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LQD: Nature does not believe in Substitutability

by DeAnander Tue Nov 6th, 2007 at 09:06:40 PM EST

Plants are the only source of oxygen on Earth - the only source. And studies around the world show that as plant species become extinct, natural habitats can lose up to half of their living plant biomass.

    Half of the oxygen they produced is lost. Half of the water, food and other ecological services they provide are lost.

    If a forest loses too many unique species, it can reduce the total number of plants in that forest by half, says Bradley Cardinale, lead author of the meta-analysis published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    "Those unique species are not replaceable. Nothing takes their place. It was a really shocking finding for me," Cardinale, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told IPS. "That's how much biodiversity matters."


An ecosystem is like a soccer team needing both star athletes and supporting players that act as defence and make passes to be successful. Highly productive and important "star" species in an ecosystem, such as trees, need many unique and complementary "supporting" species for the forest to remain healthy, he said.

    Currently, one species goes extinct every three hours. And the rate is accelerating.

    The PNAS study summarised the results of 44 experiments from around the world that simulated plant species extinction and showed that ecosystems with fewer species produce up to 50 percent less plant biomass than those with more "natural" levels of diversity.

    "Our analyses provide the most comprehensive evidence yet that natural habitats with a greater variety of plant species are more productive," said co-author Michel Loreau of McGill University in Montreal.

    The importance of biodiversity is not well appreciated by policy-makers or the public, says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

    "They are unaware of the consequences nor the urgency of the biodiversity crisis," Djoghlaf told IPS last September.

    Many people have lost their connection to nature and think there are infinite resources. That relationship has to change, he said.

footnote

Now, I (and everyone else semiliterate in ecosystems theory and permaculture, many of them for far more years than I) have been saying this and variations on this for years:  robustness is a function of fractal diversity and niche multiplication with exponentiating symbiotic possibilities;  robust biotic systems are complex and synergistic, and far more productive than simplified systems;  simplification reduces productivity in every sense except the industrial one (i.e. "easier to destroy by machine" and "requires only domination, not understanding or local knowledge"); hence, the apparent "efficiency" of monocrop plantation is only achieved for very narrow blinkered values of "productivity" and is in fact an encroaching vandalism and impoverishment.

And here is one more set of data to prove, again, the by-now-obvious-even-to-us, again, which the technomanagerial mindset will be, again, absolutely impervious to, in the same way that neocons are absolutely impervious to the existence of any problem that is not definable in money and fixable by establishing market value and "appropriate costing."  When all you have is a hammer, not only does everything look like a nail, but you hotly deny the existence of screws and rivets, and demonise anyone who owns a screwdriver (possession of a SAK is punishable by exile or death).

One plant is not the same as another plant.  When a niche in a mature ecosystem is destroyed, the system does not simply wriggle a bit and settle into a new pattern with all the same niches, but different occupants.  It loses functionality in the same way that any complex organism loses functionality if you remove one of its organs or limbs or sabotage one of its endocrine reactions;  it may live, but it lives with a lesser capacity and more fragility.  It does not thrive.

We large mammals live by grace of the excess productive capacity -- the exuberant thriving -- of bacteria, fungi and plants, and at second order the smaller animals and animalcules that share that solar and photosynthetic largesse with us.  If the flora of this planet sicken, weaken, and fail to thrive then so do we.

How many times does it have to be said?  A hectare of monocrop tree farm is not the same thing as a hectare of mature forest.  A hectare of ploughed monocrop maize is not the same thing as a hectare of prairie.  The former may produce more Stuff with less human labour and intelligence, thus making it easier for the warrior and financier (used to be high priest) castes to disempower and eliminate the farmer/builder castes;  but it produces less oxygen, and instead of building soil it mines soil.  Which do we need more, oxygen or corn futures derivatives, soil or 8 figure salaries for the CEOs of ADM and Monsanto and Syngenta?  Do we really need 3 guesses?

OK, so you're on a spaceship in the DS9/ST:TNG fictional universe and the Ferengi are breaking up the oxygen generator and selling the bits for scrap, or just destroying them for amusement.  I've posed this analogy before, sorry if it's boring...  but this article brings it back into sharp focus:  by driving plant species into extinction we literally are breaking up the oxygen generator.  It's not just a clever metaphor.  It's real oxygen and there is less of it for us to breathe as each species flickers out.

Up to 30 percent of all species on Earth could vanish by 2050 due to unsustainable human activities, according to the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an unprecedented international four-year research effort.

    Without knowing how many species are "enough", it is impossible to know how many ecosystems will experience massive declines in the total mass of living plants.

