The Role of Scale in Ecological Changes
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Christine Johnson, May 2003.

            In his book Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington, Richard White examines the development of Whidbey and Camano Islands - a microcosm that illustrates the intertwining relationships between the various ways that land is used and environmental and social changes. Although he demonstrated that all people who have lived on the islands changed the environment based on their uses of the land and the technology they used, an important factor not explicitly addressed is scale. Scale is an important factor to consider in the relation between land-use, environment, and social change because many systems can only increase to a certain point before they must change simply due to their size.

            This idea is wonderfully illustrated by Gregory Bateson, who related the story of an imaginary horse, genetically engineered to be exactly double the size of a Clydesdale horse; the horse would be so heavy its legs would not support its weight, its internal temperature would be extremely high due to an improper volume to surface area ratio, and it would pant continuously in order to oxygenate its eight-fold larger body (Bateson, 1979, p. 56). Given this story as a backdrop, a reasonable question to ask is: is a similar process at work when changes such as population number reach a certain size? Do important critical points exist where a further increase will have dramatic effects upon the system under consideration? Chaos theory would seem to support this view, where even very simple systems are seen to have complex behavior that can change dramatically with small changes in certain parameters (Gleick, 1987, p. 71).  

            There are many uncertainties with respect to applying chaos theory to practical ecosystem problems. In most cases, the system must be reduced in scope to enable analysis, but this reduction in scope often obscures other possibly important factors that are outside the scope. Additionally, it is not known in most cases whether the particular system under consideration is behaving deterministically, stochastically, or chaotically, or a combination of them all (Schneider, 1997, p. 63). This is an indication that complex systems may elude our understanding, compounding the problem of predicting outcomes associated with different land uses and consequently, of creating a viable sustainable culture.

            The uncertainties regarding the effects of our actions coupled with technology also lead to a fairly clear conclusion – the reason we have not yet faced severe ecosystem problems as a species is because the population has heretofore been sufficiently small to support the growth of population and technologies, and all the changes they entailed. Equally clear is that the current trajectory of growth cannot continue indefinitely; problems related to population have already occurred where severe loss of habitat, over-predation by humans, and introduction of exotic species and diseases have occurred (Wilson, 1982, p. 253). The cost of this human expansion has been the extinction of species, changes in the species composition of ecosystems, and social deterioration associated with degraded environments, each of which is seen in the Island County example documented by White.

            Social and environmental changes that may result from an increasing Earth population are difficult to predict, but if the current trajectory persists in variables such as global temperature, it is all but certain that without a major decline in human-induced changes, perhaps as a result of both population decline and a reduction in the use of certain technologies, the supportive systems of the planet will be unable to provide a place where most can survive, much less live in a sustainable manner. What is necessary is an epistemology that recognizes that population cannot grow indefinitely, that size is an important system parameter, and that scaling cannot continue indefinitely in complex systems.





Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York, E.P. Dutton.


Schneider, S. H. (1997). Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose. New York, Basic Books.


Wilson, E. O. (1999). The Diversity of Life. New York, W.W. Norton & Company.


White, R. (1992). Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington. Seattle, University of Washington Press.

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