Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What is Ecology?

A few years back, John Travolta gave a lecture on global warming. Infamously, when he was done he jumped aboard his private jet and flew home, generating more greenhouse gasses in the next few hours than most people do in a year.

That pretty much sums up the difference between environmentalism and ecology.

Environmentalism is a political ideology. It is used to get people to buy things and to cast votes. John Travolta was being an environmentalist.

Ecology is the study of cause and effect among living things and the environment. The way I told the story, John Travolta does not appear to be an ecologist.

In reality, John Travolta is not a complete idiot. He attempted to justify himself: "I'm probably not the best candidate to ask about global warming because I fly jets. . . . I use them as a business tool though, as others do. I think it's part of this industry – otherwise I couldn't be here doing this and I wouldn't be here now." His point is valid. You can’t travel the world talking about global warming without generating more emissions than average, unless you’re willing to spend the intervening months in transit on a sailboat. Al Gore’s got his private jets too.


People in our society make very bad ecologists. Our schools and universities train us to think mechanically, to break things down into smaller pieces like atoms and molecules and understand them that way. But in ecology you want to know how organisms interact with each other and the environment. Ecology is about relationships, connections. In ecology you don't ask "What is it made out of?" but "What is it connected to?" It forces you to think bigger, but in our society, from Kindergarten on up, we are trained to be narrow-minded.


Here’s another ecological paradox for you. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown in Bolivia that’s become super popular in the U.S. because it's a more land-efficient source of protein than meat, and people have begun touting it as as way to ease world hunger and lift Bolivia out of poverty. But here’s the paradox: quinoa’s popularity in the U.S. has driven the prices up-- causing starvation among many Bolivians who can no longer afford it. Meanwhile, the quinoa craze has resulted in huge monocultures that are depleting the soils of Bolivia more rapidly than before.


Neither the Travolta-Gore paradox nor the quinoa paradox are isolated or special. Our lives are saturated with ecological quandaries. The most organic food is the most expensive, and hence the most resource-intensive. In Western countries we use about six times more resources than our fair share, and yet we consider ourselves more educated, liberal, and environmentally conscious than the rest of the world.


I recently ran across a New York Times article that argued that it wasn’t so bad what we were doing to the Bolivians because switching to a vegan diet will cause enough good effects to counterbalance the bad. The author pointed out that the grain we feed our cows is enough to feed 9 billion people.

Here we have a more impressive attempt to think ecologically. We’re no longer looking at the immediate effects – we’re trying a little harder to see the big picture.

But let’s follow this sort of reasoning out to its ultimate logical conclusion. Everything we use in the West-- not just food-- is incredibly resource intensive. Even if we all switched to a vegan diet our civilization would use several times its share of resources. Third world living is actually the most sustainable in the long run, because it is significantly more efficient. In fact, this is why we import so many cheap goods from the rest of the world-- they’re good at making them cheap. The problem is, importing goods on planes and trains and trucks and ships ends up nullifying the ecological advantages to third world efficiency.

There is only one perfect solution to this problem. The United States must give away its wealth and become a third world country. If we were a third world country, it would reduce global pollution rates by 20-25%. If Europe and Japan also went third world, it would cut down on pollution rates by more than 50% worldwide.

Only as a third world country could we live in balance with the environment. They have it right; we have it wrong.


All right, what I am trying to say? If this is all true why I am still driving my car to work every day and buying food from Target? Why have I not moved to Bolivia to become a farmer yet? For the same reason that you haven't -- because both you and I are better ecologists than we thought we were.  Our entire way of life is connected. We drive cars and shop for consumer items for a reason. Oil is one of the foundations for our society, as is factory production, pesticides and herbicides, and imported goods from Bolivia. If you removed these foundations our civilization would collapse, and our culture would die.

My wife and I went through a phase of this Paleo Diet thing. It's based on science: the human body is best adapted to those foods that our cavemen ancestors ate, which includes grass-fed meat and organic vegetables and nothing else. We ate this way for a month, it felt great, and our grocery bills almost quadrupled. Very few people in this country can afford to eat a healthy, natural diet. But the fact that we eat factory-made foods is what makes us so wealthy as a country. When you have to grow all your own food, they call you Third World and ship you Cheerios to help you out.


The problem about talking about Global Warming or World Hunger or Peak Oil or such things is that you narrow the debate down to a single issue, and anytime you've got a single issue it seems like, man, if only we did such-and-such the problem would be solved. But the thing is, the world is changing, fast, because there's more people than ever using more energy and building more machines than ever. That's the source of all these problems. We're building all these factories and using more and more energy to do more things.

