Daniel B. Botkin Essay

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The ecologist Daniel B. Botkin has worked and published on forest and wildlife ecology for many decades, and developed one of the first computer simulation models in ecology. His best known work is Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century (1990). Botkin forcefully argues against the myth of the balance of nature, which he claims has permeated environmental thinking since antiquity. Illustrated by many case studies, Botkin shows that this balance has never existed, and that “wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change.” It is not only impossible to preserve unchanging “natural” landscapes, but attempts to do so can actually have disastrous consequences. Thus at Tsavo National Park in Kenya, the elephant population first grew to completely destroy the existing tree population, then collapsed itself after a devastating drought.

Botkin does not argue that all environmental management should be abandoned, or that all environmental change is desirable. Rather, “the key to a new but wise management of nature is to accept changes that are natural in kind and in frequency, to pick out the melodies from the noise.” This, he believes, will be possible through more careful data collection and more sophisticated analysis and modeling that take complexity into account.

Disequilibrium ideas are further explored in all of Botkin’s subsequent writings, including historical studies of Lewis, Clark, and Thoreau’s nature observations as well as a series of consultancy reports. They also influence his thinking on climate change. While deeply concerned about the effects of climate change on biodiversity, Botkin has pointed out that predictions about these effects may be misleading if based on assumptions of otherwise stable conditions.

Botkin’s accessible writing and many other activities have played a key role in spreading disequilibrium ecology beyond the science of ecology, amongst both social scientists concerned with the environment and environmental management practitioners. In the social sciences, where popular equilibrium thinking has been quite persistent, many different authors are beginning to draw on Botkin and new ecology ideas, in particular in political ecology and environmental history. In environmental management, there are several hurdles that make the translation of disequilibrium theory into practice difficult. For one, conservation continues to be dominated by territorial approaches, the preservation of whole landscapes, which hinder a radical reorientation. If there is no longer a given “natural” landscape, decisions over what should be preserved become even more political. Moreover, there is, in most places, simply not the kind of long-term data available that would be necessary for proper disequilibrium management-in fact, as Botkin himself has frequently pointed out, there is often astonishingly little ecological data altogether used in environmental management.

Having said this, Botkin’s suggestions for a different kind of ecological science and management are now widely discussed in the conservation world and have been integrated into practice in some instances. One example is the adoption of let-burn policies on natural fire disturbances, in which Botkin’s work has been very influential. Another is Botkin’s own study on salmon in Oregon, which led to the adoption of a different management approach.


  1. Botkin, Discordant Harmonies. A New Ecology for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 1990);
  2. Botkin, Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark (Putnam, 1995);
  3. Botkin, No Man’s Garden: Thoreau and A New Vision for Civilization and Nature (Shearwater Books, 2000);
  4. Lindsey Gillson and Katherine J. Willis, “As Earth’s Testimonies Tell: Wilderness Conservation in a Changing World,” Ecology Letters (v.7, 1998);
  5. Ian Scoones, “New Ecology and the Social Sciences: What Prospects for a Fruitful Engagement?” Annual Review of Anthropology (v.28, 1999).

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