Claire and I are lucky enough to have won “Escape to the Cape” at the annual auction of our congregation, First Parish in Needham, courtesy of Muriel and Tom Gehman. We’ll be Tesla-ing down to Hyannisport this week to indulge. Lovely.
We both need this, but especially Claire.
Few have little idea how hard Claire works. She’s Director of the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, a Beacon Hill-sanctioned consortium of 18 towns, which she coordinates and guides and organizes. And she’s “point” on much needed Producer Responsibility legislation, in Massachusetts, and even across the country. And she’s Moderator at the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. And she’s active working to modify an ill-conceived Westwood bylaw which has been interpreted to restrict as-of-right ground-mounted solar on private property. And she takes fabulous care of her stepmom, Millie, at the Linden in Dedham. And she’s a gardener, and many of you know what that’s like. And she’s a great wife. And she’s a great Mom. And she’s a great GrandMom. So if anyone deserves a holiday, Claire deserves a holiday.
As for me, I’m retired now, and I relish being able to reach out and do technical and other projects because, well, I just want to and are lucky that I don’t need to work. I’ve made networks and friends, across the country, in Michigan and Berkeley, California. I correspond with some every day. The subject is mosses. But that’s not what I want to share here.
A holiday. A holiday when retired? What does that mean? I guess it means a break from the day-to-day rhythm of things, packed into a place, space, and time-let where different rules apply. I have a delightful rhythm in my newly adopted set of occupations, but a holiday gives time to reflect, read, mostly read, study.
So, what are my goals? Well, first, I need to scratch the itch of something which has been bothering me for a couple of years, the question of how will ecosystems and the natural world look after the climate transforms into the one that will come, be new, even if we succeed in arresting deterioration further. Yes, it’s already too late to completely stop that deterioration. The question now is how bad will it get, how fast.
In the writings of Carl Safina and Peter Del Tredici, we see that these changes are already afoot, with many species being on the move. There’s a lot of popular misunderstanding about this. The ecosphere is incredibly resilient, but part of that resilient involves “species rotation” or even “ecosystem rotation”. This means that when the climate or other circumstances change, species and ecosystems don’t go completely away, it’s just that those which were there before get replaced by others which are better adapted to deal with the new circumstances. Many of these circumstances are directly created by people, not primarily due to climate disruption but by things like development for new homes, and commercial districts, and, sure, application of pesticides and other toxins, like those used to control mosquitos. There is always a more resilient species out there, even if it is microbial.
And the notion is that some of the more robust species are ones which we, in our collective desire to resist change and keep things as they always seemed to be, have deemed to be invasive species. Now, I won’t get into the entire history of that concept here, but, paraphrasing Del Tredici, that designation is often merely an excuse for permission to try to eradicate it. That’s odd. Because in other “environmentally sensitive” situations, like the case of the prospective Lithium mines in Nevada, protecting Eriogonum tiehmii is being pursued even if it stops national production of a substance needed to make Lithium ion batteries, important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and important for sourcing in a less impactful way. Much of our Lithium comes from Chile at present. Yet we outright hunt down and kill Alliaria petiolata. So, who are we to pick one species over another, particularly when, well, the so-called preferred species is in the way of a greenhouse gas reducing project?
There’s a big problem in the so-called “environmentally conscious” community right now. There is little clarity. Everyone accepts climate disruption as real. Based, however, upon their choices and behaviors and statements, what’s lacking is an understanding of what the inexorable fates of beloved ecosystems and scenes and experiences are. The future is acknowledged, but quantitative judgment is missing. Perception is both innumerate and myopic. I know those designations are harsh, but I do not know how else to explain the behaviors I have seen, from choices on plastics, to opposing all genetic modification of anything, to opposing wind and solar farms, and even supporting making it harder and more expensive to site offshore wind farms. Do people consider our circumstances a climate emergency or not? It seems to me that if it is an emergency, other criteria are less important now, however important in normal times.
So, back to the holiday. My goals are to get out for good runs three or four times, twisting about the networked neighborhoods of Hyannisport, with plenty of sunscreen aboard. Apart from that my goals are reading. I have three key books along, The third I want to complete. I want to make significant progress on the first two.
