The Ecosystem Defends Itself

You may be aware that the homeland security (or someone) has been prepping us for an epidemic (wash your hands, stay home if you are ill, etc.). As a biologist with no connection to Homeland Security, except possibly as a suspect, I want to say this is a real concern. We have severely challenged the ecosystem. First I’ll tell you how, and then I’ll tell you what ecosystems do when they are challenged. Nothing personal; it’s just how ecosystems are designed — cause and effect. If we acknowledge and accept the laws of nature (that were presumably created by God or some other superhuman power, whatever we call it doesn’t change how the ecosystem functions), then we can exist nurtured within the ecosystem. Otherwise, here is what biology knows about the consequences.

The ecosystem has built in “limiting factors.” As in any web of cause and effect, the limiting factors change all the time depending upon what’s available in the system, but their practical value is to prevent any one species from overtaxing the entire web of life. These limiting factors will depend upon the circumstances, and they include: starvation; war and other abnormal behaviors; lack of water; changing characteristics of the ecosystem caused by us (that would seem to be climate change); and disease epidemics. The important point here is the more the population increases beyond the natural limits of the ecosystem, the more likely and more devastating will be the result.

In the last few hundred years, people are so clever, we have worked our way past a large number of limiting factors. The result is we are at the limit of the earth’s productivity, (even though we are killing each other almost as fast as we can) and the climate is changing, which means many organisms will be less healthy than normal, and we have set up a situation where it is easy for viruses to mutate and to find victims because there are so many people and animals all crowded together. So apparently (based on news accounts, and you know how that is) this new swine flu consists of an old swine flu that has added a piece of human flu virus among its genes. What that means? It means it’s a new disease for humans. Our immune system hasn’t met it before, so will be slow to respond.

And just a note to the unwise. It’s time to stop our reverence for technology as our Savior in this war against the ecosystem. Technology is human — God created the ecosystem. Technology can move us beyond one or more limiting factors, temporarily, and that is what we have been doing — but technology can NOT change how the ecosystem functions. It is time for us to heed the 9-1-1 call of the earth ecosystem and find ways to conform, because there is ALWAYS another limiting factor. The final limiting factor is the one biologists fear most. If we push beyond the fail-safe limits, the system itself could crash like a broken economy, or a broken egg that no longer contains what it needs to survive.

And don’t be fooled by time. It conceivably could happen almost overnight. Or it could be a few generations, but that is not a reason to ignore the reality of how the ecosystem works, because we do know how it works. The bottom line to remember is: Whatever it was like when you were born is NOT normal, and nobody wants to leave a legacy of destruction, even if it was well meant destruction.

Cause or Symptom?

Last edition I complained that biologists are seldom consulted on issues that involve the ecosystem.  The earth ecosystem is, of course, a biological unit, and its rules of operation are not under human control.   We should consider the real rules of operation when dealing with the ecosystem.  And so I began to prepare a little blog about global warming from an ecosystem point of view.  One thing led to another, as it often does on the internet.  Bottom line — it will take a while to pull that together.

In the process, I imported the list of speakers at a conference on climate change that is finishing up today in Copenhagen, and scanned through it.  I again found no significant representation of experts on the biology of the ecosystem.  Lot’s of economists and the like (reminder, economics is a human invention, the ecosystem is not).  Then I checked the very long list of blogs that mention climate change or global warming as a key word (well over 10,000 in WordPress alone) and the very short list of blogs that mention overpopulation as a key word. (here are two thoughtful and balanced examples)

From the viewpoint of our power over our own humanity, this dichotomy seems to be upside down.  If this biological problem were a disease, another biological sort of event, we would know exactly what to do.  We would be trying our very best to deal with the cause of the disease at the same time as we treat the symptoms.

It is clearly established that global warming is caused by people.  Obviously, then, the more people there are, the bigger will be the problem.

Because our power to cope with any problem lies in the choices that are available to us, we should at the very least be talking about those choices.  Step one (1) should be obvious.  If a problem is caused by growth, we should not try to solve the problem by bigger and better growth.

That leaves two other choices.  (2) Decide to do something to affect the CAUSE of the problem — we begin by talking about it.  (3)  Don’t decide to do something — or — decide to do nothing, which is the same thing.

Only one of these three options offers us any power over our outcomes.

It reminds me of the title of a recent seminar:  “Talking about death won’t kill you.”  Are we more afraid of words than of the suffering that will result from doing nothing?

Our greatest power in any situation is to study the cause of the problem. And then talk about it, among the experts of all the disciplines.