|"Pumping sulphur into the upper atmosphere is a plausible, and inexpensive, solution to global warming.. However, halting a sudden drop in temperatures would seem to be more difficult to achieve." |
I don't think anyone has a great track record of success in managing mother nature. The Indians managed buffalo by stampeding them off cliffs.
" Let us remember where we live, Kenner was saying. We live on the third planet from a medium-sized sun. Our planet is five billion years old, and it has been changing constantly all during that time. The Earth is now on its third atmosphere... Our atmosphere is as violent as the land beneath it. At any moment there are one thousand five hundred electrical storms across the planet. Eleven lightning bolts strike the earth each second. A tornado tears across the surface every six hours. And every four days, a giant cyclonic storm, hundreds of miles in diameter, spins over the ocean and wreaks havoc on the land. The nasty little apes that call themselves human beings can do nothing except run and hide. For these same apes to imagine they can stabilize this atmosphere is arrogant....." Michael Crichton - State of Fear
Yellowstone National Park by Michael Crichton
Long recognized as a setting of great natural beauty, in 1872 Ulysses Grant set aside Yellowstone as the first formal nature preserve in the world. More than 2 million acres, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. John Muir was pleased when he visited in 1885, noting that under the care of the Department of the Interior, Yellowstone was protected from "the blind, ruthless destruction that is going on in adjoining regions."
Theodore Roosevelt was also pleased in 1903 when as President he went to Yellowstone National Park for a dedication ceremony.
It was his third visit. Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote, and many thousands of elk. He wrote, "Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred."
But Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that "white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone."
What they didn't say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting animals for decades, even though that was illegal under the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew better. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.
What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. But to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, and so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years the numbers of elk in the park exploded. Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals, and noted they were more numerous than on his last visit.
By 1912, there were 30,000. By 1914, 35,000. Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and though they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. And bears were increasing in numbers, and moose, and bison.
By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and urged "scientific management." His advice was ignored. Instead, the park service did everything it could to increase their numbers.
The results were predictable.
Antelope and deer began to decline, overgrazing changed the flora, aspen and willows were being eaten heavily and did not regenerate. In an effort to stem the loss of animals, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge.
They eliminated the wolf and cougar and were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out; studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators had only made things worse.
Meanwhile the environment continued to change. Aspen trees, once plentiful in the park, where virtually destroyed by the enormous herds of hungry elk.
With the aspen gone, the beaver had no trees to make dams, so they disappeared. Beaver were essential to the water management of the park; without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer, and still more animals vanished. Situation worsened. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930. So in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning.
There were also persistent rumors that rangers were trucking them in; but in any case, the wolves vanished soon after; they needed a diet of beaver and other small rodents, and the beaver had gone.
Pretty soon the park service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive numbers of elk were not responsible for the park’s problems, even though they were. This campaign went on for a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.
Now we come to the 1970s, when bears are starting to be recognized as a growing problem. They used to be considered fun-loving creatures, and their close association with human beings was encouraged within the park:
Bear feedings were a spectacle in the 1930s. Postcards treated it humorously:
But now it seemed there were more bears and many more lawyers, and thus more threat of litigation. So the rangers moved the grizzlies away to remote regions of the park. The grizzlies promptly became endangered; their formerly growing numbers shrank. The park service refused to let scientists study them. But once the animals were declared endangered, the scientists could go in.
And by now we are about ready to reap the rewards of our forty-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear, all that. The Indians used to burn forest regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every summer. But when these fires are suppressed, the branches that drop to cover the ground make conditions for a very hot, low fire that sterilizes the soil. And in 1988, Yellowstone burned. All in all, 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned.
Then, having killed the wolves, and having tried to sneak them back in, the park service officially brought the wolves back, and the local ranchers screamed. And on, and on.
As the story unfolds, it becomes impossible to overlook the cold truth that when it comes to managing 2.2 million acres of wilderness, nobody since the Indians has had the faintest idea how to do it. And nobody asked the Indians, because the Indians managed the land very intrusively. The Indians started fires, burned trees and grasses, hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to follow that practice, and made things worse.
To solve that embarrassment, everybody pretended that the Indians had never altered the landscape. These “pioneer ecologists,” as Steward Udall called them, did not do anything to manipulate the land. But now academic opinion is shifting again, and the wisdom of the Indian land management practices is being discovered anew. Whether we will follow their practices remains to be seen.
Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must understand complex systems.
We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.
By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.
Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.
Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.
The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.
On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.
Why? Our human predisposition treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a cannon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing. Here the mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers.
One complex system that most people have dealt with is a child. If so, you've probably experienced that when you give the child an instruction, you can never be certain what response you will get. Especially if the child is a teenager. And similarly, you can’t be certain that an identical interaction on another day won’t lead to spectacularly different results.
If you have a teenager, or if you invest in the stock market, you know very well that a complex system cannot be controlled, it can only be managed. Because responses cannot be predicted, the system can only be observed and responded to. The system may resist attempts to change its state. It may show resiliency. Or fragility. Or both.
