Richard White explores an interesting point of view in The Organic Machine. It is quite similar to my devils’-advocate argument earlier in the semester, that humans are just as much a part of nature as, well, nature itself. The Columbia River acts like a machine just as much as steam turbines and hydroelectric dams and whatnot. And no matter what we do to it, it does not lose its immense destructive power, as demonstrated during the flood of 1948.

However, as a physicist, I must bring up an important physical concept, that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed – in other words, you cannot get something from nothing, or turn something into nothing. Orders of magnitude do matter – when you take natural resources from nature in small amounts such that it has ample time to replace what you take, as the Native Americans did when fishing, it does not appear that you are burdening nature. But when you start to fish in large quantities comparable to the total populations of fish, they start losing the ability to sustain their populations. A small waterwheel on the side of the river does not have much of an effect on the river’s overall flow, but large dams used to generate hydroelectricity can impede the movement of salmon or even slow down the mass flow rate of the water by some amount. When the danger of the dams was realized, we turned to nuclear power – but that, too, had its problems, as the river’s water was used to dissipate the heat generated when producing plutonium, and the slight increase in water temperature resulted in further loss of fish. It seems that we cannot fulfill the needs of a society as large as ours without somehow compromising the system from which we take to fulfill said needs.

This being said, the goal of a sustainable society in its current numbers may be theoretically impossible. We have far exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity, and no matter how efficient new technologies become, we will still probably be draining our resources faster than they can be replenished, even with alternative renewable energies. Whatever the source, be it a solar panel or a wind turbine or a nuclear fuel cell, you need to mine the raw materials, use energy to transport and process them, and deal with the waste at the end of the unit’s life cycle.

Going back to the humans-as-part-of-nature concept – I feel like an exception to this, if one exists, is the obtaining of radioisotopes for energy use. The reason for this is because radioisotopes naturally exist in such tiny quantities, as they are unstable and start to decay as soon as they come into being. Every element in existence came from nuclear fusion within a star – they all start with hydrogen, atomic number 1, fusing into helium, and subsequently creating larger and larger atomic nuclei. By the time you reach atomic number, say, 283, the abundance of nuclei with that number becomes a function of probability of formation as well as stability of the nucleus. The nucleus consists of protons and neutrons, and thus has an overall positive charge – when too many positive charges are present, they push away from each other; when these repulsive forces overcome the nuclear forces holding the nucleus together, then you get alpha decay. In essence, the universe simply does not want such materials to exist. By creating them, we literally push against the laws of physics.

Written on March 22nd, 2017 , Uncategorized

I want to touch upon a subject brought up in the latter section of Katz’ piece – “natural” human childbirth without medical intervention. He claims that childbirth can only be natural if no medical advancements are used in assisting with it. First of all, how dare he make such a rude claim, especially as a male? I take personal offense to this, as my mother endured 26 hours of labor before I was born via emergency C-section; had that not been available, I’d have possibly grown up without a mother or a younger brother, provided that I survived in the first place. Second of all, are humans not the ones who created such medical advancements? One could argue that medical advancements are technically natural. Third of all, and probably most importantly – Katz, what’s your damn point here? What do women have to gain from refraining from the use of technology to make birthing easier, other than a greater probability of dying from complications and more bragging rights on natural-mommy Internet forums?

Humans do everything that they do for the same reason every other living being does what it does – the drive to survive and pass on future genes. This is what fuels evolutionary success. Every advancement we make is ultimately to improve human life and longevity, whether it be medical advancements to save lives, agricultural technologies to increase food yields, or even habitat restoration such that ecosystems can continue to function as they evolved to. Emphasis on that last part – the reason humans are environmentalists is such that the Earth can continue to be a habitable biosphere, because it is made habitable by the ecosystems of which it is comprised. Forests provide a sink for carbon dioxide, aerobic respirators consume oxygen to keep it at a steady 21% atmospheric concentration; some of these organisms consume plant life, and others consume those organisms to keep their populations in check. The reason we study ecology and environmental science is to try and keep the biosphere in the steady state under which we came into being, such that we may continue to exist as a species – in other words, not necessarily to harvest its products and byproducts directly. And yes, it may be true that a re-created forest identical to an original old-growth forest may not have the same value, but what is the alternative here? To risk losing the “blueprints” of such a forest in case nature fails to revive it?

