by Grant Riley
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) appealed, “Look deep into nature, and then you will
understand everything better.”
When one does endeavour to fathom the depths of nature, what can immediately be
seen is the vast complexity of relationships that are present. An infinite amount of
interdependencies, intimate relationships are to be found everywhere, many known,
even more of them unknown, all living organisms and innate environmental features
cooperating, coexisting and coevolving.
At an infinite fractal scale, whether one is trying to find the edges of the universe
or examine life’s smallest possible part, en route, what will be observed are an
array of complex symbioses. From moons to molecules, everything in the universe
is in relationship. From the exploration of the micro to the macrocosmic, revealed
are similar extents of association, throughout. Examine the monophyletic origins
of evolution, to one of its latest complex manifestations, Homo sapiens; ourselves
being the consequential outcome of an endosymbiotic relationship that catalyzed life
as we know it today (Margulis 1996).
For the purpose of this discourse, symbiotic relationships will be considered to
explore how fragile and tenuous some of these interactions in nature appear. The
application of chaos theory will be utilized to see how anthropogenic influences on
ecosystems, bio-diversity and climate are creating chaos across all natural systems
and whether resilience to these changes is sustainable.
Adonis Blue Butterfly
To examine closely complex relationships in nature and to see how fragile these
symbioses can appear, consider the story of a chalk grassland species of butterfly
commonly known as the Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus). This species of butterfly
is elegantly named after the Greek God of beauty and desire, Adonis (Graves 1955).
The life cycle of this butterfly illustrates well the delicate balance between different
organisms and environmental factors. This species of butterfly has an extraordinary set of
relationships with other local flora and fauna species that are vital to its existence.
Firstly, the plant community and the micro-climate of the Adonis Blue’s egg-laying
sites are vital for the butterflies’ survival. The Adonis Blue has special requirements
for a niche habitat; it has a very specific relationship with aspect, this being the warm
south facing slopes of unimproved chalk grasslands (Frohawk 1924). Here the plant
Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa) is found. The Horseshoe Vetch has a key
relationship to all stages of the butterflies’ life cycle. The butterflies lay their eggs on
this plant, and after hatching the vetch becomes an important food for the larvae.
At this larval stage, if the sward length of turf exceeds two centimetres, the soil
temperature is liable to drop and the larvae die. The sward length is regulated by the
presence of grazers, such as rabbit and hare.
Introduced above are the initial sets of complex relationships for the Adonis Blue
butterfly, any one of these dependencies can in turn be affected by the simplest
change of circumstance.
This is only part of the story to illustrate the intricacies of this specialist species.
There is also an extraordinary relationship between the Adonis Blue butterfly and red
and black ants (Myrmica rubra & Lasius alienus). The Adonis Blue is engaged in a
fascinating mutalistc symbiosis with these ants. The butterfly larvae (and pupae) are
drawn into subterranean lairs where they are protected by the ants from parasites
and other predators, particularly wasps. The ants in return get to milk the sweet
sugary honeydew from the caterpillar’s poison secreting gland, a nutritious reward
for the ants (Frohawk 1924).
The fragility of this mutualism extends, as the ants have their own specific
relationship with grass sward height as well, and will only remain if the conditions are
suitable, thus affecting the destiny of the Adonis Blue butterfly population.
Sole and Goodwin (2000) in their book ‘Signs of Life’ give another example of a very
similar coevolved relationship. Their chosen species was that of the Large Blue
butterfly (Maculinea eutyphron), also sharing a mutualism with an ant and also
dependant on specific habitat requirements such as grass sward height and primary
larval food plant, which in this instance is Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus).
However, their chosen butterfly species, the Large Blue, became extinct in Britain in 1979,
the last site of their existence being on Dartmoor in Devon(www.ukbutterflies.co.uk. 2012).
Following the introduction of the myxoma virus and the consequent decimation of
the rabbit population, subsequent grazing demised, woody shrubs returned, grass
sward height increased and the ants left. The once endemic Large Blue butterfly
(Maculinea eutyphron) was to be seen no more.
Image 3: Life cycle of Large Blue butterfly. (www. scienceblogs.com 2013)
However, a subspecies of the large blue (Maculinea arion) was used as part of a
famously successful reintroduction programme in Britain (1983), using stock from
Sweden. The fascinating complexities of this introduction are too vast to discuss
here (www.earthtimes.org & http://www.telegraph.co.uk 2009).
In 1952 the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called ‘A Sound
of Thunder.’ This futuristic tale details a leisure business offering trips in time travel,
the main character is a tourist who pays for an experience to go back in time and
participate in dinosaur hunting.
An especially elevated platform had been constructed for the visitors to walk upon,
along with strict instruction and procedure to prevent any impacts on the future of
evolution that may be altered by their actions during their time travel experience.
