Biomes are too dynamic and intertwingled to be managed with simple political slogans: The case of Gnetum luofuense

Corners of the Environmentalist Establishment voice shrieks regarding what they call a biodiversity emergency, prompting even skilled journalists to claim the trend poses “as great a risk to humanity as climate change.” We went through the “insect apocalypse” fiasco, which turned out to be argued using bad evidence, specifically, insufficient sampling and improper statistics, including confirmation bias and sampling bias. Even UNEP shouts out about a “biodiversity emergency,” putting in hand-in-hand with the “climate emergency.”

A lot of this results from bad definitions and expectations. As Daniel Botkin observes in his book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell — Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered, many of our notions regarding species extinction and invasive species are grounded in myths regarding how biomes operate and interact:

… Environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s was essentially a disapproving and in this sense negative movement, focusing on aspects of our civilization that are bad for our environment. It played an important role by awakening people’s consciousness, but it didn’t provide many solutions to our environmental problems, or even viable approaches to solutions. That environmentalism was based on ideas of the industrial age — the machine age — ideas that developed in the eighteenth century and expanded in the nineteenth, ideas that I will argue in the rest of this book are outmoded.

That environmentalism has been perceived as opposing technological progress, but both those arguing for progress and those arguing for protection of the environment have shared a worldview, hidden assumptions, and myths about human beings and nature that dominated the industrial era. In the large, neither science nor environmentalism has gotten to the roots of the issues, which lie deep in our ideas and assumptions about science and technology, and go even deeper in myths and ancient worldviews.

(pages 8-9, Botkin, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, 2012)

This is a growing opinion among professional biologists. It’s understandable why. A flawed understanding of how biomes work impedes proper conservation and management, and is often antithetical to the very idea of natural management. As Botkin argued in his earlier book, Discordant Harmonies, many of us have this idea that if people did not interact with natural systems, or interacted minimally, they would return to an equilibrium wherein “native species” would thrive. Botkin quotes George Perkins Marsh:

In countries untrodden by man, the proportions and relative positions of land and water, the atmospheric precipitation and evaporation, the thermometric mean, and the distribution of vegetable and animal life, are subject to change only from geological influences so slow in their operation that the geographical conditions may be regarding as constant and immutable.

(G. P. Marsh, Man and Nature, 1864)

Botkin isn’t the only advocate of this view. There’s Peter Del Tredici, both in his article, “The flora of the future,” and in his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast — A Field Guide (2nd edition, 2020). There’s the late Steven Vogel’s Thinking Like a Mall — Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature where Vogel argues the very concept of “nature” itself is flawed.

Tanner Smida, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a lot of concern about honey bees (Apis mellifera). No doubt with ubiquitous use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, habitat destruction, and fungal pathogens make life difficult. But honey bees are not the only natural pollinators, even though most popular discussion considers “natural pollinators” synonymous with Apis mellifera. There are bumblebees, stingless bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, and sweat bees, as well as various moths. While environmental pressures create what are effectively “dead zones” for honey bees and some other bees, the general pattern is that wild bees thrive in other areas, even if these are inconveniently situated, at least from the perspective of farmers or apiaries. (See monitoring measures here and here.) Bee populations respond to some of these threats, including developing associations with bacteria like Bombella apis which suppress fungal pathogens.

Like so much else in biosphere dynamics, loss of species in one area is complemented by emergence or migration of other species in their place. This species rotation is typical, and should be expected due to phenological changes imposed by climate disruption. Even in the case of bees, climate disruption is apparently the most significant pressure, more than changes in landscapes or landscape quality, per

Kammerer, Melanie, Sarah C. Goslee, Margaret R. Douglas, John F. Tooker, and Christina M. Grozinger. “Wild bees as winners and losers: Relative impacts of landscape composition, quality, and climate.” Global Change Biology 27, no. 6 (2021): 1250-1265.

That suggests that if honey bees are to be protected, the best first step is to limit climate disruption by getting off fossil fuels and shutting their extraction and use down, even if that means conversion of some existing habitats to others, like felling trees to create solar fields.

In addition, and this is more or less the the point of this blog post, honey bees can be harmful to some plants. Consider the gymnosperm Gnetum luofuense. It evolved before bees so, as Alun Salt tells in his Botany One blog post about them,

It’s no surprise that the plant has no use for them. However, they still produce pollen, a food that bees like to eat.

Salt summarizes the report

Yang, Min, Tao Wan, Can Dai, Xiao‐Chun Zou, Fan Liu, and Yan‐Bing Gong. “Modern honeybees disrupt the pollination of an ancient gymnosperm, Gnetum luofuense.” Ecology (2021): e03497.

His subtitle tells the whole story:

Some people fixate on honey bees as essential for pollination. Reality is more complicated. For one species, honey bee visits actively harm its chances of pollinating a partner.

Gnetum luofuense
Gnetum luofuense

If active measures to promote biodiversity are taken, managers ought to understand matters first and well before stumbling into a place where they don’t know what they are doing. And people with concern for biomes and the general environment ought to appreciate that while slogans like “biodiversity emergency” might make great rallying cries to gain membership and financial support, their relevance to biological reality is limited.

