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Wolves As Climate Effect Mitigators

The April 2005 edition of PLoS Biology has an article (released to the web 3/15) describing how Gray Wolves help the Yellowstone regional ecosystem better ride out episodes of climate change. Many predators are also (or even largely) scavengers, but gray wolves are not. It turns out that gray wolf predation patterns actually help scavengers; without gray wolf kills, many scavenger species are unable to make it through shorter winters (when prey species are less likely to die from starvation themselves and can move around more). Wolves act as a "safety net" for scavengers in times of environmental change.

While interesting in its own right, this story points to the larger issue of recognizing changing the components of a system can have unanticipated (and unintended) consequences, especially when the system is under pressure. Education in how systems -- particularly natural systems -- function, and an emphasis on systemic over reductionist thinking, should be a fundamental part of 21st century schooling.

My copy of Ken Boulding's The World As A Total System is a bit ragged these days. What texts -- newer ones, if possible -- would you suggest to people who wish to have a better understanding of systems, particularly ecosystems?


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Comments (12)

We definitely need to replace out Newtonian approach (isolate each element of a system) by a more holistic one.

Stefan Jones:

There's a furious debate right now over reintroducing wolves to Oregon.

I wish I could say that stories like this would be a reason to open the doors, but the debate is at the "limp-wristed tree-hugging coastal types hate us ranchers" level.

Daniel N Smith Jr.:

I couldn't agree more. "Systems thinking" is easy to say, but very difficult to describe in a real way. Most of what I have found relates to business strategy and computer modeling. I have just ordered the "Systems Thinking Playbook" from the Sustainability Institute (www.sustainer.org) "A collection of 30 short games which teach systems thinking and its related disciplines." I am excited by the possibility of introducing students (and myself!) to the beauty and complexity of dynamic systems.

Although not a 'natural systems' resource per se, I would recommend "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander as a way to begin to understand 'things' not in the traditional, reductionist sense, but as they relate to the whole (that was not a very good description of one of my favorite books, sorry).

It is almost as though we, as a modern society, have been able to focus to such an incredible level of detail we have lost the more gentle, blurry-but-complete view of the world often ascribed to indigenous peoples.

Lasers are powerful, but not when you want to see.

That's a damn good line!

Jamais Cascio:

I agree! Daniel Smith, is that one original to you? It's a terrific bit of phrasing.

absolutely, positively, 'panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems', edited by lance gunderson and c.s. holling. nicole posted on it here awhile back, if I recall. totally fucking amazing, paradigm-creating stuff

Aldo Leopold, Howard Odum and G.F. Gause are "ancestors." Reading the case study of predator bounties on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona is helpful. Not an ecology book, but a magnificent training in System Dynamics is "Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World," by John D. Sterman. "Gaia's Body," by Tyler Volk, is an illuminating read.

(Disclosure: John and Tyler are friends. I don't get a commission.)

A great way to develop a sense of ecological systems is to engage in them: trying growing a diverse organic garden, manage a woodlot, forage for mushrooms, hunt or fish if that's your bent.

Great saying, Daniel Smith! Thanks!

Please read simply the best intuitive view of the 4 basic cycles, sun, water, mineral (poop loop) and community and how to test our decisions thru a waterfall of questions that easily reveal our shortsightedness, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield, available thru holisticmanagement.org.

Pattern Language (.com) is truely essential for remembering the archetypes of our lives.


I worked on this wolf study with the author in Yellowstone a few years ago. Kudos to Wilmers (and Jamais) for bringing climate change into the conversation about wolves and scavenger food web dynamics!

Some good books on different aspects of systems thinking:

Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change editted by Fikret Berkes, Johan Colding, and Carl Folke. Is a book at the cutting edge of thinking about how people produce, cope with, and adapt to ecological change. It is a bit more technical and expensive, but its accessible and really interesting.

Limits to Growth: the 30 year update by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, clearly presents a lot of systems thinking ideas and links them to global sustainability. The book is very clearly written, and it is worth seeing what this book actually says, rather than what people claim the original "limits to growth" book said.

For a cutting edge, integrated overview of current scientific understanding of the state of the Earth from a systems perspective, Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure provides a synthesis of research from the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme.

Also, Tim Allen has co-authored a number of good books on systems theory. Including, Towards a Unified Ecology, Supply Side Sustainability, and Hierarchy: perspectives for ecological complexity.

Daniel N Smith Jr.:

I've been playing with the 'lightbulbs to laser beams' line of thinking for awhile. The more we engage in the tunnel vision of reductionist thinking, the more we lose in our ability to see on the periphery. Its not that one aspect or view is more important than another, its just a different part of the whole.

David Foley makes an important point. By engaging in natural systems we can get a sense of the ebb-flow-pause-ebb-flow-pause-ebb... pattern of life. One of the reasons systems dynamics is so hard (for me) to understand is its cyclical nature. Beginning and end are completely arbitrary. Contrast that with how we are teaching science (my field). Textbooks still ask "where does the water cycle begin?"

Ted Wolf:

Donella Meadows was the best contemporary voice for systems thinking for a non-technical audience. At the time of her death, she was working on a college enviro science textbook written from a systems perspective -- now wouldn't that be a good resource!

Until the textbook's published, in addition to the Limits to Growth 30-year update mentioned above, Dana's book Beyond the Limits and her collection of newspaper columns The Global Citizen are worth seeking out and sharing with friends, school libraries, etc. A new syndicated columnist writing in the mainstream with a systems view would be a very good thing.


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