THE MYTH OF ECOLOGICAL REDUNDANCY
Redundancy, by definition, indicates the concept of "sameness." For example: The store manager told the clerk he was no longer needed, so he quit. The store manager told the clerk he was fired because he was too old.
In both sentences, "The store manager told the clerk he was" is true redundancy because, while everyone may interpret the words differently, an individual person would apply the exact meaning to each word in both cases. The two synonyms coming closest to the meaning of redundancy, as it is commonly used, are "superfluous" and "surplus," but neither of them is exact.
Another conceptual definition of redundancy is the notion of a duplicate set of mechanical components to take over a system's function and keep it running in case the original equipment fails. It is possible to make and install an almost-identical mechanical mechanism as a failsafe, but not a truly indistinguishable one because no two things are every identical. That is a physical impossibility, even in a mechanical system. Nevertheless, every backup has a component of redundancy, albeit with variable nuances. To understand what I mean, let's look at two simple examples. The first is when I learned the meaning of a "backup."
In the winter of 1963-64, I was working in the deserts of Egypt, where I would be in the field for two to three weeks at a time with only enough water for an occasional "spit-bath." So the greatest pleasure on my first day back in Cairo was a shower. In those days, however, it was a fairly regular occurrence for a water main to break, which shut off all water to tap, toilet, and tub.
The first time this happened, I was literally covered with soap, which I had just whipped into a delightful lather, when the water faded to a trickle, then stopped. Nothing I did would remedy the situation. With no way to rinse, all I could do was dry myself and put on my clothes. I spent the next eight hours feeling like I was encased in a sweaty, soapy film, which caused me to itch all over. During that time, I checked the faucet every fifteen to twenty minutes, each time desperately hoping for water, but to no avail.
When the water finally came on again, I immediately filled the bathtub, got in, turned on the shower, and rinsed myself. Thereafter, I always filled the tub with enough water to rinse myself, just in case the water to the shower would again be shut off, which it occasionally was. I, however, was comfortable because I had enough water in the tub for a "backup" rinse.
The only redundancy in this example was the water that came out of the shower, with which I filled the tub. The shower and the tub, however, were two entirely different mechanisms—one for dispensing water and one for receiving and holding water. Here, the watchword is "effectiveness" in that I had rinse water whenever I needed it. On the other hand, when I did not require the extra water, which simply went down the drain unused, one could argue that my solution was "wasteful," and "inefficient."
Herein, lies the challenge: people confuse "efficiency" with "effectiveness" and so attempt to reduce and/or eliminate backup systems as needless redundancy that is inefficient, unnecessary, and uneconomical. Why this confusion? If we return to the aforementioned synonyms of redundancy, which most people accept at face value, then the term becomes economically synonyms with inefficiency, and is seen as a captial outlay with no redeeming value. Hence, virtually every municipality converts everything possible to computer control in the name of economic efficiency because any supposed manual duplication is perceived to be needless waste of money. Despite this perception, there is a hidden cost to the economic notion of efficiency.
Now, let's consider the second example of a backup, the water supply of my hometown. As its computer network was being constructed, the officials of my hometown, like businesses and communities everywhere, were increasingly focused on all conceivable aspects of efficiency in order to eliminate as much perceived repetitiveness as possible in everyday activities because they were—and still are—seen as a waste of money. Accordingly, everything that could be computerized was computerized to eliminate unwanted duplication, everything, that is, except the water supply, which was fortuitously overlooked. Today, should the computer program that controls the water supply suddenly fail, we would still have water because of the unwanted manual control. The ability to override a computer failure (while considered inefficient) is effective in providing the resilience to overcome a potentially disastrous circumstance, while other communities, which were more "efficient," may not be so fortunate.
I also recall being in the Chicago's O'Hara Airport a couple of decades ago, when the electricity was suddenly interrupted, and every computer became instantaneously useless. For some reason, which I don't remember, there was no backup. Consequently, in-flight airplanes were affected all over the world because of the interactive nature of the airline industry in ferrying passengers from one location to another. Would a backup have been economically inefficient in this case? How much money would a backup system have saved the airport and the airlines? And what about the total disruption of the passenger's lives?
