In January 1995, residents of the small town of Libby, Montana, received a surprising invitation. Proffered by federal authorities, it announced that meetings would be held on the 28th, simultaneously at Libby and 28 other locations throughout Montana and Idaho, to discuss something called the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. Its purpose, they were told, was to establish, in President Clinton’s words, “an ecosystem-based strategy” for managing “eastside forests”—i.e., those federal lands lying east of the Cascade Mountains crest in Oregon and Washington—along with lands of the Upper Columbia River Basin in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The citizens of Libby were learning what people in Washington already knew: that “ecosystems management” is the most popular buzz-phrase in politics today. Taking the capitol by storm, it serves as the foundation for all environmental law and policy and captivates the imagination of Republicans and Democrats alike.

During the last six years, the Bush and Clinton administrations have made “ecosystems management” the guiding policy for a dozen federal agencies. In 1990, as part of its “New Perspectives” program, the National Forest Service adopted ecosystems management. In 1992, the Bush White House announced it would follow an “ecosystem approach,” when administering the Endangered Species Act. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced “an ecosystem approach to fish and wildlife conservation” that included organizing the country into 52 separate “ecosystem units.” Shortly after, the Bureau of Land Management embraced ecosystems management as well. Today, it forms an integral part of Vice President Al Gore’s effort to “reinvent government.”

Clearly, this notion has captured the imagination of America’s political leaders and is changing the shape of government. But what does it mean? And what are its implications?

Combining two simple notions—the unity and balance of nature—the concept presupposes that nature is composed of interconnected parts that interact to keep everything in or near equilibrium. So long as these systems retain all their members (i.e., sustain their biological diversity), they remain healthy. But if they lose enough parts (i.e., species), their capacity for self-regulation fails and they become unstable.

This hypothesis is popular because it seems to explain what has gone wrong with the environment and how to fix it: environmental health requires ecosystems to remain in balance, which in turn demands that they retain their biodiversity. And the best way to ensure these conditions is to leave ecosystems alone. Ecosystems management, in essence, means keeping humans away from nature.

But this doctrine is not what it seems. Rather than new science, it is old philosophy, whose history raises some disturbing questions about the future of preservation. Its central tenets—that nature is constant and harmonious—are ancient beliefs, long predating the advent of Western civilization. They were recurring themes in early Greek myths, and served as foundations of classical Hellenistic science. The Pythagoreans claimed to hear musical harmony in the universe, and Greek physicians believed in the balance of “humors” and emphasized the ability of nature to heal.

In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus reports that Arabians believed “the whole world would swarm with these serpents” (snakes) were it not for the fact that “Divine Providence” was “a wise contriver.” Belief that “Divine Providence” ensured the harmony of nature reverberated among naturalists during the Enlightenment, and similar notions pervaded early American thought. In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus, whose work was a forerunner of modern ecology, elevated the notion of plants and animals interacting for mutual benefit to the status of a scientific principle, which he called “the economy of nature.” Similar notions were embraced by the German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, when he conceived of ecology in 1866. Describing his new discipline as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence,'” he suggested that all things animate and inanimate are parts of a larger whole, or community.

“He intended his readers to visualize,” notes historian Peter J. Bowler, “a kind of global organic economy in which all species played a part.” And all things, whether living or not, Haeckel supposed, contain a spiritual clement. “He argued that matter and spirit were manifestations of a single underlying substance,” notes Bowler, “which meant that even the most primitive form of life had some spiritual qualities.”

Haeckel’s ecology, therefore, was more metaphysical than scientific. It encompassed two closely related doctrines, well known to philosophers, called “holism” and “spiritual monism.” Holism is the view that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—that things can be understood only within the context of larger communities of which they arc members. Spiritual monists believe that a material world does not exist and that nature consists entirely of mental entities, or ideas.

The same spiritualism was embraced by America’s first great ecologist, Frederic Clements, in 1916. Soil, plants, and animals, Clements suggested, form parts of superorganisms infused with spirit. These biological communities, he said, are like individuals that are born, grow, and die in predictable ways. They are always in motion towards a goal. They move from disorder to order, from loose associations to close-knit communities, from growth to stability. Only disturbances such as forest fires, volcanic eruptions, or human interference halt or reverse this process. But after such interruptions, nature always renews its inexorable march toward balance and stability.

