Our news media have been overwhelmed since September 11 with stories about the human tragedy and far-reaching consequences of this terrorist act. Except for local coverage, few accounts of natural disasters have reached the top of the news page, but if we looked a little deeper, we would see stories about floods in Algeria, Cuba and Central America, devastating wind storms in Asia and ecosystem fires in Tennessee and surrounding states, natural disasters with an adverse impact on wildlife, humans and community infrastructure.
The spin on such natural disaster stories is always focussed on the human pathos and sense of losses, both economic and personal, arising from the situation. But, if we looked a little deeper into these natural disasters, could we see the event as a positive process in any way?
The answer is yes according to University of North Carolina professor Seth R. Reice. In his book The Silver Lining: The Benefits of Natural Disasters, Reice sets out to explain that:
"Counter to popular notion, fostered by the media, that disturbances are only disasters and tragedies, the reality is quite the opposite."
His stated goal in writing The Silver Lining is "aimed at bringing the fresh insights of disturbance ecology to a broader, nontechnical audience."
For years, the prime premise of ecology has been the equilibrium paradigm which states that "stability" produces healthier ecosystems than does sudden, sweeping change. But many ecologists are now seeing this as a flawed perception. Close examination of natural disasters, which, says Reice, should more properly be called natural disturbances, has lead to a new, radically different model of how nature operates. The emerging "new" paradigm in ecological science -- disturbance ecology -- is founded on the premise that disturbances such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires help create and maintain the biodiversity that benefits both the ecosystem and ourselves.
Reice contends that adhering to the old equilibrium paradigm has fostered government policies in the US and elsewhere that have done the environment more harm than good. He cites the US Forest Service's Smoky the Bear campaign against natural forest fires and the Army Corps of Engineers' flood prevention program as the best known examples of misguided thinking under the equilibrium paradigm.
After a brief introduction to the background and principles of disturbance ecology, the author uses three specific disturbance types -- damaging winds, fire and flood -- as examples of how disturbances help to maintain healthy natural communities and environments. Disturbances to an ecosystem create more new opportunities and habitats in which diverse species can take hold and thrive than they destroy, and thus enhance biodiversity, and paradoxically some degree of stability, through the agents of radical change.
"We must develop an ecological worldview....to appreciate not only nature's regular patterns such as the changing of the seasons but also the irregular ones--the untidy, dangerous occurrences: the disturbances and natural disasters....Fires and floods, hurricanes and droughts are part of the natural fabric of nature....We must accept that disturbances are a natural, vital part of life, despite their destructiveness."
This book shows that every tornado, every forest fire's billowing cloud of smoke, every flood's inundation of the land provides tremendous benefits for the ecosystem it impacts. To allow nature to function uninhibited, we humans must adapt to nature, even at the cost of restricting some land from encroachment. [Could the book's message also apply in the long run to the impact of unnatural disasters on social environments? I believe so.]
In The Silver Lining, Seth Reice reaches his stated goals quite successfully in my opinion. The text is clearly written for any lay reader with an interest in ecology and the environment to follow. His examples, many from his own research, hit the mark; the illustrations, though sparse, are illuminating of the concept under discussion. For those interested in natural disasters and local, regional, or global environmental health, The Silver Lining is highly recommended. You may never look at "natural disasters" in the same light after reading this book.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
November 15, 2001
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