Here, the redundancy would have been the electricity and the backup would have been the delivery mechanism, such as a gasoline-operated generator. While this may seem fairly straightforward, things are not so simple in an ecosystem.
Redundancy is anything but a tidy package of predictable outcomes in an ecological system, wherein the only constant is change, which produces infinite novelty. Ecosystems do not, therefore, have redundancy in the sense of the word's common vernacular, but they do have backups.
Pine trees, for example, cast upon the winds of fortune a prodigious amount of pollen to be blown hither and yon. I say "the winds of fortune" because it takes an inordinate amount of pollen riding the vagaries of air currents to come in contact with and fertilize enough pine seeds, which are fixed in location, to keep the species viable through time. Although an extremely inefficient mode of pollination in that many, many more grains of pollen are produced than are used to fertilize the available pine seeds, the system is highly effective, as evidenced by the persistence of pine trees through the ages. And if you're wondering what happens to all the "unneeded" grains of pollen, they are eaten by a variety of organisms, which benefit from an extremely rich source of nutriment. Nothing in Nature is wasted. "Waste," as people think of it, is a human concept—not an ecological one.
With respect to ecosystems, each contains built-in backup systems, meaning there is more than one species that can perform similar—but not identical—functions. Such backups give an ecosystem the resilience to either resist change or bounce back after disturbance. Backup systems, in the biological sense, are comprised of two or more species that, in concert, act as an insurance policy for the system's continuance. For example, species "A" aerates the soil in a farmer's field, but is extremely sensitive to a certain herbicide that is used, and readily dies out. Species "B" is less sensitive to the herbicide, and can aerate the soil, but not quite as well. Species "C" is still less sensitive to the herbicide, and can aerate the soil about as less well as species "B." Therefore, if species "A" dies out, species "B" and "C" can take over. Should species "B" die out, species "C" can take over. But if species "C" also succumbs to the herbicide in the farmer's field, then the soil receives even less aeration, which, in turn, reduces the yield of his crop.
To maintain this multiple-species insurance policy, an ecosystem needs three kinds of diversity: biological, genetic, and functional—all of which are embodied in every single species. I say this because every species is an individual component of biodiversity, which is archived in the species' lineage (genetic diversity), and expressed through its behavior (functional diversity).
Each kind of diversity can be thought of as an individual leg of an old-fashioned, three-legged milking stool because it soon becomes apparent that if one leg (one kind of diversity) is severely damaged or lost, the stool will fall over. But Nature's built-in backups have a stabilizing effect, which, in the above example, is analogous to having a nine-legged milking stool with three legs of different kinds of wood (analogous to the three species) in each location. So, if species "A" is removed, the stool will remain standing on two sets of backup legs (species "B" and "C"). If species "B" is removed, the stool is pushed to the limits of its stability and thus poised to fall, should something happen to species "C." Remove species "C" and the stool will collapse, no longer serving the purpose for which it was valued and used.
While cobbling the milking stool together with three new legs can repair it, an ecosystem, like the farmer's field, is not so easily mended. The removal of species "C" caused the system to shift dramatically enough that it lowered the farmer's yield, to his long-term economic detriment. If we now extrapolate such a systemic shift to a forest or an ocean, society, as a whole, would be affected, whether or not the consequences were immediately and/or readily apparent.
When we thus tinker willy-nilly with an ecosystem's composition and structure to suit our short-term, economic desires, we risk losing species, either locally or totally. As we lose species, we reduce the ecosystem's biodiversity, then its genetic diversity, and finally its functional diversity in ways we might not even imagine. With decreased diversity, we lose existing choices for safely manipulating our environment. This loss may directly affect our long-term economic viability because the loss of functional diveristy—through the decline of biodiversity—can so alter an ecosystem that it is rendered incapable of producing that for which we once valued it. Moreover, simplified biodiversity also limits what we, and every generation henceforth, could have valued a given ecosystem for sometime in the future. The possibility of a potential value makes the ecological wholeness, biological richness, and sustainability of every ecosystem the single-most critical measure of our long-term economic health.
Why is this measure so important? It's vital because the consequences of our decisions become the circumstances we pass to all generations of children—and we allow them no voice in shaping the legacy we pass forward. If we, the adults of the world, do not act as trustees for their welfare, who will?
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.