Chris Maser

In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
Astronomer and author Carl Sagan1

Before time, the universe was naught, and, according to the Christian Bible, "The earth was without form, and void."² Then, according to current scientific thought, there arose a great cataclysm, the "big bang," and so was created a supremely harmonious and logical process as a foundation for the evolution of matter, from which the universe was born. So began the impartial process of evolution, a process that flows from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, and from the strongly bound to the weakly bound.

Although I suspect many people have at least some familiarity with the concept that evolution moves from the simple toward the complex and from the general toward the specific, I doubt as many people are familiar with the notion of moving from the strongly bound toward the weakly bound. To understand the last, envision a functional extended family. The strongest bond is between a husband and wife, then between the parents and their children. As the family grows, the bonds between the children and their various aunts and uncles and their first, second, and third cousins become progressively weaker as relationships become more distant with the increasing size of the family, not to mention the continual inclusion of marriage partners from heretofore unrelated families.

Taking this notion of the strength of a bond one step further, into a town or city, there is a definite limit to the number of people who can live together with a sense of community. This limit is brought about by the necessity of having frequent face-to-face contacts as a continuing bond of recognition. As a town, and particularly a large city, loses its unifying center, where people congregate, it commences to splinter into socially disjunct downtown areas and neighborhoods that often compete with one another for resources based on special interests.

Returning to the creation of the universe, it is necessary to examine its basic building blocks and the way they evolved into organized systems. The big bang created particles of an extremely high state of concentration that were bound together by almost unimaginably strong forces. From these original micro-units, quarks and electrons were formed. (Scientists propose the term quark as the fundamental unit of matter.³) Quarks combined to form protons and neutrons; protons and neutrons formed atomic nuclei that were complemented by shells of electrons.4 Atoms of various weights and complexities could, in some parts of the universe, combine into chains of molecules and, on suitable planetary surfaces, give birth to life. On Earth, for example, living organisms became ecological systems, wherein arose human communities with the remarkable features of language, consciousness, and a seemingly wide-ranging freedom of choice. Over time, these communities aggregated into societies with distinctive cultures.

In this giant process of evolution, relationships among things are in constant flux as complex systems arise from subatomic and atomic particles. In each higher level of complexity and organization, there is an increase in the size of the system and a corresponding decrease in the energies holding it together. Put differently, the forces that keep evolving systems intact, from a molecule to a human society, weaken as the size of the systems increases, yet is the larger the system the more energy it requires in order to function. Such functional dynamics are characterized by their diversity as well as by the constraints of the overarching laws and subordinate principles that govern them.

I say these principles govern the world and our place in it because they form the behavioral constraints without which nothing could function in an orderly manner—especially social-environmental planning. In this sense, the Law of Cosmic Unification—the supreme law—is analogous to the Constitution of the United States, a central covenant that informs the subservient courts of each state about the acceptability of its governing laws. In turn, the Commons Usufruct Law represents the state's constitution, which instructs the citizens on acceptable behavior within the state. In this way, Nature's rules of engagement inform society of the latitude whereby it can interpret the biophysical principles and survive in a sustainable manner.


The Law of Cosmic Unification is functionally derived from the synergistic effect of three universal laws:  the first law of thermodynamics, the second law of thermodynamics, and the law of maximum entropy production.

The first law of thermodynamics states that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant, although it can be transformed from one form to another. Therefore, the amount of energy remains entirely the same, even if you could go forward or backward in time. For this reason, the contemporary notion of either "energy production" or "energy consumption" is a non sequitur. The second law of thermodynamics states that the amount of energy in forms available to do useful work can only diminish over time. The loss of available energy to perform certain tasks thus represents a diminishing capacity to maintain order at a certain level of manifestation (say a tree), and so increases disorder or entropy. This "disorder" ultimately represents the continuum of change and novelty—the manifestation of a different, simpler configuration of order, such as the remaining ashes from the tree when it is burned. In turn, the law of maximum entropy production says that a system will select the path or assemblage of paths from available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the existing constraints.5

The essence of maximum entropy simply means that, when any kind of constraint is removed, the flow of energy from a complex form to a simpler form speeds up to the maximum allowed by the relaxed constraint.6 Clearly, we are all familiar with the fact that our body loses heat in cold weather, but our sense of heat lost increases exponentially when windchill is factored into the equation because our clothing has ceased to be as effective a barrier to the cold—constraint to the loss of heat—it was before the wind became an issue. Moreover, the stronger and colder the wind, the faster our body loses its heat—the maximum entropy of our body's energy whereby we stay warm. If the loss of body heat to the wind-chill is not constrained, hypothermia and death ensue, along with the beginnings of bodily decomposition—reorganization from the complex structure and function toward a simpler structure and function.

In other words, systems are by nature dissipative structures that release energy by various means, but inevitably by the quickest means possible. To illustrate, as a young forest grows old, it converts energy from the sun into living tissue that ultimately dies and accumulates as organic debris on the forest floor. There, through decomposition, the organic debris releases the energy stored in its dead tissue. Of course, rates of decomposition vary. A leaf rots quickly and releases its stored energy rapidly. Wood, on the other hand, generally rots more slowly, often over centuries in moist environments. As wood accumulates, so does energy stored in its fibers. Before the suppression of fires, they burned frequently enough to generally control the amount of energy stored in accumulating dead wood by burning it. These low-intensity fires protected a forest for decades, even centuries, from a catastrophic, killing fire. In this sense, a forest equates to a dissipative system in that energy acquired from the sun is released through the fastest means possible, be it gradually through decomposition or rapidly through a high-intensity fire. The ultimate constraint to the rate of entropic maximization, however, is the immediate weather in the short term and the overall climate in the long term.

Now, let us examine the notion of maximum entropy in a more familiar way. I have a wood-burning stove in my home with which I heat the 1,300 square feet of my living space. To keep my house at a certain temperature, I must control the amount of energy I extract from the wood I burn. I do this in nine ways.

My first consideration is the kind of wood I choose, be it Douglas-fir, western redcedar, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, Pacific madrone, Oregon ash, Oregon white oak, red alder, or a combination. My choice is important because each kind of wood has a different density and thus burns with a corresponding intensity. On one hand, the three coniferous woods (Douglas-fir, western redcedar, and western hemlock) are relatively soft, require less oxygen to burn than hardwoods, burn quickly, but produce only moderate heat. On the other hand, such hardwoods as bigleaf maple, Pacific madrone, Oregon ash, Oregon white oak, and red alder produce substantial heat—of which oak, madrone, and maple probably produce the most, followed by ash and alder. But, these hardwoods also require more oxygen to burn than the softwoods, and they burn more slowly.

The second concern is the quality of wood that I burn. Sound, well-seasoned wood burns far more efficiently than either wet, unseasoned wood or wood that is partially rotten. In this case, the quality of the wood also determines the effectiveness whereby it heats my house. Good-quality wood is far more effective in the production of heat than is wood of poor quality.

The third determination is the size and shape of the wood. Small pieces produce a lot of heat but are quick to disappear. Large pieces take more time to begin burning, but last longer and may or may not burn as hot when they really get going, depending on the kind of wood. Split wood has more surface area per volume and burns more rapidly than do round pieces of wood of the same size, such as large branches, because the latter have more volume than surface area.

