Thursday, July 3, 2008

Unintended consequesces

This post is about cats.

The first cat is the one in the photograph, hours after I picked her up off the streets of Philadelphia. She is one heck of an unintended consequence of my living there.

The other cat story is "Operation Cat Drop", or WHO screws up big time. In a nutshell, in the 1950s, DDT, seen as the panacea against malaria, was applied everywhere there was a mosquito. The end result was that the WHO had to airlift cats to jungle villages in Borneo.

In retrospect, perhaps the connections should have been obvious. But because life as a whole is so interconected, it is hard to figure out which connections make the difference between plans working out, and plans failing miserably. I don't think, short of developing a time traveler, it will ever be possible to foresee every consequence of the things we do to the environment.

However, what we can do is drop the thinking, as much as we like it, that one single cause is the source of our misery, and one single thing can fix it. Ultimately, we can't know everything, and there will be cases where doing nothing is far worse than doing something, as uninformed as the action may be. But for the majority of non-emergent cases, accruing the knowledge of as many connections as possible will help us make better decisions about how to go about doing what must be done.

The other thing we can do is stop trying to "fix" things. Plans for adding changes to an environment usually go more wrong than letting the environment come back to balance by itself. For example, the forest fires in the western part of the US cause as much damage as they do, because more people live there, and because the US Forestry service once made it a point to put out every single fire, despite that the trees in the West evolved in such a way that they required fire to manage their growth. With their growth running rampant, a lightning strike would be like tossing a match on a pile of tinder.

The environment cannot be "fixed" like a car. If you fix your carbeurator, you don't accidentally ding your boss's car, and dinging your boss's car doesn't give your secretary a flat. Unfortunately, this is much the way biology works--or seems to, until we realize that there are connections between the cars that we just haven't seen yet.

The best we can hope for is to minimize our influence--stop polluting inasmuch as it's possible, quit meddling in the affairs of the forests, cease changing the course of rivers, desist with taking the life on this planet for granted. Conservation is essentially a conservative effort, in that the best thing we can do is as much nothing as possible--we don't cut down forests, we don't pollute. Of course, this isn't possible, as people have to eat, food must be shipped, money must be made, life must be lived. But minimizing our impact on the environment is something we can all make an effort at--and should. After all, who can resist doing nothing?

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