The Biscayne Times

Aug 23rd
Wisdom from Pioneer Ecologists PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
September 2018

Lessons on man, nature, and adaptation

FPix_GoingGreen_9-18rom the front passenger seat of the station wagon, Dad doled out paternal wisdom over his shoulder in response to my persistent query. “We’re almost there,” he’d say. “Just over that hill. And guess what? It’ll take only half as long on the way back!”

Then with great enthusiasm, he’d reach into his trove of natural history lessons. “Look at all that kudzu! Do you know why it grows like that?” Or maybe, “The idea that we can manage our environment is insane. You know why?”

He’d parse the definition of ecology, distinguishing it from biology, oceanography, or anthropology. “Ecology is where it’s at because it’s about the relationships among organisms and their habitats,” he’d explain. “You can’t answer those questions in the other disciplines.”

These lessons were made available thanks to our monthly drives to my grandfather’s house in rural southwest Alabama. As Mother drove us to her daddy’s, mine would describe to me the passions and pursuits of E.O. Wilson, the prominent sociobiologist and father of biodiversity, and Archie Carr, the famous naturalist, father of sea turtle conservation, and Dad’s mentor. Both Wilson and Carr grew up “right around that corner,” my dad would say, pointing off toward Mobile.

Archie’s influence on my father and, in turn, on me, has been profound. For example, Dad often reminded me that Archie lamented the fact that man’s worst trait is our ability to adapt. Dad’s endorsement of this belief took on new meaning in his dying days. As his body failed him, his brain, hard wired for complexity and reflection, did not. He realized it was time to let go.

One needn’t have this experience to come face to face with the consequences of adaptation. It is proving to be problematic for people concerned with climate change. Does adaptation mean we continue to adapt to our changing environment, as we have for millennia, naturally? Or is it the other way around -- that we must adapt our environment to suit our needs? If it’s the latter, then to what end? Who will benefit? Who will decide?

Behavioral economists frame the dilemma another way. In a 2014 article for Psychology Today, Alain Simson notes that adaptation is the factor that “drives a wedge between the objective and the subjective.” Dad and I spent years in careers lodged on that wedge, straddling science and policy -- he as a sea turtle biologist, I as an environmental planner. We’ve stood between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It’s an exciting place to be for those with a penchant for discovery, for reaching, and for methodical problem-solving. But it’s an inconvenient place for those who are nearsighted or want a quick exit.

Today Miami is sitting in that same spot. And I get the sense that we’re in hot pursuit of finding ways to adapt to our unruly environment with all the speed and flair one would expect to see here.

I’ve looked through Miami-Dade’s “Climate Action Plan,” a chapter in the Greenprint Plan, as well as the 400-page Adaptation Action Areas: A Feasibility Assessment. Both documents are available online, and both frame the problem and potential solutions around adaptation in our community.

I anticipated to find subjectivity posing as objectivity, which can be shrouded in a phrase like “best practices.” Instead, I found that the plans lean heavily on reason. Essentially, they call for compiling and analyzing objective information first, then making subjective choices about action. I believe this would please ecologists like Carr and my father.

I’m on the lookout for “ecosystem services” when it comes to the choices we’ll be making. Dad and Carr would have chosen plain-speaking terms like “preservation” or “beaches” to make their point. In his book The Everglades, part of the Time-Life American Wilderness Series, Carr writes, “Thank the Lord for the mosquitoes. The world owes them a lot for their part in preserving Cape Sable.” Then the final sentence on the last page reads, “The cape’s recovery from a hurricane is always painfully slow. But as a matter of principle, the rangers at Everglades National Park…make no attempt to hasten the process by manmade means, lest they risk altering the natural course of regeneration. So the cape is left wild and desolate to work out its own tempestuous evolution.”

Today the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just south of Melbourne, consists of 20 miles of preserved coastal dunes and beaches, with only a few commercial and residential developments set far enough back to provide protection for tens of thousands of nesting sea turtles and, as it turns out, for other plants and animals, and for property owners. I plan to walk that expansive beach under the nighttime sky, where restlessness gives way to reflection. It will be a welcoming and unmistakable destination.


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