Sunday, December 30, 2018


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.

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Human Scale

John G. Williams Preserve in North Dakota is a Nature Conservancy property. It is famous for Piping Plover, a very rare, imperiled bird. In the spring, one might see a plover in the surf of Pelican Lake, an inland saline lake. This would be one of some 12-13,000 Piping Plovers in existence. Although this is a 70% increase since its all-time-low a few decades ago, it is still below its pre-settlement population. Working with figures from the Great Lakes pre-settlement population, the pre-Columbian numbers may have been around 160,000 breeding pairs or a total population of 260,000 birds. That means our current population is about 5% of the original, up from 2%.
123 Billion-acre Assisted Living Facility
This modest rebound in numbers give some sense of relief, since they put the species at what is believed to be sustainable population levels, where there is enough genetic variation, breeding opportunity, and breeding success.
Regarding the recent success of Piping Plover in New Jersey, the Conserve Wildlife of New Jersey states, “We need to continue our intensive management for a number of years to sustain any recovery.” A familiar outcome. This has become the predicament for most, if not all of the thousands of imperiled species on earth: they have become dependent upon human intervention for survival. Just a few hundred years ago, almost all of these species existed as self-sustaining populations that ultimately supported the ecosystem upon which we depended. We have witnessed a role reversal, from caretaker to caregiver.
Intensive management. History tells us that land management was the scheme that initiated habitat and species loss in the first place, our current “extinction crisis” (Wilcox and Murphy, 1985). Clear cut forests to build ships and cities and support war efforts, dam rivers to provide electricity and irrigation, plow prairies to provide grain for livestock and fuel for humans. In those land management systems that humans devised, native habitat was altered or destroyed, wildlife was targeted, and native populations declined to our present species-depleted world. The scheme has become management begets management. How much land management would there be today if there had been no land management in the past? True, in our current reality, explosive population, resource demand, transoceanic transport, climate change, war, and other matters have forced us to look at that herd, coal seam, grassland, and wonder how we can exploit it. Whatever the reason, we have been brought to a resource management scheme that is comparable to hiring one person simply to dig a hole and another person simply to fill it in. If the hole wasn't dug in the first place, both workers could spend some time with their families admiring the non-excavated, virgin landscape, the Hole Free National Park. It's like an arsonist fireman setting fire to homes to keep firemen busy fighting fires, or insulin companies handing out free liters of soda pop, surgeons deliberately running their cars over pedestrians, masked policemen on a crime wave in a big city. Currently, it is a cycle, but whether it is an endless cycle, well, that depends. 
There are hundreds of thousands of scientists in the world, many of which specialize in one aspect or another of land management: ecologists, hydrologists, wetland scientists, geologists, seismologists, range conservationists, interpretive rangers, geographers, cartographers, climatologists, ornithologists, zoologists, botanists, wildlife refuge managers, oceanographers, and so forth. If this were the year 1363, and the landscape was that prior to industrialization, colonization, and the invention of the first gun, we wonder what their work would entail.
As humans double down their intensive management, to the point of inventorying, counting, naming, and labeling every tree in a forest, it can be a bettor's sport to watch these management schemes to see if humans have advanced so far as to ensure that their efforts to restore wildlife and habitat are enlightened enough that they do not repeat mistakes of the past or create new mistakes, which, in turn, require new schemes and we keep the science community occupied in something other than admiring that un-excavated, virgin prairie into the indefinite future, or at least until the species run out. After that, each of these scientists becomes, as Dr. Nick Lunn of the Canadian Wildlife Service likes to say, “A historian.”
Non-linear Retrogression
There are many graphs out there showing the change in wildlife populations since the industrial age, about the time that large-scale earth-moving projects came into being - Panama Canal, Welland Canal, Fontana Dam. One controversial study stated that we have seen a loss of 52% of wildlife on earth in the past 40 years. Regardless of the controversy, similar statements are being made in studies of individual species or groups of species. A grand die-off in the near future, lines plunging downward. Fisheries will be depleted in 40 years, polar bears will be extinct in a few decades, neotropical birds, elephants, lions, rhinos, and so forth. Extrapolating current trends, there is a point on the line at which there is no line.
Extrapolation goes both ways. In one direction, we would get to the end of the curve naturally, assuming that we live indefinitely, which has been working out fairly well for those currently living. But how to get to the other end of the curve? How might we get to traveling back to 1804, when Lewis and Clark were floating up the Missouri River through “a landscape greater than the Serengeti”, or 1673, when Jolliet was mapping out the Mississippi River, or 1541, when Coronado was on the Staked Plain of Texas and saw bison in such force that he said, "It is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains...there was not a day that I lost sight of them"? Land management back then was a Native American setting a prairie fire. In three weeks, the green grass attracted bison and the bison attracted hunters and the hunters attracted cooks, a sort of trophic cascade.
Some Things Never Change
Habitat, in part, determines niche. Niche has a certain predictability. Species will require a fairly consistent set of parameters in order to persist and thrive. Thus, biologists have defined habitat requirements for many species. A geographic database query can identify the intersection of habitat characteristics that meet the habitat requirements of the species. This point in ecospace has a higher probability of supporting a population of the species. Armed with this geodata, a surveyor can locate that intersection on the actual landscape with the hopes of finding a population of a species persisting and thriving. He also avoids wasting time and energy on landscapes with low probabilities, such as a golf course or pet cemetery. This “predictive habitat distribution modeling” works well in the field.
We can attribute this degree of predictive success to the relatively static niche requirements of a species. We say species because, at the genus level, the amount of variance in habitat requirements between similar species of the same genus can be great. Think Bobcat versus Jaguar. Within a species, even across its range, there is a recognizable level of homogeneity. The three populations of Piping Plover (Atlantic Coast, Northern Great Plains, and Great Lakes) all have very similar habitat requirements: “wide, flat, open, sandy beaches with very little grass or other vegetation” (USFWS).
Just Who Do We Think We Are
Relatively static niche requirements are so because the nature of most species is relatively static in the human time frame. Extinct bison (Bison priscus) were found in the Mammoth Steppe, a habitat similar to the prairie habitat that modern bison (Bison bison) occupy. However, Facebook algorithms notwithstanding, it has become hard to say this about humans. There were many centuries where humans exhibited consistent habitat requirements. The real estate ads from any century prior to the Industrial Age read:

