Saving Spring’s Envoys: Our Vanishing Birds

migratorybirdsWe take for granted that birds in the millions returning from their winter feeding grounds in Central and South America will make it back to nest and mate in our yards each spring.

The rude reality, however, paints a scenario of thinning numbers as their habitat continues to give way to human incursion; wetlands get drained; toxic sprays are employed; and GMO agriculture reduces the insects on which many birds feed. Lamentably, up to 4 billion birds are killed by outdoor cats annually. (No typo here.)

And then there’s climate change.

If this scenario continues, we may well see a world devoid of birds and with their disappearance, our own.

Birds do a lot for us:

  1. pollinate plants
  2. disperse seed
  3. consume carrion
  4. recycle nutrients
  5. control insect numbers

Birds do all of this and more, along with providing many of us city folk with a rare contact with nature.

Sadly, fewer of them are completing their already perilous journey, often of several thousand miles, transversing oceans and mountains, to keep company with us every spring.

In one of nature’s greatest marvels, birds don’t require a compass to make their way to where they were born or to their winter habitat.

Guided by the stars, they know North from South. Alert to the sun’s position in daylight, they can discern East from West.

They also intuit the distance they must fly.

Appropriately, migratory birds fly mostly at night, keeping their bodies cool, since their tiny hearts, beating 500 times per minute, generate heat.

Regrettably, their indwelling “magnetic compass” doesn’t always serve them well in a modern world with its tapestry of burgeoning cities filled with light that produces a celestial jamming resulting in their disorientation, exhaustion and death as they unwittingly fly into multi-story buildings, leaving a deadly debris come morning.

With urban sprawl come media towers, like buildings, illuminated nightly to pre-empt airplane collisions. Each year, some 6.8 million birds perish in collision with cell and radio towers and their guy lines.

In a recent summation of studies, researchers found that 63% of bird casualties in the U. S. and Canada are small birds of 156 species, some on the endangered list.

If this isn’t enough, our bird friends face other ominous threats to their survival from our newer technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels integral to our need for renewable, clean energy resources.

This led to the Obama administration, normally on cue with environmental priorities, initiating a federal “permission slip” allowing for wind farms to kill up to 30 bald and golden eagles annually under 30-year permits, despite it’s being against existing law protecting these species, one of which is our national icon.

As I write, I’m happy to learn that our government’s connivance didn’t sit well in a California court, which demanded an impact study. Two weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped its appeal to reinstate the policy.

How bad can wind farms be for birds? A recent California study estimated that up to 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed annually in thar state alone!

Wind turbines now account for 5% of our energy and continue to proliferate, with more than 15,000 presently in service. The death toll must be staggering!

But solar farms also pose another lethal threat to birds, singing, crippling and killing them. Unfortunately, birds often mistake reflective panels for water bodies. Some of these solar farms can be gargantuan in their expanse, with one solar farm in Riverside County, California occupying 4400 acres.

We’re unsure just how many birds solar farms kill, but we believe it to be a considerable number. In a recent investigation, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory recovered 233 birds from three California desert facilities. Many birds literally catch fire on contact with solar panels.

The problem is complex with the need to find new energy sources that don’t pollute and are renewable and yet protect our birds. But we can do more to assure their well-being by demanding impact studies before wind turbines and solar panels come on line.

We can also advocate they not be located in migratory pathways.

We can power down our city lights. A lighted New York City skyline may be spectacular viewing late at night, but it’s a death threat to birds. Cities like Toronto, one of North America’s most progressive cities, supported by the public, has been doing so for years.

We can support preservation of bird habitat such as wetlands and creation of new ones.

I like how Peter Dunne, the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, has put it: “Without birds, nature would lose its most engaging envoys,” to which I would add that their demise would seal not only their fate, but ours.

















Climate Change: Can we win the fight?


We just celebrated Earth Day on April 22, an annual fête of huge importance for those of us wanting to increase the public’s awareness of the challenge of climate change, and our substantial human contribution to it, and ways we might fight it.

It’s an important time for us in another way, too, as this yearly outpouring of Green advocacy transcending borders buoys up our enthusiasm, telling us we’re not alone in our caring. After all, sometimes it seems that we’re on this great big mountain we impulsively thought we could climb; so rituals of solidarity like Earth Day give us pause to catch our breath, reassess, and press on to our worthy goal of a humanity in harmony with nature as one species among others, each necessary to all. Just maybe we can pull this thing off. Anyway, good to dream big rather than live small.

