swarms

22Sep09

Toward the end of July and the beginning of August, swarms of swallows began to appear every evening above the small pond that’s located in the middle of the suburban neighborhood where I live in the north part of Osaka.  I think the pond is intended to function primarily as a form of flood control, but it also serves as a kind of impromptu wetland and in the spring and summer months frogs, turtles, white egrets, and a variety of other wild animals all make their homes there.  In the winter, the pond dries out and the city sends workers out to cut back the reeds and vines that encircle the pond, but when spring comes the uncontrollable green always reasserts itself.

Of course, the fact that there’s a pond means that there are mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes are obviously the reason that these swallows, which must come from miles around to generate a swarm of this size, arrive each evening in the thousands in July and August.

These swarms of insectivorous swallows remind me a little of the million-strong clouds of bats that can be found congregating in the sky over parts of the U.S. at certain times of year feeding off of equally large swarms of seasonal insects. What’s astounding about these swarms is the sheer amount of energy involved, the incredible fertility involved in generating a biota of such enormous scale and intensity.

In his book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa spends a great deal of time investigating energy flows and feedback loops and their relationship to the (nonlinear) development of human social formations.  One of the main points he makes is that energy flows within larger dynamic systems often interact to form stable states, states that can persist for long periods of time (even eons) given the proper conditions.  Landa’s attempt to write a history that involves geological systems, biological states, and the formation of human societies outside of a hierarchical model that places humanity at the top of an arbitrary metaphysical chain is an important and informative project, most especially in terms of the destabilization of categories and ways of thinking that can work to blind us when it comes to thinking about our own place withing the complicated meshwork of systems that form the very basis of our existence within larger patterns of energy flow and sedimentation.  Here’s what Landa has to say about the biosphere:

In the eyes of many human beings, life appears to be a unique and special phenomenon.  There is, of course, some truth to this belief, since no other planet is known to bear a rich and complex biosphere.  However, this view betrays an “organic chauvinism” that leads us to underestimate the vitality of the processes of self-organization in other spheres of reality.  It can also make us forget that, despite the many differences between them, living creatures and their inorganic counterparts share a crucial dependence  on intense flows of energy and materials.  In many respects the circulation is what matters, not the particular forms that it causes to emerge.  As the biogeographer Ian G. Simmons puts it, “The flows of energy and mineral nutrients through an ecosystem manifest themselves as actual animals and plants of a particular species.”  Our organic bodies are, in this sense, nothing but temporary coagulations in these flows: we capture in our bodies a certain portion of the flow at birth, then release it again when we die and microorganisms transform us into a new batch of raw materials.

In this sense swarms — of swallows, bats, ladybugs, monarch butterflies, or bees — can be viewed as sites of intense energy production and consumption, the transformation of one form of energy into energy in another state.  Often this has to do with the consumption of energy as food (as in the case of the swallows and bats), but it can also take the form of the coagulations and redistribution of energy during mating (as with monarch butterflies and ladybugs).  I’ve happened across all of these types of swarms at various times in my life including ladybug swarms in Marin County that were so thick you could scoop them up by the handful, swarms of bees in Sonoma County that looked like dark storm clouds, and monarch butterflies clustering so thickly in Bolinas eucalyptus trees that it looked like they had grown some kind of strange, orange fur.  Recently while hiking in the Flatirons, my friend Elbie and I came across a swarm of thousands of bright red insects, coating a particular species of mountain plant.

Thinking about these swarms as physical exemplars of the ability of the biosphere to produce and transform energy flows brings up the question of the relationship of human systems of production and consumption (a subset of the larger set of energy flows in circulation on the planet) in relation to the various ecosystems within which these systems of production and consumption are embedded.  This is a serious question and the immediate outlook is, unfortunately, dire.  In writing about the integrity of the biosphere, Vaclav Smil — in Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years — has this to say:

On the civilizational time scale [ . . . ] the biosphere is an astonishingly durable system, and worries about its unravelling seem to be overwrought.  Such a conclusion is absolutely correct on the microbial level: a rich assemblage of viruses, archaea, bacteria, and microscopic fungi will survive any conceivable insult that human beings can inflict on the biosphere.

But a biosphere resembling an aquatic slime or consisting of a cyanobacterial layer on rocks, without millions of differentiated vertebrates insects are the most biodiverse organisms) or any higher plants or aquatic and terrestrial animals, would not be a place fit for the evolution and complexification of hominids.  This perspective illuminates the irreplaceable importance of ecosystem services for human survival and hence, obviously, for any economic activity.  The global economy is merely a subsystem of the biosphere, and it is easy to enumerate the natural services without which it would be impossible, but it is meaningless to rank their importance because they are interconnected with a multitude of feedbacks.

