“the ratchet of perception tightens…”

February 10, 2009 at 10:10 pm 2 comments

While our “friends” in congress argue the finer points of pork barrel spending  financial stimulus, a crisis potentially much more devastating than global depression  continues to be ignored. In an article published in Physical Geography back in 2005, Kevin Gaston wrote:

The most important agent of change in the spatial patterns of much of biodiversity at present is ultimately the size, growth and resource demands of the human population. This is giving rise to: (i) levels of global species extinction largely unprecedented outside periods of mass extinction; (ii) levels of net losses of populations and individuals which may both absolutely and proportionately be several times greater than rates of species loss; (iii) levels of dispersal of organisms associated with the movements of people and goods that routinely overcome long-standing barriers to natural movement and which in some areas have become more important than natural dispersal mechanisms; and (iv) humans having become among the greatest evolutionary forces on Earth, shaping the tolerances and capacities of numerous organisms. (italics mine)

Our wildlife and wild lands are vanishing on a global scale and we seem, for the most part, not to be the least bit concerned about it. Is our increasing love affair with technology partly to blame?  Today the average child spends about 30 minutes a week playing and exploring outdoors… and over 300 hoursengrossed in television, the internet and other technological pursuits.

We’ve posted here before that according to a study published by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning group;

“If children’s natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be flourish during their early years of life, biophobia, an aversion to nature may develop. Biophobia ranges from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned. Biophobia is also manifest in regarding nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.”

This aversion to nature is now the rule, rather than the exception, among city-dwellers and suburbanites.  We have created a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it. And as we spend less time communing with nature, it appears that we may also be losing the ability to appreciate and understand it. In Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenberg discusses the idea of the shifting baseline.

The world as first seen by the child becomes his lifelong standard of excellence, mindless of the fact that he is admiring the ruins of his parents. Generation to generation, the natural world decays, the ratchet of perception tightens… Gradually, imperceptibly.. the wild standard sinks lower and lower and becomes ever heavier to raise. Few notice, few care. Eventually, nobody remembers…

As we change the world the ratchet of perception tightens and we change our ability — and our children’s ability — to understand it. 

Our altered perception of the importance of the economy of nature appears to have put us into a situation where our focus may be on the wrong kind of bailout. In a recent article discussing the current rates of extinction and discovery of new species in Science Daily, Paul Erlich is quoted as saying:

“I think what most people miss is that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy of nature, which supplies us from our natural capital a steady flow of income that we can’t do without.”

When we have problems with our financial economy, there are a number of ways we can deal with them. We  can print more capital, pass financial stimulus packages, cut taxes, change financial and trade laws or just sit back and wait for the situation to right itself. It’s not that easy to deal with deficits in the economy of nature. Once the last member of a species dies out, we can’t manufacture a new make and model to take its place. We are about as likely to be successful at reversing habitat devastation and fragmentation as to find a politician that will accept blame for a minor gaffe.  And invasive species are more difficult to get rid of than French civil servants.  

The laws of nature are far more immutable than the laws of man. And the fact that we haven’t seen massive cascades of extinction and extinction-related problems may not just be related to the fact that we’re not well equipped to recognize them. The Science Direct article also pointed out the important idea that:

An airplane wing has a certain amount of redundancy in its design, as does much of nature. So you can pop off some of the rivets and the wing will still hold together and the plane will still fly. But at some point, you’ll have removed one too many rivets and the plane will crash.

As we spend less and less time in nature, we’ve altered our ability to perceive and understand it. Not only are we popping ecological rivets off at an alarming rate, but in many cases we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We just turn up the volume on our Ipods and bury our faces into the latest in today’s mindless flurry of instant messages as the ratchet of perception tightens — oblivious to the captain’s warning, “brace for impact.”

Entry filed under: science, wildlife. Tags: , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christopher  |  February 11, 2009 at 12:06 am

    This disgusting parade just gets worse every day. There was no real good choice in the last election… big spending big government elephants versus big spending big government donkeys.

    Weak dollar for the last few years? Keep printing money!

    Economy in trouble because of spending and not saving (creating bubbles) by the government, business, and individuals? Solution? SPEND MORE! Go in deeper debt!

    “Stimulate” by doing the exact same thing that caused the problem, only more.


  • 2. savingpets  |  February 18, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Great post!

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