Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Little things mean a lot

Yesterday (actually, very late last night or very early this morning) I finished reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. One of my major takeaways is that we need to be more mindful of the small, barely noticeable elements in our environment because they often play critical roles sustaining the more obvious organisms. It made me think of John Muir's wonderful observation: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

moss growing on fallen tree trunk
moss growing on fallen tree trunk             © harrington

Yesterday we wrote about climate change. I can't think of much in this world that isn't affected by the climate, from the sports we play (sledding, ice skating, baseball) to the food we eat, to the vehicles we drive and our energy bills and comfort ("it's not the heat, it's the humidity"). From what I've been reading recently, we've pretty much missed our chance to avoid major consequences from the greenhouse gasses we've already dumped into the atmosphere. Now we get to focus on adapting to the impacts of change and trying to minimize how bad it may get. Remember Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon routine that would have asked: "how bad was it?" Descriptions of the 10 to 12 foot rise in sea levels expected due to the melting of the Thwaites Glacier in Antartica and six West Antartic glaciers makes the future likely to be pretty bad, but it's probably going to take centuries to occur, unlike the Spring flooding that often occurs in Minnesota. Natural Capitalism.

St. Croix River, Spring 2014, below flood stage
St. Croix River, Spring 2014, below flood stage           © harrington

Given humans' difficulty dealing with long term, far distant events, I'm at a loss to foresee how we might adapt over centuries. Something to think about, along with examples of the kind of adaptations or "solutions" we'll want to avoid, such as that described by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in their book
Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often, as previously described, optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system. Hidden connections that have not been recognized and turned to advantage will eventually tend to create disadvantage.

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: Mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects ("consequences you didn't think of," quips biologist Garrett Hardin, "the existence of which you will deny as long as possible") started to appear. The roofs of people's houses began to collapse, because the DDT had also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people couldn't sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied. The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.
Once again, check out these 19 illustrated haiku's summarizing climate change.
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