The truth is that so much more needs to be done and that we’ve been moving at a snail’s pace in making climate change a palpable issue for the public. I saw this demonstrated all too clearly in the presidential debates in 2012, or just 18 months ago, with not a single question directed to environmental matters raised by debate moderators.

If the press can seemingly have no feel for the greatest issue ever to menace us with its destructive pay-load should we evade addressing it, then how much less can we expect the public to grasp what’s at stake? As is, individual lifestyle changes like driving less, getting rid of plastic, cutting back on electricity in our homes aren’t going to do the trick. We need more than bandages to treat the Earth’s hemorrhaging.

Now consider that a recent poll suggests that 37% of Americans don’t even believe in climate change. There exist also a good many, perhaps even more, who look at climate change as simply cyclic and that, just maybe, it might even right itself. Of course that view gets us off the hook and we can conduct business as usual.

Just recently the United Nations released the findings of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a careful study by credentialed scientists encompassing some 40 volumes. Insiders say they toned down some of their language and projections so as not to unduly frighten, though their findings still emerge as deeply sobering, with none of us escaping vulnerability to what surely are predictions on an apocalyptic scale. In all honesty, I haven’t noticed any work-up by media or any concerted effort by members of Congress to hold hearings on the report and what we might do to save the day. Like many of you, I grow weary–and wary–of their feckless accommodations to corporate interests.

What’s vital is that we impact the political process, as happened with the Vietnam War, ultimately culminating in LBJ’s decision not to pursue reelection. It started with just a few protesters, then took hold and proved unstoppable. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything like this breaking out. I think this is because many of our projections for climate change impacting us lie still in the future, whereas flag covered body bags coming into Dover AFB were a daily, tangible occurrence, which the media ultimately caught up with when it perceived a muscular protest movement, packing a punch, that wasn’t going to go away.

On the other hand, if we haven’t been able to muster cadres of protestors against our Iraq and Afghanistan incursions with their costly toll in life and wounded for a dubious cause, how much less likely for an environmental movement devoid of blood and gore? And that’s what makes climate warming so horrendously insidious, or like some invisible killer we know is out there, but don’t know where he is, or when he’ll strike, or how.

Perhaps our young people will again show us the way as they did with Vietnam by way of their fossil fuel divestment sit-ins sweeping our college campuses, some 300 as I write, with several success stories, including Harvard with its $32 billion endowment. If it’s wrong to destroy our planet, it follows we shouldn’t be seeking to profit from those who do.   I wrote earlier of the Vietnam days when students rallied to make a difference. All of us: unions, retirees, teachers, tech workers, etc., might do well to follow their lead in choosing our retirement portfolios more discriminately.

But divestment has its limitations, too. While it was practiced widely in the 70’s and 80’s to pressure South Africa’s apartheid regime, the invariable result was that other investors stepped in. It’s true value lay in shaping public discourse, and I venture this holds true with this present endeavor.

Still, I question the wisdom of painting with a broad brush the fossil fuel industry as some kind of axis of evil. We need energy. Are our students willing to follow through and divest themselves of their cars and their electricity and take on an Amish likeness? We would do better to focus on the coal sector, our greatest polluter.

I still like our president–articulate in his efforts to assure health care access, social and economic equality, tax, immigration and drug sentencing reform. So far, he’s championed alternative energy efforts, sought restrictions on coal burning power plants, held out against the Keystone XL project, endorsed alternative energy efforts.

As for Keystone, he needs our support even as we must sustain, and grow our protests, to keep a fire under his feet. When I think of Keystone and the big money behind it–think Koch brothers–I get nauseous: the obscenity of it, given the perils of climate change; the stench of it, given its association with pet coke; the callowness of it, given its destruction of farmland, water aquifers, and wildlife habitat.

The President will presumably make his decision after this fall’s elections, but faces immense pressure, even in his own party. It isn’t a given he’ll opt for courage over pragmatism. In the end, it’s important we all get to the polls and endorse environmentally friendly candidates such as the courageous Gary Peters (D-MI), who hopes to succeed retiring senator Carl Levin (D-MI).   Peters has come out against Keystone, provoking the Koch brothers to contribute substantially to his Republican opponent, who now leads in campaign funding. Peters is our leading spokesperson on pet coke. (By the way, you can access online the Sierra Club’s political endorsements, which include Peters.)

