Heroes do Exist: Environment Champion, Bob Brown

Australian Bob Brown is a humble man who’s accomplished extraordinary things, not for himself, but for his fellow earthlings. His goodness makes the heart glad, inspires, and assures: that each of us, where we are, doing what we’re able, can foster needed change.

Brown had been a physician for twelve years, moving from the Sydney area to Tasmania out of love for wilderness. There, he would become active in the state’s environmental movement, subsequently founding The Wilderness Society and serving as its director for five years, a commitment leading to his giving up his medical practice.

Such dedication characterizes Brown, unstinting in his endeavors to promote a global democracy and green economy, single payer healthcare, human rights, and environmental welfare.

In 1982-3, The Wilderness Society helped organize resistance to the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Franklin River in a large area of wilderness. 1500 showed up to blockade bulldozers. 600 were arrested, including Brown. He would spend nineteen days in prison. The good part: the day after his release, he was elected into Tasmania’s parliament.

Parliament, however, proved an unfriendly place, with only two other members voting to halt dam construction, despite 20,000 protestors on the streets of Hobart, the capital. In 1983, the issue moved to the Australian High Court, which ruled to halt the construction in a 4-3 vote.

Today, the wild river area attracts 200,000 visitors annually and has created thousands of jobs. The assertive protest efforts confirmed Brown’s belief that small, individual efforts at reform aren’t sufficient. Mass, collective protest is necessary to ward off powerful pecuniary interests.

In 1986, Brown was shot at and assaulted for protesting logging at Tasmania’s Farm House Creek.

In 1995, he was imprisoned twice for protesting logging in Tasmania’s Tarkine Wilderness.

In 2006, as a member of Tasmania’s Parliament, he initiated legal action to protect Tasmania’s Wielangta forest.

Additionally, he has authored bills advocating Death with Dignity, a nuclear free Tasmania, gay law reform, and lowering parliamentary salaries.

With the help of fellow Green members of Parliament (he was one of the Australia Green Party founders), the size of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area has doubled to 1.4 million hectares.

In 2011, as the elected leader of the Greens, first in the world legislation was passed, mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emission and the adoption of renewable energy resources.

In June 2912, Brown resigned from the Senate to found the Bob Brown Organization, a non-profit fund to assist Australian environmental campaigns and activists (bobbrown.org.au).

Now approaching 79, Brown is sanguine about his mortality: “I am an optimist. I’m also an opsimath. I learn as I get older. And I have never been happier in my life. Hurtling to death, I am alive and loving being Green.”

May Brown’s successful efforts kindle a fire in all of us to vehemently contest, whenever and wherever, those egocentric forces of greed that impede social equity, poverty’s elimination, a peaceful earth, and an abiding wilderness in which species achieve their destiny.

–rj

Democrat Sellout of North Atlantic Right Whale in New Spending Bill


Yesterday, Senate democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Patrick Leahy, assured the extinction of the rapidly declining right whale, inserting a rider into a sweeping 1.7 trillion spending bill. The government-funding bill for the fiscal year, ending September 30, 2023, received over-whelming bipartisan support.

The policy rider calls for continuation of current lobster trap practice up through 2028, cancelling out a recent Federal court decision affirming the National Marine Fisheries Service mandate, ordering employment of weak lobster trap ropes to preempt whale entanglement and restriction of lobster harvesting between October and January.

As is, the court delayed its implementation for two years to allow the lobster industry time to adjust to the new measures.

In my last post, I noted the plight of the North Atlantic right whale, down to just 340 whales. Ominously, no calfs were born in 2022. Fishing gear such as lobster traps and ship collisions are largely responsible for the decline. I worried that political interests might win out.

The measure was initially introduced by Maine Republican Martha Collins.
That Democrat leadership would join is a knife in the back. We expect this kind of thing from Republicans, but not Democrats.

Its implications at large reenforce the priority, worldwide, given to political and pecuniary interests over doing the right thing to protect our environment under assault by climate change propelled by human disregard for diminishing resources, continuing dependance on fossil fuels, and resistance to court remedies mitigating habitat loss and protection of endangered species that include the North Atlantic right whale.

President Biden, who recently donated $35bn of tax payer revenue to the Teamsters retirement fund, hinted his support of Maine lobster employees in ordering 200 lobsters for his recent state dinner bash, honoring French president, Emmanuel Macron. (Not widely reported, the fare wasn’t served-up until 10:30 pm, many of the 300 guests having left.)

