Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
2/24/2011 11:09:36 AM
Carl Safina’s new book The View From Lazy Point is a font of environmental wisdom on the natural world and all that affects it, including human behavior, economics, religion, and science. An ecologist who wrote the sea conservation classic Song for the Blue Ocean, Safina in his new book chronicles a year spent near and on the water, interspersing lyrical nature writing with forthright, eminently sensible commentaries on all the forces that threaten the blue ocean—and the blue planet as well.
Here is Safina on the “property rights” movement:
One can fully own a manufactured thing—a toaster, say, or a pair of shoes. But in what reasonable sense can one fully “own” and have “rights” to do what ever we want to land, water, air, and forests that are among the most valuable assets in humanity’s basic endowments? To say, in the march of eons, that we own these things into which we suddenly, fleetingly appear and from which we will soon vanish is like a newborn laying claim to the maternity ward, or a candle asserting ownership of the cake; we might as well declare that, having been handed a ticket to ride, we’ve bought the train. Let’s be serious.
On the immorality of dirty energy:
The right and necessary things are not always decided solely on economic considerations. If ever energy came cheap, slavery was it. Slavery created jobs for slave catchers, a shipping industry built on the slave trade, and a plantation economy that could remain profitable only with slave labor. Slavery was necessary to “stay competitive.” It was the linchpin of the Southern plantation economy. But no normal person today would argue that slavery is good for the economy. We’ve made at least that progress.
Yet we hear—all the time—arguments defending dirty energy on economic grounds. Those arguments are as morally bankrupt as the ones defending slavery in its heyday. It isn’t moral to force coming generations to deal with the consequences of our fossil-fuel orgy. It isn’t moral to insist, in effect, on holding them captive to our present economy.
And on resisting consumerism:
The 1960s counterculture attempted what we need now more than ever: a spirited culture of refusal, a counterlife. … The revolution is as simple as this: Don’t buy the products by which they drain you and feed themselves. Listen to people trying to warn you, but don’t vote for anyone trying to scare you. Resist! Do the unadvertised and the unauthorized. Comb someone’s hair. Plant seeds. Reread. Practice safe sex until you get it right. Go to a museum, aquarium, or zoo. Be .org- and be commercial-free. Photograph someone you love with no clothes on. Not them—you. Walk a brisk mile to nowhere and back. Mark a child’s height on a freshly painted wall. Climb into bed with the Arts or Science section of an actual newspaper and get a little newsprint on your fingers. Eat salad. Clean your old binoculars. Hoard your money until you get enough to make a difference to charity. Go to formal dinners in great-looking thrift-store clothing and brag about how much you paid. React badly to every ad and every exhortation about what you need, as though they are lying, as though they just came up from behind in the dark and said, “Give me your wallet.” Scream when they come to rob you. You’ll never go wrong. You won’t miss anything worthwhile. The country needs your lack of cooperation.
Look for an excerpt from The View From Lazy Point in the May-June issue of Utne Reader.
Source: The View From Lazy Point
Panel image by BaylorBear78, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/17/2011 4:54:34 PM
When James Lovelock rolled out his Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s, it was met with skepticism by many of his scientific colleagues. His suggestion that the Earth was a self-regulating system akin to an organism was bold—and, like many bold new theories, it attracted scads of doubters and detractors. But five decades later, writes David E. Moody in Natural History, Gaia theory is no longer looked down upon by many scientists—in fact, it has slowly become downright respectable.
Prior to Gaia theory, biologists and geologists were both quite comfortable in their respective domains. Each was concerned with evidence and events that encompassed the entire globe, but their separate spheres of understanding had little need or opportunity to interact. Gaia theory changed all that. There now exists a new domain, Earth System Science, that seeks to understand and to correlate a whole range of interdisciplinary phenomena. Earth System Science is the alter ego of Gaia theory, dressed up in a suit and tie, conservative in its language and predictions, but wedded to the basic principles articulated by Lovelock.
British evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton initially called the Gaia theory a “hopeless” notion, notes Moody, but by 1998 he had changed his tune, declaring it “ ‘Copernican’ in its implications, and added that it only awaits a Newton to describe more fully the laws by which Gaia could have evolved.”