However, whilst hunting dinosaurs, the tourist gets scared and accidently steps off
the platform. He is unaware of the consequence of his action, but lodged on the sole
of his boot, unintentionally killed by himself is…..a butterfly.
When the tourist time traveller returned to the present time, things were
to be subtly different, transformed by his own actions(e.g. the spelling of English
and the outcome of a political election had changed).
This story illustrated well the far-reaching ripple effect that the death of one butterfly
could make to evolution as a whole, consequently, yet subtly altering the future in a
Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect.
In 1972 Edward Lorenz, the American mathematician, meteorologist and pioneer ofchaos theory, presented his paper ‘Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings
in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ at the 139th Annual Meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
The basis of Lorenz’s butterfly effect suggests that there is a sensitive dependence
on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear
system can result in large differences to a later state. Lorenz postulated a
hypothetical situation where a hurricane’s formation in Texas occurred because a
butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, several weeks before.
Despite the butterfly effect initially appearing to be an esoteric and improbable
behaviour, it is manifest in very simple systems. Lorenz constructed a mathematical
model that illustrated air movements in the atmosphere. Whilst studying weather
patterns he realized that they did not always alter as predicted.
Infinitesimal variations in the initial values of variables in his three-variable computer
weather model would result in extremely different weather patterns. Lorenz, developed a system of ordinary differential equation known as the Lorenz equations.
These equations are distinguished for having chaotic solutions for particular
parameter values and initial conditions.
Specifically the Lorenz attractor is a set of chaotic solutions of the Lorenz system
which, when plotted, resembles a butterfly.
Ensuing chaos in the anthropocene.
As a single species, Man has managed to destroy vast swaths of this planet’s
forests, eat nearly all the fish in the sea and has polluted a majority of the fresh air
and water present. The biosphere has been irretrievably damaged.
As we leave the relative comfort of the Holocene era behind us and enter into the
unknown realm of the anthropocene, we do so with the knowledge that we, as a
single species, have permanently altered the earth’s climate, instigated the 6
species extinction (probably the worst in the Earth’s history) and continue, as a
peoples, to do very little towards redressing any of these imbalances.
Our ecocidal tendencies have lead to the introduction of chaos into an otherwise
naturally ordered system.
“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state
of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.
If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
In the diversity-stability debate, McCann (2000) addresses some of the issues that
are now occurring in the earth’s ecosystems, namely questioning any ecosystems
ability to continue resiliently in response to bio-diversity losses, and that declines in
diversity will prompt and exacerbate simplification within ecological communities.
McCann (2000) states,” (high rates of extinction and invasion puts ecosystems
under enormous stress)…. we are, in a very real sense, deconstructing the earth
under the implicit assumption that ecosystems have evolved the ability to withstand
such assault without collapse.”
It is now understood that by decreasing biodiversity there is a tendency to increase
the overall mean interaction strength, thus increasing the probability that ecosystems
experience destabilizing relationships and collapse (McCann 2000).
Assessment of system collapse threshold is difficult to assess, however, it is know
that the introduction or removal of a single species can lead to drastic community
change. It has been shown that simplified communities are more vulnerable to
invasion. Thus there is an expectation that an increase of successful invasion, as
well their impact of simplified ecosystems shall occur (Elton 1958, McCann 2000).
Mankind has instigated the first anthropogenic mass species extinction event in this
Earth’s history. This is the 6 planet; however it is estimated that the extinction rate occurring this time is at a rate th mass species extinction event experienced on this
between a100-1000 times greater than the background rate of natural expectation
from previous experiences (Novacek & Cleland 2001, Barnosky et al 2011).
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
(IUCN) 2012 Red List states that; 41% of amphibians, 25% of mammals, 13% of
birds, 30% of conifers and 20% of all plants are now threatened with extinction
Contemporary research by Barnosky et al (2012), alarmingly warn us that we
are “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere.” Their paper examines the
evidence that abrupt and irreversible shifts occur in localised ecological systems
when critical thresholds are crossed, they argue that there is now evidence that
the global ecosystem as a whole is approaching a planetary scale transition due to
Image 6: Baronsky et al 2012
It is argued here, that chaos is now inherent in our global climate and ecosystems,
and is set to amplify. Ecosystem functioning, climate change and bio-diversity losses
are all intrinsically linked (including many other anthropogenic environmental factors/
Planetary Boundaries (Rockström et al 2009); behaviours within these systems are
becoming increasingly more unpredictable.
Chaos theory has helped meteorologists justify their failures in prediction of medium
to long term weather forecasts. As the climate changes so does are ability to predict
future weather patterns. We once had some certainty that, for instance, temperate
winters were wetter than summer months; however with climate chaos such
certainties may well have been permanently altered.
