"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Plauger's Law and Small Glacial Lakes

I rotate the quotation at the top of the blog sometimes. For the reference of future readers it currently reads:
"My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what's really going on to be scared."

-- P. J. Plauger
This Sunday's presentation at the Ethical Society of Austin presented a laundry list of environmental contaminants without really providing any sense of scale or stratgey for prioritization. I found it difficult to agree with the speaker's approach, which seemed rooted in a generalized fear of contamination. On discussion of the presentation with Irene, it occurred to me that perhaps we become most expert in the things that worry us most, which would provide an alternative and more sanguine view of Plauger's observation.

Here is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. As a small boy I had been trained not to pee in swimming pools. I was swimming in beautiful little Lac Paquin (pictured) with my father, and told him I needed to find a bathroom, fully aware that a difficult half mile walk was ahead of me. (Aside: Much of the movie "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" takes place by a fictitious instance of one of the many similar tiny lakes in this immediate vicinity. I spent literally hundreds of weekends of my childhood there. Note: plenty of nature. No farming in view. Perhaps an unusual experience.) My father told me not to worry, that Lac Paquin was much larger than a swimming pool, and that I ought to just go ahead. Which I did with much relief.

But I've always wanted a clear delineation between what is wrong and what is okay. This explanation of what was and wasn't appropriate as a matter of scale absolutely fascinated me. It didn't seem entirely satisfactory. I wondered what size of pool it was OK to pee in, and eventually about how many people could pee in a lake the size of Lac Paquin, and how it could be okay for one person and not for lots of people, and so on.

How could something be so clearly OK in some circumstances and so clearly not OK in others, even if the dividing line between them was so unclear? And how could we know where the line is? Here I am today essentially asking the same questions!

My concern for the environment then is rooted in a sort of rabbinical hairsplitting rather than in a contamination phobia or a resentment of power that dominates the motivation of most activists. Though religious orthodoxy holds no appeal for me, a desire for a consistent set of ethical constraints seems absolutely primal. I see the impossibility of altogether avoiding pissing, but just the same I don't want to damage the world. As far as I can tell, in an underpopulated and preindustrial world, such problems are trivial, but as the world becomes more populated and more technically potent, somehow at some point the problem crosses the fuzzy line from lake to swimming pool, and a whole new set of moral imperatives suddenly kicks in.

I think this way of looking at things may be more common among earth scientists than among biologists for whom biophilia may be a very intense experience, and a tragic one given its near-absence in most modern people. Such biologist-environmentalists simply see biodiversity as a dominating moral precept. I'm not really in that bunch, myself, though I have enough biophilia to sympathize.

Unfortunately a set of moral constraints for a small world that is adequate would seem to be complex and tightly coupled. To absorb such a morality into essentially all of our various cultures and social mechanisms would be hard enough even if we could agree on a mutually consistent set. Regardless, it seems to me this transition dominates what we should be thinking about. Is it just me and my own obsessions?



Anonymous said...

Is it just me and my own obsessions?

Not at all. I think that this is an innate anxiety for a lot of religious and post-religious persons, and it is endemic to many of our secular institutions concerning interaction with the natural world- from do no harm to leave no trace.

Maintaining a humane standard of living while leaving the least trace/doing the least harm will be the defining challenge of the 21st century.

bernie said...

Michael & tb:
You have captured much of my viewpoint. I truly believe that "do no harm" is a great precept and one that would ring true to most people in principle if not in deed. It is also a principle that holds not simply for our relationship with the natural world but with one another. Literally "Leave no trace", in my opinion, is counter to our very natures and a denial how we got to where we are. I do not believe we should leave no trace. I live in a 1740 house, went to a 14th Century college, collect 18th Century books - these are the trace of others that I value immensely. (Unless as the link suggests it is a subset of "do no harm", in which case see my first response.)

Michael Tobis said...

A very good point, Bernie. It's almost as if the debate were between those who undervalue nature and those who undervalue human achievement.

But defending human achievement is the core reason that I value nature. A world without natural processes sufficiently intact will not sustain a human population that can appreciate our past accomplishments for very long. Others may feel differently, but I find myself mourning the future of humanity and not the future of polar bears in the most likely futures I can see.

Nature can take care of herself, but she is no longer able to take care of us. We have new responsibilities, and we don't seem up to the task.

Craig Allen said...


I can accept your premise to a degree, but I think that your sentiment betrays a lack of perspective.

I'm Australian and spend a great deal of time in the Australian bush. It's a magical place. There really is no experience to be gained in human modified landscapes that compares to that which you gain by being in a place where the structure and character of the environment is the product of biological-ecological-landscape processes that have acted over hundreds, thousands and millions of years.

Last month I traveled to Scotland for my brother's wedding. After the event I traveled into the Highlands looking for remnants of ancient Caledonian woodlands and forests.

Almost all the Scottish landscape has been modified over hundreds and thousands of years. It's beautiful to be sure, in it's stark manner, but the woods and forests that once cloaked the valleys are now long gone. I visited a lot of wooded ecosystem remnants and plantings, but always it was apparent that they were a shadow of what had once been.

I eventually found a mountainside near a place called Torredon, which was cloaked with ancient Scots Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs, herbs etc. The really amazing thing was that I got a distinct feeling of being in the Australian bush! It had that same feel of vibrant diversity and having been shaped by the hands of ecological-geological processes over the eons. The air smelled different, and the a cacophony of insect and bird sounds was like nothing I saw anywhere else in Scotland.

Thereafter, everything else I saw in Scotland seemed depauporate and degraded by comparison.

But of course, very few people are aware of this. They don't know what they have lost.

Ironically, in Australia where we are collectively and feverishly doing to our landscapes, over the course of decades, what Europeans did to theirs over centuries, few people seem to be aware of the impact of the degradation we are wreaking. Many people a making token efforts to minimize their impact, but the net result is less and less natural beauty and diversity.

Europeans bang on about their ancient culture and heritage, But to see something really ancient, get yourself to somewhere where you can see a 500 or thousand year old tree sitting among it's peers. Or for that matter, a 30,000 year old rock art gallery, perched in the same landscape and ecosystem within which it was originally painted.

bernie said...

Untouched wilderness or habitat is pretty astonishing and I admire your get up and go and I am envious of your freedom to do so. At the same time Michael's neatly articulated dilemma remains a dilemma.