Guest post: Still in that instant before the explosion

Originally a comment by Your Name’s not Bruce? on This time it’s global.*

We humans see species being lost in huge numbers, but nothing catastrophic happening as a result. So we shrug and call environmental scientists alarmists, infuriating iknklast in particular. But obviously this is only sustainable for a little while and when climate change and habitat loss reach such a level that key species disappear and damage begins to propagate exponentially… well, we’re certainly going to notice then.

The short human lifespan (and even shorter business and election cycles) offer a poor basis for judging the results of our environmental perturbations. Our timescales are not well attuned to slow changes in our surroundings. Even outside of human activity, the Northern hemisphere is still undergoing post-glacial isostatic rebound after the most recent retreat of the great ice sheets. We even have a hard time noticing changes from events orders of magnitude faster, assuming we’re interested in paying attention to them in the first place. In Harold Edgerton’s high speed photographs of bullets passing through balloons, the punctured ballons retain their prior form for a brief instant before exploding and collapsing into a shapeless mess. When it comes to evaluating our impact on the environment we’re still in that instant before the explosion and resultant shapeless mess.

In the West the concept of extinction itself is barely 200 years old. Just looking at our destruction of a few species of birds, it’s only been about a thousand years since the extinction of Madagascar’s Aepyornis, about 600 years since the demise of Moa species in New Zealand, 350 since the death of the Dodo and just over 200 years since the functional extinction of the Great Auk. The passenger pigeon has been gone for just over a century. On top of the extirpation of these birds, we also cleared land, planted crops, and introduced other species, both wanted and unwanted, into most of their former haunts. In the waters where Auks once lived, we mined cod to the point of collapse. So we piled change upon change in rapid succession, heedless of the results of the initial destruction, ignorant of unintended conseqences, barely cognisant of what we actually did do.

An ecosystem which has suffered the extinction of one or more of its constituent species can never “return” to its previous “balance”. It must find a new shape. Given our continued disruption of so much of Earth’s environments, that new shape and balance, the accomodation to the imposed new order, is still being worked out, in many cases without the courtesy of our notice or concern until that new configuration and functionality has some unfortunate, unforeseen impact on our interests, comfort, or profits.

We’re living in the midst of a massive, multi-generational, uncontrolled and unrepeatable experiment on the entire biosphere of the only planet in the universe known to support life. Poorly designed, and launched without any ethical review, carried out with little or no follow-up, this experiment, thousands of years into its run, is only now stirring concerns about its effects and morality. Well, better late than never, I guess.

*Which is his own post. It feels faintly absurd to guest post a comment on the guest poster’s own guest post, but it can’t be helped.

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