Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Cult of Constancy

"Everything is as it has always been and shall always be and nothing ever does or should change."
I have observed that this is the unofficial, unheralded credo of what I'm starting to call the Cult of Constancy: Those people who think that things should continue exactly as they always have for all of recorded history.

Would you nod your head in agreement if I were to apply that to strict religious Creationists who claim that all of the lifeforms that exist today have existed since the beginning, when God created them?

Okay... so would you nod your head in agreement if I were to apply it to scientists, "science geeks" and environmentalists who firmly believe in Evolution and Climate Change?

Well, you should. While it's appropriately applied to significant members of both groups, but it's the second group that's surprising. You see, although they claim to know better... they give lip-service to Evolution and to Ice Ages and various warm and cold periods that preceded them... their actions speak louder than their words.

Global warming looked a lot like this the last time it happened.
(Mariott Falls Vegetation by JJ Harison via Wikimedia)
As a quick example, let's look at the fear of climate change. Remember that practically all of the carbon that's currently trapped in fossil fuels made its way there because it was formerly in the atmosphere. Plants ingested gasses from that carbon-dioxide rich, exceedingly warm atmosphere (about 20° C on average compared to 14.6° C today), and then died, adding their carbon to the vast quantities of coal created in that aptly-named Carboniferous Period. And yet, members of the Cult of Constancy can't get a handle on the idea that life most obviously continues and even thrives on a hot Earth; and that the well-documented result of such climate change is an increase in plant life which once again removes the carbon from the atmosphere. Again, think it through... all of that carbon came from the atmosphere. You could release huge quantities of it back without increasing the atmospheric levels above those in which those life-forms thrived. That's pretty damned high, by the way... about 1500 parts per million compared to about 380 ppm today.

That doesn't mean that it would be comfy for us humans. We'd have to adapt, for sure. And there are other differences... for instance, the continents aren't in the same arrangement as then. But it does cast some reasonable doubt on the validity of climate change models that wind up with a Venusian-style runaway greenhouse effect. I don't think that anyone can reasonably say that "the science is settled". And frankly, I don't think anyone reasonably does. Rather, those who do are unreasonable. Irrational, even. Emotionally driven. They hear something fearful, and they fear it without considering whether it's actually likely. They're a bit like a Dubliner who won't walk in the park for fear of getting bitten by a poisonous snake.

Change itself terrifies them. I can't count the number of conversations I've had with people who have claimed, "it does not!" and then demonstrated otherwise.


What brought this line of thought to mind was a bit more immediate kind of change. Following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 I noticed a discernible increase in concerns about invasive species. A vast quantity of debris was washed out to sea and onto nearly every shore on the Pacific Rim. Alaska, Canada and the entire US West Coast have received and continue to receive Japanese debris, some of it as large as a ship, shipping containers, or even an entire dock. Plants and animals cling to that debris, and a serious concern is that these may include invasive species.

So what's an invasive species? Well, if you're Donald Trump, it's a Mexican.

Relax, that's a joke, but it does illustrate the point disturbingly well. In short, an invasive species is one that didn't used to live here, but does now, and is doing at least reasonably well for itself. We like to think of them as both dangerous and having been imported by humans, like cats into Australia or boa constrictors into Florida; but the Japanese tsunami illustrates the plain fact that natural forces spread Life anyway... naturally. If there had been no humans on Japan, those same organisms might have clung to trees and brush that eventually washed up on the California shore. In this case, the agent of destruction is also the agent of dispersion.