Lobster industry advocates contend that the whales do not intrude into lobster fishing areas and that there isn’t any documented instance of entanglement. This is demonstrably false. Observer sightings, aerial reconnaissance, and vessel surveys confirm their intrusion every month of the year for the last ten years!

In 2020, a video documented a right whale breaching in lower Blue Hill Bay, where thousands of lobster traps are fished.

Historically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has conducted numerous aerial surveys during the fall and winter months in Jordan Basin and around Cashes Ledge and Outer Fall. From this effort, 212 individual right whales were identified in the central Gulf of Maine where Maine lobstermen fish between 2002-2008.

Horribly, the facts reveal that Maine marine mammals, including right whales, get entangled in vertical lines rising to the surface from lobster and crab traps as well as gillnet gear. From 1997 to 2017, at least three right whales were entangled in Maine coastal lobster fisheries, and three more were caught in offshore lobster fisheries in the Gulf of Maine (NOAA).

As most entanglements can’t be traced to their place of origin, a letter from 18 concerned scientists to the Maine Delegation in 2019, highlighted that “the number of North Atlantic right whales in Maine waters, the number of entanglements that are occurring in Maine waters, and the severity of all entanglements and their effects upon the right whale population are all significantly underestimated.”

Their letter also states that the “combined, high lobster trap density and simultaneous whale occurrence will lead to entanglements in any part of the ocean. Right whales are demonstrably occurring in Maine lobster fishing zones, and 87 percent of the U.S. Atlantic lobster fishery falls within Maine waters—representing about 3 million licensed traps and approximately 400,000 vertical lines. Every single vertical line poses an entanglement risk.”

Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, immediately responded to the spending bill insertion. “With the rate we’ve been killing right whales, extinction is expected to occur between the next 20 to 40 years. In the absence of the new rule, we’ve got more years of unsustainable killing going on.”

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this rider will doom the right whale to extinction,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “Even if you got rid of all other sources of mortality, entanglements with fishing gear alone are enough to drive the species to extinction by reducing births and increasing deaths.”

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law in 1972 to protect marine mammals from extinction in the United States.

“What a terrible anniversary present,” said Davenport.

rj

Lobsters or Whales?


I was raised a New Englander and, by custom, eating lobster had been a staple in my diet. The problem with custom, however, is that we seldom question its tenets, propelling us to mindlessly continue behavior that scrutiny might render pause, if not discontinuance.

My misgivings began some years years ago when I found myself in a restaurant featuring a large water tank, containing lobsters scavenging its pebbled bottom, oblivious to their impending fate of being boiled live.

It spoiled everything for me. I no longer could enjoy squeezing the shell until it cracked, exposing the meat of the hideously killed creature.

Several years ago, my wife and I met up with our children in Maine, a favorite haunt for us with its rocky coasts, salty air, deep forests, quaint villages and, yes, super ice cream. In Maine, you eat crabs, clams, or lobsters. And so, here I am in a seafood restaurant, my family toiling at their lobsters; that is, except me.

But are lobsters sentient? Do they feel pain?

I say yes, based on recent science research, indicating their nervous system is complex. The fact they have a spine should suffice. When you drop them into that boiling water, however, they lack vocal chords to voice their screams.

You don’t really need the lab to confirm their suffering. Just witness a lobster or crab hurling itself violently against the sides of a pot of boiling water.

Opponents retort it’s simply reflex, taking us back to Descartes and his mechanistic assessment of animal behavior, ignoring their neurological components. On the other hand, crabs in a recent experiment rapidly adjusted their habits to avoid areas where they had previously experienced an electric shock.

A number of countries have taken legal measures to protect crustaceans like lobsters from unnecessary pain, among them, Norway, New Zealand, Austria and parts of Italy and Germany.

Switzerland set the precedent in 2018, banning boiling crustaceans alive, based on research indicating they feel pain. They needn’t possess a neocortex to experience pain. Biologist Robert Elwood, whose research led to Switzerland’s ruling, tells us that “crustacean brains and nervous systems are configured differently” (aldf.org).

But what about freezing them, a predominate recourse in shipping lobsters over long distances, say, to Biden’s recent celeb bash for the French president?

In June 2016, Italy’s highest court outlawed the practice, ruling it inflicted unjustifiable suffering. That makes sense. Freezing sentient creatures is no less repulsive than boiling them alive.

But environment also looms as a pressing concern involving the lobster industry.

Whole Foods has joined the debate, announcing it will no longer sell lobster after two consumer-focused environmental watchdogs— the Maine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch—pulled their certifications due to concerns over impacts on North Atlantic right whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will reduce whale deaths and injuries by 69%.

