Sunday, January 13, 2019

Loud Noise

Most children are well aware that there is something hiding beneath their bed, some large, dark shape, breathing slowly, that is poised to grab any limb that dangles over the edge of the bed and pull it under. This is why they are wise to hide beneath the covers. It won't see them, and they won't see it and it will go away and they can fall into a deep sleep, where their dreams will be haunted by more large, dark shapes, breathing slowly, poised to grab any limbs that dangle over the edge. 
In the year 1710, a grown adult, George Berkeley, proposed the idea that if a person does not sense something, its existence is not provable. He wrote, "The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived: The trees, therefore, are in the garden...no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them." Evidently, he was one of those who never outgrew the habit of hiding under the covers. His words resonated with other light sleepers and, in June 1883, the editor of The Chautauquan rephrased it, "If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings, would there be any sound?" That flaccid phrase survives to this day.
That kid scares me. 
Two months later, on August 27, there was a sound that most people on earth could have heard or felt. There were three explosions on the island of Krakatoa, the third of which was so loud that it was heard 2000 miles away in Perth, Australia and 3000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. The sound waves from the explosion reached 310 decibels and swept across the globe three and one-half times. The sound ruptured eardrums forty miles away and deafened anyone within ten miles.
While the monsters under the bed and trees are alleged to disappear when one closes one's eyes, as puerile and useless as that phrase is, were one to put it out of sight and mind in a landfill, it would not disappear. Evidently, it would remain for millennia. On June 25 of the year after Krakatoa, while in Rome excavating Esquiline, a collapsing, 2000-year-old garbage dump 400 feet from the embankment of Servius Tullius, archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani had to back away from the ancient dump, which included household waste from one million people and at least 24,000 corpses. He said, "I was obliged to relieve my gang of workmen from time to time, because the smell from that polluted ground (turned up after a putrefaction of twenty centuries) was absolutely unbearable even for men so hardened to every sort of hardship as my excavators."
Archaeologist William L. Rathje was familiar with that odor. Starting in the 1970's, he spent two decades excavating nine modern-day landfills. This was not out of desperation, it was his livelihood, he had mouths to feed. He wrote, "Landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than to transform them into humus or mulch." Indeed, he found intact, perfectly legible newspapers dating to the 1950's, a fifteen-year-old steak, still recognizable, "in a lot better condition than Ramses II", and, in every excavation he conducted, he found whole hot dogs, some of which were several decades old.
When the ancient Romans buried the ghastly waste at Esquiline under a deep layer of soil, they thought they had made it disappear forever. Horace even wrote a poem about it:

nunc licet Esquiliis habitare salubribus, atque 
Aggere in aprico spatiari, quo modo tristes 
Albis informem spectabant ossibus agrum

Translated into English, he said:

But now, one may well live on the Esquiline quite free from pest,

And take a walk upon a sunny terrace, where but a few days ago
The melancholy passersby beheld the fields disfigured by men's whitening bones.

Obviously, Horace neglected to conduct a long-term environmental impact analysis. Surprise. Two thousand years later, the dead were still there, vigorously exhaling their malignant, pestilential breath. Fifty-five feet below the surface of the earth was as close as they would get to any mythic Roman Underworld, another doctrine that would do well in a landfill, but the problem is that it is the landfill and it wouldn't disappear anyway. The simple reason is biodegradation does not prosper without light, oxygen, heat, and water. 
The doctrine may be called Phenomenalism, the belief that things don't exist outside of perception. The fallen tree in the forest, the monster under the bed, the monsters under a blanket of fresh dirt. The Age of Reason was supposed to take care of these superstitions, but it appears that this one slipped through. The faithful are not limited to children or adults shivering under the covers, landfill operators, or Horace the satirist, it includes most of humanity today.
The person throwing a beer can out the window of a car, the fisherman tossing an old fishing net into the ocean, the municipality sending raw sewerage down the river, the bulldozer operator moving dirt over the mounds of shredded plastic, the nations dumping 28,500 barrels of radioactive waste into the Atlantic Ocean 250 miles west of Land's End, and soldiers driving thousands of tons of military equipment into the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Espiritu Santo Island after World War II, these are faithful acts of Phenomenalism, where sins are absolved by interment. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ignore the man behind the camera.
Despite rusting military equipment on some of the beaches, there are beautiful photographs of Espiritu Santo Island, showing a wild desert coastline, perfect for snorkeling and kayaking. There are millions of photographs taken each year of natural sights, carefully framed to exclude trash and marks of civilization. But what were the sounds when these photos were taken? Some of the most photogenic vistas known are backed by urban infrastructure, often roads or concession stands. We do not hear the noise when we marvel at the natural wonder. This leads us to three corollaries to the doctrine of Phenomenalism. The silence of film has made it easy for humans to believe, "If I don't hear it, it doesn't exist", "Hearing is believing", or worse yet, "If it is sound, it is not trash." 
Sound was an unanticipated danger of urbanization. As we unearth our soundscape, we are finding a rising decibel level around the world: multimedia players, heavy equipment, street festivals, traffic, airplanes, sporting events, railroads, smokestacks, dogs, and weaponry. We also find a rising level of hearing-impaired wildlife, with increased stress, site abandonment, hearing loss, altered communication strategies, altered migration, reproductive failure, missed environmental cues, and the likes. We would do well to take note of the loss, but it's getting harder to pick out the voices in a noisy room and those high notes are totally gone and do I have to shout and maybe I will just get up and go to another room and what? - how many times do I have to tell you to turn up the confounded television? Do you hear me? Should this continue to increase, we may not know the difference between a still photograph and reality. 
We're back. 
At that point, we might think that the problem of noise has been solved, but we should recall Mr. Lanciani's exciting day. Disappearance is a state of mind. Sifting through our doctrines brings surprises, some very foul, some very loud. We need to dump them into some deep, dark, biologically active pit. The Underworld, Hades, whatever. Do it right or years from now they will erupt, rising from the grave, deafening, malignant, pestilential, exhaling the stench of death. 

