Global environmental issues fall into three broad categories…
These are issues that are large and extensive enough to affect the global environment — the best current example is climate change, but land management, desertification and urbanization also have true global effects and require a global solution.
These are issues that occur everywhere but with local effects — global population growth is an everywhere phenomenon but with different consequences around the world
Local but everywhere
These are issues that have a local effect but are common everywhere — examples include the various types of pollution and soil degradation
Whatever the category, global environmental issues like all environmental issues, are felt locally and in order to become an issue at all they must have an impact on people’s lifestyles, livelihoods or values.
This is a key truth — an environmental issue is only an issue for people.
The environment has no feelings of values, it just is. It sounds silly yet knowing this can help understand both the issues and how to resolve them.
Once life began it was impossible to stop.
Life on Earth has persisted through global atmospheric upheavals, through many millions of years when the Earth was a ball of ice, bounced back from meteorite strikes, earthquakes and wandering continents.
And nature will survive us.
image created by Robert A Rhode on Wikipedia
Look back far enough and just about wherever you are in the world it will have been hotter, colder, and more extreme than it is now at various times in the past. Go back further still and the rocks beneath your feet might have been under the ocean, eroded and reformed many times over or been subsumed back into the mantle at a plate margin.
What we know is that the environment is in constant flux at every scale from your back yard to the layer of atmosphere that circles the planned above us.
Here is an simple thought experiment that you can do in an idle moment. It was first published in a book from Alloporus, Awkward News for Greenies...
Imagine yourself standing among some trees. It can be in the mature forest that we now know should cover the lava flow on the slopes of Gunung Batur or in a place that you remember well. Take yourself there for a moment.
It is early morning and there is a cool breeze beneath the shade of the canopy that leans across above you. Pungent wisps of tannins, turpentine and phenols emerge from the earth to tickle your nose. You cannot help but hear the twitters, squawks and buzz of winged creatures going about their business of respiration without a care. It is a nice place to be.
Take a deep breath and inhale some carbon. Feel that magic moment when your whole body pauses, just after you exhale slightly more carbon than went in.
Take some more conscious breaths and you will slow down.
Ease into the smooth tempo conducted by the joint batons of temperature and moisture and to a tune played by the organisms. Just telling yourself to breathe will make your own engine slow to something closer to the rhythm of the place.
It is a great truth to find that nature is relaxed. Stress is not in her vocabulary, she just slows down if conditions get tough; little wonder we seek natural places to help us relax.
Stay with that pure rhythm for a dozen more breaths and feel the gentle carbon exchange going on all around you. Hear the hum of the engine. Watch the branches sway gently in the breeze, held up by the solid sentinels of the tree trunks. Catch a glimpse of the birds foraging through leaves or scratching at the ground. Sift your nostrils for the scent and flavour of the flowers, bark, soil and pollen. In this imagined place you cannot catch hay fever.
Maintain the wonder of the observer. Keep your breathing deep and we will start the experiment.
We are going to press the fast forward button. You stay as you are, breathing gently, but every time the button is pressed time speeds up. Each press condenses real time into ever-shorter packets that relate to your gentle breathing. Here goes.
Button pressed once. Nature is scooting along and completes an hour of activity in the time it takes you to draw in one lungful of fresh air and gently let it go. As you take this breath, so the flies have buzzed past your nose a hundred times and are visible only as a hazy cloud. A pigeon has pecked at invisible seeds faster than a piston in an engine. A flower head has moved slightly to follow the sun. Save for a wave or two through the branches the trees have remained still.
Keep breathing gently. After another three or four breaths you will notice that the pigeon stops pecking and takes a quiet moment to rest on a low branch. Then he preens vigorously before flying again to find more seed. A bird party arrives in a cacophony of calls and movement on an intake, only to disappear as you exhale. Life for mobile creatures seems very hectic indeed.
A few more breaths and the flower starts to close because the light is changing before your eyes. The heat goes out of the day and the colours get warmer.
Relax. Remember to breath slow, conscious breaths and we will push the button again. Now one breath sees one day of forest time slip past. One inhale is enough to see the daylight and one exhale the night. The birds and bees are no longer visible. They move too fast for the eye to see and the brain to compute. The sun skids across its arc splashing a burst of light and warmth through the canopy. The flowers wave at you as they follow its path. The trees seem to be breathing too, responding to the warmth they stretch and open their leaves to soak up carbon, then close them up again as you breath out.
Take a breather with the trees. It is too much to try and keep up with the animals. It is clear that they respire at far too fast a pace.
