I know you used to watch the Price is Right!
So, is our environment more like a train track or a plinko chip? If you were able to “set up” our climate, our oceans and our ecosystems with the same initial conditions in this same universe, say, 1 million times, and you let the movie run forward for 1,000 years each of those times and then you took a census of what the world looked like at the end of each and every one of those runs, what do you expect you would see? Would you be more shocked by the outcome of 1 million identical planet earths after your experiment or would you be more shocked by 1 million different ones? I think the answer is obvious and ecologists and real scientists know the answer is obvious. The answer is that given a set of initial conditions, there is absolutely no reason to expect the earth to look identical after multiple “runs of the game” so to speak.
Why does this matter? I’ve been studying up climate modeling on the side and it turns out that climate modelers think (well, they probably don’t think it, but they DO model it) the ecosystem is like a train track and not a plinko chip. Given a set of initial conditions, if they run their general circulation models a million times, it will show a million identical climates. That is alarming, no? So, for example, when climate modelers try to tell us that a warmer planet will cause problems because disease vectors will spread, most notably, malaria (see here by the way) what they do is set the initial conditions of their climate model. Then they simulate what will happen as CO2 concentrations are increased (along with a number of assumptions, debatable indeed, about feedback) and show how temperatures and precipitation will change.
Then what they do is take the existing area where bugs are located and where disease is located and extend it onto the “new” ecosystems that they project. That’s it. That’s all. So the climate modelers are assuming that bugs are in some sort of special steady-state and that the future range of disease and bugs will adjust smoothly as the temperature and precipitation patterns change. And they do the same thing for larger species, including us. But this is wholly absurd. All species adjust to changing conditions all the time, and have done so for millions of years. Wouldn’t they (we?) all be extinct otherwise?
Thus our design of legislation (and our beliefs) like the Endangered Species Act and thinking about wilderness set asides, or optimal fishery sizes and so on is entirely flawed. It is based upon a static concept of an ecosystem that has never and can never exist. Yet we use this idea not only in our everyday language (e.g. go to an “E”nvironmental website or just read any nature writing and count the times “natural” or “balanced” or “harmony” is mentioned) but we embed it in our policy. Even if 100% of the people on the planet were on board with the goals of these pieces of legislation, we are dooming ourselves to failure if we continue to believe the planet is like a train on the tracks and not like a Plinko Chip.
And it is in this vein that “E”nvironmentalists would do themselves well to read a little Hayek. No one can design a free or peaceful of fair society. The best we can do is to encourage institutions (such as the Rule of Law, an analog of “initial conditions”) and hope for the best. There is more than hope of course, but we don’t want to take us too far afield today. And does it mean that we can screw up the initial conditions so badly, say by spitting lots of extra CO2 out into the climate, that we increase our chances of a poor outcome? Sure, but the entire paradigm for how we think about the likelihood of bad outcomes or what a “bad” outcome is does not rest on bedrock.