This morning I woke to The Guardian’s lead article, “Save whales or eat lobster”: the battle reaches the White House” (11 December 2022), centering on the Federal court’s decision to curtail Maine’s lobster industry employing 10,000 workers in order to safeguard the diminishing North Atlantic right whales.

The Biden staff, nonetheless, ordered 200 lobsters be flown in for the Macron fete, despite the 2021 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision reinstating a ban on lobster harvesting in some 940 square miles of the Gulf of Maine from October to January to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales menaced by entanglement in fishing gear and collision with large ships.

White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford responded that they wanted to “honor our lobstermen from Maine.” Meanwhile, the court’s decision is under fast track appeal.

I’m not hopeful. Sadly, politics often govern, expediency prevails, and the pecuniary nearly always wins, with accelerated biodiversity loss and climate warming their consequence.

My high regard for environmentalist Rachel Carson persists. An oceanographer by profession, her eloquent The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award, America’s highest literary award, in 1952.

Living summers on Southport Island, Maine, adjacent to touristy Boothbay, she loved the then abundant whale life. With her typical prescience, she also served an incipient warning: “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.”

That was 1964, or 58-years ago.

The North American right whale, an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, has since declined to a scant 340, of which only 100 fertile females remain. We know the seas are ubiquitously afflicted with fishing gear, imposing an immense burden and much suffering upon sea life.

The lobster industry, instead of shouting their outrage, would do better to observe the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mandate to employ multiple break points to pull up lobster traps in order to prevent right whale entanglement.

Declining rapidly in number, unless we protect these whales, they will have vanished forever.

–rj

No Longer Do the Seagulls Cry: Humanity’s Wounding of the Seas

The sea sings out for its singular subjects:
Arching whales that wave from their waves,
Turtles that teeter down their shining shores,
Coral reefs shining brightly as cities.

The sea sings out its suffering,
Knowing too much of waste, screeching sounds
And pernicious poison, its depths bruised by
Atrocities in the Atlantic,
Misery in the Mediterranean,
Its tides the preservers of time past.”
–Amanda Gorman, from “Ode to Our Ocean”

This morning comes dismal news that a fifth round of UN talks to reach agreement on a treaty to protect and manage our highly vulnerable oceans has stalled once again. No further discussions are scheduled.

The proposed treaty would protect 30% of the high seas lying 200 nautical miles off national jurisdictions and a legal means to enforcement.

Since the seas don’t belong to anyone, this apparently gives nations license to plunder and trash, imperiling biodiversity and, ultimately, fisheries on which a growing population will increasingly depend.

The seas, supplying 50% of the oxygen we breathe, home to the majority of earth’s biodiversity, is languishing, and humans are the source. 90% of big fish populations are depleted; 50% of coral reefs, formerly harboring abundant marine life, gone.

Let me give you just one stark example of human dereliction fouling our seas. There are many others:

Located halfway between California and Hawaii, there lies the drifting human debris known as the Pacific Garbage Vortex, its estimated size twice that of Australia. It doesn’t exist as a single entity, but rather as a vast garbage soup, much of it just below the surface, coagulating in ocean currents as a defiantly boundless  repository of ship castoffs and swept-up coastal discharge, the vast majority of it plastic substances.

Reliable aerial and trawl estimates (2015-16) inform us that 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are floating in the patch, equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world. That was six years ago. Currently, 1.15-2.41 million metric tons of plastic are added each year (theoceancleanup.com),

Plastic infiltration of our oceans poses an immense menace to sea life. The International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN) reports that 700 marine species have encountered sea debris, 17% of them endangered species, among them, seals, dolphins, and sea turtles entangled in abandoned fishing nets. Many sea creatures mistake the plastics for food, imperiling themselves and their offspring.

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Collectively, these plastics block sunlight to the plankton and algae below, which are the primary feed resources of fish and turtles. Ultimately, this has consequences for predators like sharks, seals and whales. A world without whales? Our grandchildren reduced to viewing photographs?

Bad as all this is, the Pacific Garbage Vortex isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s simply the biggest. Located in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, these vortexes manifest humanity’s global trashing of the ocean:

Is there any hope at all? Only if we reduce our use of plastics, a formidable challenge in an economy built on their low costs, or adopt biodegradable alternatives that are no easy sell. It’s simply cheaper to rely on plastics, a carbon-containing product present in the clothes we wear, our computers, laundry detergent, and even our children’s toys, ad infinitum. Plastics tend to ultimately find their way into landfills. And yes, into our oceans.

