"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why Do Acorns Cause Traffic Accidents?

I read an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about the steep decline in acorns in the Northeast, and how this has is likely to produce more traffic accidents.  Most of us have heard or seen a version of the well-known science fiction story about a a travel agency of the future organizes tours to the past.  The agency has carefully picked its eras and epochs and has taken special precautions to assure that nothing of the past is touched so not to disturb the future.  It has built special observation walks on which the time tourists can travel, and monitors placed every few feet to be sure that no one gets off.

On one trip to the remote past, a spooked tourist swats a butterfly which flutters, lands on the walk, and dies.  When the tourists return home, back to their own time, they chat excitedly, anxious to tell their families and friends about their experience.  Only after a few minutes do they notice that the signs everywhere are in an English which they recognize and can understand, but the spelling is very different.  The death of the butterfly had, over the millions of ensuing years, had caused tiny, almost insignificant changes, as minor as changing the position of vowels and consonants in language.

I thought of this story as I read the Times article which begins with a description of the phenomenon of the lost acorns:

It is a phenomenon happening not only in New York but also throughout the Northeast. While last fall set a recorded high for acorn production, at roughly 250 pounds per tree, this year is seeing a recorded low, with a typical tree shedding less than half a pound of its seeds, said Mark Ashton, a forest ecologist at Yale University. On average, oaks produce about 25 to 30 pounds of acorns a year.

“Scarlet oak, black oak, true red oak,” Dr. Ashton said. “These are the ones that dominate our forest, and these are the ones that aren’t producing acorns this year.”

Coming on the heels of an acorn glut, the dearth this year will probably have a cascade of effects on the forest ecosystem, culling the populations of squirrels, field mice and ground-nesting birds. And because the now-overgrown field mouse population will crash, legions of ticks — some infected with Lyme disease — will be aggressively pursuing new hosts, like humans.

“We expect 2012 to be the worst year for Lyme disease risk ever,” said Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. “We are already planning educational materials.”

It will probably turn into a big year for animals’ being killed on highways as well. Deer, in search of alternative sources of food, will leave the cover of the oak trees and wander out closer to roads.

“I would expect that traffic collisions are going to be higher in a year like this year,” Dr. Ostfeld said.

Adherents to the theory of Gaia – the earth is mystically interconnected, one large, complete organism where the smallest change in one part is compensated by an equal change in another – apply the same thinking as that expressed in the science fiction story, an idea fantasized for fiction, but based on science fact (imagine giant meteors crashing into earth and causing pre-nuclear winters and minimize the idea to include small ecological changes, wiping out species and/or encouraging others):

The Gaia hypothesis is the idea that the Earth's systems are biologically interconnected to develop an ecological equilibrium. Because of the teleological nature of the theory and the tendency of some of its proponents to dress their beliefs up in scientific jargon, it is typically classified as a failed hypothesis at best, pseudoscience at worst.

It is known to its adherents as the "Gaia Theory" or even "Gaian Science". They assert that the physical components and systems of the Earth itself are linked together in a system that allows the Earth to maintain a "preferred" homeostasis. Originally proposed by Dr. James Lovelock, it was given the name of Gaia after the Greek word for "Earth." Believers in this hypothesis are, therefore, called "Gaianists."

Lovelock asserted that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth in a preferred homeostasis. He claims that, because of this complex system, the Earth reacts to change in a manner similar to a living organism.(RationalWiki)

RationalWiki had the word ‘hippies’ in the text of the above, but then Track Changed out.  The sentence read at the beginning of the second paragraph “It is known to hippies as the ‘Gaia Theory’…..”, classifying it with crystal energy and magnetism, but the idea has staying power.  The recent movie Avatar has a Gaia-based hippie philosophy at its heart.  All living things are connected to each other in a network of billions and billions of synapses. 

The reason why such stories and fringe philosophies are so popular is because we realize that everything is interconnected.  There are consequences, although unforeseen, of climate change, disease control, porous borders, international financial markets….a limitless number of categorical events which could provoke changes in human ecology (I use the term to include social, economic, cultural status). 

Buddhist teaching says, ‘There is no change but change”:

No state once gone ever recurs nor is identical with what goes before. But we worldlings, veiled by the web of illusion, mistake this apparent continuity to be something eternal and go to the extent of introducing an unchanging soul, an atta, the supposed doer and receptacle of all actions to this ever-changing consciousness.

"The so-called being is like a flash of lightning that is resolved into a succession of sparks that follow upon one another with such rapidity that the human retina cannot perceive them separately, nor can the uninstructed conceive of such succession of separate sparks."[13] As the wheel of a cart rests on the ground at one point, so does the being live only for one thought-moment. It is always in the present, and is ever slipping into the irrevocable past. What we shall become is determined by this present thought-moment. (www.buddhanet.net article by Narada Thera)

For this reason I am not an activist, nor am I an environmentalist.  I believe that the world is always changing, that each change will produce other changes, the outcome of which is unpredictable and becomes more so the longer the time horizon. 

My son went to an excellent high school but which was plagued by Political Correctness, an unfortunate pall cast over intellectual investigation.  He was in a science class whose students concluded wrongly, he felt, that the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay was an ecological disaster and should be countered by any means possible.  He argued as I have, that all things evolve and change; but added the important philosophical element – Man is an integral part of that change.  In other words, Man may have overharvested oysters, but his intervention was equal to – no more, no less – than the viruses and bacteria which following their own individual life cycles, influenced by a myriad of micro-forces and evolutionary stresses, killed them.  He was jeered and dunned, but held his ground. 

This is why I love Shakespeare’s Histories, for they represent Man’s perpetual cycles – a self-propelled historical evolution with no meaning, no bad or good, an ever-changing saga moving around a single fulcrum – human nature.  There is no change but change in history as well as everything else.

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