Remember the Cascade Effect

The other day, a friend sent me a link to a video about the impact of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park and its surroundings.  The video does a really good job of condensing a complicated process into a few minutes.  I have a few quibbles – for example, most of the time the animals the narrator refers to as “deer” are actually elk, and the role coyotes played was oversimplified – but I think it’s worth watching, so here’s a link.

Part of a Wolf Junkie's Stash

Part of a Wolf Junkie’s Stash

Because I’m a serious wolf junkie, I was already familiar with the impact of wolves on Yellowstone.  The cascade effect works on a smaller ecological scale, too.  When I moved into my house, the back yard was pretty much sand and weeds, prone to erosion when the winds blew, and supporting very little in the way of wildlife.

Over the last decade and a half, Jim and I have made a lot of changes, including encouraging native plants that provide food for birds, lizards, and insects.  We have two small water features (a tiny pond and a bird bath) and these have put us on the migration route for various birds.  The result is pretty cool.

As usual, this has gotten me thinking about writing, most particularly about the world-building that’s so important to SF and Fantasy.

As the piece about the wolves and Yellowstone demonstrates so superbly, make one change and you need to think about what other things might change.  This doesn’t only apply to what you take away – it applies to what you add in as well.

I’ve talked about dragons back in “So You Want Dragons” (WW 2-29-14), so I won’t repeat myself, but remember that many other typical fantasy “monsters” also fall into the peak predator category.

Here’s one example.  Traditionally, the favorite food of griffins is horses.   Don’t you think griffins might choose to live where horses are easy to get?  How would a society change when horses can’t simply be turned out to pasture because the griffins will fly in for an easy lunch?  Griffins are a lot more dangerous than wolves, so would the equivalent of shepherds be enough?  Would griffin patrol be a way to train young warriors?

The cascade effect applies to much more than predator/prey relationships.  In our modern world, people tend to forget that energy doesn’t come from flipping a switch.  That’s just the final stage of a complex delivery system, one that involves a power plant on the other end.  Electricity and gas are both often referred to as “clean” sources of heat and that’s certainly true when compared to burning wood in your fireplace – at least until you take a look at the process needed to produce and deliver this energy to your house.

What about solar energy?  Passive solar is certainly clean heat.  Because I live in a very sunny climate, my sunporch actually heats much of my small house, even during the coldest parts of winter – at least during daylight.  However, passive solar won’t run my computer.  From talking to a friend who relies on solar power, I’ve learned how complicated gathering and converting solar energy can be – especially if the person lives off the grid and needs to rely on batteries.

If you’re writing SF, a little technological hand-waving can get you past the difficulties of providing energy for even the biggest city or starship.  A breakthrough that makes safe fusion power practical is one of the most popular gimmicks.  Another is a quick sentence along the lines of “ever since Alice Seagull came up with the voo-voo panel that let solar power be more efficiently gathered and stored, most archaic forms of energy have fallen out of use.”

In a Fantasy setting, how to provide enough fuel for a large population can have a tremendous cascade effect.  The New England region of the United States was originally heavily forested.  However, twin demands for farmland and fuel led to a tremendous amount of clear- cutting.   If advances in technology had not created both easier ways to acquire food (grow it somewhere else, ship it in) and to deliver the means for providing heat, it’s likely that the area would have become unable to support its population, triggering a migration to unused (“unspoiled”?) wilderness, until that, too, became spoiled.

Today, New England is becoming reforested but what would happen if a true “locovore” movement became established?  Would it be able to sustain itself for longer than a couple of decades without providing a serious environmental impact?

What about these static Fantasy worlds where warriors clank around in steel armor (making steel takes a lot of fuel) and use steel weapons and have done so for centuries?  Where do the resources come from?  Why are there any forests left?

Well, historically, socially-enforced poverty for the majority of the population was one way to keep from exhausting all the resources.  The folks who mined the iron ore didn’t necessarily have iron tools and weapons.  The woodcutter didn’t have a blazing fire on his hearth.  The logs went to the gentry.  He felt lucky to have the scraps and twigs…  Most of his neighbors were burning cow patties.  (And that’s not hamburger, for you urban dwellers.  It’s cow shit and it stinks.)

I’ve quite enjoyed S.M. Stirling’s “Change” novels.  Salvage from the pre-Change world solves a lot of Stirling’s immediate supply problems, but for that economic/ecological system to persist, the humans had better keep having massive wars to provide population control.

But what about magic?  Can’t it solve all these problems in a Fantasy setting?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  After all, even magic needs to come from somewhere and be channeled into useful forms.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a gamer.  The adventure I’m currently running takes place in a world where magic is common and the dominant race is very ecologically sensitive.  What’s the major type of employment for these magically skilled people?  Creating the basic magical infrastructure that enables them to have magical light, heat, hot water, and all the rest.

My gamers assumed that finding the “cool” magical items would be as easy as walking into the magical equivalent of Walmart.  They figured they just needed to find a city larger than the small village in which they live.  They’re now learning that the cool stuff is, in fact, quite rare, because the magical resources are diverted into sustaining a fairly high standard of living for the majority of the population.