An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.
What, then, happened in Yellowstone? I would argue, people thought they understood the system. They thought they understood how nature worked. And they were wrong.
Let’s look back to the 1970s, the Club of Rome, Limits of Growth. They produced this chart to explain what regulates fertility.
Pretty simple, isn’t it? Unfortunately, within 20 years, scientists were saying nobody could predict population in any respect. They were starting to understand how diverse were the influences that impinged on population. They varied from time to time, from country to country. All theories failed.
Here’s another from the Limits of Growth, showing the relationship of capital to population. Isn’t it great they could fit it all on one page?
The point is, this is highly simplified thinking. But it continues to this day. Here’s a modern chart, from a sustainability website. It shows the relationships of pretty much everything: lithosphere, biosphere, market, community, customers. Who makes a chart like this? Who thinks the world operates this way?
Because look. It does not explain the world.
In fact, the chart on the right, showing everything, is absurdly simple. Nothing in nature is so simple. Here, for example, is a far more complex diagram. It represents the nerves in the stomach of the lobster.
The simplistic schematic diagrams I showed you earlier don’t even explain human complex systems, although they are much simpler than natural ones. Here is a financial market and you know—we all know—that if you were to make any single change, say, increase the price of crude oil, or charge a White House aide with a felony, you can not be sure how the financial system will react. Nobody knows.
People make their businesses out of trying to predict financial markets. But nobody can, except insider traders.
Here’s an article from the NY Times that says, we can’t even know the most fundamental features of our financial system. Is the nation’s productivity going up or down? Nobody knows.
If we can’t even understand the basic aspects of our own systems, what makes anybody think we can understand natural phenomena, that are thousands of times more complicated?
Because they are. Let’s take a little tour of some natural complexity.
Here is a sequence of chemical changes, the ATP cascade, that produces energy within the cell. As you see, one chemical chain reaction is more complex than the original diagram showing the whole world.
And here is where the energy is generated, the intracellular body known as the mitochondrion.
It has a complicated three-dimensional structure:
and here you see the mitochondria packed in heart muscle, where they generate energy needed for our hearts.
The heart pumps blood and inside the red cells there is a molecule called hemoglobin which, as you see, is far more complicated than the original drawing of everything. A single molecule in a single cell is vastly more complicated than that drawing of the whole world.
The heart that pumps these red cells is driven by an electrical potential that spreads across the muscle in a very complex way—a way that is now understood with the help of complexity theory. Here is a conventional image
and here is a video image of the cardiac conduction, from the department of biomedical engineering at Duke University.
The conception of natural processes that is demonstrated in this video is precisely what has been missing from environmental thinking. Thirty years later, it’s time for environmentalists to catch up. Stop worrying about decarbonization, which is taking care of itself, and start worrying about Yellowstone, which isn’t.
So, in conclusion: What happened at Yellowstone? I would say, somebody really believed the world operated like this schematic diagram. And they acted on that belief.
Because the diagram implies that things are simple: Kill the wolves, and save the elk. Move the grizzlies, and avoid the lawyers. And on, and on. It’s this simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking that must go.
And for that matter, who believes that the complex system of our atmosphere behaves in such a simple and predictable way that if we reduce one component, carbon dioxide, we will therefore reliably reduce temperature? CO2 is not like an accelerator on a car. It’s not linear (and by the way, neither is a car accelerator.) And furthermore, who believes that the climate can be stabilized when it has never been stable throughout the earth’s history? We can only entertain such an idea if we don’t really understand what a complex system is. We’re like the blonde who returned the scarf because it was too tight. We don’t get it.
Fortunately, studies show that we can learn to manage complex systems. There are people who have investigated complex systems management, and know how to do it. But it demands humility.
And I would add, along with humility, managing complex systems also demands the ability to admit we are wrong, and to change course. If you manage a complex system you will frequently, if not always, be wrong. You have to backtrack. You have to acknowledge error. You’ve probably learned that with your children. Or, if you don’t have children, with your bosses.
And one other thing. If we want to manage complexity, we must eliminate fear. Fear may draw a television audience. It may generate cash for an advocacy group. It may support the legal profession. But fear paralyzes us. It freezes us. And we need to be flexible in our responses, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. So we have to stop responding to fear:
Is this really the end of the world? Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods?
No, we simply live on an active planet. Earthquakes are continuous, a million and a half of them every year, or three every minute. A Richter 5 quake every six hours, a major quake every 3 weeks. A quake as destructive as the one in Pakistan every 8 months. It’s nothing new, it’s right on schedule.
At any moment there are 1,500 electrical storms on the planet. A tornado touches down every six hours. We have ninety hurricanes a year, or one every four days. Again, right on schedule. Violent, disruptive, chaotic activity is a constant feature of our globe.
Is this the end of the world? No: this is the world.
It’s time we knew it.
Thank you very much.”