Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fractured habitats and the long time scale

In an earlier post, I explained that carving the landscape up into smaller and smaller fractions of itself with highways, barriers, fences, malls, and other forms of developments causes a greater and greater impoverishment of habitat and a steady deterioration of the entire environment, to the detriment of all species... not just the glamour species, that is, the attractive ones we love to celebrate (think pandas.)

This article in the New York Times  and this one in science daily news—bring the point home from a scientific point of view. It's not just paranoia; the evidence speaks clearly. When habitat is carved up by real estate developers and highway engineers like birthday cake, populations don't just suffer; eventually, they die off. The effect is the same whether water or concrete is the separating medium; genes can't mix, populations can't circulate, and animals and plants eventually loose the overall vitality they must have in order to remain viable.

Circulation of wildlife and plant material through the natural world is, you see, a form of breathing. It brings vitally needed materials from one place to another in exactly the same way that breathing delivers oxygen to cells. The majority of cells in your body are in a more or less static position: they need nutrients, that is, energy sources, brought to them by outside agents. If that circulatory mechanism is damaged—let's say, for example, that we tie off a limb with a tourniquet—in short order, cells begin to die. Soon enough disaster ensues.

The difficulty with the effect our fractured landscape is having on our world is that the effects are not immediate. The fact that die-offs, like other evolutionary processes, take place over what are geologic time scales ensures, unfortunately, that we can't actually see what we are doing.

This is a typical feature of man's psyche: we only register the immediate. Our awareness of long time scales has steadily deteriorated because of electronic technologies. Before the rise of secularism, scientific discourse, and modernsim... before the advent of electronic communication and the generalized collapse of "traditional" civilizations... man passed on his awareness of the long time scale, the existence of humanity throughout essentially ageless, or eternal, cycles, through a process of myth that penetrated the collective unconscious. Most of the romance and appeal of ancient and primitive cultures that still remains is attractive to us specifically because of its awareness of the long time scale. Yet we don't quite understand that, either; short time spans and sound bites, attention-destroying short term temporal phenomena, are as addicting as crack, and act like it: they overstimulate the nervous system, leading to a craving for more, and more. This accelerating phenomenon is taking over cultures everywhere.

The inability to see the long time scale has led to a lack of respect and even outright disregard and dismissal for the landscape and natural systems we inhabit. We don't see how what we're doing chokes off the circulation of the natural world; and we insist, perversely, not only that it isn't actually happening, but that all of the chaotic, destructive sprawl we generate is not only necessary, but desirable. Strip malls, superhighways, fast food restaurants, backyard barbecues: all are now for many people the better choice over lush forests and birdsong.

This is an extreme form of short term thinking, one that societies are not coming to grips with. The issue is that over the next several hundreds of years, a massive number of the plants and animals that enrich the environment, our lives, and our very psyches themselves are going to die out. Anyone who doubts this ought to pay a visit to the eastern seaboard of China— a place where I have spent years of time over the past three decades—and take a look at the paucity of plants, animals, and birds. It's not just the lack of diversity that is appalling—it's the lack itself. Spend a month there and you'll see that wildlife, as we know it in America, has nearly ceased to exist.

And, as a result of habitat fragging, that's where we're headed if we don't wake up.

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