Two weeks ago I visited the University of Virginia to explore what their graduate programs had to offer; on our last day there, some students took us to Monticello. During a tour inside the home, the tour guide informed us that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns the house and property, is constantly working to restore the house as closely as possible to its original state; for instance, trying to develop a paint that would recreate the exact color Jefferson had chosen in his day. One may ask, what’s the point if it’s not original? I have an answer: to give future generations a taste of what it might have been like, rather than lose their heritage to the erosion of history.

Nature itself, in my opinion, is characterized by something undergoing perpetual change. Every seven years, all the cells in the human body will have died and replaced themselves; yet when running into an old friend a decade or two later, we still consider them to be that same person. At the end of the day, what difference does it make if something is “original” or “natural” as opposed to a recreation?

The only difference I can think of is that perhaps there is more “magic” associated with something that came about spontaneously compared to something that was designed and put into place. I explored a similar topic in an essay for my first-year seminar, in which I argued that the prospect of life having randomly evolved is more wondrous than an “intelligent creator” (e.g. God) having made it intently. But humans are not intelligent omnipotent creators; we are still learning every day about new components of nature, and I think that the goal of being able to create an exact replica of a natural creation is a lofty yet achievable goal for humanity. How wonderful would it be if we were to completely restore a habitat we affected back to its original functionality? Humanity would be the ultimate example of something that screwed up and managed to fix its mistakes before dying from the consequences, a feat accomplished by no other species (at least that I know of). Perhaps the critics of environmental restoration need to check their egos, as they seem to regard humanity as completely separate from nature, while in reality we are a part of nature itself, imperfect, constantly learning from our mistakes.

Written on March 8th, 2017 , Uncategorized

Nature is nature, and nature can be scary. Nature does not care what we are or what our intentions are – if we take a wrong step, it will not hesitate to kill us. Why so many are so intent on taking “revenge” on nature, when it is indifferent to what happens to us, I probably will never understand. If we intrude on the home of a shark, or a crocodile, or a wolf pack, or some other top predator, and said predator attacks the intruder, for some reason people want to punish the animal for doing what its instincts told it to do. Sometimes they’ll even institute a cull or mass hunt as a preemptive form of revenge, disguised as “protection” from future attacks. Shark culls and wolf hunts infuriate me to no end – you made the decision to surf in the ocean or raise livestock on the plains, you assume the risks associated with it.
The description of the crocodile incident reminds me of my semester abroad in Australia – at one point we were walking through a national park and saw a cassowary in the woods, looking at our group. While cassowaries are not carnivorous, they can be extremely aggressive and have feet equipped with 5-inch claws easily capable of disembowelment; thus, they are to be feared. Thankfully, however, conservationist groups in Far North Queensland do understand that protection of this endangered species is too important to shrug off; even if the bird’s existence poses some threat to individuals, it can be mitigated by simply taking steps to not anger the bird. Now, I did not experience anything even remotely close to what Plumwood did, but when the cassowary looked directly at me, I had that same general feeling of being potential prey. Fortunately I was in a large group, and had been instructed on what to do in the case of a cassowary encounter – put an object between you and the bird, i.e. a backpack or a shirt, maintain eye contact, and back away slowly – and I’d expected this sort of thing from the get-go when I signed up to study there. Australia is not a place to be messed with. Even so, having known about Australia’s dangerous wildlife beforehand was nothing compared to the feeling of vulnerability I experienced a few times.
I want to go on a small tangent here – last summer, while biking to work, I almost got hit by a minivan when trying to cross at a crosswalk. I pressed the button, waited for the lights to change, looked both ways, and started to cross, when the minivan came screeching down the road. I screamed and slammed on my bike brakes, and the car braked as well – when the drivers saw nothing had happened, they sped away, and I was in too much shock to read the license plate number. The reason I bring this up is because I feel like near-death experiences are quite different at the hands of nature and at the hands of humans, both from the perspective of the near-victim and of society at large.
At least in my case, when it comes to near-death experiences at the hands of nature, it is something that I at least considered to be a possibility – enter the beast’s domain and you may become food, such is the price of adventure. When nearly harmed by a human creation, though, it comes at a shock because it is so sudden – why would our fellow humans want to harm us? How could our beloved creations betray us so?
The societal take on it is somewhat similar. When someone is attacked or harmed while in nature – be it by a beast, a poisonous plant, drowning, a fall from a great height – others immediately jump up and say we have to make nature “safer” to be in. We go on hunts to kill the beasts, or eradicate the plant, or install fences along cliff edges, as if to “baby-proof” nature (so much for natural selection…). But when someone suffers at the hands of technology, such as being hit by a vehicle or killed by machinery or even a gun, some individuals are more wont to consider it a necessary consequence of technological advancement; no one proposes anti-car legislation (or, in the case of the US, anti-gun legislation, but I’ll not get into that here), and any changes to machinery standards must be carefully reviewed before being put into place. They pretend that humans have reached the height of perfection, and do not consider that maybe we should tame ourselves and our creations.