Affordable single-room wooden home with bark, leather, or grass roofing and outdoor plumbing in quaint village with community garden and waterfront access in temperate to tropical climate. Ask about our easy credit terms.

Something like that. But this is not the case today. Looking at the human species across its range, for all races, ethnic groups, and nationalities, our habitat and niche breadth has expanded. As one report said, “Humans are remarkable for their ability to adapt to new niches much faster than the time required for genetic change” (Nettle 2013). Indeed. We have what they call, “Adaptive Phenotypic Plasticity.” 
What would predictive habitat distribution modeling show for humans? The point would be lost because we occupy everywhere. Adaptively, we find us in everything from urban high-rise settings to galvanized steel huts in landfills outside Mexico City, lonely caves in Afghanistan, bombed out cinderblock rubble in Syria, a North Face VE25 at 26,000 feet, even tiny houses orbiting 254 miles above the earth. But do we change entirely out of adaptive strategy?
The beaver invades a lowland filled with eastern red cedar, builds a dam, and the lowland fills with water and the cedar dies. The beaver didn’t adapt to the wetland, it created the wetland. Fortunately, beavers do not have the ability to run a forest harvester. Unfortunately, we do. We also can run dragline excavators, row crop tractors, river dredges, and tower cranes. The ecological niche that humans occupy is fluid, plastic, shifting. We occupy villages at 16,732 feet in the Andes to 918 feet below sea level in the Jordan Valley, permafrost to salt flats, sand deserts to rainforests, underground tunnels to treetops, vegetarian to carnivore, monogamous to polygamous. So much of this is not an adaptive response, but because we have, as one study says, “unique cognitive and behavioral mechanisms.” We have the unique ability to change our nature. We don’t wait for mutations to occur, we self-mutate.
As a result, our habitat requirements are not static. Armed with machinery, we alter the world around us to suit our current fancies, building a great variety of uniquely human habitats. Impoundments, farm belts, Levittown’s, Soviet Apartments, artificial islands, gated communities, mansions, man camps, trailer parks, communes, nomadic camps, floating villages, and, in the end, the back of a station wagon.
Too bad his brain didn't grow too. 
This might remind everyone of the tragic figure, Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning. It was 1957. One day, Glenn was a simple army officer engaged to marry his sweetheart, Carol Forrest, and a few days later he was fifty-feet tall, wearing mutant-sized diapers, tossing automobiles with his left hand, and smashing the Las Vegas Sands Hotel with his right. At the last, he was headed to drink up Lake Mead but he never made it that far. He grew way too big. And he had gone mad.
Well, we too have grown way too big. But this is not an adaptation, it is not genetic change brought about by an atomic plutonium bomb exploding at a bomb tower surrounded by Hollywood actors at a military site at Desert Rock, Nevada. No, our unique cognitive and behavioral mechanisms enable us to change our nature. “Free Will”, if you will. This decision to change has moved us to depart from our historic ecospace and it demands a changed set of habitat conditions.
In our current phenotype, we have greatly widened our niche breadth, increased our consumption, expanded our diet, expanded our range, overlapped other niches, and, as a result, have found ourselves in conflict and competition with a host of species historically outside of our boundaries. 
Horribly, within a year, Lt. Colonel Manning was followed by Nancy Archer, “a wealthy but highly troubled woman with a history of emotional instability and immoderate drinking”. She too, grew to fifty feet in height and attacked everything in her path, including her two-timing, no-good husband, Harry, and his gold-digging girlfriend. Overconsumption is not gender-biased.
Back To Nature
The scale of our projects, developments, structures, and systems has exceeded our niche. We are occupying so much ecological space that we have become predator, prey, parasite, mutualist, subterranean, aquatic, aerial, terrestrial, all at once. Hydra, we of many heads. Soon, there will be little room for anyone else, except, perhaps, those army men with bazookas trying to bomb us back to 1363. Good luck, boys. We have outreached the human scale and are now operating at an outsized scale beyond Tyrannosaurus rex, more akin to that occupied by Godzilla or the reckless gods of old; Hecatoncheires, Cormoran, Fachen, Hiranyaksha, Quinametzin, Oj├íncanu.
Those were myths. We are real, but of mythic proportions, a race of 50-foot-tall, colossal humans, eating cars, throwing palm trees, oversized and overfed and still growing. Various studies state that if all people on earth lived like the average North American, it would take about four earths to sustain us. We have a fight on our hands, but put away those weapons. The battle begins with ‘our unique behavioral and cognitive mechanisms', to know how to fit and to choose to fit. With all the talk of sustainable resource use, without downsizing, reducing what we do to eye-level, village-sized, below-the-treetops, human scale, this colossus is unsustainable; it is on the verge of drinking the entire earth dry.

