If any of our readers are jonesin’ for some denier takes on environmental myths, there’s a new post in “BigPicNews.com,” which is the rebranded “NoFrakkingConsensus” blog run by Donna LaFramboise. (You might, but probably don’t, remember LaFramboise for attacking the IPCC when AR4 came out.) The post references a book by former UC Santa Barbara biology professor Daniel Botkin, who, as Sou at HotWhopper explained back in 2014, is fully in denial about climate change and has “gone emeritus.”
In the post, LaFramboise quotes passages from Botkin that claim the concept of a “balance of nature” is a myth. Green groups use the phrase all the time, but LaFramboise and Botkin argue instead that there is no stable state of environmental affairs for human activity to throw off-kilter. (This position is somewhat odd for deniers to hold, given climate denial often invokes the balance of natural cycles to explain warming.)
There’s some truth to their claim. Ecosystems are vast and ever-changing, made up of not one single balance between predators and prey, or resources and population, but a fluid and shifting interplay. Nature abhors a vacuum, so niches are constantly being created and filled.
LaFramboise suggests enviros invoke the “balance of nature” because “it inflates humanity’s importance” and “casts us as directors of the play, and stars of the show.” But really, the concept does the opposite. It’s not that there’s a perfectly balanced seesaw we’re single-handedly tipping. It’s that human activity is disrupting a web of interactions, both chemical and biological, that have evolved over millions of years.
Humans are relative newcomers to a complex web of life; we’re less directors of the play than we are the slacker that showed up late to rehearsal and drunkenly knocked over the scenery. Taking the “balance of nature” metaphor literally, as Botkin does, would make it a myth. But that’s just another strawman because the phrase is an idiom, and as a metaphor, it has power.
The biggest movie of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War, is all about the metaphor (made literal) of the balance of nature and populations consuming natural resources. In doing so, the film taps into a long-running debate about population control and the environment, leading some conservative writers to cast environmentalists as genocidal, while other non-ideologues explain why it’s a toxic representation of the issue.
Thanos, the villain of the story, is on a quest to restore balance in the universe by cutting the population in half. He sees his actions as just: he’s seen what happens when a population consumes more than the natural resources of its habitat provides. Thanos is a representation of the most extreme answer to the question of how to deal with a growing population given finite resources.
What LaFramboise and Botkin are doing is pointing to the use of balance as a metaphor and pretending environmentalists use it literally. It’s a strawman that allows them to, for once, present an accurate take on science (that it’s much more complicated than humans on one side and nature on the other) and set up something of a rhetorical trap that portrays environmentalists as Thanos: on a misguided quest to restore a balance that never really existed.
And even though there’s a certain (ironic) embrace of Thanos’s approach among some online, there’s no doubt that wiping out life is hardly a balanced approach to the problem of natural resource depletion. Especially when even without the Infinity Stones, we have the power of technology to find new ways to use our resources more efficiently.