I suggest that it is far easier for us to decide how much consumerism and industrialism is "enough".  Which leads me not only to McKibben's rather good book Enough but this recent article by Monbiot:

On Sunday I visited the only UN biosphere reserve in Wales: the Dyfi estuary. As is usual at weekends, several hundred people had come to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity and, as is usual, two or three people on jet skis were spoiling it for everyone else. Most economists will tell us that human welfare is best served by multiplying the number of jet skis. If there are two in the estuary today, there should be four there by this time next year and eight the year after. Because the estuary's beauty and tranquillity don't figure in the national accounts (no one pays to watch the sunset) and because the sale and use of jet skis does, this is deemed an improvement in human welfare.

This is a minor illustration of an issue which can no longer be dismissed as trivial. In August the World Health Organisation released the preliminary results of its research into the links between noise and stress. Its work so far suggests that long-term exposure to noise from traffic alone could be responsible, around the world, for hundreds of thousands of deaths through ischaemic heart disease every year, as well as contributing to strokes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, broken sleep and other stress-related illnesses. Noise, its researchers found, raises your levels of stress hormones even while you sleep. As a study of children living close to airports in Germany suggests, it also damages long-term memory, reading and speech perception. All over the world, complaints about noise are rising: to an alien observer it would appear that the primary purpose of economic growth is to find ever more intrusive means of burning fossil fuels.

This leads us to the most obvious way in which further growth will hurt us. Climate change does not lead only to a decline in welfare: beyond a certain point it causes its termination. In other words, it threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people. However hard governments might work to reduce carbon emissions, they are battling the tide of economic growth.

[...]

The massive improvements in human welfare -- better housing, better nutrition, better sanitation and better medicine -- over the past 200 years are the result of economic growth and the learning, spending, innovation and political empowerment it has permitted. But at what point should it stop? In other words, at what point do governments decide that the marginal costs of further growth exceed the marginal benefits? Most of them have no answer to this question. Growth must continue, for good or ill. It seems to me that in the rich nations we have already reached the logical place to stop. [Or even to cut back;  and I would also note that for many tens of mio of humans, maybe a few bio even, there have been declines rather than advances in quality of life during conquest, colonisation and industrial resource extraction -- DeA]

[...]

Governments love growth because it excuses them from dealing with inequality. As Henry Wallich, a governor of the US Federal Reserve, once pointed out in defending the current economic model, "growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable". Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy. Growth has permitted the social stratification which even the Daily Mail now laments.

Is there anything which could sensibly be described as welfare that the rich can now gain? A month ago the Financial Times ran a feature on how department stores are trying to cater for "the consumer who has Arrived". But the unspoken theme of the article is that no one arrives -- the destination keeps shifting. The problem, an executive from Chanel explained, is that luxury has been "over-democratised." The rich are having to spend more and more to distinguish themselves from the herd: in the US the market in goods and services designed for this purpose is worth £720bn a year. To ensure that you cannot be mistaken for a lesser being, you can now buy gold and diamond saucepans from Harrods. Without conscious irony, the article was illustrated with a photograph of a coffin. It turns out to be a replica of Lord Nelson's coffin, carved from wood taken from the ship on which he died, and yours for a fortune in a new, hyper-luxury department of Selfridges. Sacrificing your health and happiness to earn the money to buy this junk looks like a sign of advanced mental illness.

It appears that, pace Sir Elton, Sorry is not, after all, the hardest word for western industrialism.  

The hardest word is Enough.

Display:
But the unspoken theme of the article is that no one arrives -- the destination keeps shifting.

My weekly (it seems) Guy Debord quote:

44.
The spectacle is a permanent opium war which aims to make people identify goods with commodities and satisfaction with survival that increases according to its own laws. But if consumable survival is something which must always increase, this is because it continues to contain privation. If there is nothing beyond increasing survival, if there is no point where it might stop growing, this is not because it is beyond privation, but because it is enriched privation.

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm

The hardest word is Enough.

I think people find it (maybe too) easy to say "Enough", but implied is..."of this, right, what's next?"  

More Guy Debord.

37.
The world at once present and absent which the spectacle makes visible is the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived. The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its movement is identical to the estrangement of men among themselves and in relation to their global product.

Nothing happens unless money changes hands--at some point--for a commodity of some kind.

