Thursday, December 6, 2018

The World Without Us: We Can Still Cause Problems Even When We’re Not Here

I am not sure why I thought the book A World Without Us by Alan Weisman would be hopeful and cathartic.  (Spoiler: It wasn’t.)  Perhaps because we know humans are the primary driver of climate change and most of the factors that are causing global extinctions, I naïvely thought removing people was removing the problem.  There is some comfort in imagining the natural world rebound and recover, even if the price is loss of a single species dear to our hearts—Homo sapiens.  Of course, loss of humans from the planet would remove *a lot* of problems for the rest of biodiversity, but what was most surprising to me about this book was how lasting human impacts will be even if we disappeared instantaneously.  While the cities and structures that humans have built will be short-lived, the contaminants we put into the environment, in some cases, will be long lasting. Changes in green house gases mean changes in climate for hundreds to thousands of years.  The consequences of radioactive materials, especially if nuclear facilities are not shut down properly in a human apocalypse, would be long-lasting, haunting, and global; however, Weisman points out that Chernobyl appears largely recovered and that the birds returned immediately as have people who used to live there (even if its not quite “allowed”). Of course, presence does not mean safety.

This was an interesting read though, and it does make me wonder if it would be better to envision a world WITH US, but minimizing our impacts on the rest of life.  Perhaps the planet could be better WITH US if we could control our impulses, convert to sustainable energy sources, reduce our global population size voluntarily.  Humans clearly have the capacity to build and structure the part of the environment in which we live, which ripples through the places where we do not live.  If we put *sustainable living* at the forefront of our design of human spaces, while reducing population, maybe we could reclaim our place in the natural world.  However, our ability to put sustainable living at the forefront of anything seems so far-fetched at this point in time, it is challenging to feel hopeful—which is perhaps why Weisman didn’t even go there.  But, still, I will (try to) choose hope for a future with a better human consciousness for our natural world, over hope for our loss.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Final Fishy Thoughts on Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

Greenberg’s book brings up some valuable and useful questions about how—or if—we can sustainably harvest fish from their natural ecosystems or if we can instead manage this protein source via fish farms. Or if either are realistic.  Throughout the book, I could feel my hopes rise as each fish from salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna offered a possible solution; but then, my hope would fall as the solution seemed elusive.  Toward the end of the book there is a hopeful example of ocean farming in the Pacific with the kahala—a species that meets many of the ideal characteristics of a farmable fish.  Right now, it is working.  But then I imagine them ramping up production to feed the world and I wonder if all the problems they are avoiding now with low demand disappear once it’s a global market?  At the end of the day, the global population size is working against so many approaches. 

One of the challenges of sustainably harvesting fish is that so many piscivores are removed from the ecosystem that the fish came from.  I cannot see what is going on in Alaska where my salmon allegedly hails from—I do not know the fisherman who catch it or hear stories about what is happening in the habitat.  I am removed from that system.  So, should I be part of that food web?  Should I instead be eating bluegill out of backyard ponds found all over Ohio? (Or, even better, just eating beans?)  We travel to a sea faring destinations (or live there) and order the local fare, with some expectation that “someone” is monitoring the situation and making decisions that allow for safe, sustainable harvest. However, the tuna serves an example that this is not the case—that science isn’t guiding the management of this high trophic-level fish, but rather demand and the fishing industry is. 

Can you remove a food source from any natural system, send it around the world, and expect to do so sustainably in a world with 7.5 billion people?  It seems unlikely.  The most telling story in the book to me was that of the moratorium on whale hunting that resulted from the International Whaling Commission.  While the intention may have been to reduce hunting pressure to allow populations to rebound, there was also a shift in perception about whale hunting and a shift in need for whale products.  The ban continues, despite some country’s violation (in spirit if not always law), and the populations recover.  For Bluefin tuna, the solution may be the same, but such solutions are resisted. 

The key to the problem, Greenberg suggests, is public perception.  It worked with swordfish: “Give Swordfish a Break.” By (mainly) convincing chefs not to serve swordfish, it reduced demand and swordfish populations recovered.  Many environmentally conscience people are carrying around “Seafood Watch” cards and trying to make good decisions on their menu selections, but as Greenberg points out:  There has been no clear benefit to fish populations.  (I have ruined many a dinner with my husband’s family by whipping out my card, which no doubt has improved my popularity.)  So public perception may need to move in the direction of reduced demand for fish.