The fourth decision is how wide to open the damper and thereby control the amount of air fanning the flames and therewith either increase the intensity of burning (opening the damper) or decrease the rate of burn (closing the damper). In each case, the length of time the damper is in a given position is part of the equation. The wider the damper is opened, the less the constraint, the hotter and faster the wood will burn, and the more rapidly heat will escape—the law of maximum entropy production. This law also addresses the speed with which wood is disorganized as wood and reorganized as ashes.

The fifth choice is how warm I want my house to be in terms of how cold it is outside. The colder it is outside, the more wood I must burn to maintain a certain level of heat—how much depends on the kind of wood I am burning. Conversely, the warmer it is outside, the less wood I must burn to maintain the same level of warmth.

The sixth consideration is how well my house is insulated against the intrusion of cold air and thus the escape of my indoor heat—both of which determine the amount of wood I must burn to maintain the temperature I want. Another facet of how much wood I must burn depends in part on whether clouds are holding the heat close to Earth, thus acting as a constraint to the heat leaking out of my house, or whether clear skies allow heat to bleed from my home and escape into outer space.

The seventh option is how often I open the outside door to go in and out of my house and so let cold air flow in to replace the warm air rushing out. I could ameliorate this exchange by having an enclosed porch between the door opening into my house and the door opening directly to the outside. A well-insulated porch would act as a dead-air space and would be a functional constraint to the loss of heat from my house as I access the outside.

The eighth alternative is when to heat my house and for how long. I can, for instance, reduce the amount of heat I require at night when I am snuggled in bed. If I go to bed early and get up early, it is about the same as going to bed late and getting up late. But, if I go to bed early and get up late, I do not need to heat the house for as long as I would if I spent more time out of bed as opposed to in bed. Moreover, if it is well below freezing outside, I might have to keep the house warmer than otherwise to protect the water pipes from freezing.

And, the ninth course of action, one that is both influenced by the other eight and influences them in turn, is how warmly I choose to dress while indoors. Whatever I wear constitutes a constraint to heat loss of a greater or lesser degree. Clearly, the warmer I dress, the less wood I must burn in order to stay warm, and vice versa. It is the same with how many blankets I have on my bed during the winter.

These nine seemingly independent courses of action coalesce into a synergistic suite of relationships, wherein a change in one automatically influences the other eight facets of the speed wherewith energy from the burning wood escapes from my house. This said, the first and second laws of thermodynamics and the law of maximum entropy production meld to form the overall unifying law of the universe—the Law of Cosmic Unification—wherein all subordinate principles, both biophysical and social, are encompassed. With respect to the functional melding of these three laws, Rod Swenson of the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, says these three laws of thermodynamics "are special laws that sit above the other laws of physics as laws about laws or laws on which the other laws depend."7 Stated a little differently, these three laws of physics coalesce to form the supreme Law of Cosmic Unification, to which all biophysical and social principles governing Nature and human behavior are subordinate—yet simultaneously inviolate. Inviolate means that we manipulate the effects of a principle through our actions on Earth, but we do not—and cannot—alter the principle itself.


Although I have done my best to present the principles in a logical order, I find it difficult to be definitive because each principle forms an ever-interactive strand in the multi-dimensional web of energy interchange that constitutes the universe and our world within it. Moreover, I see a different possible order each time I read them, and each arrangement seems logical. Because each principle affects all principles, every arrangement is equally correct:

  1. Everything is a relationship.
  2. All relationships are inclusive and productive of an outcome.
  3. The only true investment is energy from sunlight.
  4. All systems are defined by their function.
  5. All relationships result in a transfer of energy.
  6. All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops.
  7. All relationships have one or more trade-offs.
  8. Change is a process of eternal becoming.
  9. All relationships are irreversible.
  10. All systems are based on composition, structure, and function.
  11. All systems have cumulative effects, lag periods, and thresholds.
  12. All systems are cyclical, but none is a perfect circle.
  13. Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality.
  14. Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems.

Principle 1:  Everything Is An Inclusive Relationship

The universe is nothing more and nothing less that a gigantic, inclusive relationship composed of infinite relationships, all of which are continuously fitting themselves into other relationships. What, you might wonder, does "relationship" mean in a cosmic sense. "Relationship" comes from "relation," which in turn comes from the Latin elatus: re "back again" and latus "carried, borne." A relationship is a connecting or binding of two or more things, which creates something else in a never-ending story of change-the ways in which things are connected. As things are increasingly connected, they form a network of interlinked entities, which we think of as a "system."

A system is a way of working, organizing, or doing something together, which follows a fixed plan or set of rules of engagement, a network of things linked together that behave in certain ways, which we term "functions." "System" is from Lower Latin systema, "an arrangement, system," which in turn is from the Greek systema, "organized whole, body."

Moreover, because all systems are totally interactive all of the time (whether we understand it or not, accept it or not), nothing in the universe is totally free; freedom is always relative. There is no such thing as an independent variable in an interconnected system—except as a figment of the human imagination. Just as there cannot be an independent variable, so no given thing can be held at a constant value beyond the number one (the universal common denominator) because to do so would necessitate the detachment the thing in question from the system as an independent variable. Therefore, all relationships are constituted by multiples of one in all its myriad forms, from quarks, atoms, molecules, and proteins, which comprise the building blocks of life, to the living organisms themselves, which collectively form the species and communities. The only way the number one can exist, as the sole representative of any form on Earth, is to be the last, living individual of a species—something intimated on the tribal level by James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 book, "The Last Of The Mohicans"—because extinction is forever.

In addition, nothing in the universe can be inert in a dynamic system, despite what pharmaceutical companies say about their chemical compounds—each of which, in pharmaceutical lingo, is composed of active and inert ingredients. Despite the systemic limitations—or maybe because of them—relationships manifest in myriad forms, from the purely physical to the biophysical.

All we humans do—ever—is practice relationships because the existence of everything in the universe is an expression of its relationship to everything else. Moreover, all relationships are forever dynamic and thus constantly changing, from the wear on your toothbrush from daily use to the rotting lettuce you forgot in your refrigerator. Herein lies one of the foremost paradoxes of life:  The ongoing process of change is a universal constant over which, much to our dismay, we have no control.

Think, for example, what the difference is between a motion picture and a snapshot. Although a motion picture is composed of individual frames (instantaneous snapshots of the present moment), each frame is entrained in the continuum of time and thus cannot be held constant, as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius observed:  "Time is a river of passing events, and strong is its current. No sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."8

Yet we, in our fear of uncertainty, are continually trying to hold the circumstances of our life in the arena of constancy as depicted in a snapshot—hence, the frequently used term preservation in regard to this or that ecosystem, this or that building. Yet jams and jellies are correctly referred to as "preserves," because they are heated during their preparation in order to kill all living organisms and thereby prevent noticeable change in their consistency.

