Tuesday, March 29, 2016

My Dad turns 89

The Da clocking up some impressive birthday numbers today. An eccentric, entertaining, and very mildly irrasible man. Indefatigable too.

A good naturalist in his day - very fine knowledge of the Mollusca. And, by the way, a commendable writer. Also a dab-hand with the ole paint brush back in the last century. Pretty good story-teller, I should mention. A compassionate fellow, by the by. A person of solid and inspiring faith now that I'm at it. Not afraid to call out bullshit, for that matter, which got him denounced by the old Monsignor from the pulpit. Did I mention that he laughs till he cries at certain things?

Supportive fellow to his kids. I once woke him up in the middle of the night because a friend who was descending into madness needed to be chauffeured home. Not a fecking bother on him.

Loves the mother, Goddamn but that man loves that woman. I
n his own way, I suppose, though I once saw him slip his arm around her waist in the kitchen when he thought that we, their truckload of kids, weren't watching. Kissed her softly. Has a great fondness for apples, and highly critical of contemporary developments in apple husbandry. Anyway, it's that fellow's birthday.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Quiet Companionship of Beasts

Image from Play With Me, by Marie Hall Ets (1955)
Play with Me (1955)
Story and pictures by Marie Hall Ets

Liam Heneghan

A poorly drawn girl strides arms akimbo into the meadow. The girl has yellow hair gathered back by white bobbles. Before her is a tree, roughly drawn with a series of charcoal  strokes. About the tree grows scattered vegetation, also roughly drawn. A grasshopper, represented obscurely by a black squiggle, has settled on a lolly-pop shaped leaf. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The little girl interrogates the grasshopper. Will the grasshopper play with her? His answer is mute though emphatic: he leaps away. Behind him the lolly-pop shaped leaf retains chomp marks, for the grasshopper had been at meal. A nearby frog, cautiously stares at her. He too contemplates food; he is waiting to catch a mosquito. The frog resists the child’s efforts to engage it in play.  In answer to her efforts to catch him, he too leaps away with a marvelous abandon: his legs splay wide, his arms splay wide. A turtle resting on log also resists this girl’s mania for play and plops back into the pond. A chipmunk runs up a tree, a blue jay scolds her and flies from the girl’s pleading and outstretched arms, a rabbit runs for his life, and a snake slinks into his hole.

Deserted by the creatures the child settles into a desultory mood. She blows milkweed seeds from their kernel, and slipping into a milder register still she noiselessly sits down by the pond. She gazes at an insect navigating the surface waters. In her silent watchfulness the animals now return. Not exactly for play at first, but for that sterner form of communion, namely silent companionship. The grasshopper sits near her, as does the frog. The turtle returns to his log. One by one, chipmunk, blue jay, rabbit and snake return. With these animals delicately comes a fawn who approaches the child and licks her cheek, kissing her as if in reward for what the girl learned that afternoon. In their own way, can not each in this merry little community be said to be at play? It is not perhaps the more violent play that the yellow-haired girl had envisioned. There is no romping, there is no cavorting. Rather this is play with the gravitas that attends respectful beings when they convene. No doubt moments later the grasshopper will return his attention to the loppy-pop leaves, and the frog will take up his station hunting mosquitoes. But right now none of this company are making demands upon the others, each animal, a solitary emblem of their kind, is paused in a quite chain of being. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The yellow-haired girl learned in that afternoon what we have been unlearned since the time of the Greeks, though the naturalist did not forget it: beings emerge from their literal and ontological un-concealment when we patiently abide by them. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Conceptual Issues Framing an Assessment of Human Impacts of Earth Systems

Preamble: An existential crisis occurs when an impact is so great that it is transgenerational in scope and terminal in intensity.
Qs Are human impacts on Earth systems existential risks, or are they globally endurable? What other disciplines assess global risk?

A. In conformity with the “uniformitarian” guiding principle (Lyell et al), we should regard ourselves as products of the same ecological and evolutionary forces that produced all other species.
Qs If nature produced us, are we natural? Is “catastrophism” compatible with uniformitarian principles?

B. Just as amoebae acquired pseudopodia and the aardvarks their long protruding tongues as a way in which it survives, we humans benefit from certain evolutionary legacies: for example bipedalism, cognitive complex, technical know-how and a capacity for culture. These sufficed to keep humans in the evolutionary game during the tough times, but appear to have “overproduced in times of plenty.”
Qs Is cultural change part of our evolutionary toolkit, or is it distinct from all other evolutionary products? What is it to be human from an environmental perspective?

