No Climax, Perhaps: Ecosystems Must Be Intensively Managed

Here’s an interesting article I read the other day that has bearing on the ecological principle of succession. The author of a new book, Emma Marris, challenges the concept of climax and the notion of some ideal state of equilibrium. This has bearing on our model of school as ecosystems in that we should bear in mind that there is no perfect, steady state that all schools must be expected to conform to. Rather, it is the outcomes that we seek to achieve and the values we cherish from the outset that must guide us.

Article: Nature Has No ‘Balance’ for Us to Keep

Author: Matt Ridley

Big Idea: There is no ideal state of equilibrium towards which succession must necessarily climax. However, through transparency and clarity on goals and outcomes, we can target how to best cultivate and stagger growth to reach those goals.

In her remarkable new book “The Rambunctious Garden,” Emma Marris explores a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology, namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings. “A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem,” she writes. “The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild.” 

. . . Ms. Marris’s book goes further, challenging the very idea of a balance of nature. In the first half of the 20th century, ecologists came to believe in equilibrium—that natural systems tended toward a steady state. So, for example, a bare patch of ground would be colonized by a succession of species—annual weeds, then grasses, then shrubs, then trees—until it reached its “climax” state. Conservation, therefore, was a matter of restoring this climax.

Academic ecologists have abandoned such a static way of thinking for something much more dynamic. For a start, they now appreciate that climate has always changed, and with it, ecology. Twenty thousand years ago the spot where I live was under a mile of ice. Then it was tundra, then birch forest, then pine forest, then alder, linden, elm and ash, then most recently oak, but beech was coming.

Which is its climax? We now know that oak seedlings rarely thrive under mature oaks (which rain caterpillars on them), so the oak climax was just a passing phase.

. . . So what’s a good conservationist to do? Ms. Marris sets you free: “In a nutshell: Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development and try just about everything.

Schools as Ecosystems as an International Model

Thanks to a heads up on a link from @VIVATeachers, I found an idea relevant to the ecological principle of succession in this article summing up some lessons from the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

The article, Preparing Teachers and School Leaders for the 21st Century — Ministers and Union  Leaders Meet on How to Turn Visions into Reality (somebody get this guy an editor, stat!), is posted on the OECD: EducationToday Blog.

That nations are gathering together to share ideas and strategies in education is in and of itself promising. Collaboration is a practice I believe deeply in and have advocated consistently for, such as in the policy recommendations I made with The VIVA Project and in my recent blog post on Education Gadfly. The author of the article, Andreas Scheicher, agrees with this essential need for professional collaboration and sharing:

It was amazing to see how much education, traditionally inward-looking, siloed and at times provincial, has become an international arena, with success no longer measured by national standards alone but by what the best performing education systems show can be achieved. . . .Though one can always question whether policies that are successful in some place will succeed in another place – and surely no country can simply adopt another nation’s system or policies – comparative data and analysis seem to rapidly expand the scope for learning from the successes and failures of education policies and practices around the world.

As the saying goes, “Think globally, act locally.” That we have crafted a set of mostly agreed upon state standards, the Common Core, is promising, but we need to go yet further and consider how our instruction measures up internationally. And though there remains a deeply (and disturbing, to my mind) provincial mindset in the United States, we can only benefit from drawing on knowledge and models from countries such as Finland, Singapore, and others. Again, here is Scheicher on this:

The success reported by high-performing countries as different as Canada, Finland or Singapore in leveraging the knowledge and skills of talented leaders for system-wide improvement and developing effective leaders at scale seemed truly remarkable. These countries don’t wait until teachers have reached the level of seniority to apply for leadership positions but are assessing young teachers continuously for their leadership potential and give them ample opportunity to develop their leadership capacity. They put in place far-sighted succession planning and show that leaders are not just born but can be developed and supported at scale with policy levers that can be acted upon. It was widely agreed that success will much depend on school leaders owning their professional practice or, as the Dutch Minister put it, [“]Governments will need to listen to the voices of principals and teachers to articulate what the standards of their professional practice should be.[“] [Bold added]

Embedded in this paragraph is a reference to “succession planning” in the context of developing and training leaders in public education. This parallels quite closely how Bill Mollison–a founder of Permaculture–describes the idea of ecological succession in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual as a “sequence of processes . . . in the establishment of ‘new’ systems.” This process occurs naturally over the course of many years, but in cultivated ecosystems, we can accelerate and harness this process through deliberate planning.

Mollison’s advice in planning for this accelerated sequence is to view “every design . . . as an assembly of components. The first priority is to locate and cost those components. Where our resources are few, we look closely at the site itself, thinking of everything as a potential resource.”

This advice on close local observation in the absence of resources is an important one which I will return to in the coming months on this blog. For now, it suffices to mention that England has begun an inspectorate program that shows promise in fostering greater transparency and communication between classrooms and policymakers.

We can see here how the idea of ecological succession can be applied at a systems level in terms of design and planning for maximizing human capital. Other areas for further consideration would be how this idea would apply at a more concrete school and classroom level, or how it might apply to curriculum development.

