Thursday, December 3, 2015

Living Downstream, Breathing Air, Drinking Water, Taking a Bath: The News Ain't Great

One of the surprising themes in the books we’re read this semester is human rights.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be unexpected—or perhaps it’s indicative of thinking we are detached from our ecological environment that makes it surprising.  Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben both pointed out that climate change is a social justice and human rights issue—the poorest and most vulnerable will be most immediately and most seriously impacted by the ramifications of climate change.  Environmental contamination has always had a social justice component, since, likewise, the poor are more likely to live in areas where industrial activities can degrade the environment without much recourse given the limited resources of the population.  In Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber makes the point (one Rachel Carson made in 1962) that dealing with environmental contaminants “requires a human rights perspective. Such a view recognizes that the current system of regulating the use, release, and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens—rather than preventing their generation in the first place—is intolerable. So is the decision to allow untested chemicals free access to our bodies, until which time they are finally assessed for carcinogenic properties.  Both practices show reckless disregard for human life” (p 280).  We have a very limited ability to control our exposure to environmental contaminants given the pervasiveness of pesticides and industrial contaminants that move through the air, into our water, and in our food web. Should industry and pesticide applicators get to make the decision that results in our inevitable exposure??
                Steingraber highlights that cancer pamphlets that you find in the doctor’s office often focus on individual behaviors that contribute to cancer, often giving little or no recognition that most cancers have a strong environmental component—that your fate is in some ways a lottery of where you were born, of the propinquity of your home to a factory releasing toxic compounds or a farm applying pesticides.  I find this perplexing.  Have my loved ones worried that it was something they’ve done—too much wine, too much food?  Have they gone to their deaths thinking this was a bed they made for themselves and that they should have walked a narrower path?  This is horrifying.  She also points out that even if we take the outdated low estimate for environmentally related deaths from cancer—6%--that this is approximately 33,600 US people who die from “involuntary exposures to toxic chemicals.”  This is significantly more who die from hereditary breast cancer and non-smokers who die from lung cancer from secondhand smoke.  It illustrates our failure to adjust our fear to the proper targets, something humans are famous for.  It may be our superpower. 
Steingraber goes on to say that “In 2007, 834,499,071 pounds of known or suspected carcinogens were released into our air, water, and soil by reporting industries. In this light, the 33,600 deaths can be seen as homicides” (p 281).  It sounds kind of extreme, but is it really?  If our regulatory agencies fail to take the available data that suggest or even indicate the potential harm and continue to allow its release—despite the presence of alternative methods—then it doesn’t seem extreme at all.  It sounds downright realistic (aside from the fact that the estimate is a gross underestimate).  These are problems that we can solve, but the power that industry either has or is given by our government undermines the solutions, which is ridiculous.  Steingraber notes that “…cancer organizations in other nations seem far less bewildered about how to prevent cancer” (p 274) and, therefore, they regulate sensibly.  Something we should try a little more often here in the US.  
Sandra Steingraber is our modern Rachel Carson and I am so glad to have discovered her.  And I am grateful to the graduate students who read along with me this semester.  We have read six non-fiction books and I would never have made it through all of them this quickly alone; and I could have never had such interesting conversations with myself as we’ve had together in our seminar.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living Anywhere, Really: Thoughts on Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber

“Benefit of the doubt goes to the children, not to chemicals.” (P 118--in reference to parts of Canada banning pesticide use for cosmetic reasons)

Sandra Steingraber’s book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, weaves a personal journey—that of a cancer survivor—with the rise and distribution of environmental contaminants and how science, policy, and society respond to the risks inherent in (especially) purposeful release of contaminants into the environment.  As a form of science communication—and by a scientist—Steingraber’s book does a beautiful job of creating an engaging story grounded in science and why different societies come to different solutions in regulating their contaminants.  I find this story interesting on a personal front because Tazwell County, Illinois is where my mother’s family is from and where most of them still live—not only for this reason, but this is also a book that I think some of them might be interested in reading (perhaps the very first of them in the seminar this semester) because of its readable prose and because contaminant exposure is something they must think about living amid the corn.  So, of course, now I’m extra worried about myself and my family, pondering the contaminant load that we may all carry.  But, of course, Tazwell County is not an exceptional county—it is nearly Any County.  And Steingraber is not an outlier (although we could argue that she is exceptional in her talents)—she is Every Woman.  We all bare the risks of a nation and world that is profligate in its contaminant use.

Living Downstream makes a number of very good points:  that it is difficult to link clusters of cancer to local environments for a number of reasons including having a good control group, the problem of being spatially confounded, the lack of a federal cancer registry that tracks people and place throughout a lifetime, and the latency between exposure and effect which may span decades.  When contamination was listed a potential cause for amphibian population declines, a research area that I was focusing on, it was clear that even if contamination did contribute to declines, the link between declines and contaminants was going to be challenging to make because (1) thousands of contaminants are purposefully released into the environment and any one of them could be the cause or any combination of them may be necessary to elicit the effect; (2) effects of environmental contaminants typically do not cause direct mortality, but they can have more subtle effects that could be missed, such as death during overwintering or increasing susceptibility to disease or reproductive impacts that decrease fertility; (3) measuring contaminant loads in the field and in organisms is typically cost prohibitive on a large scale especially if you do not know which contaminant you are targeting; (4) timing of exposure can be important in determining the effect it has, for instance exposure early in life may have profound effects, while exposure at later life stages does not; and (5) exposure may have occurred, but it may not be detectable since many pesticides are relatively short-lived.  All of this plays to the advantage of industry and chemical manufacturers when the regulatory system assumes a chemical is “innocent” unless other, often unfunded independent researchers, can demonstrate that there is ample evidence of harm. 

So, it is particularly interesting to read that parts of Canada have banned pesticide use for cosmetic reasons—no chemical lawn care (which should be a low hanging fruit solution)!  The European Union member states revised their policy because it failed to protect people and the environment and their new policy is one of precaution that gives the government “a freer hand to restrict chemicals and compels substitutions of toxic chemicals with safer ones.”  (They have for instance, banned the herbicide atrazine based on the available evidence, something that the US regulatory agency seems unlikely to do in any reasonable time frame.)  In contrast, industry plays a large role in the regulatory process in the US, which may explain why few chemicals in recent times have been banned, despite indications that they can cause harm not only to natural systems, but humans as well. 