Greenpeace laments that “failure to deliver a treaty at these talks jeopardises the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world.”

Sadly, I find their admonition, though well-meaning, typically anthropocentric in its solely human focus, or the essence of what birthed these vortexes in the first place.

Have sea dwellers, many of them preceding Homo sapiens, no right to a space of their own?
–rj







Democratic Republic of Congo to Auction Oil Rights to Virunga Park

I’ve been watching Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Our Planet series on Netflix, despite the pain it exacts as I witness the devastating plight of wildlife to survive in the context of climate change, largely the result of human exploitation and ubiquitous indifference.

In and around the Bukima tented camp, located in Virunga National Park. Bukima camp is the base from which to see eight separate groups of mountain gorillas, including members of the Rugendo group, pictured here.

In the third episode exploring jungle habitat, Attenborough takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its endangered Silverback gorillas, so strikingly like ourselves. Lamentably, their numbers have dropped by fifty percent, says Attenborough.

The good news is that their numbers have actually increased, according to methodical estimates by The World Life Conservation Society (May 2021). Previously around 600, they’re up to 1,000 due to concerted conservation efforts, a number still perilously low. Their principal habitat is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

In and around Mikeno Lodge. Virunga Park Rangers work with hounds and a spaniel. The hounds help hunt poachers while the Spaniel helps to find weapons and ivory. Ranger Andre Bauma has been taking care of orphan gorillas for more than four years.

The bad news is that the DRC has just announced its intent to auction oil and gas permits in the park, which also features the world’s largest tropical peatlands, constituting the earth’s most extensive carbon sinks. These beautiful creatures have already endured grevious injury due to habitat loss, hunting, poaching, population encroachment, disease —and yes—human conflict, with splinter rebel groups hiding out in the park.

Virunga is a cornucopia of wildlife, both flora and fauna. Africa’s oldest reserve, its 1.2 million acres provide sanctuary for 700 types of birds and 220 species of mammals, including elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees. I shudder to think of the horrid consequences of its demise, wrought by human greed. In the last decade, more than 150 of the park’s rangers have been killed.

Were I younger and financially able, Virunga is where I’d be headed. I believe strongly in eco-tours. For the Congolese, it’s been a money maker, with $2 million in annual earnings.

Hats off to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for his 2014 Netflix documentary, Virunga, and commitment to the survival of the imperiled Silverbacks. It proved successful in halting oil exploration in the park at the time.

My hope is that we can exert pressure on oil corporations to refrain, as we successfully did in 2014. The best way is to discourage insurers and banks from financing the project. As I write, Congolese and international NGOs have submitted a petition of 100,000 signatures, requesting Congo’s President to halt new oil development

–rj

Wade Davis Defends the Indigenous

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I’m a big fan of history, authentic history that’s unshackled from bias. I like knowing what really happened, when and how, and the lessons we can draw from history, lest we repeat its follies. Sometimes, though, history is like lining up for my morning cod liver oil as a child, good for me, but awful tasting stuff I want desperately to spit out, especially when learning of our continuing abuse of indigenous people, not only in America, but worldwide.

In North America, where I live, our crimes against native peoples comprise an unparalleled holocaust even by WWII’s blood-curdling horror show of 10 million Jews, Slavs, and Roma slaughtered in Nazi death camps. It began even before the notorious Indian Removal Act (1830), ordering Indians east of the Mississippi to move westward. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence decries the Indians as “savages.”

Just how many indigenous people lived in North America, not including Mexico and Central America, prior to 1492, is a calculated estimate at best. The consensus, however, led by scholars Russell Thornton and David Stannard, poses a reasonable estimate of 7 million, with 75 million in the Western Hemisphere at large (see Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987; David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 

Thornton thinks that of some 5 million indigenous peoples within today’s continental United States, the vast majority were decimated by disease, starvation, forced labor, relocation, alcoholism, declining birthrates, and genocide. By 1900, that number had dwindled to 250,000. Of the 75 million indigenous in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 70 million have perished consequent with European colonization since 1492.

Anthropologist explorer and advocate of indigenous interests, Wade Davis, wrote a definitive account of their plight, worldwide, in his 2001 book, Light at the Edge of the World: a Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. It navigates, in particular, the pressures of modern civilization on ancient ways of life, harboring unique wisdom acquired over thousands of years of living in close contact with the natural world.

Wade explores several cultures, among them, Borneo’s Penan, northern Kenya’s pastoral nomads, and, tragically, the fate of Tibet and the coerced extinction of an ancient way of life. His book concludes with a model of hope in Canada’s designated vast homeland for the Inuit, Nunavut.