Insects in amber are an example of true preservation in Nature. Amberization, the process whereby fresh resin is transformed into amber, is so gentle that it forms the most complete type of fossilization known for small, delicate, soft-bodied organisms, such as insects. In fact, a small piece of amber found along the south coast of England in 2006 contained a 140-million-year-old spider web constructed in the same orb configuration as that of today's garden spiders. This is 30 million years older than a previous spider web found encased in Spanish amber. The web demonstrates that spiders have been ensnaring their prey since the time of the dinosaurs. And because amber is three dimensional in form, it preserves color patterns and minute details of the organism's exoskeleton, and so allows the study of micro-evolution, biogeography, mimicry, behavior, reconstruction of the environmental characteristics, the chronology of extinctions, paleo-symbiosis,9 and molecular phylogeny.10 But, the same dynamic cannot be employed outside an airtight container, such as a drop of amber or canning jar. In other words, whether natural or artificial, all functional systems are open because they all require the input of a sustainable supply of energy in order to function; conversely, a totally closed, functional system is a physical impossibility.

Principle 2:  All Relationships Are Inclusive and Productive of an Outcome

I have often heard people say that a particular piece of land is "unproductive" and needs to be "brought under management." Here, it must be rendered clear that every relationship is productive of a cause that has an effect, and the effect, which is the cause of another effect, is the product. Therefore, the notion of an unproductive parcel of ground or an unproductive political meeting is an illustration of the narrowness of human valuation because such judgment is viewed strictly within the extrinsic realm of personal values, usually economics—not the intrinsic realm of Nature's dynamics that not only transcend our human understanding but also defy the validity of our economic assessments.

We are not, after all, so powerful a natural force that we can destroy an ecosystem because it still obeys the biophysical principles that determine how it functions at any point in time. Nevertheless, we can so severely alter an ecosystem that it is incapable of providing—for all time—those goods and services we require for a sustainable life. Bear in mind that the total surface area of the United States covered in paved roads precludes the soil's ability to capture and store water or that we are currently impairing the ocean's ability to sequester carbon dioxide (one of the main greenhouse gases) because we have so dramatically disrupted the population dynamics of the marine fishes by systematically overexploiting too many of the top predators.11 All of the relationships that we affect are productive of some kind of outcome—a product. Now, whether the product is beneficial for our use or even amenable to our existence is another issue.

Principle 3:  The Only True Investment Is Energy from Sunlight

The only true investment in the global ecosystem is energy from solar radiation (materialized sunlight); everything else is merely the recycling of already existing energy. In a business sense, for example, one makes money (economic capital) and then takes a percentage of those earnings and recycles them, puts them back as a cost into the maintenance of buildings and equipment in order to continue making a profit by protecting the integrity of the initial outlay of capital over time. In a business, one recycles economic capital after the profits have been earned.

Biological capital, on the other hand, must be "recycled" before the profits are earned. This means forgoing some potential monetary gain by leaving enough of the ecosystem intact for it to function in a sustainable manner. In a forest, for instance, one leaves some proportion of the merchantable trees (both alive and dead) to rot and recycle into the soil and thereby replenish the fabric of the living system. In rangelands, one leaves the forage plants in a viable condition so they can seed and protect the soil from erosion as well as add organic material to the soil's long-term, ecological integrity.

People speak incorrectly about fertilization as an investment in a forest or grassland, when in fact it is merely recycling chemical compounds that already exist on Earth. In reality, people are simply taking energy (in the form of chemical compounds) from one place and putting them in another for a specific purpose. The so-called "investments" in the stock market are a similar shuffling of energy.

When people invest money in the stock market, they are really recycling energy from Nature's products and services that were acquired through human labor. The value of the labor is transferred symbolically to a dollar amount, thereby representing a predetermined amount of labor. Let us say you work for ten dollars an hour; then, a one-hundred-dollar bill would equal ten hours of labor. Where is the investment? There is no investment, but there is a symbolic recycling of the energy put forth by the denomination of money we spend.

Here, you might argue that people invested their labor in earning the money. And I would counter that whatever energy they put forth was merely a recycling of the energy they took in through the food they ate. Nevertheless, the energy embodied in the food may actually have simultaneously been a true investment and a recycling of already existing energy.

It has long been understood that green plants use the chlorophyll molecule to absorb sunlight and use its energy to synthesize carbohydrates (in this case, sugars) from carbon dioxide and water. This process is known as photosynthesis, where photo means "light" and synthesis means the "fusion of energy" and is the basis for sustaining the life processes of all plants. The energy is derived from the sun (an original input) and combined with carbon dioxide and water (existing chemical compounds) to create a renewable source of usable energy. This process is analogous to an array of organic solar panels-the green plant.

Think of it this way, the plant (an array of solar panels) uses the green chlorophyll molecule (a photoreceptor, meaning receiver of light) to collect light from the sun within chloroplasts (small, enclosed structures in the plant that are analogous to individual solar panels). Then, through the process of photosynthesis, the sun's light is used to convert carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates for use by the plant, a process that is comparable to converting the sun's light in solar panels on the roof of a building into electricity for our use. These carbohydrates, in turn, are partly stored energy from the sun—a new input of energy into the global ecosystem—and partly the storage of existing energy from the amalgam of carbon dioxide and water.12

When, therefore, we eat green plants, the carbohydrates are converted through our bodily functions into different sorts of energy. By that I mean the energy embodied in green plants is altered through digestion into the various types of energy our bodies require for their physiological functions. The excess energy (that not required for physiological functions) is expended in the form of physical motion, such as energy to do work. On the other hand, it is different when eating meat because the animal has already used the sun's contribution to the energy matrix in its own bodily functions and its own physical acts of living, so all we get from eating flesh is recycled energy.

Principle 4:  All Systems Are Defined By Their Function

The behavior of a system—any system—depends on how its individual parts interact as functional components of the whole, not on what an isolated part is doing. The whole, in turn, can only be understood through the relationships, the interaction of its parts. The only way anything can exist is encompassed in its interdependent relationship to everything else, a physical limitation that means an isolated fragment or an independent variable can exist only on paper as a figment of the human imagination.

Put differently, the false assumption is that an independent variable of one's choosing can exist in a system of one's choice and that it will indeed act as an independent variable. In reality, all systems are interdependent, and thus rely on their pieces to act in concert as a functioning whole. This being the case, no individual piece can stand on its own and simultaneously be part of an interactive system. Thus, there neither is nor can there be an independent variable in any system, be it biological, biophysical, or mechanical because every system is interactive by its very definition as a system.

What is more, every relationship is constantly adjusting itself to fit precisely into other relationships that, in turn, are consequently adjusting themselves to fit precisely into all relationships, a dynamic that precludes the existence of a constant value of anything at anytime. Hence, to understand a system as a functional whole, we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part and so gives us a view of systems supporting systems supporting systems supporting systems, ad infinitum.

Principle 5:  All Relationships Result In a Transfer of Energy

Although technically a "conduit" is a hollow tube of some sort, I use the term here to connote any system employed specifically for the transfer of energy from one place to another. Every living thing, from a virus to a bacterium, fungus, plant, insect, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal is a conduit for the collection, transformation, absorption, storage, transfer, and expulsion of energy. In fact, the function of the entire biophysical system is tied up in the collection, transformation, absorption, storage, transfer, and expulsion of energy-one gigantic, energy-balancing act.