Written on March 1st, 2017 , Uncategorized

McKibben’s The End of Nature has several possible implications – that we are a part of nature, or that nature as we once viewed it has been destroyed, or that one can still experience the feeling of nature… In all honesty it gets a bit redundant at times, constantly going back and forth between those points – if I plotted the relative positivity/negativity of McKibben’s statements as a function of page number, the result would likely resemble a sinusoidal curve. This pondering over so many implications, all of which can be considered “correct” from some point of view, leads me to draw physical analogies – primarily the concepts of relativity, Schrödinger’s cat, the second law of thermodynamics, and chaos theory.
The main dilemma of relativity is that everything is relative depending on one’s point of view – as a car passes another car, one driver sees the other as moving backward, and the other driver views the original as moving forward – whose frame of reference is the “correct” one?
“Schrödinger’s cat” is an analogy for the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. Basically, if you place a cat in a sealed box with poison gas triggered by the cat’s movement, even in spite of logical deductions, you cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead without opening the box.
Chaos theory, on the other hand, is an uncertainty principle applied to classical mechanics. The behavior of complex systems can be predicted for the near future, but because they are influenced by so many variables, even slight changes, in the far future it is completely unpredictable. This is similar to the “butterfly effect.”
The second law of thermodynamics states that any system (i.e. the universe) is in a constantly increasing state of entropy – randomness, mixing, disorder – as time moves forward.
From these four principles I can paint a more scientific picture of what McKibben is trying to convey. Essentially, our entire view of nature is changing, but only relative to how we have viewed it previously – and this change is not necessarily wrong or abnormal because we have no normal to which we can compare it. Everything is constantly changing, unpredictably so – who could have hypothesized, from the formation of the first cell, or even the first animal, the evolution of humans and the rise of our species to dominate the planet? That is just one out of a literally infinite amount of possibilities. And chaos theory also applies to our current actions of environmental destruction and carelessness. We have a general idea of what will happen in the future, but have no way of determining exactly when it will happen, or the precise magnitude of the effects. And it is this uncertainty that causes some humans to not even care – because hey, maybe we’ll be alright. To quote the book: “Uncertainty is often seen as nicer than grim certainty, because we, being human, tend to imagine that the happiest outcomes are likely. Maybe we don’t need to do anything!” Or, if they are more nihilistic and passive, perhaps they just accept the fact that our universe is chaotic and unpredictable, with no particular purpose and no certainty other than eventual death.
So, if the universe is indifferent to our plights, if nothing is ever certain, if entropy and disorder are inevitable, and we’re all going to die anyway, what’s the point of being an environmentalist? Why the hell am I dedicating my entire life to this when it may not even mean anything?
Because I’m human. Because I care. Despite the cynical scientist I sometimes portray myself as, I do have morals and emotions and feelings, what one might call a soul. I want to not just survive, but thrive, and maybe spread the joy of thriving to future generations instead of keeping it all for myself and leaving a mess for them to clean up.
But what about the sentiment of nature itself, and the “end” of it so lamented throughout the book?
Even as the relative definition of nature may change over time, becoming less and less separated from humans, we still feel a need for it. It is our home. I feel that no matter how closely integrated nature may become with humans, it would still produce that lovely familiar feeling that we get as we walk through the woods. Nature might have changed, and it may be incredibly different from what our ancestors knew it as, but we are changing with it, and our views of nature depend on the worldview with which we are brought up. Those who grow up in the countryside may need a wide open field in order to truly harness that feeling of “being in nature,” and city folk may be content with just a tree growing in a city park. And if the world is headed towards total urbanization, it may reach the point at which we will all be city folk, and we will all be viewing that one tree in the park as our “nature.”
Or maybe, if we can get all the world to realize that the initial conditions under which they are born are not necessarily “the norm” – if we can manage to have them break away from whatever preconceived notions they may have, and to accept everything as relative and changing – perhaps it would give some people hope that not all is lost, that nature can still be appreciated as non-human, and even a tiny bit is worth trying to save. And small though the odds may be of succeeding, they do not entirely rule out the possibility of success. To quote Okabe Rintarou from my favorite anime Steins;Gate: “No one knows what the future holds. That’s why its potential is infinite.”
That uncertainty principle, the same one that suggests maybe we’ll be alright in the end if we don’t do anything, also suggests that maybe if we work hard enough there’s a chance we can offset or reduce the effects of what we’ve done, and save what we have left.
I’m not giving up without a fight.

