Christopher Glen / ecologies building blog 2: food webs

by Chris Glen

Food webs are one of the more complex processes that science takes on figuring. They are embedded in and predicated on a lot of other complexity, of course, but just inside the webs it is extraordinarily complex, and the cascading effects of one species use of another are often pertinent over quite differential time scales.

Our history involves early Homo sapiens making their way in the food chain, walking (not yet Rousseau, or Roland Barthes, or Lisa Robertson), figuring, how to make it easier because that is part of the species’ special gift. That is why the species begins to make marks, foot prints, in a way unlike other species. The game-changer is the species’ capacity for goal-directed labour and techno-systems that begin to significantly alter ecologies in the direction of Homo sapiens preferences in the food web. The scales of those tweaks to ecology become all important.

My previous post sketched the implications of increasingly extensive and intensive anthropogenic impact. Here I want to make what will be a fairly crude distinction between Anthropogenic Impact 1 and Anthropogenic Impact 11. One way to gesture at this distinction is to think of the “30 something: 1” ratio in footprints that is often mooted as the “first world /third world” difference. Of course, there are many in between ratios. That is part of the complexity

Anthropogenic Impact 1 tends to the relatively low impact techno-systems of agriculture, pastoralism, and irrigation along with other forms of biological productivity (cutting down trees). Impacts could/can be very extensive and entail ecological resets but within certain registers primarily dictated by the kind of power/energy-use available – human, animal, some wind and water. It refers to peoples with a vested interest in the biological productivity of close to subsistence, small scale market production livelihoods. Lives so lived have a very partial relation to the full panoply of modernity’s grid of enabling and productive systems most commonly evidenced by no electricity, no piped water, and ratcheted up, no private vehicle. They may well be in close proximity to intense nodes of techno-system-prowess in the form of mines, dams, tourist enclaves, urban spaces. There are abundant fault lines and conflicts within Anthropogenic Impact 1 as competition over land, water, grazing, arable land, etc, is intense. There are also huge conflicts of interest between Anthropogenic Impact 1 and Modernity’s managing of biodiversity through “Conservation.” Those competitions are much compounded by the encroachments of Anthropogenic Impact 11 on Anthropogenic Impact 1. Dam building powerfully exemplifies the recognition that “all engineering is social engineering” as ecologies are reconfigured, water redistributed, land made differentially valuable by irrigation, peoples displaced, etc. This is the field that sees proposals to put roads through Serengeti, dam upstream of Lake Turkana and so on, further breaking into bits already fractured ecologies and land use patterns.

Anthropogenic Impact 11 is largely predicated on the transformations that follow from harnessing the power of fossil fuel in the form of coal, hydroelectricity, oil, natural gas, and eventually nuclear power. The historical debates here are huge and absorbing, and I am being blogging schematic. Important effects follow. Along with the emergent knowledges of science, technology, techno-system development, productive capacity is exponentially enhanced, so too resource use, so too disturbance and ecological resets. Transportation systems — canals, railways, trucking, shipping — dramatically change what can be moved where. Old story, big story, and by no means entirely figured in the telling. Anthropogenic Impact 11 at the scale of national economies would be suggested by most of the population living as beneficiaries (unevenly) of the full panoply of techno-systems that characterize modernity at its most developed. Anthropogenic Impact 11 for the most part, also involves a comprehensive transformation of the food web, that precariously complex thing in ecologies.

The capacity to shape food webs (agriculture, stock keeping) at increasingly industrialized scale combined with transportation to markets elsewhere dramatically changes the where and what of ecological resets. It’s worth sketching the techno-system entanglements that, say, prairie “farming” is set within. It includes finance and credit industries, seed/fertilizer/pesticide industries/product and their storage industries, vehicle and farm machinery industries, energy industries, water distribution industries, transportation industries, food processing industries, communications and marketing industries, retail industries, city waste management industries (cradle to grave) let alone the levels of governance that oversee this complex interacting ensemble of techno-systems of which the farm is but a node. But it’s a very important node, where the biological productivity is realized and the place/space where ecological resets become a fact on the ground. For here, Anthropogenic Impact 11 at this level of intensity has left its mark in a way that makes the idea of a footprint seem rather quaint. A farm is a farm, but we know we are talking about farm belts, be they wheat, or corn or whatever. This is not the exchange of a heritage apple over a fence or at a farmers market (which are by no means unentangled).

Most of us now find our way in the food web by making a series of for better or worse choices somewhere out there in retail. The choices are predicated on the functioning of all the techno-systems above. Those systems of course entail vested interests but they also entail jobs on which so many Canadian livelihoods, thus ways of life, are predicated. With a nod to the excellent independent radio program, Deconstructing Dinner, how to reconfigure food webs (and yes food security) on a different, better ecological course would involve a shift in our expectations of modernity. Therein much of the predicament about which disturbances and ecological resets you can choose to live with or without. This largely agribusiness-shaped food web is we know vulnerable on a number of fronts. Technologically and biologically brittle, predicated on the functioning of so many problematic fossil-fueled techno-systems, dependent on arrangements within and between states, and subject to the vagaries of an increasingly “disturbing” climate. The requirements of human food webs, be they largely Anthropogenic Impact 1 or Anthropogenic Impact 11, positioned between climate change and modernity’s ensembled conceits and expectations, look to be much characterized by the anxiety of food (and water) security for a foreseeable future.

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