Passionate and eloquent, Wade delivers a salient polemic for doing everything we can to preserve these ancient cultures with their unique ways of imagining the human experience.

In our ethnocentrism, we may dismiss these cultures devoid of modern amenities as anachronisms, their loss of no consequence, perhaps even desirable: cessation of inter-tribal violence, improved health, social equity, education and employment options, etc.

Wade argues persuasively that when these unique societies fade, their former constituents most frequently find themselves adrift, subject to discrimination and poverty. He gives many examples such as the sad aftermath of the 1956 evangelical missionary intrusion of the Waorani, or Auca, habitat in remote Ecuador, its culture vanquished and displaced tribespeople reduced to menial labor in a modern landscape.

Space is crucial in positing who we are. When lost or compromised, we become adrift, flotsam in a larger current, severed from what conferred identity. This has also been the fate of Native Americans at large.

Spatial encroachment seems everywhere now, accelerated by corporate interests, technology, and human indifference. 98.9% of historical indigenous lands in North America have been lost since 1492 (environment.yale.edu). It continues unabated worldwide: Central America, the Amazon forest, Africa, where logging, mining, dam construction, oil drilling, pipe line installation and agribusiness, the foremost instigator, exact their toll upon historically indigenous land.

An estimated 370 million indigenous live in 90 countries and are notoriously abused. They exist as 5,000 distinct peoples, speaking 4,000 languages. 70% percent of the indigenous live in Asia.

Did you know that indigenous life expectancy is 20 years less than the rest of us? Or that comprising five percent of the world’s population, they’re 15% of the world’s impoverished?

We do a lot of talking about climate change, but how many of us realize the environment’s greatest defenders are the indigenous?

Occupying 25% of the world’s surface, they are guardians of “80% of its remaining biodiversity and 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes” (Amnesty International).

20% of the world’s tropical carbon forest is stored in indigenous lands: the Amazon, Central America, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (worldbank.org).

What’s more, their demise poses a visceral loss to all of us in the forfeiture of a unique diversity, reducing the world to a “monochromatic world of monotony,” Wade writes.

Tragically, in the last fifty years we have witnessed not only the loss of 1 million species of inestimable value to the biosphere upon which our existence depends, but the uniqueness and wisdom of cultures from which we can learn much to ameliorate our own. The parallel fate of these cultures, despite the UN’s passage of the Indigenous Bill of Rights, poses one of the urgent issues of our time.

Worldwide, some 300 million people, roughly 5 per cent of the global population, still retain a strong identity as members of an indigenous culture, rooted in history and language, attached by myth an memory to a particular place on the planet. Though their populations are small, these cultures account for 60 per cent of the world’s languages and collectively represent over half of the intellectual legacy of humanity. Yet, increasingly, their voices are being silenced, their unique visions of life itself lost in a whirlwind of change and conflict.

Wade argues that the loss of language diversity, in particular, underscores the accelerating demise of ethnosphere diversity through loss of habitat, acculturation and assimilation:

Of the more than two thousand languages in New Guinea, five hundred are each spoken by fewer than five hundred people. Of the 175 Native languages still alive in the United States, 55 are spoken by fewer than ten individuals.

….each language is, in itself, an entire ecosystem of ideas. and intuitions, a watershed of thought, an old-growth forest of the mind. Each is a window into a world, a monument to the culture that gave it birth, and whose spirit it expresses.

I’m very receptive to Wade. I’ve long been a student of culture. Wade’s book continues that interest and I recommend it, and all his books, as a collective, informed defense of the right of indigenous communities to a way of life, often superior to our own; the interplay of gathered insight through intimacy with Nature in its many vicissitudes.

I believe strongly in the gifts diversity confers, every culture a contributing chapter in the human narrative. Any diminishment of the ethnosphere consequent with cultural leveling alarms me. I believe it constitutes cultural genocide, whether by intent or omission.

Climate change is today’s most ardent threat to indigenous peoples, their ecosystems, upon which they depend for subsistence, vanishing rapidly as increasing temperatures; a greater suspectability to illness via vector borne and water borne diseases; drought; forest fires; and desertification exponentially occur.

In Northern climes, the Inuit, for example, are now facing a potential hunger crisis consequent with melting glaciers, rising seas, and diminished wildlife; on tropical islands, storms of increasing velocity occurrence and rising seas menace as never before.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees informs us that there presently exist 37 million climate refugees, a disproportionate 15% of whom are indigenous peoples.

