Over the last years, the ecological narrative has become an integral part of our lives: we are constantly told about the inevitability of all kinds of threats and the urgency of all kinds of problems by sociologists, philosophers, artists, and many, many others.
In this interview, the well-known journalist, researcher, and writer Fyodor Derevyankin speaks to the ecologist Vladimir Maryinsky about the particularities of ecosystem modelling, the extermination of sea cows, the swamping of ponds around Moscow, the doubtful usefulness of sorting through household waste, and the striking resemblance of beavers to people.
It seems to me that most people don’t really understand what is meant by the word “ecology”—would you begin by clarifying the meaning of this term?
This term is used anywhere and everywhere because people have yet to agree on what exactly is meant by it. We have ecology as a branch of biology, a discipline that forms part of the natural sciences, and there is ecology in the sense that most people understand it today—the protection of our environment. But these are two entirely distinct concepts. As a science, ecology studies the interconnections and interactions of living organisms with one another and with objects of inanimate nature. Ecology has a rather indirect relation to environmental protection, though, of course, aspects of it are applicable, among these the assessment of anthropogenic impact. When you hear the word “ecology,” the first things to come to mind are images related to eco-activism, recycling of waste, and so on, although all of this is only the derivative of a great fundamental science. The last twenty to forty years have seen true revolutions take place in many natural science disciplines. In some areas, this has been noticeable, in others, not as much. For example, we constantly hear about biotechnology and genetics. News stories about altering the genome or the possibility of cloning frequently appear. As a discipline, ecology is currently undergoing its own kind of revolution: not so long ago, many methods that had previously either simply not existed or been too expensive for use in large-scale research became available. For example, it was only recently we were able to fully understand how substances are transferred along the food chain in ecosystems—not just by guessing who eats who, as one does in school biology lessons, but by truly understanding the whole mechanism from beginning to end. This allows us to construct correct models of ecosystems, and, in turn, to correctly determine, for example, the number of fish that can be caught in a reservoir or part of a reservoir. Ecology as a science is not easily available to non-specialists: if one tries to fully understand aspects of it, one finds a large quantity of complicated models. One has to try extremely hard to convey the essence of its discoveries to a wide audience and inspire listeners. You’re hardly likely to inspire someone with the fact that ecological scientists have at last understood how substances are transferred along food chains in the ocean through single-celled organisms. Without much introductory clarification, a person on the street will hardly say “Wow!”—although it really is “Wow!” that we have managed to understand such phenomena as the “oceanic microbial loop” over the last twenty to forty years. The discovery of the microbial loop has helped us to understand that the majority of substances in the ocean “turn over” through the world of microscopic organisms. Now we know: in order to correctly understand oceanic food chains and model oceanic ecosystems one must first of all study single-celled organisms—everything else is superstructure. So ecological science is highly interesting, but understanding the essence of its discoveries is not so simple.
Why do we call such different things the same thing and even now not distinguish the one from the other?
