Friday, June 26, 2015

Don't It Always Seem To Go

So I rewatched Silent Running a couple of weeks ago, on Eureka's fine Blu-Ray reissue. The flaws are still there - notably, of course, and by the way for those who care SPOILER, the ridiculous length of time a crusading botanist takes to realise that plants fail to thrive without adequate illumination. But the spaceships and their geodesic domes look as lovely as ever (director Douglas Trumbull was of course one of the special photographic effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey), Bruce Dern's manic yet sympathetic performance is still terrific, the robots are even cuter than I remember, and its take-home message that the human species shouldn't trust capitalism to look after nature is still urgent.

Silent Running was released in 1972. A couple of years before, I first heard Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi', which struck me with such a thrill that I still remember the circumstances: sitting with my family at the square table, with its green oil cloth cover, in the kitchen of my great-aunt's boarding house in Bognor Regis, where we regularly stayed for our summer holidays. It was mid-August, 1970. A few days later, little further down the south coast, Joni Mitchell would close her set at the Isle of Wight Festival with the song. I was 15, keen on natural history. I knew about the damage cause by the Torrey Canyon disaster; I'd read Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, and other science-fictional Awful Warnings; there'd been the First Earth Day earlier that year, calling for greater awareness of damage to the environment and squandering of the planet's resources. And here was a sprightly pop song with the same message. 'Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got, Till it's gone.' Ecological disaster was very much in the air back then. We were beginning to realise that everything on the planet is connected to everything else.

Silent Running, in its title, and 'Big Yellow Taxi', in its lyrics ('Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now'), pay homage to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which documented the catastrophic effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides on the environment. A little over fifty years after its publication, the bleak future suggested by the title of Carson's book is coming true: a paper just published provides strong evidence that Earth's sixth mass extinction event really is under way, driven not by geological or astronomical disasters, but by human activity.

The authors of the paper used fossil records to calculate a background extinction rate, and compared it with an estimate of what has been lost since 1900. In that time, nine vertebrate species should have become extinct by natural causes; instead, recorded extinctions are occurring at a hundred times the expected level, faster than at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs. Similar calculations have been criticised for overestimating differences from the background rate. But this new study uses highly conservative figures; although its conclusions are stark, the authors point out that actual rates of loss could be higher. As in the case of the Eastern Cougar, just now listed as extinct, it can take many decades between the last sighting and the official declaration that a species is gone.

It's been known for some time that a catastrophic level of extinction is imminent, driven by the expansion of the human race and our increasing utilisation of the Earth's resources. We account for one third of the total mass of all land vertebrates; our food animals make up much of the rest; wild animals account for just 5% total mass. Our cities and agriculture take up increasing amounts of land area, destroying natural habitats; we consume about forty per cent of the world's annual photosynthetic output; the carbon dioxide produced by our burning of fossil plants is irreversibly changing the planet's climate.

Not only are we at risk of losing large numbers of iconic and charismatic species, from tigers to Emperor penguins. We're also playing a giant and potentially lethal game of Jenga with the environment. Remove a keystone species, or reduce its numbers so that it's no longer influential, and the consequences ramify in unexpected and sometimes catastrophic ways. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the population of sea otters along the Californian coast was enormously reduced by the fur trade. Sea otters eat sea urchins, and in the absence of otters the urchins multiplied, gnawing away the holdfasts of giant kelp and destroying vast kelp forests where hundreds of other species lived. Multiply that by a hundred instances over the next few decades. That's where we're going if we aren't careful, because everything's connected.

Sea otters were saved from extinction by conservation measures introduced in the early twentieth century and the kelp forests have partly returned. And there's a consensus amongst scientists that it's possible to slow the current rate of loss and destruction. Partly, at least. But if action isn't taken, we will have to choose what to save and what to let go. Ecosystems will be regulated or replaced. Intervention will become the norm. Charismatic species will be tagged, monitored by drones, tailored so that they can live in cities or farmland. The last of Nature will be subsumed into the technosphere, confined to refugia. Gardens, parks, zoos. Biomes will be sheltered under geodesic domes, nurtured by cute robots. Trees will be preserved in tree museums. Don't it always seem to go.


Blogger Mark Pontin said...

'The last of Nature will be subsumed into the technosphere, confined to refugia.'

Stanislaw Lem predicts in his SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE (originally published in 1964) that all technological species do this if they survive.

Along these lines, George Church's mammoth de-extinction project has an ostensible purpose that's not been widely picked up in the mostly stupid media pieces about it. Church says that he intends any mammoths eventually created to be released in Sergey Zimov's Pleistocene Park in Siberia --

So those de-extincted mammoths are essentially going to be biotechnology in a geoengineering project, since that's what Zimov's park is -- an attempt at geoengineering through rewilding.

June 28, 2015 1:02 am  
Anonymous Keith Kenny said...

A better point might be that as participants in nature we are outcompeting much of what we need to sustain us. We are natural beings even if some wish to distance themselves. Following natural laws will bring us to a natural end. Parasites introduced to a new host will fail naturally if they kill their host, or will evolve to become symbiotic.

Blaming capitalism is popular these days, but it still looks pretty benign compared to the predatory practices of communism in China and the Soviet Union. Well intended government intervention has also had its issues, and the over reactions to "Silent Spring" blocked what might have become wise effective and limited use of DDT. Distribution of non-native species and diseases around the world has done a lot of damage. Much of that was not intentional. On our recently cleared property we let nature reclaim our meadow, only to find it filled with non-native plants from Asia outcompeting those from Virginia. The deer enjoy eating them so maybe balance can be restored.

June 28, 2015 12:59 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I did environmental sciences as a degree at the end of the 1970's- THAT long ago.No jobs in it then and none now. It's still not seen as mattering one jot for the state of the world we live in. Nothing in terms of eco-damage predicted then hasn't happened since. I am a bit tired of the emphasis on saving/conserving just the charismatic animals- or the eco-fascists saying alien species are a bad thing..REALLY?? Be happy there's anything left. Like those who hate grey squirrels and ring-necked parakeets in the UK. Red squirrels are not coming back - we don't live in a land of hazel and pine forests, so really the UK is really only marginal as an environment for them. Not to mention their extermination by the Victorians. The woodpeckers suffer from the power of the litigation-culture - as all semi-rotten trees are rapidly removed for insurance compliance reasons. NOT because the parakeets are scaring them off. Scientific studies have been done to prove this is true. The lists of 'aliens' being blamed with no reason in fact is staggering and almost universal.Like weeds in general it's a plaster over a gaping wound after people have wrecked a landscape first.

Capitalism IS to blame. It's speeding-up the damage. But perhaps it is intrinsic. People are way too greedy. When is enough enough?? Trickle-down economics doesn't work. If anything it trickles up to the mega-rich. I actually have the ultra-rich as clients. They don't spend money.Rather they hoard it. I know of what I speak first hand. In a nut-shell no-one much gives a damn about the environment.Sad but true. Least of all those who really run the world. Political dogma from whatever quarter won't alter the situation. It certainly isn't helpful to say it wasn't me. It was the capitalists/communists or whoever.

June 28, 2015 9:02 pm  

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