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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hey, Nature! Part the second

I touched on this in passing in Hey, Nature!, but I feel it deserves a post of its own.

There's a special breed of arrogance that is endemic to the regulation of nature (and, coincidentally, regulation of most other things, but more on that later.) The science cannot give a full picture, yet regulators and an unfortunately large number of scientists try to make sweeping, grand plans based on incomplete information.

There are two things I want to complain about. First is the arrogance of assuming we can understand a complicated system, and second is the arrogance of assuming we can control that system. The first will be of greater brevity than the second, as I spent most of last post talking about complicated systems.

There are several handy 'insanity tests' that apply here. First off, altered reality testing, being the inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. We can see that as scientists talk about absolute truth, and "settled" science. Any scientist deserving of the title should know the extent of their own ignorance. Those who would regulate do not.

Global warming is an excellent example here. I'm not going to get too much into the actual studies and validity of the claims, because that's a kettle of worms even I'm not crazy enough to open. Head over to Borepatch for that, as he is better informed and better at presenting the information than I am.

Let's just stop and think for a minute about the system. Most claims of global warming are based on a series of computer models. Computers in this day and age are mindbogglingly powerful. (Seriously. Stop for a minute and consider the machine on which you're reading this.) Video games are approaching photo-realism, and mathematical models have come up with answers to age old mathematical puzzles. Silliness like taking the Ackermann function with Graham's number as the arguments is actually computable with modern processing. (I think. Maybe a bad example. That's a really, really big number) Here's the problem. Climate is even bigger.

Quite literally everything that happens on this planet (and on quite a few of our neighbors as well) is capable of altering climate in some manner. While the butterfly effect is rather an extreme case, the fundamental principle is sound. At the very least, every tree, every parking lot, every volcanic bubble, every air conditioner, and every methane spewing cow will have an effect on the system. As you can imagine, tracking all of these variables is essentially impossible.

What you may not imagine is just how difficult even basic tracking is. For instance, one of the most widely quoted studies on global warming disregards a very potent greenhouse gas.  Lest you think this gas is just found in such minor quantities as to be irrelevant, it's water vapor, which, last I checked, is rather a major component of weather and climate.

Computer models have their place, don't get me wrong, but the incredible arrogance needed to take their results as gospel is rather irksome. Like it or not, we have an incomplete understanding of our environment, and we likely always will. Attempts to control that which we do not understand is senseless.

The second insanity test that comes to mind is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While certain measures have been somewhat effective, they tend to be in the direct interaction of humans and the environment. Entertainingly, hunting regulations (the evil hunting which environmentalists decry, by the way) tend to be among the best regulatory actions, as managed deer herds and stocked fishing lakes tend to be healthier and more robust than their wild counterparts. The distinction with those actions though is in the difference between management and regulation.

Management for the point of this exercise is a reactive process. As problems become apparent, such as a deer herd consisting of too many old deer who are unable to produce as many healthy offspring, the management process will make some change to the HUMAN interaction with the environment to counteract the problem, such as killing off only female deer 7 years or older one year. Reactions with a focus on human action and direct acknowledgement of the changing nature of the environment is management.

Regulation meanwhile is a proactive process. As environmentalists realized that spotted owls in California were dying off due to habitat destruction. The management solution would be to simply stop cutting down quite so many trees, if the survival of the spotted owl was deemed an appropriate thing to work on. Instead, the EPA put spotted owls on the endangered species list, there were bans placed on logging and other habitat destruction, they planted a great deal of new forest, and I believe they killed off some predators as well, though I am uncertain on that.

The net effect of this was, indeed, a resurgence in the population of spotted owls, to the point where there are actually too many of them. A non-native species of predatory owl has moved into the areas, and are preying on the spotted owls, as well as on everything else in the area. The solution to this has been to shoot the invading owls. This does not seem an ideal situation to me. By attempting to fix, not just manage, the environment ended up far more disrupted than it otherwise had been.

The best example of this is in the National Parks. Reading their history, particularly in the early days, is like a laundry list of failed practices. Wolves in Yellowstone were completely extirpated, then reintroduced, with massive chaos both times. Attempts to control the environment failed miserably, and pretty consistently made things worse.

It's hard to conceptualize on that sort of scale though, so let's take a smaller approach.

As I have established already, I am an amateur aquarist. I am staring at my 6 gallon nano-reef right now, and I spent a good bit of the evening planning out a species tank for dwarf seahorses. I am still distinctly an amateur, but there are some things I can say about the hobby.

One of the hardest things for people new to the hobby to get into their heads is that it is better for a tank to be stable at less than ideal conditions than to be constantly fluctuating closer to ideal values. The aquarium industry has supplements and equipment and testing material for pretty much every aspect of water chemistry you would care to know, and it would be very easy to spend thousands of dollars on maintenance stuff. For really advanced stuff, some of that can be useful, and it can be useful to correct for the unexpected chemical upsets in your system.

For most people's purposes though, screwing with your water chemistry will stress your inhabitants and kill things. I have known people who were so irritated at their pH being .2 outside of ideal that they spent loads of money to get the balancers and buffers, only for the abrupt change in pH to kill half their tank. Heck, I've done similar things myself (though thankfully not with my reef.)

Quite simply, apart from those things that are necessary by the aquarium's nature as a closed system (energy in, waste out) there are fairly few things that really should be fiddled with, and most of them (strontium, magnesium, calcium and the like) are included in the salt mixes people in the hobby use. It can be frustrating to see that despite your best efforts, your calcium levels are a little out of spec, but it's most often something that is truly well enough left on its own.

The thing to understand is that despite the fact that we as keepers can control most everything that goes into and comes out of our tanks, we do not control the tanks. They are living systems, and it is our job as keepers to maintain equilibrium, rather than create the ideal. Striving for perfection is impossible, and the damage done in the effort is potentially catastrophic.

I just spent perhaps more money than I should have on a new setup. I will be keeping dwarf seahorses, hippocampus zosterae, in a species only setup. Seahorses are generally considered to be difficult to expert only critters to keep, because of both their delicate nature and their specialized diets. They are native to estuaries and grass flats around florida. This is, correspondingly, their ideal environment.

For people who live on the Florida coast, this is a simple thing to recreate, as, well, you don't actually have to replicate anything, as the original is at your disposal. At some point, I want to live in a coastal location and put together a tank in this manner.

For now, though, I am sitting in Texas. Quite simply, I am incapable of replicating precisely Floridian water conditions, and even if I cared to, the water wouldn't keep if I were to order the water directly from Florida. We can, however, get a stable system that is close enough to the ideal for the creatures to thrive.

This is basically the point that I'd make for everything. Close enough in these matters really is good enough. There are too many unknowns to make perfection possible, and considering that the system is imperfect to begin with, it's just silly to try for it. Change is the way of things, and we are not separable from the world in which we live. The distinctions of artificial and natural are, well.... artificial.

Pride is considered a deadly sin for a reason. Environmentalists on the whole really need to take a step back and look at the big picture, and I mean the REALLY big picture. This planet will spin on long after we're gone. Thinking we have the capacity to threaten that is... arrogant. Thinking we can act without changing it is similarly arrogant. Nature has an interesting habit of swatting arrogance, and I'd rather not get swatted, myself.

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