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Of Snail Darters and Spotted Owls

At the risk of self-aggrandizement (not my intent; I’m proud of my humility!), I wrote “Kraken of Eden” with a commitment to plausibility that I believe is rare in speculative fiction, and I hope that my readers recognize and appreciate it.

That commitment included addressing why we’re out there in the first place.

Sure, we’ve seen speculative fiction include ‘pulls’ like mining projects.

But I’ve done a lot of strategic planning over the years, and one of the things you quickly learn is that ‘pulls’ may get you from ‘no’ to ‘yes, someday’, but nothing gets you from ‘yes, someday’ to ‘yes, TODAY’ like a good, solid ‘push’.

So, what will, finally, push us to initiate colonization beyond Earth?

I believe that ‘push’ will come from the dire consequences of our relentless population growth.

Some readers may remember the spotted owl controversy of the 1990s. Spotted owls of the Pacific Northwest were designated a threatened species, leading to legislation to protect the owls that, in turn, protected the forest, which impacted the lumber industry.

Spotted owls are far from the only species protected by controversial legislation. Another famous example was the snail darter, an innocuous little fish that blocked a Tennessee dam project.

There were, and still are, those that question the sanity of inflicting economic pain to protect these species. Who, they ask, really cares about an owl or a snail darter?

While I’m sure conservationists care about each species, the reality is that protecting such species is often but a means to an end. The spotted owl, for example, lives in old growth forest, but there isn’t a legal structure available to protect old growth forest. But the endangered species act does facilitate protecting an endangered species, and if protecting an endangered species protects an ecosystem, then the most expedient way to protect an ecosystem is to protect an endangered species that relies on that ecosystem.

Those that wonder why we should care about spotted owls might now say, fine, if it’s not about the owls, then why should we care about the ecosystems?

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’, pointing out that human population grows geometrically while our food production grows arithmetically.

He predicted catastrophic ramifications in the near term, including famine.

But his timing was poor. The catastrophes he predicted didn’t happen, largely due to improved food production resulting from agricultural advances and the Industrial Revolution. The result was lasting popular ridicule of Malthus and, to a degree, a lasting skepticism about the consequences of human population growth.

But it’s worth stepping back to consider his observations on a grander scale.

Consider a hectare of pristine wilderness. Consider the biodiversity of that hectare. How many plant and animal species live out their lives in that hectare? What is their net biomass?

Now, imagine it cultivated. Biodiversity is significantly reduced to the crop species we’ve planted and the very limited number of weeds and vermin that manage to evade our advances in herbicides and insecticides, targeted fertilizers, and crop strains whose productivity and resistance to pests are improved through selective breeding and even genetic engineering.

So, yes, Malthus failed to predict agricultural advances that continue to allow us to produce more nutrition per hectare than he ever imagined.

But at what cost?

Let’s consider two ecosystem qualities related to biodiversity.

As biodiversity decreases, so does stability. If a hectare is cultivated to grow a crop, and that crop is impacted by disease or adverse environmental conditions, that hectare’s biodiversity will crash.

As biodiversity decreases, so does carrying capacity, the amount to biomass an ecosystem can support. Carrying capacity increases with biodiversity, so while increasingly sophisticated agricultural methods produce more food per hectare than Malthus ever dreamed, the overall biomass of each hectare is reduced.

A hectare of high rise residential buildings may contain a lot of biomass in the form of humans and their familiars (e.g., pets, potted plants, and vermin), but every gram of that biomass is supported through the conversion of land to agriculture and every hectare of land converted to agriculture reduces the biodiversity, biomass, and stability of that land.

If we could presume that carrying capacity were a constant regardless of biodiversity, then we could assume that increasing the human population would come at the expense of competing species. Every additional gram of human biomass would be one less gram of wildlife, wildflowers, etc.

But if carrying capacity decreases with loss of biodiversity, we compound that impact. Every additional gram of humans and our familiars comes at the cost of more than a gram of other living things.

As our population grows, as we convert more and more wilderness to agriculture and urban development, we are not only replacing more and more non-human biomass with human biomass, we are also reducing the carrying capacity and ecological stability of an ever larger percentage of our world.

And this effect is compounded when societies achieve the otherwise admirable goal of lifting people from poverty to middle class lifestyles that have dramatically higher ecological impacts.

So, while Malthus failed to appreciate the near term implications of the agricultural advances of his time, he wasn’t wrong when he pointed out that we are on a path that is not sustainable.

In “Kraken of Eden”, our heroes look back on a history that includes dire consequences during the 21st and 22nd centuries. Consequences we are already witnessing. Mass extinctions. Climate change. Increasingly severe weather. Famine. Drought. Pandemics. As one character says, we realized that, if we didn’t take steps to reduce Earth’s human population, Earth would do it for us, and quite unpleasantly.

I can remember, over the years, conducting strategic planning workshops and raising an important question when attempting to predict when an organization would make a major change in their strategic direction.

I asked, “Does it hurt enough yet?”

I have no doubt that humanity will, as described in “Kraken of Eden”, spread through our solar system and then nearby stars.

I have no doubt that, when we do, we’ll work to restore the Earth as best we can, but how long it will take, and how different a restored Earth will be from the one that nurtured our species, will depend on the level of pain required to finally push us to the stars.

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