Finally, the article on the International Summit provides some further correlations to our schools as ecosystems model in terms of ideas on the importance of contexts and relationships within schools:

Delegates also pointed out that matching teacher demand and supply critically relies on an environment that facilitates success and that encourages effective teachers to continue in teaching. Teacher leaders, in particular, emphasised[sic] that they place a premium on self-efficacy, wanting to be in a context and instructional environment in which they are successful, on genuine career perspectives, on the quality of their relations with students and colleagues, on feeling supported by their school leaders, and on adequate working conditions.  

Last but not least, it became clear that education needs to become a social project. Partnerships and coalitions are necessary and possible to strengthen and build the profession. Such coalitions require trust and respect and demand from all actors that they move beyond their comfort zone. As several speakers noted, seeking short-term political gains by shaming teachers will not strengthen the profession but tear it apart. [Bold added]

We can only build effective school environments if we build trust and respect between all involved. Glad that folks are recognizing this internationally. Now we just need to recognize this here in the old US of A.

Education Reform as a Schizophrenic Regime

I’d like to discuss an ecological principle this week I introduced a while back that has potential application in school design: succession. Succession refers to the natural evolution of a landscape from barren earth, to weeds (known to permaculturists as “pioneer plants“), towards an eventual stable and mature ecosystem.

In gardening, many folks have a strange obsession with immature ecosystems and create endless hours of labor through the maintenance of vast expanses of lawns. Toby Hemenway puts it thus:

An immature ecosystem like a lawn demands that we expend time, energy, and materials to wrench back the hands of the ecological clock, holding the land at prairie phase with mowing and weeding. Yet nature–and our irrigation and fertilizers–will inexorably advance the clock another tick, sprouting seedlings and saplings, inundating us with her fecundity. With sprinkler and fertilizer we’re tromping on the accelerator, yet with tiller and pruning we’re slamming on the brake. No system runs well under that kind of schizophrenic regime.

This “schizophrenic regime” of “tromping on the accelerator” and “slamming on the brake” also aptly describes our current constrained focus for education reform. We’re desperately focusing on achievement at all costs, applying the fertilizer of test prep and other short bursts of whatever contracted program the district or state has hastily invested in, while at the same time militantly cutting budgets and weeding out “bad teachers.”

What we require is a balanced focus that looks not simply at short-term indicators like standardized test scores, but at a set of multiple indicators that is oriented towards long-term growth, well-being, and sustainability of the system as a whole.

How do you think the ecological principle of succession applies in school systems? I would love to hear your ideas!

What Does Gardening Have to Do With Schools?

When I lived in South Lake Tahoe and discovered a passion for sustainable land use and design (it’s hard not to when you live in a place that beautiful), one of the first books I read, after Bill Mollison’s seminal Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, was Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hemenway is great at synthesizing and putting into everyday words and application the approach and philosophy of permaculture, and if you are into gardening at all, I highly recommend checking it out.

But this blog is not about gardening or land use, so what in the world does Hemenway have to do with public schools? If we are to assume that our model of schools as ecosystems is an accurate one, then it would make sense to seek to transfer ecological principles that work in the garden to the school environment.
Hemenway presents three overarching ecological principles at the outset of his book: niche, succession, and biodiversity. These three are a great way to kick off our exploration. In future posts, Will and I will seek to translate and consider these principles in direct application to school environments.
The Niche

In natural ecosystems, there is little that goes to waste. As Hemenway puts it, “Nearly every niche is tightly held, every habitat is packed full of interconnected species. Nature’s immense creativity ensures that anything fairly resembling a resource will be used as one–if one species can’t use it, another will.”

We can recognize these interconnections and cultivate them in a garden, and I believe we can do this deliberately in school communities as well, by developing niches in physical spaces, as well as cultivating enriching connections between content areas in our curriculum.


According to Hemenway, “the progression from bare earth to short annual weeds to tall perennials is called succession.” This principle trains the ecological gardener to be aware of land as “a dynamic system, not an unchanging still life. By viewing our landscapes as dynamic ecosystems, rather than as static collections of inert objects, we can create gardens that inherently grow in healthy patterns and directions.”

This recognition of the dynamic nature of communities is also necessary in a school ecosystem, where the complex interplay of diverse students and staff can either be repressed under a static model that inhibits growth and creativity, or nurtured, channeled, and harnessed to create a resiliency and stability within the school community.


A healthy and sustainable ecosystem is filled with a diversity of species. “Almost everything in [an ecological] garden has more than one function.” The biodiversity of species works to counterbalance and complement each other.

In a school ecosystem, this could apply to the recognition that staff and students can assume a multiplicity of roles. It also speaks to a recognition of the need for racial and cultural integration and inclusive environments.

These three principles can provide an entry point for us to apply ecological ideas to public school contexts and content. As we explore them together further, I have a feeling that some of these terms will change to become more relevant in a school setting.