Nature confounds logic


Nature sometimes seems to confound logic.

The forest fires we’re now seeing could have been prevented, or limited, if small-scale fires had been allowed to break out more regularly. These small fires, which are a forest’s own way of keeping its ecosystem in check, burn up the brush and undergrowth on the forest floor, which would otherwise act as connecting fuel for a larger fire.

But modern forestries are eager not to let any potentially saleable wood go to waste, so they extinguish these fires quickly when they do break out. That allows the undergrowth to grow unchecked. After a period of no rain, it dehydrates and crisps up, becoming a tinderbox that allows a forest fire to spread rapidly.

I can imagine foresters thought that extinguishing small fires would prevent wildfires. In practice, it led to the opposite result. This got me thinking about other ways in which biology seems to confound ‘common sense’. When you eat too little, in the hope of losing weight, you actually lower your body’s metabolism, which cause you to put on weight. Or: when you try to reduce oil on your skin’s surface by using oil-free moisturisers and foaming cleansers to strip oil, the skin responds by producing more oil than ever, in an effort to create the anti-bacterial barrier it needs. And: the more you try to rid your environment of bacteria, viruses and germs to be ‘healthy’, the weaker the immune system gets, increasing your chances of getting ill.

All these illustrate the way in which nature — biology, by another name — will increase something just as we attempt to reduce it. Often, our understanding of nature is insufficient to create solutions for the problems we face. Unfortunately, we are all too eager to create those solutions, and too full of hubris to realise that we don’t have a full enough understanding of an entire ecosystem, or homeostatic control system, to come up with solutions for it.

Which brings me to climate change. There’s been so many fascinating articles recently on ‘solutions’ to remove carbon from the atmosphere. One of my favourites is this lengthy one on soil and its ability to sequester carbon: Can Dirt Save the Earth? What struck me, reading the article, is how inexact a science soil sequestration is, and how little data we have— which is unfortunate, at this late stage in the climate game.

But the advantage seems to be that more soil surely can’t hurt the earth, whereas other ideas for removing carbon from the atmosphere, such as dimming the sky, have an awful lot of ‘unknown unknowns’. Projects with such a goal — changing the earth’s atmosphere — cannot be tested, because: “You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation,” as Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert Martin Bunzl says.

Of course, the terribleness of climate change and the prospect of the earth’s sixth great mass extinction, it’s time for bold action. But seeing as we understand the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the connection between extractivist capitalism and fossil fuels, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start there?

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