Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The God of Disruption – Is Genesis an ecological fable?

In the beginning was the disturbance: God disrupted the pristine formlessness of the deep and created the heavens and the earth. Literally in a flash. With His utterance, the darkness was relegated to Night; the light He called Day. Waters were separated from waters by an expanse, and the expanse was called Heaven. Vegetation, and their seed, sprouted from the Earth and then, the Good Ecologist provisioned vegetation with light to distinguish day and night, to separate the seasons, and to mark the passage of time. God started on the largest imaginable scale, and then He attended to the ecological details. On the fifth day the earth pullulated with creatures: birds in the air and the great sea swarmed with life. On the sixth day God successfully propagated the terrestrial surface with creeping things, beasts, and livestock. And then He made man and in giving him dominion over the creatures, explained the ecological services that each could provide – for instance, the plants He told him make good eating. When He rested, His creation was stable. That which He created in a cataclysm persisted in the aftermath.

When He was adequately restored, He resumed His labor. His tasks were now ones of governance rather than creation. The largest entities of all were stably in place – the heavens and the earth, the stars in the firmament, the day separated from the night, the seasons, the seas and the land, the vegetation and the creeping beings, the livestock and mankind. The world that God created though it persisted was an imperfect one. His creature, Man, fell and God expelled Adan and Eve from his Garden. The children of the first man and women fought and Cain slew Abel. The descendents of Adam were numerous; the very old gave way to the young; but God saw the wickedness of man and was sorry that He made him. In surveying the earth God thought it corrupt and was determined to disrupt it by ending all flesh. He commanded Noah, a righteous man, to build an ark, and on that ark Noah brought his family: his wife, his sons, his sons’ wives, and seven pairs each of all clean animals, and a pair each of unclean animal, and seven pair of each species of bird. And then God unleashed his Disturbance in the form of a flood. The flood remained for 40 days and the water persisted for 150 days. All flesh upon the earth died – beast and man. The sacrifice that Noah made of some parts of the clean animals and the clean birds pleased him and God made a covenant with man and with the animals. He determined never again to destroy all flesh.

Other more temperate disturbances that the Lord God visited upon the earth: he “confused” the one language shared by the descendents of Noah; He afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because Pharaoh had taken Abram’s wife Sarai. (The perplexed Pharaoh, given to believe Sarai to be Abram’s sister released her). God rained sulfur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah – obliterating the cities, killing the inhabitants, and destroying the plants. And so forth – the God of Genesis is an interventionist God.

One might quibble with the details of the biblical creation story; nevertheless, even the most materialist of environmental scientists would agree that at a systems level there is an essential correctness to the tempo of this account.

1. Short disruption, protracted consequences: In a six-day creative frenzy the biblical work of universe creation was completed; if you were on vacation that week, you’d have missed it. Likewise, the most widely accepted hypothesis of the genesis of our solar system, the nebular hypothesis of Pierre-Simon Laplace and others, involved a relatively short creative burst, where the sun and a disc of planets emerged from a rotating, flattened cloud of gas and dust. A hundred million years of creation has resulted in a relatively stable solar system that has persisted for thousands of millions of years (at least 4.5 billion years and counting). Stably despite the advent of man and the teeming host of creation.

For the most part, events of the greatest ecological consequence are just as fleeting. The massive eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18th 1980, accompanied by an earthquake of magnitude 5.1, deposited ash in 11 states, and produced a range of disturbances of ecological importance: pyroclastic flow, mudslides, and burial beneath the tephra etc. In the case of many so-called large, infrequent disturbances, the ecological clock is reset and though some residual seeds and plants may remain, vegetation is prevalently recruited from elsewhere. Though the more disruptive perturbations occurred within a matter of hours after the volcano, the consequences have been long lasting. In fact, the recovery of the terrestrial environment is still far from complete (see excellent account at http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/mtsthelens/research/index.shtml).

Just one more example: The Yellowstone fires in 1988, consumed over 3,000 km2, that is, a third of the National Park. Within a few months all the fires were declared extinguished. A blaze persisting for a few months on such an immense scale, like the volcanic eruption of Mount St Helens, has impacts that are felt on ecological systems for decades after. The hot flash of creation coupled with the slow tempo of the normal has been happening since ecological time immemorial. In Yellowstone this cycle has happen at least three times in the past millennium. A volcano of similar immensity has not occurred at Mount St Helens in over 150 years. And God created the world once.

