Global Inertia, Local Action

June 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

Inertia has been on my mind lately. Wikipedia defines inertia as “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest“. I have highlighted both “motion” and “rest” because each of them can be used to understand a different aspect of our response to environmental problems.

If we (referring very broadly to every important actor on the environment, whether it is the CEO of a large manufacturing company or a peasant burning brush to clear farm land) have been acting (moving) in a particular way to meet our immediate needs and this has been successful, we will naturally resist any attempt, no matter how well intended, that might change our actions. Likewise, if we (focusing now on institutions like governments and businesses) have refrained from taking action (resting) to solve environmental problems, we will naturally resist any attempt to get us moving. Inertia describes the behavior of people, societies, and institutions, just as well as it describes the behavior of planets and molecules.

Inertia on a global scale is evident from this recent headline:

  • Little Progress in Saving the Planet” (C&ENews, 11 June 2012, p. 8) describes the newest United Nations report (Global Environmental Outlook 5 or GEO-5) on the global environment. The UN report, which was issued June 6, is published every 5 years. According to the news summary, the report says “the world has made little or no progress” on an array of pressing environmental problems.

On the other hand, change can occur when there is a force to drive it:

The 4 May 2012 issue of Science magazine contains a number of items pertaining to climate change along with two reviews of new books about the environment:

  • Wind Farms Warm the Night (Findings, p. 526) – Satellite measurements show higher nighttime temperatures near large Texas wind farms
  • Plants More Sensitive to Global Warming Than Tests Suggest (Findings, p. 527) – So-called “warming” experiments by ecologists may not describe plant behavior correctly.
  • The Place of Words (Books et al., p. 542) – Review of The Bioregional Imagination, an anthology of 24 essays devoted to ‘literature, ecology, and place’ (T. Lynch et al. eds., University of Georgia Press, 2012, ISBN 9780820335926)
  • The Environment Makes History (Books et al., p. 543) – Review of The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (M. Fiege, University of Washington Press, 2012, ISBN 9780295991672)
  • Modeling Ice-Sheet Flow (Perspectives, p. 551) – Will the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica melt quickly and slip into the sea? No one knows, but scientists are trying to improve their ability to forecast these events.
  • Impacts of Diversity Loss (Perspectives, p. 552) – How much diversity is needed to maintain the productivity of ecosystems?

Entry filed under: In the News.

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