Friday, June 29, 2012

Endangered Biodiversity Photo Album

Baikal seal, biodiversity, alltop, nature, photos, seal

In the lead-up to the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, the UK's Guardian newspaper solicited suggestions from its readers for actions to prompt governments into action. The meeting
ultimately produced the Nagoya protocol whose goals are to increase protected land from 12.5% to 17%, increase protected oceans from less than 1% to 10% and to cut the species loss rate by 50% by the year 2020. Formidable goals.

One of the ways to achieve these goals is simply by raising awareness. I'm pleased to say that Eco-Now is now listed by the content aggregator Alltop in its Biodiversity section, which we hope will help us reach a wider audience. If you're using Alltop, you can add us to your feed like so: Feed: Tell your friends.

Anyway, to celebrate, I present the Guardian's photo album that illustrates the various species on whose behalf actions need to be taken.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Environmental cartoons III: Capitalism, growth and environmentalism

The comics say it all. 

capitalism, environmentalism, growth
Find more of Polyp's cartoons here.
Stephanie McMillan, capitalism, growth, environmentalism
Find more of Stephanie McMillan's comics here. She also has an excellent weekly editorial cartoon focussed on environmental topics, Code Green.  
capitalism, growth, development, environmentalism

Find more of Seppo's comics here.

If you know of cool editorial cartoonists who often do environmental topics, please let me know in the comments. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Living in the Age of Extinction: The Lost Bird Project

lost bird project, great auk, extinction, biodiversity, todd mcgrain
The Great Auk sculpture on Fogo Island , photo by The Lost Bird Project
We live in an age of extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the last 500 years, human activity is known to have forced 869 species to extinction. This is a rate that is 1000 to 10,000 times greater than the normal background extinction rate seen in the fossil record. 

Paul Ehrlich has compared biodiversity or species loss to popping the rivets from an airplane. We don’t know which rivet is going to make the entire airplane fall apart -- we don’t know how many species an ecosystem can lose before it collapses. Ecosystems perform services that humans depend on, from filtering water and air, to providing food, decomposing waste, sequestering carbon, protecting shoreline and so on. As the saying goes :biodiversity is life, it is our life. 

But what about individual species? What does the loss of an individual species mean to us? A marsupial is over-hunted in Australia. A toad disappears in Costa Rica. An ibex vanishes from the Pyrenees, a river dolphin from the Yangtze, a pigeon from the skies North America. Given that the present attitude is still for us to dominate nature and extract its resources for our personal welfare, we tend to ignore what we’re losing in the name of so-called progress. In each case, what we are losing is a survivor whose lineage withstood droughts, floods and competition from other, a work of art that is the product of millions of years of evolution species, a masterpiece of nature. This is an impoverishment of our world, a lost opportunity for us to wonder at something unique and beautiful.

There are books about extinct species, including the spectacular Gap in Nature, by Tim Flannery, with superb illustration by Peter Schouten. There is an online memorial to extinct species called What is Missing, by Maya Lin, which I mentioned before. And on May 22, 2011, a group of citizens in England created the Life Cairn, a memorial for species rendered extinct by human hands – they also created quite a moving video of the event. I like how they summarize the project: All life to carry one life and one life to carry all life.

Finally, in various places in North America, we now have some larger than life memorial sculptures to recently extinct birds, thanks to artist Todd McGrain and his Lost Bird Project. From their webpage, The Lost Bird Project “recognizes the tragedy of modern extinction by immortalizing North American birds that have been driven to extinction.”

