All Things in Moderation

So what’s the problem? If some algae are good (very good), isn’t it better to have even more? Nope.

Aristotle was a cool dude. Wicked smart, and he had a heck of a beard, at least according to the artist Raphael. Just take a look at The School of Athens fresco. That’s Aristotle in the middle with the blue robe, next to the rather unkempt Plato. What a dashing man.

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who studied under Plato in the 300s BC. One of Aristotle’s classic philosophies was known as the “golden mean.” This principle essentially states that, in the face of two opposite extremes, the middle point between the two is generally the most desirable.

Today, the concept can be found in many different places. In religious traditions, Confucianism calls it the “Doctrine of the Mean” and Buddhism calls it the “Middle Path.” In clichés, we find it in the phrase “all things in moderation.” In modern fairy tales, we find it in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

I’ve been reminded of the golden mean in the wake of Florida’s recent struggles with algal blooms. If you haven’t heard about them, check out this article, and this one.

In general, algae are important and beneficial forms of life. There are many different types, ranging from microscopic cyanobacteria to giant kelp, which can grow to over 100 feet in length. They form an integral part of many ecosystems, and it appears that they are the organisms most likely responsible for the oxygen in our atmosphere. Turns out these organisms are photosynthetic powerhouses.

So what’s the problem? If some algae are good (very good), isn’t it better to have even more?


It turns out that when a body of calm water becomes rich in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, it can lead to an explosion in the growth of algae, i.e. an algal bloom. Algae can grow extremely quickly, but their life spans tend to be short. Thus, algal blooms result in large quantities of decaying algae that, as they break down, consume most of the dissolved oxygen in the water.

The result is water without enough oxygen for other organisms, threatening the viability of entire ecosystems. Algal blooms can also result in green, sludgy muck in lakes and along beaches, which just so happens to be bad for things like the tourism industry in Florida.

One of the big culprits in the problem of algal blooms is industrial agriculture. It relies too heavily on massive applications of fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorus, which inevitably run off into water ways. The bad news is that these practices are extremely prevalent in our agricultural systems. The good news is that they are within our ability to control.

And if we make the right changes, we can ensure our water ecosystems have algae counts that aren’t too high and aren’t too low, but are just right. I think Goldilocks would approve.