Fionn Byrne. Operation: ‘Early Breakfast’. In At Extremes: Bracket 3. Ed. Lola Sheppard & Maya Przybylski. Actar (Forthcoming).
OPERATION 'EARLY BREAKFAST': ACCELERATED ECOLOGY
Through the burning of fossil fuels the human species has accelerated the pace of environmental change globally beyond historical rates in which living organisms have evolved. At extreme environments even small shifts in environmental conditions can mean the difference between the survival of a species or its failure. As global temperatures rise territory once inhospitable to trees defined by the arctic treeline is made habitable. However, the evolutionary means of tree migration is rate limited and unable to capitalize on the accelerated transformation of the environment. Augmented biological systems are called for to flourish in the anthropogenic environment.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest recognized that a species best able to reproduce its genetic material in a given environment would flourish. Without exception, all life today is the genetic descendant of previously living organisms which were able to survive until able to successfully reproduce.1 Although a variable time scale exists between the beginning of an organism’s life and the moment of successful reproduction, the environment in which any organism lives will always be subject to change.
Environmental change then is the driving force of evolution, where individuals who are not able to adapt to dynamic external conditions fail to reproduce (negative selection) and those who survive do so either by migrating to follow favorable conditions or by adapting in place to the changing environment.2 In situ adaptation is accomplished either by an organism resisting or accommodating change, termed robustness and evolvability.3 More specifically, evolvability is defined as “the capacity to generate heritable, selectable phenotypic variation.”4 We will return to this definition in just a moment, but first it is important to recognize that a growing body of experimental data is now beginning to suggest that robustness and evolvability may also be the subject of selection.5 Or stated otherwise, that Darwinian evolution selects not just the individual best evolved, but also best able to evolve.6 This point is particularly interesting when we consider the velocity of environmental change.
While environmental change is a constant, the velocity (both speed and direction) of this change is not. Today we find ourselves in a situation where the pace of environmental change has been augmented beyond evolutionary historical rates by human modification and consumption of resources. Thus we must accept that the measured increase in the velocity of environmental change to novel rates corresponds to a shift in the selection process of Darwinian evolution from natural to anthropocentric. As an increase in the speed or scale of environmental change leads to selection for greater evolvability,7 we return to our definition and understand that the outcome of evolution by anthropocentric selection can be projected to be a favouring of species with a high level of phenotypic plasticity. Or stated otherwise, humans are forcing rapid change in environmental conditions where the fittest organisms are those which are best able to adapt to change.
At issue here, notwithstanding the fact that the current rate of biological extinction is estimated to be between one thousand and ten thousand times higher than expected background (not influenced by human activity) rates,8 suggesting that a high number of species are simply unable to adapt, is that the organisms which are favored to survive and flourish in a fast changing environment are also often times introduced, invasive or alien species.9 Again, evolvability and phenotypic plasticity are critical to the discussion. Chown et al., state clearly: “The extent of phenotypic plasticity has also long been considered a major difference between introduced and indigenous plant species” and “differences in phenotypic plasticity between introduced and indigenous species are likely to be particularly important in mediating responses to climate change”.10 The reason this is a critical issue is because invasive species have a severe negative impact on indigenous biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human health and economy.11 The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has gone so far as to identify biological invasion as a major threat to global biodiversity and human welfare.12 Perhaps even more drastic, ecologically speaking, is Marilyn Jordan’s (a Senior Conservation Scientist with The Nature Conservancy) assertion that “in ecosystems where 90 percent is non-native, there is no functioning food web left.”13 While this remains a global phenomenon, one terrestrial zone expected to face significant challenge is the forest-tundra ecotone, more commonly referred to as the arctic treeline.
The arctic treeline is the most northerly extent of tree growth. It is defined by the zone where trees are replaced by nontrees along an environmental gradient.14 At extreme environments such as this, even small shifts in environmental conditions can mean the difference between the survival of a species or its failure. As global temperatures rise, territory once inhospitable to trees is made habitable,15 and unique to treeline zones is the condition where this newly habitable environment has no pre-established trees. The implications of migrating into a previously un-colonized area are not only the lack of competition, predation, or herbivory but as stated by Jordan above, diversity is critical to a functioning food web and in the case of the treeline, the colonizers make up one hundred percent of the woody plant material.
