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No such thing as ecosystems?
September 3, 2002 8:18 AM   Subscribe

No such thing as ecosystems? That's the hypothesis of the White House's newly chosen wildfire prevention head honcho, Allan Fitzsimmons. Seeing that some members of the MeFi community in a previous discussion stated that fires are a normal part of forest ecosystem, does this negate this view? Mr. Fitzsimmons also has some interesting opinions on why "it would not be a crisis if the nation's threatened and endangered species became extinct." (editorial quote from the article)
posted by tittergrrl (35 comments total)

 
Fascinating. I didn't know people like that existed. I particularly liked his comment to the Catholic bishops that basically called them heretics for trying to clean up a river.
posted by Ptrin at 8:27 AM on September 3, 2002


Ptrin: indeed. Apparently the corporate screw everyone but yourself ethos is alive and well to the point that bogus environmental reports are generated to support the idea that we aren't choking ourselves out of our planet. At some point they'll publish the papers "Smoking, it cleans your lungs" and "SUVs: Friend to the Environment"
posted by shagoth at 8:33 AM on September 3, 2002


So go read his paper and see what he is really trying to say.

Ecosystem Management: An Illusion (pdf, 440K)

A quote: "The ecosystem concept may be a helpful tool for researchers, but it is too ambiguous to serve as an organizing principle for federal policy."
posted by techgnollogic at 8:37 AM on September 3, 2002


Self-fulfilling prophecy: If we keep Bush and his cronies in power, sooner or later ecosystems will disappear.
posted by cholstro at 8:51 AM on September 3, 2002


considering bush's appointment of gail norton to interior secretary (and who, in addition to her horrifying track record, is about the last person you'd want in charge of that post), anything is possible.
posted by moz at 8:54 AM on September 3, 2002


"Does this negate this view"?

Only if you give this idiot one ounce of credibility. This administration continues to horrify me with its unrelenting assult on the environment. They aren't even trying to hide their disdaon for any kind of intelligent environmental policy, and yet, no one seems to be willing to stand up and fight them on these issues.

Let's just hope there's something left when Bush leaves office
posted by Windopaene at 9:04 AM on September 3, 2002


This is like a bad cartoon. Bush also appointed Thomas Dorr as undersecretary of the USDA, a recess appointment, sneaking him into office while the senate was out of town - a guy that ran huge corporate farms in Iowa, and cooked his books to get more farm subsidies. And Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Energy, voted to defund renewable and solar energy initiatives - wonder why?

I seriously had to check the URL and the masthead to make sure this wasn't a satire.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:05 AM on September 3, 2002


The argument in that paper (ecosystem management) is that because scientists do not agree about what an ecosystem is, the concept should be ignored altogether when forming policy plans, and that humans are more important than the environment. In fact, he's hinting that there's no such thing as an ecosystem, equating lack of understanding with nonexistence. I suspect (though I don't know for sure) that one of the things he's doing is taking a sampling of contradictory literature from the field, rather than acknowledging that there might exist a scientific mainstream which at least has loose but consistent and defensible definitions.

He may be right that an ecosystem is an abstraction delineated only in the minds of the observer, but I think what it's abstracting over is the fact that the whole planet is the ecosystem, whereas he thinks that there is nothing that it is abstracting over at all.
posted by advil at 9:07 AM on September 3, 2002


"...at least 4,500 non-indigenous species have established free-living populations in the United States over the past few hundred years, so that on balance, this part of the world has seen an increase in biological diversity."

What. An. Asshole.

You guys really need to do something about your government..
posted by slipperywhenwet at 9:20 AM on September 3, 2002


Excellent summary advil. Also telling is this quote:
"Protection of nature comes first in ecosystem management. Enhancement of human well-being is subordinate to this goal."
Some people-like me-believe protection of nature is enhancement of human well-being. So the debate is back to square one.
posted by quercus at 9:20 AM on September 3, 2002


I suspect (though I don't know for sure) that one of the things he's doing is taking a sampling of contradictory literature from the field, rather than acknowledging that there might exist a scientific mainstream which at least has loose but consistent and defensible definitions.

