Thursday, August 12, 2010

Balance: On the farm and in the atmosphere

Hazel, resting after her eighth calving.
Doing chores in the barn yesterday morning, my younger daughter and I paused for a moment to enjoy the sight of an hours-old calf.

Leaning over his pen, watching the little guy work on his first bottle,  I chatted with Kerry, owner and manager of the herd of Jersey cows here, about the health of his mother Hazel following his birth.

I noticed how often Kerry used the word balance in our short conversation. The health of Hazel today was related to the balance of calcium in her blood, bones and milk, which in turn depended upon the balance of nutrients in the pasture, the hay, and the grain she ate in weeks and months past. Managing a cow's health – in fact managing the whole of a farm – is structured around attending to balance, and acting swiftly to keep an imbalance from growing into a crisis.

 Of course, balance is a critical concept in the climate arena as well: it has long been true that emissions of greenhouse gasses are far out of balance with their removals to oceans and forests. On a farm an imbalance in the metabolism of a single animal can lead to sudden crisis and even death of the animal. The time between imbalance and disaster is a matter of hours, or maybe even minutes. Even in the slower metabolism of the soil, imbalance leads to poor yields in season or two. 

Unfortunately for all of us, in the climate system, the delay between an imbalance in the metabolism of the planet and the arrival of serious consequences is measured in decades, maybe even centuries.

Kerry is smart, hardworking, observant and dedicated. But so are most of the people I've meet who work in the world of international climate policy. Acting swiftly and effectively to restore balance is easier when the consequences of imbalance are strong and direct, and harder when the feedback is slow and initially weak.

That's a classic finding of system dynamics and at least one reason that explains why human beings, if they put their minds and hearts to it, can do a very good job at maintaining the many balances within a farm ecosystem, and why as a global species, we aren't doing such a good job attending to planetary imbalances.

From computer simulations to sophisticated policy instruments, there are all sorts of tools that could help climate policy makers do a better job, but today, with the conversation in the barn fresh in my mind,  I'm wishing for an even simpler shift, one that would help us see the Earth and its climate as alive and dynamic, just like an animal in our care or the body of a loved one - capable of beauty and productivity and longevity, but only when the conditions are right and only when life-giving balance has been maintained.

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