Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Protect Native Species...Or Die!

“Once caught never returned” is the motto of the Exotic Fishing Tournament hosted by the Native Fish Conservancy (NFC). Participating anglers are encouraged to keep all the "invasive" fish species they catch. The team with the greatest number of exotics wins the $200.00 grand prize. How the angler opts to use the fish is of no interest to the NFC. The organization's press release reads,
“We encourage everyone to treat exotics with reckless, fishing exuberance. If you catch exotics, aquarium-keep them, grill them, feed them to your pets, turn them into fertilizer. Do anything except return them to their former homes.”

I believe that the human contribution to the contemporary, epic loss of biodiversity is a sin (of a decidedly secular variety). Fewer species translates into less genetic, dietary and behavioral variety, making it that much more difficult for Nature to adapt in the future.

Nevertheless, when I first read about the Exotic Fishing Tournament, I cast nervous glances at my fellow subway commuters, worried that they might notice the, um, "material" in my hands.

As Timothy Burke (Easily Distracted) writes,
“I do wonder about that attitude a bit, not just in the context of fishing, but as a whole. When I read some of the material on the dangers of invasive species, its rhetoric and tropes sometimes seem uncannily familiar, reminding me very much of ideas about race, miscegenation and nativism in modern colonialism, in post-colonial nationalism, and in identity politics. There’s some similar desire to stop the forward motion of change, to fix environments (human or natural) in their tracks, the same suspicion of dynamism. What is particularly striking to me is that the arguments against 'invasive species' even from scientists sometimes seem not so much technical or scientific (when they are, they usually rest on the relatively weak assertion that there is a burning necessity for general biodiversity that trumps all other possible principles of ecological stewardship) but mostly aesthetic.”
Excepting my belief that greater biodiversity does make for a healthier ecosystem, I am in total agreement. Strangely, I do not find it uncomfortable to occupy such an ambivalent position. I argue stridently for both sides of the coin, perfectly content in my hypocrisy. To better explain myself, I turn to the conclusion of an old artist statement.
“My own opinions and arguments are flawed, of course. Nature is not a comprehensible entity; she is indifferent to humanity. Given the burgeoning world population and our reluctance to consider serious action, it is na├»ve of me to think it possible for humanity to live in a truly sustainable fashion. Simply because an ideal is unattainable, however, one need not abandon it. In fact, acknowledging contradiction can better serve the individual; in a world increasingly consumed by ambivalence and captivated by cleverly marketed distractions, we must accept some degree of contradiction in order to further progress. We can aim for sustainability only if we accept the complexity of the task. In essence, this is the stuff of art – a flawed platform with no up or down, no east or west, on which to build the self and, in turn, shape objects to explain the proposed self. Art reveals the private obsessions of the psyche and better expresses the individual’s inner fragmentation, a consequence of the ideal being at odds with the real.”
As the quote suggests, the flawed platform is as applicable to conservation as it is to art making. Some degree of relativism is necessary when considering invasive species. For example, zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorph) and European carp (Cyprinus carpio) are greater threats to biodiversity than multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). All three are exotic/invasive species, but we need not raise an uproar about the latter species.

I hope many of the anglers participating in the Exotic Fishing Tournament treat their quarry with respect. Throwing away or otherwise mistreating fish of any species is wrong but, given the nature of this affair, the celebrated waste would be that much more unsettling.

Photo credit:

Celebrity Campin' With Cameron

This frothy New York Times piece is basically an "advertorial" for Cameron Diaz’s new MTV program, "Trippin." Because I don’t have a cable subscription, I probably won’t ever see the show; I’m actually a little disappointed.

Cameron Diaz’s sex appeal is rooted in her dorkdom. A gangly girl with an overgrown head and a Texas-sized smile, Diaz gets away with more than do other celebrities because she actually seems to be enjoying herself. Many people claim that Diaz, who, at 32, doesn’t hesitate to use words like “frontin’,” is just plain stupid, that ignorance is bliss and Diaz is simply enjoying the ride. I wouldn’t suggest that Diaz comes across as intelligent or even well-informed, but I’m not so sure that she’s your typical ditz. Her it's-all-good-in-the-hood posturing is an affectation. Perhaps her dumb blonde routine is exaggerated, too? With this foray into the world of television production, Diaz may be revealing some depth.

"Trippin," its ridiculous name aside, may get through to that much sought after 18-to-29 year old demographic. Watching DMX on a camping trip with Diaz sounds more campy than compelling, but the rapper-actor's camping foray just might ignite a spark of environmental consciousness in a young, urban DMX fan. As the article puts it,
“If young viewers' appetite for scientific knowledge is limited, Ms. Diaz is betting that their interest in celebrities will draw them to the show and help them [understand] a world beyond the exurbs and XBoxes.”
Perhaps what ultimately makes me willing to give "Trippin" a tentative thumbs-up is Diaz’s fascination with feces.
“In every episode, she dwells on excrement, both for laughs and for edification. She notes, in her Nepal trek, how the copious manure of rhinoceroses restores nutrients to grasslands, how birds disperse seeds through their droppings and how cow dung is used as plaster in village huts.”
Score one for those of us who spend way too much time thinking about basic bodily functions!

If anyone has the time and the means to watch an episode, I would love to hear a report. Fortunately, I will be able to watch another television program mentioned in the same New York Times article. “Strange Days On Planet Earth,” hosted by Edward Norton, the exceptionally talented and intelligent, if egotistical, young actor, deals with some contemporary, environmental hot topics. Fortunately, this program airs on PBS and my television, if I fiddle with the reception, can pick up PBS with reasonable clarity.

Photo credit: AP/Scanpix

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Wood Frogs and Me

I am impressed by cold-blooded creatures that have adapted to cool climates and the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), one of my favorite amphibians, is such a species.

The watercolor posted above features a wood frog, and is part of a series that I'm currently working on. Comprised of many small watercolor paintings tacked to a wall, the series is basically a bastardized taxonomy. In the picture below, you can see one wall of the series, whereby the various species and individual humans have been grouped according to behavior rather than biological type, physiology,or phylogeny. I hope to make viewers question anthropomorphism while at the same time poking fun at the inadequacy of our taxonomic systems.

Also, while we're on the subject of wood frogs, this short article in National Geographic discusses the ability that has allowed wood frogs to thrive in cold climates. Incredibly, they have mastered the delicate art of cryogenic freezing.

Image credits: Christopher Reiger, 2005

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Hara-kiri Karaoke

I'm rarely sure what to make of performance art. Usually I walk away bemused or, worse, embarrassed for the artist or artists responsible. Once in a great while, I do come across a performance that amuses or interests me but, almost invariably, these satisfying works are video documents of a performance, not live performance. Am I more comfortable watching someone engage in curious behavior on film than in person? Perhaps, but I also feel that video works are stronger conceptually. Having made a number of short films, I'm guessing this may be a result of the post-production process, an opportunity for the artist to tinker with presentation.

The performance pictured above, by Ryoga Katsuma, occured during the opening of the most recent group show that I participated in. Katsuma exhibited several of his "action paintings" and a video in "Le Petit Prince," and, for the bulk of the evening, he sat on a folding chair in the gallery space, drawing quick portraits of anyone who would sit for him. His sketches bore little resemblance to the sitters, but some of the drawings were nice enough.

