theories to justify their existing worldview. It has been argued in reply to Callicott that ‘no ecologist interprets wilderness in the static, pristine, climax sense that Callicott caricatures it’ (Noss 2003b). To expand on this point:

the knowledge that nature is a shifting mosaic in essentially continuous flux should not be misconstrued to suggest that human-generated changes are nothing to worry about. Instead, “human generated changes must be constrained because nature has functional, historical and evolutionary limits. Nature has a range of ways to be, but there is a limit to those ways, and therefore, human changes must be within those limits”. (Noss 2003 quoting Pickett et al. 1991)

There are also questions as to how relevant the debate on disequilibrium ecology truly is for wilderness. For example, the role of ecological theories in regard to wilderness was reviewed by Mackey et al. (1998a), which did not mention disequilibrium ecology. In fact they focused on ‘resilience’ theory, which tended to support the protection of large, natural areas. They concluded:

wilderness areas and places with a high wilderness quality, all other things being equal, will provide for larger reserves, support larger or better connected metapopulations, reduce extinction risk, be less fragmented, and possess greater resilience.