Other Writings

A Conversation With A Conservationist

Shawn – what is your take on climate change right now – can’t remeber if you accept that humans/fossil fuel burning, fossil fuel soil inputs, are pushing our ghgs up –or not — and am wondering if you feel life as we know it on the Earth will be fine with how we are pollluting all ecosystems –
- i know organisms are migrating–do you think any change in human behavior is necessary? do you think if we limit human contributions of ghgs that climate could stabilize -and whatmabout other pollution – do you think life supporting ecosystems have a chance of being able to neutralize the current impacts?

Shawn Beightol โ€Ž
1) my take doesn’t matter – its doing what its doing – getting warmer! Most recently read the studies on organisms shifting/migrating toward the poles (~a couple miles per year?).

2) greenhouse gases are increasing, no doubt ANY human emission is contributing to that. Perhaps the easiest and most logical next step would be to begin the conversion over to biofuels that would ALMOST close the loop on the carbon cycle…from their expand into the alternatives we are hearing so much about their development.

3) Life as we know it is in constant flux. Always has been. Much of what we call progress is significantly changing the earth from what it is and perhaps beyond the ability to return to what it is. Our debate has never been over points 1 & 2 above (I don’t think), just over what snapshot of the earth’s hyper-dynamic past we would like to choose to preserve AND over how to define “FINE” as you use in your question. We MUST define our terms such as “good” “bad” “fine” etc operationally so we can evaluate courses of actions with clear goals and rationales.

4) As an outdoorsman and a believer that humans are members of the biotic nature of our world and have evolved to survive, live, and thrive in close contact with it (i.e., humans are not intruders in or foreign to but a part of nature), I value the preservation and provision for continued activity (recreational, aesthetic, and “hunter-gatherer” consumer level). I believe such harmonic involvement in nature is essential to human mental and physical health.

5) I do not believe the earth will annihilate itself under human actions. There are too many sinks and sources too great to allow a fatal imbalance (my beliefs based on reading, but my beliefs). I believe we can effect extinction of species including ourselves, but I do not think that there is a universal “right” or “wrong” associated with that. Just a god-like cognition/awareness (metacognition?) of the beauty/aesthetic and uniqueness to our balance of elements that produced and sustain life. DNA – wow! what an apparently one time miracle! etc. But a barren earth is no better universally than a barren mars, jupiter, venus or mercury…or any of the thousands of other planets too hostile for this miracle of life…or any of the other millions and billions of stars with yet undiscovered satellites that are also too hostile to the processes necessary to sustain life.

6) As an appreciator and believer in “nature” as an important part of healthy human existence, I support what you and other conservationists do, even if I do not agree with all of your premises. I teach in my classroom responsibility and awareness, to define. I equip with the mental tools and physical skills to change this hyper-consumerist world that practices slash-and-burn practices.

The changes in human behavior necessary are to return us to our potential as sentient, cognizant organisms and away from this ant-evolutionary descencion to animal grubbing and reproducing and defecating…all in the same place. Not because this is “right” or “wrong” (or else our dogs are damned), but because it is beautiful to walk above, to understand, to value, to discuss, to agree, to vote, to exercise our near god-like powers to intervene, to preserve.

Climate data shows that the earth WILL rebound as it continues on its cycle of ups and downs. The degree to which humans have contributed will be debated, the degree to which we can reverse our impact is therefore even more difficult to agree upon. Even if we could quantify both of these, it would not mean that we could alter the natural cycle.

but, I still maintain what I wrote above – as humans, I BELIEVE (my value) that we SHOULD live carefully, consciously, more than vapid consumers.

so I think we want similar conclusions, even if we disagree upon some of the rationales.

