The Last Chapter of the Earth's Hypothetical Operating Manual
In the hypothetical manual that details the principles of ecosystem dynamics, equal space is allocated to increases in organization and increases in disorganization. Ecosystems depend equally on progressive and regressive dynamics to sustain the cycles and trajectories of energy transfers. Thus ecosystems build and dismantle structures. They concentrate and disperse energies, They organize and dishevel forms. Building, concentrating, and organizing are functions of life. Dismantling, dispersing, and disheveling are processes related to death.
Matter and energy undergo an inexorable process of unraveling. All organized structures, living and dead, biotic and abiotic, eventually dissipate until they succumb to disorder. Evidence of entropy is apparent in aging bodies, corrupted computer files, rotting tree trunks, and rusting cars. Even organisms that enjoy optimal conditions carry death sentences. But time is not entropy’s only warden. Disease, as well as too much or too little of the very ingredients that spurred growth can cause degeneration. Extreme moisture, warmth, and nutrients kill.
For an individual organism as for an entire ecosystem, if tolerance levels are exceeded, the system collapses. However, the history of ecosystems differs from the lifetimes of organisms. Organisms die naturally and inevitably. In contrast, eco systems only die when they are killed. Such fatal disturbances occur when volcanoes spew lava, typhoons cause mudslides, or meteors crash on land. Death can also result from the assault of asphalt, mines, dams, toxic spills, landfills, wars, etc. In the absence of massive rescue missions, these environmental disturbances convert forests into agricultural fields, croplands into metropolises, grasslands into deserts, and render lakes devoid of aquatic life.
However, none of these eventualities comprises the concluding chapter in any ecological narrative. The history of the earth provides evidence of a more enduring narrative. Just when it seems as if order collapsed, the surviving remnants come together and reorganize. Will this resilience be perpetuated in the future? It depends, woefully, on the scale of the disturbance, which increases in synch with humanity’s tool chest and energy stores. They have made it a folly to assume recovery.