The first book is Monteith and Unsworth’s fourth edition of Principles of Environmental Physics. I am privileged to have been invited to contribute a chapter regarding the interaction of bryophytes and their physical world in an edition of a major (online) book Bryophyte Ecology, written by professor emerita Janice Glime. I need to understand the literature before I can say anything sensible. Principles of Environmental Physics is a start.
The second book is David Burch’s Modern Marine Weather: From Time-Honored Traditional Knowledge to the Latest Technology. I know a bit of meteorology, and I’m supposed to tool up on New England marine meteorology in preparation for a 5 day sailing cruise beginning in late August. Both my sons are coming, with my elder son, David, being certified skipper. We’ll be plying the waters of Narragansett Bay, and then Rhode Island Sound and then out towards Martha’s Vineyard. But it will be, prime hurricane season!
The third book, and most important, is Discordant Harmonies, a New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century by Daniel B Botkin. This is really an extension of Peter Del Tredici’s sympathies, those offered in his (famous) essay “The Flora of the Future“, even if Botkin’s work predated that essay by Del Tredici. The idea is that climate has been disrupted. There is no going back home again. Things will change. So the idea that relative composition of floral (and faunal) species will remain the same in these markedly new circumstances is silly. The situation may well still be tolerable for people, but it will inevitably be different. Some conventional trees and plants will die and become unsustainable. New ones will sprout up, often hardier ones. But Botkin goes deeper.
Photograph by Professor Peter Del Tredici of “the beach on Fisher’s Island off the coast of Connecticut — not a native plant anywhere.”
Botkin was suggested to me as someone who had done good hard about what a biosphere will look like in an altered climate. If, they argued, it is true that the atmosphere composition of Carbon Dioxide hasn’t been like this for over a million years, because Carbon Dioxide is such a key driver of how climate behaves, this means that climate will dramatically change, even if we manage to get emissions under control. After this all equilibrates, we will be in a climate state which has never been experienced in human history. Think of that.
Among many other implications, what this means is that the experience of all the indigenous peoples on the planet will be obsolesced, because no one has ever seen anything like this. If we do not get emissions under control, well, that’s a world of nightmares, and no one knows what to do about those, even if everyone, from time to time, shares them.
I am moved to read this, during this holiday from retirement, because we, as towns, a state, a country, a world are really not making progress, even if we have expressed a lot of loud claims to want to make progress. We have not stopped Carbon Dioxide concentrations from increasing, let alone reducing it. And many of us, although we nod in acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation, simply don’t get that fixing this means accepting major changes in lifestyles and attitudes. We claim, for example, to want to see climate justice and environmental justice done. But if we refuse to give up the pretty sights of our privileged suburban settings in favor of zero Carbon energy development, we rapidly come to a place where, once again, we throw people with less means, primarily people of color under the bus. There’s something familiarly unjust about that, even if the intermediate steps claimed to be seeking justice.
Everything is connected to everything else, yes, but it is key to understand how and how much they are interconnected. Tugging at one strand can make it worse elsewhere. It’s time to learn these things. This is not anything new or different. It’s something that ecologists and even theoretical ecologists have noted since the early 1970s. Consider:
The moral is clear: in the absence of comprehensive knowledge, a deliberate chance in the ecology, even an apparently minor one, is a very risky proposition.Hirsch, M., and S. Smale, Differential Equations, Dynamical Systems, and Linear Algebra, Academic Press, 1974, section 12.3, page 273.
But, hey, why pay attention to Mathematics? That’s just a bunch of boring irrelevant stuff.
The above refers to a longstanding paradox relating to predator-prey coupling of Canadian Lynx and Snowshoe Hare, at least as measured by reports of numbers of fur pelts by the Hudson Bay Company. The paradox was that the dimensionality of the Hare series was 3 but that of the Lynx series was only 2. If they are coupled in the classical Lotka-Volterra manner, the dimensions should agree. Because the peak of Hare follows that of Lynx in some years, It also looks like Hares eat Lynx in those years. The paradox was recently resolved by Deng (2018).
The fate of civilization depends upon learning such Mathematics, actual Ecology, and actual Geophysics.
I am hoping Botkin can teach me something insightful about the Ecology of the Future, whether or not people still have a significant role to play. And if I and we fail to learn, perhaps the lesson can be found in another book, one I did read in full, some years back. It’s by David M Raup and called Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?