If it came down to, say, an errant asteroid making its way to befuddle our planet as once happened, plunging the world into a rebirth of its pre-evolutionary darkness, then you can bet your life we’d all get off our bottoms and fight the good fight. Well, think of that asteroid as climate change.





Trans Pacific Partnership: Corporate Mayhem Alive and Well


Despite President Obama’s spirited pledge to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, his administration has been covertly involved in negotiating a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement whose potential fallout would only exacerbate, not lessen, the economic divide, consolidating what is essentially an oligarchy of Wall Street interests.

You may be unfamiliar with the TPP, as it’s not played up in the media, unless you’re a rare aficionado of the marketplace.  Briefly, 14 nations bordering the Pacific, controlling 40% of the world’s GDP and 26% of its trade, have been at work for more than a year, hammering out the final details of a complex agreement that would eliminate tariffs on goods and services.  Composed of 29 chapters, its scope would include not only the area of finance, or banking, but telecommunications (i.e., the Internet), and even food services.  It would have devastating consequences for those of us committed to environmental concerns that include global warming.

Ominously, it includes proposals that would curtail consumer protection across a wide spectrum.  According to Republican Reports, leaked TPP negotiation documents reveal the Obama administration’s attempts to stymie other governments from implementing financial regulations, believing they could mitigate another bank collapse.

These leaked documents (see indicate proposals allowing corporations to sue governments under the auspices of “foreign tribunals,” thus circumventing domestic courts and local laws.  Corporations could even demand financial compensation for “tobacco, prescription, and environment protections” that undermine their profits.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren–I like her more everyday–warns, such provisions allow “a chance for these banks to get something done quietly out of sight that they could not accomplish in a public place without the cameras rolling and the lights on.”

Alarmingly, even without the TPP, over $3 billion has already been paid out to foreign investors under current U.S. trade and investment agreements, with another $14 billion pending, “primarily targeting environmental, energy, and public health policies” (

Representing the U.S. in the negotiations is Obama appointee Stefan Selig, a former Bank of America investment banker nominated to become Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce.  Since his nomination, he’s received $9 million in bonuses.  (He had received $5.1 million incentive pay the previous year.)

Slated to join him in the negotiations, pending Congress’ approval, is Michael Froman, presently U.S. Trade Representative.  He received $4 million from CitiGroup as an exit payment in addition to $2 million in connection with his holdings in several investment funds.

This practice of banks lining the pockets of their former cohorts upon joining government is pervasive in the banking industry, pocket money for establishing influence in contexts affecting public financial policy.

Unfortunately, for all the pretty rhetoric coming out of the White House, the oligarchy of the one percent remains entrenched, and even abetted, while the TPP, added to its already formidable arsenal of financial peddling, poses a potent means to intimidating the common citizenry, here and abroad, opposed to its hegemony of privilege.

It certainly doesn’t contribute to economic parity.  According to a study by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, as reported in the Washington Post, the economic gains would largely accrue to the wealthy.


The Heart of Darkness: The Syrian Inferno


The civil war in Syrian, which began in March 2011, drags on with all its madness and no end in sight.  In that time, 125,000 (latest figures) have died and 2 million of Syria’s 6 million population fled, spilling its human burden into refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

All wars are destructive, but civil wars usually are among the worst.  In our own civil war, 600,000 died, which is more than all our wars combined; more than a million perished in Spain; 2 million in Algeria and Korea.  One of the worst scenarios missed by the media is the loss of 5 million lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2008.

The present conflict proves no exceptionWhile we normally associate casualties with the military waging war, the truth is that civilian casualties nearly always exceed military losses by a wide margin; for example, an estimated 20 million European civilians died in World War II.

Syria 3

In Syria,  a good many of these casualties are children.  Consider these recently released findings (UN High Commissioner Report):

11,000 children killed.

More than half of 70,000 families now without a father.

4000 children separated from their families.

Hundreds of children born in refugee camps stateless (unregistered births and no birth certificate).

Most children cut off from school.