Like Haeckel, Clements’ science reflected fuzzy thinking. For neither monism nor holism are scientific. Spiritual objects cannot be studied empirically, and the supposed something extra that makes the whole “greater than the sum of its parts” is not observable. To be scientifically admissible, a theoretical construct such as Clements’ superorganism had to be logically embedded within a theory whose key concepts were “anchored” to empirical reality. And it was not.

To extricate biology from this philosophical dead end, in 1935 Clements’ friend, Oxford botanist A.C. Tansley, introduced a new concept that he thought more acceptable, namely, the ecosystem. “Though the organisms may claim our primary interest,” he wrote, “when we arc trying to think fundamentally we cannot separate them from their special environment, with which they form one physical system. . . . It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth. These ecosystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds and sizes.”

Unlike Clements’ superorganism, Tansley’s ecosystems were entirely physical. But although rejecting his friend’s spiritual monism, Tanslev retained his holism. Thus even Tansley’s ecosystem was unobservable. A theoretical concept, it did not signify anything on a map. As plant geographer Richard Hartshorn observed in 1939: “The problem of establishing the boundaries of a geographic region . . . presents a problem for which we have no reason to even hope for an objective solution. . . . The regional entities which we construct on this basis are therefore in the full sense mental constructions.”

To advance their fledgling discipline, therefore, ecosystem advocates should have concentrated on observation and experimentation. Instead, they went in the opposite direction, developing highly abstract theories that rested on little or no evidence. In a landmark 1946 paper, Yale University ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson led the way. The ecosystem, he suggested, was a feedback loop of energy flows which operated to keep the system stable in the face of environmental disturbances.

As a tool for analyzing such systems. Hutchinson employed a new kind of mathematics, called cybernetics. Conceived by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Norbert Wiener during World War II and based on his work designing aiming devices for antiaircraft guns, cybernetics was the science of self-regulating machines, like guided missiles and thermostats. Such devices exhibited “purposeful” behavior, such as aiming at a target or maintaining a constant temperature, because they were governed by feedback loops that kept the machine in equilibrium. And cybernetics was the mathematics for such systems.

Used with the ecosystem model, cybernetics seemed a powerful analytic tool. When the ecosystem was pictured as a feedback loop of energy flows, operating like a thermostat to keep the community in balance, it appeared to open the way for using physics to understand living things and their environment. Indeed, the influence of cybernetics was so intoxicating that little attention was paid to the lack of evidence for the ecosystem models that employed it.

“One of the major criticisms of mathematical-theoretical approaches to ecology,” wrote biologist Robert J. McIntosh, “is that they commonly rest on simplifying assumptions, often unstated, that make them tractable mathematically but nonsense biologically.” Such was the new ecologists’ fascination with equilibrium. These scholars emphasized the balance of nature, not because the evidence supported it but because their mathematics demanded it.

Examining the concept of niche—the habitat occupied by an organism—Hutchinson would reach a conclusion that soon became conventional wisdom throughout American culture; that biological diversity promotes ecosystem stability. “Communities of many diversified organisms,” he wrote in 1958, “are better able to persist than are communities of fewer less diversified organisms.” But this was an attribute which, like stability, was required not by nature but by mathematics. “The conventional wisdom of ecology,” wrote McIntosh, “held that diversity enhanced ecosystem stability by increasing the number of links in the ecological web. This idea became almost axiomatic to some biologists despite indications that diversity of trees in relatively stable or climax forests was less than that in seral or changing forests.”

Nevertheless, despite a lack of data, other ecologists, encouraged and subsidized by the federal government, embraced this new more “scientific” approach. In 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission established a Division of Biology and Medicine to study the effects of atomic fallout, inaugurating ambitious ecosystem research programs at national laboratories and nuclear reservations in Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, Hanford, and Savannah River. At Savannah, it contracted with University of Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum to conduct studies of farmland abandoned after construction of the nuclear facility. Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research began paying Eugene’s brother Howard to study mineral springs in Florida. And in 1954, at the request of the AEC, the Odum brothers traveled to Eniwetok, in the South Pacific, to study, in their words, “the effects of radiation on whole populations and entire ecological systems in the field.”