Pover, Todd and Christina Davis. 2015. Piping Plover Nesting Results in New Jersey: 2015. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Wilcox, Bruce A. and Dennis D. Murphy. 1985. Conservation Strategy: The Effects of Fragmentation on Extinction. The American Naturalist, Vol. 125, No. 6 (Jun., 1985), pp. 879-887

Nettle, Daniel, Mhairi A. Gibson, David W. Lawson, and Rebecca Sear. 2013. Human behavioral ecology: current research and future prospects. Behavioral Ecology, Volume 24, Issue 5, 1 September 2013, Pages 1031–1040,

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


In recent years, astronomers have been tracking what are called Near Earth Objects. Occasionally, they announce that an object such as an asteroid is coming dangerously close to the earth. What purpose this warning serves is unclear. It might be that they want us all to brace for impact - crawl under a desk, curl up, and put our hands behind our heads.
This is nothing new. Judging by the accumulated testimony of hundreds of science fiction writers in the past century, aliens have either approached or landed on earth hundreds of times. Yet, the human race has survived all of these encounters and continues to thrive, showing vigorous signs of life; eating, drinking, replicating, fighting, texting, and sleeping. 
Stop that monster, both of them!
However, not many have considered what sort of impact this would have had on any aliens that would have landed on this forbidden planet. Odds are it would have been traumatic. But, contrary to the contentions of these authors, this trauma would not be due to 1) a lack of immunity to bacterial infection, 2) intolerance to high-frequency sound, 3) the caustic effects of water, 4) a weakness in the directed-energy weapon port, which, when destroyed, causes a devastating chain reaction, destroying the entire mothership, or 5) extreme cranial pressure when hearing Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call". 
From 250 miles up in space, if aliens approached the dark side of the earth, they might see the array of amber lights in urban zones and highways and remark at how beautiful they seem. Upon landing on Lake Michigan, they might see the Chicago skyline a half-mile away, reflected in the water, and wax poetic about the splendor of the tall concrete and steel structures with mirrored walls:

By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars
     and has a soul.