Finally, the true scope of the problem becomes clear when we recall the conclusion that the species best able to colonize this rapidly warming habitat are introduced, non-native species. Again, the evolvability of introduced species makes them more able to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Warnings from authors such as Elliott et al., seem to fall short of expressing enough alarm about the developing issue that if climate change and the amount of human activity in the arctic continues to increase then large areas may be colonized by invasive plant species and negatively affect local wildlife.16 The vast circumpolar area which will increasingly support the growth of trees is projected to reach far north into the high arctic. The work of Guertin-Pasquier suggests that in a hundred years from now the climate conditions in the high arctic will be similar to those of about 2.7 million years ago; “Maybe, at the end of this century, we will have the conditions that permit the growth of this kind of vegetation [trees]. You might be able to take a seed of something we found there and plant it. It’s not impossible that the treeline could reach Bylot Island in the near future.”17 Should such a vast territory undergoing an unprecedented rate of environmental change be left to transition un-monitored and un-aided, enormous tracks of land will be colonized by non-native introduced species and have a severely reduced functional capacity in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
A rate limiting obstacle to colonizing new territory for both native and non-native species is their method of seed dispersal. Especially at range margins, where conditions are most extreme, dispersal is a key factor for species migration.18 Lindgren et al., state specifically that a “lack of viable seed is an important factor limiting plant establishment in alpine habitats and the forest–tundra ecotone.”19 Whether biotic (example birds) or abiotic (example wind) factors are the primary means of propagation for a species, any movement is limited by a metric of time and distance. Although plants have evolved many physiological and morphological characteristic to improve their ability to migrate over longer distances or in faster times (example seed taste relative to birds, and seed wings relative to wind), every advantage was selected by Darwinian evolution in an environment undergoing a significantly slower rate of climactic change. The evolutionary means of tree migration is rate limited and unable to capitalize on the accelerated transformation of the environment due to anthropogenic activity. A strategic response to this issue which is gaining attention is assisted migration. In order to accelerate the migration of species, humans are intervening by selectively moving species or planting seeds in desired locations. In effect, with this strategy, methods for biological systems to respond to environmental change are anthropogenically augmented to match our acceleration of environmental change, with the ultimate goal of maintaining biodiversity and important ecosystem functions (such as carbon sequestration). A call to arms for assisted migration has been delivered by McLachlan et al., and is worth quoting at length:
“Regardless of forthcoming scientific progress, the magnitude of impending climate-driven extinctions requires immediate action. Delays in policy formulation and implementation will make the situation even more urgent. We advocate developing management strategies with the flexibility to respond to emerging insights from basic and applied research, but we cannot wait for better data. To an uncomfortable extent this war will have to be fought with “the army we have, not the army we want.””20
In this war Operation ‘Early Breakfast’ imagines a human intervention into the evolutionary means of biological reproduction and vegetal migration of native species. This project begins to question and explore methods of increasing the distribution of native seed at the tree line boundary, reducing the advantage of non-native vegetation and accelerating the growth of biologically diverse habitats.
No human endeavour has been more explicit in its destruction of the environment than war. In his book Terror From The Air, Peter Sloterdijk argues that “the 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment.”21 Beginning with chemical warfare during World War I, where the opponents’ air and atmosphere was the target, modification of the enemies’ environment reached a climax during the Vietnam War. Operations Trail Dust and Ranch Hand involved the large scale aerial dispersal of herbicides. Operation Popeye and Projects Cirrus and Stormfurry disrupted weather patterns by either increasing or decreasing cloud cover though the dispersal of dry ice and later silver iodide. The Commando Vault Program saw the above ground detonation of 15,000 pound bombs in order to clear any organic matter in a 300 meter radius without creating a blast crater, to be later used as helicopter landing zones. Operation Fishbowl was a series of near-space high altitude nuclear detonations carried out to test the capability of such explosions to manipulate atmospheric conditions with the desired outcome of disrupting communication systems. These are only a few examples of environmental modifications for military purposes of which there are many more.22 The extent of these activities and their far reaching implications resulted in a globally accepted need to ban environmental modification. In 1978 the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) was entered into force and prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification techniques.
Today, the military still provides ample precedents and many innovative technologies to rapidly, efficiently, and effectively modify environments. DARPA’s Blue Angel Program has been established to accelerate the manufacture of pharmaceuticals by using plant-made proteins and to accomplish this is exploring means of rapidly growing enough tobacco plants to realize their goal of greater than 10 million doses in one month.23 Or consider the EATR Program. The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot is designed to forage for plant biomass which is then converted to fuel, allowing the robot to theoretically autonomously operate indefinitely.24 Similar to these two examples, Operation ‘Early Breakfast’ draws on the intelligence and technology of the military re-imagined to carry out the same task of environmental modification with the goal not of destruction, but towards greater biological productivity and success.