At one point, however, quite unexpectedly, Katsuma stood up, howled, and went through the motions of commiting seppuku on the floor of the gallery. I stood nearby, sipping red wine from my plastic cup and watching the reactions of others in the room. (The brown shoes and jeans at the top of the picture are mine.)

Frankly, the performance made me uncomfortable. Even though I am a devotee of, for lack of a better description, awkward-moment-comedy, Katsuma's intentions were clearly not comedic. In fact, I'm at a loss as to what it was he was trying to communicate. Curiously, after the initial, despairing howl, he mimed the act in total silence but, in the background, the sounds from his video, in which he also ends his life in a crying fit, were synced to his mouth movements in the gallery space. It was a marriage of pre-recorded performance with live action. I suppose you could describe it as hara-kiri karaoke; it was baffling and alarming, but also rather forgettable.

Yup, I just don't know what to make of most performace art...

Friday, March 25, 2005

Plantation Trees

An interesting post at Dirt and Soundwaves today. The similarity of “plantation” trees, be it their genetic makeup, age, or size, puts the trees themselves at greater risk and our “crop tending” makes these planted plots less attractive, even dangerous, to wildlife.

Unfortunately, large timber companies are unwilling to enter into “sustainable” harvesting agreements with tree plantations because it isn’t cost effective. Certainly, sound conservation practices would make it most difficult for the timber companies to turn a tidy profit and, in some cases, they may even suffer a loss. I don’t believe the same difficulties would befall smaller operations, though.

I have to look into this more, but it seems to be another case whereby localizing the production of a commodity can result in a net gain for all, including the resource being used. But, as Buddy Holly sang, “That’ll be the day..."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Oh...Stop Being So Silly

I wrote "The Expanding Ethical Embrace" during my lunch break today and edited it when I had some time later in the afternoon. Not long after I posted it, I was drawn into an infuriating conversation with a co-worker. Hours later, I remain incensed by the exchange.

It began when she asked me where I had gone to dinner last night. I answered that I had gone to a vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. In response, she launched into an attack on vegans, but allowed as how "vegetarians are alright because they eat fish." When I explained that, technically, a vegetarian would not eat fish, she laughed me off as "silly" and too "anal about the definition."

She then proceeded to champion industrial agriculture on the grounds that it has freed up the "smart people to evolve and achieve better things" by "giving the jobs that we shouldn't do to talentless people with no other abilities." When I pointed out the gross classism of her remarks, she explained that "if poor people or minorities want to succeed, they can. We've given them a lot of help and if they put any effort into it, they can make it. It's their fault if they want to work for Perdue killing chickens. I'm not murdering animals, though. I just eat them. Anyway, those people make more than minimum wage. They can't complain." (This last bit is almost verbatim, but I didn't record the conversation and so can't claim journalistic integrity.)

She even had the audacity to mention her future Ph.D. in art history (the Ph.D. is very much an aspiration; she's 35 and has yet to be accepted to a Master's program) as evidence that she is "too smart to spend her life killing things or working menial labor." She also reminded me, in case the Ph.D. wasn't impressive enough, that she had "always been a straight A student...after [her] sophomore year of college." (Emphasis mine.) At this point in the conversation, I began wondering what it would feel like to staple my goddamn eyeball.

Now, if this female co-worker was a neo-con "wingnut," I might not be so bent out of shape. But she's a knee-jerk liberal who regularly claims that humans are ready to "evolve again and realize that we can all live with one another and be happy." Unfortunately, she explains to me, "stupid people are holding back the evolution."

The thing is, though, she herself may be one of these "stupid people." To use a favorite phrase of hers (that drives me up the wall), "Let me give you for example."

I had paper recycling bins placed in our offices; each afternoon I move paper discarded by my co-workers in their trashcans (despite my repeatedly asking them to put it in the big blue can to begin with) to the recycling container. One day, my favorite co-worker told me that I was "silly and negative" and that my recycling was a waste of time. It does no one any good, she explained. "It's a myth."

Now, I'm a thoughtful guy. I recognize that there are inklings of the ritual, the sacred, in my recycling routine. Is that problematic? Perhaps. Striving for sustainability is, for some, a kind of cult behavior. Those of us who count ourselves among the cult's disciples are frequently hypocritical and maybe too eager to find the next "green" improvement. I'm pretty diligent about fact checking, though, and when I catch myself being a hypocrite (taking a long shower or, a better example, spending too many hours with this computer turned on), I acknowledge the error of my ways. As far as recycling is concerned, I'm as yet unconvinced that plastic recycling currently proffers a net positive. Paper and aluminum recycling, however, are clearly beneficial. I tried to explain this distinction to my co-worker once, but she laughed and, as she so often does, called me "silly."

"I'ma give you another for example." (Yes, she actually says "I'ma.")

One day, when I commented that fish populations were in decline worldwide, she giggled and said, "Oh, that's so silly." When I asked her why, if she had perhaps read some scientific paper no one else was aware of or had conducted some offshore surveys of her own, she laughed and shook her head, looking at me as if to say, "Wow, you're really loopy."

"Let me give you another for example."

When she came into the office with a new fox fur scarf and ear muffs, I was intrigued. I assumed the fur came from a foreign fox species or had been treated, because it bore no resemblance to red or grey fox fur. She got very upset and said I was "only asking to make her feel bad that the animal had died." In fact, I wasn't. I appreciate natural history, and I wanted to determine the animal species. That's all. Online, I looked up information on the different fox furs; her fur turned out to be "silver fox," a genetically isolated breed of red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Happy to have learned something, I shared this information with my co-worker, and she became quite angry with me. She insisted that I was just trying to "rub it in" and that I wasn't "being cool." Later, after she had gotten over my behavior, she laughed at the situation and said, you guessed it, "You're so silly."

How many of her are out there? I mean, I realize I'm being silly, but...

Recommended Read

Link on over to Creek Running North to read this short essay. Chris Clarke writes about his relationship with an executed serial killer. Clarke's sensitive, humane essay grants us a view into a complicated human relationship.

The Expanding Ethical Embrace

In conjunction with the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, "Audubon's Aviary," the NYHS, Nurture New York's Nature, and the NYC Audubon Society partnered to present a series of Audubon-related talks. During the second evening of presentations, entitled “The Fall and Resurrection of Nature in New York,” NYC Audubon Society member Peter Joost spoke of our evolving ethical paradigm. Over the last several hundred years, he argued, humans have become progressively more enlightened. Joost cited the political developments of 20th century America to prove his point: today, we consider every human equal, irrespective of race, sex or religion. (True, but our American “melting pot” is yet pervaded by racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance; I agree with the general thrust of Joost's thesis, but recognize that we must be vigilant if we are to preserve our liberal ethics.)

Mr. Joost also pointed out that, as humans continue to expand our ethical embrace, we are beginning to consider other species, especially our ape relatives, as equals or near equals. He foresees a societal shift towards vegetarianism and the adoption of a moral code which includes an increasing number of species. Presumably this shift won’t guarantee voting rights for horses, but the meat industry, hunting and animal research would all end. Perhaps a future Mosaic code will include the commandment, 'Do unto your neighboring species as you would have done unto you.'