These chaotic features are arguably appearing in ecosystems as well. Boero (1994)
stated that “Chaos theory has an important concept to offer to ecology: an apparently
irrelevant factor, or an apparently irrelevant change in a relevant factor, can have
an important impact on the history of a complex system (i.e. a system regulated by
many factors) making it behave in a non-linear fashion.”
A decade later, Boero et al (2004) stated that as the weather/climate cannot be
predicted accurately, and that weather being only one of many variables effecting
ecosystems, (ecosystems being inherent with unpredictable behaviour) then
without any precision, it is near impossible to predict ecological phenomenon within
Huisman and Weissing (2001), also demonstrated, with the arguments of chaos
theory, that multispecies competition is also fundamentally unpredictable.
Chaos in the System
Human existence is truly at a bifurcation point, a change or be changed situation prevails.
“We have an appointment with transformation or extinction. There’s no third
possibility. Business as usual is off the menu.” (McKenna http://www.idler.co.uk 1993).
Michel le Page recently discussed in the New Scientist (November 17
the dire climate change predictions from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change) five years ago, have already proven to be conservative and that
amplification in climate change are occurring at far greater rate than previously
modelled. A mean average Earth temperature rise of over 6°C is now being
predicted by the end of this Century.
One could deduce from Le Page’s article that the trajectory currently being followed,
(without the onset of unknown positive feedbacks), sees the potential for the extreme
reduction in the size of the human population within a century, if not sooner, on par
with the thinking of James Lovelock detailed in his 2006 book ‘Revenge of Gaia’ & in
his later work, “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” (2009).
Some of Lovelock’s direst predictions for the destiny of the human race have been
reported in the British press, namely The Independent (www.independent.co.uk
2006) and The Guardian 2008/2010 (www.guardian.co.uk 2008).
It is noted here that Lovelock has since revoked some of these earlier predictions.(www.worldnews.nbcnews.com 2012).
Man is (probably) the only known species on earth that destroys its own habitat so
willingly and without undue care and attention. We have ravaged our home and
behaved as an invasive pest species. We can idealistically and optimistically hope
for a new and changing world, but in reality, I fear, the future is much more likely to
be dystopian, unless mankind radically transforms.
The Story of the Four Pests
In 1958 a hygiene campaign was initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong in China. This
initiative was known as the ‘Four Pests’. The Chairman had identified the need to
exterminate mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows.
The latter were included as they ate grain seeds, depriving the people of the fruits of
their labour. The chairman mobilized the masses to eradicate these birds. The
citizens banged pots and pans or beat drums to scare the birds from landing. The
sparrows were forced to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Sparrow nests
were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed. Sparrows, as well as
other birds were shot down from the sky.These actions resulted in the near-extinction
of these birds in China. Schools, work units and government agencies were offered nonmaterial rewards and recognition in accordance to the volume of pests they killed.
Two years later (April 1960), Chinese leaders had begun to realize that sparrows
not only ate grain, but also large amounts of insects. In that year it had been noticed
that rice yields had significantly decreased. With the absence of sparrows, locust populations had exploded and began to swarm the country, decimating crops as they
went (Shapiro 2001, Dikkotter 2011).
During this period, named by Mao as the ‘Great leap forward’, the combination of
the ‘four pests’ campaign, widespread deforestation and the misuse of herbicides/
pesticides resulted in the approximated death by starvation of 45 million Chinese in
what became known as the ‘Great Chinese Famine’ (Dikkotter 2011).
Rise of the generalist
Throughout 2012, Europe was been subjected to firstly another exceedingly warm
winter, an 18 month drought followed by excessive rain, a seemingly relentless nine
months of torrential rain. Each season (individually and collectively) has had multiple
record breaking weather events (www.metoffice.gov.uk 2012).
The impacts of this freak weather upon British wildlife species are still yet to be
quantified, but already declared as ‘apocalyptic’ for wildlife by the National Trust in
July 2012 (www.bbc.co.uk/news 2012).
We will not truly know the impact on wildlife until the coming breeding seasons
and following summers, but probably the impact of this extreme weather will be
This of course is being repeated globally, floods, droughts, a myriad of extreme
phenological disturbances are occurring and increasing. I would imagine nowhere on
earth has been exempt from recent freak weather events.
During the preparation of this essay, I am woken early in the morning by further
torrential rain. It is mid December in south Devon, Britain. The previous weeks have
experienced seasonal frosts, temperatures dropped to a night time low of -4°C, as
to be expected at this time of year and for this location. Certainly there were enough
prolonged cold periods for the inducement of hibernation, animals would have
sought refuge and begun their annual dormancy.