I find that, far from restricting my storytelling, the cascade effect stimulates it.  Whether you build a story around it or use little elements to provide a richer environment, it’s worth considering.


7 Responses to “Remember the Cascade Effect”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    The author in me is applauding this post, while the ecologist in me is cringing.

    To take these in reverse order: “Cascade effect?” Please. There’s enough miscommunication around the wolves already. What’s going on with the wolves is a trophic cascade, and it’s good to use that term. The idea is that wolves eat elk, deer, and bison, driving their numbers down. This cascades down to the plants that elk, deer, and bison eat, driving their numbers up, changing the landscape of Yellowstone.

    Let’s look at another familiar trophic cascade. Human recreational hunters are lousy predators of deer. However, in the eastern US, humans are great predators of wolves and mountain lions. As a result, white-tailed deer numbers have gone up, as have number of cats and raccoons, none of which are getting killed by bigger predators, which would be us, out in the woods this time of year with our shotguns. As a result, the things that deer eat–tree saplings and wildflowers–are dying off. When I did my PhD in Wisconsin, during my last survey at one site in June, there were no flowers, because the deer had eaten them all in May. In many forests in the east, all of the tree seedlings have been eaten by deer, so when the old trees die, there will be no forest. Due to the large numbers of raccoons and cats, there are many fewer songbirds than there would be otherwise (I’ll ignore the brown cowbird issue, though it’s important too). As a result, there are many more of the things songbirds eat: bugs that eat plants (including your garden).

    So the way to stop the slaughter of innocent plants and save the forests is either to reintroduce wolves and mountain lions into suburbia, or get out there with your shotgun and kill more deer, cats, and raccoons. Kind of gruesome, isn’t it?

    There’s a similar trophic cascade in the ocean with sharks and coral reefs, incidentally. Wolves and sharks can be very scary, but they are also very necessary. A healthy reef doesn’t have great schools of fish swimming around it, but it does have a lot of sharks patrolling.

    And then there’s the whole rest of the science of ecology, the part where you have resource flows, and ecosystems that transfer resources around, and complex interactions. That’s not a “cascade effect,” that’s the whole of two sister sciences, ecology and environmental science (which mostly deals with human infrastructural issues). Having studied ecology and environmental science for most of my life, it’s a little frustrating to see it so over-simplified. I’m sure the defensive reaction will come soon enough, because ecology gets no respect these days, even from those who are trying to tell other people to use it.

    Ultimately ecology comes down to lateral thinking, a skill that’s hard for most people because they were never taught it and rarely practice it. Arthur Conan Doyle captured the essence of such thinking in Sherlock Holmes. Contrived as the stories are, Holmes works the way ecologists work: he pulls together multiple strands of evidence to form a coherent narrative, then finds a way to test that narrative.

    If you’re worldbuilding, you need to do the same thing. An example is pulling together the problem of scarce water in the western US with the social imperative to grow and develop cities at all costs. The obvious answer is to ask residents to conserve water, but when a city does this and then uses the new “surplus” water to add more residents, it gets into this interesting, messy phenomenon called demand hardening. People have to have some water for life, and the more people you pack into a fixed amount of water, the more vital it is that this water never runs low. When it runs low, you get something like the Syrian Civil War, which was triggered in part by questionable water management policies. The area now controlled by ISIS was the worst affected, both by the water mismanagment, drought, and bad farming policy.

    That’s what I mean by weaving together multiple strands to form a coherent story, build a world. Here in California, we’ve got Syrian-style water laws, and we’ve got a lot of politicians who can’t think laterally enough to tackle growth and water needs together as a single issue (our governor, thank goodness, is good at lateral thinking. Governor Moonbeam he ain’t). Fortunately, our upstream neighbors are Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, not the Turks and Kurds. But still, if the US government broke down, things could get very messy indeed. This is why I’m a fan of good governance, but it’s also slightly beside the point. The point here is to see how multiple factors: water, growth, farming, policy, and governance, all come together to make a single story. If any of those change, the story changes radically too. That’s worldbuilding.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      This brings up the issue of limiting factors–the resources or environmental conditions that that control the growth, development, and distribution of a population within an ecosystem. Predation can be a limiting factor for elk, or water for a human city. In modern American society, there’s a definite trend to think of money as the only real limiting factor. If we have enough money, we can get whatever resource we need. When there is an actual scarcity of some resource, we tend to blame political or economic factors, rather than recognize that we just don’t get to make use of that resource–for example, the oil embargo in the 70’s. This, combined with the assumptions of continual growth behind modern economic theory, makes for a really distorted view of nature.

  2. Debbie Says:

    Thanks for the link, Jane. I enjoyed watching it. I actually got to see the wolves in Yellowstone many years ago. It was a great experience.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’d love to make that trip… One of these days, maybe. I’ve really enjoyed my contacts with wolves at sanctuaries, but the wild experience is something else all over again.

  3. dnprice01 Says:

    And this is why you are one of the best world building writers of all time 😉

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Great thoughts on world-building. One thing leads to another, and we often forget.

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