Flood, Theodore L. 1883. The Chautauquan. Page 544. Volume III. June, 1883. No. 9. 
Horace. 33BCE. Satires. Satire VIII. 
Lanciani, Rodolfo A. 1888. Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries. Page 67. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA. 
Millington, R. M. 1869. A Rhythmical Translation of the First Book of the Satires of Horace. Longman's, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London. 
Rathje, William L.1992. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Harper Collins, New York.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Global Recovery

Time machines, now those would have a huge market. Imagine if there were two models running simultaneously. Imagine how hard it would be to plan anything.
Buddy, I need a designated driver.
There have been many turning points in collective history where a minor deviation in a course of events would have resulted in a drastically different future. If only the Donner Party had not taken Hastings Cutoff. If only Archduke Ferdinand's driver had heard about the changed motorcade route. If Emperor Atahualpa and his soldiers had not been unarmed when they met Pizarro in Cajamarca. This is true on a personal scale as well. If only we hadn't joined the circus, married that securities broker, eaten that food from the street vendor. Things would have been different. 
Unfortunately, avoiding Hastings Cutoff would have sparked a chain of events that would culminate in a two-dimensional earth dominated by cartoon characters. Humans would serve as entertainment at theaters, but during intervening hours would be housed in three-dimensional film canisters. 
This prediction comes to us courtesy of the thing called the Multiverse, popular in some corners of physics and science fiction. Multiverse, as in multiple universes. The theory proposes that infinite, bubble, mathematical, and daughter multiverses exist. The theory is that, in a variety of respects, an infinite number of universes are possible. For one, it is said that an infinite range of possible effects of a single decision exists, each existing in one of an infinite number of universes. Currently, we are looking for the universe where none of that is true and nobody believes it.
The problem is, these days, science fiction and science are often confused. It is easy for some to confuse theory with evidence. A strong theory may be cited as evidence for the existence of the particulars of the theory. For example, someone may say, "There is strong evidence of a multiverse", in view of the persuasive argument, logic, and math describing the theory. But that isn't evidence. Evidence would be an observation, an object, a mark from that universe. It is understandable how people could be confused. Today, many will quickly jump from possibility to belief because of the weight assigned by disinformation salesmen and their clientele to insubstantial and improbable claims. It is becoming normal for many to believe in that which is unbelievable. 
Well, it is said that nature does not like a vacuum. This may explain why, when the compulsion to misbehave is greater than the will to change, rationalizations quickly fill the void. Several types are commonly found in the void: Deny the misbehavior occurred, shift the blame for the misbehavior, and minimize the gravity of the misbehavior. Who me? You made me do it. Well, everybody else does it.
So here is the moral inventory: In our relationship with the natural environment, we act too quickly to extract too much natural resource to build things too big and too complex, doing so with limited knowledge and cognition amidst increasing disinformation, suppressing and replacing native ecosystems, which increases failure points, pushes species below minimum population thresholds, distributes alien invasive species, increases atmospheric carbon, alters stream ecology, resulting in the loss of species and habitats, herds, flocks, schools, and we don't have the time for another doggone list. 
As we are confronted with the evidence of our incapacitated escapades from the centuries before, the environmental misdeeds, the temptation is to deny the facts and the need to change our behavior and thought. That sound of rushing air is the sound of a rationalization filling the void. We didn't do it; extinction is part of nature. We were just following orders; industry and government told us to do it. Well, at least we didn't kill all the bison. Lately, it has been, Don't worry, science will find a way to clean up our mess. 
Keep tossing the plastic bottles out the window, someone is out there picking them up. And there are multiple universes out there, spinning like a million samaras falling from a maple tree, where the all the right decisions were made. And in the future, science will make a time machine where we can go back and make amends with history, to turn the Donner Party to the north on the California Trail, inform Ferdinand's driver to continue driving along Appel Quay, and get Atahualpa to skip the meeting in Cajamarca and go rally his troops, to make sure plastic was contained in the laboratory, the mixed-grass prairie was never plowed, the diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya that feed the Aral Sea was never conceived, the Saint Lawrence Seaway was scrapped, the Oglalla aquifer was conserved, and Oppenheimer was a simple shoe salesman, all of which would, of course, create more multiverses that don't exist. And besides, they say, the natural outcome of evolution is self-extermination. As one sinks deeper into maladjustment, the rationalizations become more delusional, beliefs become more magical. There is a bottom to this, somewhere, it just depends if one falls long and far enough to feel it.
Sobering up. 
By now, the ground should be getting awfully close. This is about the time that our life should flash before our eyes, Ah, so many regrets. It's painful to think about - but that's nothing like the pain that awaits a hundred feet below. The biggest regret may that we lost our understanding that just because something could exist does not mean it does exist. It is entertaining to fantasize about time travel, going back and forth in history altering the calamitous decisions, as is done on a regular basis in the film studios in Hollywood by ageless actors and actresses who obviously are benefitting from the time-slowing effects of traveling at the speed of light, but the common citizen does not have the luxury of committing a consequential series of decisions spanning centuries that result in environmental catastrophes and walking off the set to the comfort of climate control and filtered water. It would be better to let the fantasies dwell in the secure confines of the film studio, behind high walls, limited access gates guarded by armed security personnel, and boom barriers. Don't let them out.
Well, it's about time for our friends to intervene. The rationalizations don't work anymore. There is no time machine to go back and do it all over. No alternative universe where we made the right decisions. Ah, if we could do it over again, things would have been different. No, better yet, do us all over again. 
That's more like it. Next time we get a planet, let's do it right.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Global Rehabilitation