Invaded by Asian Carp?  Cool!
They are delicious!
There's nothing weird or unnatural about there being invasive species. Strictly interpreting the term, human beings are an invasive species on every continent but Africa. People are concerned about invasive species because of the disruption this can cause "native" species (those that evolved in that place, or moved there so long ago as to have forgotten origins). This is clearly observed in places like Australia, which has long been isolated from the forces of natural competition on other continents. Cats are a problem there because they are highly efficient predators. Rabbits are a problem there because rabbits have evolved in response to highly efficient predators. People, who brought the rabbits, now must step in, which is why Australians are visited by the Easter Bilby. This should tell you something about the efficiency of Australia's natural predators and prey. In evolutionary terms, they're simply not competitive. When placed in direct competition with cute little fluffy cats and bunnies, they lose and die out.

Not that there's anything weird about dying out, either. Almost every species that ever lived is now extinct. You might think me a heartless bastard for saying that, but it's both obvious and true. But members of the Cult of Constancy have some difficulty handling that as an ongoing truth. I think they should modify their assumption that the end of a species is the end of the world, when in fact it heralds the imminent birth of new species. For instance, in Australia there has been an increase in sightings of "big cats"... sometimes described as being like pumas. But nobody has released pumas into the Australian wilderness. These are simply feral cats adapting to a new ecological niche. It looks like some of these feral domestic cats can now be nearly six feet from nose to tail-tip. Eventually they will be a new species of cat, marvelous and wonderful in their own right.

If there is a secular point to Life at all, it must be the survival of one's self and progeny. If you need a universal moral basis for self-preservation and putting the needs of humanity first, there it is. Sometimes it's "us or them", but often our relationship with other life is symbiotic. There are fewer bison because of humans, but there are a lot more cows and pigs and chickens because of them, too. These, of course, do not count for very much as a species to an environmentalist, just as we humans don't. But an ecologist accepts them without bias as part of the big picture.

Lake Moultrie reservoir
just dripping with evil badness
image by Everett Leigh
We are not without compassion. The Tellico Dam was completed despite the snail darter, and we still have snail darters; partly because they weren't so rare as people thought, but also because we introduced them into other streams. Your irony gauge should have just moved a bit, as they're an invasive species there. But had that species ceased to exist, it would have been replaced by the myriad creatures that are attracted to a reservoir. So what?

Similar concerns have fueled ongoing opposition to the construction of just about every other dam since. This is despite the fact that hydroelectric power is clean, renewable, and would further the continuation of our own species by allowing us to shut down a few coal-burning power plants and keep some of that carbon in the ground. Environmentalists oppose this on two basic grounds. The first is simply that it may "alter ecosystems". Although this is quite often for the better, remember that this is the Cult of Constancy... any change is bad. You show them a reservoir full of wildlife, and they will show you where the bad man touched them. The second, newer claim is that they are not carbon-neutral. Note that this particular claim rests on the fact that it is impossible for a living creature to be "carbon-neutral", and reservoirs are both full of and surrounded by living things. Thus their argument that dams are bad for Life are based on the observation that reservoirs are very good for Life indeed. This is not rational. It doesn't need to be. They just fear change and desperately rationalize that fear.

So they look for things that won't change anything.

I'm naming this one Francisco Franco
(He's still dead)
One of the inescapable facts of life is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Cult of Constancy think they can get magical free energy just by wishing for it. They may not intellectually believe that the Law of Entropy can be repealed, but they refuse to do the serious math that proves it must always apply. It's not some D&D spell of illusion that can be disbelieved. But it does expose a mode of thinking that must be normal to children who were taught to treat dinosaurs as if they still exist.

Things change. They always have, they always will. It's certainly possible to recognize that, and plan for the inevitability of change in a reasoned, rational way. If you're doing that, this isn't directed at you. The Cult of Constancy is built on the assumptions that we humans are apart from the natural world; that we can halt the cycles of the past; that death can be avoided; that no rat, snail, or owl should have to move; no species should be 'allowed' to go extinct; and if they do die out it must be somebody's fault. It ignores the science of Natural Selection with its accompanying onus upon each species to adapt or die. Demonstrating that Catholics don't have a monopoly on guilt, it makes them all your responsibility. These are political opinions, and Nature gives no mind to politics.

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