January 13, 2012

When the levee breaks

Hadn't heard about the Kandahar poo pond flood until today. Anyone who's spent time in KAF should really take a look at the first picture.

Addendum: The article itself is junk, of course, with Tim Lynch criticizing the Obama pinata he's hung in his mind ("I canít listen to him and donít really know or care what heís saying," he candidly admits). But I couldn't resist following one of his links back to Belmont Club's Richard Fernandez, still as always a logorrhoeic windbag who must like to read his pieces to himself late at night, because I can't imagine why else he'd write that way.

I see Fernandez in turn links to the late Michael Crichton's speech on "complexity" in another of his entries, to prove he's smarter than the president, or something. Sigh. This is of course the Crichton speech with the famously silly statement about what was wrong with Yellowstone Park, and wildlife management practice in general, "The Indians hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to follow that practice, and made things worse."

Right. The Indians did, and "white men" refused to hunt. Check.

Look, Crichton's piece is garbage, always was. You don't have to be a rabid environmentalist to know that Yellowstone's problems were almost entirely due to issues involving big game hunting and ranching encroachment around the turn of the last century. The park's keepers stocked up on elk and hunted wolves because the human hunters, who they felt they needed to court to keep the park a naturalist's preserve, wanted them to. As Crichton admits, most of the damage was done and had been observed by the 1930s. Everything since then has been a long balancing act back, between what the state of nature and the human economy in the area can withstand. Yellowstone has at times been a conservation horror story, sure, but the basic problem at its heart is the same with conservation efforts everywhere.

What it's not, and never was, was some sort of model of irreducible "complexity," which Crichton tried to twist it into. Even he didn't likely think that was true, as evidenced by his statement that the Indians just solved the whole problem by hunting indiscriminately. If it was that simple a problem to solve, obviously it wouldn't be complex, or you would think. What it really was was a relatively binary balancing act of basically human interests, between some humans' interest in preserving nature and others' in exploiting it, which human politico-economic processes, in the long run, seem perfectly capable of sorting out.

The Yellowstone ecosystem itself (like Algonquin Park's here in Ontario) was complex sure, certainly more than was understood a hundred years ago. You can study these ecologies your entire life and still not know it all. But our failure to predict the results of our actions is not because they don't follow the logical rules relating to finding their own equilibrium points, but because we can't as humans, operating in timescales much shorter than nature is used to, ever really offer them that equilibrium: right now, this year, the "problem" in Yellowstone is the reintroduced wolves are killing too many elk and domesticated animals, and angering both hunting and ranching interests. But Crichton's constant portraying of conservation and park management as something akin to a junior scientist's ant farm, which the park managers are just fiddling with and messing around with the ecosystem and getting it wrong because they're stupid, in total isolation from the huge effects of the human society they part of and coming from, was just famously ignorant when Crichton gave his complexity speech, and hasn't improved at all with time.

It's not hard to find real examples where nature's complexity has confounded our predictive efforts, in terms of rapid extinction or invasive species, either. Cod, kudzu, you name it. But Crichton couldn't use those because his rightist personal agenda meant he had to find one where the scientists and the politicians who listened to them screwed it all up for the rest of us, so he derived his tortured Yellowstone story.

Ignorance breeds ignorance, with Crichton's ghost reaching through and messing with the impressionable and relatively empty mind of Richard Fernandez, who in turn becomes a reliable source for insights into American politics for someone who in his own sphere (Afghan NGOs and sustainable development in a warzone) is or should be one of the recognized experts. What the whole thing proves to me is it's really hard to rise above your sources. I really do hope Lynch gets to read more broadly now that he's back in the West.

Posted by BruceR at 10:36 AM