Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: our human experiment

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My host sat down on the patio and sighed happily: "We're in the county!" And so we are -- me for a brief break; she for the six months she spends in southern New England woodlands.

"The country" -- what does that mean? Certainly this is not the city. It's quiet here and the air seems clean.

But "the country" is certainly not wild. It is harsh, rocky farmland reverted to second and even third growth forest in the short span since Europeans took over here. The woods are full of mossy rock walls marking forgotten property lines. The locals love this land and protect it as well they should, but nobody would call it wild. At 65, even I remember the southern New England countryside as a cleaner, greener, less densely populated place.

These reflections reminded me of this article by Christopher Mims in which he seeks to rouse us to understand that humans have changed how the planet works and that it is up to us to ensure we enable it to function if we hope to live on it in any tolerable way. Here's how he demands our attention:

No one reading this has the slightest fucking clue what “nature” is, and in 1995 fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly proved it. In the paper that introduced the term “shifting baselines,” Pauly described how experts who determined how many fish should be caught often started with whatever the baseline state of the ecosystem was when they started their careers, instead of considering what a fishery might have looked like in the past, when it wasn’t nearly as degraded.

This phenomenon pops up all over the place. In 2009, researchers showed how residents of villages in Yorkshire, England suffered from “generational amnesia,” in which the older ones could remember an ecosystem that younger generations hadn’t a clue had ever existed. It’s not an unintuitive phenomenon: We consider “nature” to be whatever we experienced as children, and, limited by our incomplete grasp of history and our short lifespans, are only capable of recognizing short windows of change in what is by now the most profound transformation the Earth has experienced since the great extinctions of yore — that is, the human experiment.

As a result, few of us are aware that Boston harbor used to be so full of lobsters that the crustacean was considered a food fit only for the poor. Or that overall our Earth used to support a much greater wild, free-roaming biomass, from whales in the millions to old-growth forest ecosystems whose sheer tonnage dwarfs the denuded, “sustainably managed” forests of today.

Our lack of knowledge should not be construed as any sort of moral failing. It’s simply the consequence of a centuries long experiment in exponential population growth that is only just now coming to its apex. We’re currently witnessing the ascension of an ecosystem that cannot survive without the intercession of technology. …

The rest is as challenging as that introduction suggests. He demands that we use our clever brains and powerful technology to envision what a habitable world might look like. We're making the world of the future as we live in the now -- wouldn't it be better choose what it will be like while we still have some memories of the time before humans overwhelmed the planet's balance? Go read it all.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.