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Agriculture and Human Values 18: 239–240, 2001. Book review Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons

Agriculture and Human Values 18: 239–240, 2001.

Book review

Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons By Simon Levin Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1999, 250 pp. Hb, ISBN 0-7382-0111-1

AMITRAJEET A. BATABYAL Department of Economics, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY 14623-5604, USA

The subject matter of Fragile Dominion is biodiversity. The book discusses the salience and the conservation of biodiversity by exploring six interrelated questions. What patterns exist in nature? What is the role of the local environment and historical factors in determining these patterns? How do ecosystems assemble them- selves? What role does evolution play in influencing these ecological assemblages? What is the relation- ship between an ecosystems’s structure and its func- tions? Finally, does evolution increase the resilience of an ecosystem? The author uses the nine chapters of this book to explain why a diminution in biodiversity “threatens the very structural and functional integrity of the Earth’s systems, and ultimately the survival of humanity” (p. 2). Rather than provide a tedious chapter by chapter review, in what follows, I shall evaluate the contents of five of the book’s nine chapters. This should provide the reader with a good idea of the intellectual contributions of this book. Chapter 3 introduces the reader to the six questions of this book in a nice way and it points out the useful- ness of viewing the biosphere as a complex adaptive system. This chapter makes two key points. First, it is noted that homeostatic mechanisms are important not only because they regulate ecosystem processes, but also because these mechanisms maintain the resili- ence of ecosystems in the face of disturbances. Second, the author points out that “understanding how ecosys- tems work requires understanding [these] homeostatic mechanisms, and doing so requires, in turn, studying systems far from equilibrium” (pp. 52–53, emphasis in original). Chapter 4 explores the role that history plays in shaping the organization of complex systems. As the author explains, some amount of ecological detective work reveals that the composition and the organiza- tion of communities are determined largely by local

environmental conditions and the vagaries of history. Pointing to the role of stochasticity, the author rightly notes that uncertainty “is the parent of biodiversity, and localized disturbances such as fires – which, at least up to a point, increase the level of uncertainty – are key to the maintenance of diversity” (p. 80). This is a nice chapter; however, this chapter’s discus- sion of plant communities is a little incomplete. In particular, although the author provides a competent discussion of the competing views of Henry Gleason and Frederic Clements (see p. 71), he does not mention the “state-and-transition” model of Mark Westoby et al. (1989). Given that this model has been very useful in comprehending the behavior of a number of ecosys- tems, particularly arid and semi-arid rangelands, some commentary on this model would have made the discussion of plant communities complete. Ecological assembly is the subject of Chapter 5. The author tees off with a cogent discussion of the biology of islands. He points out that “islands are constantly in flux in terms of their species composi- tion, [and] that they reach a balance between arrivals and departures so that the number of species reaches an equilibrium” (p. 83). Following this, the author notes that as far as the task of environmental manage- ment is concerned, it is important to appreciate the fact that ecosystems and socioeconomic systems are similar in that they are both examples of complex adaptive systems. My only concern here relates to the following sentence. The author says that social “and economic systems are similar in that their structures and macroscopic dynamics largely emerge from the selfish behaviors of individual agents rather than from top-down control” (p. 104). The claim here is valid for some kinds of socioeconomic systems but certainly not for all such systems. In particular, I do not believe this claim applies to the socioeconomic systems in contemporary Iraq, North Korea, or Syria. Going back a few years, it also does not apply to the socioeconomic systems in Cambodia under Pol Pot or to Uganda under Idi Amin. Chapter 7 contains a splendid account of the form and the functions of ecosystems. This chapter is partic- ularly well written and it makes a number of thought provoking points. First, the author points out that ecosystem processes typically reflect the influence of a



few salient species and that diversity itself matters little beyond the identities of these salient species. Second, it is noted that ecosystems are not random collec- tions of parts, but that they become organized into hierarchies; further, “this hierarchical organization matters a lot for how ecosystems function” (p. 162). Finally, the author argues that the “fundamental chal- lenge remains to determine how [ecosystem] structure affects resilience” (p. 172). These are all significant points and they deserve to have been made. However, as noted in Holling et al. (1995), it is important to be aware of the fact that the term “resilience” is used in two ways in the ecology literature. Although it is generally clear that the author has the Buzz Holling definition of resilience in mind, it would have been nice if he had mentioned this duality and distin- guished between the Holling and the Pimm notions of resilience. Chapter 9 contains the author’s eight command- ments of environmental management. These com- mandments ask us to (i) reduce uncertainty, (ii) expect surprise (in the sense of Buzz Holling), (iii) maintain heterogeneity, (iv) sustain modularity, (v) preserve redundancy, (vi) tighten feedback loops, (vii) build trust, and (viii) do unto others as we would have them do unto us. These are certainly useful commandments

and the author explains their significance in compre- hensible terms. Moreover, he nicely expands the scope of these commandments by pointing out the many similarities between ecosystems and socioeconomic systems. In conclusion let me say that this is a remarkable book. The author’s writing style is informal, his prose is easy to follow, his many examples are instructive, and his story is compelling. Consequently, I have abso- lutely no hesitation in recommending this book to all readers who are interested in learning more about the many and varied connections between biodiversity and our own existence.


Holling, C. S., D. W Schindler, B. Walker, and J. Roughgarden (1995). “Biodiversity in the functioning of ecosystems: An ecological synthesis,” in C. Perrings, K. G. Maler, C. Folke, C. S. Holling, and B. O. Jansson (eds.), Biodiversity Loss: Economic and Ecological Issues. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press. Westoby, M., B. Walker, and I. Noy-Meir (1989). “Opportun- istic management for rangelands not at equilibrium.” Journal of Range Management 42: 266–274.