A childhood friend just shared this morning that she has metastasized breast cancer.  We have all, undoubtedly, lost people we love and care about to cancer—or if we are lucky, we have watched friends and family survive cancer but have seen the toll that is paid to be a survivor.  Some of us will get cancer—any living life form is at risk.  When we do the cost-benefit analysis, how do you put a price on human suffering not to mention the ecological changes that result?  There are certainly times when pesticides are needed (or contaminant release may be necessary), but because of the inherent risks, the bar should be reasonably high.  Instead, the bar is set woefully low. It’s why Silent Spring remains relevant over 50 years after its publication, although *most* of the biocides she refers to have been banned or are more limited in use.  Sandra Steingraber makes a compelling argument in the 21st century, and demonstrates that scientists can relay the data in meaningful and beautiful ways.  I am cheering for her (despite my disposition against cheering in general)…on multiple fronts.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey: Bee Identity Crisis

“We weren’t, obviously, going to outspend them [Exxon-Mobil, the Koch brothers, and Peabody Energy]. We would need to find other currencies to work in—passion, spirit, creativity. We’d probably have to put our bodies on the line.  But what we lacked in cash, we could make up in numbers—that’s what organizing was about. If enough bees could fill a fifty-gallon drum with honey, it was worth a try.” P. 204

Oil and Honey offers an interesting perspective on how a movement is built to address a societal need when current policies and government fail on their own. The Climate Movement has used civil disobedience to garner wider awareness for the problems at hand and our failure to sort it out. has been creative and relentless in their activities and protests, and through this effort of many, they have had significant impacts.  If they were bees, they would have been filling the supers (if that’s the right name for bit of the hive needed to collect more honey).  I have great admiration for the way they have created this movement—and I applaud their efforts.

But…and this is part of the little tete-a-tete I’ve been having with myself while reading and admiring the Climate Change effort, as I feel McKibben beckoning us all to join the march…what if you are more of a carpenter bee than a honey bee (honey bees are after all non-native in the Americas...oh wait, I'm not native either!).  Carpenter bees are solitary, creating their homes in wood, pollinating and nectar collecting—ecologically, valuable.  McKibben himself would perhaps argue he too is more of a carpenter bee, but there he is riding around in buses for days on end with other worker bees—and he suggests that if he can, we all can, because this is a mission we all must be on board with to ultimately win the war against fossil fuels.  Maybe McKibben has overcome his species’ limitations…or maybe he really is a honey bee after all (even queen bee!), but no matter what you do, most carpenter bees will not make honey. 

One thing we know from ecology is that ecosystem function is dependent upon many parts of the system. We can each play a role in the system’s function and our roles may be quite different.  Or, as Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (The biblical folks figured out this dilemma long ago.) Maybe we are doing science, maybe we are writing letters, maybe we are living off the land like Kirk the bee guy, or contemplating other ways that we can be a part of the solution.  Some of us are not going to be good cheering (the best I can do is roll my eyes) or marching in a protest—even while seeing that those efforts are important and can have the needed impact.

What I feel as I read Oil and Honey is very thankful that the movement has Bill McKibben sometimes acting as a queen bee and sometimes as a worker bee.  Because he is following his heart on this mission and because we can all support him in various ways, it means that perhaps we can follow our own hearts more fully, which may mean we can hole up in our solitary nest for some of the time while greeting each other warmly as we go about our daily pollination.  Or, maybe, this just means I’m ecologically lazy and not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to pick up the hive and start marching.  I do not know the answer, but I think this book asks us to figure out a role we can play and the cost we can pay in the fight against fossil fuels to preserve biodiversity.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

What’s a Scientists to Do When Activism is Called For: Thoughts on McKibben’s Oil and Honey

“You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal.  The choir is always there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many different tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.”

          When you work as a natural scientist in the field of conservation biology, there is a bit of schizophrenia between the need for scientific objectivism and the desire to take or inspire action to stem the biodiversity crisis.  Although I would maintain that there is a need to stay in good-scientist mode in the area of our own expertise to maintain your credibility, it does seem like there is room to be advocates for biodiversity and for policy to minimize the impact of climate change.  None of us in the graduate seminar are climate scientists, but we do understand the process of science and can understand and interpret the scientific literature outside our immediate disciplines.  Most of us, however, are by our nature a little more reserved and conservative in the lines we are willing to cross when the data are not fully in—we are a little less prone to revolution.  The data on climate change though is compelling and certainly makes a strong case for reducing carbon emissions ASAP. The book by Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything) and now Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey, sing to the choir.  They have me humming “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” and thinking about what our role as scientists and citizens should be in helping turn the tide on political inaction of climate change. 
           McKibben’s Oil and Honey leads us on his journey to activism and it is, as it is meant to be, rather inspiring.  He is the queen bee, as he says, of, while acknowledging that even queens are replaceable (though he would not be easily replaceable with his mix of powerful speech and thoughtful approach to the issues). He has been busy pollinating as he travels across the country and world to sing to the choir, to rally the troops in both civil obedience through writing letters to politicians and civil disobedience in asking the choir to be willing to risk arrest to raise global awareness of climate change.
            After reading Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson two years ago, which was Miami U’s freshman summer read, about the attempt to get African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s, I have wondered about the level of complacence I may have had if I had been alive at the time.  I do not come from a people who willingly seek out danger. Climate Change is the issue of our time, and I am rather complacent.  As McKibben points out, changing our light bulbs is not enough. How much are we who have so much willing to sacrifice to inspire change?  How much should the scientific community be doing—is it really enough that we are collecting data and doing experiments?  It is easy to think that we each have our own role to play, which is true enough, but does that give us a pass on the most important issue arguably in the history of human life on earth?
          McKibben’s approach to the revolution is fascinating. Maybe he is the Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. of climate change.  He takes the high road—he takes the words that Obama has said and embraces them saying that they will hold him to it.  The demonstrations are peaceful and creative, making the point in ways that tap into a possibility that didn’t seem possible.  And I wonder, what will this book inspire in all of us, conservative scientists that we are?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Keeping Common Species Common: Thoughts on Mooallem’s Wild Ones

“I like raccoons. I can’t understand why they’re so underappreciated—not detested like rats or opossums maybe, but not known for delivering thrills either. They’re surely one of the most cuddly looking and admirable synanthropes—what biologists call species that succeed in the human environment.” –Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones (p. 260)

One of the current favorite stuffed animals of my daughter is a little raccoon named Starlight.  We frequently see raccoons (real ones) in our backyard and it is why Starlight had such appeal when my daughter was making her stuffed animal selection in the Smoky Mountains. We also have a beloved skunk living under our deck, which we rarely see but frequently smell, and opossums and deer are also regular interlopers in our yard.  We occasionally see signs of fox or coyotes (i.e., scat—another of my child’s obsessions). And of course squirrels.  Lots of squirrels.  We’ve been live-trapping Peromyscus in our house with the change in weather (apparently our five cats have other things to do) and there are quite a few indicators that the moles have a virtual city beneath the surface of our yard.  This is part of the mammal diversity of our neighborhood. It is our household’s philosophy to love what is common, as much as what is scarce.