I find this an unfolding tragedy. Indigenous tribes have been stalwart stewards of the biosphere from whom we can learn, but conversely set upon by agriculture expansion, logging, and mining interests. Activists have been murdered, most recently, journalist Dom Philips and indigenous advocate, Bruno Pereira in Brazil. Pereira had been investigating criminal activity within the Amazonian indigenous reserve of the Javari Valley. Philips was there to document.

In 2020, Frontline Defenders reported that at least 331 human rights activists, mostly in Central and South America were murdered, 69% of whom were defending indigenous lands. Between 2017 and 2020, 25% of those murdered were indigenous, who comprise only 5% of the world’s population. In 2021, a known 33 indigenous people were killed.

As I write, photos of many of indigenous victims lie before me, a good number of them women along with their children. I can give you country by country analysis of the continuing bloodbath, with governments such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro indifferent to the crisis and the perpetrators remaining free.

Unfortunately, the indigenous often live in areas most vulnerable to climate change: the Arctic’s Inuit, Scandinavia’s Swami, the Amazon’s Yanomami, for example. Thus, their ardent defense of their diminishing environment made worse by exploiters.

Their demise poses an incalculable loss for all of us. Wade, with his typical acuity, summarizes its meaning well:

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience.

Indigenous People’s Day will be observed October 10, 2022 in the U.S. in 26 states as part of a growing movement to replace the traditional Columbus Day.  For me, it’s everyday I remember them, Earth’s guardians, beleaguered and increasingly vanishing along with their sacred habitat. They need your help.

—rj

Only the beginning…

Britain is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave today, with temperatures soaring to 104F over much of England. Scientists are apprehensive, their future model scenarios occurring faster than anticipated.

Meanwhile, we continue our dependency on fossil fuels, our president begging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, yes, the same guy our intelligence names as ordering the killing of Washington Post Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, to increase oil output.

Widespread reports have it that Biden is proposing to open up Alaska’s North Slope wilderness to drilling, despite the Interior Department’s initial draft supplemental impact statement, projecting a thirty year time bomb release of 284 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Under the proposal, ConocoPhillips would obtain drilling rights to five federal land sites, along with a processing facility, pipelines to transport oil, gravel roads, and at least one airstrip and a gravel mine site, according to the draft EIS.

The fallout would be consequential to wildlife as well, threatening caribou, polar bears and migratory birds.

Ominously, the Arctic and Antartica, which help cool the earth by reflecting sunlight back into space, are melting faster than other earth regions. Hence, the heat waves increasingly scorching the Earth. The proposal only increases the speed of melting ice, resulting in rising seas, release of methane, and alteration of sea currents such as the Gulf Stream

As I write, Alaska has been burning faster than in the last 80 years, with 500 fires since April of this year, the consequence of rising temperatures, increased vapor with accompanying lightning strikes, and accumulating kindle. 264 fires are currently burning across the state.

While I’m ashamed of Biden’s betrayal of his campaign pledges, what bothers me most is the public’s myopic indulgence to pursue life in a bubble, ignoring the ominous natural signatures to our coming doom.

Unless we amend our ways, our children will have no meaningful future.
—rj


One Mistake at a Time: Our War on Nature

The  only biodiversity we’re going to have left is Coke versus Pepsi. We’re landscaping the whole world one stupid mistake at a time. —Chuck Palahnuk, Lullaby

The year is 2060. You are gone, but your grandchild reads to her children from a book filled with drawings of creatures once abundant and a source of wonder, now the stuff of children’s story books, only not of some fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, Megalodon, or Woolly Mammoth, but of elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, whales and monarch butterflies, now vanquished, never to grace our earth again.

Distressingly, largely due to the exponential increase in the human footprint, this is our grandchildren’s bleak future. No more condors, manatees; no more of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, orangutans, and mountain gorillas, natural selection’s vast repertoire of unique, splendid entities reaching back several million years, thoughtlessly extinguished by Homo sapiens.

Apart from the scientific community, the public appears largely unaware, perhaps even indifferent, to this unprecedented threat to species loss and the risks it imposes for its own welfare. This extends to climate change, largely human induced. A current PEW poll reveals only 41% of Americans regard it as a priority issue.

As to how many species exist, whether flora or fauna, we don’t really know. New species are continually being discovered, while others have recently become extinct or face extinction. What we do know is that many species have gone extinct even before their discovery. An estimated million others are likely to go extinct in the next several decades.

This leaves us in a quandary: do we attempt to preserve existing species for future generations or do we simply resort to preserving those serving immediate human interests? Unfortunately, our present trending indicates the latter with species everywhere in free fall.