todd mcgrain, lost bird project, extinction, heath hen
Todd McGrain in his studio, photo by The Lost Bird Project
North America used to have the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that flew in flocks vast enough to eclipse the sun for hours or even days at a time; the Carolina Parakeet, a bird with striking green plumage and a yellow head that lit up winter trees like candles; the Labrador Duck, which was wiped out before anyone recorded the sound of its call; the Heath Hen, whose males boomed and pounded the Earth to attract mates; and the Great Auk, a seabird who was a swift and agile swimmer that mated for life. All of these birds, except the Labrador Duck, were hunted to extinction. The cause of the extinction of the Labrador Duck is unknown: its eggs may have been over-harvested or the cause may be related to the decline of shellfish as population grew along the Eastern seaboard.
McGrain has spent the last few years creating bronze sculptures for each of these birds and they’ve been installed in places directly related to each bird’s decline. The bronze, of course, means they were created to last, but also to be touched. He describes them as “subtle, hopeful reminders…As a group they are melancholy, yet affirming. They compel us to recognize the finality of our loss, they ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction."

labrador duck, todd mcgrain, lost bird project, extinction, biodiversity
Labrador Duck, photo by The Lost
Bird Project
On the tree of life, the branches of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet have been cut. In the biosphere, there are now holes shaped like the Great Auk and Heath Hen. In all our technology, there's not a single recording of the call of the Labrador Duck. In a sense, it would have been more appropriate to have installed the moulds at the locations rather than the sculptures so that we could contemplate the shadows that these birds have cast upon us. Perhaps that's too negative a message for public art? Instead they are solid, smooth, tactile, reverent.

I think it’s an ambitious and enormously important project. Not only because, as McGrain says, “forgetting is also a kind of extinction” and these memorials rescue them to our memory, but also because we as a species need to be reminded of the enormous influence we wield on the world around us. The memorials need to be visited and discussed, the stories of these birds needs to be told and shared. These birds still have much to teach us about how we live and the repercussions of our actions.

It's bewildering to think that the formerly enormous populations of these birds were each wiped out in a matter of decades, due, in four of five cases, to over-hunting. In writing about the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, Aldo Leopold wrote, "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun." This is the age of extinction. McGrain, like Leopold, correctly noted that we need a place to properly channel our grief for these lost species. These memorials are new things under the sun and their message is important -- if we're willing to hear it.

You can find out more about The Lost Bird Project by taking in the documentary, directed by Deborah Dickson, whose trailer is below. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Photo albums: plastic, trees and wildlife

rio plus 20, plastic pollution, ocean

What was everyone talking about at Rio this week? Work to do, work to do, no doubt, but with a lack of heavyweights there, there was talk, but what about action...? Yet to be determined. Good to see the artists getting in on the act and giving everyone something to talk about. Many more pictures of this great plastic bottle fish sculpture are here and here. But I first saw someone share the above photo from Cool Hunter on Facebook, who has an excellent exhibit on modern eco tree houses. Nice to see trees getting such respect.
Lots of other cool stuff on Cool Hunter's site.

I can't resist this other photo album from the Guardian's Week in Wildlife Pictures. These species only exist on Earth and nowhere else. Pretty incredible...

birds, flycatcher, biodiversity
Korean paradise flycatcher

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Beauty of Pollination

bee, pollination, nature
Bee mid-pollination
Beauty and seduction are nature's tools for survival, says, Louie Schwartzberg, who has been filming pollinators like bees, bats, hummingbirds and butterflies using close-up time-lapse photography for 35 years. Flowers and pollinators co-evolved over fifty million of years and this is the same seduction that goes on between mates of any species. We depend on pollinators for over one third of the vegetables we eat. So the plight of bees and colony collapse disorder (recently tied to certain pesticides) becomes our plight as well.

Here, Schwartzberg gives a great intro to one of nature's most fascinating stories before presenting some fantastic time-lapse images. Stirring stuff! (Thanks to @NaturConsCDA for posting the pollination version on Twitter... you can pick up the cool film bits at 3:20 or so)


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A new look at animal behavior

animal empathy, Justin Bieber, biodiversity, animal behavior
Two years ago, for the International Year of Biodiversity, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) produced a bold new video that we've featured here before, "Love, not Loss." You can see it here:

When raising awareness about such a significant problem as biodiversity loss, it's hard not to fall into the "doom and gloom" trap. But as the video points out, it's easy to tune out the doom and gloom, the litany of statistics and facts. So what moves us to act? Direct experiences of nature that remind us of its awe, beauty and wonder. I'm still thinking of the Robinson Jeffers poem Carmel Point, "we must uncenter our minds" -- it's not all about us. With that, I introduce you to this terrific TED video by Frans de Waal, who is doing research on morality in primates. It's difficult to study this sort of behavior in the wild, so de Waal recounts, and shows footage of, ingenious experiments that show reciprocity, fairness, cooperation and consolation in primates. There are some great clips, particularly at the very end, that show how similar primate behavior is to human behavior (he also has an example of cooperation with elephants). While de Waals is ultimately studying it for the evolutionary basis for morality, I think it shows the respect that these species deserve in their own right.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Rio Plus 20

The United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development begins this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference is twenty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, which drew 178 nations and some 100 heads of state. Last week's issue of Nature (June 7) has a good summary of the three major international treaties that came about as a result of the Earth Summit.

Though these treaties were heralded at the time by Richard Benedick, who had negotiated the ozone accord for the US as landmarks: "the history books will refer to this day as a landmark in a process that will save the planet from deterioration", he and others cautioned that process would be slow.

Slow doesn't begin to describe it.
climate change, rio, rio+20
Look at the report card for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. For the main assignment of stabilizing greenhouse-gas emissions, a grade of F. Some good news in the subsidiary assignments of advancing climate research and policy analysis (A) and establishing a diplomatic process (A) -- hey, at least there are meetings -- but negligible progress on "promoting and dispersing climate-friendly technologies (D). 

Next up is the report card for the Convention on Biological Diversity. 
convention on biological diversity, rio, rio+20, report card

This time the main assignment was to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. Result: Fail
There is progress in protecting ecosystems (C) but not much progress in sharing the wealth provided by gene diversity (E) or recognizing indigenous rights (D). I'm not sure why regulating genetically modified organisms gets an A, because we still don't have GMO labelling here in the US, so there's room for improvement here too. 

The third report card was for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Like the Convention on Biological Diversity, this Convention is little discussed in the Western media, probably because this is perceived as a third world problem though something like 40% of the US is vulnerable to desertification.
convention to combat desertification, rio, rio+20
Now the main assignment was to "reverse desertification and land degradation" but again the result was the same: fail.  The most recent figures had 15% of land degrading in 1991 and that has jumped to 24% of land degrading in 2008.
There is little scientific investment for training on this issue (F) and little funding to help the poorer nations preserve their land and prevent degradation (E).

So much for the bad news. Is there any good news? Well, as another article points out in the same issue, Brazil has significantly slowed its deforestation... 

What can we expect at Rio+20? Let's see, there's a debt crisis in Europe and it's an election year in the US, which means few Western countries will be showing up with their checkbooks in hand. Expect finger pointing and footdragging.

The article doesn't mention that other report card issued that day: a stirring speech by 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki who chastises all the adults in the room for destroying her future. If you don't know how to fix it, she says, don't break it: It's amazing how little has changed. 

All figures from Tollefson, J. and Gilbert, N., 2012, Nature, volume 486, pp 20-23.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thoreau on Endangered Species

Henry David Thoreau quotes, endangered species, biodiversity

I've been reading Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow, Jr., a masterful summary of its subtitle. Unfortunately,  it's four days overdue at the library. In Chapter 3, Sounding the Alarm on Continent-Wide Wildlife Extinction, he quotes a great journal entry from Thoreau in 1865:

When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, --the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc., -- I cannot but feel as if I live in a tamed, and as it were, emasculated country... I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest messages, and mutilated its pages. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. 
Look at that impressive list of megafauna that once lived in Massachusetts! Wild cats like cougars, panthers, and lynxes, none of which are were seen by Thoreau or have been seen since (though a webpage from the state lists lynx sightings in 1991). The wolverine was extirpated in Massachusetts in 1835. There are occasional bear and moose sightings, and deer are thriving, thanks to the decimation of wolves and coyotes, but it's hard not to think of the state as a "tamed, emasculated country". To think that we don't have the "entire poem... but an imperfect copy" is a tragedy not just from the actions of our ancestors but our present actions. I too "wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth." Before it's too late.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Endangered Species and Justin Bieber