C. One of our evolutionary peculiarities, humans relative flexibility in life history strategies, which flexibility allows for cultural influences on our birth and death rate regimes, facilitated our transition from a rare tropical species to one that is now ubiquitous and with a population size of almost 7.2 billion.
Qs Are there other species that once were rare and now very common?  Why was the transition to agriculture so consequential from a human life history perspective?

D. By many metrics including carrying capacity, ecological footprint, and the human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP) — each with some inherent limitations and uncertainties — we are imposing unsustainable impacts upon the natural world and its ability to furnish us with the goods and services we need.
Qs Is there a limit to human numbers, or are humans their own limitless “ultimate resource?” 

E. Fortunately, not all aspects of nature are inherently fragile: many systems have incorporated a degree of “resilience” in the response to impacts (either from human or non-human sources). Admittedly, we have not been historically adept at distinguishing resilient from friable ones.
Qs Distinguish engineering from ecological resilience? If disturbance is incorporated as an inevitable component of “adaptive cycles” is it possible to categorically distinguish human-inflicted disturbance from disturbance emanating from the rest of nature? [Ecology's "God is Dead" moment!]

F. Recent conceptual advances in our ecological understanding invite us to jettison notions of balance, climax community, steady-state systems, and linear change. Replacing the “old ecology” are notions that multi-state systems, integral disturbance, critical transitions, ecological resilience.
Qs Does resilience thinking not merely smuggle the language of balance back into ecology? [Extra points: use your understanding of panarchy to foment world revolution.]

G Tasks for the future include being able to assess impact with reference to the resilience of systems, and, for those with an engineering or management orientation, and building resilience into systems that are likely to catastrophically flip to less desirable states.
Qs What are the essential features of a resilience complex adaptive system such as a human-dominate landscape? Is there a role for ethics - also, presumably, and evolved human characteristics - in determining our relationship with the rest of nature?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Wilson's Half World

If global problems were written by professors merely to perplex students, the intersecting problems of global human inequality and global biodiversity decline would merit tenure and promotion (assuming, that is, a fictional world where professorial teaching is admired and rewarded). Stripped of their immediate ethical and practical importance — admittedly this is the primary reasons we are paying heed in the first place — the problems are fascinating because solutions to them seem, at first glance, to be in competition. World global biodiversity peaks in those geographical areas where economies are relatively undeveloped, where population growth rates are high, and where poverty is at times extreme. To solve one is to exacerbate the other.
In the oldest paradigm for biological conservation – the one that informs Wilson’s work – the task of conservation is achieved by setting aside large reserves. The larger the better: “single large”, to use the coinage of applied ecology, rather than “several small” reserves. And if one sets aside land that radiates out from the so-called biodiversity hot-spots, this, according to the old paradigm means that biodiversity conservation is achieved with some loss, or at least modification, of human economic ambition. So, unless one can find ways of growing economies in a manner that simultaneously reduces their resource footprint and lowers population size and per capita impact then people and nature will be at loggerheads to some extent at least.
The newer paradigm for conservation that optimistically embraces novelty, welcomes non-native species, endorses conservation strategies in anthopogenic landscapes, holds out the prospect of doing conservation — preserving ecological function at least — without large preserves. As an urban ecologist, involved in restoration work in Chicago, I find myself optimistic about some aspects of such scenarios. But one shouldn’t kid oneself: such strategies will work for adaptive species, those that are already disposed to getting along with the humans. Very often the optimists found their optimism on thin science (see, for example, my review of optimist Fred Pearce’s The New Wild here:https://lareviewofbooks.org/…/is-there-need-for-the-new-wil….)
Thus, my fear at least is that global biodiversity will drain down the massive sinkhole opened up by our optimism.
In an ideal world the lion of human economic acquisitiveness would be able to settle down with all the vulnerable lambs, insects, microbes and so forth that collectively constitute global biodiversity. It may be the Wilson’s solution is unworkable, and we may not, justifiably have the stomach for the choices we face. But as we dither, we lose. I certainly agree with the authors of this opinion that “addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality” but I have yet to hear a solution to the conundrum of balancing justice for vulnerable populations and conservation of the rest of nature.
If God is a professor, She will get tenure for this case study.

This was my response to https://aeon.co/conversations/how-much-of-the-earth-should-be-set-aside-for-nature-conservation