Saturday, June 09, 2012

Back to Environmental Basics

Ecology and environmentalism can be confusing due to the complexity of natural systems and the myriad ways in which human activities affect complex natural cycles. Sometimes things that seem to be true intuitively turn out to be not so black and white as they seem.

Does human-produced carbon dioxide cause climate change?

Do carbon offsets and carbon trading schemes reduce human CO2 production?

Will reducing human CO2 production “stop” climate change, or reverse “global warming”?

Are solar panels and wind generators carbon neutral and pollution-free?

Can we shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to keep our civilization going as it is?

Can we produce enough potable water through sea water desalination to allow our populations to grow beyond local supplies?

The answers to these questions are not immediately clear and unambiguous. How can we find definitive answers to these and many more questions? How do we evaluate new technologies and new energy sources for their environmental effects now and on into the future?

Forty years ago, physicist and ecologist Barry Commoner suggested The Four Laws of Ecology as a means to evaluating human activities in ecological terms:

1) Everything is connected to everything else – From galaxies to quarks, we have long learned that everything in the Universe exists in complex interrelationships with everything else.

“One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star.” Loren Eiseley

“The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view - one could almost say the essence of it - is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality.” (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975)

2) Everything must go somewhere - We cannot throw anything away; there is no “away”

3) Nature knows best - The way things work in Nature are derived from millions years of testing through natural selection and evolution. Humans are newcomers on the scene. We cannot assume that we can do things better just because we walk upright and have large brains.

4) There is no such thing as a free lunch - If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. Everything comes from something else. The true cost of something may be far more in the long run than it’s immediate price.

And, in addition to Commoner’s Four Laws, my Father often told me:

5) You can never do just one thing — every proposed action should be followed by the question: “And then what?” Often the consequences of action are greater and more far reaching than the original “problem.”

When facing the global challenges of climate change, Peak Oil, and water production, it is best to initially approach the problems with humility, holding our ignorance in our hat, prepared to learn and become enlightened.

I suspect that many perceived environmental problems can improve with studied neglect. Often we hasty humans propose and implement “solutions” for problems that don’t really exist, or that will correct themselves given time and lack of interference, especially when economic gain is involved. Frequently, just leaving things alone is the best response to what appears to be a problem, but is in reality just a naturally system working itself out over time. The “Precautionary Principle” and the “1% Doctrine” are often employed as excuses to justify what we want to do anyway.

A proposed solution to a perceived problem, if indeed a “solution” is required, should be tested against the above five Laws of Ecology:

1) What else will be affected by this change?
2) What are the waste products, how fast will they accumulate and where will they go?
3) How does Nature handles this “problem”?
4) What is the total energy cost of this solution?
5) After the solution is applied, what happens next?

Sometimes the results of such an analysis will reveal that a simple solution is more elegant and effective in the long run, or that no “active” solution is required at all.

“Waiting is.” Valentine Michael Smith

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? Lao tzu

As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you are patient, there may come that moment when, while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am!’ Albert Einstein

Clarity and foresight are the results of simplicity and patience. The simple approach sometimes yields the most profound results.

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