All well and good...sort of. If our ethic/moral code expands to include animals, plants, and eventually bacteria, what role will conservation play? Some degree of manipulation is required to maintain the ecological status quo. Wildlife management works, in part, because we perceive ourselves as stewards of the land, a species situated slightly above the fray. If a US Fish & Wildlife biologist elects to burn a section of forest in order to encourage future growth and habitat restoration, he isn’t condemned. But his actions killed many insects and displaced other species! If every species’ rights are to be considered, management that today is laudable will be controversial; conservation biology would be further burdened by litigation.

But I am a realist, and so don't fret about the possibility of an over-extended ethical embrace. Morality is not born of humanity's existential sameness or some essential, animating goodness. Like all other animal species, humans evolved to survive and propagate; that is, we evolved to be winners. Even our predilection for classification - as seen in the periodic table, clothing labels and taxonomy - is innate, an evolved trait that better equips us to ward off “the other,” to proactively eliminate potential competition. But this us-and-them trait is no longer tenable in our interconnected world. It seems to me that the quickening of our ethical expansion in recent centuries corresponds to a wider worldview. Whereas once we were many, now we are one economy. If this is the case, isn't our extension of human rights to all races, cultures and creeds a victory in our campaign to deny human nature, a requisite improvement to the foundation of global socio-politics?

If this is so, our increasing capacity for compassion creates new problems. An inclusive, caring society, even if inconsistent, is attended by a population boom and longer life expectancy. By embracing one another, then, we also increase our species’ demands on the environment. When even more populations - in Joost's argument, other species - enter our moral peripheral vision, we will find ourselves facing a philosophical and pragmatic dilemma. Will our compassion overload the circuitry?

The idealist in me believes that our concept of conservation will be replaced by one more reconcilable with a Joost's inclusive ethical paradigm. After all, why should we strive to “manage” when we are but part of the environment ourselves? But the realistic answer to that question doesn't jive with Joost's ethics. We are part of the environment; as such, we are creatures adapted to live within a given range of environmental conditions. Sustainable conservation should not reject human needs. To the contrary, it must incorporate them.

Dr. William Cronon, a very intelligent writer and environmental historian writes,
“The nature we carry in our heads is as important as the nature that is all around us, because in fact the nature inside our heads is often the engine which drives our interactions with physical nature, transforming both ourselves and nature in the process….Non-use is not an option: to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face is not to leave no marks – that is impossible – but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.”
I look forward to an age when humanity has extended its moral code to the other animals, but where does such a shift take us? The question is hypothetical and abstract. I am content to view it as an imponderable and this, I suppose, is why I am an artist rather than a philosopher or lawyer.

I scribbled notes as I listened to Joost, and I thought of Aldo Leopold. A hunter and conservationist, on the one hand, and a moralist and preservationist, on the other, Leopold embodied the contradiction at the heart of this question. Returning again to Cronon,
“Having spent his entire life as a manager of land and wildlife, [Leopold] knew all too well that wild nature will not long remain in the modern world without an active commitment on the part of human beings to manage it responsibly...and he knew that this task was far from easy….Knowing that he himself was manipulating wildness in the very act of protecting it gave him a powerful sense of the paradoxes such work entailed, and he was clear-eyed and unblinking in acknowledging these paradoxes. ‘All conservation of wildness,’ he wrote, ‘is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.’...His dream was for a world where large tracts of wilderness would be protected, but where wild things would thrive and be honored in many other places as well: in rural wood lots, in humble wetlands, in restored prairies, even in urban parks. Only so would people be reminded, regularly and in the most ordinary ways, of the larger community to which they belonged and on which their own lives depended.”
Will an expanding ethical embrace make Leopold’s dream more possible or will it serve instead to complicate matters, making our search for a sustainable, moral society a more Herculean task?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

UVB, Amphibians, and Alarmism

HerpDigest, an email newsletter which, as the title suggests, deals with reptiles and amphibians, brought the work of Professor Lawrence Licht (York Univeristy, Toronto, Ontario) to my attention. His findings dispute "the hypothesis that increasing levels of [Ultraviolet B radiation are] killing amphibians and [are] linked to global population declines." Despite this supposed culprit receiving "a great deal of attention in websites, radio, television, newspapers, textbooks and curriculum guides used in elementary, high school and university level science courses," Licht carefully picks apart the argument, suggesting that melanin in the amphibian embryos and an enzyme-photolyase possessed by adults and eggs protects them from UVB damage. Most interestingly, he concludes by addressing the issue of alarmist science at large:
"A very important point I am trying to make is that just because a paper has been published in a peer reviewed journal, the merits of the paper should be judged with care and attention to detail. Each paper must be read with a clear objective mindset. This is especially true when the hypothesis being tested has almost become dogma; in such cases, the hypothesis is believed to be true because everyone knows it is true because it has been hyped to a point where no one bothers to question...When a popular, widespread and alarmist hypothesis -amphibians are dying from exposure to sunlight- is found to be erroneous, the public can lose faith in the rigor and worth of scientific statements in general. Another 'cry wolf' story tarnishes the value of ongoing quality efforts and future studies that have real merit."
Given the "Death of Environmentalism" dialogue we've been hearing so much about in the blogosphere, I thought Prof. Licht's study and conclusions pertinent.

Biology For The "Everyman"

The range maps and brief habitat descriptions found in field guides – most people will be familiar with a "bird book" and the colorful diagrams explaining where the different species winter, summer, and breed – are not gospel; there are always exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, even wildlife biologists sometimes forget this.

Some years ago my father, a conservationist and writer, observed a Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) on our Virginia farm. He called some ornithologist friends to report the unusual sighting, but the scientists scoffed at the notion of a Trumpeter visiting a coastal Virginia pond. Undeterred, my father photographed the bird, had the film developed, and sent them all images, at which point they changed their tone and agreed that this was a remarkable occurrence. Thanks to my father's documentation, this story ended happily, but I remain frustrated that the ornithologists, who all know my father to be an excellent birder (he's written books on the subject), doubted him.

For years, I bemoaned the "intellectual arrogance" of wildlife biologists, caricaturing them as stern bureaucrats more concerned with establishing reputations than expanding what we know of a species. By my early twenties, though, I realized that some degree of skepticism on the part of biologists is necessary. Dubious sightings are reported all the time: a wild grizzly bear in Florida; a crazed grey wolf in Massachusetts; a "poisonous black snake" chasing Maggie Ann across the yard. So many of these erroneous claims are relayed to biologists, especially at the local level, that they are forced to install a "junk" filter. Unfortunately, reports of real interest are lost in the process.

The scientists' skepticism also discourages people from reporting their observations in the first place. Several times I've suggested someone report an interesting sighting and the typical reaction is something like, "I'm not a scientist. What am I gonna tell them? Um, so I saw a mountain lion in West Virginia... They'll think I'm an idiot." In the age of the digital camera, though, some of the more far-fetched accounts may garner professional attention. (On the other hand, maybe the age of the digital manipulation automatically makes all documentation suspect?)

