The Year of Ecology

Outside my window, a little girl is tentatively playing the notes to Beethoven’s Ode To Joy on a child’s piano. The tune wafts up, hesitant, a wrong note here and there, and despite the fact that I’m more of a Roll Over Beethoven type of guy, it gives me a profound sense of peace. Apart from the slow tinkle of the keys, there’s not a sound in the air. Even the wagtails and blackbirds that live in the tall pines are silent—in the blue sky above, the ragged bursts of white fluff are untouched by the crisscross of contrails.

All is balmy, as nature warms up to its key springtime display—the grand shag.

And it is doing so with great gusto, because this is the first time in many decades when mankind has retreated—not for the usual reason, i.e. bombing the shit out of each other, but due to a force larger than itself, yet only two hundred nanometers across.

Vanishingly small, incredibly abundant—the first plague of the new millennium.

The influenza virus looks like a pillbox with a diameter of 200 nm—a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. If we use simple geometry to calculate the volume of that pillbox (a SWAG—Scientific Wild Ass Guess—reveals that the height is 10 nm), and assume that its density is similar to that of human tissue ( 1 gram per cubic centimeter), we can estimate that one of these little boogers weighs 3.14 X 10-16 g. But there are an estimated 1031 virus particles on the planet—not all corona, you’ll be pleased to hear—so that gives a combined weight of about 3 X 1015 g, or three billion metric tonnes.

Compare that with three hundred million tons of humans, and they beat us to a pulp. For each cell in the human body, there are one hundred million virus particles.

Okay, the good news is that (i) most viruses attack bacteria; (ii) many are smaller than two hundred nanometers so the overall mass is less; and (iii) the stats for each cell are lower—for a fair comparison, we should use only the viruses that attack humans.

Despite these palliative points, in this David and Goliath battle we may well find that we turn out to be David. So let’s hope medicine can come up with a good sling shot—not a slingshot, mark you.

This is certainly not the year of the economy—rather in many respects it’s the Year of Ecology.

All over the planet, our fellow organisms are teaching us a much-needed lesson. The dolphins that appeared in the Grand Canal of Venice, and many other species that have returned to their one-time ecological niches on land, air, and water gave us an important sign—one that we have deliberately chosen to ignore as we sacrifice our world to the gods of economic growth.

When I discussed E.O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth, I quoted an asinine US journalist called Emma Marris, who declared:

Our true role as rulers of the planet is to turn its biodiversity into a global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by us.

It’s this arrogance that nature has now addressed—the dictionary definition of ‘rambunctious’ is uncontrollably exuberant—I guess someone missed the adverb.

Whenever humans stop what they’re doing, nature responds in a good way. If we are more considerate about how we treat the organisms that accompany us in this journey through life, many things will be better—water quality, air quality, more beauty, less stress.

If we are not—if we abhorrently crowd the poor creatures that we eat, if we pay no regard to the natural laws of reproduction, if we fail to understand density-dependent mortality… then nature responds in an entirely different way.

A map of the US published by the New York Times is an clear example of density-dependent infection, and at a lower rate, density-dependent mortality.

This is James Lovelock’s Gaia showing its fangs—not as a sentient being, I don’t subscribe to that concept—but by providing the enabling conditions for other species to thrive by taking advantage of our own errors.

And what are those errors? This is a blog, not a litany—despite the Easter period—but at the very least we as humans need to understand the ecological concept of carrying capacity, which predicates that at a certain point a climax community will exist in an ecosystem. Such a community is an idealized state, where biodiversity is optimal and growth in terms of biomass and other metrics has reached a plateau—think ‘flattening the curve.’

There is one area where ecology and economics converge—resources are limited, whether measured in carbon, silicon, or any other indicator—except money, which is a virtual commodity and therefore has the potential to destroy us when it becomes an indicator of mistrust.

As the great spring shag begins, plants and animals will benefit from our reduced activity—lower emissions, less pollution—and the resulting environmental improvements. In that kind of situation, ecosystems shift.

It is quite possible that the new species that colonize these habitats as they recover will displace whatever is now there—whenever the economy restarts we will start to see a rollback to status quo ante—except that ecology has taught us about regime shift, which is the manager’s nightmare, and it applies equally to the economy.

Systems—of both ‘eco’ flavors—will come back via a different route, i.e. will undergo regime shift, and if that wasn’t enough, they will return to a different baseline.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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