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Sunday, December 20, 2009

THE SCIENCE OF UNDERSTANDING CONSEQUENCES

LIVING WITHIN OUR PHYSICAL MEANS

I was reading Frank Herbert’s semi-autobiography THE MAKER OF DUNE today, and I ran across a quote today that really rings true - even if it was written back in 1962: "Ecology is the science of understanding consequences".

That’s pretty profound, isn’t it?

Ecology, of course, is big news and big business these days. Everybody is concerned with greenhouse gases and carbon footprints, with a shrinking agricultural imperative and less and less food to feed more and more people, global warming which is going on even as I write this, with the fundies and the conservatives telling everybody loudly that there is no such thing, we’re all delusional and it doesn’t matter anyhow, because the technology isn’t in synch with the needs of emerging cultures, and so on and so forth. What I wonder about, sometimes, is pretty simple: Does this generation of Americans have the "right stuff" to meet the epic challenges of sustaining life on a rapidly warming planet?

Sure, the mainstream media are full of talk about carbon credits, hybrid cars, and smart urbanism - but even so, our environmental footprints are actually growing larger, not smaller. I mean, look at the way that we live now, for a horrid example. The typical new U.S. home, for instance, is 40 percent larger than that of 25 years ago, even though the average household has fewer people. In that same period, dinosaur-like SUVs (now 50 percent of all private vehicles) have taken over the freeways, while the amount of retail space per capita (an indirect but reliable measure of consumption) has quadrupled. So, are we ever going to wise up, grow up and start really trying to solve our problems instead of just talking about them?

Too many of us talk green but lead supersized lifestyles, giving fodder to the conservative cynics who write columns about Al Gore's electricity bills (which, since most of the electricity that the Gore family uses is 100% renewable energy, when it’s not manufactured right there on his property by windmills and solar panels, pretty much renders that particular argument moot). Our culture appears hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels, shopping sprees, suburban sprawl, and beef-centered diets. WILL Americans ever voluntarily give up their SUVs, McMansions, McDonald's, and lawns? I wondered about that, so I did some research, and the answers absolutely astounded me.

Here’s what I found out (Thanks to TruthOut.org, in an article written by Mike Davis entitled HOME-FRONT ECOLOGY, first published in the Sierra Club Magazine July/August 2007 Issue): “The surprisingly hopeful answer lies in living memory. In the 1940s, Americans simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home. My parents, their neighbors, and millions of others left cars at home to ride bikes to work, tore up their front yards to plant cabbage, recycled toothpaste tubes and cooking grease, volunteered at daycare centers and USOs, shared their houses and dinners with strangers, and conscientiously attempted to reduce unnecessary consumption and waste. The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history. Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans "to change from an economy of waste - and this country has been notorious for waste - to an economy of conservation." A majority of civilians, some reluctantly but many others enthusiastically, answered the call.

The most famous symbol of this wartime conservation ethos was the victory garden. Originally promoted by the Wilson administration to combat the food shortages of World War I, household and communal kitchen gardens had been revived by the early New Deal as a subsistence strategy for the unemployed. After Pearl Harbor, a groundswell of popular enthusiasm swept aside the skepticism of some Department of Agriculture officials and made the victory garden the centerpiece of the national "Food Fights for Freedom" campaign. Although suburban and rural gardens were larger and usually more productive, some of the most dedicated gardeners were inner-city children. With the participation of the Boy Scouts, trade unions, and settlement houses, thousands of ugly, trash-strewn vacant lots in major industrial cities were turned into neighborhood gardens that gave tenement kids the pride of being self-sufficient urban farmers. In Chicago, 400,000 schoolchildren enlisted in the "Clean Up for Victory" campaign, which salvaged als scrap for industry as well as cleared lots for gardens.

Victory gardening transcended the need to supplement the wartime food supply and grew into a spontaneous vision of urban greenness (even if that concept didn't yet exist) and self-reliance. In Los Angeles, flowers ("a builder of citizen morale") were included in the "Clean-Paint-Plant" program to transform the city's vacant spaces, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden taught the principles of "garden culture" to local schoolteachers and thousands of their enthusiastic students.”

Ok, so why aren’t we doing all of this now? Acutally, we are, thanks to the economic climate, and the appalling loss of jobs here in this country At least, some of it is being done. The “Cash for Clunkers” program is a wonderful example of ecological concerns in action.

Problem is, most of the other approaches that are being tried are brute-force approaches, and that’s not the best way to do something about the ecology. Y’see, gangers, it doesn’t matter when this particular approach is made, or when or by whom: IT DOESN’T WORK. It doesn’t work in our approach to living our lives without considering ecology. It doesn’t work because the ecology isn’t just one single problem, it’s a group of interconnected ones that start out with the culture that you live in, and go forward, backwards, sideways, up and down in 360 degrees of difference, and never the same way twice. You can’t clean up the earth without first cleaning up the industries that are poisoning that earth, you can’t clean up the water without cleaning up the aquifers, which means cleaning up the industries which are poisoning the earth where the aquifers are, you can’t clean up the air . . . etc, etc, etc.

In other words, it’s a whole-system problem, and it’s a cultural whole-system one. It includes, but is not limited to population processes, including reproductive behavior, mortality, bioenergetics and migrations, biomagnification, interspecific interactions such as predation, competition, parasitism and mutualism, plant and animal community structures and their function and resilience, and biogeochemical cycling. Because of its vast scope, ecological science is often closely related to other disciplines. So, this means that molecular ecology addresses ecological questions using tools from genetics, paleoecology uses tools from archeology, and theoretical ecologists use often highly complex mathematical models to explore how ecosystems and their elements function.

Confusing, ain’t it?

Aside from pure scientific inquiry, ecology is also a highly applied science. About 90% of natural resource management, like forestry, fisheries, wildlife management and habitat conservation to name just a few, is directly related to ecological sciences and many problems in agriculture, urban development and public health are informed by ecological considerations. The ecology in Yellowstone, for example, has balanced out with one small change: the re-introduction of wolves into the park. That’s it. That’s all.

So, why is this important to us?

Balance. One word. One concept. Balance. That’s something that all primitive people practiced, and it’s something that we have completely forgotten in our selfish rush to consume everything in our paths, with no thought of the consequences.

Balance. This is the theory that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium ( homeostasis ), which is to say that a small change in some particular parameter (the size of a particular population, for example) will be corrected by some negative feedback that will bring the parameter back to its original "point of balance" with the rest of the system. It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also applied to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's climate. This is what is not happening right now, and it’s almost too late to correct the process without a Malthusian catastrophe. Read up on Dr. Malthus some day; he’s an interesting and a fascinating man, and you ignore him at your peril.

Balance. It’s what we need, because right now, we are not understanding the consequences of our actions. We’re starting to, and that’s good. We’ve got to do better.

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