My first thoughts, as I woke that morning, were for those creatures, particularly
herpetofauna species that were recently slumbering, hidden safely in subterranean
burrows, nooks and crevices ….and then there was a sudden temperature increase
(>10°C overnight) and the return of extreme heavy rain. I would expect, yet to be
verified, that the hibernating wildlife casualties will be high.
As global biodiversity continues to plummet, with contributing factors such as habitat
loss, invasive species, expanding human population, subsequent pollution increases
and overexploitation of the natural world, the haemorrhage of species from this
earth will continue to accelerate at an alarming rate. Community homogenization is
threatening resilience throughout the global ecosystem.
As the health of the planet declines, certain generalist species are flourishing. Any
British gardener will inform you of the rapid increase in slug and snail numbers
this year, bringing with them much horticultural and agricultural decimation. Also
consider the rise of the rat, recently washed from their subterranean lairs due to
heavy rains (www.telegraph.co.uk 2012), increasingly resistant to poisons (Clarke
2012) and successfully proliferating in these warmer climes. Consider also the
seagull, taking advantage of the excesses of human waste, increasingly urbanising
due to changes in fishing practices, and arguably less fish in the sea, large numbers
of herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls are now residing in U.K. towns and
cities (Chamberlin et al 2011, http://www.rspb.org.uk 2012).
The balance of nature is homeostatic, however this equilibrium is being abruptly
tilted and the rise of generalist, invasive species and diseases could have severe
consequence for all living beings. Unexpected abundances may also occur as a
result of community simplification exacerbated by a changing climate.
Another example of this recent phenomenon is the current state of tree diseases
occurring in the U.K., the causation implicitly attributed to globalisation (Rackham
Chaos theory has illustrated that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great
consequences. I have attempted to demonstrate this notion here, by giving examples
of seemingly small changes or imbalances occurring in ecosystems that have lead to
invasion or collapse. It is noted that this has been witnessed locally for considerable
time and is now occurring at a planetary scale. Chaos theory is also particularly
relevant when discussing our changing and increasingly chaotic climate system.
It is admitted here that there is nothing particularly new or unique offered in this
discourse, that no new warnings are proposed here that have not been offered
by many academics and naturalists previously. The long lineage of prophetic
environmentalists such as Leopold (1949), Carson (1962), Mendes (Palmer 2001),
Lovelock (1988, 2006, 2009), Naess (Rothenberg 1990) et al; have all made their
pleas to mankind vociferously. However, the green voice now grows hoarse, and
those, as Einstein encouraged, who have looked deep into nature, despair.
Man’s hubris now leads us into a time of God like technologies, with neoenvironmentalists such as Brand (2009), Shellenberger (2004), Lomborg (2010) and
Lynas (2011) believing we can geo-engineer to avert climate chaos, that we are now
ready to genetically engineer our way out of impending crop failures and that our
energy needs can be met from ever more extreme forms of fossil fuel extractions
and expansion of nuclear power etc. For the record, we are not God/s.
To cure the ails of this earth we need a holistic approach to its health care, that is to
say, we need to treat the causes and not the symptoms of the problems we all face.
I would hope my words will be read in a hundred years time and laughed at as
being hysterical, alarmist, to be regarded as a Flat Earther or a Luddite and perhaps
they will. However, what is now apparent to me is that the climate is significantly
changing, that species populations are collapsing and that there is a very real threat
to the maintenance of the status quo.
Maybe the recent extreme weather events are just topical and part of a cycle that
oscillates naturally, maybe these changes are natural and not, as we perceive,
anthropogenic, maybe all will soon return to ‘normal’. Mankind resides on the edge of
chaos, and I suggest that the ecological threshold has now been stepped over. We
have entered the age of chaos.
However doom laden this piece may appear, I personally remain optimistic, not that
mankind shall find the answers to all of these problems, but that nature itself will be
the great leveller and redress many of our imbalances.
The twentieth century was defined by the search for our collective philosophical
and political needs; torn between extreme models of living such as communism and
fascism and all having to endure witness of the horrors of despotism.
Our mass existential crisis in the last century motivated us to create weaponry
powerful enough to wipe out all of life in its entirety.
The twenty first century, I believe, will define our relationship with Mother Earth,
herself. Long lost connections shall be reignited, as deep collective dwelling upon
our connections with nature shall occur. This communal crisis will have us reexamine our primitive selves and look at the very basic constituents of life. We have
to remind ourselves; over and over again, that we live on a finite planet with finite
resources and that exponential growth is a deluded fantasy.
The one truly fragile relationship in nature is of course that of our own. Forever biting
the hand that feeds us will only lead to our demise. Look even deeper into nature,
and I am convinced we will find the answers, although I often dismissively regard
mankind as a non-native invasive species, I remind myself that we are an evolving
species and that we have many positive attributes, one of the most significant for
these times is altruism but also the instinct to survive.