To be sure, many ecologists rejected the ecosystem as mere recycled holism and spiritual monism. Evolutionary ecologists, in particular, stressed that competition between creatures and not self-regulating ecosystems determined evolution. Invoking the rigorous standards of modern science, they insisted that theories about purposeful change and complex wholes were not testable. But while such critics had science on their side, they failed to influence public opinion and policy. Their hypotheses, suggesting nature is random, could not justify political agendas. By contrast, ecosystems advocates, as historian Joel B. Hagen comments, “emphasized the important role that ecologists could play in shaping public policy.”

In other words, ecosystems ecologists had a political agenda and critics of the idea did not. Indeed, from its inception ecology served as a rationale for social planning. Inspired by his belief that all creatures, including humans, were part of an interlocking web of nature, Haeckel founded a political movement called the Monist League, dedicated to promoting a back-to-the-land ethic (to put Germans back in touch with nature) and to ridding Germany of alien “dualistic” beliefs such as Judaism and Christianity.

Clements, too, intended the ideas of ecologists to aid social planning. As Bowler explains, Clements “saw science as a way of controlling the economy as a whole” and thought ecology “would show us how to manage natural productivity of an entire region.” And “where Clements had once justified government control of the environment by appealing to the image of society as a super-organism, the new systems theory offered the prospect of social control through the setting up of stable feedback loops of human interactions. In an atmosphere of postwar optimism, science seemed to offer the prospect of creating a new and more secure world.”

Thanks to its political utility, the ecologists found the selfregulating ecosystem to be a money tree. As federal research funds flowed, public agencies forged long-term associations with universities, which in turn expanded ecological teaching and research. Private philanthropies inaugurated grants programs designed to promote the idea. In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon approved funding for United States participation in the International Biological Programme, an effort to develop comprehensive models for understanding ecosystems. In 1974, the National Science Foundation launched a longterm, generous grants program to promote the idea.

Then, with the publication of Barry Commoner’s 1971 bestseller, The Closing Circle, the ecosystem idea captured the public imagination. The earth, conservationists decided, was a machine, a computer, a net! Preservation was saving all the cogs! Since ecosystem instability threatened humanity, it was thought, biological diversity must be protected by reestablishing “pre-Columbian” conditions by isolating threatened habitat from human interference. To this end, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” Soon this idea would infuse the rest of federal preservation laws and policies.

The simplicity of this idea was seductive, and its use of mathematics gave it the patina of respectability—establishing, as Bowler observes, “a more ‘scientific’ image for ecology.” Yet this “science” was only skin deep. “Ecologists’ increasing reliance on the physical sciences and engineering for theory, mathematical approaches, concepts, models and metaphors,” biologist Daniel B. Botkin wrote, “led to an increasingly sophisticated growth of mathematical theory (formal models) that required and led to exact equilibria, and to a world view of nature as the great machine. These foundations led to an untenable situation: the predominant, accepted ecological theories asserted that natural, undisturbed populations and ecological communities . . . would achieve constancy in abundance, an assertion that became inconsistent with new observations.”

Underneath, the same old monism and holism prevailed. The “modern” ecosystem idea was merely Haeckel’s and Clements’ metaphysics dressed in the fancy clothing of mathematics. Natural change was still deemed to be directed toward the goal of stability, only now “energy” had replaced “spirit” as the driving force. And these replacements were incapable of transforming abstract philosophy into hard science.

Meanwhile, the empirical evidence was revealing that the idea of a stable, self-regulating ecosystem was fundamentally flawed. Random disturbance, not permanence or order, seems to govern nature. Left alone, biological communities do not tend toward equilibrium, but lurch wildly, propelled by rapid shifts in species composition, climate, and other conditions. As paleogeographer Cathy Whitlock wrote, “No millennium has been exactly like any other during the last 20,000 years.” Therefore, “conservation efforts that emphasize the preservation of communities or vegetation types will probably be unsuccessful because future climate changes quite likely will dismantle the community or vegetation type of concern.” And one of these natural agents of change is humanity. The vaunted “original and unchanging pre-settlement” conditions never existed. Rather than a forested Garden of Eden untouched by human hands, the pre-Columbian landscape was an ever-changing human artifact.