It is said that, in about 5 billion years, the Sun will enter the "red giant" phase, where it will expand in size, engulf our orbit and destroy all life on earth. 
We couldn't wait. 
On the morning of August 6, 1945, an apprentice electrician was dismantling his house, removing clay tiles from the roof, when he looked up and described "a gigantic fireball. It was at least five times bigger and 10 times brighter than the sun. It was hurtling directly towards me...It was the sound of the universe exploding." His house was destroyed. He spent the next two months in a hospital recovering from his burns. When he returned to the ruins of his house, he found his father's pocket watch, blackened and rusty, the crystal blown away, with shadows of the hands fused into the dial, marking the time of the blast, 8:15 in the morning, the very moment the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima. 
Tsar Bomba, 10/30/61. No sunscreen necessary.
With the radiance of ten suns burst forth at once in the sky, a new world was born at 8:15 am. Since then, over two thousand nuclear weapons have been tested in the atmosphere and underground. The largest, named Tsar Bomba, was 3,800 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. The radiance of 38,000 suns. Even larger bombs have not been detonated because these lose most of their destructive energy to the atmosphere. Lost destructive energy, they say, is a waste. To give a sense of the destructive potential, the radius of total destruction of Tsar Bomba was 34 miles; third-degree burns were caused at 62 miles; a thermal pulse was felt at 170 miles; windows were broken at 560 miles. More windows were broken at greater distances by atmospheric focusing of the shock wave. The blast rings are usually superimposed over major cities to give a sense of the destruction.
Here is another sense. Many have taken the Great American Road Trip across the Dakotas, and Wyoming, visiting the Badlands, Black Hills, Bighorn Mountains, Yellowstone, and beyond. A beautiful journey. Consider: If the blast were to occur over Deerfield Reservoir in the Black Hills, the entire hills ecosystem and community would be destroyed, third-degree burns would occur at Devil's Tower National Monument, a thermal pulse would be felt in the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the Bighorns and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, and windows would shatter at St. Mary Visitor Center at Glacier National Park in Montana, Ripple Rock Nature Center at Capital Reef National Park in Utah, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve visitor center in Kansas, the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway visitor center in Minnesota, the Park Theater Complex at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, and the Grasslands National Park visitor centre in Saskatchewan.
You are here!
58.6 megaton blast radius.
Red = total destruction, orange = third-degree burns, 
orange-yellow = thermal pulse, yellow = broken windows. 
Stewardship
In recent years, there has been much talk about environmental stewardship. The concept has been clarified and enlarged since Aldo Leopold wrote these words in A Sand County Almanac in 1949: "There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligation" (Leopold 1949). Today, the concept of stewardship describes a mindset of responsible care for and intimate understanding of the biodiversity, sustainability, integration, and services of an ecosystem. Ultimately, the ecosystem is the earth.
Coincidentally, in recent years there has been much study of abusive relationships. Researchers have identified signs of an abusive relationship. These include: 1) Speed: They move into a relationship too quickly, 2) Isolation: They separate the individual from their network of friends and family, 3) Dominance: They take control over the other person's life, 4) Exploitation: They force the other person to give up valuables, 5) Violence: They do physical harm. This can be difficult for some to recognize because of the false normalcy that can be established in long-term abusive relationships.
Speed. Thomas Jefferson predicted that it would take 1000 years to settle the land as far west as the Mississippi River (Hart 1895). Within 103 years of the Corps of Discovery expedition, the bison was nearly extinct, herds of cattle were being driven south to north and back, railroads crossed the territory, and homesteaders were staking claims. Land rush, gold rush, timber boom, oil boom, all were rapid expansions into territory with little, if any, consideration of long-term adverse impacts upon the ecology.
Isolation. Fencing, rails, roads, mines, farms, and cities fragmented the landscape, cutting off migration corridors and gene flow, progressively decreasing the size and quality of native habitat until, in the case of the tallgrass prairie, only 4% of the original remains, and that in small, widely scattered parcels threatened by invasives and loss of genetic diversity.
Dominance. The wild and native habitats were largely replaced by agricultural, urban, and industrial platforms, so that the native large mammals - bison, antelope, grizzly, elk, bighorn sheep, moose - were reduced to fractions of their original numbers and range. Old growth forests, prairies, wild rivers, wetlands, and many species within them saw a drastic reduction in numbers and extent. Leopold called it "man the conqueror...the land as slave and servant."
Reconstructive surgery needed.
Strip mine scars and tailings near Larson, ND. GoogleEarth image. 
Exploitation. As Leopold observed, the objective was economic gain via resource extraction. Oil, coal, gas, iron, gold, timber, soil, water and dozens of other commodities were removed from the land, usually leaving a degraded, damaged landscape behind. Many of these scars are visible today. Many sites are toxic.
Violence. A large percentage of the scientific community is developing "exciting" new ways to destroy humans and civilizations. The ultimate weapon, the doomsday machine, is already in service. An atomic blast properly placed, is so powerful that it vaporizes rock. It etches shadows in concrete. It can cause earthquakes. It sterilizes the ground. Turns sand into glass. This is not normal, rational behavior, it is violence against humanity and the earth.
Intervention
If these behaviors were conducted by an individual, it would be reasonable to conclude that the person was the perpetrator in an abusive relationship, perhaps irrational, delusional, even self-destructive. This is well understood. It has become commonplace as of late for public personas, upon being exposed as addicted, abusive, or violent, often all three occurring together, to enter a rehabilitation facility. Sometimes this comes after friends and family orchestrate a joint effort to convince the person that they have a serious problem requiring treatment. To benefit from the program, the individual needs to go beyond changing behavior, beyond simple abstinence - "white knuckling" - to changing the mind. The problem isn't the drinking, it's the thinking. The problem isn't in the hands, it's in the head. 
Thus, some will benefit from treatment, remaking their thought processes, attitude, and behavior and, therefore, their relationships. And they live a well-adjusted life thereafter. But the road to recovery is a long one, requiring a lifetime of effort. In some treatment programs, a sponsor is needed. One addiction recovery program defines a sponsor as an addict "who has made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another [addict] who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety” (Wilson 1939). 
It ain't my fault, you drove me to it.
We would do well to apply this to our relationship to the earth. A change is required in the individual and collective thought process, attitude, and behavior toward the earth. A moral inventory. An honest look in the mirror. And when we find ourselves backslidin', feeling that urge to overindulge in natural resources, to exploit the things around us without regard for consequence, to hoard the earth's riches, to blame others for our behavior, to manipulate the living and non-living things around us solely for our own personal benefit, and to resort to violence when we feel challenged, it is time to call for help. Don't try to fight yourself on your own.
As some in recovery are known to pray, "Give me courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." 
Amen. 


Hart, Albert Bushnell. 1895. Formation of the Union, 1750-1829. Page 139. Longmans.
Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford.
Wilson, Bill and Bob Smith. 1939. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Disinformation