Mooallem’s Wild One brings up the strangeness of valuing species only when they are near their evolutionary end.  The examples of trying to save a butterfly or a crane species when the numbers are down to dozens does seem like a futile effort and highlights how failure to protect what is common ends up in difficult and sometimes awkward situations.  (Mimicking the mating dance of a crane in order to get a sperm sample that can be shipped to a zoo to inseminate a female of the beleaguered species?  The horror.)  I am reminded of Elizabeth Kolbert’s comments that many of the species on the verge of extinction today (as well as the Pleistocene mammals) have natural histories and life histories that make them inherently susceptible to extinction when they live on a planet with humans.  The story of the characters involved in saving the butterflies and cranes often ends with a kind of hopelessness and acknowledgement of an unavoidable failure—but a species at the point where intervention becomes necessary is already in a precarious situation—that we save any of them from immediate extinction is actually somewhat surprising. While there have been success stories, it is hard to wonder what the long-term success will be given the price that has been paid in genetic diversity, isolation from other populations, and the abundance within  and between populations. It’s like opening Anna Karenina and reading:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  What is the probability that this story is going to have a happy ending?  The stories in Wild Ones of the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark, and the whooping crane have an even lower probability of a happy ending than poor Anna.

I am torn between the two ideas that, on the one hand, symbolic efforts matter, and on the other hand, we need to be realistic and triage our efforts. What would we do in a war zone (of which my knowledge stems from watching reruns of M.A.S.H.)?  Do you want doctors to make symbolic efforts to save a person that is likely past saving or is triage essential to save more lives?  Of course, it’s not actually a war zone in the US, at least—we have 7.3 billion people on planet earth, and we have more than enough people who could help bring back species that are on the brink of extinction—and the humans may benefit from that effort as well. However, in the medical field, it is preferred to avoid a crisis by focusing on preventive care.  But we seem to lack an appreciation for preventative care with wildlife.  My neighbors do not appreciate the presence of the raccoons, opossums, or (especially) skunks, which puts the common species in the community around us at risk.

In the biodiversity crisis, it does seem like the other war zone analogy is that conservationists are learning as they go—they are trying to save species in the absence of the necessary information and sometimes without adequate resources. Certainly that appeared to be the case in all three of the stories in Wild Ones. There is often a limited ability to do the needed sorts of experiments to determine best practices for some species. The crane migration is heroic, but without experimental tests to determine the techniques that will lead to successfully making the whooping cranes independent of human fostering and migration, then we are not going to make fast progress. 

I liked Brooke Pennypacker’s comment in Wild Ones that “Humanity caused the problem to begin with, and so it’s very hard for humanity to solve the problem. Because it’s humanity!  … It’s not a bird project…It’s a people project. The birds are an excuse for doing something good” (p. 278). In the end, I am all for efforts that may be largely symbolic—we created the crisis, not on purpose exactly, but we created it. The least we can do is to try to help species return to being more common.  Maybe in the end, that will make us more human.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Soft Spot for Polar Bears, Martha Stewart, & a Good Story: Reading Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones

Needle felted polar bear & penguin -- make your own with instructions at 

There are a few people who I remember the exact moment I met them, and since I do not seem to remember much these days, this seems important.  I remember when I first laid eyes on my husband—I can picture the frame of the door while I was walking through the office of the Forest Service and he was sitting in my seat waiting for me to return.  I remember meeting my future advisor, Ray Semlitsch, at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory where I was working as a technician and having lunch with him at an on-sight dining hall that I had never heard of—he was surprisingly down to earth given that everyone seemed to think he invented salamanders.  And, I remember my introduction to Martha Stewart (not actually in person), also while I was working at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in 1994/1995. Two interns from Drexel were mentioning that it was kind of boring in town after work—so I made the obvious suggestion:  You need to get a craft.  It wasn’t long before they were telling me that they had found a craft and they opened an issue of a new magazine, Living. I can picture them setting the magazine down before me in the SREL library and turning to the page of some sort of ornaments that looked like glass grapes.  It was clear, these were crafts for elitists. I probably told them so—at the time I was reading Gandhi’s autobiography & Walden and embracing the simple life, which conveniently coincided with my poverty wages.  But, it was not too many months more before I myself was subscribing to crafts for elitists and Martha Stewart became one of my heroes.  (Ray Semlitsch also thought Martha rocked, which I attribute to the fact that they both shared a love of things being just so.)

In subsequent years I came to the conclusion that Martha may be a little crazy.  Possibly a sociopath.  Who else would require that every ingredient be “the finest [chocolate, bourbon, coconut, salt, [fill in the blank] that you can afford”?  Who else would fill buckets with ice and evergreens that could be used as giant votives lining the walkway up to her house(s)?  Her level of collecting things has to be pathological.  It is certainly against everything we have been reading this semester addressing the biodiversity and climate CRISIS that directly or indirectly points to the need of fewer unnecessary items.  But, here she is in our book doing a documentary on the Churchill polar bears—and doing a damn good job of it, even if she did “go rogue.” You can see it here: or here:  (It’s good, but yes, we could still talk about her hat.) We need the Martha Stewarts on television saying things like, “and people still don’t believe in climate change” and showing the plight of biodiversity.  Martha does clearly love her animals—most people do. But mostly, the biodiversity crisis is off our radar. Maybe the Marthas get it on the radar for a minute, which may leave it knocking around inside our minds for much longer.

