Sunday, November 14, 2010

Realising change in reflection

If you observe much of what happens in nature, there is a spectrum of timescales. There can be abrupt events that occur over the course of seconds and minutes, like earthquakes - a quick release of energy. We have events that happen over the course of days, like hurricanes - a slow buildup of energy release from latent heat, and a movement across water, potentially hitting land. Some events happen over the course of weeks and months, like seasons and the falling of leaves - there is an almost imperceptible change from day to day, just like the changing height of a child. Changes in climate and population occur at an even slower timescale; it takes many decades for the radiative effects of carbon dioxide to be felt, and unless for some reason there is an extinction, masses of fish can slowly grow or decline over time. In general, though, it seems that nature operates at timescales that are too slow for us to flow with. It seems as there each day and week is a new local, momentary equilibrium. What happens in most natural phenomena, except say earthquakes, volcanoes and bombardment by coronal mass ejections, is that there is a constant feedback between various forces. There is a constant tug and push of daily influences of solar radiation, changing vegetation patterns, changing ocean acidity, and, whether we like it or not,constantly rising carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the year and the ocean capacity, fish populations may rise slightly one year, but then the next year, because of say, a decline in plankton, the populations may drop. Feedback is at play, and natural systems respond according to the sum of the positive and negative feedbacks; systems are dynamic and ever-changing. 
I am reading a draft of an article by Professor Princen, in which he talks about feedback in our social constructs. He mentions that in economies that are centred around resource extraction (our economy), during boom times, positive feedback is immediate and clearly tangible - we get 8% return on investments, gasoline prices drop and everyone is happy. Positive feedback makes us think that more of the same can never be bad. (And regardless of whether we have Democrats or Republicans in office, we have more of the same.) Negative feedbacks in our society are either one of of two: diffuse (slow rates of cancer rise because of petrochemical release into waters) or abrupt (like earthquakes, miners getting stuck underground for more than a day, huge oil wells blowing out). Unfortunately, our society is adept at avoiding the internalisation of negative feedback. In the end, it is difficult for us to recognise, realise and admit that the sum of these feedbacks is changing the landscapes we, and other living and non-living beings inhabit. For all of our instant access to information today, we have to reflect back on vast amounts of time to make any meaningful decision about where we are headed and what we should do. Yet at the same time, the signs pushing for change are constant - miners continue to die, thousands per year (you just don't hear of them), constantly increasing rates of obesity and cancer, and year after year of record high temperatures and seasons.

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