By Carolyn Raffensperger
Ancient ceremonies linger all around us
keeping the Earth turning on her axis.
The choreography takes you
Why don’t you dance?
“There is a universal biological clock”, he says, “but it ticks in units of energy, not units of time.”
Another word for ecosystem is “choreography” since an ecosystem is comprised of a multitude of synchronized relationships; dance partners that have evolved intricate, carefully timed steps. Flowers bloom and dance with hummingbirds. Cicadas emerge every 19 years and prune the forests on which they feed. Monarchs and white pelicans migrate fall and spring and depend on entire food buffet lines timed for the migration.
But we have smashed the rhythm section that keeps time for the Earth’s dances.
Mostly we are speeding up time. Although there are no conclusive definitions of time, one way of thinking about it is the sequencing of events. We have speeded up time through our use of fossil fuels and thereby altered the geochemical and biochemical sequencing of events in the natural world. A clear example is that the seasons now begin earlier. “Spring arrives an average of 1.7 days earlier now than it did in the first half of the 20th century, according to a new study. And there is less of a temperature difference between winter and summer.”
The reason for this difference is that the Earth is responding to the sun faster. The sun calls and the Earth responds. “The planet’s tilt toward the sun defines its seasons. On land, there’s about a 30-day lag between the sun at its maximum intensity and when the Earth is warmest. It takes the Earth those extra 30 days to soak up all the sun’s energy.“ Factors quickening the pace, “could include drier soils, which would increase the planet’s absorption of heat from the sun. Wetter soils take longer to heat up than drier soils…”
There are both biological and geological implications for this acceleration. Plants flower earlier, animals leave hibernation sooner and migrations occur earlier. For instance, plankton is blooming 50 days earlier in the Arctic. And last year 17 year cicadas emerged 4 years early in Iowa. But the dance partners don’t necessarily adapt to the changed rhythm. Whale migrations lag behind the plankton blooms or flowers don’t bloom when the pollinators migrate north leaving a food shortage for the winged ones.
In another example of how fossil fuels have jammed the biochemical timing of the dance, human girls are going through puberty at younger ages. Headlines in many papers on April 11, 2011 read, “Puberty starting earlier for many girls.” “About 15 percent of American girls now begin puberty by age 7, according to a study of 1,239 girls published last year in the journal Pediatrics. One in 10 white girls begin developing breasts by that age – twice the rate seen in a 1997 study. Among black girls, 23 percent hit puberty by age 7.” The wash of hormones that cascade through girls during puberty locks in certain things in the brain. It is harder to learn languages after puberty and almost impossible to learn a language without an accent.
These temporal changes have vast implications for life on this planet. Earlier seasons disrupt fundamental relationships of pollination or prey and predator. Earlier puberty increases the risk of breast cancer and other diseases in women. If everything speeded up, the dancers could stay in step with each other. But nature doesn’t work that way. For instance, some plants are light sensitive and some are temperature sensitive. If a migrating creature is dependent on a temperature sensitive food source, they migrate through a territory and are either too late or too early for an essential food.
Time has speeded up because we have tinkered with the universal biological clock and the universal geological clock. Both tick in units of energy. Humans have added so much energy to the system that time could only accelerate. Once geologic time is altered it is exceptionally difficult to slow time down.
We are at a turning point. We must get our energy and chemical budgets right or time will only accelerate.
There are two ways to slow these bio and geo chemicals rhythms. The first is to reduce and replace fossil fuels as our energy source. In contrast to fossil fuels, the sun has been a perfect metronome for the Earth’s dance. The second is to nurture resilience in our bio/geological communities, humans included.
A great deal has been written about reducing and replacing fossil fuels with current energy sources that are in tune with the sun. Less has been written about nurturing resilience in our communities and thereby slowing down these chemical rhythms. But there are some innovative experiments in community resilience that may help restore the choreography of biological and geological systems. Here are some possibilities with brief descriptions of experiments that people are trying now. All of these possibilities are based on the idea that nature is our model, mentor and measure.
1. Replace toxic chemicals with green alternatives. Too many of the toxic chemicals interfere with hormones that regulate biological systems like puberty. Green chemistry is a new field that can lead us to these alternatives. Green chemists are finding alternatives to toxic chemicals in plastics, solvents and electronics. This can only lead to healthier people and communities.
2. Increase the size and expand the diversity of wild places especially in cities and suburbs. One of the most innovative experiments is the Chicago Wilderness project. Because of accidents of history, Chicago has numerous patches of wild native prairie that are intact. Volunteers manage these prairies through prescribed burning and other techniques. Part of the original vision of Chicago Wilderness was to expand those marvelous prairies by having individual landowners planting native plants in their yards. Imagine that. Your yard could be part of a wilderness area. Here’s their logic: “Landscaping with native plants and creating a mini-prairie in your backyard is a great way to preserve Chicago Wilderness and create a healthier environment year after year. Native plants provide shelter and food to native wildlife more consistently, even during drought or freezing conditions. Native plants are beautiful, hardy, easy to maintain, and better for the environment because they require no fertilizer or mowing. The subtext to this argument for landscaping with native plants is that it reduces the use of fossil fuels and mitigates their effects.
3. Another way to restore the choreography of the Earth’s systems is to mimic them as carefully as we can in agriculture, medicine, and transportation. Excellent biomimicry experiments are being carried out in agriculture. At the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, Wes Jackson, is trying to develop an agricultural system based on the perennials modeled on the prairie. Perennials require far less fossil fuels and store far more carbon than annual grain crops. By creating a human food system that mimics the structure and function of a prairie ecosystem, we will establish a far more resilient agriculture. There will be less soil erosion, more biodiversity and fewer toxic chemicals at play.
Recognizing how we have altered the choreography of the ocean, forests and prairies is just a start. Learning the original dances and restoring the tempo by slowing the rhythm will go a long way to allowing future generations a place on the dance floor. As Miroslava Odalovic says,
dance the river is there to rise
dance touch me and close your eyes
dance the winds will touch your feet
just dance and dance feel the beat
…dance the river will find its mouth
dance east and west north and south
dance the river will find my lips
dance the poles to move my hips
dance the bees are dancing hives
dance the trees are swaying lives
dance the waves are breaking through
dance the sides for me and you
dance the birds are dancing flights
dance the stars are dancing nights
dance the currents dancing veins
dance in soils dancing grains
dance the last atom cutting a knot
just dance and dance until you cannot