I’m writing today to explain to you my understanding of the term “biosphere stability”, which I hope will become a concept more often discussed in public debate and discourse in the field of ecological sustainability.
I want to begin by framing it for you from the following perspective:
- On average, over the course of time in the range of hours and days, to decades, hundreds or thousands of years, through to multiples of millions of years, our planet goes through a range of environmental, geological & astronomical cycles that are roughly predictable within a range of consequences, as they relate to internal changes in the planet itself, and external changes in our own star system … and while there may be also changes coming from beyond our star system, those will be of a generally less influential intensity, that they can be generally ignored.
- We can think of all these ranges of variability as being superimposed, one on top of the other, with the more rare, random and extreme events (such as asteroid impact) appearing as anomalous spikes in that data record.
- THUS: within these ranges of variability, we can talk about environmental sustainability and biosphere stability, in the context of that which we can expect between now and when our star dies in a few billion years time.
Now, what is biosphere stability? In simple terms it is the planetary scale stability of ecosystems with respect to the aforementioned variability of ecological conditions.
Certain things that have occurred in the past on our planet will not occur again, as they relate to a period of geological history that is now over and no longer cyclical, though it could be said that modern cyclical conditions are the geoevolutionary children of those past (deceased) parental geological cycles … for example: when our planet had a more molten surface, the rocks still cycled, but as the planet has cooled, those processes have changed dramatically, and while ultimately based on the same principles, they would not be recognisable as such to many other than astronomers, geologists & physicists.
But let’s just focus on the last few hundred million years, since the evolution of multicellular oxygen producing and breathing life forms.
If we look at the adaptation, behaviour and functionality of species, what we see is that species which cooperate in symbiosis (mutually beneficial relationships) absolutely dominate the tree of life. Now this may come as a surprise to you, because on TV it is sexier to promote competition between species, and this helps to justify the social narrative of human civilisation, because people can point to nature and cherry pick the instances which argue their case that it’s perfectly natural to fuck everyone and everything else over in competition: “survival of the fittest” as they say … BUT the reality is far from this.
Here is the reality you probably were not taught:
- No multicellular life of any kind as we know it would exist without cooperation and symbiosis;
- No multicellular oxygen producing life would exist;
- No multicellular oxygen breathing life would exist.
Just take a moment to take that in … everything you know about life on Earth would not exist at all, were it not for cooperation.
The same cannot be said for competition … multicellular life may be different, but it would still exist without the completion.
So what has all this got to do with ecological sustainability and biosphere stability?
Well, first things first, let’s go have a look at those spikes we mentioned earlier in the environmental variability data for the planet. When a big sudden change occurs that is not part of the usual variability, such as an asteroid impact, it tends toward being the kind of thing that cannot be survived, as species are vaporised and there’s no evolutionary defence against vaporisation … except one; that defence being total biodiversity and biodiversity density … the more diverse the species on the planet, the more likely something survives in an adjacent area, or if the impact even has significant global consequences, then biodiversity ensures something will survive somewhere.
In past extinction events life has always bounced back (eventually), with the time taken depending on the severity. This extreme example can be scaled down to demonstrate how biodiversity helps ecosystems survive smaller scale harsh conditions. In the case of bushfires, adjacent areas can repopulate the fire ravaged area, and in drought conditions you can get the canopy of trees guarding against evaporation of water, which aids each other, as well as other species.
Robust biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient to short term (non-extinction level) spikes, so long as conditions return to the normal preferred range of variability, or so long as the change is slow enough to allow the ecosystem to adapt.
A species that acts purely in its own interests with disregard to all others, has a lower probability of survival over longer periods of evolutionary time, because it undermines the stability of that robust ecosystem that protects it from environmental spikes of increasing scale, intensity and duration. If that ecosystem fails, it will fail too.
For this reason we see very few purely parasitic creatures beyond a very small scale, they simply evolve themselves out of existence … and as we increase physical scale, parasitic creatures disappear entirely to be replaced by predatory creatures (semi-parasitic), with all other large scale creatures being herbivorous consumers (which used to roam the Earth in herds of millions before we killed them all), filter feeders (marine creatures mainly), plus decomposers, pollinators etc., or producers (plants).
So the point I’m trying to make here is that cooperation, symbiosis, and moderated competition – NOT unbridled competition – are what dominate ecosystems, because unbridled competition is not conducive to long term survival. When environmental conditions are harsh, competition becomes necessary at an individual survival level sure; but when environmental conditions are bountiful, rampant competition leads to a reduction in that abundance – ie: it is self-defeating.
A species acts both individually and collectively as a population to reduce entropy, and species act in symbiosis within ecosystems for the same purpose. Predation and parasitism cause externalised increase in entropy, therefore they’re only proportionally sustainable by small ratio to the rest of the ecosystem in which they reside.
So let’s take these ideas and apply them to what we see going on in the world around us:
- Deforestation and habitat loss
- Desertification and environmental change including droughts
- Biodiversity loss (species extinction and population reduction)
- Ecological pollution and toxification
… what we see are conditions where an increasing amount of environmental stress, is placed on the shoulders of an ever dwindling diversity and number of species, whom inhabit ever smaller, less robust ecosystems.
- What do you think is going to happen the next time one of these ecosystems experiences a severe (or even moderate) environmental spike in its usual range of variability?
- What do you think will happen when that variability changes faster and more dramatically than ever before since the last extinction event?
With a lack of robustness to withstand the changes, we get a further spike in extinction rates, and we get further ecosystem collapse.
Now … scale that up to the entire planet:
- What happens when we cross a critical threshold which would previously have been survivable – even easily – but only because we previously had those robust and bioverse ecosystems to support each other and handle the stress?
At some point, the planet can no longer sustain a self-regulating cycle capable of supporting mammals and other sufficiently large & complex life.
Human beings are behaving as a purely parasitic / predatory creature, armed with high technology to force that unsustainable behaviour onto the entire biosphere, and it is only the sheer scale of that biosphere that allowed it to withstand the assault for so long … but it has long since past its ability to cope, and thus we see it rapidly degrading in terms of biodiversity loss, and the degradation of ecological conditions.
In order to bring back biosphere stability, human beings need to regulate their behaviour, and in order to achieve this without social injustice, we can only do so via a completely different economic paradigm … I would also argue that attempting to do it without such a paradigm shift, will fail – and there are many reasons to argue this, which you’ll see in the other articles I’ve written.