Overall, this book highlights the complications of a world with so many hungry people.  Although he offers solutions at the end, it all boils down to less is more. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Greenberg's Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I stopped eating red meat circa 1992 when a woman made an impression on me with her statement that you could not be an environmentalist and eat meat.  I stopped eating all meat circa 1995 when I started graduate school—part economic incentive, part moral dilemma, part conservation.  And then a few years ago, I *started* eating Alaskan salmon periodically because it was alleged to be sustainable and because it seemed like there were a few health benefits.  But, ho hum, here is Paul Greenberg taking out one fish at a time, starting with the one I eat twice a month or so: Salmon.  Greenberg does point out what in my heart of hearts I’ve always known:  How can trucking a food across the world from one ecosystem to another really be sustainable—and shouldn’t the fact that you can buy a “family pack” at the Kroger for relatively little have been a red flag?  They are not priced in a way that reflects their rarity, as Greenberg suggests.  Even though one may have perfected the perfect recipe. 

I wonder as I read this if we can really expect to go back to eating locally—we can certainly aim for prioritizing local food to minimize our ecological footprint—but can we give up the panoply of entrees that can adorn our dinner tables: the quinoa, the oranges & bananas, year round strawberries & blueberries, the chocolate, THE TEA?  It is difficult to see the energy costs that go into our dinner, but our meals have connections around the world.  Each and every meal, for most of us.  And what does it do to the people who live in the places where the salmon run if we stop eating salmon (or significantly cut back if we want to be less radical in our approach)?  Do they lose their livelihood and, if so, in the long-run, how devastating, is it?

My grandparents grew their own food, largely, and though poor, there was typically enough to eat.  In that respect, those who can collect their own food or grow it are never completely destitute.  When people move into the cities, they can lose their jobs and then lose everything including their ability to feed themselves—a fate they might avoid if they have land on which to hunt or plant.  In a world of 7. 7 billion people (good heavens), can we feed ourselves locally?  Give a person a fish and they have a meal for a day; teach a person to fish and you will empty the oceans?    

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

After finishing this book last night, I returned to the beginning:  “Let’s start indoors.  Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife.”  So David Quammen begin this story of how we have arrived from a time of a sprawling natural world of forest and field, whole and if not perfect then full of splendor, to a world today that is scattered, pieced, and degraded, though still yet stunning in places.  This book begins with the names of people that every educated citizen knows—Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—as they began to unravel the mystery of mysteries: the diversity of life.  We followed the story of their trials and exploration into a world still rich in diversity but already unravelling so that whole portions are lost.  We can feel the sore and blistered feet, and the risk and inconvenience of getting to the far reaches of the world 160+ years earlier to see what has rarely been seen outside of a small populace of human inhabitants. 

This has been a long telling of the story of the sixth extinction.  Could Quammen have simply said: Alas, when the world is cut up into pieces, extinction is the inevitable consequence for many species, especially those that are rare and vulnerable in the first place?  Perhaps.  However, what a journey he has taken us on and how compelling he made the argument about vulnerability.  That “we have entered the era of metapopulations” as the fine Persian carpet has been sliced into fractions, again and again from the Concho water snake, the indri, the muriqui, the original Tasmanians, the thylacine…the list goes on. And, Quammen loves his lists, of course.  While the whole world has become a series of isolated patches, in not-quite-islands, so many species are ill equipped to survive this isolation after evolving for millennia unabridged.  So many are doomed, we are told, because these small isolated populations have lost the genetic diversity that would permit them to evolve.  Speciation halted.

