The Socialist Mani-forest-o
Are you guilty of avoiding eye contact and hurrying past the Socialist Alternative tent outside the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne? Maybe you were genuinely in a rush or perhaps a little unsure of their political perspectives. Either way, don’t worry – I’m not here to convince you to sign any petitions.
Instead, I’m here to ponder the political leanings of ‘Mother Nature’ herself. Do you think she is more of a socialist or a capitalist? Lets take forests as an example to base our discussion.
The Capitalist Forest: Survival of the fittest
Besides being tranquil and beautiful, what else do you notice when you walk through a forest? Shade – it’s generally shady down on the forest floor. Plants grow to fill all the sunny spots in a forest because light is vital for photosynthesis. This leads to the shady multi-storey architecture of a forest canopy and the idea that plants must compete for resources (sunlight, water, nutrients) to thrive and reproduce. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is sometimes used to describe this concept in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
So does the tranquil setting of a forest belie a ruthless battle ground for precious resources? Plants such as the strangler figs seem to support this notion. Instead of starting life on the forest floor the seeds of these plants are dispersed by birds and germinate in the crevices of trees that have already grown tall. Boosted up off the forest floor they have instant access to sunlight. Following germination, strangler figs will grow long tentacle-like roots towards the ground. As the common name implies, these plants strangle their host trees by encircling the trunk and cutting off the flow of water and nutrients eventually.
This opportunistic and self-benefiting struggle for resources can be likened to capitalism, where competition (i.e. a competitive market) is one of the core principles. It is a system where all resources are up for grabs for those who have the means and take action. Individual species in the forest strive to accumulate resources for themselves. To continue the comparison, in capitalism resources are privately owned.
The Socialist Forest: Lean on me
However, as we know, relationships are complicated even with something as straight forward as the parasitic strangler fig and its doomed host tree. Scientists working in Lamington National Park, Queensland made observations of surviving trees after Cyclone Oswald swept through this tropical forest in 2013. They noticed that trees in a tangled embrace with the strangler fig were four times more likely to have survived the storm than trees standing on their own. The strangler fig acts like a protective scaffold during extreme weather conditions.
Still a far cry from being an equally beneficial relationship in the long term, examples like this indicate that the theory of evolution (i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’) might be more complex than each tree’s fight for survival on its own. Relationships are important. Sharing of resources (in this case structural stability) can make the difference between life and death – even if it is in the form of a suffocating embrace with a parasitic enemy like the strangler fig.
Dr Suzanne Simard champions the idea that the relationships between trees in a forest are more involved and complex than we once thought. She is a Canadian forest ecologist who discovered that rather than just competing for and hoarding resources, trees were able to share and exchange sugar and carbon (the products of photosynthesis) through an underground network of connected tree roots and mycelium (the thread-like root systems of fungi). Her experiments showed trees in sunnier positions giving away their own precious sugar and carbon to trees that were in less ideal and shadier positions (resource-poor neighbourhoods). They seemed to be leveling out the playing field for each other. This exchange occurred between trees of the same species (via the tree root network); but also between trees from different species such as birch and fir (via the mycelium network).
So perhaps a forest can be better compared with a socialist system where resources remain in the public domain and are distributed equitably for the good of the whole forest. These observations don’t necessarily put a spanner in the works for Darwin’s theory of evolution (i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’). Rather it requires a shift in perspective: the race for survival of individual plants and species is balanced out with building strength in the ecosystem as a whole.
We are still unsure of the extent of these nutrient exchanges and how they serve to increase the rate of survival for plants that find themselves in ‘poor’ neighbourhoods (i.e. low sunlight/water/nutrients). Nevertheless, Dr Suzanne Simard’s research forces us to rethink how resources flow through a forest ecosystem.
Finally, in answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post: Is nature more of a socialist or a capitalist? I’m afraid I’m going to have to be an annoying fence-sitter on this one. I have a feeling that it’ll turn out to be a balance of both. As with human society, there seem to be strong proponents arguing for both sides. As an ecologist, I always welcome diversity – both in species and points of view.