All wars are tragic enactments of the primordial vestiges still resident in Man. This conflict, however, has seen some of their worst manifestations, with children deliberately targeted by sniper fire and even tortured.

Horrendous as all of this is, no one seems to have come-up with a chokehold to halt the carnage.  Maybe it’s too late anyway in a struggle that seems to have come down to attrition.  While the Assad regime has gained momentum lately against the rebels, the war has become more complicated with jihadists, including al Qaeda, pouring in from other nations. Increasingly, the struggle has turned sectarian, with Shiites pitted against Sunni. It’s Iraq all over again with long term, intractable violence the likely fallout even after any settlement is reached.

In my view, it needn’t have turned out this way had we armed the moderate rebels from the beginning, even as the Saudis had wanted, and before the entrance of Iranian-supported Hezbollah and al Qaeda in large numbers.  While the Obama administration finally did opt to supply at least light arms to the rebels, it turns out that after a year it hadn’t shipped any.  It’s simply too late to help now, since the old alibi that weaponry might fall into extremists hands has gained a validity that didn’t initially exist.

I blame President Obama for much of Syria’s pro-longed anguish.  From the very beginning, he has been ambivalent, or unable to come to a decision, despite his often pointed rhetoric should the Assad regime use chemical weapons:

We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons (August 2012 News Conferences).

Then came his notorious aborted cruise missile launch in response to Syria’s calling his bluff with its chemical assault on civilians, resulting in a thousand deaths.  As it turns out, there had been previous, smaller scale chemical attacks and the President had not acted.  In mid stream, naval vessels off the Syrian coast ready to launch, the whole world watching, he did an about face, passing the puck to Congress, only to withdraw the vote option when Russia came up with its initiative to negotiate the destruction of the government’s chemical stockpile with Assad.  Got Obama off the hook, to say the least.

Imagine my surprise in all of this!  A Hamlet in the White House, this president suffers from an inability to act.  We should have seen this coming.  In election year 2012, he had the gall to use the bin Laden hit for political fodder, though the truth is he knew of bin Laden’s hideout  since  the summer of 2010, or nearly two years earlier, thus risking his escape.

As liberal Arianna Huffington shared with CBS: ‘We should celebrate the fact that they did such a great job. It’s one thing to have an NBC special from the Situation Room… all that to me is perfectly legitimate, but to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do” (Daily Mail).  It turns out that the White House had drawn up a contingency plan with a general for a fall guy should the assassination go awry.

Returning to the cruise missile fiasco, I like how House Democrat Adam Smith, a key member of the House Armed Services Committee, put it:

I don’t think you draw a line like that, that is not well thought out.  You do not say, ‘If you step across this line, we will commit U. S. Military force,’ unless you really mean it, unless you know the full implications of it.

Under the cover of the chemical weapons agreement things have gotten considerably worse for the rebels, with Assad’s forces launching daily bombing raids on the rebels and civilians in the areas they control.

Sadly the American public seems in lock-step with Obama, despite dissenters on his own White House team.  If you dip into Google and Twitter commentary, you’ll find Syria virtually absent as a search or discussion item.  We’re much more into Miley Cyrus.

I think of Auden’s poignant depiction in his “Musee des Beaux Arts” poem with its ironic undertones of the corner existence of human grief in the public world:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.


In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I think of Syria’s children.


Hamlet in the White House: Obama Blinks


I had tuned in on Friday to President Obama’s Rose Garden appearance before the media, expecting an updating of data justifying a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria.  After all, Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken forcefully to the issue, calling it an act of “thieves and murderers.”  How preternatural it seemed for someone who had so vociferously opposed the Vietnam War, throwing his own medals away, to now be advocating a military strike.  There must be something here.

What I hadn’t counted on was the residue from the UK Parliament rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s plea for a military option.  Cameron hadn’t originally planned on asking for Parliament’s permission, only to yield to the reality of low public support in the polls and vociferous objection among even his Labor Party cohorts. He simply wanted to protect his hide, an idea that’s proven to be contagious.

Casting a dark specter over everything was doubtless the protracted war in Iraq, now largely deemed the folly of unreliable intelligence and an understandable passion for taking action following the terrorism of September 11, 2001.  While it’s often been remarked how history repeats itself, it’s not a given that we must repeat its madness.

