Sunday, 11 August 2013

Some basic ecology

Considering that one way of thinking about human societies is to think of them as ecosystems, and this way of thinking offers quite a bit. I am going to use some of the definitions (those of biotic relationships) from the environmental science textbook I kept from secondary school and discuss them in regards to human relationships. The textbook is "Monitoring Ecosystems", so it doesn't go into much detail on the stuff I'll be discussing today (that was the other textbook), but it still has concise definitions. 

It also has a definition of science I'll share here:

Science is knowledge derived from a following a particular system. This system can be described by the following steps:
  1. Ask a question or identify a problem.
  2.  Form a hypothesis to explain what is happening, based on observations
  3. Investigate the problem or question by gathering data or facts, by making observations, taking measurements or performing experiments.
  4. Attempt to disprove the hypothesis by finding exceptions that it cannot explain. if all observations, data and experiments are supported by the hypothesis, it stands.
  5. If the hypothesis is disproved, form a new one.
 Note there is more to it than this (like using Occam's razor, peer reviewing and replication), but that is the core of the scientific method.

First, I'll define what an ecosystem is, because that's the context in which these interactions take place. First, their are the components that an ecosystem is made up of, the enviroment and the community. The enviroment in an ecosystem is the abiotic (non-living) elements, though when looked at from a single organism's view it is simply all the elements external to an organism. The community is the biotic (living) elements of an ecosystem, these are characterized by the level of populations of various species. So a full definition of an ecosystem is a group of different populations that depend upon and interact with each other, and with the abiotic conditions and factors around them.

Let's look at this in terms of a human settlement, say a small city surrounded by farms and forests. The abiotic elements consist of all the standard stuff, the atmosphere, dissolved ions in the soil, the climate and so on, and it also includes the human built abiotic components, the roads, sewers, houses, fences, tools, machines and so on. The community (biotic elements) includes livestock (cows, pigs, chickens etc), pets, the different wild animals (pigeons in the city, trees or kangaroos in the farm areas) and of course, humans. Importantly the human section can be further sub-divided into different populations and groups. Workers, farmers, craftsmen, politicians, farm-hands, managers, soldiers, policemen, criminals, families and so on (there is of course significant crossover of the sub groups). What most people refer to as community is simple the subset of the overall human community, that is to do with informal relationships, the overall human community is again a subset of the overall community of living things within the chosen enviroment. And again the overall community is simple a subset of the ecosystem, which is a subset of the world.

It should be noted that the chosen ecosystem boundaries are arbitrary and chosen for convenience/meaning. Here the ecosystem is a small city, the surrounding farmland and maybe a forest or wild area , but it could easily be broken up into the urban section and the rural part, individual farms or apartments. Or it could be seen as a subset of a larger rural area, perhaps the centre of a region or a peripheral city to a much larger city. It could even be considered as a single component of a national ecosystem or the global ecosystem. It entirely depends on what you want to examine and explain.    

Now that that's out of the way let's move on to the definitions of biotic relationships. 

Predator/Prey relationships - one animal eats another; eg. kookaburra (predator) and worm (prey)

Parasite/host relationships - parasites live and feed on a different species, the host, causing weakness, illness or even death. Endoparasites are those found within other organisms, for example, a tapeworm living in a sheep's digestive system. Ectoparasties, such as lice, live on the surface of other organisms.

Commensalism is an interaction where one species benefits while the other is not harmed (e.g. birds nesting in a tree).  note: the species not harmed also doesn't benefit.

Mutualism is a relationship in which both organisms benefit. For some organisms, this relationship is essential for their survival. A lichen consists of an alga and a fungus. Through photosynthesis, the alga provides the fungus with carbohydrates and the fungus provides the alga with water and minerals. Another example is the relationship between herbivores and cellulose digesting bacteria. Grass, which is eaten by sheep and rabbits, cannot completely be broken down unless these cellulose-digesting bacteria are present in the gut. The sheep rely on the bacteria for a continued food supply and their gut provides a habitat for the bacteria. 

Competition occurs where a variety of organisms may need the same food, shelter, space, mates or other resource. Competition can occur among members of one species (intraspecific competition) or between members of different species (interspecific competition). Examples include possums competing with birds for nesting hollows, kangaroos and sheep competing for grasses and male brolgas competing for mates.

Not included in the definitions are detritivores and decomposers, they basically act as recyclers and break up nutrients into simpler forms to allow primary producers (they turn sunlight into sugars) to access them.  In the case of human focused ecosystems, this role is filled by the recycling industry, composting organisms and a few other things.

