The Emerging Systemic Crisis

Today is World Environment Day. But what is the environmental crisis? Is it about climate, is about species, is it about resources like water or land or all of the above? Is it mainly what the media decides to focus upon on a given day? I think we need to see it as larger than any of these issues.

We seem to be living in a time with many unknown factors are interacting with one another and the interaction is more than the sum of the parts. Sciences like ecology that try to show how many complex things interact should be our paradigm for what is happening.

Right now, along the coast of the Atlantic and Pacific, starfish are dying of a mysterious disease and this problem is typical of what we are facing in future years. Firstly, we do not know much about the disease and secondly, it involves more than starfish and could impact other things.

If you read about these kinds of things you may already know that bees are dying off from something called Colony Collapse Disorder or that frogs are dying off from a disease called Chytrid fungus. You may also remember that we are not really sure what causes these things.

In the case of bees, we don’t know for sure if the culprit is pesticides, infection by mites, bad beekeeping, loss of habitat, or all of the above. In the case of frogs, we know that the culprit is a fungus but we aren’t sure where it came from, how it spreads, or why some frogs are affected and others aren’t. We only know that it’s devastating and that it affects 287 species of amphibians in 36 countries.

Right now, starfish on both coasts are coming down with a disease that causes their bodies to melt. Nothing is known about the disease called Seastar Wasting Syndrome. Scientists suspect a virus but, unlike vertebrate animals, we don’t know much about what lives inside the bodies of echinoderms - the group to which starfish belong. Ian Hewson, a biological oceanographer at Cornell University, is doing basic research right now to find out everything we don’t know about starfish so that we can try to understand what’s happening.

Starfish are what is called a “keystone” species. These species affect a lot of other species directly and indirectly and the environment as a whole. In this sense, we are a super keystone species. Starfish eat sea urchins and mussels. Both of these species, if left unchecked, overpopulate and begin eating up their environment. On the west coast there are underwater forests of seaweed called kelp and whole communities of sea life and people depend on these.

One species of starfish, the sunflower starfish, eats the spiny sea urchin. Without the sunflower starfish, the spiny sea urchins populate out of control and eat the kelp forests until they are deforested to the detriment of everything else that lives in them.

Sometimes you will hear people asking if a species like a fish is really worth holding up a major development like a dam. After all, don’t jobs and economic development matter to us as much or more than a single kind of fish? This is a balancing act and involves values, but I have often heard an analogy made to rivets in an airplane. You can take out a few and nothing will probably happen. At some point, something will happen if you take out enough of them. Right now we are taking out a lot of rivets. Some of these rivets have a big effect just by themselves and starfish are an example.

It already happened in the ecosystem of the kelp forest over 100 years ago. Hunters killed too many sea otters for their attractive pelts. The otters preyed on sea urchins. The sea urchin populations exploded and ate the kelp forests. The resulting “urchin barrens” were devoid of life. Ultimately, whole fishing communities were affected because the fishes bred in those places. This is called the “cascade effect” and it is an extreme example of how little things can matter.

We need to revision the environmental crisis as more than climate change. It is a collection of biological and geological interactions where humans have changed a lot of things in a very brief time without knowing that these things would have unforeseen consequences. Climate change was an unforeseen consequence of the unleashing of fossil energy. In the lifetimes of people living today, this was seen as an unending, upward climb towards progress and well-being. Nobody was talking about climate change in 1960 or the environment for that matter. The problem just showed up. We should expect the unexpected to show up because our world is a complex system.

Author: Bill Boteler