The fascinating aspect of Mooallem’s book so far is the power of story in influencing the perceptions of the public.  How you “spin” the story of polar bears can shift the way people view not only the plight of the bear, but how they view climate change.  He used the example of a rather horrific hunting story where Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting guide traps a bear for Roosevelt and ties it to a tree (meanwhile injury the animal)—Roosevelt refuses to shoot it and asks for the guide to put the animal out of its misery.  From this story springs the idea for the teddy bear, which shifts the view of the bear that were being widely eradicated as a threat to humans and livestock.  It’s not quite an accurate shift—hugging real bears can be hazardous for your health—but it is a positive portrayal.  Mooallem appears to be trying to get a balanced perspective on the natural world—polar bears may look cuddly, but they are serious predators capable of causing injury, which people seem to forget if they buy into the cuddly version too heavily. Martha seems to get it right—there is a real delight and thrill in seeing polar bears in person, but there is also respect for the predator and concern for their plight in this world that has got a little carried away with its self. She tells a good story that is firmly grounded in reality. (Also, of course, polar bears are good craft inspiration…see above.) While I’m admiring Martha again, it reminds me that maybe crafting is part of the solution—and if more elitists & regular folks crafted and made our own practical stuff (i.e., if we all learned how to do things again), it would reduce the need to ship all those clothes and unnecessary plastic objects from China, which might in the end help the polar bear and the rest of diversity. And DIY projects: good, clean fun.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

History Knocked on Your Door, Did You Answer: Klein’s This Changes Everything Part III

“I am part of the land.  I respect it, I love it and I don’t treat it as a useless object, as if I want to take something out of it and then the rest will be waste. Because I want to live here this year, next year, and to hand it down to the generations to come. In contrast, Eldorado, and any other mining company, they want to devour the land, to plunder it, to take away what is most precious for themselves.” And then they would leave behind, she said, “a huge chemical bomb for all mankind and nature.” –Melachrinin Liakou, activist against the gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece, quoted in This Changes Everything (p 342)

There is a lot about this book that hits home and that is very moving.  Section III is my favorite section—enlightening, motivating, and food for thought—as with all the books we’ve read so far (we are now half-way done), I like the ending.  Klein makes an argument that others have made, that love can save a place and inspire regular people to become activists. Janisse Ray makes a similar argument in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood when she returns to her childhood home amid the pines of southern Georgia—that land was the place where her bones were quite literally built, and that connection to and love of place, fractured as it is by human logging and development, means something.  Yet, so many of our lives become separated from the ecosystems that, at least in part, made us. I wonder if, imbedded in the return to local economies, is a philosophy of philopatry--returning after an education elsewhere back to the natal pond.  It certainly seems that Indigenous people have been a largely shining example of how connection to place emboldens their communities to stand up to big oil and coal.  Many of us have lost that connection to place—or are not fully aware of the ecosystem that was building our bones—or more likely, for the many ecosystems around the world that helped build our bones.  And we are so busy, that we are easily disconnected from the place around us. And as it is slowly chipped away at with new shopping centers, we will hardly notice.

One of the challenges of conservation crises is not only raising awareness about the important environmental issues, but inspiring or motivating the necessary changes in people’s behaviors or a change in their belief system.  When we started talking about science communication several years ago, it became clear that while we science-types are most comfortable offering “educational” outreach, changing people’s beliefs and behaviors is the key and that information alone may not be inspiring enough to alter entrenched beliefs or behaviors—it is no trivial task.  Even the people who make full time jobs out of raising awareness for health issues like smoking have a challenge in moving the behavioral response.  Dr. Valerie Ubbes at Miami U who is a health educator has said that in trying to educate the public through things like public service announcements (PSA), you know that one PSA will not cause people to stop smoking or eating sugar or to start buckling up or exercising. But, you are in it for the long-haul with each piece of information like a drip which eventually motivates change.  With climate change, we are out of time.  The drips have not worked and what is ahead is a flood (perhaps more inspiring?).  Klein’s book offers hope about how each one of us can contribute to making our small individual changes and also how we can be part of larger movements to end “taking without caretaking.”  Klein ends with the story of asking friends what she should ask Greece’s opposition party and someone suggested “Ask him: History knocked on your door, did you answer?”  I hope the answer is yes for each of us.  Klein has showed us where to start—anyone else ready for revolution? (Perhaps not this semester…I am weary, but perhaps that should not matter.)   

Saturday, October 10, 2015

It's a Monster World: Thoughts on Klein’s This Changes Everything Part II

According to French sociologist Bruno Latour, the real lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “is not, as is commonly understood, ‘don’t mess with mother nature.’  Rather it is, don’t run away from your technological mess-ups, as young Dr. Frankenstein did when he abandoned the monster to which he had given life.  Instead, Latour says we must stick around and continue to care for our ‘monsters’ like the deities that we have become.” –Naomi Klein, The Changes Everything (page 278)

Climate change has been on societies’ radar for decades, although I do not remember when it entered my ecological consciousness. Not high school (in the late 80s), when I first became concerned about risks of biodiversity. Nor college (in the early 90s) when I first became aware of amphibian population declines.  Maybe it was graduate school (in the rest of the 90s) or maybe it was always there in the background—a threat that seemed far off and something to start planning ahead for so that our grandchildren didn’t face a world vastly different from the one we were living in. But I do remember the moment when it first occurred to me that the scientists closest to the climate change data didn’t believe society was going to make the changes necessary.  I was a regional SETAC meeting at Miami University (sometime post 2004) when the keynote speaker was talking about the predicted climate  changes, which were familiar by that point, as well as the potential solutions of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels (also familiar) and geoengineering solutions, which were not familiar and shocking.  It was at that moment when it occurred to me, they don’t think we can fix this. 

In Part II (Magical Thinking) of This Changes Everything, Klein's chapter on “Dimming the Sun” lays out the various ways people are considering avoiding climate change, aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions:  fertilizing the oceans, reflecting light back into space by covering deserts or by putting tiny mirrors in the atmosphere with mirrors (and idea that was surely thought up by a clever kindergarten class and not actual scientists), or by pumping sulfate aerosols (like sulfur dioxide, the stuff of volcanos) into the stratosphere. She lays out the risks of these ideas and the risks of not having a catastrophic Plan B.  She presents it in a way that the risks are great enough that only a fool would move forward with one of these Plan Bs.  They are certainly plans that focus solely on human impacts and do not consider risks to the rest of the biota we share this planet with—and given that climate change poses great immediate threats to the most vulnerable humans, such approaches are understandable.