Terms are the source of one of the biggest problems in our discipline. When we talk about the anatomy of a person, everything is clear: it was enough for pioneer scientists to open up a corpse, see what was where, and agree with one another on a particular name for one or another part of the body. After that it took centuries to decide on which organ was responsible for what, and so on. Anatomy has to do with real objects, whereas ecology is often concerned with abstractions. This is in no way to say that the object of study doesn’t exist as such, however, the term “ecosystem” is not infrequently borrowed and used in completely different ways by different disciplines—for example, the increasingly popular term “organisational ecosystem” implies the totality of all the structures of a given organisation as well as other organisations connected with it. In fact, if you ask an ecological scientist to define the concept of an ecosystem, their honest answer would be this: a conventional, widely-accepted definition of the term does not exist. An ecosystem is a fundamental concept for our science, and its most uncontradictory definition looks something like this: an ecosystem is the totality of organisms living in a given territory, along with the connections between these organisms, as well as those between them and inanimate objects. It’s already clear from this definition that what is at hand is something dimensionless. When the term “ecosystem” was introduced, it was explained through the example of a pond: we have a certain reservoir, and in this reservoir the most different organisms interact with one another and with inanimate objects, but it is also clear that this reservoir could not exist without all the substances on the planet Earth. It turns out that all the substances of the planet Earth, based on the description I have given of the pond ecosystem, should also be included within it. And more than this, the pond has a gravitational interaction with the moon, and this means the moon must be included in the ecosystem. And the pond also interacts with the sun, in that without solar energy nothing in the pond would work. So, it turns out that we need to include not just the entire planet and its satellites but also the giant, burning ball of gas around which this planet orbits our small forest pond’s ecosystem. And if we take into account that the solar system gravitationally interacts with other objects in the galaxy, then strictly speaking we ought to include the galaxy in the pond’s ecosystem, along with the entire local group of galaxies. It may seem that I’m losing myself in particulars, but, in my view, this example demonstrates the problems of the science, which uses terms in its conceptual apparatus that don’t strictly speaking correspond to anything. Ecological scientists have a joke that runs as follows: an ecosystem is what an ecological scientist considers to be an ecosystem. We have, for example, a forest, in the forest, a clearing, in the clearing, a stump, on the upper part of the stump, a depression filled with water in which some kind of life is stirring. And we can call this puddle an ecosystem. We can also call the entire stump and puddle an ecosystem. The same can be said of the entire clearing, and the entire forest. And of the whole planet. I’ll stay silent about the fact that there are scientific schools in ecology that interpret the concept of an ecosystem in their own way.
On becoming acquainted with recordings of your talks, I got the impression that they have a strong humanitarian component. Even in lectures about the worlds of ponds, we find flickering motifs suggestive of the comparison of microcosms and macrocosms that has been current since Antiquity. Might your passion for ecology have an unusual prehistory? Why did you decide to devote yourself to this particular science and what brought you to it?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I came to the study of biology through ponds. When in childhood I understood that ponds contained utterly different worlds, dissimilar from everything that surrounded me, I was amazed. In addition, the inhabitants of these worlds could be caught and examined. (It’s interesting to note that the concept of ecosystems in current use is closest to a formulation made in 1887 by the American naturalist Stephen Alfred in an article poetically titled “Lake as microcosm”). I have a vivid childhood memory: I am digging through a pond at the dacha and I suddenly draw a very strange creature from the mud. Now I understand that it was a rat, the larva of the hoverfly. They’re called rats because they have telescopic retractable breathing tubes that look similar to tails and relatively shapeless bodies. Generally, quite alien looking creatures, as is often the case with Diptera larvae. I looked at this rat and understood that it wasn’t similar to anything at all. I was four years old then. I ran off to show this discovery to my mother (who is also a biologist, but studies humans). Previously, she had always been ready with the name for one or another of my finds, but not this time. I remember well the shock I experienced when the person who had seemed to me to know everything about the world around us suddenly said: “I don’t know.” In the seventh grade, I began attending an afterschool club at the Department of General Ecology and Hydrology at the Moscow State University Faculty of Biology—which is where I still work. I had no doubts about my future profession: I was always drawn to the world of fresh water and to the ways in which organisms interact within it. But at school my studies had a humanitarian focus: I had exceptional literature and history teachers. I studied biology independently in order to pass the university exams—the Unified State Examination didn’t exist then, and you needed much more than what was covered in the school programme to pass them.
I spent the greater part of my life in the Moscow region, and attended to the life of ponds with no lesser interest, and this is a question I’ve been occupied with for a long time: near my home village there are a number of ponds where we used to swim, catch fish—in general, there were many clean reservoirs around. But nowadays I’m scared even to approach these places—they’ve all turned into swamps and fishermen have to travel to distant lands as catching anything near home has long been impossible. Recently, it has seemed to me that what we’re talking about is not the deterioration of ecology but its complete disappearance. And it isn’t just a matter of the human factor: fifteen years or so ago beavers appeared in our area and dammed rivers and streams that had already dried up. I’m interested in what specialists think of such changes, do they understand them, what are they related to?
