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Book: Discordant Harmonies

A New Ecology for the 21st Century

By Daniel B. Botkin

Considered by many to be the classic text of the environmental movement, Discordant Harmonies was the first book to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence.

Nature was believed to achieve a form and structure that would persist forever; if disturbed, it would recover, returning to that state of perfect balance.

In Discordant Harmonies, Daniel Botkin argues that natural ecological systems are constantly fluctuating and our plans, policies, and laws governing the environment must change to reflect this new understanding.

Considered ahead of their time in 1990, the ideas in Discordant Harmoniesare now timelier than ever. The belief in a balanced nature is alive and well, though those who hold it are constantly confronted by scientific evidence that stands in opposition.Global warming, acid rain, the depletion of forests, the polluting of our atmosphere and oceans–the threats to our environment are numerous, raising justifiable concern among most of us and genuine alarm in some. But as scientist Botkin argues in this provocative book, our ideas about nature are 4,000 years old, dominated by the ancient myth of the Balance of Nature. Indeed, our beliefs about nature have fallen well behind our knowledge. Even our “scientific” approaches to understanding nature and solving environmental problems are based on this belief, rather than on scientific fact. Discordant Harmonies tells stories about successes and failures in our attempts to solve environmental problems, and how new scientific understanding leads us to successes.

In Discordant Harmonies, Daniel Botkin combines his considerable expertise with the well-honed eye of the nature writer and a philosopher’s sense of how ideas shape our perceptions of reality to take us on a marvelous guided tour of the natural world. His method is to introduce a problem in our beliefs about nature by giving us a fascinating case study: of predator-prey relationships, of forests evolving over centuries, of species nearing extinction, of the ways our “protection” of nature has had surprising–and often disappointing–results. Botkin’s revealing case studies also highlight controversial present-day issues–like controlled burning in national forests, fishing and hunting quotas, and policy-making for management of natural resources. He looks at each of these cases in the light of past thinking and current research, revealing how old myths often blind us to the new technology and to the ways of thinking we need to solve our environmental problems. Above all, Botkin is concerned with redefining the relationship between human beings and nature, so that our needs can be met and the intricate systems of nature can persist.

Whether discussing moose herds on Isle Royale or Yosemite’s famous Mariposa Grove of Sequoias, Botkin writes vividly and insightfully about nature, challenging us to rethink some of our most cherished notions. Anyone who is concerned about the environment will find much here to ponder as well as the pleasure of meeting a stimulating and thoughtful mind at work.

Thesis of Discordant Harmonies
The ancient idea of the Balance of Nature is:

  • Nature undisturbed by people achieves a permanent form and structure that would remain for countless ages.
  • When disturbed by human action but then left alone, nature recovers to exactly the same balance it had before.
  • That balance is best for nature and for us. It is most diverse. It has the most organic matter.
  • Within this great balance is a great chain of being — a place for every creature and every creature is in its place.

The consequence of these ideas is that:

  • Nature is best without human intervention.
  • Only people are bad for nature.
  • People and nature are separate. What people do is unnatural.

Modern science demonstrates that:

  • Nature is always changing.
  • Many species are adapted to these changes and require them.
  • When we prevent natural changes, many species therefore decline and may become extinct.
  • The way to “save” nature and to solve environmental problems is to accept natural changes, let them occur.
  • People are integrated into nature. Many places that we think of as “primeval” nature are in fact heavily affected by people and have been so for a long time.


Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (March 11, 1992)
ISBN 0195074696

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