A useful acronym for the specifics governing this decline is HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, over exploitation:

Habitat: Three quarters of the earth’s terrestrial environment has been altered by human activity; 66% of the marine environment.

Invasive species: Since 1970, invasive, alien species have increased 70% across 21 countries.

Pollution: 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge among other wastes from industrial facilities have been dumped into the world’s waters.

Population growth: The world’s population averaged an annual 1.7 increase between 1950 (2.5 billion) and 2010 (6.9 billion). In 2022, world population has reached 7. 6 billion. (Pew Research). While the growth rate has generally been plummeting, not so in Africa, averaging an annual 2.54 increase. By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the U.S. in population (The Economist); 800 million by 2300 (qz.com).

Over-exploitation: In 1930, an estimated 10 million elephants roamed Africa. Currently, that number has dwindled to 416,000, largely due to poaching and conflict (World Wildlife Federation). On the high seas, factory ships are removing fish faster than they can be replenished. Japan continues to hunt whales. Sharks are killed in the thousands for their fins (fin soup a Chinese delicacy), their carcasses thrown into the sea. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, hunted for meat and increasingly suffering habitat loss, are now a threatened species.

Climate change needs to be added, giving us HIPPCO. It ranks second to habitat loss in imperiling biodiversity. Largely due to climate change, we are losing our polar bears, just 31,000 remaining; coral reefs with their independent ecosystem, nourishing myriad aquatic life, are dying as the sea warms and storm intensity and frequency increase. The speed of heat increase due to reliance on fossil fuels over the last 100 years now exceeds that of the previous 10,000 years.

Extinction isn’t new to earth’s history. Geologists have noted five principal occurrences, the most famous that of 65 million years ago, when a 12 kilometer wide asteroid crashed into the Yucatan, leaving a crater 10 kilometers deep and 180 kilometers wide, killing 70% of the earth species, including the dinosaurs, ending the Mesozoic Era, or Age of Reptiles, and ushering in the Cenozoic Era and the rise of mammals after 10 million years of evolution.

Humans came late on the scene. In the 1980s, aquatic biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene to depict a new epoch, human dominated. In this epoch, the Earth faces a new menace, wrought not by an asteroid, but by Man. The massive extinction of this human-centered epoch has been popularized as the Sixth Extinction.

The fundamental source of our dilemma is our disconnect from nature. We have fostered Nature as something apart from ourselves. It exists, but it’s outside ourselves, an entity to be exploited for human needs.

The truth is we exist as constituents of a vast biosphere complex of interrelated life forms dependent on one another for well-being. Remove an element of this web and you potentially unleash a house of cards scenario of collapse.

Take, for example, the chestnut tree dominating the forests of Eastern North America before European settlement. Tall, fast growing, numbering an estimated four billion, their canopy housed millions of birds and their nuts provided food for many birds, insects and mammals. Then came the Asian pathogen fungus Cryphonectria parasitica of the early 20th century. With the loss of these magnificent trees came the demise of caterpillars metamorphosing into moth pollinators, along with the plunge into oblivion of the once prodigious passenger pigeon.

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In our earth’s nearly 4 billion year history, we estimate that of the 4 billion species evolved by nature, 99% are extinct. But such extinctions resulted from natural antecedents apart from human causation. Increasingly, Man has become the arbiter of species decline, not evolution or cyclic climate change, or asteroid collision. In the last 500 years, 900 species have gone extinct and the pace quickens.

Currently, 35,000 species face extinction risk, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species:

Among these, 1 in 7 bird species.

A quarter of the world’s mammals

40% of amphibians

34% of conifers

37% of sharks and rays

21% of reptiles

33% of reef corals

It gets worse than that. The latest UN IPBES Global Assessment report (2019) forecasts more than a million species are likely to go extinct in coming decades.

The biosphere, which includes ourselves, is Nature’s survival gift, complex and delicate, requiring balance of its constituents.  Safe-guarding it is crucial and its benefits not to be taken for granted. Healthy Plants convert the sun’s energy, making it available for other life forms. Bacteria and other living organisms convert organic matter into nutrients enriching the soil. Pollinators are essential to food production. Plants and oceans act as major carbon sinks.  Did you know that of the 50,000 known medicinal plants, up to a fifth face extinction from deforestation? Or that approximately 120 drugs derived from rainforest plants are used to treat cancer, leukaemia malaria, heart diseases, bronchitis, rheumatism, diabetes, arthritis or tuberculosis? 

