A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Paleoecology and Agronomy Part II

Paleoecology and Agronomy Part II

In our interactions with the ecosystem we need a healthy dose of humility. Paleoecology can provide that humility. There are many organisms that have this survival thing down much better than we do. Let’s figure out how they do that. I was surprised by how controversial this was last time, so I am going to revisit it, and use it as a chance to better articulate the point.

But before I do that I am going to do the Almanac section with fake enthusiasm. Yay.

The water levels have been falling fast and most of the west side of the ranch is above water. We got our first 119 head of cattle. I wanted to plant more willow poles before it got too much drier. I was all geared up, I hired someone to help me, I rented a mini-excavator so that I could lift the really big willow trunks. I felt like this was the ultimate expression of embracing technology to create positive ecological outcomes. I was stoked. Then, standing out in the field with someone getting paid by the hour and a rented machine, the tractor mounted post driver didn’t work. I was really discouraged. I also rented a ditch witch to do some trenching. I had to take it back once to fix it and then returned it with a broken chain. Last night I broke a window in the brand new house when I was weed whacking and a rock hit the window.

I feel like I don’t have a choice but to continue down that road of using technology to foster better ecology. But if I had a choice… well, no good dealing with hypotheticals. Anyway, the next day, the post driver started working again, just as mysteriously as it stopped, and I got all my willow poles planted and the ditch is dug. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. Now I just need to figure out the window.

So I will work through a few of the objections raised to the first post about paleoecology. First of all, the discipline of Paleoecology is the study of what has worked in living systems over the course of their existence. The discipline of Agronomy is the set of recommended practices for culturing the organisms we need for our survival and, when those practices are put together, represents our strategy for survival. Because we have such a massive impact, agronomy is also essentially the blueprint for biotic systems on this planet. When there is an inch of difference between those two disciplines, we should be skeptical. When there is a mile, we should be alarmed. When multiple professionals in both agronomy and paleoecology express doubt that there is any kind of relationship between those two disciplines… well that is extremely bad news for us as a species. And for every other organism on the planet. To me this is so obvious that I don’t know how to go on.

Someone did point out that paleoecology always has to be translated through our knowledge of modern ecology. That is very true and I feel like I have argued a similar point before in this place. In other words, the only thing worse than ecologists understanding of paleoecology is paleoecologist’s understanding of modern ecology.

In another comment someone corrected my assertion, saying that I did not actually mean ‘paleoecology’ when I said that word. I actually meant ‘holism.’ But in fact, ‘holism’ is exactly not what I meant when I said paleoecology. What holism is exactly, other than an obscure philosophical idea out of Jan Smuts, is impossible to say. The idea of using ‘holism’ as a basis for my management gives me a nervous tic. In contrast, with paleoecology I can ask, how does my agricultural system compare to the ecological systems that have kept organisms similar to myself alive for 300 million years? Yes species come and go but is there a continuity of process? Is there some proxy I can use (biodiversity, structural characteristics, biomass production) that helps me compare my landscape with the tried and true approach of nature? After all, 300 million years is a long time. It’s pretty likely that most of the things that could go wrong will have come up in the course of that time, yet those systems weathered those problems. The only exception I can think of is technology, which is the exception that proves the rule. In this sense paleoecology is pretty ‘holistic.’ Paleoecology gives you all the holism you will ever need, without giving you more.

This person also said that my post was ‘glib.’ Look that word up. Was I glib? Over caffeinated sure, but glib? I will have to do some soul searching on that one.

A published professional in paleoecology challenged me to use the paleoecology of  trillobites to discuss a pressing issue for our species. Here is my response:

I would say that first off it is useful to know about any group as dramatically successful as trillobites. How did they do that? As a specific example of how that information could help us in our current world, they lived through huge periods of time with dramatic changes in climates and atmospheric gas concentrations. We have people telling us now that CO2 levels are going to make oceans uninhabitable to calcified shell organisms, which from the perspective of paleoecology is an interesting claim. We live in a world that is much colder and much lower CO2 than what trillobites, corals , brachipopods lived through in the past. How did they do it? Did they have a different mechanism for forming shells? If so, do we need to promote this method of shell formation in modern organisms? Did they just survive in certain refugia, in which case where are those refugia and how do we make sure we protect those? Or is this an example of modern ecologists demonstrating their complete lack of paleoecological literacy, their tables only go back as far as the industrial revolution and so their knowledge goes only that far?

In many ways the casual way that we write off paleoecology demonstrates how mixed up our priorities are. Survival should be our top priority. As I say, Paleoecology is the study of what has survived.

Another example of how to use paleoecology in agriculture, or in other words, for survival. I had someone come out last week who was interested in looking at the ranch. He was very gungho about ‘regenerative grazing’ and looked at my few head of cattle roaming around and was not very impressed. There is a received wisdom in regenerative grazing circles that you have to have your cattle in big groups moving around in order to be doing it right. But to me the only possible litmus test for this comes through paleoecology. Much of the time there would be big herds moving around our grasslands. But would there be a time when there would be a few head wandering around, especially when 80% of the ground is underwater? Almost certainly. The danger of course is a ‘moral hazard,’ I justify doing whatever is easiest in elaborate ways, but that is my problem. The point is we don’t calibrate our practices based on what our neighbors are doing or what the experts are doing, but on the functioning of these systems over ecological time, as best we can figure. Paleoecology needs to be the northstar, the guiding light of agronomy. And since our psychological, social, economic, cultural, behaviors are rooted in our evolution as a species, it should be the foundation of every other discipline too.

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