Principle 6:  All Relationships Are Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops

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.

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.13 Here, we often face a dichotomy with respect to our human interests.

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 involving outcomes 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.

When I was a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, the timber industry coined 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 is 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, which markedly reduces the wind-chill factor and thus conserves their body heat.14 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.

Another example of a self-reinforcing feedback loop is offered by the Dusky farmerfish around the Japanese islands of Ryukyu, Sesoko, and Okinawa. Dusky farmerfish establish and maintain monocultural farms of the red algae (seaweed known as filamentous rhodophytes) by defending them against invading grazers and by weeding out indigestible algae. To control their monocultures, the fish bite off the undesirable species of algae, swim to the edge of their territorial farms, and spit out the unwanted "weeds." Because the crops of red algae grow only in fish-tended monocultures, they die out if a farmerfish is removed from its farm. This, in turn, makes the algae's survival dependent on the ability of a fish to maintain its farm. Since this is the only algae harvested and eaten by the fish as its staple food, the reciprocal feedback loop is one of obligatory cultivation for mutual benefit.15 In addition to simply maintaining a monocultural algae farm, however, the farmerfish inadvertently create a distinctive habitat that maintains and enhances a multi-species coexistence of foraminifera.16

These samples of feedback loops, like all others, are ultimately controlled by 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 carbon dioxide over timescales beyond the glacial cycles are finely balanced and act to stabilize global temperatures.17 What is more, the long-term balance between the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through such events as volcanic eruptions and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere sand 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 carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by the chemical breakdown of silicate rock in mountains (termed weathering), as well as carbonate minerals (those containing carbon dioxide) that are buried in deep-sea sediments, is being severely disrupted—even overwhelmed—by human activities that are raising the level of carbon dioxide) emissions.18

Principle 7:  All Relationships Have One Or More Trade-Offs

As with the elk and farmerfish, all relationships have a trade-off that may be neither readily apparent nor immediately understood. To illustrate, for most of the past nine hundred years, the buildings in London were clean, many with cream-colored limestone fa´┐Żades. But, then things began to change as a result of the introduction of coal-burning stoves. That notwithstanding, the rate of change was so slow the cumulative effects were not readily apparent until a threshold of visibility had been crossed and the protracted exposure to the sooty pollution of city air began to turn the buildings dark gray and black. And so it is that smutty buildings dominated the cities of Europe and the United States for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.19 In fact, archival photographs show that the limestone Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Pennsylvania, built during a period of heavy pollution in the 1930s, became soiled while still under construction.20

Reductions in Pittsburgh's air pollution began in the late 1940s and 1950s.21 Since then, rain has slowly washed the soiled areas of the forty-two-story Cathedral of Learning, leaving a white, eroded surface. The patterns of whitened areas in archival photographs show the greatest rates of cleansing occurred on the corners of the high elevations on the building, predominantly where the impact of both rain and wind is most intense. It is also clear that the discoloration of buildings is a dynamic process by which the deposition of pollution is a relatively consistent process but is simultaneously washed away to varying degrees and patterns over the building's surface. Moreover, sooty pollutants soiled buildings, such as the Cathedral of Learning, much more rapidly in the past than they are being cleaned by wind and rain in the present.22

In this century, though, the buildings will gradually become more colorful as the city air is cleaned through the promulgation of pollution-control laws and wind-swept rain that will wash away the encrusted soot. The outcome of such cleaning may well be multi-colored buildings as the natural reddish of some limestone is accentuated or a yellowing process that occurs as a result of pollutants that are more organic in constitution. What is more, the switch from coal to other fuels has cast the Tower of London in hues that are slightly yellow and reddish-brown. As the atmosphere is cleaned and thus dominated more by organic pollutants, a process of yellowing on stone buildings due to the oxidation of organic compounds in the fumes of diesel and gasoline may become of concern.23 The oxidation of this increased organic content from the exhaust of motor vehicles may have overall aesthetic consequences for the management of historic buildings—namely, recognizing a shift away from the simple gypsum crusts of the past to those richer in organic materials and thus warmer tones, particularly browns and yellows.24

And, this says nothing about plant life growing on cleansed buildings, a phenomenon made possible because vehicular exhaust emits less of the sulfates that are present in the pollution from coal, pollution that suppress the growth of algae, lichens, and mosses. Consequently, buildings may come to exhibit greens, yellows, and reddish-brown in different places and various patterns because, while lichens and algae prefer humid environs, such as cracks, they can grow on flat surfaces as well.25

The foregoing deals only with the dynamics of Nature in response to soiling such limestone buildings as the Cathedral of Learning by different types of pollution and the long-term cleansing effects of wind and rain. Added to the trade-offs among these variables is the diversity of preferences espoused in 2003 by employees of the university.

Whereas some university officials were in favor of scrubbing the building with baking soda to remove the black, 70-year-old industrial grime, Cliff Davidson, the environmental engineer from Carnegie Mellon University who studied the building, prefers to let Nature do the work. Although, according to Davidson, the whiter spots have been scrubbed by wind-driven rain over decades, the darker spots in nooks and crannies might well remain for centuries if they could be cleaned at all. In contrast, Doris Dyen, director of cultural conservation for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, expressed appreciation of how buildings in Pittsburgh were being spruced up. "At the same time," she said, "you can lose a little bit of a sense of what Pittsburgh was like for 100 years when all the buildings were showing the effects of the 24-hour-a-day operation of the steel mills in the area." G. Alec Stewart, dean of the University Honors College, took yet a different tack: "It would make a stunning addition to the night skyline of Pittsburgh if we were able to illuminate it [the Cathedral of Learning] as significant monuments are in other major cities," comparing it to the Washington Monument.26

So, what are some of the significant trade-offs with respect to the Cathedral of Learning?

  1. Clean the building artificially in the short term or let Nature do it over time.
  2. Clean the building to blend into the cityscape and thus forgo the sense of familiarity or maintain the soot-derived appearance and thus avoid rapid change.
  3. Trade the sooty, vegetation-free exterior for an exhaust-enriched, vegetation-covered exterior of the building, and thereby give up a sense of Pittsburgh's one-hundred-year history.
  4. Illuminate the Cathedral of Learning from the outside to create a monument-like effect, such as the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia or keep the status quo.

In the end, each of these trade-offs is couched in terms of whether to change or not, based largely on some culture value that blends naturally into an emotional criterion.

Other relationships have much more discernable trade-offs. Take the springtime ozone hole over Antarctic as illustrative; it is finally shrinking after years of growing. As the hole grew in size due to the human-induced, ozone-destroying chemicals in the stratosphere, the risk of skin cancer increased because more ultraviolet radiation reached Earth. Although today the good news is that the ozone hole is now shrinking and, through a complicated cascade of effects, could fully close within this century, what about tomorrow? Because the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer does not absorb much ultraviolet radiation, it keeps the temperature of Antarctica much cooler than normal. A completely recovered ozone layer, on the other hand, could significantly boost atmospheric warming over and around the icy continent and ostensibly augment its melting.27 In this case, what is good for humans may not be good for Antarctica, and vice versa.