In the hunt for endangered species, it is often said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There is an alluring symmetry to that phrase, fitting nicely into the popular image of a universe that rests on elegant and concise laws. However, the order of our current reality may not match it without unsavory complexities. 
Here is an elegantly simple equation: As goes the wilderness, so goes the wildlife. 
A War That Roosevelt Lost
Prior to the Civil War, the southern old-growth swamp and forest extended from Texas to Illinois to North Carolina and Florida, and south to Cuba. This was the southern United States. After the Civil War, logging companies stripped the forest to such an extent that, by the 1930's, only a few relict old-growth forests remained. This forest was the required, exclusive habitat of a bird named the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, making it a specialist species, one that requires a narrow range of habitat, in contrast to one that can live in a wide variety of habitats, things like raccoons, starlings, goldfish, or sausage links. The bird is one of the largest woodpeckers on earth, spectacular, with a wingspan nearly three-feet wide, earning it the common name, Good God Bird
As one might expect if one had informed expectations at that time, as the forest was stripped, the bird declined. By the 1920's, the species was rarely seen. Reasonably, ornithologists were alarmed. Some set out to survey and protect the species. In 1924, two ornithologists found a pair of nesting birds in Florida. They set up camp away from the nest. While away, two taxidermists armed with permits shot the birds. In 1932, a Louisiana politician, determined to prove the species was not in peril, got a hunting permit and shot one of the birds along the Tensas River, within an 80,000-acre remnant of southern old-growth forest named the Singer Tract, owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company and managed by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company (CMLC). This tract was one of the last strongholds of the bird. 
Nobody home. From the 1935 film, Singer Tract, Louisiana.
In 1938, logging began on the tract. At that time, ornithologist James Tanner was studying the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the tract for his Ph.D. dissertation for Cornell University. In 1939, he estimated between 22 to 24 birds remained in existence and eight were in the Singer Tract. Alarmed at the logging, he developed a management plan that would retain some old growth stands and allow a mix of select and clear-cutting, with the hope that the plan would retain enough old-growth to protect the species. The CMLC rejected his proposal. By 1941, most of the tract was being heavily logged. The president of the Audubon Society appealed to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt directed the Secretary of the Interior to save the land. The governors of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi backed the effort and wrote a letter to the CMLC. The Louisiana governor pledged $200,000 to save the property. The refuge director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Conservation Commissioner met with the board chairman of CMLC and made a proposal.  
The CMLC rejected the proposal. 
The efforts to save the tract actually served to accelerate the logging. In 1944, another Audubon staff member saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the tract by John's Bayou. He notified Audubon staffer and wildlife artist Don Eckelberry, who headed south to John's Bayou and followed the bird for two weeks. It was a female and had taken up roost in a tree. It was in a small patch of old-growth surrounded by clearcuts, watching as loggers took down the very trees it used for food. Eventually, the entire tract was logged and that bird was never seen again. It is survived by Eckelberry's artwork which is in a museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. This was the last certified sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. 
Nobody home. 
Remains of Historic Chicago Mill and Lumber Company 
building in West Helena, Arkansas. From Google Earth.  
The offices of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company at 129 North Washington Street in West Helena, Arkansas were preserved and honored on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The building has been since torn down. One hopes it was demolished by birds.  
Apparently, logging set the birds free. Today, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a Category 6 bird, meaning it is "definitely or probably extinct". Probably, in that, numerous intriguing but controversial sightings of what may be Ivory-billed Woodpecker have occurred since 2004 (Collins 2011).
Thus, the urgency of small populations. Minimum viable populations are a trap door, below which a species free-falls to its death. Extirpation is urgent, Endangerment is critical, Extinction is forever. This is what we have got. 
That phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is cited when one fails to find a rare species in a given project area, the intent being restraint. Restrain everyone from the conclusion that it has been proven that the rare species does not exist in the project area, and that, therefore, they are free to drill, blast, clearcut, excavate, dump, defoliate, and pillage. This phrase is implicit in the summary section of many environmental impact reports. This phrase needs a larger context. 
The Birth of an Industry
Here it is: It is well documented that some sixty years ago, the tobacco companies, under the advice of their lawyers, began a campaign to render unrecognizable the notion that there was a connection between tobacco and cancer. Their strategy was to pay scientists to skew research and to cherry-pick research that showed no link. But beyond that, they produced a steady stream of public statements that there was “no clinical evidence”, “no substantial evidence”, “no laboratory proof”, “unresolved”, “still open”, and not “statistically proven”, “scientifically proven”, “or “scientifically established”, and no “scientific causality”, “conclusive proof”, or “scientific proof” (Cave 2014). The objective was to confuse the public by manufacturing doubt which created a false controversy which led consumers to conclude that they were free to smoke and chew with impunity. Ingenious. One can picture the executives sitting back and lighting up congratulatory cigars. Suggested Surgeon General's Warning: Cigar celebrations protect free speech. 
This is strange. Biologists may not have considered that they were using the same terminology that the tobacco companies used to create confusion, to “keep the controversy open.” On one hand, biologists use this argument to delay environmental degradation, and on the other hand, the tobacco companies used this argument to delay improved health. A two-edged sword. Although this was sixty years ago, they succeeded in befuddling the public, at least for a few moments, not about tobacco, but about the potency of absence. If something is not discovered, does that mean that it may exist? It is alleged, but we have ignored the proof, that there are television programs devoted to people who are searching for Bigfoot. Sasquatch. Yeti. How does one determine that something does not exist? Does it require absolute and infinite knowledge to make that statement? Apparently, some television producers want the public to believe so. Stay tuned for Episode Infinity: We Are Gods. 
This is new. They argue, where there is a plethora of nothing, where there has been a consistent absence of empirical evidence of something, as negative results accumulate, possible existence always remains, and, here is the new idea, possible existence is powerful enough to balance or exceed any number of negative results. Thus, our world houses possible mermaids, unicorns, aliens, griffens, dragons, six-foot-eight tall invisible pucas, Dawkin's toaster, fairies, Sasquatch, elves, zombies, werewolves, angels on the head of a pin, and healthful cigarettes. What was once impossible is now possible. What is this? We know of no sober biologists searching for pucas. 
Disinformation Swarm
How much do they pay you to act?
This may remind many of the movie North by Northwest, an old Hitchcock thriller whose violent climax occurs on the forehead of Thomas Jefferson. In this movie, there is a train station scene. The protagonist, Cary Grant, is being chased by the police. To evade them he pays a railroad baggage handler, a “redhat”, to give him his uniform. Grant changes into the uniform and walks right by the police. The police find out he is dressed as a baggage handler, chase him into the train station, and lose him in a crowd of railroad baggage handlers, all wearing the same uniforms with the red hat.
Each of those men in the red hats is a possibility, the real wanted man. The more men in red hats, the more possibilities, and the more trouble there is identifying the real wanted man in the red hat. 
In the U.S., the subject of climate change is controversial, or it is claimed to be controversial by those that dispute it – about 1 out of 3 citizens doubt it is getting warmer or that humans have caused it. Meanwhile, there is a swarm of disinformation about the level, history, and origin of atmospheric carbon, the historic temperature of the earth, climate cycles, environmental profiteering, scientific fraud, consensus, and dissent, and a hundred more topics. Each of these serves as a possible explanation for what is claimed to be a changing climate.
Men in red hats are everywhere. Now, it would be a restful thing if each possible explanation was weighted as to credibility, like horses at the racetrack. That mudder with the wooden leg, he’s has 25 to 1 odds. And the mare being wheeled off on a stretcher, don’t even think about it, she is 50 to 1. But that’s not the case here. Any possible explanation is being presented with weight equal to that of a carbon-fueled climate change. It is as if all the horses had 1 to 1 odds. This isn’t fair, right, or real. Everyone except the oddsmaker is going to lose his shirt.
There is data. Data is about as close to objective reality that a subjective being can get. However, data is going the way of the wooden pencil. It is as if, when someone is told it is 75 degrees out, he retorts, “That’s what you think!” So, maybe this the final product of the disinformation industry, when they assert that that objective reality is not objective reality, that the red hat is not a red hat. Dumbfounded in this new reality, there is suddenly no need to look for a man in a red hat. 
Global Solipsism
It has been overheard, "We are living in a post-truth world.”
This is the larger context for what is thought to be evidence-based perception. While many aged ones amongst us hail from the 20th century, a world where numbers created realities - checkbooks, baseball scores, election outcomes, food exports, miles per gallon, hat sizes, megatons of TNT - this is approaching obsolescence. The information that we sift through on a daily basis to formulate perception, opinion, or decisions has become deliberately and inadvertently contaminated, even overwhelmed with skewed, cherry-picked, manufactured, and false data. Not content to contaminate the natural environment with purportedly harmless products, this swill has infiltrated our information, what we know, our minds, with the same. At the same time, the rational weight of evidence has been altered so that what is even remotely possible, virtually impossible, is considered of equal value, of equal potency to that which is demonstrably real. 
This could make it hard to balance that checkbook. This is why children can't look under their beds at night. This is why witches were burned. This is what we have. As the absence of evidence increases, as more Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Great Auks, Passenger Pigeons, Laughing Owls, and Carolina Parakeets drop out of sight, there is accumulating evidence that we no longer know and we no longer care about the difference.  