I am less worried about some universal decree of “right” or “wrong” when all else of the universe tells us that inhospitable rocks in orbit around stars is perfectly acceptable than I am about the uniqueness of this rock and this species we have become and our awareness and what it says about our species that we live unaware.

no doubt about the Earth rebounding – will life as we know it be able to survive its process? Has the warming cycle of Earth been as quick as the one now? and can life evolve quick enough to participate in Earth’s homeostasis efforts now?
- Should have said life as we know it – of course some sort of life willl probably be able to sustain the coming shifts and resulting suffering

Shawn Beightol

โ€Ž”will life as we know it be able to survive” – the scientific answer to that is merely “yes” or “no.”

Anything beyond that ventures into philosophy/valuation.

I believe we should go there, but we must clearly distinguish between science and valuation. between what science says and how we interpret the conclusions.

There’s an assumption in your question that goes beyond science, I believe – by using “efforts” and “homeostasis” together you seem to imply that the earth is an organism, a tenet of philosophy beyond science. The earth makes no “effort” to achieve homeostasis, not in a scientific framework. The earth is a complex system that absolutely and consistently adheres perfectly to the many laws governing the physical world. It does not exert effort to do this. It cannot succeed or fail.

There are many interconnected equilibria that are operating according to well established chemical and physical relationships, just like a buffered acid-base solution. The resistance to change in a buffered acid-base solution shouldn’t be seen as “trying” to maintain homeostasis – it simply follows chemical laws and when the buffering substance has absorbed all the H+’s (or OH-’s) it can, the pH changes.

There is an equilibrium in the sun that balances gravitational collapse by nuclear heating and expansion. One day this equilibrium will shift so far that it will not be maintained and the sun will shutdown. I does not try to maintain, it just follows the path between competing physical laws that results in the lowest energy configuration.

so, too, the earth has competing processes and equilibria that balance each other out until one day one or more will exhaust the store of reserves and a catastrophic shift will occur. 5 billion years of wild climate shifts and yet a climax population suggest that the current changes will not result in this (yet).

I do think that it will upset human activity – property, food, farming, population. I do think we will suffer as a result of lines we draw on a map and try to enforce – legislatively and militarily.

how about the homeostasis efforts of the human body? are those also only a complex system that absolutely and consistently adheres perfectly to the many laws governing the physical world?Not asked in an aurgumentive role…
- and don’t those interconnected systems that absoluteley and consistently adhere perfectly to the many laws governing the physical world usually move to supporting more complex forms of life and diversity

Shawn Beightol
There are differences between the homeostasis that characterizes an organism composed of DNA based cells that are interconnected (physically attached) and metabolize for the purpose of reproduction AND the homeostasis that characterizes chemical reactions/cycles and, on the larger scale, ecosystems and biomes: one of which would include that individual organisms are programmed to adapt and survive to replicate.

Reactions in beakers, biomes, and collections of biomes (the biosphere or earth) are not programmed to replicate – they exhibit a form of homeostasis that reflects a response to available energy and matter. A true organism metabolizes from resources in its environment to maintain homeostasis (putting forth your “effort”). This effort is the result of complex genetic programming located in the DNA of its cells.

Beakers and biomes do not have such programming, such imperatives.

intersting. So the physical planet is not in interaction with the life on it…but the life systems are all interconnected and acting on it…but doesn’t what life does impact how the other systems respond even if it responds according to physical and chemical rules? would my bones be similar to the planet with out life? but don’t my bones respond to what the other living organisms do in my body?

Shawn Beightol
Life exerts “effort” to maintain homeostasis. Non-life does not. the earth is not “alive” in the sense you and I are and should not be attributed human attributes.

The earth is no more alive than a satellite orbiting earth with a colony of bacteria living on it. The bacteria are alive and fulfill the historic definition of “life,” the satellite does not, even if chemical processes by the bacteria affect and change the satellite (metal oxidation by contact with bacterial excretions?).

Shawn Beightol
I think I answered your question about climate. I think we have a major foundational difference in our underlying assumptions:

I think humans evolved close to the earth, sky, and water and function at our best when interacting with these in work or play (versus being shielded from the processes of food production, birth, survival and death – shielded as our modern indoor lifestyles do). Because of this I believe conservation and preservation are important.

