Posted by: chrismaser | March 9, 2010



Nature, as I have said, has intrinsic value only and so allows each component of an ecosystem to develop its prescribed structure, carry out its ecological function, and interact with other components through their evolved, interdependent processes and self-reinforcing feedback loops. No component is more or less important than another; each may differ from the other in form, but all are complementary in function.

Our intellectual challenge is recognizing that no given factor can be singled out as the sole cause of anything. All things operate synergistically as cumulative effects that exhibit a lag period before fully manifesting themselves. Cumulative effects, which encompass many little, inherent novelties, cannot be understood statistically because ecological relationships are far more complex and far less predictable than our statistical models lead us to believe—a circumstance that Francis Bacon may have been eluding to when he said, “The subtlety of Nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding.”1 In essence, Bacon’s observation recognizes that we live in the invisible present and thus cannot recognize cumulative effects.

The invisible present is our inability to stand at a given point in time and see the small, seemingly innocuous effects of our actions as they accumulate over weeks, months, and years. Obviously, we can all sense change—day becoming night, night turning into day, a hot summer changing into a cold winter, and so on. But some people who live for a long time in one place can see longer-term events and remember the winter of the exceptionally deep snow or a summer of deadly heat.

Despite such a gift, it’s a rare individual who can sense, with any degree of precision, the changes that occur over the decades of their lives. At this scale of time we tend to think of the world as being in some sort of steady state (with the exception of technology), and we typically underestimate the degree to which change has occurred—such as global warming. We are unable to sense slow changes directly, and we are even more limited in our abilities to interpret the relationships of cause and effect in these changes. Hence, the subtle processes that act quietly and unobtrusively over decades reside cloaked in the invisible present, such as gradual declines in habitat quality.

At length, however, cumulative effects, gathering themselves below our level of conscious awareness, suddenly become visible. By then, it is too late to retract our decisions and actions even if the outcome they cause is decidedly negative with respect to our intentions. So it is that cumulative effects from our activities multiply unnoticed until something in the environment shifts dramatically enough for us to see the outcome through casual observation. That shift is defined by a threshold of tolerance in the system, beyond which the system as we knew it, suddenly, visibly, becomes something else. Within our world, this same dynamic takes place in a vast array of scales in all natural and artificial systems, from the infinitesimal to the gigantic.

At a personal level, everyone experiences cumulative effects, lag periods, and thresholds when they become ill, even if it is just a common cold. For instance, if you go to a social function, you may become infected with the cold virus, something you would not know. In fact, you would be unaware of the virus now multiplying in your body, a phenomenon that may continue unnoticed for some days (the cumulative effects within the lag period, or in parlance of disease, the incubation period). At length, you begin to sense something is wrong; you just do not feel “up to snuff” (the threshold); and shortly thereafter, you have the full-blown symptoms of the classic cold. In this case, the entire process encompasses a few days—from infection to expression.

A shorter-term example of cumulative effects, lag period, and threshold is the cutting down of my neighbor’s dying walnut tree. Initially, a man from the tree service sawed off the small branches with intact twigs. The effect was barely discernable at first, even as they began to pile up on the ground. Each severed branch represented a cumulative effect that would have been all but unnoticeable had they not been accumulating under the tree.

After an hour or so (lag period) of removing the small limbs on one side of the tree, the cumulative effects gradually became visible as they crossed the threshold. Had the same volume of twigs been removed from throughout the tree and simultaneously gathered and removed from the ground, the cumulative effects would not have been as apparent. Nevertheless, the tree was gradually transformed into a stark skeleton of larger branches and the main trunk. Then the large branches were cut off a section at a time, with the same visual effect as when the small ones had been removed, until only the trunk remained. The piecemeal removal of the tree created a slowly changing vista of my neighbor’s house, until I had an unobstructed view of it for the first time, as another stark threshold was crossed.

If we now increase the spatial magnitude that encompasses the formation of a river’s delta, the time scale involved for the cumulative effects to cross the threshold of visibility may well require centuries to millennia. When a river reaches the sea, it slows and drops its load of sediment. As the amount of sediment accrues on the seabed, it diverts the river’s flow, causing it to deposit additional sediment loads in other areas (cumulative effects). Thus, over many years (lag period), the accumulated sediment begins to show above the water (threshold) and increasingly affects the river’s flow as it forms a classic delta. The speed with which the delta grows has numerous variables, such as the amount of precipitation within the river’s drainage basin in any given year, as well as the amount of its annual sediment load. Many of today’s extant river deltas began developing around 8,500 years ago, as the global level of the seas stabilized following the end of the last ice age.2 And so the process of change and novelty continues unabated in all its myriad and astounding scales.


Related Posts:

• The Law Of Cosmic Unification

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Principle 2: All relationships are inclusive and productive.

• Principle 3: The only true investment is energy from sunlight.

• Principle 4: All systems are defined by their function.

• Principle 5: All relationships result in a transfer of energy.

• Principle 6: All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops.

• Principle 7: All relationships have one or more tradeoffs.

• Principle 8: Change is a process of eternal becoming.

• Principle 9: All relationships are irreversible.

• Principle 10: All systems are based on composition, structure, and          function.

• Principle 12: All systems are cyclical, but none are perfect circles.

• Principle 13: Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality.

• Principle 14: Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems.


  1. Francis Bacon. http://Science.prodos.ORG (accessed January 2, 2009).

  2. (1) Sid Perkins. O River Deltas, Where Art Thou? Science News, 172 (2007):118 and (2) Pippa L. Whitehouse, Mark B. Allen, and Glenn A. Milne. Glacial Isostatic Adjustment As a Control on Coastal Processes: An Example From the Siberian Arctic. Geology, 35 (2007):747–750.

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This series of blogs is excerpted from my 2009 book, Social-Environmental Planning: The Design Interface Between Everyforest and Everycity, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 321 pp.

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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