Also we should at least glance at primary producers, since they form the foundations of everything else. For our purposes their are two sets of primary produces, those that convert energy into a usable form (farms, oil fields, hydro dams, wind turbines etc) for the rest of society and those that produce matter in a usable form (farms for certain materials, mines, clay pits, loggers etc). In natural ecosystems, plants tend to carry out both functions (bacteria and fungi in the soil also help) and in human societies these functions are simply divided a bit more. Farms for example can provide usable matter, fibers and oils for example, and energy in the form of food, which is similar to how plants function in providing the wider ecosystem with biomass and energy. In the future, farms would also be designed with renewable energy in mind and so likely produce electricity and fuel as well and the feedstock for chemicals, making them more similar to a plant's function.

Another important concept is that of Indicator species. These species which are highly sensitive to changes, easily monitored and generally important for the ecosystem. Using those factors, Indicator species do exactly that, indicate (via their abundance, presence or absence) the health of an ecosystem and any changes that are happening. Frogs are excellent indicator species because pollution affects them quickly (they absorb it directly through their skin). Mammals are often used because their ecological requirements are well known and their well known biologically and taxonomically.

So now that the definitions are out of the way, lets look at human relationships in these terms.

A basic relationship is that of energy transfer from a farmer to a craftsmen, or that from the primary producer to a primary consumer, through from a bigger picture farmers are primary consumers instead of primary producers with that being their crops. Under natural conditions this relationship is normally predator/prey, that's how energy normally travels up trophic levels. Mind you, the craftsmen normally trades goods or money (which the farmer can turn to goods and services) for the food, which puts this relationship more towards being mutualism (also known as symbiosis), if there is not this mutual trade or if it is weighted unfairly then it is parasitism (this situation is actually grey but is often very close to mutualism if not so). An actual predation would be criminals to individuals, through at a larger scale criminals are normally some of societies endoparasites. In some cases taxation (when the government doesn't supply something in return) acts as predation/parasitism rather than mutualism.

It should be noted that predation can have a beneficial regulatory role in ecosystems. I'll explain visually.

Notice the difference between those two graphs. While the Snowshoe hare population still goes through boom and bust cycles, unlike the St. Matthew reindeer population it doesn't almost disappear within a 2 year span and later disappear entirely. The difference is that the snowshoe population is regulated by the lynx population, while on St. Matthew island their weren't any predators of the reindeer (they were introduced as an emergency food source) and so only the food supply regulated their population. In human terms, this amounts to having some sort of predation on say loggers or farmers to stop them completely deforesting an area or over exploiting an areas agricultural potential, this could be done through tax etc. It would be preferable to have the energy/matter that is predated from the loggers or farmers go to something useful to the whole society, rather than some criminal elites, though in essence that is still a predatory/parasitic relationship. Parasitism  might also be a good choice, especially if the stolen wealth is redistributed to a disadvantage area.

One of the relationships between businesses (not necessarily corporations) and governments is that of commensalism. Governments build infrastructure; such as roads, rails, schools, hospitals and so on, and provide basic services; law and order, defensive measures, justice systems, food security (granaries are traditionally government run) etc for their own reasons, such as providing public goods and services or creating legitimacy. This benefits businesses, but businesses using these goods and services doesn't particularly benefit governments (unless one takes into account increased tax income). Hence commensalism. On a broader look, the relationship is mutualism as long as the businesses pay more in taxes than they receive in subsidies, which is not always true, I remember reading that McDonald's pays -50% in tax (in the US) and quite a few industries have become parasitic because of their reliance on subsidies.

Another relationship I want to look at is that of the wage system, or the exchange of labour by a worker for money from a manager. Quite a lot of the left radicals would label this relationship parasitism, I'm not that well versed in Marxism but I understand that it's something to do with the managers taking some of the workers produced value. But that's not what the relationship is and I'll explain why. At it's core the wage system is a simple exchange, that of a worker working for money which can then be spent for various goods and services, note that here I'm assuming a fair exchange that isn't (overly) distorted one way or the other. The wage system is actually closer to the relationship between plants and certain fungal species, the plants give the fungi sugars in exchange for nutrients and in some cases a communication system. Money can be seen as similar to sugar in this case because at its core, money allows the workers to do things or gain goods, just as sugar allows fungi to do things or produce proteins (goods). Since in  modern society money is the main form of exchange and it provides a wider variety of goods than if the worker directly traded their labor, so the trade of labour for money makes sense in Industrial civilizations context (and a few others). In other societies this might not be the case, it depends on the context.