Principle 8:  Change Is a Process of Eternal Becoming

Change, as a universal constant, is a continual process of inexorable novelty. It is a condition along a continuum that may reach a momentary pinnacle of harmony within our senses. Then, the very process that created the harmony takes it away and replaces it with something else—always with something else. Change requires constancy as its foil in order to exist as a dynamic process of eternal becoming. Without constancy, change could neither exist nor be recognized.

We all cause change of some kind every day. I remember a rather dramatic one I inadvertently made along a small stream flowing across the beach on its way to the sea. The stream, having eroded its way into the sand, created a small undercut that could not be seen from the top. Something captured my attention in the middle of the stream, and I stepped on the overhang to get a better look, causing the bank to cave in and me to get a really close-up view of the water. As a consequence of my misstep, I had both altered the configuration of the bank and caused innumerable grains of sand to be washed back into the sea from whence they had come several years earlier riding the crest of a storm wave.

Whereas mine was a small, personally created change in an infinitesimal part of the world, others are of gigantic proportions in their effects. People of civilizations that collapsed centuries ago are a good example of such gargantuan effects because they were probably oblivious to the impact that could be wrought by long-term shifts in climate. Although not likely to end the debate regarding what caused the demise of the Roman and Byzantine empires, new data suggest that a shift in climate may have been partly responsible. The plausibility of this notion has been given a scientific boost of credibility through studying the stalactites of Soreq Cave in Israel.28

Stalactites are the most familiar, bumpy, relatively icicle-shaped structures found hanging from the ceilings of limestone caves. They are formed when water accumulates minerals as it percolates through soil before seeping into a cave. If the water's journey takes it through limestone, it typically leaches calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide in its descent. The instant the water seeps from the ceiling of a cave, some of the dissolved carbon dioxide in the fluid escapes into the cave's air. This gentle, soda-pop-like fizzing process causes the droplet to become more acidic and so results in some of the calcium carbonate crystallizing on the cave's ceiling, thereby initiating a stalactite. As this process is performed over and over, the separation of calcium carbonate from within the thin film of fluid flowing down its surface allows the stalactite to grow. The procedure is so slow it typically takes a century to add four-tenths of an inch (one centimeter) to a stalactite's growth.29 Moreover, stalactites, like tree rings, can tell stories of paleoclimatic events, such as the severe drought that took place on the Colorado Plateau in the mid-1100s.30

By using an ion microprobe, it has become possible to read the chemical-deposition rings of the Soreq-Cave stalactites with such precision that even seasonal increments of growth can be teased out of a given annual ring. The results indicate that a prolonged drought, beginning in the Levant region as far back as 200 years BCE and continuing to A.D.1100, coincides with the fall of both Roman and Byzantine Empires. (Levant is the former name of that region of the eastern Mediterranean that encompasses modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Syria and Turkey.) Although determining why civilizations collapse is always more complicated than one might imagine, an inhospitable shift in climate might well be part of the equation that either forces people to adapt by changing their behavior or eliminates them.31 The latter seems to be the case in China.

The historical record of the Asian monsoon's activity is archived in an 1,800-year-old stalagmite found in Wanxiang cave in the Gansu Province of north-central China. Mineral-rich waters dripping from the cave's ceiling onto its floor year after year formed the stalagmite (a mirror image of a stalactite) that grew continuously for 1,800 years, from A.D. 190 to 2003. Like trees and the stalactites in the Soreq Cave of Israel, stalagmites have annual growth rings that can provide clues about local environmental conditions for a particular year. Chapters in the Wanxiang cave stalagmite, written over the centuries, tell of variations in climate that are similar to those of the Little Ice Age, Medieval Warm Period, and the Dark-Age Cold Period recorded in Europe. Warmer years were associated with stronger East Asian monsoons.

By measuring the amount of oxygen-18 (a rare form of "heavy" oxygen) in the stalagmite's growth rings, the years of weak summer monsoons with less rain can be pinpointed due to the large amounts of oxygen-18 in the rings. The information secreted within the life of the stalagmite tells the story of strong and weak monsoons, which in turn chronicle the rise and fall of several Chinese dynasties. This is an important deliberation because monsoon winds have for centuries carried rain-laden clouds northward from the Indian Ocean every summer, thereby providing nearly 80 percent of the annual precipitation between May and September in some parts of China—precipitation critical to the irrigation of crops.

In periods when the monsoons were strong, dynasties, such as the Tang (A.D. 618-907) and the Northern Song (A.D. 960-1127), enjoyed increased yields of rice. In fact, the yield of rice during the first several decades of the Northern Song dynasty allowed the population to increase from 60 million to as many as 120 million. But periods of weak monsoons ultimately spelled the demise of dynasties.

The Tang dynasty, for example, was established in A.D. 618, and is still determined to be a pinnacle of Chinese civilization, a kind of golden age from its inception until the ninth century, when the dynasty began to lose its grip. The Tang was dealt a deathblow in A.D. 873, when a growing drought turned horrific, and widespread famine took a heavy toll on both people and livestock. Henceforth, until its demise in A.D. 907, the Tang dynasty was plagued by civil unrest.

Weak monsoon seasons, when rains from the Indian Ocean no longer reached much of central and northern China, coincided with droughts and the declines of the Tang, Yuan (A.D. 1271-1368), and Ming (A.D.1368-1644) dynasties, the last two characterized by continual popular unrest. Weak monsoons with dramatically diminished rainfall may also have helped trigger one of the most tumultuous eras in Chinese history, called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, during which time, five dynasties rose and fell within a few decades, and China fractured into several independent nation-states.

Data from the stalagmite indicate that the strength of past Asian monsoons was driven by the variability of natural influences—such as changes in solar cycles and global temperatures—until 1960, when anthropogenic activity appears to have superseded natural phenomena as the major driver of the monsoon seasons from the late twentieth century onward. In short, the Asian-monsoon cycle has been disrupted by human-caused climate change.32 Here, an observation by the British biologist Charles Darwin is apropos: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."33

Principle 9:  All Relationships Are Irreversible

Because change is a constant process orchestrated along the interactive web of universal relationships, it produces infinite novelty that precludes anything in the cosmos from ever being reversible. Take my misstep on the aforementioned stream's edge. One moment I was standing on the level beach, and the next I was conversing with the water. At the same time, the sand I had knocked into the stream was being summarily carried off to the sea. What of this dynamic was reversible? Nothing was reversible because I could not go back in time and make a different decision of where to place my foot. And, because we cannot go back in time, nothing can be restored to its former condition. All we can ever do is repair something that is broken so it can continue to function, albeit differently from its original form. If you want a detailed discussion of this principle, read Earth in Our Care.34

Principle 10:  All Systems Are Based On Composition, Structure, and Function

We perceive objects by means of their obvious structures or functions. Structure is the configuration of elements, parts, or constituents of something, be it simple or complex. The structure can be thought of as the organization, arrangement, or make-up of a thing. Function, on the other hand, is what a particular structure either can do or allows to be done to it or with it.

