The chaos in the kitchen: how ecosystems are like pancakes. (Yum?)
To put this not-so-eloquently, Earth’s ecosystems are like grandma’s famous pancakes: her recipe, when followed correctly, produces the fluffiest, tastiest, most golden-brown pancakes of anyone in town. That’s where Earth’s ecosystems have been for millions of years. Before her recipe—that is, before Earth had stable ecosystems—too little or not all of the ingredients existed to make that perfect batter. No matter how hard you tried, it couldn’t be done.
Now imagine grandma’s recipe was so good that your family opened a restaurant. For years, it was the talk of the town. Now you’ve taken over, but other breakfast restaurants have opened in recent years, and some of them serve breakfast food 24/7.
To stay in business, you’ve adopted a new (badly-thought-out) strategy: you turn off your water supply and every day, customers bring their own water to help you save money for better advertising. Today, you have all the ingredients to serve 1,000 people. All your customers come in, and one by one, you add their water to the mixture—the mixture that everyone is eating from, mind you. At first, as you’re adding water to the mixture, it all seems to be going fine. It’s almost to the right consistency when you get a phone call, so you step away. While you’re gone, everyone in line pays your assistant, who is lazy and just lets whoever brought water dump it in the batter…without filtering it. Worse yet, some people didn’t measure how much water they actually had; they just filled glasses of different sizes and dumped them in.
When you get back from your phone call, you look inside the vat and see that the batter is soupy, watered-down, and has dust and dirt from people’s unfiltered water. But it’s too late now. Most people are sitting at tables, eagerly waiting for their stack of grandma’s famous pancakes. There are a few people left in line waiting to pay, and a few of them brought glasses of water. In anger, you take their money, but tell them to dump their water in a flower pot and go sit down.
To compensate for the soupy batter, you cook the pancakes longer than grandma’s recipe says to, hoping the excess water will cook out and save the pancakes. But no: they spread out until they’re thin as paper. So you turn up the heat—and the pancakes start to burn.
Outside, people are getting restless. They paid good money for grandma’s famous pancakes, and they all have places to be and things to do. Several of them come back to the kitchen to ask what’s taking so long, only to see you scrambling around and yelling at your assistant for being so negligent. When the small band of customers asks what’s going on, you angrily tell them the pancakes will be out soon.
Unconvinced, the customers go back to the dining room and explain what they saw. Some of the first-time customers leave; they like the other restaurants anyway. The long-time customers—those who have been loyal for years—refuse to believe that the pancakes could be ruined, and tell other customers how grandma’s pancakes are the best they’ve ever had, and how, if people leave, they will never find better pancakes anywhere in the world, ever. The customers who witnessed the chaos in the kitchen argue with the long-time customers, but are called out as liars who are trying to promote competing restaurants. In the confusion, some undecided customers peek inside the kitchen, see the chaos, and sneak out of the restaurant. One stays behind and manages to convince a few loyalists to go see the chaos in the kitchen for themselves. Those who refuse, say, “We’ve never gone back to see it before, and the pancakes always come out fine. Why should this be any different?”
By this time, you have managed to produce a couple good-looking pancakes and threw them on top of the pile to cover them up the terrible ones. Still, a majority are coming out ruined, and there’s no way you’re going to feed everyone in the restaurant. Then the door opens, and a few of your most loyal customers see the good-looking pancakes you threw on top. You just smile and assure them their pancakes will be out soon. Some, however, notice you covering up the burnt and watered-down pancakes, and leave the restaurant. Some switch sides and say the restaurant is clearly failing and needs to be shut down, while others say that nothing like this will ever happen again.
When you finally manage to cook a few dozen good pancakes and several hundred bad-but-edible ones, you roll them out to the dining room—only to see that, of the 1,000 people who were in your restaurant this morning, a mere 300 remain. You force yourself to smile and start serving them. Only the first ten customers get the best pancakes of the batch, and don’t notice the ruined ones underneath, and promise to bring even more water the next day to compensate for the idiots who walked out. They go on eating breakfast happily, their consciences clear. But then the best pancakes are gone, and other customers pick at their pancakes in disgust, or throw them in the trash, refusing to accept the pancakes at all. And when all the pancakes are gone, there are still 100 people who haven’t been served at all, and demand refunds, or storm out and vow never to eat at your restaurant again.
The point of the story is this: fossil fuels were once the best-of-the-best. Yes, they provided the foundation society needed to get its feet off the ground, but then they got too big, and started doing long-term damages. Some people turned to more sustainable energies and grew their own niche markets that provided energies around-the-clock, which was attractive to an even larger market. Now that fossil fuels are being proven to have adverse effects on Earth’s ecosystems, people are switching to the sustainable resources, which are becoming cheaper and more abundant every day. Only the loyalists, the people who have been in the business their entire lives, refuse to see what’s going on behind the scenes and keep supplying the necessary economic resources. Only by educating the general public, showing them the damages for themselves, and converting them to cleaner, ever-cheapening, and near-infinite energy sources can we begin to heal Earth’s damaged ecosystems.
“But it’s tradition” is no longer a valid excuse. There will always be a better recipe.
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Alex Martin is the author of six futuristic science-fiction novels. His next book will be published on October 17, 2017. He's a science communicator, having given assemblies at schools, colleges, bookstores, and libraries. He also manages the Experience Daliona website, an extension of his books, where he also publishes factual content about real concepts in science.