One of the biggest wildfires to hit California still smoulders around Yosemite and has been blamed on a hunter’s campfire. The “father” of Yosemite, the Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir, famously said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In other words, nothing in nature happens in isolation. In the case of the wildfire in Yosemite, drought, climate change and reduced forest management have all potentially conspired to turn a campfire into a national disaster.
Although it is human nature to think in terms of simple causes and simple solutions, unfortunately, nature tends to be a lot more complex, with multiple factors combining to cause consequences that we struggle to anticipate. For example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone recently – the park that inspired Muir to fight for the preservation of Yosemite – it led to a surprising increase in the number of bears. It seems that the wolves eat the deer that eat the trees that provide the berries that feed the bears. Just last week, an article was published reporting the connection between the decline in megafauna – big beasts that include giant sloths and elephants – and large-scale soil fertility in the past. Such animals play a significant role in moving large amounts of nutrients from fertile flood plains where they feed to the wider landscape where they drop manure. Therefore, over-hunting of megafauna can lead to a decline in natural soil productivity.
History is littered with civilizations that appear to have been usurped by nature’s complexities. The Fertile Crescent, which includes present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, was the birthplace of agriculture in the West 11,000 years ago. Unsustainable soil practices, water shortage and rapid population growth contributed to the decline of the great cultures of the region including the ancient city of Antioch and the Dead Cities of northwest Syria. These were among the most sophisticated cultures of their time, and farmers would have seen what was happening, but the population as a whole seemed unable to stop themselves in time. A conspiracy of many interacting factors made it too hard to imagine a workable solution.
The Industrial Revolution marked a transition from an organic economy to an inorganic economy powered by cheap and abundant energy. In the 200 years since then, human beings have used technology to free themselves of natural constraints and have gone on to fill their greatly expanded niche to the brim at the expense of other species. Essentially, technology made the world a simpler, more controllable place for us.
As we have grown to fill the niche liberated by technology, the constraints of nature are closing in again. Although we depend on soil for more than 99% of our food, we have not been able to prevent the degradation of more than 40% of our existing agricultural soils. Neither have we been able to stop extracting water at unsustainable rates that will push more than half the world’s population in to severe water stress by 2050. Again, the areas around the Fertile Crescent and Syria in particular are especially badly hit, and there has already been enormous human suffering. The current crisis in Syria follows on from a five-year drought that devastated agriculture and drove the rural population to extreme poverty. The selling off of vital wheat reserves when the global market was rising in 2006 happened just before the drought hit, and created food shortages among the Syrian people and the rising refugee population from neighbouring conflict-ridden Palestine and Iraq.
While we may be more technologically savvy than our predecessors, the world has become far more complicated and interconnected. Technology may continue to contribute solutions, but we will also require a level of cooperation and global governance that is unprecedented outside war. Ehrlich & Ehrlich, of Stanford University, suggest that collapse of global civilization can be avoided but that the odds are small. This is because although there is strong evidence of the risks posed to civilization, they are not obvious to most people, and we have relatively little time to grapple with them.
When everything is “hitched” to everything else, the greatest challenge is to abandon our illusion of simple causes and solutions, and to make sure that the complex is as easy to grasp as possible. This can be especially easy when the consequences of complexity are already playing out in front of our eyes.
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Author: John Crawford is the Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainability and Complex Systems at the University of Sydney. He writes about environmental issues for the Forum:Blog. Read his earlier post, ‘The real beef about artificial meat’.
Image: Sacramento Metropolitan firefighter Matt Owston works the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California, August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Max Whittake