why unruly?

This text was originally written for the Symbiotica Adaptation website and the Unruly ecologies: Biodiversity and art symposium. Friday 26 November to Sunday 28 November 2010 at the Western Australian Museum, Perth Cultural Centre, Law Lecture Theatre, The University of Western Australia and Lake Clifton, Mandurah


‘Ecology’ means different things to different people. Sometimes it seems that there is a great difference between today’s scientific ecology and the way ecology is understood in environmentalism and popular culture.

Nature is popularly cast as ‘red in tooth and claw’ or as Mother Nature and many people believe in an implicit ‘balance of nature’. What happens when these metaphors are incomplete descriptions of how plants, animals and environments behave? What happens if the story is more complex than this? What new metaphors might be needed?

Many environmental and eco- artists support a ‘balanced’ nature, favouring harmony over chaos and change. Plant ecologist Frederic Clements developed the idea of a climax community in the early 1900s. In this case, when a community of plants starts growing a succession of species appear, until a final self-sustaining ‘balanced’ climax state is reached. More recently, elements of the Gaia hypothesis suggests that the Earth may act as co-ordinated systems in order to maintain balance. In conservation the concept of a balance of nature led to the idea that nature was best left to its own devices, and that human intervention into it was by definition unacceptable.

What ecologists have found out since, is that this is not consistent with the way ecosystems behave in nature. Most ecologists (and some aggressively so) would support a changing and unbalanced nature. The ecosystems we live in are configured (and reconfigured) by extreme events such as drought and fire. No ecosystem is left free from different forms of disturbance long enough to become truly balanced, and the very diversity of species and connections means that systems are dynamic.

Ecosystems are complex adaptive systems with many linkages and feedback loops. Ecosystems change and because they are complex we cannot predict the behaviour of a system just by looking at the individual parts or single interactions. It appears that we can never predict with absolute certainty what will happen to any intervention in the system. Ecosystems may have regimes or states that are more stable but they can cross a threshold or flip from one regime to another. Major changes are not incremental or linear but lurching and non-linear.


muddy footprints at Lake Clifton


Why unruly ecologies? Different understandings of ecology coexist in society today and the symposium aims to bring together these different viewpoints, framed around biodiversity and biodiversity loss. If change is not linear but dynamic, chaotic, messy and negotiated, how do social and ecological systems intermesh? Unruly ecologies are difficult to control and demand that we be more accepting of change — more resilient. Some (eg Walker and Salt, 2006) highlight the need for learning, experimentation, and locally developed ‘rules’. Artists interested in action are developing new strategies and are raising new questions about how social change might be successful (or not).

All the while, complexity means that species can be both autonomous and indifferent to our needs, whilst spending their lives responding to the changes that we bring.

Walker, B. H., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience thinking: Sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.


The symbiotica adaptation website, with details of the adaptation project and its online survey of biodiversity and art (featuring over 50 artists worldwide) and extensive references to online resources, no longer exists. However there are links to the artist talks on the Saturday, here.