At any rate, this article serves as an encouraging counter-point. Diane Peterson, a remarkable elementary school teacher in Washington, hasn't just turned her students on to science, she has allowed them to produce valuable data, which will now be used (by the initially skeptical biologists) to expand our knowledge of short-horned lizards (Phrynosoma douglasi). If more educators were this innovative, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Happy, Happy Day!!

This morning, lying in bed listening to news from my radio alarm, I learned that some religious figures are already blaming the school shootings in Minnesota on a lack of faith. Picking up a magazine as I make my way to the bathroom, I scan a brief editorial and learn that the National Park Service is stocking Grand Canyon bookstores with Creationist takes on geology. On the subway, I notice a newspaper headline with the words, "Creationism in the Classroom." Arriving at work, a friend emails to point me in the direction of Slate Magazine and today’s distressing article on the Terri Schiavo situation.

I have come to tolerate and, in some instances, respect religion. (This despite the fact that I believe morality is universal and that the tribalism inherent in religion too often increases the likelihood of immoral action, be it war, murder, or theft.) I am friends with several religious people and we are able to have thoughtful, warm debates without resorting to name-calling. In fact, my views on religion have undergone a dramatic, positive transformation in the last eight years.

This morning's news, though, makes me unsure whether the reconciliation was altogether warranted. Maybe I should still be dressing in black, listening to angst rock, and proclaiming God dead? At eighteen years of age, that seemed the appropriate response to religion and Christianity's authortarian rule. Maybe I should adopt such a posture again?

But I sometimes forget that the secular/fundamentalist divide is not a Christian issue alone. The three sibling religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all suffer from similar cancers; the growths accompany the maturation of any religion in contemporary society. (An article in the New York Times today touches on book banning in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, an accomplished young Orthodox thinker who seeks to "reconcile" religious texts with contemporary natural history, is being publicly denounced as a heretic.)

The Schiavo case is uniquely American, though, because the "religious" pressure is coming from the executive level, not from a minority of the public. The legislation being passed is unprecedented. (See the NY Times article , excerpted below.) I do not consider myself affiliated with either of our major political parties and, on some issues, I trend center-right, so to see the Republican party turned into a mockery of it's former self is more than discouraging. It's criminal.
"Republicans have traditionally championed respect for the delicate balance the founders created. But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Impulsive Behavior, Free Enterprise, and Sustainability

Todd Schorr
“The Hunter Gatherer"
“We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.”

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962
I read about an “impulsiveness” study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota a few weeks ago. It’s a good example of “Duh science,” one of those experiments that must be executed in order to prove an already widely accepted hypothesis. Of course impulsive behavior is connected to our animal antecedence; before modern conveniences and health care, split-second decisions literally meant the difference between life and death. Whether electing to gorge on berries when available or to flee from the serpent-like shape in the grass, Homo sapiens increased their likeliood of survival and genetic legacy by being thoughtlessly reactionary. But that was 12,000 years ago. Today, although such instinctive actions won't typically decrease our reproductive success, we are often better rewarded via a more considered approach. The University of Minnesota study only confirms this obvious fact.

But is it so obvious to everyone? I read Paul Driessen’s article, “Sustainable Development=Sustained Poverty,” in CNS News yesterday (thanks to Creek Running North). Driessen, a senior fellow with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, argues that:
“Environmentalists airbrush and sanitize, ‘sustainable development,’ dressing it up in fancy verbal raiment about pristine nature, indigenous cultures and future generations. But the result remains unchanged. ‘Sustainable development,’ is being used to justify blocking energy and economic development, and keeping the world's most destitute people mired in misery.”
He concludes,
“For its part, the environmental movement needs to do some serious soul-searching, and began to abide by the same rules of honesty, transparency, morality, accountability - and concern for people's lives - that it demands of everyone else.”
Honesty? Transparency? Morality? Accountability? Given the current political climate, Driessen must be terribly deluded to write such an article. The environmental movement is no paragon of virtue – it attracts as many ciphers and radical morons as any vaguely religious movement – but free enterprise crusaders are infamous for back-room dealings, dishonesty, and moral narcolepsy.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a man who calls the Kyoto Protocol “draconian,” as Driessen does, also believes that “poor countries need sustained development, not sustainable development.” (Emphasis mine.) The principal difference between sustainable and sustained development is the time horizon. A time horizon is “the interval during which an investment program is to be completed. An investor's time horizon is very important in determining the types of investments that should be selected.” So, whereas sustainable development concerns itself with reducing individual and societal impact to lessen the energy burden and improve future odds of success, sustained development seeks immediate return upon which to build more infrastructure so that one can generate yet more immediate return. The former is a model of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, the latter a regular addition of short-term gain to short-term gain, always on the look out, so to speak, for the next tasty berry, and without regard for what may come of too much berry eating. Both approaches have eloquent champions and, sadly, those firmly entrenched on the sustained development side of the line will need more than informed debate to be convinced that their eternal-present, Pleistocene approach is fundamentally unethical and practically untenable.

Driessen does ask a tough question of the sustainable development camp, though. How can we begin to convince the people of “developing countries” (another term I’m not particularly fond of) that their short-term gain will come at too great an economic and ecoogical cost generations from now? It’s not an easy question to answer and it reminds us that the sustainable lifestyle must start right here at home, where our challenges and goals won’t be interpreted as subjugation or eco-colonialism.

Image credit: ripped from

Note: Definition of "time horizon" from "Wall Street Words," copyright 2003

The Toll of Overfishing

Image hosted by
Some curious studies on the long-term impact of commercial fishing by David O. Conover (University of New York, Stonybrook) were covered in a recent Science News.
"Fish are becoming smaller and growing more slowly in response to pressures introduced by fishing, scientists say. That shift, which new data suggest is hard to undo, creates populations of fish that are poor at reproducing and inefficient at bulking up.

Conover suggests one tactic to counteract such trends: Require that fleets throw back the largest fish as well as the smallest ones, thereby preserving fast-growing fish in any population."
National Public Radio covered this story couple of years ago, but at that point the science was based on record keeping, not laboratory observation. This link to a transcript of a 2003 "All Things Considered" report, is distressing.

As someone who has spent many hours offshore fishing for bluefin and yellowfin tuna, I am myself witness to the dwindling numbers. It isn't just migratory fish species that are declining in numbers, though. If these were animals of the sky or land, we would be able to observe the slaughter more easily, and perhaps then a sound conservation policy would be implemented. As is, we seem to feel that what we can't see doesn't matter.

Photo credit: Ed Pritchard,

A Good Question

I typically like to write something of substance when providing a link, but Chris, over at Organic Matter, summarizes all that needs to be written about this matter.

Using the current Hetch Hetchy Valley reassessment as an example, he asks a good question. When should "cost-benefit calculus" and pragmatic thinking take a back-seat to symbolic, visceral environmentalism?

On The Flip Side

In "Strange Bedfellows," I described the elation I felt when I read of evangelical Christians pushing for environmental responsibility. But this weekend, in a back issue of Harper's Magazine (February 2005), I came across a more typical evangelical perspective.

America's Providential History, a book by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, states that "You cannot understand history without understanding Divine Providence." It explains that "many modern educators deny the Providential view of history and would have us believe that their promotion of one of several 'secular' views of history is simply the recording of brute facts."

