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Biodiversity of Biological Processes

The Biodiversity of Biological Processes

A New Challenge for Forest Conservation

Keno Toenjes, June 2002


Scientifically, biodiversity is not a straight-forward concept. For practical reasons, science distinguishes between the biodiversity of species, the biodiversity within species and the structural biodiversity of ecosystems. In a political context, this concept is further reduced to the number of species, especially endemic or "threatened" species, as documented by some red list, or an atlas of so called "biodiversity hotspots". This seems a bit arbitrary, and we will show that it actually is.

Not understanding the complex dynamics of biological systems, environmentalists and scientists focus on the conservation of the current status of nature or at best restoring a former or hypothetical status less disturbed by mankind. To save a preferred species at a given space and time, conservationists sometimes do not refrain from disturbing as many natural processes as necessary.

A new dynamical paradigm challenges the rationality behind this static thinking: The biodiversity of biological processes. According to this view, biological processes are complex, divers, difficult to perceive and describe, threatened, and mark the line between living and dead matter. They are worth being protected in their own right, and to ensure the conservation of species and other manifestations of their dynamics. The relationship between the conservation of species and of biological processes is non-trivial and needs further clarification.

Since the early nineties, some German foresters try to put this concept into practice, with Knut Sturms forest management plan for the community forest of Luebeck being the first in Germany. His landmark study of 1993 started an emotional debate between environmentalists and foresters, not willing to surrender their textbook wisdom and lifelong experience to a fresh look on forest dynamics. Fortunately, some important demands from Sturm's study found their way into the national FSC-standards. Unfortunately, the debate ebbed down, among foresters and environmentalists as well. Another important and influential concept respecting ecological processes is by Herb Hammond from British Columbia, also developed in the early nineties.

We are just beginning to understand the science of dynamical systems, still searching for a language that can describe complex phenomena like emergent behavior as found in biological processes. Meanwhile, the global mass destruction of ecosystems destroys species and biological processes. To save both and to ensure the further functioning of the global human life-support-system Earth, we need to reconsider our conservation strategies, that have so long been blind to the dynamical aspects of ecosystems and life. Adding phrases concerning the "conservation of the biodiversity of biological processes" to existing national and international treaties on biodiversity conservation is a first and important step, that has to be filled with meaning in the near future.

Static Biodiversity

What is the status of an ecosystem, e.g. a forest? How can its biodiversity be measured? How can it be preserved? The study of an ecosystem starts with a list of its species. This can be quite challenging, even among the members of the same taxonomic school. Consider a tropical forest, days before its destruction; consider species living in the soil or in the canopy; consider a genus with but one taxonomist working on it. Remote old growth forests are obviously extremely difficult to tackle in this way and are likely to perish before the examination is complete. But at least in principle it is possible to make species lists and count the number of species in a given ecosystem. Science has developed the means to do it. Limited only by human and financial resources, field biologists travel to more or less remote areas to conduct these studies.

What can the number of species tell us about the "conservation value" of a forest? What can the number of different parts tell us about the value of a car? How do we define the "conservation value" anyway? Okay, there is charismatic megafauna and megaflora, like tigers, elephants and red cedar, that we don't want to miss. There are AIDS-resistant populations of chimpanzees, flowers containing a cure for cancer and there is mahogany, all of economic value to us. Old growth forests certainly have an aesthetic value. Some people even say, living creatures (at least mammals and other vertebrates) have a value in their own right, so you shouldn't destroy life without a good reason. But if we are honest, none of these values should be mistaken for "conservation value", at least not in the first place, although they are still used quite effectively when lobbying.

How about rarity? A popular static concept of "conservation value" uses the number of individuals within a species as a measure for its value, highlighting endemic and endangered species (what would be the conservation value of the fast growing human race in this context?). An ecosystem should not be destroyed, because it is the habitat of a rare tiger or bear subspecies. The survival of surprisingly many ecosystems depends on the popularity of their top predator species which is almost always rare. But is the forest really worthless, if the last tiger or bear is shot? Also in this model, boreal forests are less valuable than tropical forests, because they have less species, but more individuals and biodiversity within each species. This reminds us of the fact, that the standard definition of biodiversity somewhat arbitrarily prefers the taxonomic level of species. Fortunately, scientists begin to reconsider the importance of boreal forests in global bio-dynamics: think of seasonal global biomass-production and migrations.

Looking at an ecosystem at the species scale, it makes sense to alter and disturb natural dynamics to "conserve" a preferred species: log some beech to help an oak, hunt whales and seals to save fishery, poison vermin, fight forest fires, stop natural succession, "enrich" natural forest, design "better" tree-species and genomes. Conserving ecosystems in frozen gene banks sounds reasonable. If you assume the human race not to be part of the biosphere, it even makes sense to protect mass destruction of ecosystems like industrial forestry and fishery against environmental lobbyists. "What can you offer me, so I do not destroy your beloved biosphere? And let it be more than my current profits!"