You may notice a little dampness for an instant during one of those breaths shared with the trees. Not to worry, that was just a shower and it is dry again now. Indeed at this pace it is dry much more often than it is wet because rainfall is really an occasional thing in most parts of the globe. Organisms get wet only briefly, although you notice that your feet stay damp much longer than the rest of you because the earth does not let go of the moisture so easily. It may take several breaths without rain before the dead leaves and mineral soil dry out. More likely it will rain again.
Now that the animals are just like specks on a poorly tuned television and we are in the natural rhythm of the trees, the button is pressed again.
You are still standing in the grove, breathing gently, but now a breath lasts one year of actual time. In ten breaths, a minute in your perception, a decade passes. The flies have been, completed their more-making and gone in one breath. Most of the smaller birds will have done the same in three or four contractions of your diaphragm. But at your feet the earth is moving, fidgeting with the input and decay of dead leaves raining from the trees. There is a wave of cold air followed by warmth pulsing around you like a heartbeat.
At this pace the trees move. Branches reach out like arms taking an item off a high shelf. Wrinkles and cracks in bark move as the trunk visibly expands and after twenty breaths you will have watched the trees dance as they climb ever higher above the pulsating dance floor of grasses and shrubs at their feet. If the trees in your grove are deciduous, at a point in every breath they will flash yellow, live naked for a moment, blossom, and then turn green.
Let go and feel this new rhythm. Just as you blink the place is black. The soil is laid bare as the briefest of bushfires consumes all in its path. Only the highest branches are spared, but before you realize what has happened the trees are green again thanks to shoots appearing from nowhere to clothe the trunk. But during your next breath these new branches fall away again. This was the trees response to a disturbance; grow lots of temporary branches in a hurry. Whilst the trees are shrugging off the effects of the fire, the grasses, herbs and shrubs have gone wild on the pulse of nutrients.
It is worth a longer pause to see nature at this pace, a little meditation in a world that we do not know. It is possible to watch the trees grow with the energetic flush of youth, then mature to produce seed in great profusion which for some species is during every breath and for others only occasionally in their mast years. You can observe that most of the time, most of the seeds go nowhere; at least no new saplings appear out of the ground. Then, without any obvious warning, recruitment happens and there are so many saplings that they look like a wriggling mass ready to swamp any other plants. But then, breathing a little more, you see that not all these youngsters make it past saplings and even those that do are not all destined for the canopy.
Then after our attention has been away just briefly, we look back and see that the parent tree is not as sprightly as it was. Some branches have given up and fallen to the ground, melting into the earth in a couple of breaths. In just a few minutes of your time the tree has sprouted, grown, reproduced and then falls in a storm. This accelerated view of nature tells us that the cycle of life – birth, growth, reproduction, death, decay – is the same whatever the organism. There are millions of variations in pace and timing but the sequence of more-making is always the same.
This is about as far as our thought experiment can go without stretching perception beyond our ken. We are, after all, around for a shorter time than most trees. So perhaps we should stop now.
But then again, it might just be worthwhile to push the button again, just to see.
Still standing in the grove, relaxed, one breath now covers a decade. The life cycle of the trees are now easier to see. Saplings appear and thin out like ants foraging across the ground. Storms, fires and dry years occur in an instant. All the animals have long since blurred into insignificance and even the trees, solid and still when we started, now have a frantic look. They shoot up and spread skywards, quivering wildly only to pulse and wither.
A dozen breaths and we have passed a millennium - time enough for humans to have gone from riding horses to flying in airplanes - but our grove still looks the same. Sure, it pulses now that we can see the trees growing and the ground vibrate with the passage of detritus; but close your eyes for a moment and you will open them to roughly the same scene. Except that, wait, it is not quite the same. Yes, a few more breaths will confirm it. The young trees are not the same as the old ones. New species are arriving. Maybe the canopy is a little more open than it was and there is a little less dampness in the air. These changes are subtle, even at this accelerated pace, but they are there.
At this point we are starting to see and feel beyond the lifetimes of the organisms to long term processes that nature moderates, including the natural and somewhat predictable change in the composition of species that covered the lava flow we described earlier. Ecologists recognize numerous variants to the basic type but as one breath now allows a decade to pass, we can actually watch succession happen.
We can also see other processes. Soil creep, imperceptibly slow to our normal senses, exposes some rocks and covers others, steadily making any steep slopes shallower. If you imagined yourself in a tropical forest then this soil movement may still be too slow to see but if you imagined yourself in a young landscape like the one in Bali, the floor of your forest will have shifting foundations. We can also begin to see climate changes, the effects of weathering, and other mechanisms that shape the natural world at rates too slow for us to perceive as we go about our everyday lives.