Beliles and McDowell explain that, over the course of my education, I've been a victim of several such "modern educators" (or deviants). I didn't realize, for example, that an omnipotent hand removed General Stonewall Jackson from the American Civil War in order to preserve the Union "of the United States as one whole people." Beliles and McDowell, thankfully, are reeducating us ignorant folk on that history. They also explain that Franklin Roosevelt, leader of a secular, socialist sect, set out to offend the Creator by designing the New Deal, an attempt to prove government more capable of providing for human beings than the good Lord.

Most importantly, though, I've been all wrong on issues of ecology. (I excerpt the following two paragraphs via the Harper's reprinting. I have not read the book.)
"A secular society lacks faith in God's Providence, and consequently men find fewer natural resources. The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie (there is only so much) that needs to be cut up so that everyone can have a piece. In contrast, the Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth.

While many secularists view the world as over-populated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large, with plenty of resources to accommodate all the people He knew would come into existence. All the 5 billion people on earth could live in the state of Texas in single-family homes with front and back yards and be fed by production in the rest of the United States."
While I seriously doubt that all 6 billion of us could fit into Texas comfortably, especially if you're considering "single-family homes with front and back yards," I suppose I should go repent, just to be on the safe side!

Thank you, Mark and Steve, for lifting the veil and allowing me to see anew. Like "S. Beddo" – read the review they write at Amazon – I'm glad this excellent resource was brought to my attention. It must have been Providence.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The General

Friday night, in a dream, I was told by another man - an authoritarian type who, if I recall correctly, was dressed as a general - that there is but one sure way to determine what you really believe in. I thought I knew what he would tell me. In the course of more than one alcohol-fueled conversation, I have stated that I would willingly go to war and risk an untimely death for a cause that I considered righteous. This military man must have read my thoughts, however, for he dismissed my conviction as silliness, the product of apprehensive ambition. Putting yourself at risk, he explained, is selfish. It is the path of the martyr and, while you may die feeling virtuous, you will accomplish little in death. No, he explained to me, a willingness to fight for a cherished ideal doesn’t mean that you truly believe in it. "Would you send other youths into battle for the cause in question?," he asked me. "That is the only way to know if you truly believe." Then he was gone and I was awake, staring at my bedroom wall, trying to figure out if what the general had said made sense and, if so, how my mind had come to present the idea to me.

Based on the general’s logic, our current president must believe that our military engagement in Iraq is pure and just. Bush certainly insists as much, but I’ve never believed him. But perhaps this has more to do with my general cynicism?

So what do I wholly believe in? Would I send others to wage war in the name of sustainability and conservation? Would I order the slaughter of SUV manufacturers and everyone who eats a McDonald’s hamburger? Would I send out young warriors to vanquish the commercial fishing industry? Would I be comfortable spreading the gospel of E.O. Wilson or Jared Diamond across the world?

Some “bad guys” would be easy to point to, but who should be added to this short list? Take the bushmeat problem in Africa. “Bad.” Must be stopped. But wait. There is no group I can target unless I elect to kill off most of the population, say, of the Republic of the Congo or Ghana. A internationally financed African war on poverty seems like a better idea, but anthropologists and biologists suggest that, in fact, increasing wealth results in a higher demand for bushmeat. Okay, so I’ll also increase habitat protection. But then I’m judged an elitist white man protecting foreign lands from its own inhabitants? Hmmm…. So whom do I target? Who is the enemy, dammit? If I don’t know whom to fight, I can’t reasonably put any "boots on the ground." My mind continues to work in this way until I’m second guessing even the original short list. After all, the manufacturers of SUVs are responding to consumer demand, even if it is a demand they helped foster. Am I to target everyone?

Barring the invention of Edward Hoagland’s “new variety of the neutron bomb, designed to kill people and leave behind not empty buildings but the rest of Creation,” no weapons are suitable for the war that I would wage and, making all of humanity a target, while an alluring option during bleak days, is to extinguish all of our wondrous promise along with all of our faults. Despite any misanthrophic misgivings, I can not ignore the good in Homo sapiens.

Last night, before I dreamed of the general, I watched “I Heart Huckabees,” a recent film written and directed by David O. Russell. The screenplay tries to tackle a lot and the resulting movie is something of a mess, but it is thoughtful, amusing, and pertinent. I subscribe to the “blanket” philosophy Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) expounds. In a nutshell, Jaffe contends that we’re all part of the same web of life and, therefore, we need to find the common ground and live in the moment. His is a Romantic mode, flirting with a kind of mysticism. But I also find value in the nihilistic philosophy of Bernard’s nemesis, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). After all, if we are all part of Jaffe's "blanket," if every rock, tree, human, and galaxy is but a piece of the greater whole, indivisible, then all conceptual hierarchies are wrong-headed, and we come full circle to existential meaninglessness. Such is the stuff of Philosophy 101 and late night dorm room conversations. (Anybody have some microwavable burritos, dude?) David O. Russell, by having Albert Markovski’s (Jason Schwartzman) ultimate existential awakening occur only after he works with both Bernard and Caterine, suggests that the brooding ponderings of those like Albert result in little progress. It is enough to strive to know ourselves and to face our demons; we can’t own the universe and have all the answers.

What about my war then? I’m still sitting here, short-listing all the fat-cat industrialists, fascists, and that high school sophomore who used to kick me in the back of the school bus when I was in seventh grade. Don’t I get to put their heads on pikes? Don’t I get to truly believe in something?

The answer is “No.” I can believe in what I think I believe in, but because I’m me and you’re you, connected but distinct motes of the greater whole, there is no army I can righteously marshal. Some readers will feel that this conclusion stinks of postmodernism, of relativism, but, despite the shrugging defeatism of so many postmodern thinkers, some of the philosophy's fundamental ideas are valuable. I don’t have to turn my back on sustainability or conservation because the general’s rule suggests that I don’t truly believe in them. His question doesn’t allow for the consideration of complex relationships; it is better suited to questions of colonialism and religion than it is to conservation or humanitarian concerns. Progress in these latter fields comes through nuanced policy, education, and a gradual shift in popular worldview. No war can achieve such things.

Photo credit: painting by Dan Nance

Friday, March 18, 2005

Hobbits and Dwarves? Was J.R.R. onto something?

Anthropologists bicker about the relationship between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis. Some believe that the two species co-existed and interbred prior to the extinction of the Neanderthal. Others propose that Homo sapiens descended from Homo neanderthalis via natural selection, a hypothesis that suggests Neanderthal genes are still shaping us today. Another camp contends that the two primates occupy distinct branches of the evolutionary tree, thereby making impossible successful reproduction and direct descent.

A recent "Frankenstein" skeleton built by anthropologists at the American Museum of Natural History may help quell the debate. Apparently, the skeleton has a poorly defined waist and a wide, heavy rib cage. The scientists describe it as dwarf-like in build, though the height of the primate is comparable to our own species. Based on the discrepancies, Gary Sawyer "doesn't believe that modern humans could have evolved from Neanderthals."

But we're talking anthropology here, a scientific arena known for its long-running intellectual battles. We might have to wait a long time for any consensus.

