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Life Arts

What do you mean, "ecology?"

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Americans are perhaps the only people who do not believe in climate change, despite unusual warm winters, unheard of high temperatures in summer,, floods, storms, out of season tornadoes. And so they are also kept ignorant of ecology, how nature works on this planet. A long time ago, when I studied ecology, came across this example about the dynamic interactions between sun, rain, grass, rabbits and hawks. Rabbits eat grass and so keep grass from getting out of hand. Hawks eat rabbits and so keep rabbits from multiplying so they won't eat too much grass. But if one year there is not enough rain there won't be enough grass to feed the rabbits sufficiently to reproduce their number. The next year fewer rabbits; hawks go hungry and the year after that there will be fewer hawks. Fewer hawks leave more rabbits to reproduce, who eat more grass than can regrow. Whenever I tried to understand these complicated relationships of such a simple story I got only wild swings, not the balance that the book said ecologies make. The example, of course, was of an ecology much too small.  An ecology with only three species would be wildly unstable. The more variety an ecology has the more stable it is. 

The Hawaiian islands are so isolated, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2500 miles from the nearest continent, that it must have taken a long time for Life to reach these volcanic islands. Coconuts float and may live long enough to maintain their ability to grow a tree when they happen upon a shore. Some plants and insects could have floated on a piece of driftwood. Larger animals must have come much later, brought by floating trees or floating mats of wood and a bit of soil torn off by a storm. or even by humans who came long before Captain Cook in 1776. People who have studied this found that for a while there was only one bird species in these islands; called honey creepers. A small island's growing ecology needs more than one kind of bird. And so it happened that from that single honey creeper species more than forty, now considered distinctly separate species, evolved. In a remarkably short time. 

An ecology needs variety. A threatened ecology speeds up evolution. That means ecology and evolution are closely tied, aspects of the way Life on this planet lives. Life needs many forms, shapes, functions to be alive. Too little variety is a threat to Life, which evidently then results in making new forms, shapes, functions, in a hurry--relatively speaking, of course. 

Scientists have studied planet-wide extinctions of many species in the distant past, always followed by accelerated evolution forming new species. The balancing act of ecologies needs the creativity of evolution, which is simply the consequence of very small (maybe, probably, random) changes in new individual life that sometimes give an advantage and so reproduces. Evolution and ecology must be aspects of the same principle. The two concepts belong together.

In other essays I have expressed my idea that Einstein's formula of matter and energy leads to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which says that all energy slows down to eventually die: entropy. I think of the stream of Life as anti-entropic. Life renews where matter/energy is death. Somehow, somewhere, Life belongs in E=MC2. But I am not a physicist nor a mathematician, just an imaginative human.

Those who have observed, studied, reported on the intricate balances of the natural world have noted that all ecologies need and make balance. The balance of plants and animals. many different kinds of plants and many different kinds of animals. The balance of what we call predators and prey. The balance of flowers and the flying or creeping animals that fertilize pollen to make seeds that can grow into  new life. All ecologies, including the planetary ecology, need variety of species to maintain that essential balance. Evolution makes the variety.

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We have many stories of what happens when, for instance, predators are eradicated. The big predators, lions, tigers, wolves, keep their prey, grazers, balanced so that the grazers do not denude the earth from green. Where we eradicate the predator the deer multiply beyond the ability of plants to feed them. Deer raid suburban gardens when there are no mountain lions any more. The current epidemic that kills bees is affecting the fertilization of plants that rely on bees. There are other fertilizing animals of course, birds, butterflies, but it takes a while for a species to change its normal partners. 

The planetary ecology is full of examples of "co-evolution," a flower and a bird that have evolved together so that the flower can only be fertilized by the bird that has a beak with exactly the same curve that the flower requires. If one, for whatever reason, dies out the other dies out as well. But nature makes new species when needed.

All ecologies need species that clean up the messes that "higher" species leave. Plants need the excrements of animals, but too much would kill them. The garbage brigade usually is small but plentiful: beetles, other creepers, bacteria. Recently I read that our human body includes more bacteria of more different kinds than muscle, fat and bone tissue combined. We need bacteria, but the right kind in the right quantity in the right place. We are unaware of that; probably a good thing, because now we canot meddle. Unfortunately many of the new chemicals that drug companies invent to kill one particular bacterium has "side effects." Side effects of our meddling are often more dangerous than what we meant to kill. 

