This is one of those quotes that applies to so many different areas of life, it bears mentioning. This is NOT a pesticide debate. I am unequivocally opposed to pesticides. Spraying our crops is but one example of human intervention and the responsibility one assumes upon intervening in natural processes.
Let’s just get to the quote and then I’ll discuss a bit after. Before we intervene in Nature, let’s consider what we’re REALLY getting ourselves into:
This principle applies to any system, be it agricultural, ecological, physiological, or social. An ‘intervenor’ stands outside an existing system and doesn’t respect or understand how the system works. The intervenor therefore interferes in the system’s healthy functioning, sometimes unknowingly or for fun or profit, but often in an attempt to ‘fix’ perceived problems.
The unintended consequences of this intervention throw the system out of balance, disrupt essential functions, and increase the system’s reliance on intervention to maintain balance. The intervenor then bears the burden of maintaining the system’s integrity. If the intervenor does not take on this responsibility, the system degenerates. Even if the intervenor does take on the responsibility, the system’s ability to maintain itself may still degenerate. The interventions required to maintain balance thus often become increasingly intensive.
The illusion of separation and lack of understanding caused increased work, reduced richness, and the loss of natural capital.
A good example of shifting the burden is the use of pesticides in agriculture. A farmer perceives a pest problem and intervenes in the system by spraying chemicals. This kills not only the ‘target’ pest but also other insects and microbes in the soil and vegetation. The ability of the system to maintain balance and control on its own then decreases. So another pest problem crops up, the farmer sprays again, and the cycle continues.
For a time things seem better. In reality they get worse and worse. More pesticides, and stronger ones, become necessary over time. If the farmer stops spraying, the pests will increase out of control, and he or she will lose the crop, so addiction has set in. It takes time, effort, and understanding to rebuild a self-maintaining system. However, it takes much more effort to keep intervening over the long run.
Our interventions in the forests of eastern North America occurred for different reasons, but the results are the same. Disrupted ecological function has reduced the ecosystem’s ability to maintain itself. In this case, however, we have not taken on the burden of caring for the community.
The resulting declines in natural capital have been enormous. By gardening responsibly, each in our own yards, we can rebuild healthy ecological systems in our neighborhoods. By designing and creating forest gardens that mimic forest ecosystems, we can learn how to rebuild and reinhabit a self-maintaining landscape.
So spraying crops is an obvious example of human intervention lacking foresight. But the principles apply to situations all over. As we embark on this homesteading lifestyle, every single vine we pull and tree we cut changes the landscape. Microclimates are made and destroyed in a single moment. And with each choice, we bear the responsibility of maintaining the systems we have altered. We typically lack comprehensive knowledge on the soil food web and other intertwining systems which are impeded by our attempts to help and make a better world.
So as we proceed, we are taking things slowly. Our hope is to make small mistakes and learn from them wherever possible.
P.S. I don’t want to be misunderstood, so let’s clearly define our terms. “Intervene” is the positive version of “interfere”. A person intervenes with good motives and intentions. A person interferes from a more critical perspective. They are less concerned with having a good outcome than with having their say.