If you have any members of your family, you have probably watched one (or more!) of them make decisions for herself or himself (or for his/her immediately family) that cause problems and heartache.  Not just for themselves, but for the entire family who is often powerless to truly resolve the problem. Sometimes it unfolds for years with the same story repeated over and over again; time or the details change, but the story racked with crisis is more or less the same. The solution is often clear, but it is often too hard or too painful of an option, so the loved one and family members treat the symptoms and things will be better for a while.  And then, go to the repeat sign and play the tune again—perhaps the tune will change. In facing our personal and societal crises, we often fail to address the root of the predicament. Geoengineering solutions seem to be treating the symptom and not the disease. I am with Latour, you have to take care of your monsters, once they are created—Dr. Frankenstein was a completely irritating protagonist for this reason—but for heaven’s sakes, could we just stop creating monsters??  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Part I: Bad Timing

Because this [climate change] is a crisis that is, by its nature, slow moving and intensely place based.  In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate is about an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird—noticing these small changes requires the kind of communion that comes from knowing a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.” –Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (pages 158-159)

Last year in discussions about the Anthropocene with faculty across campus, one faculty was particularly ardent in his views that the solutions for climate change will not be solved with the same thinking that caused them and he lay the blame squarely at capitalism and the free market.  Even though he’s a perfectly respectable chap, and very likable, it was hard not to disagree with him at a gut level—I mean capitalism is not all bad and many of the alternatives are not particularly attractive.  While we can agree that excessive consumption—a consumer-based society—is problematic in so many ways, capitalism does create incentives for people to work hard and innovate, and that can be good. We are all invested—literally for those of us with retirement accounts—on an economy that continues to grow.  But as an ecologist, I also know that unlimited growth is not realistic and should not be expected.  How can economies continue to grow when resources are limited and the planet can only support an abundance of so many people on this planet? So, I am reading Naomi Klein’s book with great interest, a bit of alarm, and a bit of skepticism.  But, BUT, but, she makes a compelling case for how our economic system and policies have contributed to the global crisis and our failures to address the problems. 

A free-market without regulatory checks allows for industries and business to do whatever helps the bottom line—things that have economic consequences, like pollution of air and water, which incurs costs that they never have to pay.  How we’ve become a country polarized into thinking regulation is a black and white issue—all bad or all good—is perplexing.  It’s like putting no boundaries on your children and letting them do and have whatever they want—sucking all the resources from your resource base, which may compromise your and their future.  One of my wise parenting friends said that her mother always told her and her siblings “In this family, you do not always get everything you want, but you get what you need.” Boundaries, sensible regulation--they are essential and it completely makes sense to use them for the good of all.  Industries may not want to limit pollution, but we do not need them to want it—we just need them to do it.  Just because they do not pay the costs does not mean there are not costs.  How can citizens of earth support industry and the potential good it can do, when it we fail to set limits to minimize the harm.  There are industries currently where the costs outweigh the benefits, but we are failing to consider all the costs. 

I will also admit that I find parts of this book devastating—Obama’s failure to lead a way forward to more sustainable living and industries in the US when he could have made the argument about the failure of our current economic policy at the beginning of his presidency.  It’s hard to know if Klein is right, but she does make you wonder if that wasn’t a significant opportunity lost.  And she brings up Nauru as an example of “extractivism” without a conservation ethic or long-term planning for the ecological system or the social system.  It does seem like it’s a small scale example of the dangers that lie ahead without using our foresight to anticipate realistic outcomes of our current behaviors. 

The examples of Germany’s rapid switch to renewable energy sources, however, offers hope that with social will to drive political will, rapid change is possible. But, with so much energy invested in obscuring reality, I wonder if these transitions can happen before the devastating consequences begin.  And as Klein suggests (above), the changes we are experiencing are subtle and when we are in many cases very disconnected from our natural systems, then how will we notice? 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Dangers of Skepticism without Perspective: Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt

“Hearing ‘both sides’ of an issue makes sense when debating politics in a two-party system, but there’s a problem when that framework is applied to science. When a scientific question is unanswered, there may be three, four, or a dozen competing hypotheses, which are then investigated through research…Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question…After that point, there are no “sides.”  There is simply accepted scientific knowledge.  There may still be questions that remain unanswered—to which scientists then turn their attention—but for the question that has been answered, there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter.  That is what scientific knowledge is.” (Page 268) – Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt illustrates the value of knowing the historical perspective in which debates are being framed. Ideally, we know history to understand the landscape of the present, as well as a means of avoiding past mistakes, if humans are indeed capable of learning from our mistakes. The text was dense and detailed, but the authors lay out compelling evidence to illustrate how doubt of scientific consensus has undermined timely action to protect human and/or environmental health.  This seems like a must read.
One of the struggles I had while reading this book was about the potential for bias. It was clear to me early on that my conservative friends and/or family members, no matter how interested in these issues, would not be interested in reading Merchants of Doubt. The book is a clear indictment of blind & absolute faith of the free market, a view held by some conservatives, which appeared to influence the motivation of scientific “experts” (who although experts in some fields were not experts in all the fields they appeared to meddle), which led to either complete loss of perspective or outright lying.  Conservative administrations and politicians are the ones that are directly implicated in generating doubt where the scientific reality is much more certain. Does the implication of the “conservatives” make the book biased? In the end, I concluded that the authors were objective—they provide persuasive evidence (with sometimes exhausting detail) that key players intentionally misled the public and waged a scientific battle outside of science, which led to political inaction and public confusion over the real state of knowledge.  The approach of the doubt-mongers, which started in the 1950s, has also provided enough examples and enough time to show that in each of these cases that the doubt they sowed was in fact unjustified—not a seed that should have grown & flourished, but actually a stone. So while I do not expect conservatives to like this book, I wonder if it can be countered with evidence that can withstand honest scrutiny.
This book reframed for me why these false scientific debates, funded ultimately by industry, take root in society.  The book suggests that it’s not only personal financial gain for the business people, politicians, and the few scientists involved--although money is clearly there at the root of the issue—but also the idea that anything less than full free market support is the first step to the slippery slope of Socialism (arguably, in this country, the path to Socialism would be an uphill battle—not an easy slide). I grew up in a very conservative household, arguably “hawkish” in the words of Oreskes & Conway, so I can kind of understand that concern, even if I do not consider it particularly rational.  What I cannot understand is how scientists, many of whom had been accomplished in their field of expertise, could pose as experts in other disciplines where they were clearly not and (or) then mislead or confuse the public about the state of knowledge—simply because they disagreed with the obvious implications of the data (which may mean warning labels on cigarettes, limited public smoking, regulations on emissions).  We cannot have the correct conversations as a society if people are actively working to misrepresent the science—doing so seems criminal.
A true conservative approach would be one that ensured that the natural resources and biodiversity of the planet would be preserved for “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time,” in the words of Gifford Pinchot. Applying skepticism without perspective—by a failure to account for the available data—is not the path to a free society, but it is a very dark path and one that we cannot afford to travel. In any case, we should all be carrying our flashlights. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Voice in the Wilderness: Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway

He [John] said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. --John 1:23

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. –Matthew 7:15-20

Merchants of Doubt starts with the science and scientists of the tobacco industry and follows it/them through their involvement in national defense, and the acid rain and the ozone layer science (and debate). This has me thinking biblically.  While reading these first four chapters, I cannot help but think of the confusion that these apparent false (science) prophets have contributed to the discussion and the role they’ve played in the public distrust of scientists.  There are people (in my family for starters) who hear a scientist speak on a topic like global warming who are outside of the general scientific consensus and they view her or him as a voice in the wilderness, someone who speaks the TRUTH that the other scientists fail to see.  The voice in the wilderness is viewed as someone ahead of the curve, who fights against the status quo.  Certainly, there have been scientific voices in the wilderness—the Galileos and Darwins—who have uncovered a scientific truth that was in contrast to prevailing views, including the prevailing scientific views. Oreskes & Conway clarify that many of the scientists that argued smoking was safe, acid rain wasn’t a problem, and the ozone hole was natural were false prophets—in many cases, the same false prophet continued to be on the wrong side of the debate, which suggests either their perspective was faulty or they were deliberately lying in some cases. (Why is it that Americans especially appear to love the person who is an underdog in their scientific interpretation?)

