Thresholds


Church of Ura Kidane Mihret, Zeghie Peninsula, Lake Tana, EthiopiaA. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest

I’ve discussed thresholds on this blog before in relation to ecosystems, and the reality that we don’t really know when such thresholds may be crossed.

To review, thresholds—in an ecological sense—refers to when some small, seemingly insignificant nudge suddenly results in an abrupt transformation of the entire ecosystem, resulting in loss of diversity and possible extinction. Keen readers of this blog may recognize a relation to the concept of hysteresis, which Will introduced us to.
An article on Ensia explores thresholds, depicting the battle of scientists trying to determine some method for uncovering early indicators of the crossing of such thresholds.
We live in a precarious age in which ecological thresholds have been crossed in such wanton abandon that those of us who do have an inkling of what is occurring sometimes prefer to bury our awareness in the veritable sand. It’s gotten so bad that there’s talk about scrapping such quaint notions as “conservation” and “sustainability” as they currently exist, and rather acknowledging that whatever future plants and animals might have is wholly dependent on the space that we might delegate for them in the margins of our busy lives of mindless consumption.
The great engine of human evolution, such as it is, will not wind down anytime soon. Max Planck once said, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Unfortunately, in this case, the scientific truth of the ecological devastation generated by our collective actions would then be realized by a generation much too late to do much about it other than mitigate desperately against it’s effects. Which is more or less what we are beginning to see taking place (catastrophic forest fires, rising sea levels, violent storms).
But I’m going off on an preachy tangent here. My point in bringing up the article was to highlight an example of possibly misguided energy. Rather than seeking predictive power to better visualize approaching thresholds, wouldn’t it be much better to change our practices now with the assumption that we should prevent any devastation from occurring, as much as possible?
A scientist quoted in the article acknowledges the limitation of attempting to quantify thresholds:

“I hope there are universal early indicators. If we have to figure this out for every system, then we’re up a creek without a paddle,” says Aaron Ellison, a forest ecologist at Harvard University. “If we have to spend 30 years on a system that we want to manage in some way, they’ll all be gone before we have a chance.”

In the face of such great complexity and unknown, we can’t wait for research to clarify every last thing. We need to rely on our ground-level observations and local knowledge. But how do we gain clarity at that ground level?

“When you get to the field, you have to deal with particular ecological patterns. You have to deal with the technology and methodology that’s available for collecting data. You have to deal with the reality of sampling, and figure out how you’re going to use those samples and analyze them,” explains Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who’s studied transitions in the American Southwest.

It’s complex, as this scientist points out.

But there are observable clues that we can detect.

Given that detecting thresholds could take decades, researchers are looking for a shortcut — namely, indicators that can be applied to any arid region and require the ecological equivalent of a thermometer under the tongue.

The most promising of these is changing vegetation patterns. The beginning of a grassland’s transition to desert is marked by localized outbreaks of relatively sparse shrubs. Where soil once held by the grasses’ roots had acted like a sponge, water no longer penetrates. Wind blows faster over bare ground, piling eroding earth at the base of shrubs, which require more of the system’s water.

This reminded me of the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention–that paying attention to and addressing lower-level problems can be a means of preventing greater calamity.
It also made me consider the importance in developing simple and clear heuristics and checklists in the face of complexity. If we don’t pay attention to small, incremental changes, then we will lose sight of the bigger picture, and may not notice potentially cataclysmic transformations until too late.
My advice is to avoid waiting for magical algorithms to determine where heretofore invisible thresholds may or may not be crossed. Instead, develop clear and straightforward management heuristics for paying attention to and addressing smaller issues.
In a school, this means addressing the peeling paint in the hallway immediately, rather than waiting until the summer. Immediately calling the parents of the child who has suddenly grown sullen and won’t say good morning to any of his teachers. Having that awkward conversation with a challenging colleague. And so on.
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