Dying Off (6/24/13)
Across America, communities are expiring. The average population decrease is 4% a year. Smaller, more endangered groups are disappearing at a rate more like 12%. Government records argue that if the die-off continues at this pace, half these communities will be gone in 20 years.
Who are they? Rural farmers? Skilled urban industrial workers?
No. They’re amphibians. The “cute” frogs, salamanders and toads who now possess no Toad Hall. Their swift deaths over the past nine years have been surveyed in 34 areas across America by our national Geological Survey.
No area is unaffected. Protected or unprotected, the populations die.
Why Is This Happening?
That’s the scary part – no one really knows. It’s not the recent pace of residential development, that’s for sure.
Fingers are pointed at pesticides, agricultural run-off, global climate change and the additional 100,000 chemicals added to the environment since World War II – of which the government describes 200 as perhaps “well characterized.”
Individuals, species, and communities are vast interlaced information systems. Are amphibians dying off because of an unknown virus? Because the chemicals in the water supply – including our prozac, antibiotics, and the arsenic fed our favorite supper chickens – are changing their immunity? Because of mercury settling into the water from coal plants?
Chances are the causes and the counter-reactions number in the thousands. Yet we’re aware of only a few.
We can learn a little about what’s happening from the world wide death of bees. Colony Collapse Disorder appears to be affected by behavioral confusion wrought by neonicotinoid pesticides, “new” killers that owe their destructive capacity to the pesticide we smoke in cigarettes, plus changed viral epidemics; strange fungi; and immune system dysfunction. There are probably many more factors.
For what you don’t know is more important than what you know. Something that comes out of nowhere – for which there is no common, evolutionary response – can prove supremely and quickly destructive.
We’ve noticed bees disappearing because they pollinate our crops. No bees, no pollinated almonds and fruits. We don’t notice the amphibian die-off in part because we don’t eat a lot of frogs.
Why Should We Care?
A healthy population requires a healthy environment. That goes for people as well as frogs. If amphibians that have been around and thrived for 350 million years can no longer make it, that’s more than a warning to us.
UN statistics argue half the world’s species will be gone by the end of the century. That’s one of the very few great extinctions in several billion years. The last “big one” presumably caused by asteroids knocking off the dinosaurs – probably took at least hundreds of thousands of years.
We’re accomplishing the same destruction in decades. If you live in a toilet you get sick.
What will be left?
Why Is This Really Scary?
Because most of the thinking – like that of economists, historians, politicians and humans in general – presumes linear, relatively “regular” change as how the world works.
That’s not how biology works.
We’re taught that things grow in stages, slowly, gradually. Evolution works through bricolage – different mutations over eons create new and different organisms and species. The genes win, the individuals lose.
Extinction events puncture that scenario.
If you change the environment enough all the “rules” go out the window. Many shifts – like that of economies, nation states, technology – occur quickly and brutally.
And many biological changes – whether it’s a tumor growing or a population declining – occur exponentially rather than linearly. Now you see it, now you don’t.
And when you’re gone you’re gone.
What Is to Be Done?
Recognize that survival for other species also matters to humans. Wiping out the biosphere means wiping out our biosphere. Even if we feel no moral compunction towards the death of so much life – and we should – our own survival dictates another course.
One way to start – to recognize that small probability events – as Nassim Taleb describes in “The Black Swan” – have unpredictable, but periodically great impacts. There’s lots of stuff out there you’re aware that you don’t know. But what you don’t know you don’t know? That can really kill you. Awe and respect are required. When it comes to the universe we’re ants in the kitchen. As far as we know, ants don’t understand microwaves.
Second – to get rid of the linear fallacy in media and social science thinking. Things can change in great, violent cycles of destruction – and if we’re lucky – creation. Non-linear models are much more accurate in telling us what we need to protect.
And what they’re telling us right now is that nature – the most robust, resilient, effective information system we know, lasting a full 3.8 billion years on this rocky planet – is in big trouble. Remarkably creative and evolutionarily efficient, nature is rapidly becoming wiped out.
We’re part of nature, too.
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