Breaking into the third floor of an office building, they would marvel at the landscape architect's drawings depicting the clean, crisp, sunny, aesthetic contours of an exclusive suburban subdivision. Underground service maps would show a beautifully organized web of fiber optic cables, telephone lines, electrical lines, drinking water lines, natural gas lines, storm sewers, sanitary sewers, and steam pipes. No wonder they want to invade this place.
Today, an increasing percentage of nature photography is framed such that it doesn't include the telephone poles, highways, contrails, discarded plastic bottle, or abandoned refrigerator in the field. Some photographers erase the offending sights with photo editing software. So it is with the architectural drawings and maps.
That plastic bottle just out of view in that award-winning nature photograph, that photo on display at the art institute just down the street from those aliens, well, consider the engineering that went into it. We proudly present the process that brings us polyethylene terephthalate:
Obtain some crude oil. Using heat, distill the crude oil. One of the fractions is naptha. Catalytically reform the naptha, producing benzene, toluene, and xylene. Distill the xylene, separating p-xylene from m-xylene, o-xylene, and ethylbenzene. Next, oxidize the p-xylene with atmospheric oxygen using cobalt–manganese–bromide catalyst, which produces terephthalic acid. Combine ethylene glycol with the terephthalic acid, producing a polymeric chain of polyethylene terephthalate molecules. This is then cut into pellets and blow-stretched into plastic drinking bottles at rates of 500 to 10,000 bottles per hour per machine. Next, take that bottle and toss it into the ditch. That's right, toss it. This is what is called "end use", in this case, its final use is as a chemical and physical threat to all life on earth. 
This forces nature photographers to narrow their field of view, producing increasingly narrow images of the world. This skews our estimation of what is actually out there in the natural world. This is the same distorted perspective that the alien is experiencing as he views our earth from 250 miles, from 1/2 mile, at night, or on cheerful architectural drawings.
Daylight arrives all too soon, and the sun shines on creeks, estuaries, bays, shorelines, and whirling gyres teeming with plastics, plastic-eating fish and birds, plastic microfibres in beer, and plastic microbeads in the streams and lakes. The aliens may be having second thoughts. 
Yet, over time, this bottle may appear to disappear. Not so. Although the polymer degrades with considerable effort by the sun, the atmosphere, and the climate, it releases toxic chemicals along the way and the individual plastic molecule is extremely durable and persists indefinitely. "The majority of plastic polymer types are non-biodegradable, i.e. degradation by microorganisms, where PET and PP being the most abundant ones, are practically non-degradable...However, a complete conversion of a plastic material to its main constituents (CO2, water and inorganic molecules) via photo- and bio-degradation is rather unlike to happen." (Hahladakis 2018) 
Fortunately, or maybe not, invisibility is not an issue with the majority of human constructs. A closer inspection of the landscape that surrounds the de-polymerizing bottle in the ditch shows degrading man-made structures, from underground utility infrastructures to highways, bridges, high-rises, houses, landfills, and industry, including that aging, inefficient recycling plant that is leaking something vile into the river, each of which produces a unique set of toxins and voluminous waste. This did not show up on the beautiful, four-color, urban planning maps. 
That big highway full of truck-eating potholes, one may recall a time when a four-lane highway was just a side street. Or when there were no traffic lights in a town that now has dozens. Growth in population and standard of living result in increased infrastructure. Given enough time, every highway would be at least four-lane and every intersection on earth would have a traffic light. There are tens of thousands of landfills in the US and probably hundreds of thousands of landfills, official and informal, around the world. Given enough time, every square foot of the earth would be a former or existing landfill. The next level of solutions would be similar to those used in cemeteries or cities, or is it cities or cemeteries, where land is scarce: Put on a second story. High-rise landfills. 
It is difficult to find pre-industrial age debris. Decaying infrastructure from centuries past was composed of wood, metal, cloth, bone, stone, glass. Decomposition of these reduced the majority of it to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic molecules. Other materials were often recycled, used for new houses, bridges, walls. Often, what remains to this day seems to be part of the natural landscape, something organic, an aesthetic match to the surroundings. 
Depositos de Pinkuylluna
500-year old Inca granaries 
Ollantaytambo, Peru
No trace of the building plans.
Somewhere in the past 200 years, we lost the art and science of an organic life, biodegradable products, low impact, native building materials, of constructs that appeared to be part of the natural landscape. A law of nature is, what is constructed must be integrated, biologically, chemically, and physically to the natural environment. Look around, bird nests, beaver lodges, termite hills, bees nests. It would follow that whatever we make should be in accord with the biology, ecology, chemistry, and visuals of life. Many of our constructs are better suited for the surface of Venus, where temperatures are 462 degrees and it rains sulfuric acid. A law of nature is, everything produced must be de-manufactured. It would follow that whatever we make we should be responsible to unmake. But the moment our products leave the laboratory, they become orphans, abandoned on the steps of creation. Somehow, we find ourselves way above the law.
Meanwhile, those aliens. In broad daylight, they take a closer look. They see plastic packaging as ubiquitous as dandelions. And there are those potholes in the pavement, the delaminating OSB, leaking drums of chemical waste, crumbling tarpaper shingles, rusting rebar, worn carpet, discarded faux leather couches, warped vinyl siding, oxidized paint, junk cars, leaking oil pipelines, this growing mound of stubborn, toxic waste. They flee to their mothership, screaming.
Aliens, they say, we can't defeat them. 
One more thing, make that 6) repelled by our trash. 

Sandberg, Carl. Skyscraper. 1919.

Hahladakis, John N., Costas A.Velisa RolandWeber, Eleni Iacovidou, Phil Purnell. 2018. An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling. Journal of Hazardous Materials. Volume 344, 15 February 2018, Pages 179-199