Most experts on prehistory agree that Native American hunting and burning radically altered the landscape before the first settlers arrived, and that forests, rather than shrinking, are perhaps more extensive in modern times than before Columbus landed. As University of Wisconsin geographer William M. Denevan observed, “the Native American landscape of the early sixteenth century was a humanized landscape almost everywhere. Populations were large, forest composition had been modified, grasslands had been created, wildlife disrupted, and erosion was severe in places. Earthworks, roads, fields, and settlements were ubiquitous.”

Ecological historian Charles Kay agrees: “The modern concept of wilderness as areas without human influence is a myth.” The pre-Columbian continent, says Kay, “was not a ‘wilderness’ waiting to be discovered, instead it was home to tens of millions of aboriginal peoples before European-introduced diseases decimated their numbers.” These peoples “structured entire plant and animal communities” by limiting wildlife populations with their hunting and “purposefully modifying the vegetation with fire.” Game, relentlessly hunted, was often scarce, and vegetation, rather than consisting of mature forest, was constantly renewed by frequent aboriginal burning. Only animals such as bison, whose migrating herds periodically escaped pursuing Indians, persisted in relatively large numbers.

Clearly, these ecosystem models were intended not to reflect nature but to support a theory of value. They suggested that nature ought to prefer stability, ought to be self-regulating, ought to prefer diversity. As philosopher Carl Hempel observed in 1958, when a scientist says that something is necessary for the “survival of group or organism” these words may have “the deceptive appearance of clarity” but are unavoidably value-laden. “For when we speak of biological needs or requirements . . . we construe these, not as conditions of just the barest survival but as conditions of persistence in, or return to, a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ state, or to a state in which the system is a ‘properly functioning whole.'” Thus “there is definite danger that different investigators will use the concept of functional prerequisite . . . with valuational overtones corresponding to their diverse conceptions of what are the most ‘essential’ characteristics of ‘genuine’ survival for a system of the kind under consideration.”

Theories of self-regulating ecosystems cannot, therefore, even in principle, distinguish fact from value. To understand a thing, according to such reasoning, is to know how that thing ought to behave within the system. It reflects a teleological view of nature not unlike medieval Aristotelianism, which had insisted on knowing the “proper ends” of things. Equating equilibrium and biodiversity with value-laden expressions such as “ecological health” and “resiliency,” systems ecologists slid between fact and value, science and advocacy, because their paradigm did not allow them to tell the difference.

In this way, ecosystem advocates have emerged as the high priests of a new morality. Jerry Franklin, former president of the Ecological Society of America and leader of “New Forestry” science, laces his work with emotive references to the “integrity of our forest and stream ecosystems” and exhorts his readers to “adopt a forest ethic” and to “approach forest ecosystems with the respect that their complexity and beauty deserve.” Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson saturates his writing with ethical exhortations—touting the “intrinsic values of organic diversity,” demanding that a “practical ethic” is “urgently needed” and that “it is time to invent moral reasoning of a new and more powerful kind.” As Bowler says about such ecological reasoning, “We can no longer see science as the source of value free information. . . . The use of scientific ideas to uphold social values has been so obvious in this area that more perceptive scientists have given up pretending that they have a method for gathering purely objective knowledge.”

Since America’s preservation policies are based on this flawed idea of the self-regulating ecosystem, they are, in effect, aimed at restoring and preserving conditions that never existed and never could exist. By seeking to do the impossible—stop change by insulating biological systems from human influence—they are actually achieving the exact opposite result—bringing about alterations to the landscape that imperil countless creatures.

Rather than achieving “preservation,” efforts to insulate biota from disruption spells catastrophe for many species whose survival requires either disturbed habitats or young (“early successional”) rapidly changing, biological communities. In Mendocino County, the Lotus Blue Butterfly apparently went extinct recently, two scientists reported, “due to a decline in early successional habitat supporting its principal host plant lotus formosissimus.” In Oregon, the Silverspot Butterfly, which thrived in pre-Columbian times when native American burning sustained its preferred grasslands, was declared endangered as the absence of human-caused fires allowed forests to encroach on its territory. In New York, the Karner Blue Butterfly remains at risk for similar reasons. In Texas, black-capped vireos have become endangered, as too much protection destroys its preferred habitat of oaks, sumacs, and shrubbery—conditions which, before European settlement, had been sustained by burning and soil erosion. And in wilderness areas, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks throughout the country, spreading old growth forests are decimating the habitat of countless other creatures that depend on early successional conditions.

