09 July 2008

Deep Green Thoughts

Environmental ethics is a big, convoluted subject. The common perception seems to be, WalMart = bad, giant polluting factories = bad, loggers and litterers and the big bad poachers and clear cutters and all the rest = bad. We’ve got that down.

But there’s also a concept that transfers the evil-doing to things like "invasive" species. For example, phragmites, aka the common reed, are often the recipients of the hatred of environmentalists because they sprout up like crazy in wetlands everywhere, choking out native species and generally lowering the biodiversity of the marsh. Environmentalists, and I use the term loosely, respond by hacking them to pieces and usually burning them, or applying some kind of herbicide in an attempt to clear the area.

Phragmites, however, are really just doing their thing. They thrive in areas high in nitrogen. Areas, for example, where there may be a lot of run-off from agriculture or communities with lawns. Areas where people are more likely to notice the overzealous growth of these very common plants and attempt to destroy them.

Really, however, the phragmites are not the criminals. They are doing what they do best, which is grow prolifically in areas where there is an excess of nutrients. The solution, then, is not to hack them to pieces, but to stop the excess runoff of nutrients from homes and parks and all the rest. Presuming, of course, our goal is to allow native species to return and flourish. In that case, the enemy would be… ourselves? Uh-oh.

There is a tendency to point fingers at the “bad guys” in the battle to save the planet. We tend to ignore the basic ecological principles that are in fact governing everything we do- for example, it’s really no surprise that we’re in the mess we’re in right now, and by that I mean the whole slew of environmental problems, from endangered species to pollution. Our instinct is to provide for ourselves as best we can, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. The catch is that when populations outstrip their resources, they typically die out. To return to the phragmites, imagine if the nitrogen ran out. The phragmites would die back. If it increased, they would come back. This is all logical and natural and perfectly sensible. You wouldn’t expect them to do anything else.

The same is true of humans, only on a much larger scale because we are so infinitely adaptable. This has allowed us to continue consuming resources for so long that we seem to have gotten the idea into our head that we will never run out, and that feedback mechanisms don’t apply to human beings. We seem to think we are exempt from the same rules that cause phragmites to die back. However, our own particular feedback mechanism will kick in sooner or later, and then we’re going to have a very, very, serious problem.

Unless, of course, we decide to do something about it. Humans did live, given in much smaller numbers, quite well with their environment, for thousands and thousands of years. It’s not impossible to readapt to living in a manner that will not result in the imminent catastrophic die back of our species. And it starts by realizing we’re not saving the planet. That’s a little egotistical of us. The planet can save itself, and if we all disappeared right now would get on very nicely. What we’re really doing is saving ourselves: saving the planet in a state that will still support human life.

… to be continued.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can the planet really heal itself from our damage? In most cases yes, but I wonder in the case of climate change. The current level of CO2 is 4 times the level the earth has ever seen in at least the past 600,000 years. We don't know the full extent of the damage that may cause, especially when you start factoring in all the CO2 feedback loops. Mars once had an ocean, but something upset the balance of that ecosystem so much that the planet's biosphere collapsed. There may be a point where we tip the scale too much and the earth can't recover.

In terms of the phrag, I think it is an important point that people need to stop being so reactionary and realize that directly managing invasive species is futile unless you also restore the malfunctioning native ecosystem/habitat that is allowing the outbreak. It's the typical American response of addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. However, sometimes the invasive species are the enemies. Granted, the blame ultimately lies with us for introducing them, albeit accidentally in some cases, but some of the invasive species, if left un-touched, will very aggressively invade even intact ecosystems and alter the soil chemistry, making it even less favorable to native species. In those cases, they are an enemy that needs to be eliminated.