Disturbance and Change

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Disturbance is a change in environmental conditions that causes a pronounced change in an ecosystem. Floods and fires are forms of disturbance; humans and other living things can also cause disturbance. Disturbance can renew ecologies as well as destroy them. How terrible a disturbance is depends on many things, including scale. Some disturbances are small: a tree falls in the forest, creating a light gap. Some are huge: a tsunami knocks open a nuclear power plant. Scales of time also matter: short-term damage may be followed by exuberant regrowth. Disturbance opens the terrain for transformative encounters, making new landscape assemblages possible.

Humanists, not used to thinking with disturbance, connect the term with damage. But disturbance, as used by ecologists, is not always bad—and not always human. Human disturbance is not unique in its ability to stir up ecological relations. Furthermore, as a beginning, disturbance is always in the middle of things: the term does not refer us to a harmonious state before disturbance. Disturbances follow other disturbances. Thus all landscapes are disturbed; disturbance is ordinary. But this does not limit the term. Raising the question of disturbance does not cut off discussion but opens it, allowing us to explore landscape dynamics. Whether a disturbance is bearable or unbearable is a question worked out through what follows it: the reformation of assemblages. […]

Disturbance matters in relation to how we live… Disturbance is never a matter of “yes” or “no”; disturbance refers to an open-ended range of unsettling phenomena. Where is the line that marks off too much? With disturbance, this is always a problem of perspective…

from “The Mushroom at the End of the World,” pp. 160–161