Friday, October 15, 2004

Endangered Species

More than one-third of the world's amphibians are threatened in a new round of mass extinctions, according to a new study. Amphibians, such as frogs and snakes, may reflect greater environmental damage than previously expected. Their porous skins make them vulnerable to environmental changes, including pollution. That makes them better than canaries at telling us something. Anyone listening?

At the same time, global trade is causing the spread of many super-species from their own hostile environments to the cosy corners of the world. Snakeheads have been found in the Great Lakes for the first time, indicating a failure to contain the Chinese fish to the Southeastern US. Fire ants are threatening my house in Australia. They came on a ship from South America.

I discovered today that I am an endangered species, too. This article in USA Today (I found it on /.), notes that US programmers are going the way of the dodo, err, amphibians. In the best quip from Slashdot, scientists will be forced to "set up reserves with massive attempts to create offspring". Heh. If only it were that simple. We're from the government and we're here to help you...

The failure of governments to address any of these problems comes down to one phenomenon: short-term thinking. They are reacting to events one at a time, failing to see long-term trends and putting the economy first. What do they think is going to happen to the economy when the environment has crashed?

The funny thing is, it is not their fault. Really. Memetics would expect governments and most individuals to fail to react to a long-term crisis. Human history is littered with examples, from the collapse of grain production in Libya to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Evolution has created species that are over-specialized and hence vulnerable, just as it rewards good short-term planning (until an extinction event).

The only way to create a governmental policy to effectively deal with long-term issues is to deal with these very human failings up front. Much as we institutionalize punishment for murder so that personal revenge and feuds are avoided, we must institutionalize the response to environmental degradation and job migration. Otherwise, short-term incentives will rule. Shell Oill will leave a mess in Africa, IBM will outsource to India and frogs will die.

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