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The Missing Ecological Link

16 September 2008

As I write this, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) is putting the finishing touches on an Executive Summary of a forthcoming white paper from its Integrated Nitrogen Committee (INC; henceforth, “Committee”).  I’ve seen a draft of the Executive Summary, but because it’s still a draft, I can’t cite it or quote from it.

Suffice to say, though, that the Committee has been given a tough charge:  synthesize what is known about reactive nitrogen, both natural and anthropogenic, and its sources, sinks, transformations, and ecological effects; then distill all of that information into a suite of policy proposals to reduce reactive nitrogen’s adverse effects on the earth.  

Good luck with that.

If the draft Executive Summary is any indication, when it finally emerges, the Committee report is likely to gore everyone’s ox.  There will be a hew and cry bellowing from every corner.  And the responses will be predictable.

The environmental groups will say that the Committee has been too easy on agriculture or on industry or on the government; agriculture groups will say that the Committee has unfairly fingered agriculture as an unmitigated evil and will invoke the miracle of the Green Revolution; the Executive Branch bureaucrats will say that the report does not recommend giving them enough authority to do what they (really) need to do; and industry leaders will warn us that what the Committee says needs to happen will make us go broke, at least for a time, or will at least force us to be content with a lower standard of living.

We scientists and engineers will be asked for our best professional judgment, too.  Depending on where we sit, we’ll opine either that the facts are flawed by poor science, or that the statistics have been interpreted erroneously, or that the facts are still in dispute, or that the data have not been presented with adequate attention to uncertainty, or perhaps without adequate interpretive force.

But we can be sure that, somewhere along the line, as we digest both what the Committee has recommended and what other people have said in response, we’ll hear this in some form from some quarter:  “The Devil’s in the details.”

What do we mean by that?  And what do we hope to accomplish by repeating it, again and again and again?

Look, I’ll admit it.  I have said that many times.  It is, of course, true:  the Devil is in the details.  Every policy idea that sounds good in the conceptual phase ends up as a mess in the implementation phase.  We make beta errors in this direction and alpha errors in that.  We overcorrect, we undercorrect, we create unintended consequences of all kinds.  Some, if not most, if perhaps not all, of those errors end up costing somebody a lot of money without actually accomplishing anything useful, or even messing something else up a lot further.  

As an aside:  it might be best, of course, if we “first [did] no harm.”  Politically, though, we know that’s not going to happen.  Representative democracy ensures that if the wheel is squeaky enough, it’ll get some…well, something, and we hope it’s grease, but even if it’s not, at least we did something.  Bully for us.

But that’s not my main point, which is:  somewhere along the way, many of us seem to have decided that the devils in the details are the only demons around.

But that may be only because we don’t pause long enough to reflect, to look around long enough and intently enough to take note of the devils that have set up shop in our very own thinking – that is, in our assumptions, our premises.

Boring.  No, really:  boooooooorrrrrrrring.


In 2003, we lost a national treasure with the passing of Neil Postman, one of our most thoughtful cultural prophets.  His best known work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, implicated our obsession with visual entertainment (mainly TV) in the inexorable rotting of our national conversation, substituting image for substance and illusions for reality.  Postman documented the decline of political discourse as it was happening in our very eyes and ears.  (In retrospect, perhaps he didn’t even realize how right he was.)

Yes, yes, we said, bravo.  Postman was a smash hit, selling millions.

Then:   yawn.

Six years later, long after his celebrity had subsided, Postman launched another volley.  The book, Technopoly:  The Surrender of Culture to Technology, may not have ginned up the same cultural excitement as his earlier book, but it may have been a deeper work of prophecy.  Postman said that in our giddiness over the manifest benefits of scientific inquiry and technological progress – “putting a man on the moon” was the sexy, new metaphor for what technology promised to deliver – we have forgotten to ask about the systemic costs, which are not always visible, at least to the self-obsessed eye.

To Postman, technology is not a neutral entity; it always carries with it some embedded assumptions, some embedded ideology, and some embedded bias, as well as the genetic code for its inevitable, future uses.  Don’t believe it?  Take educational “technology,” for instance.  We didn’t even grade schoolpapers on a numerical scale until the last half of the last millennium; now, we collapse an individual’s entire mental capacity into a single, numerical value (IQ) and call it meaningful.  

Or genetics:  as Dr. John Patrick warns,

One of the greatest horrors of the second world war was that the physicians of one of the most cultured nations of Europe not only did not protest against the eugenic and racist killings of the Nazis but co-operated with them. The first gas chambers were designed by psychiatrists and the concentration camps maintained the fiction of “medical” selection for the gas chambers by having physicians in charge of those selections. The Nazis merely extended the logic of the eugenics already incorporated into the beliefs of the profession of medicine. (The process is being repeated as we accept the results of molecular biology which consistently allow the detection of “malformed or diseased” children in utero but rarely lead to cures. The main result will be an increase in eugenic abortions.)

(John Patrick, “Hippocrates and Medicine in the Third Millennium,” accessed on the Web 9/16/08 at

It does not do to suggest, as we are fond of doing, that technology and human progress are one and the same.  Oppenheimer knew it, Nietzsche knew it, and we know it.  Only that demon hubris keeps us from admitting it and doing something about it.

But hubris doesn’t work alone.  Among his partners in crime is that ol’ troublemaker, “don’t ask.”


We mustn’t suppose that the biases, premises, and trajectories embedded in our technologies can be overcome if we just (a) collect more data and (b) shrink the error bars.  Here is a hard, inescapable fact:  the intensification of our global economy has taken vast quantities of effectively inert carbon and nitrogen from the lithosphere and the atmosphere, converted them into useful, reactive forms, and injected them into the ecosphere, whatever the end results of that might be.

Disappearance of the ice caps via greenhouse emissions?

Collapse of alpine ecosystems via N enrichment?

Collapse of marine ecosystems via phosphorus-driven eutrophication?

I’m not sure about all of those things.  Some of the work is pretty compelling, some of it not so much.  Some of it, candidly, seems to ignore some plausible but less titillating alternatives.  And it’s simply maddening that the data that allegedly support the hypotheses show up in the New York Times without their error bars, which if the truth were known would swamp the averages in a lot of cases.  The devils, dammit, are in the details.

But one thing I am equally sure of is this:  we are right to ask these hard questions at the global scale, and we are right to be skeptical of science’s ability to steer us to a satisfactory resolution by itself.  No matter how well we do the science, we will always be missing one vital dimension.

Just as there is a dimension of the self that goes beyond DNA, IQ, and Myers-Briggs type, there is a dimension of environmental protection that goes beyond emission rates, assimilative capacities, and fate-and-transport modeling.  

There is a dimension of statistics that goes beyond averages, variances, and probabilities.

There is a dimension of economics that goes beyond profits and losses, beyond assets and liabilities, beyond aggregate supply and aggregate demand.

There is a dimension of politics that goes beyond clever polling, tactical sound bites, and electoral strategies.


The missing dimension has something to do with human choice, human will, human soul.  And there are devils dedicated to making sure we never figure out what it is, making sure we never raise the big questions for fear of offending someone, making sure we never ask why because of what a forthright answer might cost us.  

“Us,” as in:  you, me, they, my people, your people, their people.

And “cost,” as in: freedom, security, certainty, wealth, desire, entitlement.


Now when was it, precisely, that we decided we had no business training ourselves in virtue?

Don’t bother; I’m just asking.


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