Cave, Tamasin and Andy Rowell. 2014. A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain. Random House.
Collins, Michael D. 2011. Putative audio recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 129, No. 3, March 2011 
https://news.gallup.com/poll/206030/global-warming-concern-three-decade-high.aspx
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/aboutibwo/studying_vanishing_html
https://www.fws.gov/ivorybill/pdf/IBW%20Singer%20Tract%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Quarantine

On August 12, 1775, the Spanish naval officer Juan de Ayala named an island in San Francisco Bay after the California Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicusis) that were common in the bay. The archaic Spanish word for Pelican is "Alcatraz." This is fitting. In 1827, a French captain wrote that the island was "covered with a countless number" of the pelicans. Of greater interest though, was the strategic position of the island. In 1850, the President reserved the island as a military installation, barbette guns were installed, and in 1858, it was converted into a military garrison. The isolation, inaccessibility, and cold waters surrounding the island were seen as attributes suitable for a prison and in 1861, the island was used to house Civil War prisoners. It was designated as a long-term detention center in 1868, a military prison in 1907, and a Federal prison in 1934. So isolated, impenetrable, and inaccessible was the prison that only three men were ever able to escape - three professionally trained actors at that - an event captured on film on a Panavision Panaflex color camera in 1.85 to 1 ratio and shown to millions of shaken viewers in 1979. However, all of the pelicans escaped and were never caught. They no longer nest on the island.
Husk of invasive seed from Alcatraz.
Good move. Ordinarily, barriers are constructed to keep certain objects from mixing with other objects. For a variety of reasons, right or wrong, someone sees a need for separation, whether it is phosphorus and water, tourists and lava, employees and management, audience and truth, road salt and roads, astronauts and absolute zero, or John Anglin and society at large. 
We have two trends. At one time, there were natural barriers on earth, things like oceans, mountain ranges, rivers, climate zones, ice fields, and deserts. These kept certain living things from mixing, living things on one side of the barrier that had traits that threatened the existence of living things on the other side of the barrier. As discussed earlier, these barriers have been penetrated by motorized aluminum and steel cylinders, wonders of long distance, high-speed travel. Once on the other side, we behave like liberating armies, releasing wildlife into new lands, not realizing that we behave more like the doomed armies of Troy, who unwittingly transported a wooden horse filled with enemy soldiers through the gates of their fair city. A night of mad celebration ensued, followed by deep sleep. The soldiers poured out of the horse and massacred the inhabitants of Troy.  
Doesn't say dead or alive.
At this time, we have artificial barriers. These have been constructed for a variety of reasons. Some have been erected to slow the advance of invading armies of non-native species. A prime example is the system of electric barriers set across the bottom of the ever-popular Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), whose creamy, mossy-grey waters glisten in the brown sunlight that beams through the photochemical smog, "a river and canal system running so thick with fecal coliform that signs along the banks warn that the contents below are not suitable for 'any human body contact'" (Columbia.edu). These have been installed with the intent of preventing the migration of non-native, aggressive bighead, silver, and black carp into the Great Lakes, where they would devastate the current fishery, which had replaced a previously devastated fishery, which had replaced a previously devastated fishery, which had - the barrier goes both ways; it is also intended to prevent the species that devastated the Great Lakes - tubenose goby, ruffe, sea lamprey - from entering the Mississippi River system and devastating the current fishery, which had replaced a previously devastated fishery, which had. How many layers of which had are in this story, anyhow? The next layer is probably a tale of a new species of electric carp that makes sailors jump off of their ships into the coliform-rich water where they are cooked alive. 
At least it didn't jump. 
Another fine example is a silt fence. The earthmoving associated with the construction of objects along water bodies such as this Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium, this National Historic Place, is isolated, that is to say, quarantined by a silt fence, a plastic mesh barrier that is designed to capture the debris that would be carried away by rainfall or snowmelt into the water body. Along the CSSC, this would include the occasional mobster. 
Similar objectives lie behind the construction of sound barriers along highways. Over 3,000 miles of these barriers have been erected in the US, which has 164,000 miles of highway. Traffic produces noise from engines, aerodynamics, and tires slapping on pavement, typically 70 to 80 decibels, about the sound of a roaring blender held at arm's length. Artificial, sustained noise at these levels has adverse impacts on wildlife, including loss of hearing, inability to detect environmental cues, increased heart rate and respiration, and altered behavior, including site abandonment and failed reproduction. Similar effects are seen in humans. Adaptive responses in humans are usually limited to behavioral changes such as increased and sustained personal noise production and sonic and interpersonal isolation. For economic reasons, many humans in such environments are entrapped like animals caged in a zoo, having impaired migratory ability. 
On the foggy night of September 13, 2013, seven-thousand-five-hundred migrating songbirds burned to death in a gas flare at a liquefied natural gas receiving and regasification terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick. The dead birds included Red-eyed Vireos, Parulas, Black-and-white Warblers, Magnolia Warblers Redstarts, thrushes, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and possibly Olive-sided Flycatchers and Canada Warblers. Many birds migrate at night and, like insects, are attracted to light, even hot light. Once they are lured by lights into urban or suburban settings, many remain in the habitat-poor environment, where they experience increased mortality. Into the den of cats, they fly. This is a windfall to the American suburban housecat population, which, under the cover of darkness and out of sight of humans, quietly dispatches 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds each year. That cat sneaking across the kitchen counter while your back is turned is probably turning on the porch lights, those new LEDs, the ones designed to save something. 
Humans are affected as well. Aside from disrupted sleep patterns, one-third of the human race is unable to see the night sky; the glow of a city is visible on the horizon anywhere in the northeastern U.S. To reduce the spillage of these man-made photons into the environment - steadily increasing as humans switch over to LED lighting - shields are installed on street lights and some skyscrapers shut off their lights at night. 
Numerous other examples could be described here, such as clay liners beneath landfills, armed patrols around wildlife refuges, earthen berms around large aboveground petroleum storage tanks. Each is an example where human activity is segregated from the natural environment, an implicit recognition of the damaging effects that these activities and/or their byproducts have upon the ecosystem. 
An inspection of petroleum tanks, landfills, wildlife refuges, street lights, highways, and earthmoving projects around the planet reveals that the vast majority of these lack protective barriers. We are at large. The wise animals don't wait to be moved to zoos or preserves or other protective custody; they are in self-imposed exile. The unfortunate ones are trapped by forces beyond their control and their continued existence is in question as they lose hearing, fail to recognize dangers, alter their behavior, and fail to reproduce. 
Alcatraz was closed on March 21, 1963. But wildlife can't tell the difference between a prison and a shopping mall and all the while, the fence surrounding our territory is expanding across the globe. Given enough time, all of our territories would merge, becoming a global institution. There would be no natural environment to shield from us. We are like a wooden horse filled with silt, unrecycled plastic, deafening noise, a million lumens, leaking petroleum, and we have passed through the gate, we have crossed the border. Certainly, this may be with all good intent, but whatever it is, they are afraid of Humans, even those bearing gifts. 