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Biotic Homogenization

As an invading army overwhelms an indigenous population, the tradition has been to strip the native peoples of their culture - dress, music, art, food, grooming, language - and compel them to adopt the culture of the invading army. This has been true in one continent after another, particularly during the colonial era. As a result, many indigenous cultures became moribund or extinct, reduced to museum pieces, static, frozen in time like a watch that stopped during an atomic blast. 
Extrapolating this historic data leads us to the end of civilization, where humans have attained a singular global culture: one dress, one music, one art, one food, one grooming, and one language. Global uniformity. Homogeneity. We face a monoculture future of tee-shirts, official sports team hats, basketball shoes, commercial art, autotuned pop, fries, hamburgers, a beer, and slang. We shudder. That is something right out of science fiction. 
Today, various monitoring systems enable us to observe and measure the demise of ecosystems and their species as they happen. The most comprehensive monitoring arrangement is the Natural Heritage Program, a database developed by The Nature Conservancy and networked at NatureServe that tracks the locations of rare and threatened species and communities for states, provinces, and many countries. The lists of rare species and communities for a given jurisdiction are astonishingly long. The one for New York State, for example, currently lists 349 endangered, 155 threatened, 86 rare, and 153 vulnerable plants. That’s 743 plant species in New York alone that are at risk of extirpation or extinction. The list for rare animals is 19 pages long. We did not bother to count, it's like counting rabbits; by the time you get done, you have to start all over again. We are sure that someone has been assigned the task and, if this depopulation continues, his job would become easier if someone would tell him to just count the species that are not imperiled.
Multiply this by the world.
One may notice that these lists omit Homo sapiens. It might be hard to justify adding them to the list when you see there are some 8 billion of them swarming over the surface of the planet, but they persist in not understanding that human existence is bound to the existence of other life on the planet. It’s like throwing a horse over the side of a wooden ship while forgetting that you are sitting in the saddle. It is clear, were this trend to continue, eventually we would be on the list, sinking beneath the surface of the unusually hot, flat sea along with the thrashing horses, Przewalski's horses, and polar bears, Magenta Petrel, Saimaa ringed seal, orangutans, and by the way, we just noticed, a raft of about 150 million tons of plastic trash. Where did that come from? A few more decades and that thing is going to weigh more than all of the fish in the oceans. 
Today, a spinning raft of remarks uttered by the human race enables us to observe and measure the demise of the human ecological mind as it happens. It has become common to hear the assertion that protecting other creatures on earth is unnecessary, that their value is overestimated, their niche in the ecosystem can be replaced by domesticated, universal species. It is also very common to hear the assertion that the worth of native or rare species or ecosystems is inferior to that of commodities, agriculture, economy, jobs, housing, transportation, and technology. This is current. This is tragic. This is mass self-strangulation, Jonestown, Earth. We have lost sight of the fact that the original ecosystems were what made it possible to have commodities, agriculture, economy, jobs, housing, transportation, and technology. It is like believing that one's parents never existed.
In this mindset, the desired future outcome may be wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, eucalyptus, Kentucky bluegrass, banana trees, palm oil trees, coffee shrubs, and Ring-necked Pheasants. Commodities. These species have been deliberate, desired introductions. Other deliberate introductions had undesired effects. These included cottontail rabbits, Starlings, kudzu, and a thousand more. Other introductions have been unintentional, spread across the globe by air and ship; waifs, stowaways, and refugees, smuggled in steel shipping containers, wooden pallets, and airplane cargo holds. These include Norway rats, zebra mussels, brown tree snakes, gobi fish, and a million more. Don't ask us to count. 
As mentioned in a different post, the rate of introduction is a fundamental problem. High rates of introduction tend to exceed ecosystem resilience. Ecosystem resilience is its ability to return to its prior state after a perturbation. When the perturbation is an introduced species, this resilience is usually a function of natural enemies in the invaded ecosystem and the quantity of invading individuals. In the case of Hawaii, the current rate of biological invasions "are nearly one million times higher than the prehistoric rate for Hawaii before human influence." This transport is occurring across the globe, in all latitudes and across regions that had natural barriers to dispersal, such as oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, or ice fields, objects that were essential in maintaining distinct ecosystems. As Darwin observed in 1859, "barriers of any kind, or obstacles to free migration, are related in a close and important manner to differences between the productions of various regions."
This being so, where conditions are favorable, as when there are no natural enemies, the sheer quantity of invaders is high, or where the species propagates quickly and aggressively, these species can rapidly colonize the new territory and in so doing, the introduction becomes an invasion. They are said to have "winning traits". Some have caused severe ecological damage, radically altering the invaded ecosystem, exterminating species as they fill their niche. Emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, thousand canker disease, hemlock wooly adelgid, spiny water flea, Eurasian water-milfoil, beech scale, brown tree snake, chestnut blight, white-nose syndrome, Dutch elm disease, and we have another tiring list.  
In practice then, this composite of alien species that is being introduced with varying degrees of intent around the globe is advancing, threatening to homogenize all regions with similar environmental conditions - precipitation, temperature, soil, geology, insolation, slope, aspect, and such. Similar environments around the globe are displaying increasing numbers of identical species. They are becoming alike. This is called biotic homogenization, where "the same non-native species are being introduced to multiple locations" causing "disparate regions to become more similar in their species composition through time"; "a broader ecological process by which formerly disparate biotas lose biological distinctiveness at any level of organization, including in their genetic and functional characteristics." (Olden 2010) 
This means war. Like an invading army, humans are conquering the entire earth, colonizing continent after continent, imposing their standardized ecoculture everywhere they plant their flag. Indigenous ecocultures - both their species and functions - are being extirpated. Global uniformity, homogeneity, our ecosystem faces a monoculture future where earth teems with three species of edible plants, a dozen species of farm animals, two household pets, and a few hundred disease-carrying pests that came along for the ride. Poodle habitat!
We reread the rare species list, looking for humans, but they haven't made the list yet. Ah - what were we thinking - when that happens, who would be reading? Most of us would be in museums, anyhow.