I value for aesthetic reasons mountain, ocean, forest, desert scenery and experiences. So I hope these and access to these is preserved rather than bull-dozed and turned into strip-malls.

But in both cases, my choices for preservation and conservation efforts are based on that – choice (without “right” or “wrong”).

I think you are alluding to a moral imperative that derives from the belief we have an absolute duty to protect organisms and their habitats, including the Gaia organism, Earth. I think you are looking for me to say it is wrong to hurt the penguins or Gaia.

I reject that direction in thinking, in rationale – I think we could hunt to extinction every penguin for Bar-b-ques and there will be NO judgment from the God of the universe (whether the Biblical God or the great energy spirit).

I think we could turn Earth into Venus – 450 degrees Fahrenheit and cloaked in sulfuric acid or whatever.

I think it would be stupid in an exponentially more sophisticated manner as would melting down King Tut’s gold necklace for the value of the gold – that would be stupid to destroy something artistic, historic, and unique.

Exponentially more stupid would be to eliminate the genetic code from existence of an organism through extinction.

Each organism is a unique symphony and I would say should be appreciated – but these are just my value and should not be presented as science nor as universal imperative.

the fact that we’re capable of deliberating over the issue suggests a uniqueness and the CHOICE – we are not just victims of fate as so many other animals are.

ok, I’ve avoided my day’s work enough.

just been reading the Gaia Theory – and i think i am understanding it that life interacting with non-life creates the homeostasis… The existence of a planetary homeostasis influenced by living forms had been observed previously in the field of biogeochemistry, and it is being investigated also in other fields like Earth system science. The originality of the Gaia theory relies on the assessment that such homeostatic balance is actively pursued with the goal of keeping the optimal conditions for life, even when terrestrial or external events menace them…seems it still up for discussion and study… thanks – interesting and thought provoking

….I am not asking you to pick right or wrong – i am asking about human and life as we know it, maybe even civilization withstanding this shifting climate and peak oil and industrial pollution. By polluting ecosystems beyond the capacity to replenish the life-sustaining attributes that we (our very lives and health) are deeply interconnected to and impacted by, i question why we would continue to pollute them when its not in our best interest. And if a multitude of life species seems to make for a more stable life support system, it seems wise to help support that diversity and celebrate it. And just who/what benefits if we don’t stop polluting? The only science i am hoping to state is that we as humans are dependent on healthy ecosystems for our own life and health and that seems enough to protect those systems. I am pretty sure science would agree that my human health is impacted by pollutants in those things necessary for life…how did this become about choice and away from the homeostasis ideas we were discussing? I am confused….You stated Earth systems are operating to maintain a homeostasis on chemical and physical rules… i am interested in how life might drive that or collaborate with that in support of life…and if that takes effort and possible conscious effort (and i am not meaning geo engineering).

Shawn Beightol

I would agree with most of what you say. I’m not an ecologist or biologist, so I am way out of my field (chemistry). I do think that evolution will ensure that all niches will be filled (preserving biodiversity)…just not necessarily with current organisms.

Also, I didn’t say (or mean to say) that Earth systems are operating TO maintain homeostatic conditions. Just that they are OUT of chemical and physical rules. When reservoirs are depleted, the balance will be lost and run in one direction. That direction MAY re-establish a balance or it may not. For example, the earth’s core is probably heated by radioactive decay. It is probable that there is a time in the distant future (before the sun nova’s and roasts us) when the core temperature will begin to decrease and the thickness of the solid layer of the earth’s crust will thicken ,hindering tectonic activity. It is also likely that the earth would lose its magnetic field then.

The loss of the magnetic field would drop the van allen radiation belts and the magnetic field lines that draw charged particles to the poles. Earth would be bathed in deadly blast of radiation from the sun and “life as we know it” would be history. Gaia won’t save us then, because Gaia is an anthropomorphic label given to a set of favorable coincidences that exist right now…and will not, cannot, in the future.