If we are lucky though, we might witness a more sudden shift; a phase of fast change when the forest moves from one structure to another. This might be because of a steady increase in temperature or rainfall frequency, perhaps a reduction in the number of frost-free days or its opposite, an external disturbance or an intrinsic change such as a defoliation event. Whatever the trigger, the forest now grows with a different species mix and into a different structure. But just as you may hope to see a lion on a safari, there is no guarantee, and such a shift may not be seen. In fact it is more likely that the forest, pulsing with its yearly cycles and animated by longer timeframe processes, just ticks along, solid and secure, alive and ever-present, resilient to disturbances.
It would be easy to think that breathing tied to decades reaches the limit of ecological time and covers all the actions of organisms in their more-making as there are few organisms that eke out their livelihoods beyond a hundred years. However, this is not everything ecological because ecology also covers the changes in populations of organisms with a raft of theory as to how numbers might change over time. So it will be necessary for us to press the button once again.
Breathe now and a millennium passes. A thousand years with a lungful of air. It is a struggle to imagine the processes that operate at this pace. All that we have seen up to now is going far too fast to be visible to our senses. The lives of individual organisms are lost in a fraction of a second. Only a handful of trees with exceptional longevity might be noticeable as entities. The rest of the scene will look a bit like a lava lamp of slow moving blobs passing around us. What we observe is the dynamics of plant populations - the cycles of boom and bust that are driven by external change and moderated by internal interactions. According to the classic theory, there is growth in numbers when resources are plentiful thanks to the obligation of organisms to convert resources into more-making, followed by a slow down in more-making as resources are depleted and become scarce. The consequences of competition for resources are fewer seeds (births), poorer survival of seedlings (young), earlier death from nutrient limitation (starvation), increased disease especially from overcrowding - all contributing to lower life expectancy - and a tendency to disperse. The instinct to make more remains and individuals still try, but when resources are scarce the attempts are less successful.
Theory is elegant. Nature is more disheveled. Even in controlled conditions, such as for fruits flies in laboratory test tubes, populations do not always follow the exact growth curve. In nature there are predators, competitors from other species, variation in resources over time and space, and unexpected disturbances that can push or jolt a population off the assigned trajectory. Yet breathing at a millennium pace will allow a glimpse of these dynamics. They may be noisier than the theory would predict but they are the engines that result in succession.
One thousand years is a long time, lets say 13 human generations. Go back 1,000 years and you could have a chat with your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. As an old man he might have been around when Pope Urban II calls for a holy war to wrest control of Jerusalem from Muslims, a decision that launches the First Crusade in 1096. This kind of timescale is beyond our ability to intuit. A minute of breathing and we have moved 12,000 years, which if we turn the clock back takes us way beyond recorded history. And yet it still sits within ecological time and only starts to tickle at evolutionary time for organisms with short generations.
If we let the clock run backwards and breathe for a quarter of an hour we will be at the point in evolution where Homo sapiens first appeared. Now we are into evolutionary time. It will be 3.5 hours before we get to the first ancestor in the genus Homo, another 3.6 days before we get to the first primate and nearly 10 days more to get back far enough to see the first mammal.
The fossil record demonstrates that species go extinct and from analysis of extinctions it is possible to estimate the ‘lifetime’ of species. Insect and other invertebrate species seem to manage between 5 and 10 million years, whilst mammals are around for between 1 and 2 million years or a couple of hours worth of millennium breathing. It is a struggle to comprehend evolutionary time.
All we need to know here is that there are processes operating at rates that we do not see when we function in our normal time; and that some of these processes we have trouble recording, even with the diligent application of modern science. Things that are difficult to see we find hard to comprehend.
It is little wonder that when we press the reverse button and return ourselves to breathing in real time at a dozen breaths per minute, with the trees swaying gently and the flies buzzing once again in our ears, most ecological processes disappear.
Paperback version of Awkward News for Greenies is available from Amazon.
What should happen is we accept this truth about the flexibility and persistence of nature and try to understand more about the changes and fluctuations [what ecological scientists call the ‘natural dynamics’].
Knowledge and acceptance will allow cleaner alignment of our actions on the environment to the fluctuations — if you know the bend is coming you can arrive at a safe speed and accelerate out of it.
So far all around the globe we have focused on the engineering solutions to global environmental issues.
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