Plauger’s Law and Small Glacial Lakes

I rotate the quotation at the top of the blog sometimes. For the reference of future readers it currently reads:

“My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what’s really going on to be scared.”

— P. J. Plauger

This Sunday’s presentation at the Ethical Society of Austin presented a laundry list of environmental contaminants without really providing any sense of scale or stratgey for prioritization. I found it difficult to agree with the speaker’s approach, which seemed rooted in a generalized fear of contamination. On discussion of the presentation with Irene, it occurred to me that perhaps we become most expert in the things that worry us most, which would provide an alternative and more sanguine view of Plauger’s observation.

Here is one of my earliest and most vivid memories. As a small boy I had been trained not to pee in swimming pools. I was swimming in beautiful little Lac Paquin (pictured) with my father, and told him I needed to find a bathroom, fully aware that a difficult half mile walk was ahead of me. (Aside: Much of the movie “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” takes place by a fictitious instance of one of the many similar tiny lakes in this immediate vicinity. I spent literally hundreds of weekends of my childhood there. Note: plenty of nature. No farming in view. Perhaps an unusual experience.) My father told me not to worry, that Lac Paquin was much larger than a swimming pool, and that I ought to just go ahead. Which I did with much relief.

But I’ve always wanted a clear delineation between what is wrong and what is okay. This explanation of what was and wasn’t appropriate as a matter of scale absolutely fascinated me. It didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. I wondered what size of pool it was OK to pee in, and eventually about how many people could pee in a lake the size of Lac Paquin, and how it could be okay for one person and not for lots of people, and so on.

How could something be so clearly OK in some circumstances and so clearly not OK in others, even if the dividing line between them was so unclear? And how could we know where the line is? Here I am today essentially asking the same questions!

My concern for the environment then is rooted in a sort of rabbinical hairsplitting rather than in a contamination phobia or a resentment of power that dominates the motivation of most activists. Though religious orthodoxy holds no appeal for me, a desire for a consistent set of ethical constraints seems absolutely primal. I see the impossibility of altogether avoiding pissing, but just the same I don’t want to damage the world. As far as I can tell, in an underpopulated and preindustrial world, such problems are trivial, but as the world becomes more populated and more technically potent, somehow at some point the problem crosses the fuzzy line from lake to swimming pool, and a whole new set of moral imperatives suddenly kicks in.

I think this way of looking at things may be more common among earth scientists than among biologists for whom biophilia may be a very intense experience, and a tragic one given its near-absence in most modern people. Such biologist-environmentalists simply see biodiversity as a dominating moral precept. I’m not really in that bunch, myself, though I have enough biophilia to sympathize.

Unfortunately a set of moral constraints for a small world that is adequate would seem to be complex and tightly coupled. To absorb such a morality into essentially all of our various cultures and social mechanisms would be hard enough even if we could agree on a mutually consistent set. Regardless, it seems to me this transition dominates what we should be thinking about. Is it just me and my own obsessions?


Nice comment by Hank

Hank Roberts has a comment on RC on whether an interest in environmental protection is altruistic.

He says not, in an interesting way.

If wishes were fishes I wish I could hear Dawkins and E. O. Wilson hash this out. Perhaps the selfish gene produces biophilia for a reason…