What he's doing is acting as another proxy for George Bush in the Dept. of the Interior. Someone has to sit in the chair, them's the rules. I don't think the president is actually allowed personally to run all his departments, he has to appoint secretaries... and anyway, he's got all his contributors to pay off. I wonder how much Fitzsimmons' job cost. His actual opinions are completely irrelevant, other than possibly for distraction value.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:21 AM on September 3, 2002


I'll grant that Fitzsimmons touches on a real problem. Ecologists spend so much time in abstract research that they fail to map out the means to operationalize their theories. Don't ask two different profs to define an ecosystem for you. Oh, the Academy! But there are very potent management tools that have been derived from ecosystem research that Fitzsimmons is conveniently ignoring.

One branch of the emerging land management theory is Landscape Ecology. It is simple enough in concept that non-specialists can apply it effectively with little more than an aerial photo. The idea is to look primarily at the spatial relationships of natural areas; size, proximity, connectivity, shape; as a predictor of habitat quality. That way you don't have to count every salamander or spotted owl in a 50,000 acre preserve. Sure, since you're not doing exhaustive ground inventories, an endangered species or two may slip through the cracks, but on the whole, it is very effective. And it bypasses the need to define for ever in stone "What Is An Ecosystem?".
Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning, by Dramstad, Olson and Forman, is a great primer on the subject. from Island Press
posted by BinGregory at 9:30 AM on September 3, 2002


Bush has managed to fulfill all the horror stories predicted before his election, and then some. I am constantly suprised by Bush's ability to go one lower than expected. This story seems pretty mild in comparison to some of this administrations decisions, particularly in light of their current non-participation at the world summit. Their psychotic desire for unsustainability is bewildering seen from this side of the atlantic.
posted by gravelshoes at 9:34 AM on September 3, 2002


They aren't even trying to hide their disdaon for any kind of intelligent environmental policy, and yet, no one seems to be willing to stand up and fight them on these issues.

send your tax-deductible contributions to:
NRDC
Earthjustice
Environmental Defense
League of Conservation Voters
and others...
posted by Dean King at 9:39 AM on September 3, 2002


This reminds me of the classic failing of environmental economics, that even after several decades of research you can't put a value on what a healthy watershed is worth, how much an unhindered forest is worth, or how much in terms of dollars an extinct animal costs society. We can all sit around and say a national park is valuable, but we can't put a real dollar value on it.

The best we can do is give fuzzy ideas or go with gut instincts, which will never fly with free market people. The rationale seems to be "If you can't put a price on what green hills are worth, then I can pave over it for the good of the community" which is unfortunate.
posted by mathowie at 9:40 AM on September 3, 2002


How much is a healthy watershed worth? Good question...but I'm willing to bet there are people out there doing the calculation...to figure out how much they can make selling bottled water to the people who formerly depended on it. I imagine it would be worth quite a lot.
posted by ruggles at 9:50 AM on September 3, 2002


We can all sit around and say a national park is valuable, but we can't put a real dollar value on it.

Gasoline $1.59 per gallon
Matches $.50
100,000 acres of destroyed forest...priceless

Seriously, we need to just accept that some things are so invaluable that accountants can't figure out how to value them.
posted by shagoth at 10:01 AM on September 3, 2002


Read the article and substitute "economic system" everywhere he uses "ecosystem'. Just as it's difficult to talk about an ecosystem apart from the larger ecology, it's equally difficult to discuss the American economy without reference to the global economy. Would Fitzsimmons argue that the American economic system is non-existent because it's hard to define?
posted by norm29 at 10:16 AM on September 3, 2002


Matt, there are several methods. Basically they are trying to capture people's maximum willingness to pay, which somehow might restrict access to only the few who can afford to pay the annual fee. But in the same time they can be used to allocate the money from the government.

Of course, they *depend* on the people's preferences. If those preferences are based on false assumption, the assigned dollar value is wrong. Access to information and education also changes preferences.

The problem is that we have to start from somewhere. As long we involve in the decision making process most of the stakeholders, we are more likely to obtain a good decision.

