In the year to come, I boldly predict that you’ll accomplish the improbable. You’re going to complete a marathon–considered the most gruelling of endurance races–without training, doping or hardly even trying. Whatever your current form, I assure you this feat can be accomplished before the end of the calendar year. No sweat.
A marathon is the pinnacle of distance events–42.195 kilometres. Simple arithmetic shows that to finish a marathon by the end of the coming year you’ll need to walk a mere 116 metres per day starting January 1st–a daily jaunt about the length of a football field. Heck, you could complete this distance with a routine stroll to the corner store. If a somnambulist, you might do it in your sleep.
But you object, “That doesn’t qualify!” Sure, a marathon in 365 days doesn’t approach the Olympic standard, but what distinguishes the dedicated distance runner from the rest of us can be summed up in one word–rate. Virtually everybody can complete a marathon in a few months; only conditioned athletes can do it in a few hours. And no human has yet performed the feat in less than 2:02:57, the world record.
Pace is important–it’s what earns a trip to the podium–but it’s not restricted to physiological capacity. Rates are crucial to other aspects of biology, like ecology and evolution. And problems can arise when rates clash, especially mismatches between natural systems and people, like the tempo of our environmental impacts or societal expectations.
Take climate change. Birds and butterflies tell us that a warmer world is already here. Bit by bit, myriad species have been making poleward shifts in their distribution–an unmistakable signal of a hotter planet.1
And this is not the first time the world’s biological map has been redrawn. At the end of the last ice age, glaciers receded and plant species extended their ranges in step with the retreating ice. Typical northward advances by trees, like pine and spruce, were 100 to 400 metres per year–a floral procession at a glacial pace.
It’s not just the magnitude of global warming that might prove unpleasant, but its swiftness. A 3-degree Celsius rise this century would amount to change 33 times faster than since the last glaciation–equal to the disparity in running speed between a human and a crab. Some species may not be able to keep pace.
This upheaval is likely to fracture communities of living things. It’s as if your whole town had to relocate in a string of uncoordinated departures, with no assurance of safe arrival. Imagine teachers, police, garbage collectors, movers and construction crews arriving at the new location in disjointed fashion, or perhaps not enduring the journey at all. Intimate connections would be severed; services would be lost.
Of course, no species lives forever. The fossil record reveals that most organisms that have ever lived have gone extinct. It’s the tempo of impoverishment that makes our times unprecedented. Biologists estimate at least 3,000 species are vanishing each year, easily outstripping the appearance of new life forms at about one new species per year.2-4 Even in our day-to-day lives, the effects of speed can be counterintuitive, sometimes counterproductive. Drive faster and arrive sooner, right? A traffic study from the U.K. suggests not. If the speed along a multi-lane expressway is doubled from 50 km/h to 100 km/h, it can handle only one-third as many automobiles. At 110 km/h, the capacity declines further, to just 27 per cent.5,6 The benefits of speed are overwhelmed by the need for safe stopping distances. Slower is faster.
And slower might be the key to improving our environmental prospects. There is encouraging news that nature is resilient, given the chance. Climate scientists tell us that limiting global warming to 0.1 degrees C per decade would diminish the risk of unwelcome surprises. And living resources–from the salmon on your table to the wood in the table itself–are renewable, capable of replenishment. Wealth in the long haul means tempering our demands to match the speed of nature.
Like Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, arriving at a prosperous future is not a foot race. It requires a measured pace. At the end of the day, a sustainable outcome would represent the most prized gold medal of all.
Toronto Star, 18 December 2007
 Parmesan, C. 1999. Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming. Nature 399:579-583.
 May, R. M. 2010. Ecological science and tomorrow’s world. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 365:41-47.
 Meyer, S. M. 2004. End of the wild. Boston Review.
 Woodruff, D. S. 2001. Declines of biomes and biotas and the future of evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98:5471-5476.
 Monbiot, G. 2006. Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Doubleday Canada, Toronto.
 Storkey, A. 2005. Motorway-based national coach system.