Island populations are somewhat isolated and exhibit on a much smaller scale the homeostatic relationships between populations and natural resources. Why don’t we call them organisms? Because they’re not. They’re collections of interactive, interdependent populations of organisms. And that is what the earth is now. The earth’s future will look like Venus or Mars.

I think the interdependency and feedback cycles on earth come from organism having billions of years of co-evolving in each others “exhaust plumes.” Organisms that could respond to excess exhaust/excretions of another by consuming/recycling succeeded, those that couldn’t were poisoned.

In other words, I think existing natural selection mechanisms could explain the feedback loops without invoking a sentient meta-organism or consciousness.

Shawn that is a cool statement – organisms that are able to use others waste stream survive… any examples that come to mind from early evolutionary time? i know there was too much oxygen at one time, and photosynthesis developed…do you know anything about that? Or other examples of surviving creatures and how that evolved?
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Shawn Beightol
The earth is warming, with or without human help. It has done this for all of its history. The degree of acceleration due to human activity is debated, with majority of opinion suggesting anthropogenic emissions contribute to global warming. Popular consensus is that reduction of green house gases is needed to buy time to avoid imminent disaster (suffering and economic loss). How imminent and what extent human intervention may be effective is debated.

There are many motivations and agendas that underlie both sides of the debate, including economic, political and philosophical ones that have little to do with pure science, but wrap themselves in scientific language and veneers to sway public opinion – on both sides.

I am not qualified to render an authoritative opinion on this. I have not done the research. Neither have most people who express their opinions on it or effect policy changes.

My personal motivation and purpose is that I choose to value the aesthetic and historical characteristics of the natural world. I also BELIEVE (not scientifically) that human interaction with the natural world (as wild as possible) is essential for the harmonic functioning of man’s psyche and physiology. I BELIEVE humans evolved as elements of nature, not opposed or separate from nature, and that modern attempts to portray man as “above” or “separate” from nature are dangerous errors.

I do not believe that we are under a universal obligation to protect anything, from our species down to the smallest microbe.

I do believe that we need to establish the rationales for conservation and exploitation.

I do believe we need to spell out what our long term goals are for ourselves, our children, our species and our planet.

I do believe that policy should be shaped by those expressions and not by religious or emotional guilt conjuring or shallow science cloaked hidden agendas.

I do believe that humans have evolved a capacity for many philosophical and metacognitive activities and valuations that are legitimate but not absolute and thus should be balanced by public discourse. Among these valuations are the appreciation for mountains cloaked with snow, virgin untouched continents (Antarctica), diverse and unique species, art, music, human constructions (chapels, bridges, skyscrapers).

I do not accept that earth is an organism and that we are its custodians, its soul, its eyes, its conscious. I believe the earth is a collection of populations and habitats that are interdependent.

It also appears that biodiversity is an outworking of natural selection and physical pressure that pushes success in survival to fill all possible niches that provide access to metabolic energy and resources (is biodiversity an inevitable conclusion of DNA?).

Nor do I believe the debate about earth or islands or continents as organisms has any practical value other than to prevent the mistaken conclusion that the earth is an organism to be combined with other non-scientific beliefs in an effort to manipulate public opinion.

I do believe the future of the earth is not going to be a “happy” place for life, a result ultimately of non-human agencies, though humans may accelerate its inhospitableness to themselves. The earth is long term doomed by simple geo and astro-physics. It is probably not that unique or that special in the context of the entire universe, even if for this brief period it is in our solar system.

I do believe that if we wish for the human species to continue to exist in a healthy manner, then custodial duties will be necessarily assumed.

I do believe that due to our inherited exploitive and curious nature and the vastness of both our home (the earth) and beyond (the universe) suggest that there is much more to be learned and thus much aesthetic reason to be prudent and conservative in the voluntary custodial work we shoulder.