I don't mean to offend. It's probably going to happen anyway.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hey, Nature!

This is a long one, and went in a direction I was not expecting.

One of my long time favorite authors is Michael Crichton. For all that his books are at heart pulpy thrillers, the creative setups and grounding in real cutting edge science, usually mixed with a high concentration of plausibility and scientific trivia, appeal to me on many levels.

One of the things I've always liked about Crichton's work is his take on nature. He is far more respectful towards nature than most hippy environmentalists, when you really get down to it. To me, it seems that comes from treating nature on it's own merits, as best he could. He seemed driven by a strong curiosity, coupled with desire to understand things, and then educate the world about the things he came to understand. I was quite saddened to hear he had died a few years ago, because beyond writing books I enjoyed, I felt like reading them helped to open my eyes to the wider scientific world.

Looking out the window, it's easy to see a static environment. The same trees, most of the same plants, the same buildings, the same lawns, all looking much the same as they always do this time of year, and from day to day.  From our perspective and experience, it is. But on scales both larger and smaller than the one we fit in, the world is completely foreign, confusing, and fascinating.

Have you ever looked at dirt under a microscope? Pond water? Have you ever really looked at a leaf? Watched a beetle move? Looked at charts of air currents? The world that we call nature is immensely complicated, and far more involved that we generally think about.

Complicated systems are, well, complicated. The sheer number of factors involved in the natural world is staggering well past the point of incomprehensibility. While it can nicely be broken down by broad generalizations of stimulus/response and exploitation of energy gradients, applying those generalizations is rather like using a microscope and trying see the entire Sistine Chapel roof.

The other thing that entertains me is the extension of Heisenberg's uncertainty to all scientific study, in that it is impossible to study anything without influencing it. Whether you're sitting in a blind watching deer behaviors or using an electron microscope to study the physiology of a soil mite, it requires interacting with the system under study, adding a whole new set of factors.

This I think is one of the pitfalls of human vanity. It is all too easy to see humanity as separate or different from the natural world, and all the other complicated systems we interact with. Even with entirely human systems, like economics, this arrogance leads some to think that by changing one factor, everything will function identically. See the bailouts.

The fundamental failing of environmental regulation is that it is impossible to properly regulate a complicated system. All attempts at regulation of complex systems change factors far beyond the original scope and intent of the regulation. Add into that the irregular nature of the systems to begin with, and it becomes almost farcical.

This is not to say that all forms of management are impossible, merely that management of the natural world pretty much has to be a reactive sort. If we find that we're having a net negative (more on this in a moment) effect on our environment, it's possible to react and change some part of our interaction. However, given again the complex nature of the system, it has to be a constant process of reaction and study.

Now, here's the big thing. How do you define a negative effect? The standard line of the environmentalist movement would have that be stasis. To me, that is stupid on quite a few levels. First off, the earth is not, nor has it ever been, static. The only constant thing about life on this planet is that it changes. Even the most foundational notions we have about what life is fail in the face of nature. Phosphorus in DNA can be replaced by arsenic in certain life forms, and prions have no genetic structure whatsoever (leading to debate about whether they are in fact life, but just go with me here.) The geological epochs have had such widely varied forms of life as to be completely unrecognizable by modern standards. To say that the way life is now is the best, and any deviation or change is a thing of evil is ignorant almost to the point of farce.

Other factors include yet again the problem of preserving something you don't understand (how can we tell if a species of Andorran singing beetle goes extinct if we never knew it existed in the first place?) incompetence in execution of the plans (Dallas is spraying for west nile mosquitos right now, and have had major problems actually getting it done due to weather problems) and a few others of minor importance.

The biggest reason is that if we're going for minimal human impact or stasis or however you want to define that mindset, it's rather rough on humanity. Back a few thousand years, humanity's influence on the system they were in was lower. It was NOT nonexistent, by definition, but the modern humanity has a greater effect, even if for no other reason than there being more of us now. (And no, that isn't the only reason.) The thing is, the human standard of living has increased hundredsfold since that time. The state of life in nature of Hobbes and Locke, being nasty, brutish, and short, isn't my idea of a good way to live.

This is why I say that the only reasonable standard for environmental programs is what is best for the present and future good of humans. It's honestly the standard that every other creature in history has been using (theoretically) and it encompasses a lot of the good varieties of environmentalism. The green sorts decry this sort of mindset as destructive, and claim it will be toxic for generations down the line. The thing is, clear cutting forests, hunting species to extinction, and toxifying our environment may be convenient in the present, but it's a little less so for generations down the line. The constitution opens with ordaining for ourselves and our posterity. Likewise, keeping in mind the effects of current action on our posterity will keep things livable. What is livable for a human is in fact pretty nicely livable for lots of creatures. See again that we are an inextricable part of the system with largely similar needs.

There's lots more I could get into with this, particularly in regards to global warming, but I think this is enough for one post. If people like this sort of thing, I'll write more. If people don't like it, I might just write more anyways.


  1. Write more!

    Karma's a mean bitch, and the planet will spin happily on it's axis for eons after the last human walks it. We don't need to save the earth. we need to preserve our ability to live on it. An entirely different thing.

  2. I agree. This was a well-written piece, and I think you brought up a lot of good points. I'll hope to read more like it in the future!


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