You’ve immediately touched on a number of important themes. First—beavers, and I’ll tell you about them with pleasure. Second, the dirtying of reservoirs due to human activity. And third, related to the second, though not in all cases—changes to the hydrological regimes of water bodies, their shallowing or swamping.
Over the course of a number of years, by order of the Moscow region authorities, my colleagues and I monitored the ecological state of small rivers and found that in certain areas the anthropogenic load on water bodies was higher, while in others everything was actually not so bad. From the outside, it might seem that rivers flow into lakes, something flows out of the lakes, and then everything moves somewhere towards the ocean, but in actual fact the hydrological system is far more complex. The bulk of water we don’t see, it is underground. There are two key chthonic deities in Sumero-Akkadian mythology—Tiamat and Abzu. The first personifies the chaos of sea waters, the second, the chaos of freshwater, and underground freshwater at that. Which is to say that in ancient times people had already guessed how the movement of water through our planet was structured. And it is precisely for this reason that certain changes in hydrological systems are not evident, but when thought through, quite understandable. In the Moscow region, bodies of water vary greatly. Is this connected to human activity? Of course, man impacts everything now, but it’s far from always being easy to understand how great a role the anthropogenic factor plays. I do a lot of applied ecology, and as part of this, I assess the impact of human activity on bodies of water—my fundamental interests are connected in the first instance with Mongolia, where over the last ten thousand years the river network has altered fundamentally. To the north-west of the country, there is a place called the Great Lakes Basin. Today, it consists of five lakes, connected by channels—large, but not gigantic. Ten thousand years ago, there was an enormous lake in their place, which had formed after the melting of the ice. A river flowed from the lake, and ultimately flowed into the Amur (its water consumption was also, to put it lightly, significantly greater than it is now). But gradually, millennium after millennium, everything dried up: now where there once was a gigantic lake only a few small ones remain, and nothing flows from them any longer. Where a river once was, today we have several small lakes. In Central Asia, the drying up of water bodies continues to this day. A classic and very sad example is what happened with the Aral Sea. People, of course, accelerated this process, but that’s all.
Following similar processes in Central Russia is more complicated, everything here isn’t so clear, but all the same it’s important to understand that the climate is changing. How much of this is down to humans is a separate subject of discussion, the main thing is that the climate is changing, and as a consequence of this the water flows of rivers and the levels of lakes are altering. Intuitively, it seems that the world around us has always been as it is now, but that is not the case. Even over the course of one person’s lifetime, the water flowof a given river will change due to climatic factors, for example, or due to the construction of hydraulic structures. And if we’re talking about very small streams and springs, then these can be affected by nearby settlements pumping vast amounts of water from wells. So, yes, the hydrological network is undergoing changes, and man is a part of this, but it isn’t always clear what is connected with what. The state of the Volga, for example, is even affected by coastal deforestation.
And as for beavers—they are a separate, interesting phenomenon. The fact is that in the twentieth century people decided to protect them. Until then, beavers had been actively hunted for the sake of their skins and meat, and killing them was relatively easy: a large beast that doesn’t run very fast. Their meat, to my mind, is of a doubtful taste and quality, but it does have its enthusiasts. We also know that in past centuries beavers were killed for the sake of their reproductive organs. In a bestiary of the Middle Ages titled Physiologist, you can read the following in a well-known article about beavers: “There is an animal called a beaver. It is meek and very silent. Its privy parts are used in medicine. So when a hunter pursues a beaver and he realizes that he will be caught, he rips off his undercarriage and throws them to the hunter. If another hunter pursues and catches the beaver again, he quickly turns on its back, and the hunter, having learned that the beaver does not have what he needs, leaves him.” In all likelihood, this story from the Middle Ages had some kind of religious or philosophical background, but practically speaking people simply killed beavers and made various medicines from their reproductive organs. A whole industry grew around this, and was the reason why in the twentieth century there were very few beavers left in Europe, and why people began protecting them. It might have seemed that everything was wonderful: we are protecting an animal that hasn’t yet died out, but is quite close to doing so—but then they discovered something surprising: beavers love living in slow-flowing ponds, which means they transform any river into a cascade of ponds, and are happy. Some other animals are also adapted to living in such reservoirs, but, for example, for trout, these changes are bad. For many rheophiles, that is, animals that like fast flowing water, this means death. Ultimately, beavers destroy one ecosystem, and another appears in its place.