OPERATION ‘EARLY BREAKFAST’
In the Canadian Arctic, mobility is reliant on air travel as environmental factors make the construction of roads an onerous task. It is by air then that the arctic tree line is most commonly crossed. Operation ‘Early Breakfast’ proposes the dropping of modified cluster munitions (CBU-x) from aircraft once in proximity to the treeline. Public or private planes could be imagined to carry modified cluster bomb units that would be dropped at predetermined locations along their original flight path. Any minimal costs in terms of fuel created by the additional drag and weight of the CBU-x would be argued to be offset by the gains biodiversity and ecosystem services. Once dropped from the aircraft these munitions will distribute multiple fragmentation mines (M16A-x), as is the normal use of CBU units. The proposed difference is that the M16A-x is redesigned to disperse not metallic or plastic fragments upon detonation, but instead a dense cloud of seeds sourced from native species. The trigger mechanism is imagined to be two fold.
The first is temperature sensitive. With this strategy, seed fragmentation mines can be dropped in locations beyond the current habitable rage of the desired species. When temperatures reach a predetermined level where the plant is known to survive the trigger detonates the mine, dispersing seeds in the appropriate microclimate. A second trigger relies on keystone species. For example the woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) who’s habitat encompasses the arctic treeline, is expected to also migrate north with increasing global temperatures. In this case bounding fragmentation mines which deploy tripwires need only be modified such that when tripped they are launched not to waist height for detonation but higher, clear of the species below. In both cases the naturally evolved means of species propagation of arctic vegetation is augmented in order to accelerate their colonization of territory made newly habitable by anthropogenic global climate warming. Assisted migration is maximized by existing technology and logistics, our weapons in the war on the environment.
1 Richard E. Lenski et al., “Balancing Robustness and
Evolvability,” PLoS Biology 4,12:e428 (2006): 2190.
2 Gabriel G. Perron et al., “The rate of environmental
change drives adaptation to an antibiotic sink,” Journal
of Evolutionary Biology 21, 6 (2008): 1724.
3 Andreas Wagner, Robustness and evolvability in living
systems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005),
4 Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, “Evolvability,”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95
5 Gunter P. Wagner and Lee Altenberg, “Complex
adaptations and the evolution of evolvability,” Evolution
50, no.3 (1996): 967–976.
6 David J. Earl and Michael W. Deem, “Evolvability is a
selectable trait,” Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences 101, no.32 (2004): 11536.
7 Ibid.: 11536.
8 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Red List, “Species Extinction – The Facts,” http://
9 For an compelling discussion on invasive species,
migration and climate change see Jason Groves,
“Nonspecies Invasion,” in Telemorphosis: Theory in the
Era of Climate Change Volume 1, ed. Tom Cohen
(Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 183-202.
10 Steven L. Chown et al., “Phenotypic plasticity mediates
climate change responses among invasive and
indigenous arthropods,” Proceedings of the Royal
Society B: Biological Sciences 274 (2007): 2531.
11 Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), “The Invasive
Species Problem,” www.issg.org/about_is.htm.
12 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “Ecosystems and
human well-being: biodiversity synthesis,” (Wahsington,
DC: World Resources Institute, 2005).
13 The Dirt, “The Rise of Novel Ecosystems,” http://
14 George C. Stevens and John F. Fox, “The Causes of
Treeline,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 22
15 Camille Parmesan, “Ecological and Evolutionary
Responses to Recent Climate Change,” Annual Review
of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37 (2006):
16 Milissa Elliott et al., “Non-indigenous plant species along
roadsides and other transportation routes in the
Mackenzie Valley,” (Toronto: York University, 2010),
17 NunatsiuqOnline, “Warming Arctic climate may mean
trees for Nunavut in 100 years,”
18 Robert D. Holt, “On the evolutionary ecology of species’
ranges,” Evolutionary Ecology Research 5 (2003): 159–
19 Åsa Lindgren et al., “The Impact of Disturbance and
Seed Availability on Germination of Alpine Vegetation in
the Scandinavian Mountains,” Arctic, Antarctic, and
Alpine Research 39, no.3 (2007): 449-454.
20 Jason S. McLachlan et al., “A Framework for Debate of
Assisted Migration in an Era of Climate Change,”
Conservation Biology 21, no2 (2007): 301.
21 Peter Sloterdijk, “Terror from the Air,” (Los Angeles:
Semiotext(e), 2009): 14.
22 For more on environmental modification and the military
see Mike Hill, “Ecologies of War,” in Telemorphosis:
Theory in the Era of Climate Change: Volume 1, ed. Tom
Cohen (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2012),
23 DARPA, “DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to
Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic,” www.darpa.mil/
24 John Byrne, “Military Death Cyborg Synergy Come True,”
Rawstrory (2009) http://rawstory.com/blog/2009/07/new-