Written on February 8th, 2017 , Uncategorized

It seems that a common theme of the readings is that humans are really the only organisms so fascinated by other lifeforms that we feel compelled to explore and be near them. This trait is shared among nature-loving adventurers with a “leave-no-trace” policy, those who enjoy it but care not what they affect around them, and those who wish to conquer and own everything beautiful that they find. Personally, I try to be one of the first kind – though I occasionally whip out my pocketknife to grab a sample of something interesting – and unfortunately have not had as many opportunities to freely explore as I’d like (of course I was the one born female, and thus unable to join my brother’s camping trips with the Boy Scouts).

However, during my three months studying abroad in Australia, as often as I could I set off to hike up the river near the campus center, which was located in the rainforest. I’d never had the chance before to just wander and go wherever my instincts take me, with neither a destination nor someone scolding “Get down from there!” or “Don’t go near that, it’s dangerous!” For once, I was able to learn my limits through experience. At times it was frightening – I swam to the middle of a freshwater crater lake, forgetting to take into account that I would be far less buoyant than in saltwater, and actually briefly thought that I might not make it back to shore – but hey, I lived and I learned. I strongly relate to Abbey’s anecdotes in which he sees a trail, knows he shouldn’t take it, and then takes it anyway (my ADHD-derived impulsivity also contributes to this). We humans, for whatever reason, feel comfortable and familiar enough with nature to take that trail, and the ensuing simultaneous feeling of potential danger is exhilarating. And regardless of whether or not the danger gets to the point of actual raw fear, in the end we usually feel some sense of accomplishment in having survived.

Scientifically, my viewpoint is that everything is technically natural, as we are part of nature and so are the things we create. But there’s something about the wilderness – wildness, as Thoreau writes – that just can’t possibly be recreated by any invention of technology. When I encounter anything odd, my first move is to analyze and explain it scientifically – but I have to admit, when it comes to nature, it’s something I can’t explain scientifically. Sure, I could be cynical and dismiss human feelings of love, happiness, and connectedness as increases in the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin – but it doesn’t convey how anything actually feels. No methodical analysis, no matter how in-detail, can express the multidimensional and astronomical attachment to nature, rooted deep within every living human.

Written on February 1st, 2017 , Uncategorized

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ENST 406 Senior Seminar

Understanding the Human Place in Nature — Spring 2017