Strategy and The Environment: Why Engineering To Save The Planet of Our Memory May Be The Wrong Choice
Strategy and The Environment: Nature adapts to change. That is its superpower. And nature plays the long game. Nature adapts to survive.
Humans view the world through a truncated temporal lens. Most humans harken back to childhood memories of ponds, of lakes freezing over, of the unbridled nature caught on camera by Cousteau and Disney.
If we recognize our propensity toward shortsightedness, we must ask if humans should be engineering a future that attempts to save the present, or if we should allow nature to adapt to our impact on the planet in its own way? Should we, in turn, apply our intelligence to adapting to what is, rather than trying to recreate what was? Which choices, between adaptation and engineering, will prove more strategic, and ultimately, most sustainable?
From a strategic point of view we believe humans should allow nature to adapt. By attempting to retain, and more often reconstruct the nature of memory, we do a disservice—a selfish disservice—to nature of the present. Interference with nature’s processes creates suboptimal outcomes that cannot be controlled—processes that may well worsen the situation through unintended consequences.
From a sustainability perspective, engineering efforts may prove themselves early, but all engineering today is local. We do not have the capacity to reengineer environments on the global level, and therefore any small win will likely prove temporary. Eventually, more substantial changes will once again sweep away the banks, for instance, the Dead Sea, or blur the edges of the Sahara Desert as it seeks to grow.
Significant human impact on the planet may remain up for debate in some quarters, but we see the transformation of Earth’s surface, the oceans and the atmosphere as undeniable. Nothing but good can come from a retreat from destruction, but our active engagement in engineering the environment to recover our historical view will likely be as consequential as the unwavering disregard for nature that leads us to this critical juncture in human history.
Misunderstanding invasive species
From body shaming to racial slurs, humanity attempts to curtail negative judgments on its own species—day-by-day, instance-by-instance. Most listen with a wary ear for slips of mind that lead to disparaging phrases. When it comes to other species, however, we have yet to recognize an equal propensity for prejudice. Invasive species represent lifeforms that thrive in areas where they did not originate. The truth of evolution is that which thrives in a niche wins. Nature does not care about transport methods, nor does it hold regard for human views that one creature deserves an area more than another out of nostalgia or cuteness.
The National Wildlife Federation states that:
“Invasive species are among the leading threats to native wildlife. Approximately 42 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species.”
Those numbers are likely accurate. What this quotes states, in essence, is that our count of species at the time we started counting was the right count and mix for nature going forward. That is a false assumption. The acceptance of climate change, along with other human transformations, dictate that the environments, micro, and macro, have changed and will continue to change. An invasive species like the grey squirrel displacing the red squirrel in England may lead ultimately to the extinction of the red squirrel, but the grey squirrel fills its niche, perhaps even better. More offspring, more genes in the gene pool, more success.
Many will argue that invasive species not only displace “native species” but that overall, extinction curtails biodiversity. And that is absolutely right. But it must be pointed out that most major speciation radiations occurred in Earth’s history at the lowest point of biodiversity following catastrophic extinction events.
Invasive species reflect natures opportunistic survival strategy. That we attempt to curtail species by killing off invasive species does not guarantee the survival of the “native species.” The rules have changed. The “invaders” carve out new niches in the wake of our inadvertent (though sometimes highly determined) transformation of the natural environment. Our fights against the inevitable are likely counterproductive to our own strategic survival.
Rather than trying to recraft a damaged environment in the reflection of our memory, we would be better off accepting what is, and adapting to the new reality.
Protecting our historical view
It is highly likely that planetary engineering represents a human survival response. That means we should not demean humanity’s attempts to survive any more than we should the Asian Carp, the brown marmorated stink bug or the zebra mussel.
But unlike those species, humans engineering strategies and tactics for our survival include the ability to reason and collaborate with each other.
How do we strike the right balance between engineering for us and letting nature run its course?
We need to make the right strategic choices. Techniques like scenario planning allow governments and non-governmental organizations to imagine alternative futures that will help inform their strategic perspectives. Scenarios create futures in which participants imagine not just the negative impact of environmental change, but positive reactions—new forms of balance, new relationships to the evolving landscape—new opportunities to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
One example comes from the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea’s legacy very nearly the points to its name becoming a self-fulling prophecy. The Dead Sea was a geographic fluke that occurred between earthquakes and melting glaciers. The cutoff water formed an increasingly saline lake as the water evaporated and mineral leached into it. The mining of those minerals by Israel and Jordan accelerated the demise of the land-locked sea. Exploitation changed the equation and the delicate balance that nature created over thousands of years cannot just be set right by adding water.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territory are finding that the engineering required to create and move water to the Dead Sea from the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee my well create new phenomena like gypsum whitening or red algal blooms. The repair may not only introduce new issues, it will not return the Dead Sea to its previous state.
Because the Dead Sea existed during all of human history it seems ageless, a landmark that is required by history. But the Dead Sea has only existed for about two million years. As a landlocked body of water, its demise is inevitable unless the earth’s tectonic activity and glaciation re-establish the ancient conditions that created it.
Yes, humans can change the course of rivers, divert water through technology and direct those efforts toward particular places. But it will not change, in this effort, the underlying cause of the Dead Sea’s demise, nor will it repair the years of exploitation of its mineral wealth that hastened its demise.
(See more from Nova’s The Death of the Dead Sea here at PBS.ORG).
Problems with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault faces the siege of global warming, potentially threatening the viability of the storage location. But that isn’t the only threat. Fulfilling the seed bank’s strategic purpose relies on ecosystems of the future remaining compatible with the stored seeds. Climate change challenges that underlying assumption.
We are storing seeds for a climate that won’t exist at the time the seeds might be used. Their genetic material may prove valuable in matching adaptation to emergent conditions, but it will be highly unlikely that the seed vault will introduce plants back into the environments from which they were harvested.