Protecting only the rare paradoxically leads to making everything rare. Common practice in forest conservation is to create some nature reserves with minimal extension, leaving the remaining forests to industrial degradation or complete destruction. All to soon, industrial dynamics finish all forests outside the small islands of protection and then long for the rest, before turning to the next country. Indonesia, Thailand, China and USA are good examples for this kind of dynamics. Obviously, there are no islands of stasis, if you don't control the surrounding dynamics of industrial logging, a lesson, even the FSC-certified forests had to learn in Indonesia and elsewhere.

If static concepts of "conservation value" don't lead us very far, how about a more dynamic concept? The conservation value of a certain species is certainly linked to its value or importance for the "conservation" or functioning of the whole ecosystem, i.e. with its dynamics. Some species play key roles themselves, others are good indicators for the "health" of the ecosystem. The problem is, we seldom know the exact role of a species, as our understanding of complex dynamics is very limited and even computer simulations are still too unsophisticated for this job. Furthermore, the roles of species change over time, as the whole ecosystem evolves. And if you "conserve" an evolving ecosystem, what do you get? Perhaps it is time to get rid of the bias on static and species-based concepts and have a direct and undisturbed look at biological processes.

Dynamic Biodiversity

Nobody denies the existence of biological processes, everyone would acknowledge that they have a certain biodiversity, produce biodiversity and are somehow important to ecology, forestry, and life itself. Conserving a living being without protecting its biological processes and dynamics means killing it. So why do conservation biology and legislation talk so much about the parts (species) and the status of an ecosystem and not so much about its dynamics and processes?

The human species is part of the biosphere, its survival subject to biological laws that are as merciless as economic laws, perhaps even more. We just don't know them, and it is difficult to perceive and examine them, as they normally operate in large space and time scales, with short periods of change, when a threshold is passed (e.g. forest destruction from acid rain). Politicians, economists, and genetic engineers, to name but a few influential decision-makers, do not normally work in these time and space scales, so they tend to see incidents of environmental deterioration as isolated events and not as indicators of a global dynamic of "human life support malfunctioning". Being told, that "conservation value" is a mix of economic, aesthetic, ethic, and diffuse ecological value (often equated with the survival of certain vertebrates), they don't care about species conservation and are likely to follow straight-forward arguments by some traditional, infallible economic school.

To look at the dynamics of the biosphere and its parts, we need to examine all space and time scales involved, especially the large scales. Emergent behavior is typical to biological systems, so we don't have to expect a continuum of interesting scales. Emergent behavior links a lower with a higher level of organization, and often a smaller with a greater space or time scale. Like forests dying because of acid rain, these phenomena are difficult to predict and even to explain. This multi-scale and multi-level causality is essential for understanding biological processes, although it is still counter-intuitive to common wisdom and static western thinking. The public expects continuous changes or stability and is not used to dynamics, where the passing of a threshold leads from one self-organized state to the next. Especially the step-by-step collapse of an ecosystem is seen as a series of unrelated catastrophes and not as a typical ecological reaction to disturbances, more so if the events lie years or decades apart. To see the dynamics behind these event is a first step to get control of the change. The members and guests of the Santa Fe Institute have done excellent research to bring light to these complex dynamics and the phenomenon of emergent behavior.

Understanding biological processes is one thing, appreciating them quite another. Is there a "conservation value" for biological processes? Why should we conserve or better protect the biodiversity of biological processes? The current accelerating destruction of the biosphere answers this question in two ways. First of all, biological processes in the biosphere produce, sustain and delete species in the course of time. We want the human species to be sustained by the biosphere, so we have to take care, that the biosphere is functioning well enough to support such a demanding species at any time. To keep the biosphere functioning, it not only takes a sufficient diversity of parts, i.e. individuals, species, stands and landscapes, but also a sufficient diversity of interaction between these parts, as we can learn from the study of emergent behavior. A thawed out predator or pollinator from a gene bank may not be able to function appropriately within an ecosystem without the training of capable parents. To experiment with the minimal criteria of our survival should not be an option for politics and economics, so the destruction of more and more vital parts and functions of the biosphere certainly is a fatal strategy.

Secondly, the current political and economic decision-making (globally and in day-to-day life) is too unsophisticated and short-sighted to guarantee the sustaining of the human species. So we obviously need more sustainable strategies. Even if we do not understand the functioning of biological processes, we still can profit from the long experience that is manifest in their history. We can learn which strategies work under what circumstances and can copy the complex forms of "organic" organization and design. Indigenous and traditional peoples also live proven sustainable strategies perfectly adapted to their environment. It is not always easy to extract this knowledge from its sources, but it certainly constitutes an enormous economic and "conservation" value, that is not taken into account yet.

Species conservation and the protection of biological processes work at different levels, and sometimes they may seem to be in conflict with each other. In cultural landscapes we may have certain species that are adapted to open patches, grassland or heathland and would vanish in a complete and natural reforestation. On the other side, some species and even ecosystems may not be able any more to survive naturally. Here a careful judgment may come to the conclusion, that a moderate disturbance of natural processes is acceptable. Renaturation of plantations and wasteland is another situation, where human influence at the start can accelerate the development of a natural vegetation. But in general, undisturbed natural processes are still the best way to get prospering ecosystems.