Moody issues a note of caution, however:
Some commentators have misconstrued Gaia theory as suggesting that the Earth can be counted on to correct any environmental imbalances that humanity may introduce and restore the planet to a pristine state of beauty and order. There’s no reason to believe, to use the sarcastic words of the late Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, that Gaia is a ‘super housekeeping goddess’ operating with ‘whiter than white homeostatic detergent.’
Source: Natural History
(article not available online)
Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center
, licensed under
2/11/2011 10:46:20 AM
There’s an outbreak of bird beak deformities in Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, and scientists are trying to figure out what’s behind it. Birder’s World reports that black-capped chickadees, Northwestern crows, red-breasted nuthatches, and other birds are turning up with deformed beaks at unprecedented rates:
According to biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, more than 6 percent of adult black-capped chickadees and almost 17 percent of adult Northwestern crows in Alaska are developing grossly overgrown and often crossed beaks every year. …
“Together, the prevalence of beak abnormalities in adult Northwestern crows and that in black-capped chickadees in Alaska represent the highest rate of gross deformities ever recorded in wild bird populations,” write Caroline Van Hemert and Colleen M. Handel in the October 2010 issue of The Auk, the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
The scientists haven’t yet put their fingers on the cause of the deformities, which can arise from environmental contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, or infections. Their appearance “can be an early sign of a much larger underlying ecological problem,” Hemert and Handel wrote.
Dan Joling at Huffington Post spoke to the researchers and reports that previous outbreaks of beak deformities have been associated with environmental pollutants such as organochlorines in the Great Lakes region and selenium from agricultural runoff in California.
The affected birds, the scientists told him, live altered and sometimes shorter lives:
The deformities affect birds’ ability to feed, Van Hemert said, though many birds appear to cope by relying on food provided by humans at feeders rather than foraging.
Deformed beaks also can prevent adequate preening, she said, leaving feathers matted, dirty and without insulating value needed to survive the cold.
Read more about the deformities—and report them if you’re a birdwatcher who lives in the affected areas—at the website of the Alaska Science Center.
Sources: Birder’s World, Huffington Post, Alaska Science Center
Image by Wayne Hall.
2/2/2011 2:36:40 PM
Most zoologists would be thrilled to find an animal species yet unknown to science—but Kim Howell’s 1996 discovery of a rare toad in Tanzania has turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it lived near a river waterfall that was slated to be dammed for hydropower. In a gripping conservation tale called simply “The Toad,” Guernica recounts Howell’s discovery and the ensuing conflict it has brought—to him, to Tanzania, and to the beleaguered amphibian at the center of the fight:
Discovering a new species can define a zoologist’s career and Howell’s big find came in 1996 when he reached into some vegetation at the base of a waterfall and pulled out a little toad, believed to inhabit the smallest native habitat of any vertebrate on Earth. Following his discovery, the Kihansi spray toad became the focus of one of the most controversial conservation efforts in recent decades, a crucible for the clash between biodiversity conservation and Tanzania’s need for economic development.
“I’ve often said I wish I had never discovered the toad,” reflected Howell.
In plot turns that recall an outrageous T.C. Boyle story but are in fact true, author Maura R. O’Connor describes an elaborate artificial spray system set up to mist the wild toads’ habitat after the dam was built; an airlift in which 500 toads were flown, in boxes lined with foil and wet paper towels, to a captive breeding program at the Bronx Zoo; and the wild toads’ subsequent extinction, probably from a fungus that has endangered amphibians worldwide. Now scientists are considering reintroducing the Kihansi spray toad to its native gorge at great cost—and with great uncertainty.
Ultimately, story prods us to ask hard questions. How far should we go in attempting to save endangered species? Is an animal removed from its native habitat really “saved”? One ethicist lays out some of the terrain to O’Connor:
“We’ll never know with any degree of certainty whether these animals can be reintroduced or not,” said Mark Michael, a professor of environmental ethics at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. “There are a lot of environmentalists who say, ‘If you take a species out of the wild and there is very little possibility of reintroducing them, then you shouldn’t do it.’”
But proponents of captive breeding believe it’s better to have the species in the world than to let them disappear, even if the animals that remain in zoos are essentially, as Michael said, “museum pieces.”
Image by Julie Larsen Maher ©
Wildlife Conservation Society
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