Our great talent has become meddling with pieces of the whole that we don't know enough about. And so we have destroyed or critically damaged many local ecologies and now the planetary ecology. We've done a great job eradicating most of the large predators. We are doing great jobs eradicating plants and bacteria we do not like. Probably in every case our meddling causes side effects we did not think about. We have become expert at killing but ignorant about keeping the flow of life alive.

For thousands of years we, humans, fitted somewhere in the middle of the ecology of the planet as well as in the local ecologies we happened to find ourselves in. We fitted in by eating plants and occasionally animals but never more than nature could easily replace. Our numbers were fairly stable for many thousands of years. If we produced too many offspring all but two did not make it to when they could reproduce. We ate what we found, made shelter, clothes, a tool, from what there was.

Now we think ourselves outside the planetary ecology, the biosphere. We imagine ourselves totally different from animals, the boss of this planet. We think we own the planet and can do with it as we will. The consequences of this exceptionalism are dire.  

A few centuries ago we made a concerted effort to eradicate buffalo, wanting to make what we imagined to be an enormous area of fertile grass land into farms. For a short while we did have fertile farms on small lots. Then we pushed farmers off the land and made agribusinesses with ever larger farms, growing one crop on thousands of acres. I'm sure we learned after a year or two that the soil was not as rich as we had thought it was. Because growing one crop on a thousand acres takes certain minerals and biomass out of the ground, and of course also stimulates whatever pests there are for that one crop to multiply manyfold. I remember in the middle years of the last century that farmers--still relatively small farmers--thought of alternating crops. Corn one year, wheat, barley, the next.  But when the really big farms took over we invented chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What once was a balance between buffalo and grass and, I am certain, a variety of predators to keep the buffalo in balance, now is a totally artificial chunk of land that can only be used with enormous amounts of chemical. For at least half a century we have known that monoculture is not sustainable. It does not work as nature works. Nevertheless, the huge agribusinesses continue this artificial process that needs ever stronger chemicals, many if not all of them made from oil.  

Somewhere I read there are only six corporations that control most of the food production of the entire planet. Books have been written about food in the 21st century. Unless you buy food at a farmers' market all food sold in America and probably in at least half of the rest of the world is factory produced, wrapped in one, two, or more layers of plastic. Our landfills are filled with tons of mostly not biodegradable plastic -- that means the plastic remains, does not disintegrate, for 50,000 years. 

Manufactured food is not the same as natural food. It is made to have "shelf life," vitamins and other substances are subtracted and added. Color is added, probably fat, salt and sugar. In short, it is not the food our grandparents ate.. 

In rich countries we expect to eat fresh strawberries in winter, fresh orange juice the year around. Food is transported around the world. Transportation (train, truck, plane) accounts for much of the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere. Plane loads of everything edible from everywhere to everywhere else. Heard from an American who lives in Germany that he and friends had breakfasted on durian. Durian is an infamous fruit that grows in tropical SE Asia. It has a short season. The fruit is the size of a large coconut, has spiked bumps on a hard skin. If you hit it just right you can split it in half with a machete. Inside are large pits in a slimy white edible and very smelly substance. My mother would not tolerate durian anywhere near our house, she said it smelled like turpentine and rotten fish. I always thought it was a smell and taste you had to grow up with to appreciate. The penetrating smell stays around for a long time. But perhaps in Germany it does not smell so much. For breakfast? Hard to imagine.

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robert wolff lives on the Big Island, called Hawai'i
his website is wildwolff.com

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that every human should be familiar with, as a nor... by Daniel Geery on Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 1:25:38 PM
Couldn't have said it better.  Great article.... by Burl Hall on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 4:48:23 AM
From the first sentence, I know that you don't kno... by Roger Stritmatter on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 10:03:34 AM
I would add that there is quite a bit of catch-up ... by Greg Koch on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 12:55:57 PM
We are on board for the changing of an age. What w... by Theresa Paulfranz on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 11:29:56 AM
  Scientists say that long term memory c... by Theresa Paulfranz on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 11:52:10 AM
Regarding global warming and the critiques being m... by Burl Hall on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 2:10:51 PM
Thank you for your responses. You're right, scien... by robert wolff on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 4:41:08 PM
Robert, sorry to say the article streamed like so ... by Greg Koch on Friday, May 11, 2012 at 1:22:41 PM