Practical Consequences for Forest Conservation

The Galilei-principle: Galilei wanted to understand nature. But instead of looking into authoritative textbooks, he looked at nature itself. Forestry and forest conservation would be wise to do the same. We should accept it as fact that our knowledge of and experience with complex, multi-level forest dynamics and structure is very limited. Basic research on complex dynamics, a language to describe them and a program to document "sample dynamics" are urgently needed. Therefore, if not for many other reasons as well, we need as many less disturbed old growth forests as we are able to save from industrial destruction. We need the experience of peoples living in and of the forest for hundreds of years, especially of indigenous peoples. In industrial forestry, we have to depart from mere log mining and develop forest management systems, that leave the forest fully functional. A network of non-managed, large enough reference sites is needed to provide us with an objective measure of our success in this direction (better than some idea of a "potential natural vegetation"). The renaturation of plantations and wasteland can and should also be accomplished this way.

The precautionary principle: Not understanding biological processes very well, we should not destroy, what we might need in the future. A minimum impact forestry respecting ecosystem dynamics must become industry standard. Predatory logging of old growth forests must be off limits, forestry has to learn not to devaluate and destroy their source of income country by country. Modern forest management must sustain biomass (not taking more than grows again), species biodiversity, as well as structural and dynamic ecosystem biodiversity. Social and cultural sustainability may also be an important issue. At the moment, only community forestry seems motivated enough, not to degenerate their forests, as they directly have to live with the consequences of their doing.

Models: You will find some alternative concepts of forest management like ecoforestry, community forestry and even certificates like the FSC, but not all of them deal with the biodiversity of biological processes. In Germany you have the detailed forest management plans and concepts of Knut Sturm (also used in Vietnam), accompanied by the research of Dr. Wolfgang Scherzinger and the Ecology Department of the University of Lueneburg. FSC-certificates by Naturland consider the biodiversity of biological processes, others don't. In the temperate south of British Columbia you have the well known and well documented concept of Herb Hammond, who is also an FSC-certifier. On the other side, the FSC-certified forests in the Brazilian Amazon and Indonesia are no examples of sustainable management. Tropical rain forests are still the biggest challenge to forestry research and management, as even basic data like the age of the trees are still lacking.

Getting in control again

Looking at the facts, we see that globally forestry is almost completely out of control, not respecting laws or working according to any management plan, just plain predatory log mining. There seems to be no voluntary stop to legal and illegal forest destruction on the side of the forest industry. Whatever global governance we have, does not deal with problems of forestry and loss of biodiversity of any kind. Rio and Den Haag did nothing to change that. Some countries like Indonesia, Thailand and China announced a logging moratorium to get back some control of deforestation (although Thailand and especially China have no second thoughts about supporting deforestation in other countries). These measures are still too weak and need further international support by NGOs and governments. It is time to talk about an international moratorium on industrial logging of old growth forests and a serious implementation and control of these laws (cf. Greenpeace demands). It is also time to stop genetic engineers from polluting and destabilizing the biosphere with hazardous GMOs.

Having brought the mass destruction of the biosphere to a momentary halt, we can think of more subtle methods of protecting the biodiversity of biological processes: Change national and international legislation accordingly, start monitoring dynamics, esp. long-time processes (history, "catastrophic events", palecology), documenting indigenous knowledge on dynamics, develop and improve forest management systems accordingly, establish worldwide networks of reference sites, do basic and field research, establish pilot programs to gain economic benefit from this research, regenerate large-scale dynamics and structures by connecting ecosystems, and finally organize a global recovery of the biosphere. We are so used to the ongoing destruction of our life support, maybe we should think of solving some really important problems.


Center of research on complex dynamics and emergent behavior.

German website of Knut Sturm, downloads. Email: knutsturm@aol.com .

Website of Herb Hammond, several downloads. Email: hhammond@netidea.com .


M. Mitchell Waldrop: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.

Roger Lewin: Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1992.

T.F.H. Allen and Thomas B. Starr: Hierarchy - Perspectives for Ecological Complexity. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1982.

Knut Sturm: Prozessschutz (Protection of Processes), Study for Greenpeace Germany, 1993.(available there in German and English)

Herb Hammond: Seeing the Forest among the Trees - The Case for Wholistic Forest Use. Polestar Book Publishers, Vancouver, 1991.

Wolfgang Scherzinger: Naturschutz im Wald: Qualitaetsziele einer dynamischen Waldentwicklung. Verlag Eugen Ulmer & Co., Stuttgart 1996.

John Perlin: A Forest Journey - The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

Author: Keno Toenjes, Stauffenbergstrasse 103, 72074 Tuebingen, Germany.
Email:keno.toenjes@waldportal.org .


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