Meanwhile, overly protected forests are dying of old age, thus creating what the National Commission on Wildfires described in 1994 as “a fire environment so disaster-prone in many areas that it will periodically and tragically overwhelm our best efforts at fire prevention and suppression.” Nationally, deer are five times more numerous than when Columbus landed, and are pushing endangered plants to the brink of extinction. In the West, overpopulated elk are destroying willow and aspen that sustain a host of creatures, from beaver to grizzly bears. And thanks to overly abundant prey, predators have multiplied as well. In the Rockies, mountain lions are more numerous than at any other time in history. Not coincidentally, they are increasingly preying on pets and children. Lion assaults were ten times as frequent from 1970 to 1990 as between 1909 and 1932.

Because of the glaring flaws in the ecosystem idea and the disastrous consequences of policies based upon it, most scientists today would agree with environmental historian Donald Worster, who said in 1994 that “the ecosystem has receded in usefulness. . . . Nature should be regarded as a landscape of patches, big and little . . . changing continually through time and space, responding to an unceasing barrage of perturbations.” The New York Times summed up this new consensus among ecologists in 1990:

The concept of natural equilibrium long ruled ecological research and governed the management of such natural resources as forests and fisheries. It led to the doctrine, popular among conservationists, that nature knows best and that human intervention in it is bad by definition. . . . Now an accumulation of evidence has gradually led many ecologists to abandon the concept or declare it irrelevant, and others to alter it drastically. They say that nature is actually in a continuing state of disturbance and fluctuation. Change and turmoil, more than constancy and balance, is the rule. As a consequence, say many leaders in the field, textbooks will have to be rewritten and strategies of conservation and resource management will have to be rethought.

Unfortunately, little rethinking has occurred. For while critics of the self-regulating ecosystem idea may have won the intellectual battle, they are losing the policy war. The real popularity of this concept still lies in its usefulness in justifying social planning. By positing the need to “protect the stability of ecosystems,” the self-regulating ecosystem idea appears to support environmentalist calls for more federal control of land, justify an expanded role for government, and turn biologists into what writers Mark L. Plummer and Charles C. Mann have dubbed “ecological mandarins” empowered to tell the rest of us how to live.

Accordingly, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would now give highest priority to protecting “ecosystem stability” from “man-made stressors” that upset it. And last year, the Clinton administration offered its own “reforms” of the Endangered Species Act that will take “a new approach to preserving ecosystem health,” while Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon last year proposed the Ecosystem Management Act of 1995, establishing an Ecosystem Management Commission to “identify strategies for implementing ecosystem management.”

To administer the spreading empire, federal authorities have created Babylonian towers of bureaucracies, employing space age technology. This includes the National Biological Survey, which will feed information concerning “eco-regions” into a National Spatial Data Infrastructure, using a plan known as the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units and aided by a computer program called the Geographic Information System, which in turn includes both a National Wetlands Inventory and a program for identifying “holes” in biodiversity called “GAP analysis.”

In 1993, President Clinton unveiled the most ambitious “ecosystem management” plan so far. Dubbed “Option 9,” it would protect “old-growth forest ecosystems” by controlling economic and recreational activity in 24 million acres of public lands along the west slope of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. Yet while calling for a labyrinth of technical committees, planning teams, scientists, and agencies, its goal remains ancient mythology: to preserve “ecosystem stability” by restoring “pre-settlement conditions.” Option 9 would “restore” old-growth forests until they cover 65 percent of the region, even though solid evidence suggests that these mature trees covered only 5 to 38 percent of the Northwest during the last thousand years, and that today’s “blanket” may very well surpass prehistoric averages.

As the citizens of Libby, Montana, discovered, planners, refusing to be diverted by mere contrary evidence, are spreading their net eastward. The ink was not dry on Option 9 before Clinton extended it, launching a similar program for forests on the east slope of the Cascades in 1993 and then in 1994 initiating the Upper Columbia River Basin plan that reaches into Montana. And given the bipartisan support for such grand schemes, this is just the beginning. Since ecosystems are fictional entities with no exact boundaries, there is little to stop the juggernaut before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. To paraphrase Keynes, there is nothing so dangerous as an attractive, but false, idea.