Disturbing Mother Nature

Human are the best thing and the worst thing to happen to planet Earth. We are the pinnacle of evolution and we are the scourge that threatens all life on the planet. In time (millions or billions of years), evolution will handle all perturbations, but as occupants and parents at this point in time, we need to find a better way to help keep nature in balance, and by so doing keep ourselves in balance. If we could reverse engineer nature’s solutions to disturbance, we could plan our own disturbances so that they wouldn’t alter the cycles and flows that surround and support us. However, so far, the complexity of those natural solutions is often daunting and we are left with just roughly trying to copy them. Like a novice that doesn’t understand the dance, but just moves body parts in awkward imitation, we hope that the outcome will have the same effect on the audience.

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What lessons can we take from observing natural disturbance? Pick one from the list (“natural disturbance regime” above) and see if you can imagine a parallel human activity that could benefit from natures solution. Then think about a specific natural waste, and imagine how we might use that example.

4 Responses to “Disturbing Mother Nature”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    Natural disturbance can be a means of clearing out debris or revitalizing an environment. Fire and flood can be very beneficial to a natural environment and the living organisms living there. Fire is good for getting rid of excess underbrush and making more sunlight hit the forest floor to nurture new growth. Floods bring nutrients to the soils of the delta regions and make the soils there the best available for new plant growth. The lesson we can take is to keep enriching the native environment into account when we cut down a forest or decide to till a field. If we do the things that nature does then we will not be creating more harm and disturbing the natural cycle of life in an ecosystem.

    There are a number of human situations that would benefit from natural disturbance, but to enumerate them would be somewhat hard hearted. I am trying to think of something that would not be painful for people, but would instead be helpful. When I was a child we would burn off the field and the hillside in the spring or fall to clear off the old straggly native plants from the previous year and make everything come to fresh green life again. The only danger was choosing the wrong day, one where the wind picked up, and having the fire get out of control and get into the trees or too near the house. I think this practice led many in my family to become firefighters. I often have though, while living in the city what a shame it is not to be able to burn your brush or clear out the woods every once in a while with a nice controlled blaze. We are lucky in Burlington to have a wood burning power plant where we can take this refuse to be converted to energy, but elsewhere this yard waste just becomes garbage. We also do a lot in this community with household compostables that are just garbage in other communities. Compost is a lovely product that turns food waste into plant food through the beautiful process of bacterial breakdown.

  2. Ian Raphael says:

    One way I think humans can learn from natural disturbances is to utilize biological responses and evolutionary adaptations to create better technology. Basically biomimicry and eco-design. When I think about the Southwest, I think about drought. There is a surprising amount of plants and animals that have adapted to droughts which can vary in duration and frequency. It has enabled an ecosystem to develop that can exist with relative ease. Plants and animals have learned how to retain water, conserve water, avoid heat, etc. Humans need to create our infrastructure around these principles, rather than ignoring them. It is pretty obvious that the desert cannot support the growing human population given the lifestyle and resources management strategies currently being used. Golf courses, housing and construction are all based on an ideology that is out of sync with the local environment. Human could learn from nature to build structures that maximize resources. Solar energy, grey water recycling, underground housing, etc. I good example are the “Earthships” that are catching on out there. Not only do they use natural materials, but capitalize on design principle that maximizes efficiencies such as rain water trapping roofs, solar heating of water, etc.

    Another example is learning how to deal with insect infestation and disease. Currently big agro businesses are focusing more and more on monocultures. This poses a serious threat to food security as these monocultures can be devastated by disease or bugs. The Irish potato famine is a good example of what can happen with monocultures. Human can learn from nature by understanding ecosystem resilience through diversification and supporting a food change ecosystem in agriculture. Organic agriculture is moving back to the roots of agriculture where human can cultivate plants while also staying in balance with nature. Organic agriculture supports diversity, as well as ways to keep infestation in check through supporting a food chain. Also having a diversified array of crops can mitigate food security issues.

    Like others have said, almost nothing is wasted in natural systems. The most obvious thing in my mind of natural waste is the act of decomposition at the microscopic level. Whether it comes from plants or animal, waste is the breeding ground of bacteria which help complete the full food chain cycle. Humans are learning how to use the power of decomposition through biomass, and biogas technologies to create energy from waste materials. Home composting is another way humans have incorporated nature’s waste management techniques to create nutrient rich soil that promotes continued growth.

  3. Matt says:

    I see potential for our economy to evolve into a system that is similar to a Shifting-Mosaic-Steady-State Economy that becomes balanced through non-equilibrium steady-state dynamics. Let’s consider a wildfire as an example of a natural disturbance that is part of an ever-present natural disturbance regime contributing to a shifting-mosaic-steady-state landscape. A forested landscape could be compared to an urban area where some parts of the forest patchwork are at different states of disturbance and recovery and the urban area is made up of a patchwork of areas that are in different states of development and prosperity as a result of different influences and disruptions. One part of the forest might have experienced a recent wildfire and one part of the urban area might have experienced a recent factory closure resulting in hundreds of job losses. After the fire the area of the forest burned might start to experience rapid growth of “shade-intolerant early-successional species” and the urban area where the factory closed might see homes for sale at prices lower than surrounding areas bringing new community members and potentially younger families seeking “starter-homes” into the area and also new smaller companies being started to take advantage of the resources made available in the area due to the closure of the factory. The downturn in these patches of forest and urban area could be balanced by maturing growth in other patches within this shifting mosaic, with the net result being a steady-state. As we consider the global economy that we know is constrained by access to only finite natural resources, maybe over time we’ll see a balance emerge where as one area “grows” or “develops” another are matures and experiences slow or no-growth or potentially declines. I expect this will be the case, but this raises serious questions about the desirability of this shifting-mosaic state. To manage expectations maybe economic development planners should begin to focus more on things like understanding disturbance distribution, frequency, rotation period, predictability, area disturbed, and magnitude intensity (or severity). That way communities could emphasize preparedness, adaptation, self-sufficiency, etc.