But, false prophets should be detectable by their fruit.  Many of the scientists highlighted in the text who were false prophets had prestigious scientific credentials—scientifically, they were hot stuff.  Big trees.  But oh their fruit!  How is a regular person supposed to know?  There are so many areas in life where I am relying on experts—I do not have time (or the will) to investigate every health, political, and social claim that is put forth.  And, I suspect, I am like most people. I may miss a few wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The success of delusional or dishonest scientists counts on a public that is disengaged, that will not investigate their sources, and that would rather believe things are fine so that they do not have to change (and that is willing to be deceived). How do others who are honest with a clear sense of reality set the record straight?  It is clear that people need to consider whether a scientist has a clear financial conflict of interest—it should be a sign to listen very carefully, and it never hurts to follow the money. How plausible is it that a scientist may be being paid for their opinion or interpretation??  An interesting point is made that regular ole academic scientists also have a potential conflict of interest because they may be seeking fame and ways to bolster their likelihood of getting grants by opposing the voice in the wilderness.  And there is some truth in that, which is why it is probably an effective approach.  However, the opinion of a scientist at an academic institution is of little difference to the university—we will not get fired for interpreting the data in support of acid rain as a problem or not. (Perhaps we should be trusting the scientists without funding who can do research on a shoestring.)  But at the end of the day, the evidence should be the guiding light. Everyone has some degree of conflict of interest (we can still argue that financial conflicts of interest where an individual’s professional opinion could be biased by the fact that their employer has a vested interest in the professional opinion s/he expresses is the most insidious type of conflict of interest), but the data should be the source of our understanding.

This book so far highlights for me why scientists should draw a strict line on advocacy.  When you cross the line into advocacy, the science itself can be viewed with more doubt and it compromises the ability for our society to decide what we care about.  Better to not have an agenda beyond providing the best data and interpretation of the data that you possibly can.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Living on the New Pangea—Thoughts on Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (pp. 148-269)

“From the standpoint of the world’s biota, global travel represents a radically new phenomenon and, at the same time, a replay of the very old.  The drifting apart of the continents that Wegener deduced from the fossil record is now being reversed—another way in which humans are running geologic history backward and at high speed.  Think of it as a souped-up version of plate tectonics, minus the plates.” (p. 208)

The latest reports of a discovery of yet another new species of hominids, Homo neledi, is a reminder of how our group of primates almost didn’t make it.  It also makes me wonder what it is about us (Homo sapiens) that preserved us—perhaps it is the madness gene that Kolbert speaks of.  But survived we have, and we continue to consider ourselves very clever with our technology, cars, and spaceships. (I suppose we are clever.) While cultivating our cleverness, humans have also become the taxi service of biodiversity. While reading The Sixth Extinction, I can’t help but think that while the phenomenon of mass extinction clearly sounds horrific, there is also a sense that this is nothing new. Life will go on, even though we are currently in a god-like position of deciding, at least to some extent, how life will proceed. The species that will form the evolutionary foundation of the recovery following the sixth mass extinction event—a recovery that will require tens to hundreds of millions of years if the last mass extinctions tell us anything—are currently being selected for by chance and happenstance, as well as human whim.  Extinction is an old story, it’s just the characters have changed: It’s Tony and Maria instead of Romeo and Juliet.  Both plays were good, and the new one even had music, which is arguably an improvement in the situation.  Maybe things will be even better on New Pangea. 

The New Pangea.  It is an intriguing idea.  It doesn’t mean we lose all diversity. Connected places can maintain high diversity because of variation in the connected habitat (think about the life forms from Canada to the tip of South America).  But it does mean that our introductions lead to new interactions with outcomes that are not entirely clear. Species have always moved other species with themselves when they travelled, although perhaps less consciously. It would be surprising if we didn’t take other life forms with us by chance (parasites & pathogens, the occasional seed stuck in our hair or on our trousers) or by planning (gotta eat). I am intrigued by the tension in the book between what is natural and what is unnatural in this telling of the troubles of the current times. If we were scientific observers of the human species, I’m not sure we would cast the biodiversity crisis in quite the same light (a moral dilemma).  We are doing what individuals of any population or species do—looking out for ourselves as well as those in our group, since sociality has been selected for over our evolutionary history. Part of looking out for ourselves should include the health and sustainability of our environmrent, since failure to do so could be a game changer for us. But it’s hard to associate our individual actions, many of which seem benign, with the cause of the real and large problems facing life. Kolbert even incriminates us in the biodiversity crisis in the very act of buying and reading her book—sincere & high minded folks, we too are implicated. Damn it. And still, I would buy this book again.

Redistributing biodiversity in our travels and trade is arguably natural, but it is not without consequences. Kolbert offers many examples of the outcomes of bringing continents together in our modern way:  White-nose syndrome in bats which appears to have a European origin; amphibian chytrid fungus coming out of Africa; the Asian long-horned beetle from China; the emerald ash borer from Asia; chestnut blight from Japan; and the list goes on. The changes that happen relatively quickly lead to us growing up thinking that a forest devoid of chestnuts is normal, the ways it’s always been. So, the baseline has shifted—it is shifting. We will inevitably find ourselves living with less diversity on the New Pangea. Our insistence in transporting plants and animals half-way around the world results in the movement of parasites and pathogens.  Planting our yards with exotic species [like most grass for starters!] dramatically alters many of the surrounding natural ecosystems, often favoring exotics or “weedy” species like deer. Introduction of exotic animals has led to collapses in diversity in some cases. Darwin would have been so confused if the world’s diversity had been configured the way it is today.

