The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future
for ourselves and for the planet

Now available as a Kindle e-book! Click the cover image at left.


The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I plan to release the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing as an e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think. You can enter your comments at the bottom of this page.

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16.Nature abhors zero.

This proposition is more commonly stated as "nature abhors a vacuum," but "zero" is a better characterization. Emptinesses of any kind - physical, biological, ecological, sociological - always tend to fill.

In the physical world, the filling process usually takes place through leveling. Gases flow from greater to lesser density; water flows downhill; the walls of wells collapse. Mountains become hills and then plains. Non-physical holes may fill through leveling, as well - that is what causes forests to spread into grasslands, or populations of blackbirds to distribute themselves relatively evenly through a field of cattails - but when holes are non-physical, creation also becomes important. New species may evolve to fill empty ecological niches. New ideas may take root in ideologically empty societies. It is unimportant to nature what form the new species or the new ideas take. The important thing is that the holes get filled.

It is this seek-and-destroy attitude toward zero which is behind the explosive growth of exotic species in new environments. The frightening speed at which zebra mussels have colonized the Great Lakes, or star thistle has spread through pastures in the West, can only have taken place because there was a zero to be filled. Competition is part of the picture, but not in the way that is usually thought. It is not so much species competing for niches as it is niches competing for species. When species compete for niches, the result tends to be a slow dance of give-and-take across the landscape. When niches compete for species, the result can be a surge.

Niche competition (as opposed to species competition) takes place because of zeros. One niche has an empty space in it: an otherwise similar niche does not. The invading species exploits that empty space, and as a result it gets a competitive edge. Zebra mussels have thrived in the Great Lakes partly because of our success at cleaning them up. The changes in chemical balance and water clarity that resulted from this cleanup, especially in Lake Erie, brought with them changes in the types of plankton that inhabit the water. This created a niche for a new type of plankton-eater. What could have happened was the invasion of a specialist in the new types of plankton, or an extension of the diets of the plankton-eaters already in the Lakes. What did happen was the invasion of a generalist which could thrive on both the new and old plankton species. The generalist niche outcompeted the specialist niches. There were human hands involved - that is how the plankton changed, and how the zebras got into the Lakes. But it was the existence of a zero - an empty space in the niche structure - that created the frighteningly rapid turnover from the native uniotid mussels to the encrustations of zebras that have taken their place.

It is also, however, what will eventually save us. There is a new zero in the Lakes - the absence of a predator on zebra mussels. That hole will eventually fill. We may not wish to wait for it, nor may we wish to risk the extinction of native mussel species while we wait; but the hole will fill. Something will find it. As long as nature abhors zero, it is merely a matter of time.

Environmental management is best thought of as techniques for managing zeros. We should try to keep them from cropping up, and when they crop up anyway, we should find the most benign way possible to fill them. If we choose the wrong way, we may inadvertently create new zeros, and something always comes along to take advantage of that. In the battle of competing factors, the only thing that we can be sure will always prevail is nature's abhorrence of zero.


Next week: No. 17, "Life is interdependent."

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Comments? Compliments? Criticisms? Please share your thoughts (your name will not appear unless you add it to your comments).


Click and type in a question or comment

Diane, you will see my views on that question developed in this space over the next few weeks - William Ashworth

Dave Forman, in his book, Take Back Conservation, (I have an autographed free copy thanking me for all of my work), says that we need to retain the idea that we value natural places and preserve them for their own sake, not for human-related reasons. I agree with that, while still recognizing that we need to maintain sustainability.We need both views.
Diane Newell Meyer

Looking forward to the next installment.