Olden, Julian D., Julie L. Lockwood, and Catherine L. Parr. 2011. Biological Invasions and the Homogenization of Faunas and Floras. Wiley Online Library. 
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. Page 347. Harvard University Press. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Maximum Sustained Yield

One of the early applications of methamphetamine was in warfare. Amphetamines were used in the 1930's during the Spanish Civil War. Use of the drug accelerated during the Second World War when it was administered to soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. Wartime use continued through Korea, Viet Nam, the Second Gulf War, and they continue to be used today. Soon after its discovery, chemists found that methamphetamine relieved sinus congestion and fatigue, enabling humans to exceed normal physical and mental limitations. As often happens when a new scientific truth is born, it is taken from its parents and rushed over to the military laboratory to undergo experiments. Applied to the battlefield it enabled soldiers to work longer and harder, while increasing confidence, aggression, and morale. Thus, maximum battlefield productivity was achieved. During their stunning invasion of France in 1940, Wehrmacht soldiers downed 35 million doses of Pervitin, the German brand name for methamphetamine, also called "pilot pills", "panzer chocolate" and "stuka tablets". About 70 million amphetamine pills were issued to British soldiers, about 100 million were available to American soldiers. Japan had similar figures. 
Thus, historians should have named it PED War II. What might have been if drugs hadn't fueled the soldiers? Maybe everyone would have yawned and crawled back into bed in 1939. 
Since then, the major battlefields have shifted to corporate territory and, as a result, there have been reams of studies and articles about maximizing employee productivity. Expand the market share. Counter the hostile takeover. Erect trade barriers. Defend the intellectual property. The workforce is drilled in the glories of standing meetings, self-care, cultural fit, autonomy, core competency, ideate, incentivize, deep dive, impactful, hyper-local, move the needle, headshot. Yes, all that, and petrichor, umami, coxcomb, Bronze John, apoplexy, chalkstones, grippe, ague, banjanxed, and dandiprat. Somewhere, under the cloak of that verbal fog, we fear the boss is handing out methamphetamine pills.
The stated objective of this prattle is humanizing the workforce. This might not sit well with Adam Smith, the one of invisible hand who said profit was prime objective, not humanization. His theory stated that self-interest would necessarily result in the elevation of the community that surrounds the profiteer, hence self-interest is actually an interest in non-self. That is to say, Blue Johnny's bartender is actually looking out for Blue Johnny as he gets banjanxed, or is it humanized. This leads us to another buzzword aside from the word buzzword: counter-intuitive, which seems suspiciously similar to the word contradiction.
More buzzwords. Carrying capacity is the maximum population that an ecosystem can sustain without degrading or destroying the environment. As applied to cattle grazing, the number of cattle released to graze on a grassland is the stocking rate. The carrying capacity is where the stocking rate is the maximum number of cattle that can be released to graze on the grassland without damaging the grassland.
Maximum sustained yield is a resource management strategy that achieves maximum harvest while maintaining the maximum growth rate of the population. As applied to fishery and herd management, a quantity of a species is harvested that reduces the population to a level where a maximum number of individuals will be reproduced to replace the harvested species. Maximum reproductive rates were believed to be at half the carrying capacity of an environment. As applied to forestry, a volume of timber is harvested that matches the maximum volume of timber that can be replaced by growth in that stand of timber.
The carrying capacity for cattle had been determined by forage production, water supply, animal intake, range type, precipitation, topography, time of sampling, plant species, and other grazing animals present in the environment. The maximum sustained yield of a fishery or herd had been determined by forage, population size, distribution, and reproductive rate. The maximum sustained yield of a forest had been determined by species, yield rate, desired commodity, loss due to fire, insects, blowdown, and disease, and other factors.
We repeat ourselves, that is, we say the same things over again. There was a time that medical science thought the human temperament was determined by the balance of Four Humours, or fluids, in the human body: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, which were expressed in personalities that were sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. We clear our throat: Not all that is simple is true.
Theories such as these were popular because they were simple and symmetric. So too, with Maximum Sustained Yield and Carrying Capacities. As these theories were applied and the results came in, the analysis revealed that they were oversimplifications. The environment was far more complex. More research was needed. The science did not take into account the ability of a reduced population to compete with other species, the ecosystem nature of the species and its surroundings, the functional values of mature specimens, the dependence of a population upon byproducts of itself, the genetics or fitness of the specimens harvested, incidental harvest, the life stage of harvested specimens, the loss of virgin specimens, change in genetics of the population, bias toward harvest of fittest specimens, errors in population size and distribution estimates, gene flow between subpopulations, genotype variations, variations in growth rate, impact of climate change on population vitality, natural changes in ecosystem location and attributes, effects on the ecosystem by increases in non-harvested species, niche competition, spatial variability in productivity, edge-of-range effects, impacts of hybrid or genetically modified harvest species, impacts of alien invasive species, and this is really embarrassing.