Let us examine a common object, a chair. A chair is a chair because its structure gives it a particular shape. A chair can be characterized as a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, four legs, and a back; it is an object designed to accommodate a sitting person. If we add two arms, we have an armchair wherein we can sit and rest our arms. Should we now decide to add two rockers to the bottom of the chair's legs, we have a rocking chair in which we can sit, rest our arms, and rock back and forth while doing so. Nevertheless, it is the seat that allows us to sit in the chair, and it is the act of sitting, the functional component allowed by the structure, that makes a chair, a chair.

Suppose we remove the seat so the structure that supports our sitting no longer exists. Now to sit, we must sit on the ground between the legs of the once-chair. By definition, when we remove a chair's seat, we no longer have a chair, because we have altered the structure and therefore altered its function. Thus, the structure of an object defines its function, and the function of an object defines its necessary structure. How might the interrelationship of structure and function work in Nature?

To maintain ecological functions means that one must maintain the characteristics of the ecosystem in such a way that its processes are sustainable. The characteristics one must be concerned with are (1) composition, (2) structure, (3) function, and (4) Nature's disturbance regimes that periodically alter an ecosystem's composition, structure, and function.

We can, for example, change the composition of an ecosystem, such as the kinds and arrangement of plants in a forest or grassland; this alteration means that composition is malleable to human desire and thus negotiable within the context of cause and effect. In this case, composition is the determiner of the structure and function in that composition is the cause, rather than the effect, of the structure and function.

Composition determines the structure, and structure determines the function. Thus, by negotiating the composition, we simultaneously negotiate both the structure and function. On the other hand, once the composition is in place, the structure and function are set—unless, of course, the composition is altered, at which time both the structure and function are altered accordingly.

Returning momentarily to the chair analogy, suppose you have an armchair in which you can sit comfortably. What would happen if you either gained a lot of weight or lost a lot of weight but the size of the chair remained the same? If, on the one hand, you gained a lot of weight, you might no longer fit into your chair. On the other hand, if you lost much weight, the chair might be uncomfortably large. In the first case, you could alter the composition by removing the arms and thus be able to sit on the chair. In the second case, you might dismantle the chair, replace the large seat with a smaller one, and reassemble the chair.

In a similar but more complex fashion, the composition or kinds of plants and their age classes within a plant community create a certain structure that is characteristic of the plant community at any given age. It is the structure of the plant community that in turn creates and maintains certain functions. In addition, it is the composition, structure, and function of a plant community that determine what kinds animals can live there, how many, and for how long.

Hence, if one changes the composition of a forest, one changes the structure, hence the function, and thus affects the animals. The animals in general are not just a reflection of the composition but ultimately constrained by it.

If townspeople want a particular animal or group of animals within its urban growth boundary, let us say a rich diversity of summering birds and colorful butterflies to attract tourist dollars from bird-watchers and tourists in general, members of the community would have to work backward by determining what kind of function to create. To do so, they would have to know what kind of structure to create, which means knowing what type of composition is necessary to produce the required habitat for the animal the community wants. Thus, once the composition is ensconced, the structure and its attendant functions operate as an interactive unit in terms of the habitat required for the animal.

People and Nature are continually changing the structure and function of this ecosystem or that ecosystem by manipulating the composition of its plants, an act that subsequently changes the composition of the animals dependent on the structure and function of the resultant habitat. By altering the composition of plants within an ecosystem, people and Nature alter its structure and, in turn, affect how it functions and, in turn, determines not only what kinds of individuals and how many can live there but also what uses humans can make of the ecosystem.

Principle 11:  All Systems Have Cumulative Effects, Lag Periods, And Thresholds

Nature, as I have said, has intrinsic value only and so allows each component of an ecosystem to develop its prescribed structure, carry out its ecological function, and interact with other components through their evolved, interdependent processes and self-reinforcing feedback loops. No component is more or less important than another; each may differ from the other in form, but all are complementary in function.

Our intellectual challenge is recognizing that no given factor can be singled out as the sole cause of anything. All things operate synergistically as cumulative effects that exhibit a lag period before fully manifesting themselves. Cumulative effects, which encompass many little, inherent novelties, cannot be understood statistically because ecological relationships are far more complex and far less predictable than our statistical models lead us to believe—a circumstance that Francis Bacon may have been alluding to when he said, "The subtlety of Nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding."35 In essence, Bacon's observation recognizes that we live in the invisible present and thus cannot recognize cumulative effects.

The invisible present is our inability to stand at a given point in time and see the small, seemingly innocuous effects of our actions as they accumulate over weeks, months, and years. Obviously, we can all sense change—day becoming night, night turning into day, a hot summer changing into a cold winter, and so on. But, some people who live for a long time in one place can see longer-term events and remember the winter of the exceptionally deep snow or a summer of deadly heat.

Despite such a gift, it is a rare individual who can sense, with any degree of precision, the changes that occur over the decades of their lives. At this scale of time, we tend to think of the world as being in some sort of steady state (with the exception of technology), and we typically underestimate the degree to which change has occurred—such as global warming. We are unable to sense slow changes directly, and we are even more limited in our abilities to interpret the relationships of cause and effect in these changes. Hence, the subtle processes that act quietly and unobtrusively over decades reside cloaked in the invisible present, such as gradual declines in habitat quality.

At length, however, cumulative effects, gathering themselves below our level of conscious awareness, suddenly become visible. By then, it is too late to retract our decisions and actions even if the outcome they cause is decidedly negative with respect to our intentions. So it is that cumulative effects from our activities multiply unnoticed until something in the environment shifts dramatically enough for us to see the outcome through casual observation. That shift is defined by a threshold of tolerance in the system, beyond which the system as we knew it, suddenly, visibly, becomes something else. Within our world, this same dynamic takes place in a vast array of scales in all natural and artificial systems, from the infinitesimal to the gigantic.

At a personal level, everyone experiences cumulative effects, lag periods, and thresholds when they become ill, even if it is just a common cold. For instance, if you go to a social function, you may become infected with the cold virus, something you would not know. In fact, you would be unaware of the virus now multiplying in your body, a phenomenon that may continue unnoticed for some days (the cumulative effects within the lag period, or in parlance of disease, the incubation period). At length, you begin to sense something is wrong; you just do not feel "up to snuff" (the threshold); and shortly thereafter, you have the full-blown symptoms of the classic cold. In this case, the entire process encompasses a few days—from infection to expression.

A shorter-term example of cumulative effects, lag period, and threshold is the cutting down of my neighbor's dying walnut tree. Initially, a man from the tree service sawed off the small branches with intact twigs. The effect was barely discernable at first, even as they began to pile up on the ground. Each severed branch represented a cumulative effect that would have been all but unnoticeable had they not been accumulating under the tree.

After an hour or so (lag period) of removing the small limbs on one side of the tree, the cumulative effects gradually became visible as they crossed the threshold. Had the same volume of twigs been removed from throughout the tree and simultaneously gathered and removed from the ground, the cumulative effects would not have been as apparent. Nevertheless, the tree was gradually transformed into a stark skeleton of larger branches and the main trunk. Then the large branches were cut off a section at a time, with the same visual effect as when the small ones had been removed, until only the trunk remained. The piecemeal removal of the tree created a slowly changing vista of my neighbor's house, until I had an unobstructed view of it for the first time, as another stark threshold was crossed.