And here we come to a rather paradoxical moment. The standard of a small river from an ecological monitoring point of view is a small idyllic river with clear water and a rocky bed, but, it would seem, such rivers simply did not exist in Europe before people began to hunt beavers, they were all dammed. So it turns out that clean babbling brooks only appeared because people destroyed beavers. And if we stop exterminating them, these rivers disappear, along with many of the organisms living within them.
People like to feel their own atypicality: this is true for everyone individually, as well as for us as a species which proudly rises above the chaos of nature. When we talk about the pollution of water bodies, then, we suppose that this is a purely human prerogative. But that is not the case. In ecology, there is a remarkable term, “edificator,” that denotes an animal, plant, or fungus—that is, any living organism—which alters its environment in such a way as to make it maximally comfortable for itself. Beavers are a typical example of edificators: they transform fast flowing rivers into cascades of ponds. And a person who constructs an urban environment for himself is an edificator in exactly the same way, which is why one shouldn’t consider the pollution of nature a purely human matter. Indeed, what is pollution? Pollution is the movement of various substances into an environment that is alien to them—clearly, we aren’t the only ones to cause such movement (though of course, it goes without saying that the scale of human edificatory activity is impressive).
And here we come once again to another very interesting issue—the conservation of endangered species, and beavers are extremely indicative in this regard. Intuitively, the conservation of endangered species is an absolute boon. Wonderful, we save the beaver—but at the same time, we threaten the existence of a vast number of other living beings. But then why has humanity spent such a number of resources on protecting endangered species over the last 150 years? I think this topic is misrepresented to the public. In fact, man came up with the Red Data Book not to save nature but to preserve his habitat, because any species might at some time and in some way be found useful. A classic example: there used to be a huge, wonderful aquatic mammal—Steller’s cow—which lived on the Commander Islands— until in the eighteenth century they were discovered by Russian sailors and within a couple of decades all of them had been eaten. It was a great pity for them, of course, especially if we go by the hunters’ descriptions of these animals, peace-loving and inquisitive giants who weren’t afraid of human beings. When one dead cow was pulled out of the water, the rest, rather than running away, swam closer and tried to save it. But had they not all been eaten, we would now have, however bloodthirsty this may sound, the only marine animal of its kind, the meat of which was distinguished, apparently, by remarkable nutritional properties (though that said, if Steller’s cows had not gone extinct, then in all likelihood there would be whole organisations advocating bans on eating the meat of such charming creatures).
But let us return to beavers: from their example one can see quite clearly that endangered species ought to be preserved, but that this ought to be done thoughtfully. Sometimes the conservation of one or another species is something much more complicated than a simple ban on its hunting. It’s precisely for this reason that today in the Moscow region a huge number of rivers are being transformed into cascades of slow-flowing ponds, and that there are more and more beavers. I am in no way calling for the killing of beavers, my point is simply that the problem of protecting endangered species is not as simple as it may seem.
And what about the pollution of water bodies as a result of human activity?
