« Return to this article

Know the West

You can’t stop nature


Why does it have to be so complicated? All we ask of nature is to be able to do what we want to do; no more, no less. We like to think of our impact on the world as controlled and businesslike, with only one variable changing at a time. But no matter how hard we try to keep things simple, they won’t stay simple. Nature is not just one thing: it’s everything. And it just won’t stop.

Take, for example, fires. They bother us all a lot --- that ugliness, the blackened trees, the homeless wildlife and more often lately, the homeless homeowners -- not to mention all the burned-up timber. So for decades we have followed a simple rule: Stop forest fires. The problem is that nature changes in response to change. Without the cleansing effects of frequent burns, dense fuels accumulate -- live saplings form dense thickets, dead brush piles up -- and fires when they come are terrible to behold. Our best efforts to protect the forests have made things worse.

Then there’s global warming. This one seems really unfair. We didn’t think nature was even involved with it. All we did was burn the cheapest, most perfect fuels we could find: fossil fuels. This burning has produced almost miraculous economic and technological growth. Who would have thought to worry about changing the huge and seemingly unchangeable atmosphere? For many decades -- no one. But all that time, as carbon dioxide levels invisibly rose, nature was paying attention. It was changing, in many, many ways. So now, when we have finally taken notice, we see changes everywhere we look, from the vanished glaciers of Kilimanjaro to the melting permafrost of Alaska, from the blooming times of wildflowers to the breeding ranges of birds.

You’d think we might have learned one lesson by now: When it comes to the environment, we don’t know what we are doing. Or, more precisely, we might know one particular thing we’re doing, but we have no idea of everything we’re doing. What to do with this lesson? A reasonable response would be to exercise a certain caution when it comes to “managing” nature. But it doesn’t seem to be working that way, judging by some proposals for dealing with global warming.

The logic goes like this: The almost endlessly complicated consequences of global warming come from one change -- rising carbon dioxide levels. So, couldn’t we make just one other change to get things back to the way they were? That is the temptation of the simple, and apparently, it’s irresistible.

Some of the most gifted scientists in the world have proposed technological interventions to reverse or mask the effects of carbon dioxide rise. These range from the seemingly plausible to the bizarre. In the latter category is the idea of lofting a Saturn-like ring of micro-satellites into orbit above the Earth, where they would cast a cooling shadow over the equatorial regions.

More plausible is the idea of “ocean fertilization,” adding iron to the nutrient-rich but iron-poor open ocean. This would stimulate algae blooms that would soak up carbon dioxide. When the algae died and sank, the CO 2 would be effectively “sequestered,” or removed from circulation. There have been some small-scale tests of this concept, which suggest that it could work. Several commercial firms now propose to begin adding iron to the world’s oceans on a massive scale, selling the resulting “carbon credits” to companies facing penalties for their carbon dioxide emissions.

The question is: Would nature let us change just this one thing? Or is it more likely that drastically increasing algae in the world’s oceans would have unanticipated effects on fisheries, or the acidity of seawater, or perhaps even currents and global weather patterns? Have we ever, even once, made a large change to the global environment that did not produce unanticipated consequences? Has nature ever let us change just one thing?

Ninety years ago, the American humorist H. L. Mencken wrote: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible and wrong.” Surely it’s time to finally abandon the search for easy solutions and begin the task of dealing with the mess that we have made of the world. We really can’t delay any longer, because, for her part, Nature just won’t stop.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.