About ecoquant

See Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
This entry was posted in Aldo Leopold, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Anthropocene, Apis mellifera, bacteria, being carbon dioxide, Bill McKibben, biology, Botany One, climate disruption, climate emergency, climate policy, complex systems, control theory, Cult of Carbon, Daniel B Botkin, ecomodernism, ecopragmatism, Gnetum luofuense, gymnosperms, Steven Vogel. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Biomes are too dynamic and intertwingled to be managed with simple political slogans: The case of Gnetum luofuense

  1. Pingback: Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies, a comment | 667 per centimeter : climate science, quantitative biology, statistics, and energy policy

  2. pendantry says:

    I admit that I’ve only scanned this post, and haven’t followed all your links. But my impression is one of a dangerous glossing over of the important point, which is a simple one: if humanity is unable to comprehend that it must live in concert with the rest of the real world, instead of treating it as a resource to be plundered, it will not survive. (And, in failing, it will probably take a great deal of the rest of life on this planet with it.)

    • ecoquant says:

      I hope a deeper read will reveal the message is that humanity is not separate from the natural world, but part of it. As Vogel wrote (using a Goodreads summary):

      “Environmentalism, in theory and practice, is concerned with protecting nature. But if we have now reached “the end of nature,” as Bill McKibben and other environmental thinkers have declared, what is there left to protect? In “Thinking like a Mall,” Steven Vogel argues that environmental thinking would be better off if it dropped the concept of “nature” altogether and spoke instead of the “environment” — that is, the world that actually surrounds us, which is always a “built “world, the only one that we inhabit. We need to think not so much like a mountain (as Aldo Leopold urged) as like a mall. Shopping malls, too, are part of the environment and deserve as much serious consideration from environmental thinkers as do mountains.

      “Vogel argues provocatively that environmental philosophy, in its ethics, should no longer draw a distinction between the natural and the artificial and, in its politics, should abandon the idea that something beyond human practices (such as ‘nature’) can serve as a standard determining what those practices ought to be. The appeal to nature distinct from the built environment, he contends, may be not merely unhelpful to environmental thinking but in itself harmful to that thinking. The question for environmental philosophy is not ‘how can we save nature?’ but rather ‘what environment should we inhabit, and what practices should we engage in to help build it?’

      The message is that many if not all of our attitudes about the relationship between humanity and the natural world and assumptions about them are, from the perspective of biological science, incorrect. Biomes are ever dynamic, and species come and go. There are feedback mechanisms which, for any species, no matter how dominant, limit its spread. The ideas of “living in concert with the rest of the real world” and “treating it as a resource to be plundered” embody these out-of-date ideas.

      There is no consistent real biological world there to “live in harmony” with, for it itself is never “in harmony” with itself.

      It is impossible to treat this world as a “resource” or to “plunder” it. These actions assume it is “out there” and we are “in here”. If we consume and disrupt excessively, we are consuming and disrupting our own selves, both directly via pollution and by destroying the substances and mechanisms we need to survive. The consequence of any species continuing to do that does in fact, as you say, mean that the species suffers an substantial decrease in population, perhaps, in the limit going to extinction.

      There will always be a large number of species which will go extinct, whether we are disrupting or not. Yes, our actions and choices could be the proximate cause, but it does not mean if we did not that comparable extinctions would not occur. See David Raup’s Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? and Stephen Jay Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium.

      Even if our actions would not harm species directly, our impact upon climate is changing phenology and that, in itself, will result in the loss of species. Migratory and flowering species don’t remain indecisive when climate and oceans warm. They move and change early. That strands others which relied upon their being in a certain place at a certain time. The consequences are nonlinear and eventually they harm human populations.

      Since we are part of the natural world, we are shitting in our own drinking water. Eventually that has to have consequences. But I don’t think it wise to think we should protect other species. For one think we don’t really know how to do that. The historical evidence is that when we try, we fuck it up.

      • pendantry says:

        The ideas of “living in concert with the rest of the real world” and “treating it as a resource to be plundered” embody these out-of-date ideas.

        Those come across to me like the words of someone trying to manipulate thought to encourage business as usual. Divide and conquer; get the environmentalists arguing amongst themselves about what they’re trying to achieve, instead of focusing on turning the tide.

        I don’t think it wise to think we should protect other species. For one think we don’t really know how to do that. The historical evidence is that when we try, we fuck it up.

        I disagree: we know entirely how to do that: give them space, stop perpetually intruding upon it. The plight of the orangutans is a case in point. We are directly causing their extinction. All this talk of ‘species always die’ is utter babble. We are the direct cause of the current extinction cycle. We have a responsibility to acknowledge that, and step up and stop doing it.

        Of course, we won’t. Even if we try, we will, as you say, fuck it up. But if we don’t even try, the end is inevitable.

        • ecoquant says:

          Those come across to me like the words of someone trying to manipulate thought to encourage business as usual. Divide and conquer; get the environmentalists arguing amongst themselves about what they’re trying to achieve, instead of focusing on turning the tide.

          Well, I’ve most of this alone except to say:

          (1) To properly achieve “stop perpetually intruding upon it” we need to deconstruct some of what we’ve built. I am not talking about orangutans far away, I’m speaking about suburbs in developed countries.

          (2) The environmental community is dividing itself. Also, unity behind a policy that simply will not work is not worth the unity. As I have written several times here, several groups of so-called environmentalists are opposing construction of solar farms here in the Northeast to try to “save forests.” The overwhelming evidence is that the biggest threats to such forests are effects of climate disruption. The public is not going to switch off fossil energy until there is a robust alternative. Accordingly, impeding build of wind turbines, solar, and batteries in any manner is being responsible for more emissions than otherwise would need to be emitted.

          And what does “focusing on turning the tide” mean if not ceasing emissions from burning of fossil fuels, cement, agriculture, manufactures of plastics, steel, and aluminum?

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