Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Choices, homesteading, microhabitats, fish and trigger point theory as pragmatic ethics

Detail of 20'x40' chalk blackboard mural created for ecological novelty conference in Monte Veritas, Switerland, 2011

Like any addict on this election day, despite mental self-destruction, I can't turn off the WNYC voting reporting on the radio. Truth is, so much is at stake this time: civil rights for so many, global warming & the environment, democracy & economic sanity... I still hope to do the phone banks today. But the other part of me, wants to turn all the news off until this time next week.

I believe I understand the mentality of climate change deniers. I think they are in one of the early stages of grief: the first is denial. Then people in grief cycle thru anger, bargaining, sadness and finally acceptance. The same biological drivers that make deniers want to put their heads in the beach sand, are the same impulses that make me want to pull my mental covers over my head until next week. I've posted for years on FB & elsewhere about the dangers I see from bigotry and exclusionary practices, unrestrained corporate power, creeping fascism, deprivation solutions. I've argued with relatives, made art, launched webcasts and other projects to erect a seawall against what I see as ignorant blindness and today, when so much is in the balance, my vote was cast a month ago with an absentee ballot. I am struggling with a bad head cold and don't know if I have the stamina to do volunteer work on the phone banks. So it is out of my hands right now: all of it.

That's not all, of course that's out of my hands. But I, we, still have choices. Choices must come from informed values and a set of ethical premises that do no harm. I think we can all agree on that premise.

The values I want to address today are those that connect us in the world and conserve human welfare. I'm not talking about some Kumbaya Lala land. I mean linking ourselves to ecoregions and other species, because whomever is elected today in the USA, that is the thinking, I believe that may save us as a species and conserve our welfare. Water is the fount of life for all and water conservation is also about conserving other species: living bioregions.

An ecoregion is how geographic features, such as rivers and oceans, mountains and valleys create what landscape ecologists call a mosaic of habitat patches. On the macro level, the function of these mosaics in ecoregions, is to preserve clean water for all life on earth. On the micro level, what links the patches of these systems, are the communities of animals and plants that make up an ecosystem. That is why environmentalists battles so hard to save the wolves, bears, lions and other megafauna: they are the regulators in these large systems. There is no chance, anywhere in the world, that such large predators will overtake the earth. They are not the apex predator. Humans are. When the populations of an "apex" predator, such as humans run amuck without any resistance, as we are seeing today, all the smaller biological links become so disrupted and the matrix of what environmental economists call "natural resource services," frays and begins to collapse. That point of collapse results in what biologists call "novel" ecosystems. That means they get weird & unpredictable.

The summer of 2011, I was one of a handful of artists at an international conference on novel ecosystems, held in Monte Veritas, Switzerland, hosted by the prestigious ETH http://www.ethz.ch/about/index_EN. At one point, I drew a large temporary mural on a vast blackboard with colored chalk (see illustration), asking the audience to call out key words that were on their mind as a result of the presentations as I wrote them on the board. The terms that were called out, weren't taxonomic. The words called included, "complexity, fear, confusion." 

Scientists, like any other demographic that has gotten past the stages of grief over what we have done to our planet, are experiencing what Glenn Albrecht has called, "solastalgia," http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/solastalgia/. They are frightened by what we are coming to accept. The recent flood from Hurricane Sandy in NYC is an example of what that acceptance means, along with chronic fights against fossil fuel industries, as fracking and their representatives on the right decimate our waters and our air. We can't in fact, separate these ecosystemic consequences from our political and personal choices, personal choices such as are being exercized in the USA with the national election of our next president.

There are many more complex choices I believe we need to examine. An example is how we fail to connect large bioegional dots. On the bioregional level along the Mississippi River, the choices we make over what supports fossil fuels, also determines the fate of fish in those waters. When the use of fossil fuels warm temperatures, fish literally cook alive in the warmer waters which can reach over 98 degrees. When climate change causes droughts that require dredging the river to allow barge traffic, the habitat for fish is as utterly destroyed as when marine fish habitat is destroyed by trawlers that stripmine the ocean floor.

Another example is how we fail to connect small dots. Many people think the answer to fossil fuel industries is "get off the grid." and homestead. There are two problems with that choice. The first is that fragmenting ecoregions into small plots of less than 10 acres, usually transformed into agricultural plots without the fine shadings between microhabitats that support whole sytsems, it creates what the Wildlands Project  http://stewardsofthesequoia.org/Wildlands_Project.html has called a sink for biodiversity, because domestic cats and other medium size predators such as raccoons can decimate birds but large predators can't control the populations of those mesopredators. The second problem is that by conceiving of land as a series of self-contained patches, we lose sight of and most often diverge from and destroy ecoregional integrity when people divert waters and create farmland out of woodland. We simply have too many people and not enuf biogeographic literacy today to look to homesteading as a solution.

What I think we need instead, is a shift of conciousness to what former physicist & philosopher Edgar Morin has called an "ecology of action." Or, what I propose as the ethical mentality of "trigger point theory," in which each choice, each action, connects us to a larger whole, in which bioregions, water and other species are the complex matrix within which we must fit ourselves. The alternative is to fit the world to our needs. And we have seen how well that works. 

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