There’s an excellent book called “The Little Green Handbook” that was published by Ron Nielson ten years ago that nicely summarizes the consequences of all the many things we are doing. ("Ecology," as Frank Herbert once put it, "is the study of consequences.") Here’s the ones I find the most important:

-The world is losing about 1-2% of its arable land every year. That’ll be about a 50% decrease between 2000 and 2050.
-If all crops were grown so as not to deplete the soil, our planet could support only one billion people with the standard of living of the United States.
-Most countries are experiencing an increase in inequality between rich and poor.
-The gap in manufacturing value between industrialized and undeveloped countries is increasing by about $1 trillion every year.
-Organized crime is the fastest growing industry in the world.
-In Russia crime organizations control about 65% of the GDP.
-Between 1945 and 2003, the total number of armed conflicts in the world doubled.
-The fraction of people who live in developed countries will decrease by 50% by 2050.

It's hard to read these numbers and not wonder if civilization is indeed collapsing. Personally, I've given up on the idea that Western civilization will find a way to last more than maybe another 100 years. We shouldn't feel inadequate over this: over the last 10,000 years, there have been thousands of civilizations, and most of them have lasted for less than 100 years total. It's true that we've got more technology and science than any civilization before us, but when you think about it this is really the source of the problem.


Ecology is the key idea here. Everything is connected in a web of relations. There's no magic bullet that will fix the environment because every time we do something new, it has a dozen unforeseen effects.

But that's okay. It's the way the ecosystems of the world have worked for billions of years. During the early stages of life, every major innovation caused mass extinctions and a new start. When plants evolved photosynthesis, for example, oxygen poisoned the atmosphere and killed off 99% of life. Later, this oxygen became the basis for respiration in animals. What was originally a pollutant is now what we breathe.

We need to get over this idea that we can somehow fix the earth, design an entire world ecology and do such a good job of it that nothing is wasted, everything is recycled, and there is no pollution and no shortages. It's nonsense. No human being on earth is smart enough to map out all the connections on the planet in such a way to solve all environmental problems. We're going to have to bumble forward, adapt and evolve the best we can, as any other organism does.

There is a new kind of agriculture called permaculture, whose goal is not to grow crops but to build miniature ecosystems that produce more usable food with less intervention from humans. It's experimental -- you put things together and see how they grow. Some weeds you leave because you realize that they are helping by attracting a certain insect. Instead of breaking connections you build more connections, the goal being that you won't have to leave the land fallow because it will replenish the nutrients on its own. There's been many promising results -- Google "permaculture" and you'll see what I mean. Sepp Holzer is one permaculturalist you might look up, famous for growing things like oranges way up in the Alps.

My dream is to get a piece of land and experiment myself. Of course, to get land you need money, and to get money you need a job. That's why right now I'm working a nine-to-five job, driving a gasoline car to work, and shopping at Target.

Reboot: Where Have I Been?

It's been two years, which is too long. But I have some excuses: I was unemployed, then I was employed and trying to write novels, then I was teaching junior high science. In the meantime I've found a better job and decided that I still need a philosophical outlet, so here it is.

Quick summary. I quit the History and Philosophy of Science Ph.D. program in the spring of 2011 for reasons explained in previous posts. Our first child, a boy, was born by C-section June 10, 2011, and immediately my wife took him back to Utah and I went to Lancaster PA to teach college logic to gifted 7-10th graders for six weeks. I had been worried about being able to teach them how logic relates to values, but Plato came to the rescue (it always pays to fall back on the classics) and with Socrates as a role model the course was a spectacular success, my section won the Proof Golf tournament, and for the first time in my summer-nerd-camp career I received near-perfect evaluations from both students and parents. It was great, a fun group of kids.

Then I was unemployed for eight months, living with my wife and son in my generous and patient father-in-law's basement. That was fall of 2011, the job market was very bad, and I had basically no work experience outside of academia.

Between November and July 2012 I worked at iTOK as a Technical Representative -- giving phone support to people with malfunctioning computers and no warranty. We fixed everything from viruses to printers, it was relatively good pay, and my wife and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment with a landlord that shovels the sidewalk every time it snows: a rare and precious breed. During this time I wrote half the second draft of one science fiction novel and half the first draft of another.

In July 2012 my wienie of a doctor let me convince him I was developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and when he started talking about surgery I quit my job to find something less computer-intensive. I was hired on as science teacher and had an experience described here:

Last month I quit to start a job as a Junior Unix Software Developer for WorkflowOne. I love the job, it's great pay, and now I have time to write again. And then on April 1, a girl, our second child, was born naturally, VBAC, face-first, viking style. She is adorable.

In the past few months I've thrown myself into science fiction writing, finishing over half a dozen short stories, submitting a few, but so far rejected each time. We're getting there.

Here's my plan, we'll see if it works out. Every month I write one short science fiction story, and one long blog post. 

For the past couple of years everything has come back to a single idea for me: ecology. Ecology is what is wrong with the idea of progress, ecology is the discipline that tells us why our civilization is collapsing, and ecology is our light and guide as we look for a new way to live in the next couple of centuries. Now that we've caught up on where I've been, let's talk more about what I've been thinking (next post).