Speciation often occurs in isolation, and in a connected world that is slowly becoming homogenized as species interactions play out, it is hard to see how diversity will be maintained in a world overflowing with people.  Although, as Kolbert points out, evidence suggests that the megafauna were vulnerable to small bands of people. So maybe the success of humans 200,000 years ago set in motion this sixth extinction event—maybe the fate of biodiversity was written long ago.  But still, hope *is* the thing with feathers, as both Emily Dickinson & Elizabeth Kolbert suggest. I am waiting for our frontal lobes to lead the way.  We have the capacity to make things better, but how this unfolds is really anyone’s guess. 

PS I love this book.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Rarity of Extinction--Thoughts on Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Part I; pages 1-147)

As biologists we are trained to recognize that extinction is a natural phenomenon—that ~99% of the life that has evolved on Earth has passed away to leave either no trace, or if we are lucky, a commemoration of their existence in the fossil record.  As conservation biologists, we are aware that the current extinction rate is 100-1000X the background extinction rate—and a central goal of conservation biology is to conserve the biodiversity that remains—but what Kolbert (2014) has made me consider is how many extinctions we should expect to see in our lifetime.  Kolbert says “From Darwin’s premises, an important prediction followed.  If extinction was driven by natural selection and only by natural selection, the two processes had to proceed at roughly the same rate. If anything, extinction had to occur more gradually” (p. 55). We shouldn’t expect to see, perhaps, even one extinction in our lifetime, yet the reports abound. (And to think that two centuries ago, the very notion of extinction barely existed!) Of course, the background extinction rate goes out the window in mass extinction events.

Kolbert opens the door and welcomes everyone to the Anthropocene just on the edge of the sixth extinction event, an event that has already began to unfold. Come on in.  Have a seat and watch the consequences unfold. Humans, despite our frontal lobe development, seem to show limited capacity for foresight, leading to extinctions through both direct and indirect means, although both routes may be unintentional. What leads me down the path of despair, if only briefly since there is no time for despair, is our past record for driving once common species to extinction.  In “The Original Penguin,” Kolbert points out that the Great Auk had a wide distribution in the Northern Hemisphere ranging “from Norway over to Newfoundland and from Italy to Florida, and its population probably numbered in the millions” (p. 57-58). We hunted without foresight that millions could turn into a small remnant population, left to the vagaries of small populations until they were a single nesting pair and then collected for a “gentleman” who wanted it for his collection in 1844 (p. 62). (Why does she not call him a fool [edited for polite blogging]??) Are we more enlightened today with better technology and knowledge of what is happening beyond our own home range? Theoretically, although this knowledge barely helps the elephants and black rhinos.  The enlightened many who may wish to protect species that are rare is undermined by the cheaters—the poachers who will come in to take what is rare and, therefore, valuable—although their measure of value is limited to a price tag and the risk of poaching is often not great enough to impede this activity.

If our direct actions that lead to small populations (if not outright extinction) cannot be adequately curbed—this should be the low hanging fruit—then how can we hope to manage our actions that indirectly put biodiversity at risk—actions that increase greenhouse gases that warm the climate and increase the acidity of the oceans?  Ugh.  Bleh.  No idea.  What Kolbert does brilliantly in this book, it seems to me, is to 1) establish a framework of how life has changed on earth over millions of years—with each mass extinction event appearing to be a result of different phenomenon; 2) lay out our historical understanding of species loss; and 3) clarify how humans have set the stage for another dramatic shift, all by ourselves—no asteroids needed.  Maybe a human-mediated mass extinction event won’t lead to the worst day on earth, the way the asteroid hit at the end of the Cretaceous period did—but it seems less than ideal and currently unavoidable (although we can avoid the worst outcomes). Kolbert’s writing is beautiful, even as she horrifies—I’m waiting to see if she offers a path through the mess we’ve created and I’m wondering how many people we need on the path to reach the best possible future.

Conservation Books "To Read"

My list of books "to read" is getting out of control and it seems easy to let that be low priority, even though reading a good book is *the best*. So I had the genius idea of recruiting some graduate students to take a seminar where we read and discuss some of the recent conservation literature together. We've got six exciting non-fiction books on our agenda to explore how to communicate with the public and to explore some general issues in conservation biology.  We are all blogging about our reads--books & blog links below--we would love to hear the non-fiction conservation books for the public that you have loved.  

Texts in Order of Class Discussions

1) Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

2) Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

3) Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

4) Mooallem, Jon. 2013. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

5) McKibben, Bill. 2013. Oil and Honey.

6) Steingraber, Sandra. 1997. Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

Individual Class Reading Blogs

Brentrup, Jennie: 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ray Semlitsch (1951-2015): Remembering a Mentor & Science Hero

Last week, Ray Semlitsch died and so many of us lost a beloved mentor and adviser. Though his family loved him more and knew him best, he was a really important person to so many of us and we loved him dearly. Rest in peace, Ray.   

Ray Semlitsch was a friend of frogs and salamanders and humans, and to many a mentor, a colleague, and a Jedi Master.  The Psalmist wrote “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, / from where will my help come? / My help comes from the Lord, / who made heaven and earth.” The hills and forests and wetlands may well ask the same of us “From where will my help come?”  And the answer has been, at least in part, “It comes from Ray.”

Wes Jackson of The Land Institute has said “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”  Ray wasn’t going to get it all done in one lifetime, because he did think big.  The old Semlitsch lab may remember Ray saying at a lab meeting that he was a “chainsaw ecologist” and that if you wanted to really know what was happening to amphibians when the forests were cleared, you had to experimentally clear the forest with randomly assigned treatments.  I remember thinking (in my youth) “Nice idea. Totally crazy.”  But he took what seemed like a crazy idea and over time found collaborators and funding, and really became a chainsaw ecologist asking questions with a slew of students and colleagues at a scale few others have attempted and providing answers that will better protect the wildlife he dedicated his career and life to. Ray could turn outlandish ideas into reality and he was full of ideas.

Ray’s students and colleagues are part of the legacy of his career--he showed us how to be open to the ideas that seem impossible, how to provide solid experiments (with true replicates!) and how to analyze data that will be useful to policy-makers, to help preserve and protect more of the natural world in the face of a growing human population and climate change.  I have been trying to remind myself to be thankful for the time Ray did have on earth and that he was so freaking efficient with it. He has inspired a generation of students and it’s hard to put into words what Ray means to us.

Ray was a gifted scientist, but we remember him because he was so much more than that—he feels like family. He had a statistically significant, positive effect on our lives. Ray was welcoming and generous.  When you walk into the Semlitsch lab, you have to pass right by Ray’s office where he was most often working at his desk with his door open in a standard attire of khaki pants and button down shirt with little stripes on it. He’d exclaim “Travis!” or “Allison!” (or whoever you were) as you passed by like he was so thrilled to see you even though you may have walked through the door of the lab every day for weeks or years. I’m not sure why he was so happy to see us, but it made you feel like you belonged. 