Speaking of anthropological discoveries, one famous Indiana Jones, Professor Reiner Protsch von Zeiner, has been proven a fraud. This article in the Guardian Weekly is as amusing as it is depressing. Personally, those individuals working in the scientific community who prioritize ambition over methodology (and fact) horrify me. By falsifying the dates of his "important" discoveries, Protsch has done his field a great disservice.
"Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago," said Thomas Terberger, the archaeologist who discovered the hoax. "Prof Protsch's work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish."
Photo credit: ripped for MSNBC article; copyright, John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Canada Culling, Paris Protesting

Many environmentalists and animal rights activists are up in arms over the Canadian government's decision to allow for the culling of up to 350,000 harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). From a conservationist's perspective, I'm not sure how to feel about the decision. Some biologists claim that harp seals are over-populated and, as a result, are adversely affecting regional cod populations. Others suggest that the seal population isn't any larger than it should be, and that the commercial fishing industry is the primary culprit in the cod population plummet. Both sides of the debate cite contrary data while pointing to apparently valid studies. As a result, outside observers intent on gathering the facts before making up their minds face a challenge.

So, I suppose I have to go with my gut reaction. Death by clubbing and sticking is not an attractive option. Line me up in your sights and put one through my heart or between my eyes, but, please, if you must shoot me, don't be on a moving platform or boat when you pull the trigger. I'd prefer not to have my lung punctured or my jaw torn asunder because of the rolling action under your feet. If, even on steady ground, you still make a bad shot, crippling instead of killing me, please do not skin me while I'm conscious. Instead, approach and put a bullet through my brain. Then wait until I've ceased struggling (even if it's just my nerves firing) before you begin to cut my flesh away from fat and muscle. While you're at it, I'd appreciate it if you take a few moments to say a prayer of gratitude for my flesh.

According to animal rights groups and activist environmental groups like Greenpeace, many of the seals are harvested in the tortuous way described above. "Harvest," when applied to an animal, is a term I do not care for. While it may be accurate, it has the effect of turning the animal population or species in question into a crop, allowing us more psychological distance from the killing involved. I do not consider the single, doe deer that I hunt to be a crop. She is a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), beautiful and alert (high-strung, even, by our human standards). For that matter, I do not consider the tomatoes or the squash grown in one's backyard a crop. I associate the term with industrial agriculture, the great, wasteful, polluting machine that so many of us today depend on.

Because of the manner in which most of the harp seals will be killed, and because of the misuse (disrespect) of the slaughtered animal, I am opposed to the authorized market hunting of harp seals.

Yet, I'm still irritated when I read that Paris Hilton has signed on to protest with the millions of urbanites around the world who are banding together to make their dissatisfaction known. At first, I believe my reaction has more to do with my rural roots, but this is the easy answer. In fact, the reaction has more to do with my fear that the majority of these protestors, Paris included, are involved for selfish reasons. They want to feel good about "saving cute animals." Rarely do these kind of casual activists demonstrate real curiosity about and or grasp of "their cause." Would Paris Hilton ever think to sit down with a harp seal biologist and learn about the species? While I can not say with any certainty, my Magic 8 Ball says, "All Signs Point To 'No.'"

Photo credit: Associated Press, 2004

Moth Eaten Science

It seems like some biologists still haven't learned their lesson. Fighting one invasive species by introducing another almost always results in some unforeseen problem.

In the coming year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Invasive Plants Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale, Florida plans to release 20,000 Austromuscotima camptonozale moths. This species is native to Australia and the caterpillar stage of the moth feeds primarily on the Old World climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum). This fern, native to southeast Asia, is thriving in Florida, "explosively spreading" through "suburban backyards to remote locations in the Everglades." The USDA biologists believe the caterpillars will keep the fern under control and insist that the moth "doesn’t have a similar appetite for the native U.S. plants it might encounter in Florida and nearby states."

Even if this wishful thinking should prove true, what of the effect that the moths, sure to thrive given Florida's climate and food supply, will have on predators in the region? Bats, lizards, and small mammals are sure to be affected by the introduction. Something tells me all the possibilities weren't considered. Hell, even if a conscientious USDA white coat did try to think of every possible variable, it is nearly impossible to do so.

Again, if you have the Science News subscription, check here. Unfortunately, I could find no other links to this story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Eats B, Increasing C

In a recent issue of Science News, S. Milius reports on an "indirect effect" observed in many California bays. An invading species, the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), has decimated two native shellfish populations (both Nutricola sp.). The Nutricola crash means less competition for the eastern gem clam (Gemma gemma), a marginal invader that has lived in the bays for decades.

The gem clam arrived in California a century ago, transported there by the oyster shipping industry. Although an exotic species, eastern gem clams were considered harmless in San Francisco Bay. Now, however, with the Nutricola population crash, gem clam populations are exploding.

Froom the article:
"[Edwin Grosholz (Univ. of California, Davis)] found that the gem clams grew only half as fast in crowds of native clams as they did in dense colonies of their own."

"This isn't the first example of a new invader triggering a population boom in a previous invader, says Dan Simberloff of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. 'But this was a particularly nice one.'"
If you happen to subscribe to Science News, you can access this link.
If you want more details on the west coast invasion by the European green crab, click here.

Mercury and Mountains

Organic Matter provides more careful analysis.

Using a new chart comparing the mercury regulations of the 1970 Clean Air Act to those just issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, Chris makes it easy to see exactly how much weaker the new regulations are. More interestingly, though, he briefly explains why the mercury cap-and-trade program is such a bad idea. Mercury is a relatively weighty element and, as such, it doesn't stay in the atmosphere for long. Therefore, all mercury emission results in local pollution. The burden isn't shared, making cap-and-trade less sensible than strict mandatory caps.

Also, check out Organic Matter's recent post on global warming misinformation and Mt. Kilimanjaro. We "greens" really have to do a better job of fact-checking, rather than rushing to the presses with poorly researched material.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Yeast In A Barrel

George Monbiot is among our most articulate social critics. In "Mocking Our Dreams," a recent article printed in the Guardian Weekly, Monbiot uses only a few hundred words to sum up humanity's most pressing 21st century dilemma, and he skewers industry spin doctors and our flawed economic framework in the process. His piece will impress even those readers who find nothing revolutionary in the text.

Two weeks ago, I posted "Of Mice And Men," a poisonous rant about our species' inclination to put propagation ahead of sustainability. I compared humanity's situation to that of mice in captivity, and the scenario got rather gruesome. Monbiot chooses a more subtle and more effective analogy: yeast.
"And this leads us to a further reason for turning our eyes away. When terrorists threaten us, it shows that we must count for something, that we are important enough to kill. They confirm the grand narrative of our lives, in which we strive through thickets of good and evil towards an ultimate purpose. But there is no glory in the threat of climate change. The story it tells us is of yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until it is poisoned by its own waste. It is too squalid an ending for our anthropocentric conceit to accept."
Photo credit:Nature Publishing Group, 2004

A Series of Unfortunate Events (with a curious ending)

1) Mad-cow disease leads to increased demand for Brazilian open-range cattle and soybeans. The soybeans are to be used as safe animal feed in Europe.