It seems the system--

where commodity production met the social conditions of large scale commerce and of the accumulation of capitals, it seized total domination over the economy. The entire economy then became what the commodity had shown itself to be in the course of this conquest: a process of quantitative development. This incessant expansion of economic power in the form of the commodity, which transformed human labor into commodity-labor, into wage-labor, cumulatively led to an abundance in which the primary question of survival is undoubtedly resolved, but in such a way that it is constantly rediscovered; it is continually posed again each time at a higher level. Economic growth frees societies from the natural pressure which required their direct struggle for survival, but at that point it is from their liberator that they are not liberated. The independence of the commodity is extended to the entire economy aver which it rules. The economy transforms the world, but transforms it only into a world of economy.

Reminds me of comments along the lines of "It will cost X billion money-units to..."  clean the oceans, make the change to renewable energy...

What to do?  Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow ye die?  Analyse world maps carefully and move to wherever has the best niche system?

Write correctly barbed letters to the editor/articles that suddenly have the elite classes...what?

How to slow down/move away from the-need-for-commodities?  Guy Debord saw the answer exclusively in terms of workers co-operatives.  I see a fundamental problem of "too many humans for our skill sets"--who is to plan the changeover?  When there is no agreement about the outcome?  More than one person here has stated that the "green utopia" of "very low commodity consumption" is not their idea of a reasonable future, so, to make the shiny utopia where the humans presently alive (and their children) work together towards a healthy symbiosis with nature...

...I was intrigued by Starvid's idea: that there simply isn't enough oil for us to wreck the planet--there isn't enough "stuff", we'll hit a natural wall before we destroy all life systems.  And this...

When a niche in a mature ecosystem is destroyed, the system does not simply wriggle a bit and settle into a new pattern with all the same niches, but different occupants.  It loses functionality in the same way that any complex organism loses functionality if you remove one of its organs or limbs or sabotage one of its endocrine reactions;  it may live, but it lives with a lesser capacity and more fragility.  It does not thrive.

reminded me, strangely, of this:

Less than a mile from what is left of Chernobyl's ill-fated fourth reactor, a pair of elks is grazing nonchalantly on land irradiated by the world's worst nuclear accident. In nearby Pripyat, an eerie husk of a town where 50,000 people used to live before they were forced to flee on a terrifying afternoon in 1986, a Soviet urban landscape is rapidly giving way to wild European woodland.

Radiation levels remain far too high for human habitation but the abandoned town is filled with birdsong and the gurgling of streams forged by melting snow. Nobody thought it possible at the time but 20 years after the reactor exploded on 26 April 1986, during an ill-conceived "routine" Soviet experiment, Chernobyl's radiation-soaked "dead zone" is not looking so dead after all.

The zone - an area with a radius of 18 miles in modern-day Ukraine - lives on in the popular imagination as a post-apocalyptic wasteland irreparably poisoned with strontium and caesium that would make a perfect setting for the next Mad Max movie. It is a corner of Europe associated with death and alarming yet nebulous stories of genetic mutation, a post-nuclear badland that shows what happens when mankind gets atomic energy wrong.

The reality, at least on the surface, is starkly different from the mythology, however. The almost complete absence of human activity in large swaths of the zone during the past two decades has given the area's flora and fauna a chance to first recover and then - against all the odds - to flourish.

[...]

Astonishingly, most of the animals, with the exception of the herds of wild Przewalski's horses brought in to gnaw on radioactive grass to guard against forest fires, appear to have returned to the zone of their own accord. The most recent count by the authorities showed that the zone (including a larger contaminated area in neighbouring Belarus) is home to 66 different species of mammals, including 7,000 wild boar, 600 wolves, 3,000 deer, 1,500 beavers, 1,200 foxes, 15 lynx and several thousand elks.

The area was also estimated to be home to 280 species of birds, many of them rare and endangered. Breeding birds include the rare green crane, black stork, white-tailed sea eagle and fish hawk. Wild dogs are also in evidence, though they are prime targets for wolves, a detail that prompted the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith to call his latest novel, which is partly set in the zone, Wolves Eat Dogs.

The only animal that appears not to have made a comeback is the bear. But ecologists say the return of large predators such as wolves is a sure sign that things are moving in the right direction.

http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article355805.ece

...and that reminds me of nnader's arguments (and Lovelock's) re: the least invasive form of energy at the levels we "need" (see above) to maintain civilisation in the form that the majority want...

The acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. In the terms applied by Gabel to a completely different pathological level, "the abnormal need for representation here compensates for a tortuous feeling of being on the margin of existence."

....heh...that's my ramble...

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 05:27:21 AM EST
... against the following remark:
Most economists will tell us that human welfare is best served by multiplying the number of jet skis. If there are two in the estuary today, there should be four there by this time next year and eight the year after. Because the estuary's beauty and tranquillity don't figure in the national accounts (no one pays to watch the sunset) and because the sale and use of jet skis does, this is deemed an improvement in human welfare.