Look, at the moment, the number of people on the planet is increasing, but if the dynamics of change in our population match the forecasts, then in the foreseeable future this process will slow down significantly, then stop, then completely reverse. But for now, our population is growing, and, in particular, the population density in cities is growing. It’s possible you heard the recent news that a few years ago the number of city-dwellers on our planet surpassed the number of rural-dwellers. This milestone is truly important—people are slowly but surely moving to the cities. Because of this, the burden on the environment is becoming very uneven—in some regions it is lessening, in others, for example, in the Moscow region, it is growing. It goes without saying that the more people there are, the more waste there is and the more actively you need to engage in agriculture, both crop production and farming. As a result, more and more organic substances find their way into water bodies, in the form of both washout from the fields and waste from the vital activity of domestic animals, and ours too. In enormous cities like Moscow, water-purification systems are vitally important, and because of this they are equipped—I won’t fear this expression—with the latest technology. In Moscow, there are two large water-treatment plants that do an ideal job of dealing with the flow of sewage, but in small towns everything is founded upon economic feasibility: equipping them with the most modern technology is not necessary. The main thing is to make sure that no pathogens or toxic substances flow into the river into which everything merges, but organic matter will get in there in any case. It follows that in those regions where the population is growing, the amount of organic matter in water bodies increases. Because of this, phenomena like algal-blooms occur—this is what we call massive increases in single-celled photosynthetic organisms, that can release toxins. For example, in the case of the active reproduction of cyanobacteria (they were previously called blue-green algae), water in ponds sometimes becomes dangerous for humans. The larger the anthropogenic burden is on the body of water, the less natural it will look, though it may remain attractive in terms of bathing. And it’s because of this that, unfortunately, we no longer want to swim in ponds that looked idyllic thirty years ago—in the first instance, because of the quantity of organic matter contained in them.
Is it possible to do something about this? It is, but doing so requires not insignificant resources. It’s customary to talk about the interaction of man with nature in apocalyptic tones: a nightmare, everything is lost, we ruined everything. In fact, our civilisation spends quite a lot of resources on understanding how to reconcile human activity—since we cannot do without it—with an environment that is comfortable to us. Therefore, the fact that some pond looks one way today doesn’t mean it will look that way forever. If the sewage water that enters it is regulated and its hydrological regime adjusted, it will quite quickly return to order. Continental water bodies are can easily regulate themselves due to the organisms that live within them and process extraneous organic matter—one simply needs to figure out how not to interfere with them and to make sure that no more organic matter gets into a given water body than these organisms can process.
And how do you see what is happening to the world around us in general? Our habitat is clearly not getting any better, and in some places is turning into an utter swamp.
It’s important to understand that our environment will alter because of us whatever we do, even if we gradually try to reduce our impact upon it. Let’s imagine we have a dacha settlement, at the centre of it a pond, everyone bathes in it, everything is in order—but if the settlement grows, then both the anthropogenic load on and the amount of waste coming into the pond will increase. And, because of this, the pond will become less pleasant for humans. In my view, if we’re talking about environmental protection, the focus often shifts slightly to the side. It seems to us that we need to protect nature from some kind of big, strong man that tramples upon her, but in reality this isn’t at all the case. Yes, a person can have a harmful impact on the environment in which they live—in ten years, they can easily turn a pond in which they enjoy swimming into a body of water that is unpleasant even to approach. But at the same time, the ecosystem of the pond reforms itself: some organisms disappear, some, on the other hand, appear, which is to say that for the pond itself, these changes are neither good nor bad, things simply change—but for us, of course, things become worse.
And here we come to a fundamental moment in my point of view: when it comes to assessing the level of anthropogenic impact on the environment, the damage that man inflicts on the environment, the attempt to minimise this damage, what we’re speaking about is precisely the destruction of our living environment. Personally, I relate to this as follows: of course, we would like for there always to be clean lakes, babbling brooks, and so on, but that will never be—wherever people settle en masse, streams become shallow, springs disappear, rivers go away, ponds are swamped. One can try to minimise this influence, but, alas, man is like a beaver, an edificator that alters its environment. The beaver cannot live without turning rivers into cascades of slow-flowing, lacklustre ponds. We often set man and nature against one another, but, from the point of view of fundamental biology, man is just a beaver, only a beaver with a greater ability to alter its environment. And that’s why, of course, one has to try—otherwise we would find ourselves in an environment in which it would simply be impossible to exist—but one also needs to understand that simply ceasing all our activities is impossible.