If we now increase the spatial magnitude that encompasses the formation of a river's delta, the timescale involved for the cumulative effects to cross the threshold of visibility may well require centuries to millennia. When a river reaches the sea, it slows and drops its load of sediment. As the amount of sediment accrues on the seabed, it diverts the river's flow, causing it to deposit additional sediment loads in other areas (cumulative effects). Thus, over many years (lag period), the accumulated sediment begins to show above the water (threshold) and increasingly affects the river's flow as it forms a classic delta. The speed with which the delta grows has numerous variables, such as the amount of precipitation within the river's drainage basin in any given year as well as the amount of its annual sediment load. Many of today's extant river deltas began developing around 8,500 years ago, as the global level of the seas stabilized following the end of the last ice age.36 And so the process of change and novelty continues unabated in all its myriad and astounding scales.

Principle 12: All Systems Are Cyclical, But None Is a Perfect Circle

While all things in Nature are cyclical, no cycle is a perfect circle, despite such depictions in the scientific literature and textbooks. They are, instead, a coming together in time and space at a specific point, where one "end" of a cycle approximates—but only approximates—its "beginning" in a particular time and place. Between its beginning and its ending, a cycle can have any configuration of cosmic happenstance. Biophysical cycles can thus be likened to a coiled spring insofar as every coil approximates the curvature of its neighbor but always on a different spatial level (temporal level in Nature), thus never touching.

The size and relative flexibility of a metal spring determines how closely one coil approaches another—the small, flexible, coiled spring in a ballpoint pen juxtaposed to the large, stiff, coiled spring on the front axel of an eighteen-wheel truck. The smaller and more flexible a spring, the closer are its coils, like the cycles of annual plants in a backyard garden or a mountain meadow. Conversely, the larger and more rigid a spring, the more distant are its coils from one another, like the millennial cycles of Great Basin bristlecone pines growing on rocky slopes in the mountains of Nevada, where they are largely protected from fire, or a Norway spruce growing on a rocky promontory in the Alps of Switzerland.

Regardless of its size or flexibility, a spring's coils are forever reaching outward. With respect to Nature's biophysical cycles, they are forever moving toward the next level of novelty in the creative process and so are perpetually embracing the uncertainty of future conditions—never to repeat the exact outcome of an event as it once happened. This phenomenon occurs even in times of relative climatic stability. Be that as it may, progressive global warming will only intensify the uncertainties.

In human terms, life is composed of rhythms or routines that follow the cycles of the universe, from the minute to the infinite. We humans most commonly experience the nature of cycles in our pilgrimage through the days, months, and years of our lives wherein certain events are repetitive—day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, the march of the seasons, and the coming and going of birthdays, all marking the circular passage we perceive as time within the curvature of space. In addition to the visible manifestation of these repetitive cycles, Nature's biophysical processes are cyclical in various scales of time and space, a phenomenon that means all relationships are simultaneously cyclical in their outworking and forever novel in their outcomes.

Some cycles revolve frequently enough to be well known in a person's lifetime, like the winter solstice. Others are completed only in the collective lifetimes of several generations, like the life cycle of a three-thousand-year-old giant sequoia in California's Sequoia National Park—hence the notion of the invisible present. Still others are so vast that their motion can only be assumed. Yet, even they are not completely aloof because we are kept in touch with them through our interrelatedness and interdependence. Regarding cycles, farmer and author Wendell Berry said, "It is only in the processes of the natural world, and in analogous and related processes of human culture, that the new may grow usefully old, and the old be made new."37

Principle 13:  Systemic Change Is Based on Self-Organized Criticality

When dealing with scale (a small, mountain lake as opposed to the drainage basin of a large river, such as the Mississippi in the United States or the Ganges in India), scientists have traditionally analyzed large, interactive systems in the same way that they have studied small, orderly systems, mainly because their methods of study have proven so successful. The prevailing wisdom has been that the behavior of a large, complicated system could be predicted by studying its elements separately and by analyzing its microscopic mechanisms individually—the reductionist-mechanical thinking predominant in Western society that tends to view the world and all it contains through a lens of intellectual isolation. During the last few decades, however, it has become increasingly clear that many complicated systems, like forests, oceans, and even cities do not yield to such traditional analysis.

Instead, large, complicated, interactive systems seem to evolve naturally to a critical state in which even a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system and can lead to a dramatic alteration in the system. Although such systems produce more minor events than catastrophic ones, chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of system dynamics. According to the theory called "self-organized criticality," the mechanism that leads to minor events (analogous to the drop of a pin) is the same mechanism that leads to major events (analogous to an earthquake).38 Not understanding this, analysts have typically blamed some rare set of circumstances (some exception to the rule) or some powerful combination of mechanisms when catastrophe strikes.

Nevertheless, ecosystems move inevitably toward a critical state, one that alters the ecosystem in some dramatic way. This dynamic makes ecosystems dissipative structures in that energy is built up through time only to be released in a disturbance of some kind, such as a fire, flood, or landslide; in some scale, ranging from a freshet in a stream to the eruption of a volcano; after which energy begins building again toward the next release of pent-up energy somewhere in time.

Such disturbances, as ecologists think of these events, can be long term and chronic, such as large movements of soil that take place over hundreds of years (termed an earth flow), or acute, such as the crescendo of a volcanic eruption that sends a pyroclastic flow sweeping down its side at amazing speed. (A pyroclastic flow is a turbulent mixture of hot gas and fragments of rock, such as pumice, that is violently ejected from a fissure and moves with great speed down the side of a volcano. Pyroclastic is Greek for "fire-broken.")

Here, you might interject that neither a movement of soil nor a volcano is a living system in the classical sense. Although that is true, all disturbance regimes are part and parcel of the living systems they affect. Thus, interactive systems, from the habitat of a gnat to a tropical rainforest, perpetually organize themselves to a critical state in which a minor event can start a chain reaction that leads to a catastrophic event—as far as living things are concerned, after which the system begins organizing itself toward the next critical state. Furthermore, such systems never reach a state of equilibrium but rather evolve from one semi-stable state to another. This dynamic is precisely why sustainability is a moving target—not a fixed end point or a steady state.

Principle 14:  Dynamic Disequilibrium Rules All Systems

If change is a universal constant in which nothing is static, what is a natural state? In answering this question, it becomes apparent that the balance of Nature in the classical sense (disturb Nature and Nature will return to its former state after the disturbance is removed) does not hold. In fact, the so-called balance of Nature is a romanticized figment of the human imagination, something we conjured to fit our snapshot image of the world in which we live. In reality, Nature exists in a continual state of ever-shifting disequilibrium, wherein ecosystems are entrained in the irreversible process of change, thereby altering their composition, interactive feedback loops, and thus the use of available resources—irrespective of human influence. Perhaps the most outstanding evidence that an ecosystem is subject to constant change and disruption rather than remaining in a static balance comes from studies of naturally occurring external factors that dislocate ecosystems, and climate appears to be foremost among these factors.

After a fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood, hurricane, or landslide, for example, a biological system may eventually be able to approximate what it was through resilience—the ability of the system to retain the integrity of its basic relationships. But regardless of how closely an ecosystem might approximate its former state following a disturbance, the existence of every ecosystem is a tenuous balancing act because every system is in a continual state of reorganization that occurs over various scales of time, from the cycle of an old forest to the geological history of Zion National Park in the state of Utah.