As climate change threatens the viability of the seed bank, it also threatens its strategic intent. It may well be that the real value of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault may not be the repatriation of local flora, but the purposeful introduction of invasive species to fill nascent niches transformed by temperature, changes in water condition or access or the availability of pollination and distribution partners.
All engineering is local
In the middle of the Columbia River sits the Astoria-Megler Bridge. The bridge is covered with up to 8,500 double-crested cormorants. A count ten times higher than before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shrunk manmade East Sand Island, a cormorant colony derided for its impact on the salmon population [read an NPR report titled ‘Cormorants are protected. But their poop is corroding a bridge across the Columbia River’ from Seattle’s KUOW here]. One human-built structure substituted for another. The Corps runs a cormorant management program that includes hazing the birds, removing eggs and fencing off nesting areas.
Rather than just engineering flood control and river health, the Corps takes a hand in controlling indigenous species population numbers. The cormorants clearly thrive among the built structures. Their natural predator, the bald eagle, continues to hunt and harass them, but they don’t keep populations within the “target range.”
The movement to control populations on the island may have increased salmon predation, since birds on the bridge prey on more young salmon than do birds closer to the Pacific Ocean.
For human engineering, the bird impact translates into more frequent cleaning and painting of the bridge structures, totaling millions of gas tax dollars.
As humans attempt to solve one perceived problem, the engineering lays the foundation for new ones. In this case, a new version of the salmon poaching as the subtlety of nature makes its presence known to the best intentions of human engineers.
Cormorants are not endangered. And they are not invasive. But they are part of a complex ecosystem in which like coyotes, cockroaches, and pigeons, thrive in areas of human habitation. Every child learns the water cycle at some point during biology class. Feedback loops abound in nature. Our engineering not only disrupts feedback loops, it creates new ones, which may exacerbate existing problems, and introduce unforeseen challenges.
Strategy and the environment: What we should be doing
Those open to scenarios don’t envision one future, but a tapestry of possibility.
One potential path for strategy and the environment leads to engineering the human response without over-engineering the natural world. In other words, let nature react, which will result in the massive extinction event—let humankind respond by figuring how to live in the world it is given rather than the one remembered or longed for.
Other paths lead to extreme engineering that creates temporary fantasies of restored natural settings that, like clones from another dimension in a science fiction film, don’t quite seem right.
No book with a singular narrative holds the answer. Such a book may offer elements of a solution, but rather than prescriptive guidance from academics, business leaders or futurists, what we need is a deep dialog about the possible, a grappling with the implications of historical trajectories that even if they can be derailed, may find their aim placed toward an even less desirable target.
Scenarios force dialogs that might not otherwise arise. Scenarios encourage deeper explorations of relationships between nature and economic motivations. Most analysis of climate change disruption rarely delivers an understanding of the economic impact of anything on the scale of global re-engineering
While we calculate the effects of climate change, we seldom evaluate the cost of survival against the value of trying to maintain a perceived historical norm.
The onslaught of human activity has likely already permanently altered the global ecosystem enough that it will never return to its previous state. Even if humanity were to cease to exist today, evolution would still deal with the aftermath. An entirely new post-human ecology would establish itself in the near-term, and then go on evolving, as it always does against the influence of macro-level geographical and astrophysical-level events.
Any supposition that the environment of our childhood should be the environment we leave our grandchildren was fantasy from the start. The complex interplay of human factors set into motion shifts that can undoubtedly be changed, but the changes will produce not the desired result, but yet another unanticipated transformation.
The economics of engineering our way out of extinctions and invasive species will likely prove far more expensive and less impactful than the human choice to engineer our response to what we are given rather than what we wish for. The human imagination should not be discounted, but we do need to face our limitations. The industrial age created a juggernaut of change that we no longer have time to retreat from. Even if trends shift for the better, they will not reverse. The planet under recovery will be a different place than the pre-industrial world remembered in images, stories, and personal histories.
Additional links to examples of engineering gone wrong and invasive species bias
Texas Hospital Accidently Creates Haven for Venomous Caterpiller. Newsweek. 09 September 2019
We Must Destroy the Spotter Lanternfly, a Useless Garbage Insect, Popular Mechanics, 20 September 2019.
Adaptation or death asserts itself as the default state for all other life on the planet. No life beyond human life receives a vote of any kind about its future. Our unique ability to look forward and backward shapes our response. Our ability to conceive tools that modify the land, sea, and air, combined with our vision, provides false assurances that investments and striving will lead to results on a global scale in the same way they do more locally. A couple of centuries of living through the consumption of the past (like burning fossil fuels), with expectations for only incremental impacts from the destruction of the present (such as rain forest degradation), creates a powerful narrative of realization and fear but also speaks to tremendous momentum.
So we turn to the science, the engineering and the human labor that created the imbalance to shore up the future, with very uneven investments. Our hearts speak more softly than our spending. Incremental wins continue to give way to devastating losses such as the recent fires in Brazil’s rainforest (more from the BBC here). We don’t have the economic, political or social will to give up what we want in favor of long-term sustainability. It proves nearly impossible to find paths to stop the trend in order to maintain today’s state of nature, let alone to restore the glory of yesteryear’s forests, glaciers, prairies and shores. We should not be fatalistic, however, and stop trying to do what can be done. The simple strategies of biodegradable forks, composting and a move away from plastics do matter, but those personal acts barely shift the balance.
Rather than engineering our way out of our past engineering, we need to attune ourselves to natures reactions, do what we can to minimize future damage and above all else, seek strategies that, as unappealing as they may be (like broadening the acceptance of insects as food), ensure human survival.
Non-human life either adapts or dies. We now face a future that constrains us to that same choice.
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