So what perspectives are available if we look at the wage system as a mutualistic relationship between managers and workers, in the example the plant is society, the fungi are workers and the managers are the intermediaries that give the energy to the fungi. We can look at it from the plant's perspective as an allocation problem, that is the energy given to the fungi is simply one of the many energy expenditures it makes and given the overall energy budget, what is the optimum amount of energy exchanged for the nutirents, the decision is based on competing energy needs and the nutrients needed. We can look at it from only the exchange position and what is the best payment for the work done. We can look it at from choosing the optimum amount of exchange or what is the best level of  nutrient intake for the plant. From the fungi's perspective, the goal is to increase the disposable energy available by reducing the cost of working (since work requires energy), for humans this would be work expenses (transport, educations, tools etc), and increasing energy income.

Importantly we can also examine this relationship in the broader context, how do the fungi compete with other organisms and what other relationships are they involved in and how does a change in the wage relationship affect these relationships.

Obviously there's a lot that can be examined from this perspective, and quite a bit of it has already been examined from other perspectives. One thing I want to look at is what happens if the exchange goes to far in one sides favour. If the fungi don't get enough energy from the plant, they'll begin to starve, start cannibalizing other elements to survive and stop giving the plants nutrients. Since this exchange is often necessary, the plant suffers and if taken far enough the plant becomes sick or dies (revolution and turmoil). Since in human societies, other elements require the workers to spend money on goods and services, say on housing or food, this is where quite a few problems with capitalism comes from when wages are too low. But problems also occur if the fungi are given too much energy, in that their isn't enough energy available for other functions to be performed adequately. An example could be having to defer infrastructure or capital maintenance because the necessary money is instead being given to the workers. And so on, their are a lot of ways that the relationship can go wrong, when it does it stops being mutualistic and becomes either predatory or parasitical (not just on the corporations side).

Now we've had a look at some basic ecology and looked at human society through it, I want to look at something.

The one relationship I haven't mentioned in a human context is competition. That's not because it isn't important, contrary to what Kropotkin says it's incredibly important (but the other relationships are also important), I just wanted to save it until now. Competition takes many forms, competition for mates is one of the best examples, after all in normal (in western societies) conditions a woman will only marry one man at a time, in abnormal situations this isn't necessarily true (one of my convict ancestors had at least 3 husbands at the same time), so if female A is married to male A she can't also be married to male B. Hence if male A & B (and of course any other males involved) want to marry female A, they have to compete. Same with limited goods or services, say a house in a nice area, a really good tool, fertile land and so on. Various suppliers will compete with each over to get contracts, businesses will compete for market share and so on. Note, competition is often indirect rather than direct (like in a sport competition).

Now this is only conjecture and it's more food for thought than anything else, but in a way capitalism (in spite of its many faults) is actually grounded more in basic ecology than Marxism and most other radical systems (mostly left leaning but some of the right's as well). See a lot of them say that we should replace our competitive elements with cooperative elements, note government coordination replaces capitalist competition in a fascist system (hence some of the rights ideas are also to replace competition with cooperation). Capitalism on the other hand starts with the idea that competition is a normal element of human systems and goes from their to figure out how to best use that competitive drive. It doesn't seek to replace or deny competition but use it, which is where it becomes superior to communism and quite a few other systems. In this way, the best capitalist systems are those that control and manage the competition in a way that benefits the whole of society. This is where neoliberalism and free market ideas fail, as unfettered competition is dangerous and an important point is the harnessing (which can of thought of as controlling or regulating) competition to the benefit of all. Note that capitalism does indeed have quite a few faults, in quite a few ways it ignores ecology, overemphasis on competition and as currently constituted it requires perpetual growth.

So one of the elements of whatever ecological based economic theories become mainstream in the wake of the current economic collapse, should have the capitalistic idea of harnessing competition. It should not go with the bad idea of radicals and seek to eliminate competition, though it can (and potentially should) place emphasis on cooperation in a variety of contexts.

Here's a quote from Terry Pratchett's novel Night Watch:

"Swing, though, started in the wrong place. he didn't look around, and watch and learn, and then say, "This is how people are, how do we deal with it?" No, he sat and thought: "This is how people ought to be, how do we change them?" And that was good enough thought for a priest but not for a copper, because Swing's patient, pedantic way of operating had turned policing on it's head"

Economic and politic systems have to start from both points. They have to deal with people as they are (see behavioral economics), but they also have some scope for changing behaviour (to quote Herman Daly, "Tax what we don't want"). Ignoring either one of these elements causes bad economic or political theory. Adding ecological knowledge is a great idea, as long as its actual knowledge and not distorted to favour some political or ideological stance as it to often is.

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