Although Ray liked things a certain way (there are stories of him advising students on how to mow the lawn around the cattle tanks—first circling clockwise, next time counterclockwise), that was advice--he did not try to control his students or the important stuff—he let us find our own way of doing things—everything was a collaboration.  Some of the students were and are superstars and some of us didn’t really know quite what we were doing or where we were headed—but either way, he could work with that and he took you as you were.  He was not exasperated by questions that may have seemed naïve or simplistic or completely trivial. I remember calling him in an unexplainable panic to ask if I should staple or paper clip materials for a job application—and he just cheerfully and definitively answered “Staple!” without making me feel like he was busy figuring out how to cut down forests for science.

The poet Mary Oliver writes “When death comes / like the hungry bear in autumn / when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse/ to buy me, and snaps his purse shut…I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” 

Ray was in all things curious—new statistical analyses or new techniques, they didn’t faze him—he was young in spirit and mind.  As he passes from this life to the next, I can only imagine him taking that curiosity with him.  None of us knows when our time is up.  Ray’s time feels cut short, but he used his time wisely:  he conducted many studies and wrote many papers (more than 241 by Travis Ryan’s count); he was generous and kind to his students and colleagues; he loved his family dearly; he was respected and loved by many; and Ray was not lost, but found, as you could read at the bottom of each email he sent.  When I think of him I cannot help but smile. 

When I picture Ray, I imagine him keeping the path to that great wetland in the sky clear for each of us, and when our time comes and we see him again—he will be standing there, either in waders or khakis and striped button down shirt, I’m not sure which—he will call us each by name as enthusiastically as he did when anyone walked in the lab and we will know we’ve come to the right place.   

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Singing to the Choir

Miami University's Men's Glee Club
(Which included one of our Conservation Biology students!)

I have spent the last few years thinking about ways we science-types can successfully reach out to non-science types to get them interested and concerned about the biodiversity crisis.  We’re at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction event and we’re missing it because we’re scrolling through our emails and tweeting about our bargain find on unnecessary plastic objects.  How do you capture people’s attention in a meaningful way?  Bill McKibben’s talk and my conservation biology class’s response to his talk has me thinking though about the value of singing to the choir.  I have often worried that all we mostly do in science outreach is sing to the choir.  But, the choir likes music, whether making it or listening to it.  Before most of these students went to Bill McKibben’s talk, none of them needed convincing that climate change was their reality.  They had the basic information.  What they didn’t have, necessarily, was the steps to a solution to a problem so large and overwhelming, or the inspiration to take those steps.  But, at McKibben's talk they received a little of both from a yodeler high on the mountaintop. The choir can use a little inspiration once in a while—and perhaps for people working on and thinking about the fate of biodiversity in the Anthropocene, we forget that we desperately need a little singing (or yodeling). 

My choir (my class…no one would let me in a real choir and for good reason) was inspired by McKibben founding with 7 undergrads and himself where each student took on one continent to find people committed to reducing carbon dioxide to 350 ppm. One undergrad for one continent!  And it was sufficient!  They were interested to hear about the divestment movement (like Ashley) and how students and “grown-ups” have gone to jail over their protests demanding for energy change (like Caroline). They were moved by pictures of people around the world with their signs for 350 (like Amanda). When Bill McKibben talks, the crowds he draws may in large part be from the choir, but still, I've gotta say, even though we didn't know we were longing for them, we loved the tunes. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The End of Nature: Doing it Our Way


One of the interesting parallels that come up again and again with climate change in faculty discussions about the Anthropocene is the comparison with slavery.  I have wondered about the power of fiction to help people see into an experience outside of their own to inspire change—the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired many people to become abolitionists.  I have been hoping for a novel to solve the problem of the public’s apathy toward climate change (which is perhaps less realistic than an award-winning movie—but I prefer a good book!). One of the statements by a colleague in English (I believe) was that slavery was on its way out anyway, because fossil fuels were on the way in, allowing people to replace human energy with oil and machinery.  The silver lining of fossil fuels I guess. Of course, the end of slavery wasn’t the result of just one thing—a book, a change in ethic, changes in laws, up-risings, states leaving the union, a president with a way with words. It was a lot of forces coming together, and it will perhaps be the same in dealing with climate change (not ideal!).

McKibben makes an interesting observation in the way we humans deal with impending necessary change by trying to maintain the status quo despite the sense it may make—this is true in institutions like universities and governments as well as households.  He says:

“…after the crisis of the Civil War slavery was no longer an acceptable method for white Americans to exercise dominion over black Americans.  But rather than convert to new notions of universal fellowship and equality white Americans invented segregation, rigging up Jim Crow laws to ensure that much of the old relationship would persist in a new guise.  And it is of critical importance to realize that now, just as the old methods of dominating the world have become unworkable, a new set of tools is emerging that may allow us to continue that domination by different, expanded, and even more destructive means—that is, we may very well find a way to keep from choking on our cake, only to gag on the icing later.” (Page 128, The End of Nature)

He was talking about our apparent belief that the use of genetic engineering and biotechnology is our solution of getting us out of our climate troubles.  And, it may be part of the solution, but it does not necessarily keep wild nature wild.  Rather, it furthers us down a path of a world altered to human convenience, which is often not to the convenience for the rest of biodiversity.  Our separateness from nature, he says was not “an inevitable divorce, and…consciously or unconsciously many of us realize it was a mistake” (Page 73).  He says elsewhere that we need to consider (and take) a humbler path and I’m intrigued by this humble path, although I like my conveniences as much as the next person.  I have been reading books of Janisse Ray and she has found a humbler path that keeps her connected to the earth and local community while minimizing her consumer impact.  It is a start and seems like a better way to live. So, maybe genetic engineering and biotechnology is our Climate Crow equivalent to Jim Crow, I’m not sure. 

My students said they were surprised when Bill McKibben wrote that he and his wife wanted children, but that they weren’t sure if it was right given that the problem of growing population contributes to the biodiversity loss and climate change.  (They now have one child.)  And I was surprised that they were surprised by this!  How could such considerations not cross their minds?  It’s not that I would advocate the number of children a person should have (well, I might, but not in class), but limiting the number of children one has does seem to follow from what we have talked about this semester starting with human population as the driver for all the conservation issues we are covering.  So, their response suggests that McKibben was right, that we are not going to want to change and that the humbler path will have limited appeal for most—even the students of conservation biology.

We do not like to change and that is worrying. But, regardless, the times, they are a changin’.  Ask Bob, or Bill.