https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2010/07/12/chicago-sanitary-canals-anything-but-sanitary/
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/7-500-songbirds-killed-at-canaport-gas-plant-in-saint-john-1.1857615
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180119125817.htm
https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/light-pollution-energy-LED-bulbs-spd/

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Disintegration

Many leaders in the entertainment, sports, religious, or political industries claim millions of devotees. Followers, fans, groupies, sycophants. After the Great War, Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, portrayed himself as the embodiment of mankind's aspirations, a titan of masculinity, with supreme athletic and musical abilities. Millions bought into this myth and became fans, including statesmen, writers, and religious leaders. Although his portrait still hangs in some households, his body was last seen hanging upside down outside a gasoline station in Milan.  
It would be difficult to maintain one million friendships, anyhow. There is a limit to human cognition, memory, and time, all of which limit human ability to maintain stable relationships. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the limit is about 150 relationships (Dunbar 1993). Some have cited the similar size of prehistoric communities, modern-day communes, business structures, and other social groupings as evidence supporting this number. This indicates that only visitors from other worlds could rightly claim one million friendships and that any making this claim should be held for observation immediately. This also indicates that when one acquires a new stable friendship, one has to be cast off, tossed into a pile, like those high school yearbooks in the attic. Knowing this can give one great pleasure at those moments when one has been expelled from a social circle; it is the happy news that your friend just got a new friend! Hold those congratulations, however, they will not be able to comprehend it.
Yet, animals will group in the millions. Herds, flocks, schools. We return to the story of the American bison. In 1839, Thomas Farnham described a bison herd he encountered along the Santa Fe Trail in western Kansas, about 160 miles east of Bent's Trading Post:

The buffalo during the last three days had covered the whole country so completely, that it appeared oftentimes extremely dangerous even for the immense cavalcade of the Santa Fe traders to attempt to break its way through them. We travelled at the rate of fifteen miles a day. The length of sight on either side of the trail, 15 miles; on both sides, 30 miles: - 15x3=45x30=1,350 square miles of country so thickly covered with these noble animals, that when viewed from a height, it scarcely afforded a sight of a square league [4428 acres] of its surface.

Skeleton crew. 
That herd was larger than Rhode Island. Now, if we compare that to the herd seen by Nathaniel Langford in 1862 near the Red River in North Dakota, we may get an idea of how many bison were in the Santa Fe Trail herd. Langford estimated the herd he saw covered 60 square miles and numbered one million bison. The Santa Fe Trail herd was 23 times that size. If Langford's estimates were accurate and scalable, then the Santa Fe Trail herd may have numbered in the tens of millions.
However, these are not meaningful relationships; it is well beyond bison cognition to befriend 23 million bison. One study suggests that the primary function of groups is group and ecosystem stability: "Social groups rather than individuals are the basic building blocks around which predator-prey interactions should be modelled and that group formation may provide the underlying stability of many ecosystems" (Fryxell 2007). Animal groupings, both predator and prey, serve for long-term stabilization of populations and ecosystems. They may also serve for mating opportunities and raising young.
Home range of animals has been defined as the area an individual occupies on a regular basis, but a more recent study defined it as "that part of an animal's cognitive map of its environment that it chooses to keep updated" (Powell 2012). Cognition again. This physical range is matched by the bounds of its cognition.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for coming"
Unfortunately, it appears that humans don't follow these rules. We have a mismatch between cognition and range and group size. We have a regrettable history of large group behavior. Our groups have quickly devolved into labor riots, ethnic purges, soccer melees, partisan rallies, traffic jams, rock concerts for aged rock musicians, and world wars. Riot police inevitably follow. Thus, it is possible to infer a human group of unsustainable and unmanageable size from the smell of tear gas. Some may reason that tear gas defines the edge of the natural human home range.
Thus, if our social limit is less than 200 individuals, then the exaggerated grouping function seen in humans must be other than social. Studies claim that an initial cause of large grouping in humans was food security. The change from a subsistence, hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural collective resulted in a dramatic improvement in food storage capacity and harvest stability. Security.
Today, the excessive grouping may be partly due to crowding. Just commuting to work one is in an overextended group. Couple that with expanded home range and the problem multiplies. Imagine if you had the task of fitting as many third-graders into a school bus as you could. It would be far easier to do this if they were all sedated rather than hepped up on corn syrup solids and red dye number eleven. A bouncing atom takes more space than a motionless atom. This is why air bubbles rise in water, heat rises, thunderstorms build, insulation is deeper in attics than beneath floors, and angry people shout from balconies instead of cellars. So too with larger humans. When alive, we are like a sleeping bag released from a stuff sack; we require many times the space as a non-living human. Unfortunately, the task today is fitting 7.67 billion humans into a shrinking planet, a species hepped up on 9.5 million tons of coffee per year, corn syrup solids, and red dye number whatever. On average, our space requirements exceed that from decades ago; in the past 42 years, the average area of American housing has increased by 62% while the household size has decreased by 16%. Make that 7.68 billion.
In any event, the material and psychic damages of congestion in the urban zone are well documented. Archeologists digging in Neolithic sites in the Near East have estimated that the mean population in the earliest settlements was less than one hundred. As the centuries passed, the population numbers increased to the thousands. As the numbers increased, so did the complexity of the buildings, with the development of segmentation and multiple stories. After 2000 years, these villages were abandoned. Cause of abandonment may have been deteriorating sanitation, loss of privacy, interpersonal tensions, reduced ability to process information, reduced mobility, loss of economic homeostasis, social segmentation and differentiation, hierarchical social divisions, divisions of labor, and restricted diet.
They summarize: "Under conditions of population aggregation, animals and humans respond negatively to a number of features in their environment: congestion, loss of control, loss of privacy and information load" (Kuijt 2000). In other words, the exaggerated structure of civilized society caused the demise of civilized society. 
They disintegrated. Perhaps they all split up into groups of 150 and went their separate ways. 
Wish they would have said something. We passed 150 long ago. One million followers? Technology may make it possible for everyone to have 7.68, no, make that 7.69 billion followers. There isn't much open ground in that herd and it would take about 240 years to pass this spot. Put up another story, build another cubicle. As humans devolve into larger groups, integrating everything, expanding beyond our cognitive abilities, a less ordered, less fit society results. The smell of tear gas is in the air. 