Quammen takes us to a curious place in the end, back to Aru—one of the far-reaching destinations of Wallace’s where he saw the greater bird of paradise, a bird most of us only know in a tacky country song.  Quammen leaves us there in Aru with a species that still exists, miraculously, with him staring up at them in a tree calling out with a “chorus of squawking”—a song, that unlike the dodo, we can know.  Perhaps this is meant to be a hopeful ending, but I’m not feeling like a hopeful person today: It feels like a last glimpse at what will soon disappear, although we can watch it on YouTube and will not have to guess at least at what it sounded like or looked like.  As the book ends, it feels like an ending we have not yet reached, but it is an ending that we can guess.  Quammen has laid out the writing on the wall, like a shaman with a compelling vocabulary.  The story of extinction will not be a happy conclusion: How can it be? 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

One of the lasting questions that Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction left me with was this: Was the evolutionary tree marked to be significantly pruned with the evolution of the large brained (shortsighted) human primates some 200,000 years ago?  As I read Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo that is the subject I most ponder.  Humans traveling the world in energy efficient wind-powered boats were doing what they could to ensure they would survive by inserting themselves into the food webs of the places they traveled.  Food must have dominated their thoughts, traveling across the world with limited provisions, with the prospect of potentially getting stranded out at sea by lack of wind or some other calamity.  Many of these food webs lacked large mammalian predators, so were painfully vulnerable to the odd sailor with a club and a growling stomach.  Their actions were largely out of ignorance of biogeography and endemism of island species.  And who could blame a hungry person for feeding her or himself? Certainly, they had no idea of the evolutionary tree or that they were in fact changing evolutionary history by their actions. 

As news was reported of the extinction of the northern white rhino this spring, I could feel it in my gut, despite realizing these slow-reproducing, large mammals with small populations were likely doomed in a world with humans, just as the mammoths and mastodons may have been when human population was small, but effective.  Just as the species of so many of the islands containing rare endemics are ill fated in a world of humans.  Death and destruction—“Rarity unto Death” as Quammen puts it.  Moreover, we know that the coming months and years will bring similar stories with many species facing the low population sizes and low genetic diversity, which precede extinction.

The 21st century is a test of the human brain’s aptitude to show some foresight.  Five-hundred years ago, (or even 100-150 years ago, really), we didn’t have the knowledge base to fully understand patterns of diversity and extinction, and the extent of the role we were playing or could play.  The knowledge base has changed, but will our actions?  Given the actions we’ve seen so many of our politicians take in the presence of abundant data, I wouldn’t bet on it; they so often *choose* ignorance (and they are not alone, since they are serving as the will of the voters).  How can any species willingly choose ignorance?  We have more data than we’ve ever had—enough information to know at least generally what actions to take. But what will we do?  Is it the nature of humans, like other animals, to serve only the needs of the here and now, or do we have a greater capacity? 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: Wallace (and Darwin) and Puzzles

I remember a scientist saying that many of the amphibians around the world are going to go extinct and that it would be better to stop extreme conservation efforts and, rather, study these species so that we will know what we have lost.  What we are losing.  I think this scientist was speaking from a dark place in the face of unprecedented declines.  In other words, he wasn’t in his happy place.  For those of us who love the natural world, it is sometimes hard to find *that* place where we can be filled enough with curiosity and wonder to prevent our knowledge of biodiversity loss trespass into the moment.  

I just started reading The Song of the Dodo (1996) by David Quammen with some other folks in the department—I predict we are going to a dark place eventually, but we are not there yet.  What has struck me most is the journey of Alfred Russel Wallace into the Amazon then onto the Malayan Archipelago.  Or maybe it is simply Wallace who strikes my fancy.  In modern times he would be a first-generation college student.  He does not profit from family wealth or connections, but rather from sheer skill, determination, and tenacity—and a little luck, both bad and good.  It was enough.  As he struggled to figure out how to explain the relationships between species on islands and the mainland, he reached out to his more privileged mentors who sometimes helped him, but who also may have taken advantage of his professional naïveté.  By all rights, Wallace could have scooped Darwin and had he been a little more competitive, perhaps Darwin would be the parenthetical scientist.   Wallace clearly had a more focused vision of what he was looking for when he headed out to study islands than Darwin had when he was collecting his mockingbirds and finches willy-nilly, it turns out, in the Galapagos, failing even to label the islands his specimens came from.  (Given that Captain Fitz-Roy and Darwin’s manservant had labeled *their* collections, one does wonder how young Darwin could have been so lackadaisical. Those of us who have made mistakes in science, however, should sympathize and forgive—I suspect we have all kicked ourselves more than once…and the heat of the field season can cause a poor decision or two.)

