Nature’s Limits

tomatoes_babyBy Paul Basken

The gorgeous red tomatoes, piled high in the hot West African sunshine, suggested a huge success.

Just two years after the region’s economically vital crop was decimated by a fly-borne virus, university experts found a gene that conferred resistance and bred it into the tomato seeds.

The science was so efficient that the tomatoes quickly overwhelmed the local canning facility in Mali’s capital, Bamako. But in the same two years, European buyers found other providers. Mounds of tomatoes, and with them the labor of numerous poor African villagers, sat and rotted.

“At that point in 2007,” says one of the researchers, Molly Miller Jahn, then with Cornell University and now a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “I just said, I am never doing this again.”

By failing to take full account of all aspects of what the community and its crop needed to rebound—to be “resilient”—the researchers and their U.S.-government sponsors failed the people they had come to help, Jahn says.

Michael R. Springborn has seen the ways that diverse factors affect resilience. An assistant professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California at Davis, he works on helping to save the chinook salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River before heading out to the ocean.

He has found that strategies that help the most salmon arrive at the ocean during optimal feeding conditions can give the population a sharp boost. But helping to space their arrival may be the better long-term strategy for ensuring a resilient population, given the likelihood of seasonal variations in those optimal conditions.

Stephen R. Palumbi, a professor of biology at Stanford University, is trying to find the key to resilience of coral threatened by a warming Pacific Ocean. A crucial breeding ground at the bottom of the food chain for fish and other species, coral is dying off at alarming rates, but a patch in American Samoa is faring surprisingly well. The key to its resilience may be genetic, says Palumbi, which raises hopes that traits found in the Samoan reef could be incorporated into other corals.

Forty years after the ecologist C.S. Holling coined the term “resilience,” the concept appears to have its most solid grounding in his discipline. Ecologists looking for the best way to manage natural resources have adopted Holling’s notion that they should develop and encourage systems that, in his words, “can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take.”

To do that, they attempt to keep options open, view ecosystems in the context of their regions, and emphasize variability.

Agriculture in the United States provides good examples, says F. Stuart Chapin III, a professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Much of the corn and wheat planted domestically has been bred for maximum efficiency in terms of grain volume, water use, and disease resistance. That, however, leaves the crops with little natural variability, meaning a new design is needed each time a pest finds a way to break through the genetic defenses, Chapin says.

“So they’re always sort of working against the laws of nature,” he says.

There is, of course, a belief that the natural world knows best what it needs, and that people shouldn’t be trying to shape it at all. As such, theories that value resilience automatically have at least one fundamentally subjective component: Researchers and policy makers generally don’t see the earth that predates humans as an optimal original state. “Obviously the best thing for the environment is to kill ourselves,” Jahn says.

Read the entire Chronicle of Higher Education article, here.

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