2) The increased demand encourages deforestation and a "continued push" into the Amazon.

3) An activist American nun determined to help protect Brazilian peasants while encouraging sustainable farming practices is executed by armed men working for the soybean farmers and loggers, who are moving peasants off land deemed suitable for cattle or soybeans.

4) The international outrage generated by her murder is largely responsible for the Brazilian government pushing through an order for the creation of two conservation areas in the Amazon, totaling 10 million acres. These areas have been coveted by environmentalists and industry alike.

Now the lines have been drawn. See the relevant article here.

Note: View the description of new conservation area at World Wildlife Fund website.

Pale Male and Cute Natural History

I'm happy to learn that Pale Male, New York City's resident Red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis) celebrity, is successfully breeding, but the "cute" tone of this New York Times article turns me off. Two months ago, managers at the building on which Pale Male and Lola, his mate, had built their nest tore down some structural supports that the hawks' nest relied on. Activists rallied to have the structure returned, arguing that the hawks would have nowhere to live. This is a well-intentioned, but bogus claim.

Red-tails, like all raptors, are adaptable. While they will return to an ideal location year after year, if that tree should fall (or those supports should be removed), they will find another suitable spot. Most urbanites are too disconnected from Nature's ambivalent perseverance to accept this reality, however, and the building's management reluctantly bowed to popular pressure and returned the supports. Though I’m happy that they did so, it wasn’t entirely necessary.

Today's Times article is exemplary of cute natural history writing; it contributes to our growing ignorance of animal behavior. By projecting our needs onto other species, we confuse our issues with their own. Sometimes this can be helpful in making a popular appeal, but it's just as often problematic.

Also, the article suggests the NYC hawk breeding success story represents a "melding of raw nature with urban life." Urban humanity, despite any defensive assertions to the contrary, is "raw nature." Humans are animals. While I am, in many respects, a Romantic, I detest the Romantic ideal that the forest is pure and the city is corrupt. Though I sometimes do feel that way (and though I long to one day return to a smaller town, away from all this human biomass), environmental sustainability will only come through acceptance of the intimate relationships of the world.

Image credit: ripped from Palemaleirregulars

Another State Audubon Society Calls For Deer Hunting

Today, the New York Times highlights the call made by the New Jersey Audubon Society for more deer hunting to "prevent deforestation leading to the extinction...of birds." While I find their interest in birds decidedly specific (overly dense white-tailed (Odocoileus virginianus) populations, like overly dense human populations, harm entire ecosystems) they are taking a step in the right direction by following the lead of the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Two notes on the New York Times piece, though:
1) The NJ Audubon Society also advocates "costly fencing and deer relocation programs" to manage the size of the deer herd. Fencing, in particular, worries me, as it divides otherwise connected habitat as surely as does a road. A road might result in numerous road-kill deaths, but a fence is a solid genetic barrier, one which will have a corrosive effect over the years.

2) Nancy Bowman, director of the Mercer County Deer Coalition, a group which fights for deer protection, claims that "Killing the deer isn't the answer. In fact, when you kill deer, you simply increase their birth rates because they produce faster than you can kill them." The second statement is ignorant (or a knowing lie). Surely Ms. Bowman recognizes that, if you kill the majority of any population, they won't be able to reproduce at an accelerated rate. Though I'm by no means advocating such overkill, the 19th century slaughter of the American bison (Bison bison) population disproves Ms. Bowman’s argument.

That said, because most hunters want "trophy animals," they prefer to kill bucks. That is not sound management. Hunters should be given incentives to shoot only does without fawns. Doing so greatly reduces the population replacement rate, whereas shooting bucks does little to curtail birthrate. Sadly, shooting a doe remains taboo in some circles; it's seen as analogous to hitting a woman. Such attitudes regarding deer hunting are out-dated and ecologically, counter productive. Both hunters and preservationists need to be educated by conservationists.

Monday, March 14, 2005

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Got Venom?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve long been fascinated by snakes. Opisthoglyphous or “rear-fanged” snakes are of particular interest to me. The mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophila), the boomslang (Dispholidus typus), and the eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos) are all opisthoglyphous snakes, so described because of their venom delivery system, consisting of two long, grooved teeth at the back of their upper jaw. When prey is bitten, venom pours down the grooves into the wounds made by the snake’s teeth.

Though I often talk of these species’ beauty, I think a great deal of my affection for these reptiles has to do with their reputation as inoffensive, harmless snakes. Some herpetologists raise questions about the safety of handling any opisthoglyphous species, but such considerations are generally ignored. Through the mid 1990s, only the boomslang and the twig snakes (Thelotornis sp.) were considered truly dangerous. By contrast, the eastern hognose was considered a pushover (when threatened, this species prefers to "play dead"), and the western hognose (Heterodon nasicus) remains a popular hobby animal in the worldwide pet trade.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Make Me A Mutt

Every blogger with an interest in sustainability and conservation will certainly be making some reference to Nicholas Kristof’s March 12th op-ed piece in the New York Times. I’m no exception.

Kristof’s conclusion that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” are right, that “modern environmentalism…must die so that something new can live,” is bound to provoke vitriolic response from many folks with “greening” on their mind. (Dave Roberts, the usually thoughtful assistant editor of Grist Magazine, calls Kristof’s article a “lazy, risible piece of sh*t.”)

I’m electing to take the middle road on this one. For every informed environmentalist, there are at least three ignorant screamers. Both sides (if the situation must be reduced to such black-and-white perspectives) know this to be true, and, more importantly, we have all been one of these screamers at some point, no matter how informed we may be otherwise.

Allow me to use myself as an example. I used to rant about the urgent need for blanket prohibitions on the importation of any wild-caught exotic reptiles and amphibians. Further, I insisted that states should require permits, obtained upon completion of a basic training course, for private reptile or amphibian ownership. My reasons were valid: I had grown tired of seeing “pet” reptiles and amphibians improperly cared for and exotic introduction (consider the Burmese pythons currently thriving in Florida’s Everglades) is more likely when dealing with “fad” herp owners, those that think a snake or lizard will be a “cool pet” but soon become bored by a relatively sedentary animal.

Yet, after considering the issue for several years, I no longer think prohibition a wise idea. Economic incentives overseas, in the form of local breeder farms and conservation projects in heavily pressured areas, and restricted foreign breeder partnerships seem a more sound response to the problems caused by the burgeoning interest in herpetoculture. (Of course, this won't prevent a negligent owner from releasing an exotic locally and I still favor a permit system for large or venomous herp ownership.)

So I changed my mind; I still want the same end result, but the means I now think best are notably different. This wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t been so eager to hop on the soapbox when I was calling for prohibition. Now, despite my current attitudes being more nuanced and informed, I am what some dub a “flip-flopper.” But flip-flopping is not always bad. It proves one is engaged and considerate. Unfortunately, it can also be cited as a weakness.

