Saturday, 9 January 2016

Remembering the past, Letting go of the present, Embracing the future

We don't like change. That is understandable, from an evolutionary perspective whatever situation we are currently in is obviously one that is keeping us alive, and as a result, any potential deviation could be dangerous. If our environment at present is adequately supplying us with food, water, and all our other basic needs, any changes, even those that could be positive, are still bringing risk where there previously was none. An old saying is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and that particular mentality may be more deeply ingrained in us than we tend to realize. However, as with so many other parts of our biology, our way of life has changed so radically in such a short span of time that evolution has not yet had time to catch up, and this "now good, change bad" mentality seems to be a leftover from our hunter-gatherer past, and a dangerous one at that. We no longer live in the relatively stable environment we evolved in - change is constant in the modern world, and so attempting to ensure that present conditions prevail is inevitably futile. On top of this, mirroring the changes we have dealt to our own lifestyles, the influences and alterations we have induced upon the natural world within just a few thousand years are vast, so vast in fact that we almost certainly have yet to even fully grasp the consequences of what we have done. The main reason for this is that nature is slow to react - or rather, we are incredibly quick to act. Typically in nature, even if changes in the environment send a species spiraling towards extinction, it can still take thousands if not millions of years before the last individuals die. Likewise, changes in climate almost always cause drastic shifts in faunal and floral communities, but these shifts are not instantaneous. Plants are long-lived and slow to disperse, and so it is not unusual to find communities of plants growing in places where others could grow as well if not better.

What I am trying to get at by saying all this is that even though many of our impacts on the environment are already obvious, their repercussions may take hundreds if not thousands of years to fully manifest. In some cases we can already predict future changes even though they have not yet occurred. An example of this would be several of the species of birds living in our farmlands throughout Europe. Today we associate them with this intensively managed landscape, but comparing present populations to past ones, a downward trend quickly becomes obvious. The populations living in farmlands today are not so much adapted to that habitat as they are relics of a time when different conditions prevailed, mainly the ages before intensive agriculture and pesticides. In time, they will die out, unless another change occurs. The significance of this should be obvious, as it means that we need to be very careful when determining what is in fact any given species' ideal habitat. In Denmark the Goldcrest may almost exclusively live in plantations of non-native conifers, yes, but this is probably a result of the destruction of all native pine forests, not an actual preference for conifer plantations, an environment that does not occur naturally, and thus could never be the ancestral habitat of the Goldcrest anyway. In summary, the present is not nearly as stable as many of us seem to think it is, and any attempts to preserve current conditions on a large scale are inevitably doomed to fail. As we will soon see however, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

A quintessentially "modern" landscape, but not necessarily an ideal one

I am of the firm opinion that the past was, in the vast majority of respects, preferable to the present. Not everything was better in the past, of course not, but of the things we tend to see as modern improvements, most are only really improvements in relation to the recent past, with issues such as hygiene, oppression, and mass violence all only really having become huge problems during the last few thousand years. On top of this, even if we do accept that there have been real and significant social advances in our civilization, the notion that this somehow overrides the massive deterioration of the global biosphere experienced over the last several thousand years seem to me unbelievably arrogant. Extinction is an ongoing problem today, yes, and we hear many articles talking about how we may be approaching the so-called sixth mass extinction in Earth's history. In truth however all of these articles are misleading - the mass extinction is not upcoming, it is already well underway, and has been ongoing for the last 50,000 years. Compared to its pristine state, Earth today is a vastly depleted and depauperate place. Even if we could stop all extinction, all habitat destruction, and all further depletion of animal populations, the world today would still be arguably the most dull and empty time since the early Paleocene, 64 million years ago and in the immediate aftermath of the fifth mass extinction. Indeed, many of the animal communities still persisting today in most parts of the world are characteristic recovery faunas - assemblages of animals that emerge in the aftermath of local or global extinction events. 

Many are still in denial that today is one of the worst periods in history thus far, continuing to vapidly prioritize short term improvements in well-being in already wealthy countries over the long-term decline of the global biosphere. Even of those that do accept that the past was in many ways preferable to the present however, many seem content to do relatively little with what should be a horrific and mobilizing revelation if ever there was one. Indeed, the general sentiment seems to be that yes, the past was better, but it is gone now, and the best we can do is to preserve what we still have, preventing further decline. This is in my opinion so tremendously inane an argument that I can hardly wrap my mind around it, and brings us nicely to the main point of this article - yes, the present is worse than the past, but the future does not also have to be. History is not by necessity a linear progression of worse-to-worse, and by the future, today will be just as much a part of the past as the last interglacial was. By what insane reasoning have we decided that using the depauperate, unstable and actively collapsing ecosystems of the present as a blueprint for the future is a better idea than using the stable, biodiverse and healthy ecosystems of the past? What makes the present somehow more relevant to the future than the past, save for as a "what not to do again next time" reference? And why does the future have to be as dull and depressing a time as the present? The answer is simple: It does not have to be, nor even can it be. As I said, the present ecosystems are unstable and actively collapsing, they will not last and attempting to preserve them in their current state is like trying to prevent a man falling from a thirty-story building from hitting the ground. Once in freefall, you are eventually going to land. Whether on hard bricks or in a life net is not yet determined, but one thing is certain - you won't stay in the air. Either things will get better or they will get worse, but they won't stay the same. In some parts of the world decline and destruction seems inevitably, but in others it does not. Do we want our future to be vibrant and new, or empty and familiar? That choice is ours.

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