Wallace’s (and Darwin’s) world was already missing pieces of the biological puzzle, although they had not fully grasped that extinction was a grim reality as they bagged animal after animal to sell and to study.  They were already part of the beginning of the sixth extinction even if their world was much less trampled then. Even if we could travel back in time to whisper in Wallace’s ear of what is to come—to offer warnings of caution and restraint—should we?  If biodiversity was doomed with the evolution of humans, as Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in The Sixth Extinction and as a good look around would bolster, then perhaps my gloomy colleague was right: best to study these species now to know what we have lost.  In which case, we forgo the challenge of time travel, except for what we find in these pages of history and in the natural history museums that proffer a glimpse back into a world we will never put quite back together.  A glimpse offered by the likes of Wallace and others who better recorded what was found, and seen, and heard, than any who glimpsed a dodo.       

Enjoying the magic of David Quammen’s writing and wondering to what point of despair we are now headed as we read into “The Rarity Unto Death.”    

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Conservation in the News: Some Like It Hot

It's another exciting semester in Conservation Biology and I am helping my students find an excuse to read the newspapers with a little newsy assignment.  The assignment even distracted me briefly from obsessively reading about politics (notice my very neutral tone, achieved with the restraint of every saintly virtue I possess [which is remarkable given how very few saintly virtues I actually possess]). And there's more than climate change out there in the news...there's also vertebrates and climate change!

I came across an interesting report by Chelsea Harvey in Scientific American on a new study that examined the niche evolution and the distribution of vertebrate diversity of endotherms (birds & mammals) relative to ectotherms (amphibians & reptiles) by Rolland and colleagues, and it looks like bad news for our beloved ectotherms.  Those of us who have been obsessed with amphibian population declines since the 1990s will not be terribly surprised, but this study does make one ponder. Rolland et al.’s  data set had over 18 million occurrences of over 11,000 extant birds, mammals, reptiles, & amphibians combined with occurrence documented with fossils.  They found that endothermy was associated with faster niche evolution than ectotherms (see their figure below), which may result from a wider distribution across latitudes, greater dispersal abilities, and greater warming and feeding of their offspring compared with ectotherms.  

So basically, the ectotherms do not appear to be as flexible to responding to environmental change, while endotherms have be able to expand their distribution to a greater extent and evolve at faster rates, all of which Rolland et al. argues has serious repercussions in the midst of global climate change.  All organisms have thermal limits, but because reptiles and amphibians often use behavioral thermoregulation to maintain their body temperature at optimal levels, rapid environmental changes may leave them outside of the optimal temperatures more often, which may negatively impact population persistence and result in range contractions or extinction. 

I wonder how life history traits, like longevity and generation time, may also contribute to a species ability to respond to climatic change.  Many argue the furry megafauna have been doomed since the arrival of humans, and surely they are not able to respond to environmental changes as quickly.  In the end, it may be the furry and feathered underdogs who have the advantage.  With world enough and time, and political leaders with no willingness to deal curb the effects of climate change, I suppose we will find out.  [That is reality, so no saintly restraint appeared to be needed.]

P.S. I hope the journalist realizes that amphibians are not reptiles—they appeared to be equally doomed, yet she seemed to forget them.  Don’t get me wrong, I love reptiles more than the next person, but amphibians put the C in cool.  Given the unprecedented declines in amphibians, limits to climatic niche evolution may be yet another factor that could contribute and one that we have not be explicitly considering.

P.P.S. Birds are reptiles. I know, it's crazy. It's not what we learned back in the olden days, but in the 21st century, birds are reptiles. 


Harvey, C.  2018. Warming threatens reptiles more than birds and mammals.  Scientific American, January 30, 2018.

Rolland, J., D. Silvestro, D. Schluter, A. Guisan, O. Broennimann, and N. Salamin. 2018. The impact of endothermy of the climatic niche evolution and the distribution of vertebrate diversity.  Nature Ecology & Evolution doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0451-9.