Dunbar, R. I. M. 1992. Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469–493.
Farnham, Thomas J. 1841. Travels in the Great Western Prairies, the Anahuac and Rocky Mountains, and in the Oregon Territory. Killey & Lossing, Poughkeepsie, N. Y.
Fryxell, John M., Anna Mosser, Anthony R. E. Sinclair, and Craig Packer. 2007. Group formation stabilizes predator–prey dynamics. Nature, Vol 449
Kuijt, Ian. 2000. People and Space in Early Agricultural Villages: Exploring Daily Lives, Community Size, and Architecture in the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19, 75–102
Langford, Nathaniel P. 1890. Vigilante Days and Ways. J. G. Cupples Co., Boston. 
Powell, Roger A. and Michael S. Mitchell. 2012. What is a home range? Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 93, Issue 4, 14 September 2012, Pages 948–958,

Monday, December 24, 2018

Bounded Rationality

It is fairly well known that the first World War brought the end of four great empires, the Ottoman Empire, Australia-Hungary, German, and Russian. In 1918, amidst the struggles for political power that ignited in the debris left by the fallen empires, sociologist Max Weber gave a lecture entitled "Politics as a Vocation", which explored the legitimate basis for authority. He cited three: Tradition, Charisma, or Legal. Tradition being the "mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform." Charisma was the "absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership." Legal was "the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional ‘competence’ based on rationally created rules."
Sadly, we do not find any reference to a fourth legitimate basis for authority: Knowledge, or its derivatives understanding and wisdom. Even if it were recognized, we are witnesses to an insurrection, coup d'etat, revolution, a rebellion against informed authority. The marchers throwing increasingly larger rocks at each other carry posters that say, "Down with Book Learnin".
A few decades later it came to this: Some of the elderly still in circulation may recall talk of famine in China during the 1950's and 1960's. In many minds, China became synonymous with famine. During that time period, when a child would not finish his meal, parents and grandparents would say something like, “Eat your supper, there are people starving in China.” The scraps would be thrown out to the birds.
There is a bird in black spruce bogs named White-throated Sparrow. Black spruce bogs are an acid peatland found in northern reaches of North America. They developed in ice block depressions of pitted outwash plains and moraines that were formed by continental glaciers during the Wisconsonian Ice Age. In addition to black spruce, they support tamarack, leatherleaf, cranberry, Labrador tea, and wire sedge. During the spring and early summer, it is possible to hear the plaintive call of the White-throated Sparrows in these bogs. Some say it sounds like, "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody", others say it sounds like, "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." It is the song of the northern bogs, capturing sunny days in a vast, spiced wilderness. But the bogs are getting quieter as of late, as we see the rise of the silent forest. Reports say that White-throated Sparrows number about 140 million in North America but they are declining in numbers and range; it is reported that there has been a 63% decline in population and 35% decline in range since 1966. Primary causes are habitat loss, domestic cats, and window collisions. 
Birds have regional dialects and their songs change over time - in fact, many are adapting their songs to compete with urban noise pollution (Nemeth 2010). The White-throated Sparrow has regional dialects. Those from Quebec seem to be saying, "Seize the bird property, property, property", those from Minnesota sound as if they are saying, "Hey, why's the cat, the glass, the saw, out here?", and those from Michigan sound like, "You idiot, big idiot, idiot, idiot" (Cornell 2018).
But one-hundred and forty million sounds like a lot of sparrows. American Tree Sparrows number about 20 million, Field Sparrows about 7 million, Song Sparrows about 130 million, House Sparrows about 540 million, Eurasian Tree Sparrow currently number about 50-100 million birds. There are perhaps a hundred species of Old World and American Sparrows. There may seem to be an endless supply. This could explain why in Palestine some 2000 years ago, two sparrows sold for less than 5 cents and five sparrows sold for less than 10 cents. Purchased in bulk, one would save 20%. A dime a dozen.
The Ecology of Scapegoats
During the 1940’s, just prior to the Chinese famine, humans in China numbered in the hundreds of millions. There seemed to be an endless supply. At the same time, food production was struggling and it wasn’t meeting the needs of the Chinese populace. Someone saw sparrows eating grain. Someone concluded that sparrows were the cause of the shortfalls in food production. Chairman Mao was informed about it. Few dared to speak up and say that the shortage could be attributed to collectivization, grain procurement, or Lysenkoism.
So, having pinned crop failures on a two-cent bird, in 1958, Mao launched the Four Pests campaign, a nationwide effort to completely eradicate flies, mosquitoes, rats, and, yes, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. "No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won," declared the Peking People's Daily. "All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries." 
"Eliminating the Last Sparrow", 1959
Hundreds of millions of citizens of all ages took up the battle with slingshots, flyswatters, guns, pots, pans, drums, stones, and snares. Sparrows were trapped, shot, and harassed until they fell from the sky out of sheer exhaustion. The campaign was one of the most successful public health initiatives in history. By 1962, the people had killed 1 billion Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
It was also one of the most successful public health disasters in history. Their heroic efforts to bring death upon 1 billion sparrows also brought death upon 45 million Chinese citizens, death by starvation. This campaign revealed exact exchange rate, about 22 sparrows per human, meaning one human would be worth a little over 20 cents if China were Palestine. While Mao was told that sparrows ate grains, apparently, he did not know that Eurasian Tree Sparrows also ate locusts and were essential in their control. Thus, as the sparrow declined, locust populations increased, free to prowl the farmlands with impunity. As locust populations increased, crops were devastated, yields declined, food became scarce, famine swept the land, and 45 million humans starved to death. They might have been better off eating the sparrows. 
We Hurt Because It's What We Don't Know