It must have been the mushroom. 
This problem could be explained by the relatively insignificant man, Grant Williams, who, in 1957, found himself in a quandary: The more he learned, the smaller he became. This altered his consciousness. At the very moment when he believed that he learned the "the answer to the riddle of the infinite" and that the "unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like a giant circle", he was willing to completely disappear. With thoughts like that, he wasn't far from nothingness. There is a lesson here for all of us: This realization occurred when he believed that he was approaching the size of a safety pin, which would have reduced his grey matter to 0.0000000006% of the size of a human brain, barely enough to house a hundred thousand neurons and certainly not able to produce abstract thought. This is equivalent to the abstract thinking ability of a boll weevil or a mid-level manager on methamphetamines. So we are forced to suspend any conclusion; we have insufficient data. There is no record that Mr. Williams admitted himself into a substance abuse facility before his passing in 1985. 
We are no better off than Mr. Williams. The list of unaccounted factors is certain to increase as scientific discovery inflates the vastness of ignorance toward a greater infinity, as it comes to know yet another factor it did not know that is connected to a thousand unknowns, ever-shrinking details in an expanding universe of fact. Ignorance is like a hole in the ground: the more you take from it, the bigger it gets. How big? Every bit of knowledge we add increases what we don't know by a factor of, well, X.
While the application of these theories led to the collapse of the Atlantic tuna population, the clearing of old-growth forests, a decrease in upland game birds, the explosion of niche competitors, the loss of outlier populations, to name a few, a management scheme that brings some species and ecosystems nearer to a collapse, a scheme mounted on shaky assumptions and gaping holes in knowledge, such is not the fundamental problem. In each of these applications, the objective is to extract as much as is as possible from the environment. Thus, the problem is deeper than maximizing production, it's the willingness to maximize production. It's how humans think. As land managers, it is part of our corporate culture.
So, while humans don't administer methamphetamines to southern yellow pine, beef cattle, turkeys, grain belt soils, salmon, and other employs, the intent is to extract as much as possible from the environment, which involves pushing it to its physical limits, even beyond its physical limits if there is some scientific discovery that makes it possible. Thus, grasslands are stocked to carrying capacity with cattle that are hundreds of pounds heavier than they were decades ago, thanks to antibiotics, genetics, and growth-inducing drugs. Atlantic salmon have been genetically modified with genes from Pacific salmon and ocean pout so that they grow all year long, about twice as fast as their predecessor. Loblolly pines have been bred to grow 4 times faster than their ancestors did 50 years ago. Prairie soils are sterilized with pesticides and herbicides and fortified with synthetic fertilizers, helping to increase corn production from 26 bushels per acre in 1936 to 180 bushels per acre today, a 600% increase. Rows of corn were planted 42 inches apart in 1900, today they are planted 30 inches apart, and experiments have been conducted on 15-inch rows and twin rows.
This is a dilemma. The stated objective of much of this maximum production is to feed the world and anything less would be calamitous. It is the war on hunger. But in the fog of corporate war, the stated objective of feeding others may become indistinguishable from the objective of profit, which proceeds from maximum production. Thus, while the feeding Blue Johnny bags of chemical-laced grain is said to be looking out for Blue Johnny's interests, intuition says that the contrary is true.
Back to 1939. Soldiers in the Second World War who were mustered up on methamphetamines suffered ill effects; many crashed after a few days of use, assaulted their officers, begged relatives and friends for more methamphetamines, committed war crimes, and returned home with an addiction. So too with our environment. Pushing it to the limit, running it at full-bore for generation after generation yields maximum production, but there is another limit not envisioned by management driven by production, which, when reached, is bound to produce bad reactions, crashes, degradations, injuries, and mass death.
A tragedy of war is the tragedy of the commons. This environment we share has become a battlefield. Whether one is a combatant or a civilian enjoined in a war effort, given enough time, the drive would ultimately devolve into self-interest, a struggle for individual survival. At that moment, most will act independently of others. The common good is lost in the heat of battle. The end result is Passchendaele, Marne, Galipoli, Ypres, Somme, Verdun, a scorched earth shared by all.

