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Home » Ecosystems, Global Change, Sustainability

Botkin’s biosphere: ahead of its time

Submitted by on August 19, 2010 - 12:57 am
botkin“We cannot expect nature to remain in a constant condition and thus provide us with a simple solution to the questions of what is “natural” and what is desirable.” (Botkin 1990, p 181) . Just one of many great thoughts in Daniel Botkin‘s 1990 classic: Discordant Harmonies: a New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. I’d seen Botkin’s Environmental Science textbook, and decided to read this book after it was recommended by a colleague. I only wish I had read it sooner!

This book is a great read. Full of classic thoughts by the great thinkers of history, it stays down to earth with an abundance of vivid examples from the field. Better still, much of it revolves around revelations from the computer age by a classically trained naturalist- a seeming contradiction resolved by Botkin’s free-ranging yet comprehensive vision of environmental science. An education for the well-educated, the writing is both eloquent and fully referenced throughout. Now that I’ve read it, I’m ready to promote it- this book was ahead of its time and is more timely than ever.

I especially enjoyed the book’s emphasis on how much our perspective on nature, both scientific and public, creates our understanding of the biosphere and how best to interact with it- whether it be the classic view that humans only disturb the balance of nature, or the emerging call for planetary stewardship to lead our dynamic earth system towards a desirable future without natural boundaries to guide us. As he notes: “The way to achieve a harmony with nature is first to break free of old metaphors”… so that we can lift the veils that prevent us from accepting what we observe”. (p. 189) and “We need to instrument the cockpit of the biosphere… to observe nature as it is, not as we imagine it to be.”(p. 192 ).

Botkin recognizes “three images of nature- the machine, the creature, and the divine” (p. 12). These are well evidenced, but I am convinced that a fourth image is emerging: nature as our creation- as our new global garden. While Botkin is clearly moving us in this direction, stating that “A harmony between ourselves and nature depends on- indeed requires- modern technological tools to teach us about the Earth and to help us manage wisely”… (p. 189), it is not clear that this goes beyond the recently popular belief that the only safe operating space for humanity is the natural boundaries of the Earth system prior to human influence. I would argue that we passed these boundaries and entered the Anthropocene centuries, if not millennia, ago- and there is no going back.

The book finishes with sound advice: “The first task that confronts us is to clarify our goals”…“We must distinguish between merely the persistence of some kinds of life and the maintenance of a biosphere that is desirable to human beings.” (p. 182). “Nature in the 21st century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.:” (p. 193). Hear, hear!

Highly recommended.


Botkin, Daniel. 1990. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press, USA, Oxford, UK 241pp.

Buy the Book online at Amazon.com

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