What do you think of contemporary eco-activism as personified in the figure of Greta Thunberg?
This, undoubtedly, is not a simple subject. Let’s return to the term “ecology”: fundamental ecological science deals with the study of the interaction of organisms with one another, and the totality of this knowledge allows us to make predictions about how this or that human activity will impact the environment. What will happen, for example, if we build a dam here, or cut down a forest there? These are all applied aspects growing out of fundamental ecology. But there is a slightly different approach, founded on the idea that man is bad, and that all changes he brings about in the environment are awful, and that one needs to try and prevent this from happening. And this is where everything is turned upside down. As I’ve already said, we save species that are dying out not for the sake of the species themselves, but for selfish reasons—we are simply striving to preserve our own habitat.
Are we consciously striving?
For the majority of human history, no one thought about whether we ought to preserve one or another endangered species. So the Auruchs disappeared, what is there to do about that now, or Przewalski's horses, who were practically eaten away, and the Amur tigers were almost knocked out. Perhaps the most striking stories in this regard are related to island fauna. From the beginning of the Age of Discovery, humans destroyed a large number of island animals, large animals suitable for food in particular. These animals included, for example, the Mauritius Dodo—the dodo bird—if we had preserved the species, then we would now have an ideal fowl. And because at that time biology was forming as an independent science, people began gradually to understand that biological resources were being wasted and that the habitat of extinct species was being irrevocably changed. Since the nineteenth century, we have been putting much effort into their conservation, but this has been done in the expectation that we may need them in the future. Conservation of biodiversity allows us to preserve the habitat to which we as the Homo sapiens species have become adapted to through the process of evolution, which is to say all this has nothing to do with “Oh, what a sweet Amur tiger, let’s save it.”
I am not at all against eco-activism, when people come out with actions in defence of one or another endangered organism. But sometimes this takes rather unusual forms. For example, the problem of plastic waste—at the moment, sorting through and recycling is gaining in popularity. This is useful, but there are nuances—without government-level decisions an independent person can’t do a thing, however much they fill their home with sorted plastic. Sorting is undoubtedly important, and is developing, although silently we believe that in Russia the recycling of waste is done very badly. Of course, we lag behind some countries, but the government cannot help investing money into this, given that in a single day a city like Moscow produces so much plastic waste that even from a purely economic standpoint they need to process it somehow—and not just bury it somewhere. But it’s important to understand the limits of what an individual person can do: as a society, we are slowly moving forwards in terms of recycling, however, it really isn’t necessary to fill one’s apartment from floor to ceiling with sorted plastic.
The same can be said of some global things. At the moment, in political discussions in many countries, one or another ecological model is used as an argument, often in an alarmist tone: if you don’t stop doing this, they say, then in twenty years or so we will all die. A classic example is global warming. The honest answer to questions about the danger of global warming is that we have yet to fully understand this process. We understand that man contributes to climate change, but we also understand that the climate changes without his participation. Over the last two thousand years, the climate in the northern hemisphere has changed quite significantly a number of times. If we take a timespan of a million years, then we can see that there have been many significantly warmer time periods than now—and also many significantly colder ones. Yes, the speed with which changes are taking place nowadays forces one, as a minimum, to consider and assess whether we take part in this process. Differing points of view are discussed within the framework of scientific discussions, but when a state begins to support one scientific point of view and ignores all others in doing so, then questions immediately arise. Encouraging hysteria around this or that ecological problem always looks like a highly dubious undertaking. Of course, it’s important to draw attention to the peculiarities of a person’s interaction with their environment, but it seems to me that in such cases alarmism can be no less harmful than complete disregard, as many important aspects can be simply overlooked as a result of it.
Translated by Charlotte Neve