Ohler, Norman. 2018. Blitzed - Drugs in the Third Reich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Iversen, Leslie. 2008. Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin: The Science of Amphetamines. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


A favorite pastime of many a second-grader is to find a first-grader and trade his nickel for the first-grader's dime. This is easy to do. Here is why:
The American and Canadian nickel is larger than the dime. The first grader thinks that the dime is of less value because it is smaller, so he readily gives up his nickel. The second-grader knows that the value is not based on size but it was determined by the content of silver in the coin in comparison to the silver dollar and that value of silver is attributed by supply and demand, global inflation, trade imbalances, central bank activities, interest rates, and other commodity prices and that, in 1866, officials at the United States Mint decided to make the nickel larger than the dime by removing the silver and changing its content to a combination of copper and nickel.
Due to his ignorance of these facts, the first-grader does not perceive the nature or value of the dime and squanders it. The second-grader makes a 100% profit on every exchange and laughs all the way to the ice cream man. Ah, recess hour was not long enough. The only thing that prevented us from becoming millionaires was the limited supply of first-graders.
It is said that there is wisdom with the aged. Yet, adults will readily trade a tallgrass prairie for a neatly arranged corn field with clean, straight rows 24 inches apart. They will trade an old-growth yellow birch and eastern hemlock forest for a lime green golf course with rolling fairways and artificial lakes, a rich fen for a dredged pond with mortared stone shores and a concrete fountain, beech-maple forest for a field of solar panels, a prairie river for a highway, a slickrock canyon for a hydroelectric dam, Sonoran desert for a neon-lit business district, mountains for skyscrapers, a herd of bison for a railroad. This is easy; we already have.
By in large, adults have failed to perceive the nature of our environment. These are exquisite machines, extremely complex systems that have been traded away. They are called Ecosystems. A system of ecology, a biological machine, a community of biotic and abiotic components, with processes between them all. Some define ecosystems by region, some by components, some by processes. In all cases, it's a dynamic system, with interactions between the components and constantly changing characteristics. The scale of an ecosystem varies, from large-scale, general systems, such as Grassland Ecosystems, which exist in North America, Eastern Europe, Argentina, and Australia, to detailed, more specific systems, such as Tallgrass Prairie, which exists in the eastern third of the central grasslands province in North America - if you call 4% of the original an existence. That's more like an archaeological ruin of an extinct race. It is far easier for us to perceive the systemic qualities of an airliner, golf course, cornfield, solar farm, interstate highway, business district, or skyscraper than it is for us identify systems in nature. Maybe it is the microscopic scale of the components, or that we take it for granted, or that the processes are often invisible to the naked eye, or we can't recognize when it is breaking or broken.
False tendrils
It does not help that the web of technology that encircles our globe may be confused with an ecosystem. In the information technology industry, the entertainment industry, and economics, the word ecosystem has been annexed to describe the network of competition and collaboration between various entities; in the computer industry, this word is used to describe the network of users, rules, hackers, programmers, software, and hardware, and perhaps the employee restroom. 
By in large, adults have failed to perceive the value of our environment. For example, that beech-maple forest filled with sugar maple trees has the finest solar panels on earth. We call them leaves. In the case of sugar maple (Acer saccharum), its leaves take that sunlight, those photons, and use it to oxidize water, producing free oxygen, hydrogen, and electrons. Oxygen is tree waste is human treasure. Most of the hydrogen and electrons are transferred to carbon dioxide which is reduced to organic products, most notably, the carbohydrate sugar, which saturates the maple sap in the spring as the tree is sending energy upward to make new leaves, adding nutrients provided by the decay of its own maple leaves shed in previous years. Humans tap that sap, boil off the water, bottle it, and pour it on their pancakes. This is alchemy, turning sunlight into sugar. Other organic products of the leaf include cellulose, which, after cutting, splitting, and drying for a season, will produce 24 million BTU's per cord, which heat can be used to fry those pancakes. Again, this machine doesn't end at the limits of the range of the beech-maple forest; ecosystems are nested, they exist at different scales. The entire earth is one unified ecosystem. So too, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. We need that gravity as badly as we need oxygen.
By comparison, the solar farm that stands where a beech-maple forest once stood produces electricity through the photovoltaic effect and elicits cheers from trade journals, zoning commissioners, manufacturers, and power companies. The farm is an interconnected grid of photovoltaic solar panels that are composed of silicon, aluminum, cadmium, copper, indium, gallium, selenide, plastic, perovskite, and other materials. In about 30 years, global waste from expired solar panels is estimated to amount to 78 million metric tonnes. Much of this waste is toxic. Solar panels are not known to provide habitat for nesting birds, decaying solar panels do not provide nutrients for new solar panels for centuries to come, nor is cutting, splitting, and burning solar panels for heat recommended by manufacturers.
Heavily armed with this ignorance, humans take bold action. There are few people who would fly in an airplane that is being assembled in midflight. Currently, it is said that planes are assembled on the ground before launching them into the vast brown skies. The same can be said about most of the components of an airplane. There are few people who would fly in an airplane whose components are being assembled in midflight - engine, fuel lines, hydraulic system, electronic system, rudders, landing gear. They are constructed on the ground, then assembled as an airplane, then taken to the runway and off they go!
Mr. Cooper, where is the $200,000?
The inverse is true. Only a few stooges would fly while dismantling a plane in flight. An airplane is an integrated system, irreducible, and would eventually fail if critical components were not inline and operative while in flight. There is probably some international law that makes it a crime to gut an airplane in midflight, pulling out the copper wires and stainless steel tubes and hoses, selling them for scrap to the highest bidder - that man in seat 18C, dressed in sunglasses, black raincoat, dark suit, black clip-on tie, and mother of pearl tie pin, who keeps on ordering bourbon and soda, the one with the four parachutes, or that hairy fellow standing on the wing who is trying to pull the cowling off of the propeller engine as you cruise at 20,000 feet.
Yet, this is precisely what we are doing. While about 2% of Americans do not believe so, the earth is actually a spheroid hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. It is loaded with systems: electronic, hydraulic, hydrologic, geologic, grassland, oceanic, montane, watershed, decomposition, migration, tidal, weather. As we fly, we are stripping the earth of copper, aluminum, iron, platinum, grass, trees, fish, mammals, ozone, most of it intentional, most of it for profit, and selling it to the highest bidder, that man in sunglasses who just jumped off of the plane to save his life.
We need to educate and protect that first-grader. He has no clue what he holds in his hand. But it is clear that he would prefer the tallgrass prairie over a billion cornfields since the prairie has leopard frogs, horned lizards, regal fritillary butterflies, pallid sturgeon, whooping cranes, bullsnakes, intermittent creeks, spring seeps, plains spadefoot toads, smooth softshell turtles, burying beetles, nematodes, pronghorn antelope, Ferruginous Hawks, hailstorms, spring floods, drought, predators, decomposition, landslides, prairie fires, snowmelt - an infinite number of biotic and abiotic entities and processes which it would take an eternity to list.