All Relationships Are Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops

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Everything in the universe is connected to everything else in a cosmic web of interactive feedback loops, all entrained in self-reinforcing relationships that continually create novel, never-ending stories of cause and effect, stories that began with the eternal mystery of the original story, the original cause.

Everything, from a microbe to a galaxy, is defined by its ever-shifting relationship to every other component of the cosmos. Thus “freedom” (perceived as the lack of constraints) is merely a continuum of fluid relativity. In contraposition, every relationship is the embodiment of interactive constraints to the flow of energy—the very dynamic that perpetuates the relativity of freedom and thus of all relationships.

All Relationships Are Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops

All Relationships Are Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops

Hence, every change (no matter how minute or how grand) constitutes a systemic modification that produces novel outcomes. A feedback loop, in this sense, comprises a reciprocal relationship among countless bursts of energy moving through specific strands in the cosmic web that cause forever-new, compounding changes at either end of the strand, as well as every connecting strand.1 And here we often face a dichotomy with respect to our human interests.

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On the one hand, while all feedback loops are self-reinforcing, their effects in Nature are neutral because Nature is impartial with respect to consequences. We, on the other hand, have definite desires where outcomes are involved and thus assign a preconceived value to what we think of as the end result of Nature’s biophysical feedback loops.

A simple example might be the response of North American elk in the Pacific Northwestern United States to the alteration of their habitat. In this case, the competing values were (and still are) elk as an economically important game animal versus timber as an economically important commodity.

In the 1940s and 1950s in western Oregon, the timber industry often used the adage: good timber management is good wildlife management. At the time, that claim seemed plausible because elk populations were growing in response to forests being clear-cut. By the mid-to-late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, however, elk populations began to exhibit significant declines.

Although predation was run out as the obvious reason, it did not hold up under scrutiny since the large predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears, had long been extirpated and the mountain lion population had been decimated because of the bounties placed on the big cats.

As it turned out, the cause of the decline in elk numbers was subtler and far more complicated than originally thought. The drop in elk numbers was in direct response to habitat alteration by the timber industry. This is not surprising since elk, like all wildlife, have specific habitat requirements that consist of food, water, shelter, space, privacy, and the overall connectivity of the habitat that constitutes these features. When any one of these elements is in short supply, it acts as a limiting factor or constraint with respect to the viability of a species’ population as a whole.

By way of illustration, here’s a simplified example. In the early days before extensive logging began, the land was well clothed in trees, making food the factor that limited the number of elk in an area. As logging cleared large areas of forest, grasses and forbs grew abundantly, elk, being primarily grazers, became increasingly numerous. This relationship continued for some years, until—for an instant in time—the perfect balance between the requirements of food and shelter was reached.

The proximity to water did not play as important a role in this balance because of the relative abundance of forest streams and because elk can travel vast distances to find water. Thus, hunters and loggers initially perceived clear-cut logging as the proverbial win-win situation (a positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop).

But as it turned out, the main interplay among the potential limiting factors for elk was between food and shelter. At first, food was the limiting factor because elk were constrained in finding their preferred forage by the vast acres of contiguous forest. In contraposition, continued logging started to shift the habitat configuration in a way that proved detrimental to the elk because, while the habitat for feeding continued to increase with clear-cutting, that for shelter declined disproportionately.

Accordingly, the shelter once provided by the forest became the factor that increasingly reversed the elk’s growth in numbers. Here, it must be understood that shelter for elk consists of two categories—one for hiding in the face of potential danger (simply called hiding cover) and one for regulating the animal’s body temperature (called thermal cover).

Thermal cover often consists of a combination of forest thickets or stands of old trees coupled with topographical features that block the flow of air. As such, thermal cover allows the elk to cool their bodies in dense shade in summer and get into areas of calm, out of the bitter winds in winter, that markedly reduces the wind-chill factor and thus conserves their body heat.2

At length, the hunters began to see the systematic, widespread clear-cutting of the forest as a losing situation for huntable populations of elk (a negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop), although they did not equate the loss of thermal cover as the cause.

Biological feedback loops are ultimately controlled by the Earth’s climate and so greatly influenced by the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) over time. Evidence from ice cores and marine sediments indicate that changes in CO2 over timescales beyond the glacial cycles are finely balanced and act to stabilize global temperatures.3

What’s more, the long-term balance between the emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere through such events as volcanic eruptions and the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through such processes as its burial in deep-sea sediments holds true despite glacial–interglacial variations on relatively short timescales.

Today, on the other hand, that part of the feedback loop whereby CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by the chemical breakdown of silicate rock in mountains (termed weathering), as well as carbonate minerals (those containing CO3) that are buried in deep-sea sediments, is being severely disrupted—even overwhelmed—by human activities that are raising the level of CO2 emissions.4

ENDNOTES

1. Chris Maser. Earth in Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey. (2009) 262 pp.

2. The discussion of elk is based in part on Jack Ward Thomas, Hugh Black, Jr., Richard J. Scherzinger, and Richard J. Pederson. Chapter 8, Deer and Elk. Pp. 104-127. In: Wildlife Habitats in Managed Forests: The Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Jack Ward Thomas (Technical Editor). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Range and Experiment Station, Portland, Oregon. Agricultural Handbook No. 553. 1979.

3. David Archer. Carbon Cycle: Checking the Thermostat. Nature Geoscience, 1 (2008):289-290

4. Richard E. Zeebe and Ken Caldeira. Close Mass Balance of Long-Term Carbon Fluxes From Ice-Core CO2 and Ocean Chemistry Records. Nature Geoscience, 1 (2008):312-315