The psychology in Obama’s turnaround in imitating Cameron fascinates me.  Sometimes we say too much and get ourselves into tight places, with anticipated fall out  locking us into responses our better judgment, tempered by time and reason, tells us are wrong.  From this angle Progressives seem justified in calling Obama’s new mindset courageous.

I see it differently, however, as a failure in will, abetted by a compliant media and a war- weary public.  We have a president who has difficulty making decisions.  For six months he knew the location of Osama bin Laden before taking action.  We’re still awaiting the Keystone decision.  Just the day before, we had heard a horrific litany of the deaths of 1400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, by the Assad regime’s use of chemical agents on its own people.  British, French and Israeli intelligence also corroborate the culpability of the Assad government.

Oddly, the President in his Rose Garden appearance told us he had determined to strike Syria, yet wanted to put it up to the Congress.  I think it unlikely that Congress will approve a strike, perhaps the Senate, but not the Republican House with its contingent of Tea Party isolationists.  This may even play into Obama’s hands, giving him an opportunity to extricate himself, or to climb down the ladder as it were.

But he isn’t going to do so without impunity or a severe loss in credibility.  Even more serious, he’s placed our nation in danger, emboldening aggression abroad by rogue governments.  No one’s talked about it, but the present imbroglio is really about Iran.  His paralysis can only encourage Iran’s efforts to achieve a nuclear arsenal.  If I were the Israelis, I would be deeply troubled.  It’s conceivable that Israel may now see itself as needing to launch a preemptive strike on its own, given the unreliability of the U. S.

Given Obama’s hesitancy towards Syria, what’s the script for Iran?  Do you tip your hand, asking Congress for its permission for a preemptive strike?  Or is it you do nothing, accepting the reality of a nuclear Iran with whom we must learn to live with as we do with North Korea?  Meanwhile, a hostile Iran that sponsors terrorism develops a delivery system potentially targeting Tel Aviv and, ultimately, America.  Let’s face it, as a corollary of the President’s pattern, the odds are that Iran gets its Bomb, despite our stringent embargo.

In the present circumstances, Obama has set a dangerous precedent.  Presidents must be free to act in dealing with contingencies that may arise, and this is what the War Powers Act allows with its 90 day allowance before Congressional oversight kicks-in.  A limited strike on Syria does not violate the Constitution, contrary to what some liberals say.

Mr. Obama is known to admire Lincoln.  But maybe he’s forgotten his history.  Lincoln didn’t ask Congress for permission to war against the eleven successionist states.  In fact, the legality of succession wasn’t allowed to be presented before the Supreme Court.  Lincoln rightly knew he couldn’t win in either the Congress or before the Supreme Court.  My point is, strong presidents lead.

A very good argument can be made that any response now planned would be ineffectual and inflammatory anyway, since the strike is so limited and considerable time has elapsed for Assad to move his military assets into the mountains and his troops into   exempted civilian areas such as schools.  Even more important, the Syrian civil war has now largely turned sectarian, with Sunnis vs Shiites, compounded with the entrance of Hezbollah and al Qaeda insurgents, both of whom target Christians, who comprise 10% of the population.

But this gets us back to square one and our ineffectual president.  Obama created this morass with his dilly-dallying over the last two years, giving extremists time to move in.   His red lines mean nothing, as seen in Assad’s emboldened aggression.  While Syrian dissidents lamented the absence of international outcry following the chemical attack of August 21, Obama was silent for 72 hours.  Later,  he played his usual rhetorical slight of hand, stating the situation defied easy answers.

Mr. President, if we’re reduced to this scenario, then you are its creator, having squandered your options and not acted on your own warnings.  Awful as these deaths from chemical weapons are, they’re minuscule in a sea of 100,000 deaths, most of which could have been prevented had you armed the rebels from the outset.  By the UN’s own estimates, we now have 2 million refugees, 1 million of them children.

Playing Hamlet–to act or not to act–is unbefitting a commander-in-chief and poses grave dangers for America.  As Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel comments, “He seems unable to make difficult decisions. This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad.”

With one utterance, Obama has inaugurated a template for disaster, diminishing the powers of the Presidency, making a mockery of American credibility, abandoning Syria’s freedom-fighters, and putting  America and Israel under increased threat from a belligerent Iran ultimately armed with nuclear weaponry.


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