... is that they will say, no, that is a simply and straightforward lie, economic theory says that what people value, whether it be beauty and tranquility or jet skis, is what is valuable, and if more value the beauty and tranquility more, it is a failure of ownership that results in those damn jet skis.

Because its not in the value theory that the flaw lies, but in the unit of analysis ... individuals making evaluations then choices then acting upon them, over and over and over and over and over and ... etc. ... and over again (repeat ad infinitum).

When the problem is that we have the wrong set of choices available to us, the unit of analysis leaves the traditional marginalist economist completely incapable of rigourously stating the problem, and without a rigourous statement of the problem, there is no way to address the question with the standard theoretical toolkit.

After all, complex systems cannot be designed at the margin, and viability of complex systems cannot be maintained by purely marginal comparisons and decisions ... and since the design of complex man-made systems, and even more complex man-cultivated systems, and the maintenance of complex man-cultivated systems, and even more complex inherited natural systems, is all of a higher order of priority than the pursuit of marginal increments in individual pleasure ... that implies that the sole problem that the traditional marginalist economics can solve is subsidiary to the highest priority problems that we must solve.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 07:21:18 AM EST
is that they will say, no, that is a simply and straightforward lie, economic theory says that what people value, whether it be beauty and tranquility or jet skis, is what is valuable, and if more value the beauty and tranquility more, it is a failure of ownership that results in those damn jet skis.

I know a lot of people who would torpedo a jet ski if there were not laws against doing so.  but the law protects the "right" of the jet ski owner (the person who burns more fossil fuels) to privatise the entire ambience of the lake or estuary by occupying it with noise, just as the law protects the "right" of the automobile owner (the person who burns more fossil fuels) to privatise the "public" street by occupying more of it than a pedestrian or cyclist (and with lethal force).

in an atmosphere of lawlessness or community sanction, the lone jet skier might not long survive the wrath of the 200 people whose day he is ruining and whose environment he is polluting (and whose health, in some small increment, he is damaging).  but "law and order" protects privatisation and enclosure, not commensality and the commons.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 03:24:18 PM EST
I have seriously considered stringing up a piece of rope at jetskier-chest-level.  Just enough to knock them the fuck off, so maybe they'll knock it the fuck off.  I hate those things.

Grrrr.

</angry kayaker>

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 03:29:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
standard joke among sailors when a jet ski is spotted in the middle distance... "where's my torpedo" or "damn, shoulda bought a bow chaser".

[for non-nautical-nuts, the bow chaser was a traditional small cannon mounted on the bow and used in medium range engagements, see also stern chaser;  lighter ammunition than the main gundeck cannons, long throw]

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 03:37:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Dyfi estury is very long and flat so it isn't unusual for a jetskier to run their car and trailer out onto the sands find the sea goes out a mile and then half an hour later find their dead car in water up to the hubcaps.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 03:41:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
one small dose of karma...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 04:05:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
actually kind of metaphorical and evocative too, no?

vivid metaphor for industrial civ.  drove way out onto the sands in gas guzzler to pursue frivolous wasteful puerile thrills, now the car's up to the hubcaps in salt water and the tide's got a long way to come in yet.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 04:06:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another way of asking the same question:

So, what if I were a bee and I navigated from far-flung flowering trees and plants to my queen and hive, back and forth, communicating with my bee brothers and sisters what's up, and what if by coincidence I helped to pollinate 1/3rd of the food supply of humans, and what if cellular communication scrambled my exquisite sense of vibration to the point that I disappear and take 1/3rd of the human food supply with me?

How would we, humans, account for that cost?

What if we discovered cell phones are chasing bees from the planet? What if our impact wasn't just bees, but other species that singly or in combination make our own survival possible?

If we had to choose between cell phones and bees, what would we do?

I posit this question in the cheerful spirit that it may never need answering exactly as posed, and yet it is precisely the order of inquiry that smashes the notion of we can just somehow slide by the impacts of global warming, without modifying our patterns of consumption in any substantive way.


footnote

[note:  at present we don't have any conclusive evidence that cell phone and other wireless radiation is to blame for bee decline;  some evidence is accruing slowly (hotly contested by cell companies of course) that repeater tower radiation may be harmful to humans, and the wrangle continues.  the author above was merely using RF and cell phones as an example of our extreme attachment to technologies that may turn out to be contrabiotic and hence maladaptive or even suicidal.]

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Nov 7th, 2007 at 08:59:05 PM EST


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