While I don’t precisely love phrases like “ecosystem services,” a phrase that clearly places the natural world in a subservient position in relation to economic systems and human needs, Smil’s larger point is obviously that not respecting the immeasurable value of biospheric integrity is a recipe for the catastrophic failure of all stable social and economic formations.  Smil provides an incredible account of the work that the biosphere does while we’re not looking, work that includes (but is not at all limited to): the photosynthetic production of all of our food, most of our clothing materials, and all of the raw material for the paper that we use; the regulation and purification of water runoff; the minimization of soil erosion by plant cover; the regulation of climate by forests on both regional and global levels; the production of nutrients by soil bacteria without which agriculture would be impossible; and the decomposition of organic matter by microbes and fungi, without which “there would be neither agriculture nor animal grazing, neither coral reefs nor magnificent tropical rain forests.”

Unlike that host of Discovery Channel specials that seek to reassure us that via technology we can remake the natural systems of the world in our own image to fit an endlessly expanding sphere of needs and desires, Smil points out that the amount of work that the biosphere is able to do is simply not reproducible by human means:

Even if expense were no object, none of these services could be performed at such scales and with such efficiency by any anthropogenic means.  Our dependence on biospheric services is literally a matter of survival, and that is why the biosphere’s integrity matters.  Localized assaults exact a local price in degraded farmland or pasture, or in poor yields or skeletal animals (caused by inadequate recycling of organic matter or severe overgrazing), or in streams leaving their banks because of flooding aggravated by massive deforestation of a watershed.  Regional impacts can influence the fortunes of a nation, but if the situation is desperate enough, people move.  But major interference with ecosystem services on a global scale is an entirely new challenge.

A recent post on Boing Boing discusses the creation of a group of micro-robots that are able to function as a swarm by following the signals of optical ‘pheremones.’  These I-SWARM robots (I-SWARM stands for “intelligent small-world autonomous robots for micro-manipulation”) fit nicely into the category of technologies that have been developed to emulate naturally occurring phenomenon.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this in theory or practice, there is a danger that arises when we start sliding toward belief in a futuristic utopia in which natural processes are replaced by predictable and controllable human technologies.  While human technologies can certainly supplement natural processes there seems to be absolutely no question that the ecosystems that surround us are so complex in their interactions that not only are we in no danger of emulating them, we’re not yet even close to having an adequate understanding of these systems except as they function at the most basic level.  Perhaps an even greater problem, however, is that almost all human technology so far seems to take energy from within the flows available within the biosphere without putting it back in a form in which it can be reincorporated.  What this means is that we have a lot of dead energy dumps lying around that are far from “temporary coagulations,” at least when it comes to the energy flows that are necessary for the production and reproduction of natural bio-cycles.  When we lay down asphalt, for example, we do much more than simply deface the picturesque — instead we block a significant area of land mass from participation in the production and reproduction of life-sustaining energy.  Whole areas of landmass become virtual dead zones where energy flows have been accumulated in a static form that won’t be re-released for use within a time period in which it might prove useful to the ecosystem from which the energy was plundered in the first place.

This isn’t to say that all human activity is somehow detrimental to the environment (we are, after all, participants within the greater ecosystem and, in that sense, a part of the environment as a whole), but rather to point out that we need to carefully think about our place within the larger network of energy production and consumption that circulates through the biospheric system.  If the miniscule urban pond near my house can generate enough energy flow to attract thousands of swallows for days on end, than surely this should make us think about things like the footprints of our buildings, how we can generate more natural space within the confines of urban space, etc.  Even small changes like this could release massive flows of bio-energy — flows that, as urban gardens, could provide food; flows that, as urban parks, could provide shade, air and water filtration, habitat for animals, and a natural carbon sink; flows that, as green roofs, would cool our cities down while significantly reducing pollution.

And that’s just the start of things — as it turns out, certain types of human inhabitation of natural space can actually be beneficial to biodiversity.   A recent article in the Japan Times discusses the threat to biodiversity in Japan that is a result of changes in Japanese agricultural production.  It turns out that a great deal of local biodiversity is lost when Japanese farms in the countryside are allowed to return to their natural state.  This is because farming practices that have been in use for thousands of years have basically produced an extensive and stable environment for local species to adapt too.  Without these farmlands, the adaptations that have taken place over thousands of years no longer serve their function and animal species begin to die off.  This is a useful illustration of the deep interconnectedness between natural spaces and spaces of human activity, an interconnection that is not a zero-sum game that is necessarily detrimental to one party or the other.

Update: A couple of friends of mine have recently brought some nice links to my attention in relation to this entry. My friend Jess pointed me toward a couple of James Kochalka strips about bug swarms at his American Elf website — a happy one, and a sad one —  and my friend Lisa clued me in to a really interesting page about rare pink grasshoppers.



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