What does my flip-flopping have to do with Kristof’s criticism of the environmental movement? In his editorial, Kristof writes,
“The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neo-cons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance.”
He is right. Too often we opt to bang the table and throw a tantrum, presumably operating on the maxim, “Make enough noise, and they will come.” Jared Diamond, a contemporary hero of mine, correctly suggests that being an alarmist is better than not alerting others to the burning building, but the fact remains, alarmists are annoying. Taking the extreme position - the championing of wind power and denial of related criticism, for example – virtually guarantees you will be deemed wrong in the end. If you tell someone that drunk driving will surely result in their death and they drive off a bridge and nearly drown, they’ve proved you wrong by surviving the terrible accident. Your ultimate point, that drunk driving is stupid, dangerous, and wrongheaded, is true...but, technically, um, you said he would die.

Don’t think for a minute that the “other side” won’t hold us to our word. “Global cooling” is still pilloried by the neo-cons and energy industry spokesmen. If you try to explain that “global cooling” and “global warming” are essentially descriptions of the same phenomenon, you’ll get nowhere fast. The dire forecasts made by meteorologists in the 1970s didn’t materialize. Neither did Paul Ehrlich’s population predictions. Now Kristof cites these as examples of environmentalists crying wolf. Technically, he is correct, but global climate change and population pressures remain serious threats to the health of society and biodiversity.

The challenge that the environmental movement faces now, just as it did thirty years ago, is one of image. The Pew Research Center statistic Kristof cites is encouraging; 3/4 of Americans polled agree that environmental protection is vital. With that sizable majority in mind, it may not be necessary to throw tantrums. Reasonable, determined methods will serve the movement well. In environmentalism, like anything else, contradictions abound. Rather than dogmatically championing every device or idea that comes out of the green camp, we should fully consider each and push for thoughtful action as a diplomat would.

As Garret Keizer writes in his recent essay, “Life Everlasting,”
“We can dare to walk on this ground of dubious footing, because we are holding one another up as best we can, and because it is we ourselves and not some deterministic logic that writes our civil laws…We can sniff out our options and pick and choose among them, a birthright generally less appreciated by a dogmatist than by a dog.”
Photo credit: Superdog Inc, copyright 2003

Emissions Cap Comparison

Chris, at Organic Matter, recently posted a brief, but excellent critique of the Clear Skies iniative. He includes a table that highlights the emissions cap differences between Clear Skies and the existing Clean Air Act. While the ideas and numbers aren't new, I recommend his post to any who are still confused or curious.

Photo credit: The Daily Zoe, 2004

Friday, March 11, 2005

Striking Back At Snake Snare

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Were I not burdened with the painting curse, I would have pursued a degree in wildlife biology. My focus would have been herpetological. Ever since a young black rat snake (formerly Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta, now Pantherophis obsoletus; ain't taxonomy fun?) fell from a tree branch and landed squarely on the head of a young boy, I have been fascinated by reptiles and amphibians.

So it is with much frustration that I view products like the Snake Snare. The device is designed to decapitate snakes "cleanly," whether you are trying to "remove snakes from golf courses, public areas, camping sites, mobile home parks, [or] trailer parks."

Until recently, herpetologists encouraged people to relocate unwanted snakes, but we now know that the majority of these animals will try to return to their home range. The snakes are often so focused on reaching their destination that they will starve to death or, more frequently, end up under car tires in the process. So, in one sense, I suppose decapitation is logical. "If it's just gonna come back or die trying, why not kill it now and make sure it doesn't bother me again?" I can’t argue with that reasoning, but what if people instead realized that a snake left alone is rather inoffensive and, in most cases, beneficial?

What bothers me most, though, is that the real market for this product isn't golf course groundskeepers, but yahoos. And, keeping this primary consumer in mind, I'm sure some of the snakes captured will not be "instantly" decapitated. Some damn fool out there will think it fun to do the job "real slow like," while he has a good laugh. Also, the manufacturers of Snake Snare are deluding themselves if they really believe, as they posit on the website, that most users will "check your local hunting laws for open seasons and bag limits and be aware that some snakes are protected species and may not be hunted or handled."

I am providing a link to a petition that aims to shut down the Snake Snare business and the domain register. Personally, I don't feel I can sign the petition. Despite my outrage at the notion of such a product, I am generally leery of prohibition of any kind and removing this one mom-and-pop manufacturer doesn't save many snake lives – though it might save them from Snake Snare death, almost as many animals will be killed using other, more traditional methods – but, if successful, it will surely provoke more vocal criticism of the environmental meddler, that much caricatured blue state litigator ready to arrest or sue in the name of progressive policy. At a time when environmentalism is making strides, it seems unwise to stir the pot unless you're cooking big game.

Photo credit: Snake Snare/Zenutech, copyright 2004

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Natural Disasters, Icebergs, and Cockroaches

I didn't expect much from the Roland Emmerich film, "The Day After Tomorrow.” Because of my interest in global warming, the televised trailers caught my eye initially, but the sour reviews convinced me to skip the film in theaters. Two months after it was released on DVD and video, however, I decided to rent it.

The movie features a young, blind chemotherapy patient who clings to his copy of "Peter Pan.," much of the dialogue is ham-fisted, and the central father-son story line is threadbare. Still, “The Day After Tomorrow” is markedly better than I expected. The special effects, lampooned by some critics, are excellent and the acting, contrary to critical consensus, is fine. It’s no triumph of cinema, but it does make the viewer ask some tough questions about how we spend our days here.

And while the movie does greatly exaggerate the speed of a sudden onset ice age, is it really deserving of the vitriolic criticism it received? Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, proclaims that he is “determined to double his consumption of fossil fuels” after seeing the film. Perhaps such negative reactions (even those shrouded in half-jest) are a result of the film’s proposal that civilization, movie criticism included, will be wiped away, whether by water, wind, fire, or deep shaking?

Such a humbling possibility should not be taken lightly. Organic Matter recently brought this BBC article on “supervolcano” risks to my attention. In the article, geologist Stephen Self says, “We don't want to be sensationalist about this, but it's going to happen. We just can't say exactly when.” This statement could be applied to any number of natural disasters.

Even in our age of technological wizardry, one in which we litigate to postpone death, clone half-breeds to "save" endangered species, and play video games to wage war, Nature remains our master and commander. It is often said that the cockroach will survive long after humanity expires, after our achievements are covered and meaningless. Perhaps the statement has lost some of its impact through repetition, but I always find myself returning to the chestnut.

The cockroach will survive long after humanity expires. It's a humbling thought, and quite something to consider. An old “artist statement’ of mine comes to mind:
"Whenever I attempt to “explain” my work I find myself thinking of desolate highways or an empty bed with strewn sheets. Long, lonely stretches of highway make me think of icebergs and the tenuous nature of humanity’s accomplishments. To some extent, everything makes me think of our imminent demise: the dust under the sofa, the stars above, pencil shavings, my computer screen. This acceptance of death, whether it be that of an individual or a species, results not in nihilism but in optimistic pessimism. Though we will continue to make mistakes until our end, Nature, herself, will learn from our efforts."
In short, as scary as “The Day After Tomorrow” or supervolcanos are, as helpless as we would be in the face of such natural wrath, we are but part of the greater whole. Though our accomplishments and temples may corrode and crumble, though no one will be here to appreciate them, our energy will live on. The great experiment will continue. Dear, flawed Albert got it right: E=MC2.

Photo credit: ripped from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research website