Yes, the connectivity of nature, who would have known? Kill a wolf in Yellowstone, and aspen trees die. Bring zebra mussels into the Great Lakes and loons die of botulism. Kill the sparrows in China and people starve to death. Everything is connected to everything, a web of life. There are ecological niches to be filled and predator/prey relationships to maintain. It is a tightly choreographed ballet: remove one performer and others will stumble and fall flat. 
As it is, humans, when armed with shovels and drums and lacking the knowledge and understanding of the interecology of life and the outcomes of their actions, can become a natural disaster, a force that can reshape the planet. This is repeated on an ecosystem level every day. We have yet another list: Kudzu, Bisphenol A, cats on Macquarie Island, rosy wolfsnail in Hawaii, possum shrimp in Flathead Lake, rabbits in New Zealand, ballast in the Great Lakes, fungus on spelunkers, algae on hip waders, brown snakes in airplane wheels, antibiotic-resistant microbes, Caulerpa taxifolia in the Mediterranean, fracturing wells in Oklahoma, desert irrigation, cities on floodplains, hydroelectric dams, plowing the shortgrass prairie. A long list of environmental actions with unforeseen and unintended bad consequences, naturally disastrous human behavior. This reveals something about our nature: We exhibit bounded rationality; our knowledge has limited scope, we don't have the breadth of vision. 
On a Clear Day, I Can See Statistics
To combat this problem, humans conduct research, sweeping the literature and living sources for data, especially concerning the projected impacts of a proposed action upon the environment. In some quarters, these sweeps are called, "Effects Analysis.” Ideally, we attempt to anticipate all possible negative impacts, effects, or outcomes of a given action upon species or their habitat. In reality, we try to see all likely and unacceptable possible outcomes. That shrinks the possibility pool considerably. But, inevitably, we miss something, like locust plagues.
To see all possible outcomes, good, bad, or indifferent, is impossible. But we come closer to this ideal as we assign more minds to the task, registering more possible outcomes - the effect of magnesium deficiency on soybeans, the effect of calcium deficiency on soybeans, the effect of nitrogen deficiency on soybeans. Go through all 118 of the elements on the periodic table, from Hydrogen to Ununoctium. Then go through all 80,000 edible plants. Then the rest of the plants. Then all mammals. Birds. Fish. Mollusks. Arthropods. Dinosaurs. Eventually, we run out of time, scientists, funding, imagination, and access.
Here is where Mathematicians save the day. We also approach this ideal through statistics, where we take a representative sample of the whole and make inferences about the whole. The greater and more random the sample, the more confidence there is in the conclusions about the whole. Through our finite data, we generate a statistical probability of something in immeasurable, infinite reality. Sort of like finding the address of an electron. Or like gazing at the stars; we only perceive points of light, while those points, in actuality, are blinding spheres that dwarf our sun. We don’t have the perspective, the breadth of vision, but we can use statistics to describe what is beyond our knowledge.
Hire that firm to work at the OMB
Unfortunately, Math doesn't always add up. There are various reasons for this, including sampling error, design flaws, response bias, and unmeasured factors. In fact, conclusions are given a margin of error. In negative findings, we can only say that it is unlikely that the project will have negative environmental impacts. There are degrees of unlikelihood; legal environmental documents use the terms, “discountable” or “insignificant”. In the end, recognition of these inherent deficiencies brings us to the conclusion that we cannot disprove the existence of negative outcomes, only tell the probability of existence. We could call a low probability a "Dawkin’s Toaster", after Richard Dawkins, who discusses a theoretical toaster that may exist in space between the earth and the moon but has yet to be disproved. History is full of surprises.
So, in a more or less benign way, what plagued Mao plagues all of us. He was unaware, unable, or unwilling to see both the connections in nature and the future effects of his actions upon the environment. This is our nature.
Thus, having exhausted all efforts to attain complete knowledge of potential impacts, a negative finding is considered the final word, and the project proceeds apace. Gentlemen, start your bulldozers. At this point the project becomes an experiment, poking the earth to see how it reacts. We stand by and cringe. Somewhere in the forest, a sparrow falls to the ground and nobody hears it.
Wanted: An Infinite Number of Scientists
All of this would be irrelevant if, individually or collectively, we had the ability to consider all factors and possible outcomes. Ah, to have an infinite number of minds working on a 16,000-acre site where a nuclear weapons facility was proposed, each considering a different factor or outcome. Or better yet, for one person to have an infinite amount of time to think about the project, for this would enable us to gather all data and make statements of absolute certainty about the outcomes of the proposed project and, being an eternal study, the radioactive material would decay into simple lead and the project would be scrapped - and the marchers would put down their rocks, stop marching, and just stand there holding signs that say, "World Peace by Doin Nuthin". The business community cringes. This is going to cost us. Maybe a better idea is to save the time and manpower and just find one infinite scientist.
Was fired a year later, replaced by a computer
A Finite History
Nah. Projecting from thousands of years of human ecological history, it can be said that the majority would reject an absolutely informed authority and that this conclusion has a margin of error of zero percent.
If knowledge is a legitimate basis of authority, and humans are bounded by a lack of critical or absolute knowledge, then humans have been overstepping their bounds. Outrunning their headlights. It works well for those exercising this authority to have social support by the growing crowd that rejects informed authority. We have been reduced to the other three justifications. It is our tradition to authorize charismatic figures and to write it into law.  


Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills. 1946. (Translated and edited) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University Press, New York.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-throated_Sparrow/sounds

Nemeth, Irwin and Henrik Brumm. 2010. Birds and Anthropogenic Noise: Are Urban Songs Adaptive? Am Nat. 2010 Oct;176(4):465-75