As the late eminent biologist E. O. Wilson pleads in his compelling Half Earth,

The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it. The organisms that surround us in such beautiful profusion are the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution by natural selection. We are one of its present-day products, having arrived as a fortunate species of Old World primates. And it happened only a geological eyeblink ago. Our physiology and our minds are adapted for life in the biosphere, which we have only begun to understand. We are now able to protect the rest of life, but instead we remain recklessly prone to destroy and replace a large part of it.

Our Earth has taken ill and we are its cause. Paradoxically, we must be its healer.

—rj

 

 

 

O if we but knew what we do: Our war on Nature

“O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her….”
--from “Binsey Poplars,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), five principal forces are contributing to our ruthless assault on Nature and its demise: unprecedented environmental changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; pollution; invasion of alien species; and climate change. Their consequences for species survival should alarm all of us, since we are ecologically linked in dependency upon one another. Since 1970, wildlife population has declined by two-thirds, or some 68% (LIving Planet Report-2020).

Sadly, we are at war with nature, mindlessly exploiting ecosystems in pursuit of profit. The problem is universal, with substantial losses in mammals (65%); fish, amphibians and reptiles (45%). According to The Living Planet Index (LPI), one million species face extinction. Deforestation and agricultural expansion have contributed substantially to this decline. Ominously, they continue.

Let me give you one egregious example of a recent human created disaster scenario in an attempt to augment agricultural production by altering nature’s contour.

There lies a once flourishing body of water known as the Azul Sea, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. First mapped in 1850, it was sometimes dubbed the Blue Sea. Until the last century, it was the world’s third largest inland lake, exceeded only by the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior, extending 426 kilometers (265 miles) long and 284 kilometers (176 miles) wide.

Replenished by the 1500 mile Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, it supported nineteen villages dependent on its abundant fish. Things began to change in the 1930s as Soviet engineers schemed they could expand cotton and wheat output by diverting its water for irrigation. Huge channels were dug to supply water for millions of acres of farmland.

By the 1980s, the Aral Sea experienced sharp declines in area and volume, or 80% and 90% respectively.

The environmental fallout has been enormous, so much so that the lake has become increasingly dubbed the Aralqum Desert. Qum is the Uzbek word for dust.

Seventy percent of the Aralqum is now salt residue.

The fish have disappeared, fish factories abandoned and villages become ghost towns. Wind-swept, its dust pesticides have spread throughout the world. They’ve even been found in the blood of Antartica penguin and Greenland glaciers.

With the lake’s demise has come a change in the weather, with harsh summer heat and frigid winters. Winds abound.

Now one of the unhealthiest places on earth, respiratory disease and child mortality have increased sharply.

In better times. the Azul Sea featured an island sanctuary, Barsa-Kelmes, teeming with deer, wolves, and eagles. It’s just memory now.

And what about those other fresh water behemoths, Lake Superior and the Caspian Sea. Have we learned our lesson?

Fortunately, Lake Superior has largely avoided the fate of Lake Erie, contaminated by industrial and agricultural runoff. Nonetheless, it faces several incipient stressors, contributing to environmental degradation: mining, home development along its shores, airborne chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change. In the last several years, Lake Superior is warming faster than many of the earth’s other water bodies, threatening its fish; wind speeds have increased 5% each decade since 1980; storm intensity and frequency have also increased.

The fate of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland waterbody, is more troubling: According to the UN Environment Programme, the Caspian “suffers from an enormous burden of pollution from oil extraction and refining, offshore oil fields, radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and huge volumes of untreated sewage and industrial waste introduced mainly by the Volga River” (Rpt. in The Nation. Thai Press). Climate change has led to increased evaporation, or by six centimeters annually.

The lake has seen the world’s largest sturgeon population decline by 90%.

Former home of one million seals which inhabited its shores and islands a century ago, fewer than 10% remain, the result of over-hunting and oil pollution. The species is now designated as endangered.

As Azer Garayev, the head of the Azerbaijan Society for the Protection of Animals, comments: “It would be so stupid to lose the Caspian like the Aral Sea. I don’t want to think about it. It would be a crime.”

Species population trends are important, for they are a measure of our ecological health. Unfortunately, we are living in a context of unprecedented change with a huge growth in the human footprint, spurred by global trade, population growth, urbanization, and consumption. We are losing our wilderness, our waterways are polluted, we lack clean air. We are raiding our resources faster than their ability to regenerate. As I write, 85% of our wetlands with their teeming diversity have been lost.

We are entities of a vast web of life. We belong not to ourselves, but to each other and to Nature, our great mother, on whom we depend for our health and prosperity.

–rj

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