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Do we shape history or does history shape us? Can we understand the forces that govern this world and use them to shape the future for homo-sapiens? By RICHARD BALLANTINE
Charles Kelly, co-inventor with Gary Fisher of the mountain, sometimes wonders if he and Gary just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Charles and Gary were vanguard members of a small group of California cyclists who in the late 1970s developed a passion for off-road riding and racing. Initially, they rode old, heavy, balloon-tyre "paperboy" bikes, modified and strengthened to withstand the stresses of charging along rock-strewn trails. These clunkers, as the bikes were known locally, swiftly evolved into a fresh breed of purpose-designed bikes fitted with adapted lightweight components. It is unlikely that these mountain bike pioneers foresaw that their tinkering for fun would become the wellspring for the most significant development in cycling in this century. Still, Charles and Gary should take a deep bow, and deserve a suitable statue in their honour on Mt.Tam, birthplace of the mountain bike. Although certain historic elements such as the availability of lightweight components worked in their favour, the rapid worldwide success of the mountain bike was far from an accident of fate.
When Charles and Gary first demonstrated their new creation to a wider public at the New York bicycle show, the major American and European manufacturers responded with derision. They could not see how a machine that completely confounded the tradition of lightweight, narrow-tyre road bikes could possibly become popular and thus be a means to make money.If Charles and Gary had quit in the face of this rejection, then the cycling scene today might have been very different.
History makes us, but we also make history. Charles and Gary knew from practical experience that mountain bikes were tremendous fun, and as well, very useful as all round transport. They carried on, and quickly found a more perceptive audience: Japanese manufacturers. The Japanese understood that to open up new markets, you had to have a new product. The new machine was not just a marketing gimmick. It worked. The Japanese literally swarmed over the bike with tape measures, ferried Gary and Charles over to Japan for talks, and soon had clones in mass production. The rest is indeed history.
The mountain bike came into being and then flourished precisely because its roots were small, diverse, and above all, authentic. The story illustrates, at least to some extent, a fundamental change in the way the world works. Economic forces used to be the primary influence in how our lives were organised. Today, environmental ideas and forces are rising to the fore. Please bear with me while I try to explain.
Mass, or sheer physical presence, is fundamental. In the case of biological organisms, when other things are equal, bigger and stronger organisms dominate over smaller and weaker organisms. In life, however, other things are not equal; circumstances change, and the organisms that survive do so by adapting to new demands. Biological adaptation is a function of genetic diversity; the greater the range of characteristics in a species gene pool, the greater the survival ability of the species.
Included in the spectrum of genetically coded adaptive abilities is the quality known as intelligence. Intelligence is defined many ways, but in the case of homo sapiens one classic definition is pragmatic: humans have the ability to control their environment. Because of their brains, it is said, humans are able to devise ways to harness physical forces to create food and shelter and otherwise adjust circumstances to suit their convenience.
Homo sapiens' technological capability is of course two-edged: it can be used to provide energy, light and the making of wonderful things, and it can be used to blow up the world in a blink. We live with that dichotomy because we have to. Construction and destruction are two sides of the same coin. But controlling our environment through technological means has now run foul of the most fundamental of all the forces necessary for our existence - the functioning of the ecosystem that is planet Earth.
Scratch any environmental problem and you will find that the cause is money. Human society - and technological capacity - operates within an economic framework. So for example, it costs more money to dispose of garbage and waste in an environmentally sound way than to tip it into the ocean. And it costs even more in the first place to produce environmentally sound goods that will not become harmful waste.
Dumping waste into the ocean as an economic expedient seemed fine so long as the ocean appeared capable of tolerating an infinite amount of pollution. But the great size of the ocean, which covers over 70 per cent of Earth's surface and constitutes 95 per cent of the biosphere, or space in which living things dwell, is misleading.
The ocean is comprised of an intricate web of intermeshed ecosystems. A small change in one ecosystem can, through a domino effect, lead to widespread major change. Thus, a toxic substance released in quantities too small to be otherwise significant can strongly effect reproduction of a species. Because life in the ocean is inter-dependent, many other species and ecosystems may also be effected.
The ocean is fundamental to life on Earth. It maintains the atmosphere and climate of the planet, and even slight changes in the functioning of the ocean can have a major effect on the complete ecosystem of Earth.
We also have to contend with resource depletion. Fish are the leading source of animal protein for humans, particularly in Africa and the Eastern world. Pollution, especially in coastal areas that are breeding and nursery grounds for much of ocean life, and overfishing, has decreased the potential yield of this food source by 20 per cent.
The idea of allowing the ocean to recover naturally by curbing pollution and setting fish catch quotas is a case of too little too late. Once an ecosystem has been seriously upset it does not necessarily go back together the same way. and like the ocean, planet Earth is an ecosystem comprised of many ecosystems that interact, balance, blend and constantly change; it is enormously more complex and sensitive than we ever imagined. We exercise technological control of our environment at our peril.
Why didn't we know all this before? Communications. We did not have enough information to know what was happening. Understanding complex ecosystems requires levels of data processing speed and comprehension that we are only beginning to possess.
Then too, the major impact of homo sapiens on our world is extremely recent. Industrial technology dates from the 1800s, and our ability to really hammer at the planet only began in this century. In the span of the history of Earth, that is like a fraction of a second out of a day.
Earth has not yet been officially marked "tilt" because it is too soon to be completely sure of what is happening. For precisely this reason, advanced environmental thinking leans towards a policy of minimum intervention. If a form of unnatural environmental control holds unknown consequences, do not use it, because the effects may be irreversible.
At this point, if I am talking with someone, I like to say, "You know, an ecosystem is just like a bicycle," and then wait for the moment when the other person's eyes show the amused thought, Ballantine, this time you've gone too far, before continuing: "A bicycle is always out of balance, you see, going into balance...and ecosystems are exactly the same. They are dynamic, always changing, always balancing".
Describing how a bicycle rider remains upright in terms of physics is theoretically possible, but is so complex as to be impractical. There are so many continuously changing variables. But the fantastic thing is, just about anyone can learn how to ride a bicycle without even thinking about it. And the central governing principle is simple: nothing in excess. The less energy expended in balancing a bike, the better.
Planet Earth is the same. The central ideas of the previous century, and for most of this century, were economic. Prosperity and growth. Capital and production. White collar, blue collar. Workers of the world unite! Economic ideas were perhaps fine for building factories and using up resources in a hurry. But we have to pay the piper sometime. In the long run, operating by economic rules is too short-sighted and inefficient. What's needed for harmony with natural forces is a soft, delicate touch that balances with the minimum expenditure of energy.
Nature abhors waste. Species and ecosystems that function with maximum efficiency survive those that are less efficient. It's a simple matter of optimum use of resources.
Humans possess the saving grace of communications and learning. Our ability to obtain, process, and assimilate ideas and information has increased over time, and with any luck, will continue to do so. We are beginning to understand a little bit about our world. And as we move into this new century, economic ideas as a framework for our lives will be replaced by environmental and ecological ideas. We will not be reaching for big technological sticks with which to beat our environment into convenient shape, but rather, looking for ways to move with our world as gracefully and efficiently as possible.
Quite like riding a bicycle.
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