In western cultures, we have accumulated a lot of cultural, social and political baggage in our conversations and our thinking about the environment. We commonly say “the ecology” when we mean the environment. Ecology is the science that deals with the environment.
Conversations about the environment often revolve around what can be called ‘structures’ – trees, frogs, flowers and fish. This approach has caused a focus on the rarity of those structures. Legislatures and bureaucrats are easily sold on programs to save rare species. After all, if we cause the loss of a genetic type, it will be irreplaceable. (Although, DNA recovered from frozen woolly mammoths and newly-hatched molecular geneticists may deny that.) It also is easy to sell the notion that rare things are more valuable than common, or representative things, so one sees statements that “conservation value is proportional to rarity”.
Some of us question both of these precepts because survival of anything and everything in ecological systems depends on several fundamental natural processes. Processes, not structures, should have our attention in ecological, environmental and conservation considerations. Processes such as the capture of solar energy by green plants. Without this power source, there would be no environmental structures or processes. Ecosystems would be unable to maintain themselves, regardless of their structure or species composition. A most fundamental characteristic of ecological (or biological) systems is their capacity for self-maintenance. The importance of particular species is best understood by learning their role in the fundamental natural processes of the ecosystem in which they function. One can ask, are there any other species that can carry out that function in this ecosystem? Then we can estimate the ecological importance of the species.
For more discussion and illustrations, look at “Discovering Natural Processes”.