Ecological Science

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How is uncertainty always part of knowing ?

Science in ecological problems is by its character a pursuit based on multiple specialties, not unlike the study of oceanography that requires physical, chemical, geological and biological information and much, much more. We must rethink how we think, learn and act.

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In the sense that the context is essential to knowing anything and that we also cannot scientifically know enough facts well enough to predict outcomes, we are faced with a paradox.

Consider that biological reactions among creatures are less predictive than are chemical reactions. Chemical reactions in known concentrations are certain to occur when conditions are at known temperatures, pressures, or pH. Acid water inhibits the development of fish eggs or insect larvae, but how any two different albatross birds handle the mercury they ingest from ocean fish is an unpredictable metabolic question.

Consequently scientific uncertainty is woven into the heart of ecological problems and that physical uncertainty grows when using models or assessing desired out comes that involve biology. Social biology adds yet another kind of uncertainty to the significant background errors which we confront. For example, fifty two, raw sewage out-falls in Vera Cruz, Mexico have killed the coral reef that once guarded the entrance of the bay. People still swim in the filthy water, but the corals are dead and the fish are gone. What is uncertain is how long, if the water from the out falls was treated and cleaned, would it take for the reef to revive and what do we mean by revive?

Multiple factors require a multitasking, educational perspective, exercised on multiple scales, because several time dependent changes occur in some defined but hard to predict ways.

For instance, from a discipline based perspective deep ocean and coastal fisheries involve physical, chemical, biogeological and population information derived from separate disciplines but requiring a common, integrated view:

Physically the oceans are warming and the conveyor belt of deep ocean currents driving surface waters is at risk of slowing the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Deep ocean water is warmer now and has caused thermal expansion of the ocean leading to additional sea level increase.

Chemically mercury toxicity in seventy species of ocean fish poses a health risk to people who eat fish more than twice per week.

Biologically, coastal species on land and in the sea are going extinct at a rate faster than human population growth and at a rate faster than the aggregate rate of species decline.

Predators in the ocean have declined in size steadily since 1950s based on fishery catch data. The larger the fish and the older the fish the number of eggs produced increases exponentially over the number of eggs produced by younger smaller fish.

Psychologically humans are still learning by means that may actually inhibit the capacity to see across or deeply into the divides where disciplines spar over the contextual meaning of detailed findings.

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In the quest for reliable order, meaning and predictability in reality, science reveals further uncertainties about what we are doing because of the way we live our lives today.

There is enough sociological evidence to show that when confronted with huge uncertainties related to known ecological or health problems, human subjects initially deny that a problem exists. Realization of the veracity of the problem leads to separation and assertions that the problem is due to someone else's fault. Once someone recognizes their own complicity in the problem there is a tendency to assert that economically rational behavior will trap the perpetrator in socially destructive actions until talented thinkers, using new technology, will create a means to solve the problem. From pesticide contamination, acid rain, lead in gasoline, or nicotine additives to tobacco products, to the testing of nuclear weapons, this scenario takes years if not decades for the social learning curve to encompass shifts in awareness strong enough to alter behavior.

But what if, as the pace of deleterious changes quickens and the behavior we are exhibiting produces long-lived pollutants, that we are faced with a compounding problem which requires action sooner, than later? What if the time we have to promote awareness into behavioral change is less than the average time for such transformations in thinking to occur? And finally what if the diffuse harm is incurred by populations so far removed from the perpetrator that traditional cause and effect models do not convince people that changes are worthwhile, economically valued, or even healthy to engage in?

That is the problem we are seeing with respect to the way multiple impact is driving time dependent reactions into long-term cycles from which we will be unable to foster effective responses. The clearest example of this is the persistence of carbon in the air and the rapid building up of carbon dioxide in the oceans and the air. But climate change or global warming, by whatever name is also occurring simultaneously with human population growth, a loss of places adequate for species and people to live, losses in wildlife and fisheries, rises in frequency rates for human neurological disorders, and the disruptive yet interdependent impacts of energy consumption on nutrient cycles. The co dependent character of sulfur dioxide and mercury pollution, not to mention carbon dioxide waste from the burning of coal, oil, or garbage is but one small example of the combined impacts being greater than the sum of the interacting parts.

Biologically speaking, sulfur metabolizing bacteria, convert mercury deposited from fossil fuel combustion into organically soluble mercury. This soluble form accumulates in the tissues of fish and fish that eat fish, such that 70 species of fish in the oceans, more than 10 states and Florida have mercury warnings on the consumption of fish caught in interstate or state waters. But the positive news, like the response to the ozone loss in the poles, is that actions when taken to remove mercury from garbage incineration plants leads within five years to measurable declines in mercury levels in surrounding waters and in the denizens of these places. Thus human action makes a considerable difference on the health risks associated with persistent chemicals in the environment.

Ecological science is more than a mere method for understanding, describing and verifying knowledge of the natural world. It is a mesh of strands from disparate disciplines woven together to reveal the importance of places, forces and knowable outcomes, even where human behavior, the greatest unknown is a significant factor.

We are the heirs of an unfathomable ancient legacy of dreams, mistakes and hunches gone wrong, modern science's value lies in the fact that it provides a method of detecting errors as we discover an integrated, if not a sublime meaning to our conscious existence.

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Whether we consciously become aware of the earth's living seas, its diverse bird, fish and animal life, or worship our culture's many prevalent idols, we are the the earth's children. That is because we are the daily product of bacteria and plants, just as we are the historical descendants of the biological ancestors who built this world and that record is seen in even our genes. Before we can think about this fact of dependence on simple life forms, we may or may not realize that we are the recipients of the biological wealth of the planet because we breathe the air produced by bacteria and plants. Before we become aware, we consume the food and fuel of animals and plants both existing and geologically transformed fossils,to live. Before we question the meaning of our existence, we are enabled to be what we are because of the geology and biological geography of the planet.

As Gaia's child, we are tethered to our mother still by the unseen umbilical chord, whose entwined systems of water transport, nutrient exchange, waste recycling that we study as separate strands, is really one entity nourishing our lives in an otherwise immense universal emptiness of quarks, atoms, galaxies and time holes that swallow matter as fast as the cosmos swallows our imaginations on a star lit evening.

We need a new approach to comprehending the complexity of the tethering hold this water planet has on our beings, the importance of human choice in how we live healthy lives and consume the land's bounty, or else we will perish as our ancestors did in full ignorance of our responsibility in cutting the ties that bind us to the world that gave us birth, nourishes our senses and provides us with the luxury of illusions.

Only we can decide if the intrusions we have made into our life support system will yield knowledge to help us repair the damage, quibble over the means to restore our nourishing seas, air and life, or live in the illusion that we are "thinking," ethically imaginative and creatures capable of changing our habits.


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