Bear in mind, an old forest that is burned, blown over in a hurricane, or smashed in a tsunami could be replaced by another, albeit different, old forest on the same acreage. In this way, despite a repetitive disturbance regime, a forest ecosystem can remain a forest ecosystem. Thus, ancient forests around the world have been evolving from one critical state to the next, from one natural catastrophe to the next.

On the other hand, formation of the canyon in Zion National Park has a much longer history than any of the world's forest. Where today the deep canyons and massive walls of stone enthrall visitors, 245 million years ago a sea covered the area that was populated by marine fishes. Over a period of roughly 35 million years, about 1,800 feet (549 meters) of sediments were deposited on the floor of the sea, along the coastal plain, and along the inland streams.

As the climate warmed, the sea changed into a gigantic swamp. Here, 210 million years ago, crocodile-like, plant-eating dinosaurs swam in the sluggish streams whose floods carried drifted trees on their swirling waters from distant forests to form logjams. Here also, small, fragile dinosaurs hunted along the banks of the streams. But as the climate once again became moister during the next 40 million years, the swamp became a lake, and the sand, silt, and clayey mud of the streams and the swamp gradually hardened into rock.

The lake for a time had fish living in it, but then some of its waters became shallow and eventually disappeared. And, existing streams spread silt and sandy mud over the sediments deposited on the lake's bottom. Toward the end of this forty-million-year interval, the climate began to dry, and in a short space of time, geologically speaking, the now-intermittent streams deposited more sediments.

Then, about 170 million years ago, the ancient sea, the swamp, the lake, and the intermittent streams became buried beneath a desert of marching sand dunes. This now-hostile environment had little life associated with it, and the few hardy plants and animals that did exist often died during the great storms that blew clouds of hot, dry sand into dunes. As the dunes were built, destroyed, and built again, some of the plants and animals became entombed and are the rare fossils of today in what is now the sandstone, ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 feet (457 to 610 meters) thick. Although the source of the sand eroded away 150 million years ago, evidence indicates that it had been a region of highlands in what is today the state of Nevada.

For a brief period following the creation of the desert, floodwaters, carrying suspended sediments, buried the dunes in deposits of red mud, after which the climate returned to more desert-like conditions.

Again, the climate changed, and 145 million years ago a vast, shallow sea once more covered the area, drowning the desert. Now the once-sterile desert, with its cap of red mud, became the floor of the sea and the home of sea lilies (crinoids) and of shellfish. But, when the warm, teeming waters once again retreated, they left behind, buried in limey silt, shells that produced the present-day fossils.

Over the millions of years, in response to changing environmental conditions, various materials were deposited in the sediments. The Zion area experienced shallow seas, coastal plains, a giant swamp, a lake, intermittent streams, and a desert filled with massive, wind-blown dunes of sand. While the shallow seas covered the area, mineral-laden waters slowly filtered down through the layers of sediment. Minerals like iron and calcium carbonate were deposited in the spaces between the particles of silt, sand, and mud, cementing them together, thereby turning them into stone. And, the weight of each layer caused the basin to sink and maintained its surface at an elevation near sea level. This process of deposition-sinking-deposition-sinking continued layer on layer until the accumulation of the successive sediments became 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) thick.

Geologists believe that Zion was a relatively flat basin with an elevation near sea level from 245 million years ago until the last shallow sea dried, about 10 million years ago. At that time, Zion was a featureless plain across which streams meandered lazily as they dropped their loads of sediment in sandbars and floodplains.

Then, in an area extending from Zion to the Rocky Mountains, a massive geologic event began. Forces deep within the Earth's mantle started to push upward on the surface of the Earth. The land in Zion rose from near sea level to as much as 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above sea level.

Zion's location on the western edge of the uplift caused the streams to tumble off the Colorado plateau, flowing rapidly down a steep gradient. The Virgin River is illustrative because it drops more than 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) from the northeast corner of Zion National Park in Utah to Lake Mead in Arizona, 145 miles away; in comparison, the upper Mississippi River drops only 210 feet (64 meters) from Lake Itasca, in the state of Minnesota, to Grand Rapids, also in the state of Minnesota, also a distance of 145 miles.

And, because fast-flowing water carries more sediments and larger boulders than does slow-moving water, these swift streams in Zion began eroding down into the layers of rock, cutting deep, narrow canyons. In the ten thousand years since the uplift began, the North Fork of the Virgin River has both carved Zion Canyon and carried away a layer of rock nearly 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) thick, a layer that once lay above the highest existing rock in the park.

The uplift of the land is still occurring, so the Virgin River is still excavating. The river, with its load of sand, has been likened to an ever-moving strip of sandpaper. Its grating effect, coupled with the steepness of the Colorado Plateau, has allowed the river to cut its way through the sandstone in a short time, geologically speaking.

The cutting of Zion Canyon created a gap in the solid layer of resistant sandstone, and the walls of the canyon relaxed and expanded ever so slightly toward this opening. Because rock is generally rigid, this expansion caused cracks, known as pressure-release joints, to form inside the canyon's walls. These cracks run parallel to the canyon about 15 to 30 feet (4.6 to 9.0 meters) inside the walls and occur throughout the sandstone.

The grains of sand that form the sandstone itself were once driven bouncing across the desert by the wind, only to be caught within the steep face of a dune, where they became buried. Over time, the cement of lime tied grain to grain, creating the stone of sand.

That process is now reversed, and a new cycle has begun. The layer of siltstone directly beneath the sandstone is softer and more easily eroded than the sandstone. Thus, as the walls of sandstone are undermined by the erosion of this softer material, water from rain and snow seeps into the joints, where it freezes in winter, wedging the walls of the joints ever further apart.

In addition to freezing, the water, one drop of rain at a time, one melting flake of snow at a time, aided by chemical action, dissolves the cement. The structure gradually weakens, until a last grain of sand holding the undermined wall in place moves, and the massive piece of rock falls. Breaking away along the line of least resistance, it leaves the graceful sweep of a huge arch sculpted in the face of the cliff at 1,000 feet (305 meters) above the floor of the canyon. And so is revealed yet another vertical face previously hidden as a crack or pressure-release joint inside the wall. Below, the rock, shattered by the fall, gradually returns to sand and is once again blown hither and yon by the wind or carried toward the sea by the restless Virgin River.

In the end, Zion, cemented together grain by grain over millions of years, is being dissolved over millions of years one grain at a time by the persistence of water from rain and melting snow. But, while Zion undergoes its inevitable changes, it is the home for 670 species of flowering plants and ferns, 30 species of amphibians and reptiles, 125 species of resident birds, and 95 species of mammals. Nevertheless, the wolf, grizzly bear, and native bighorn sheep are gone, extirpated within the last 150 years or so by the invading European-American settlers. Thus are tipped once again the scales of disequilibrium in all its dimensions.39


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This essay is excerpted from my 2009 book, "Social-Environmental Planning:  The Design Interface Between Everyforest and Everycity." CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 321 pp.

  If you wish, you can also watch to me give a presentation on this subject.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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