Monday, November 17, 2014

Is Everything Connected?

Last year, when I thought that I was going to be moving to a Lyme-ridden area of New York state, I started reading everything I could find on ticks and Lyme disease.  When I found that the library had a book on the ecology of Lyme, I knew I had to read it.  And it was a pretty good book, covering aspects of the disease I hadn't found in other places.  But one statement in the book, a little section about ecology rather than Lyme, irked me.  Here's part of the passage:

"Just as I began my research on the ecology of Lyme disease in 1991, I read what to me was an astonishing statement by leading scientists about ecological systems.  The statement was published in Science magazine as a part of what was called the 'Top 20 Greatest Hits of Science'.  This was a list of the 20 most important, fundamental, and enduring generalities, or 'laws,' in all of the sciences...  The science of ecology was represented by one entry, listed as number 20: 'All life is connected.'
"Of course, this statement  in no way represents a universal law of ecology and does not belong on a list intended to foster scientific literacy.  The main reason is that it's too vague to interpret unequivocally or to evaluate rigorously.  ... 'All life is connected' is either a false statement (think about trying to detect the effect of an oak tree falling in Delaware on a blue whale in the South Pacific) or utterly untestable."

(Richard S. Ostfeld, Lyme Disease: The Ecology of a Complex System, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp 5-7)

As someone who does believe that 'All life is connected', I was bothered by this statement.  I suppose from a strictly scientific view, this is an untestable proposition.  He later quotes John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."  He says that this "is lovely poetry, but it is not science."  Well, poetry or science or faith, I do believe that everything on earth is connected.  And, personally, I feel like Richard Ostfeld had thrown down the gauntlet when he talked about "the effect of an oak tree falling in Delaware on a blue whale in the South Pacific."  Is there an effect?  What is it?  Can we show it?

I do believe that I can show the effect of that tree falling on the whale that's so far away.  But before I try to demonstrate, I'm going to ask you, my unseen reader, to take a moment to see if you can figure out what effects the tree might have on the whale.  It's a puzzle, if you will.  I saw an answer rather quickly.  What do you think?

(These images are here to give you a chance to stop and take a bit of time to see what you can figure out.)

Okay.  Here's my thinking:

I think that the oak tree falling would have an effect on the blue whale but it's so small that it would be hard to detect.  For purposes of this thought experiment, let's amp it up--instead of one tree falling in Delaware, what would happen if all of them fell?  Let's clear-cut the state.  (This isn't so preposterous as it seems.  A lot more timber than that gets cut down yearly in the Amazon and the estimates I've seen would make the amount of forest lost around the world in a year about 25 times the size of Delaware.)  One of the immediate effects of this tree loss would be a significant lessening of oxygen in the air and an corresponding increase in carbon dioxide.  (See my last post on The Most Important Chemical Equations for more on this.)  But the whale is in the ocean.  How does the change in atmosphere effect her?

The increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a large contributing factor to ocean acidification.  The more CO2 in the air, the more acid the oceans.  And, of course, the increase in carbon dioxide is contributing to global warming and particularly the rising ocean temperature. I doubt that the whale would enjoy either the warming temperatures or the more acid waters.

So, yes, a single oak tree falling in Delaware would have an effect (very small) on a blue whale in the South Pacific--and clear-cutting the state would have an even bigger effect on the whale.

Okay,  so once again, I still believe that everything is connected--and especially all life on earth.

Quote of the Day: "We are all together in this, we are all together in this single living ecosystem called planet earth." - Sylvia Earle


vera said...

Totally. Some people refuse to see it because they think admitting it would make them "airy-fairy" or New Agey and that's professional suicide in some circles. Best to ignore it. :-)

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Vera!

And you're absolutely right. There's a real fear of sounding 'airy-fairy', New Agey, or 'unscientific'. And this idea that everything's connected can seem that way--until you connect the dots.