-on preview-
shagoth: Maybe we should consider "Relative Indicators of Ecosystem Value".
posted by MzB at 10:24 AM on September 3, 2002


yeah, it's like free speech, or the right to practise a religion of your choosing and stuff, you won't know until you've lost it... and hopefully, by then it's not too late to turn back.

the funny part i guess is that you kind of have to hope the non-environmentalists are right and the earth is an infinite sink, no worries! /me whistles :) but i doubt it, and of course prudence would dictate otherwise.

you also kind of have to wonder if the administration took the same preemptive zeal toward the potential threat of iraq (and other evil people) as to deforestation and extinction (and other ecological concerns) it just seems a ready comparison because the administration is accused of scaremongering about iraq, while enviromentalists are accused of scaremongering by the administration!

like imagine the president going before congress and laying it down, "americans, my fellow citizens, we face a clear and present danger to our american way of life. the evil-doers that pollute our air and water must be brought to justice. no more will we allow one more bald eagle to die from excessive dioxin levels in our fisheries..." or some such :)

anyway, salon recently had an interview with an ecological economist who has a system for calculating the cost-benefit ratio for conservation. 100:1! (via plastic :)
posted by kliuless at 10:24 AM on September 3, 2002


gravelshoes: This story seems pretty mild in comparison to some of this administrations decisions, particularly in light of their current non-participation at the world summit.

I find it amazingly depressing that this is what now passes for "pretty mild"...

slipperywhenwet: You guys really need to do something about your government..

Well, it's not like voting for the other guy had any effect on the outcome...
posted by mkultra at 10:41 AM on September 3, 2002


Shagoth: "Seriously, we need to just accept that some things are so invaluable that accountants can't figure out how to value them."

And of course accountants are nature's undeniable source for value estimates, as has been verified recently regarding the Enron scandal.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:46 AM on September 3, 2002


Oh, and I'm reading this thread with some amusement, because some of you type (and perhaps I'm just misreading the 'inflection') as if you're surprised by this outcome. I coulda told y'all this wuz ah gonna happen back a few years ago when Shrub was first tapped on the shoulder as GOP candidate. No one listened then, and no doubt no one's listenin' now.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:51 AM on September 3, 2002


kiuless, thanks for the link. From there I learnt about "The International Society for Ecological Economics" and about "US Society for Ecological Economics". So, there are people who study these things.

I was looking for Allan Fitzsimmons's papers, and here is the first link on Google: "Ecological Confusion among the Clergy". Must be some sort of google-bomb. I'm not personally against this guy, he has a point. But I would like to be sure he consults with other business people.
posted by MzB at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2002


"If each of these species were to become extinct tomorrow, our total biological endowment would decline by less than 1 percent, which would be a disconcerting loss but would not constitute a crisis," Fitzsimmons writes.

Disconcerting?!? The current rate of species extinction is greater than that of all the mass extinction events littering the fossil record. Ever wondered what it was like when the dinosaurs where dying out? It looked quite a bit like what's happening today. Only not as bad.

Riciardi, A. & Rasmussen, J. B. Extinction rates of North American freshwater fauna. Conserv. Biol. 13, 1220-1222 (2000).

Reid, W. V. Strategies for conserving biodiversity. Environment 39, 16-43 (1997).

Levin, S. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons (Helix books, Reading, MA, 1999).

"Conversely, at least 4,500 non-indigenous species have established free-living populations in the United States over the past few hundred years, so that on balance, this part of the world has seen an increase in biological diversity."

Yeah, because we're currently in the midst of what is believed to be the greatest level of species invasion in the history of the planet.

Lodge, D. Biological invasions: lessons for ecology. Trends Ecol. Evol. 8, 133-137 (1993).

Cohen, A. & Carlton, J. T. Accelerating invasion rate in a highly invaded estuary. Science 279, 555-558 (1998).

Whatever definition of ecosystem one uses, it is clear that they are currently being massively destabilized and destroyed. Those of us living today aren't going to notice a substantial difference, but millions of years from now, assuming another intelligent species rises, something is probably going to be sitting around speculating on why our particular mass extinction was so much worse than the others before it. It would be nice if we could leave some information on dubya's administration, so that, at least, they could get a general idea of the problem.
posted by justin at 11:36 AM on September 3, 2002


I believe I saw this thread first published under the title "The Henny-Penny Offense meets the Ignorance-Is-Bliss Defense."

When science is politicized, the data is forever tainted.
posted by UncleFes at 11:50 AM on September 3, 2002


"Conversely, at least 4,500 non-indigenous species have established free-living populations in the United States over the past few hundred years, so that on balance, this part of the world has seen an increase in biological diversity."