    In terms of disturbances and balance and the human impact, I think it might be valuable to play Devil’s Advocate and question our current focus on climate change mitigation. It could be said, that in terms of the global ecosystem climate change is fine. The global system will again become balanced. It’ll just require human adaptation. Food production may shift north and deserts may expand in certain areas, but as the ice melts more plant growth in the far North and South could replace declining productivity near the equator. Could this also lead to more carbon sequestration by plants overall? Plants and animals will need to be resilient and potentially migrate, but there should be new sources of food and nutrients in new patches that are transformed to be more “productive.” Our “natural” waste of carbon dioxide could be seen as being used by the global ecosystem as food for plants that will result in increasing biodiversity in areas that could not support such diversity in the past.

    A more accurate example of a natural waste that we see all around us right now in Vermont would be the deciduous tree leaves we see falling to the ground. These leaves decompose and “feed” the soil providing essential resources for plants and organisms. The example of leaves falling might be compared to human hair clippings that are now being used to assist with oil spills (http://www.greendaily.com/2007/12/17/human-hair-used-for-oil-spill-clean-up/).

  4. Monika Derrien says:

    I think one of the biggest lessons we have to learn from observing natural disturbances is allowing for progression. The human instinct in a lot of situations of disturbance, natural or man-made, is for immediate and exact replacement—to put back what was there before, as fast and as identically as possible. If in the case of a stand of trees – replant it with what was there. If in the case of a building – build a replica, all disregarding the progression that existed to create the former conditions in the first place. A lesson humans have to learn is to choose patience and emergence over immediacy. In Michael Pollan’s book, Second Nature, he discusses a 42-acre stand of old-growth white pines in his town in Connecticut that were taken down by a tornado in 1989. The Nature Conservancy, which owned the land, wanted to leave the land as was, in its natural state. Many town residents wanted to replant the forest, so that future generations could have some semblance of the same majestic forest. Others wanted to sell the valuable timber. Pollan deduces that since human intervention is not possible to avoid, given that people live bordering the forest and interact with it, and since man has brought invasive plants and trees to the area, that human intervention is justified to turn the forest into what the people want as opposed to letting the negative impacts of their behaviors reign (a replacement forest of Norway Maple or Japanese honeysuckle). Pollan writes, “This is the paradox faced by the Nature Conservancy and other advocates of wilderness: at this point in history, creating a landscape that bears no marks of human intervention will require a certain amount of human intervention.”

    How does one allow a natural progression with human guidance of a man-made structure? No building will sprout up where a previous one has burnt down, no matter how much time is allowed. So how can natural progression inform the decision that have to be made at such a juncture? How about building on current conditions, rather than historical ones? We cannot recreate past structures any more than we can recreate history. There is no need to sentimentalize previous status quos in planning for future needs. This is not to say we shouldn’t appreciate and enjoy something because of its longevity. Thousand year old redwoods, ancient Roman temples, virgin forests – we appreciate these things for their endurance and strength and history, as much as we do for their actual presence. Of course, no one will welcome their demise, but there is no need to try to replicate history under modern conditions. But we should study what made them last for such a long time.

    As for our unplanned, human disturbances, these can be things like building new housing developments and industry, our human-driven extraction of natural resources from the environment (logging, mining, fishing, agriculture, etc). The fact that nature can recover from disturbances when they are natural is heartening. But natural disturbances are not repeated on the scale that humans create disturbances . Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, don’t take down entire forests frequently. What does this mean for human livelihoods that depend on these resources, and can not survive on only “disturbing” them once every hundred or thousand years? Clearly a huge feat of human organization and foresight is required for a millennial-sort of management plan, and even if that were possible, “real” natural disturbances would happen on their own agenda, not according to any human plan. But, this does not mean more responsible management is not possible. Humans can attempt to balance their needs with their resources’ potential.

    Another lesson to learn from natural systems is that there is no waste. There are no landfills in nature – everything is somehow re-used in some form. There’s no use for waste. Abundance in nature, as in the case of sperm or cherry blossoms, as McDonough talks about, is not wasteful, in that it doesn’t accumulate for eternity – the nutrients are recycled back into natural systems. A recent article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/science/earth/20trash.html?scp=1&sq=nantucket&st=cse) hailed Nantucket as becoming “Zero Waste,” meaning that everything it used was somehow recycled back into use. But, as McDonough points out, even when you recycle some product into some other product – like Tetrapak food packaging into buildings, benches, etc, that material still exists, and will pose the same problem at the end of its lifespan. We can recycle a product over and over and over (and don’t get me wrong – this is progress), but the plastic and aluminum and chemicals have not morphed into some new material. It isn’t recycled back into the system; it becomes a new part of the system. Unless waste is natural (and by this, I mean able to be built in nature, degrade in nature, and be reused in nature), it will not cycle seamlessly back into the system. The first thing we can learn about natural waste systems is that they start with natural waste. Cradle-to-cradle engineering should be required for all products; otherwise, we’ll keep piling up our landfills with useless waste. This should not mean just finding new “uses” for our byproducts. It should mean engineering our products so that they have uses at the end of their life cycle.

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