Passing the Point of Nature’s Resilience?

Originally in thinking about what to write, I sat down to write a warm fuzzy holiday post. However, recent media headlines keep creeping into my mind:  “Methane Emissions Double EPA Estimates,” “CO2 at 400ppm,” “Ocean Acidification,” as well as previous posts on this site such as Phil Knight’s excellent one on the plight of one of the gems of the GYE’s subalpine ecosystem; the whitebark pine.

This deluge of dismal news is not easy for me to digest. Therefore, I am going to break from this blog’s usual animal-centric adventure with a metaphorical connection to what’s going on in the GYE.  Although, what I am about to say is definitely going on in the GYE.

I’m going to talk about the atmosphere – you know, the cleansing crisp cobalt blue we breathe deep into our lungs, while out exploring some wild corner of a mountain top. Whilst we bask in the glories of our own personal wilderness connections, we should contemplate the loss of these soul-lifting experiences with a fresh set of eyes. During these reviving experiences, if one takes time, one may also bear witness to an unfolding trauma, a dis-ease that at first glance does not cry out to the casual observer. Rather it is insidiously growing across numerous interconnected ecosystems across the globe. No system of intricate evolving parts is ever wholly stable, but a working system grows in fits and starts, trial and error, natural selection and unnatural discards. Science refers to this ability of an ecosystem to absorb and recover from upheaval as “resilience.” Thus, (a simplified example) the GYE’s forests have evolved to bounce back from fire, new and improved, rejuvenated for the better, having been conditioned by eons of fire. This symbiosis recycles nutrients released by fire and returns the released energy (in many forms) to adjust the processes of natural selection upon an evolving forest ecosystem. Science also tells us that a systems diversity of species is the lynchpin of this resilience. This malleable ability for life to thrive under change across every niche on this blue orb is truly amazing.

There is just one juggernaut of a problem with the current nutrient recycling resilience of the planet today. The planet is losing its resilience. As myriad species are winking out of existence we scramble to catalog them into neat little sterile packages. This juggernaut, this asteroid, this tectonic cataclysm is of course ourselves. All 7+ billion of us jockeying for a better position on this crashing biological locomotive, tightly gripping our modern partner in crime, unmitigated atmospheric CO2. And our exhaled resolve to continue on this speeding train is impacting us all. The logarithmically rapid rise in our society’s exhaled atmospheric CO2, (methane, nitrous oxide, CFC’s among others) is an unsustainable, physical, chemical, biological and physiological extreme comparable to a planet-wide geological cataclysm. This unmitigated CO2 release is now ubiquitous enough that science predicts it to remain as a centuries-long heating of our atmosphere. The lungs of the planet, of which countless life forms are reliant on for every breath of cell metabolism is being charred black. We are no longer witness to the extinction of just individual species, but entire concomitant ecosystems with thousands if not millions (counting microbes) of species winking out of existence in our lifetimes.

Yes, we environmentally attuned recognize these tumors on the land when we see them. We hold them up before the wider public like a radiologist holds up a lighted X-ray film and points to the cancer. Yet even in the remotest recesses of the planet there grows a cancer, the catalyst CO2, triggering myriad destructive forces all across the planet. The Great Barrier Reef, Boreal Forest, Tropical Forest, Alpine Ecosystems, Deep Ocean Currents, Arctic Ocean, African Savannah, Tundra Permafrost, Mangrove Swamps, Marine Fisheries, The Atmosphere, The Jetstream, and on and on. Every ecosystem on the planet is under severe duress due to human caused climate change. Worldwide the scientific community (IPCC, NOAA, NASA, UNEP, etc.)  is more certain of this than medicine is certain that cigarette smoke causes cancer. The planet is in the first throes of a multi-system organ failure, with tendrils of elevated CO2 acting like metastatic tumors. Eventually deforming every ecosystem on the planet into an unrecognizable shell of its former diverse glory.

So, what are we, (humanity) doing about it? As the cliff approaches, governments seem paralyzed not to pull the emergency brake on this speeding soot belching locomotive. In the absence of leadership from our elected officials on climate change, people across the country are taking action at the local level. The Sierra Club is leading thousands of dedicated activists on multiple fronts to put the brakes on the climate change train. Our Beyond Coal campaign has been instrumental in closing 150 coal plants and counting. In Idaho, Beyond Coal activists recently voiced our opinion and won a Public Utilities Commission decision against Idaho Power’s efforts to invest 130+million in dirty coal. Many other actions are being taken by thousands of people to fight climate change across the country. Fabulous and encouraging work, yes. However, I am still worried that our daunting task will result in a fatalistic attitude, slowly becoming the status quo as we witness a planetary wide ecosystem collapse. I am not saying it is time to jump train and throw up our hands in failure. Instead I am saying it is time to step back, take a second look at the possibility that our movement is trending towards complacency. I do not want the movement to wither as our remaining planetary genome is stored in some sterile test tube vault.

Bill McKibben recently wrote the following in Orion, “ After a certain point, an ongoing crisis just becomes life; when a scorched earth becomes the new normal, when people can’t remember the old climate, outrage and alarm give way to resigned acceptance.” This eco-warrior seems worried as well and seems to be warning us not to throw up our hands in defeat, just yet. When I contemplate the possibility that we will “not remember the old climate” and all of its beautiful accoutrements I am scared as hell.

My reason for writing this post is to elicit the start of a conversation, an ongoing dialog, to engage in the better understanding of our fears and hopes towards protecting one of the greatest wild places left on Earth – the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In doing so maybe we will come to more fully understand why we work and toil under such Herculean odds as activists. After all, we have been dealt a task almost beyond human comprehension, so let us stoke the green fires that reside in us all.

I dedicate this piece to the GYE species in peril:

Grizzly bear, wolf, Canada lynx, wolverine, fisher, American marten, river otter, black footed ferret, pika, pygmy rabbit, black tailed prairie dog, N. Goshawk, boreal owl, burrowing owl, flammulated owl, sage grouse, Clarks nutcracker, three toed woodpecker, black backed woodpecker, yellow billed cuckoo, Lewis woodpecker, Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, Whitebark pine, alpine wildflowers, and the list goes on.

 Rich Rusnak


8 thoughts on “Passing the Point of Nature’s Resilience?

  1. Right on, Rich! Climate change is the elephant in the room. We need to continue fighting for local habitat protections, etc., but if we can’t slow or reverse climate change, those efforts will be mute.
    Huge tracts of mountain forests in the GYE have suffered over 80% tree mortality in just the past 6-7 years. The loss of white bark pine from the ecosystem is terrible, but loosing millions of other conifer trees is even more devastating to the myriads of plants and animals that depend on those trees to live. Longer summer seasons have allowed several species of bark beetles to produce more generations in one season, leading to exponential beetle population growth. Our dead forests are totally caused by changing climate, yet most folks in our area are deniers – can’t see the forest for all the dead trees.
    Kudos to the Sierra Club for all the efforts on the climate change front (Beyond Coal, Keystone, etc.)!!

    1. Kim, Thanks for your insite on these unfolding bioclysms. The demise of our majestic WBP hurts me asthetically and as a silent symbol of wider ecosytem colapse the wider public may not recognize the rippling loss until the pine and all it’s connected species also loose viability.

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