2. The smaller the scale the more frequent the disturbance and the more modest the impact: Distinguishing large from small disturbances may, of course, be in the eye of the beholder. If I were a leaf-litter dwelling beetle (I’m not), a heavy rainfall, filling up the interstices of the detritus could be a life-altering deluge. From God’s perspective, the act of universe creation is a disturbance worth opening a holy book with. From the standpoint of the human, a rain storm is a nuisance, a hurricane can alter lives, and a flood requires an ark. From this human perspective then, disturbances can be defined based upon the statistical analysis of the event and the severity and duration of its effects. There is an ecological literature that has grown up around distinguishing the effects of large and small disturbance events. In some, though not in all, cases, disturbances that are large from the perception at the human scale can result in qualitatively different outcomes for systems affected. By this I mean that a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, a swarm of locusts, a massive conflagration, the retreat of a glacier, a sand storm, or an act of God, can reveal significant discontinuities compared to the former conditions.

In mundane circumstances large disturbances may generate new ground – lava flows cool, and soils form and plants colonize. World creation was exceptional: the biblical act that created a world, viewed from the perspective of disturbance theory, was a “large infrequent disturbance”. But God also visited smaller events upon His world: the flood was large; the leveling of Sodom and Gomorrah smaller; smaller still was the plague on Pharaoh. And what of the effects: the flood was considerably mischievous but the animals, the clean and the unclear, and the children of Noah were free to populate the world again upon release from the ark. One could say, ecologically, that God’s largest scale disturbances exceed the threshold of the ordinary mechanisms stabilizing the status quo. In the face of God’s lesser events, the world was resilient– the internal mechanisms of His creation withstood some of the disturbances He introduced.

3. The longer the interval the greater the probability of a large disturbance: The event of biblical world creation initiated processes and the system developed its unique trajectory. Genesis is the book of the generations of Adam – the process of begetting dominates the narrative for a while. And as the begetting gets going, more and more elements are introduced and the system develops considerable complexity. The connectivity between the elements – the people and the things – becomes greater, what with the slaying, the fornication; the war, pestilence and so forth. As the complexity, interactivity, and the sheer biomass (all that fructifying and multiplying of beasts and man yielding its hefty bounty) of God’s creation increased, the system becomes more vulnerable to God’s disruptive wrath. Genesis gets only as far as Chapter 6 before God pronounces on the wickedness of the world and his intention to blot man out.

Ecological systems may develop in ways that the writer(s) of Genesis described for creation as a whole. At the dawn of ecological creation – on the cooling lava fields of Mount St Helens, for instance, or at the edges of Hawaii where lava has solidified after spilling into the sea, plants grow slowly. The biomass of vegetation is low initially. But the vegetation and the animal communities accumulate more biomass – trees replace shrubs etc. – and the community becomes more complex (more pollination, competition, predation etc). To get a feeling for this “successional” process, take a walk along a successional trail in Hawaii, away from the coast and in towards the tropical forest. (Or less luxuriously, walk inland from the edges of Lake Michigan along the dunes.) When vegetation reaches its “climax” it becomes, according to some theories at least, increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic disturbance – a fire, a disease outbreak, a hurricane. In this view of things, emerging primarily from “resilience thinking”, systems need to be understood as a balance between internal mechanisms that maintain a system in a somewhat stable state, and disturbances that smash the system and hurtle it towards some new condition. We will explore this in a future post.

4. Outside the system: Finally, in this account of creation (yes, and destruction) God is outside the system; He brings the universe into being and supervenes upon his creation. Is man akin to his Creator in being likewise outside of Nature?

In the history of ecology, disturbance has variously been seen as external to the disrupted system, or alternatively, as part of the system, or finally, different disturbances have been classified as either one or the other (some being part of the system, others being outside). One’s perspective on this question might be quite significant. If one were to assume that disturbance is part of the dynamics of a system, as ecologists are increasingly inclined to, then it may become more difficult to distinguish between these internal disruptions and the disturbances introduced by human activity. And if we find it difficult to justify discriminating human-caused from “natural” disturbances then the question of how to administer out disruptive affairs becomes one of immense complexity.

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