Jul 20, 2006

Denuded salt marshes as "environmental collapse" [LINK]

The casual use of the word "environmental collapse" in this letter reminds me of that story attributed to the late journalist Charles Kuralt.

Two reporters are driving on a highway through Texas, and one of them notices the odd name of the town they're passing through: "Mexia." They get into a discussion of how to pronounce it: does the word have a hard "x" sound, or is it the more throat-clearing sound that actual Mexicans use? Also, is there emphasis on the second syllable? They argue about it a bit more, so much so that they decide to pull over to ask someone to settle the issue.

So they find a place that's open and ask the guy, "Excuse me, sir, can you please tell me how you pronounce the name of this place?"

"You want to know how to pronounce the name of this place?"

"Yes."

"Okay. It's DAAAAIIIIIRRRRY QUEEEEN."

I understand that to be an aggregation error, one of mismatching scope.

Paul Lauenstein argues that we should treat signs of "environmental collapse" with the same urgency as the threat of terrorism, but the example he uses undermines this conclusion.

The Biosphere 2 project was an attempt to replicate, in small scale, a functioning ecosystem suitable for human habitation. While it's true the project's failure means that humans have no option to "escape" a collapsing ecosystem, it also means the scientists who devised the experiment failed to adequately understand the sort of system they were modeling. The Earth's many dynamic feedback mechanisms lead to remarkably stable long-term environmental stability, but the Biosphere's spun out of control and quickly became uninhabitable for reasons that were understood only after the experiment took place.

Granted, mocking up a small ecosystem is vastly different than understanding how an entire planet works, but such failure should still lead us to question our current state of knowledge. In particular, when confronted with a report that local salt flats are becoming denuded and that scientists have little idea why, the proper response is to study the problem more, not to assume out of ignorance that it's a sign of widespread environmental collapse.

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