This guy is dangerously close to mimicking the Onion.
posted by homunculus at 11:51 AM on September 3, 2002


I remember making a post earlier this summer pointing out how each and everyone of us, regardless of political bent is at the mercy of nature. I was remarking on the unprecedented wildfires in Colorado and Arizona. My feeling then was hopeful that there would be an upswell of popular concern for our diminishing global ecosystem, as disaster can befall the richest to the poorest, liberal or conservative, leader or follower. I wouldn't have fathomed then that this administration could be so cold bloodedly shameless in its opportunism. Good god, things are quite bad in American leadership at the moment.
posted by crasspastor at 12:15 PM on September 3, 2002


"...at least 4,500 non-indigenous species have established free-living populations in the United States over the past few hundred years, so that on balance, this part of the world has seen an increase in biological diversity."
This is brilliant! This logic could find all kinds of uses. The government of the PRC could use it to say they are increasing the ethnic diversity of Tibet with their resettlement programs.

Zebra mussels and killer bees aren't bad, they're "increasing the biodiversity."
posted by adamrice at 12:51 PM on September 3, 2002


send your tax-deductible contributions to:
NRDC
Earthjustice
Environmental Defense
League of Conservation Voters
and others...
posted by Dean King



I already do...(well 3 out of those four anyway).

But I was speaking more about the Democrats. Strangely enough those groups you mentioned don't seem to have as much clout these days as certain vested corporate interests seem to...
posted by Windopaene at 2:28 PM on September 3, 2002


Excuse me...Why do we have to have a federal mandate or policy? Policies are, by nature, reactive. If there is one point of consistency in the ideas concerning "ecosystems" its that we react to them, and cause changes we don't fully understand. That's consistent, that's real. The federal govt. comes up for change every two years, four years, or six years (depending). The ecology of our wildlands doesn't need a different philosophy every such a short period of time. I would like to see the federal govt. throw money to the local administrative offices, and then get the hell out of the way. Local autonomy is not always a bad thing, ya' know. But that doesn't fit in with the totalitarian manipulation of the Bush administration, does it?
posted by Wulfgar! at 3:02 PM on September 3, 2002


The best we can do is give fuzzy ideas or go with gut instincts, which will never fly with free market people.

No, it won't. I would say that there are very articulated ideas that can be offered, but the best are not free-market ideas. Ecologists and Capitalists are different types of people, the systems are not entirely compatible. It's not hard to put a price on an endangered species, how much money is it making now? how much can that species make in the future? $0? well, then the price is $0. That's capitalism, what you're saying is that the free market price is not in line with your values; that's fine, but there is no failing on the part of ecologists. You can say the dodo "cost" us millions if you want to try and convince people not to kill species, but it didn't. no one was selling dodos.

Using resources beyond capacity is not some small problem that will be fixed soon, it's not a corporate fad or feeling that will go away with enough consumer support, it's cost-benefit analysis and capitalism. You don't expect the bacteria to slow down their eating of sugar as they start to run out, they'll eat it all then die, or adapt to a new sugar.
posted by rhyax at 5:36 PM on September 3, 2002


"By urging the public to make changes in their lives to accommodate nonexistent ecosystem needs, one wonders if the bishops are beginning inadvertently to make an idol out of their own creation, what they call the Columbia Basin ecosystem," he writes.

Isn't it funny how free-market fetishists always dismiss enviromental legislation by saying: "Let's leave it to the people. If consumers really care about the enviroment they'll live differently." Then when people are urged to live differently those same fetishists try to persuade us that it's heretical to consume less after all.

No, I don't think it's funny, either.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:09 PM on September 3, 2002


Wulfgar! : Thank you! And I think I am speaking for Slithy_Tove, too.
posted by MzB at 8:19 PM on September 3, 2002


Wulfgar! : Thank you!

From a Montanan who wants Texans, New Yorkers, and Californians the HELL out of governing our local environs, you're welcome. I don't know if the local people can deal with public lands in the ways that best benefit the country as a whole. But JC Jumpcar, we live here. If we fuck up, we're gonna be the first to know it, and the best able to react. Fitzsimmons doesn't give a damn about where we live. We do.
posted by Wulfgar! at 10:09 PM on September 3, 2002


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