Google Insights graphic of searches for biodiversity versus celebrities shows Justin Bieber is more popular than biodiversity
Google Trends as collected by Saving Species 

The good people over at Saving Species had a nice post earlier this spring showing how interest in celebrity trivia absolutely drowns out more important issues like the biodiversity crisis. Biodiversity crisis? What biodiversity crisis? The one where we're losing 50 to 100 species per day to habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, over-exploitation and climate change. Oh, that biodiversity crisis. The post goes on to mention that according to the relative volume of searches, searches for Britney Spears outnumbered "biodiversity" 23 to 1 -- that is, for every one person who searched for "biodiversity", 23 people searched for Britney Spears.

Maybe we should ask what biodiversity is (the totality of genes, species and ecosystems in a region; a measure of the health of the region) because it seems few people are searching for it on Google.
Here are the trends for five terms: biodiversity (light blue), extinction (red), endangered species (orange), pollution (green) and global warming (dark blue):
biodiversity, endangered species, extinction, pollution, global warming

The results aren't surprising. Searches for the specific terms "extinction" and "endangered species" are twice as common as searches for biodiversity, which is a general catch-all term. Similarly, there is high concern for pollution in the environment and the effects of global warming as these outnumber "biodiversity" searches by about 5 to 1 for 2011.

To find out more about endangered species in your state, you can check out the excellent resource called the extinction Go to the page on US Extinction memorial and you can find out what species each state has already lost and what it's in danger of losing.

Biodiversity is the capital of the planet. Despite all the new planets found around other stars, we're still the only place in the universe with life. Our future depends on our stewardship of biodiversity, not on celebrity fads.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sea of Slaughter

great auk, extinct species
I've been reading about extinct species, the sorry tale of how the last of the species fared. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cinncinnati zoo, the last Rabb's fringe-limbed tree frog stilll lives in the Atlanta zoo. Conservation efforts for all of these were too little too late. The last great auks met a much more harsh ending: beaten and strangled. In one case, superstitious sailors thought one was a witch. Oh, but we're smarter now, aren't we? Looking around the world and hearing about poaching of rhinos for their horns, or elephants for theirs tusks, or sharks for their fins, I'm not so sure. We would never hack a thoroughbred to death, but that's how bluefin tuna, the thoroughbreds of the sea, meet their death.
We evolved from the same tree of life as the rest of the species that inhabit the planet and yet we treat all of nature as a commodity. In Carmel Point, Robinson Jeffers writes:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

I wonder what the planet would look like if we shifted our focus away from ourselves, "uncentered our minds"? 

In 1994, Canadian writer Farley Mowat published, Sea of Slaughter, a history of human exploits in the north Atlantic seabord. It's an incredible tale of devastation and destruction that alas, does not end 150 years ago with the demise of magnificent birds like the great auk or even 100 years ago with the death of the last passenger pigeon. Mowat pulls no punches in his description of carnage and a film version, made for the CBC, contains incredible footage of thriving rookery islands and also bloodbaths of humans destroying animals. Perhaps we need this honest look at ourselves more often before we're ever going to change our relationship with animals.  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Red List and the Sixth Extinction

Since 1994, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been compiling a list of endangered species. Today, the IUCN Redlist is the standard for finding out about the status of more than 49,000 endangered species.

Last year, the IUCN began work on a Redlist for ecosystems. Scientists are aware that you can't save species without saving their ecosystems. Further, that it's the wrong type of thinking to ask how many species an ecosystem "needs" to thrive. Last week studies described in the New York Times showed that more species in an arid ecosystem allowed it to function better.

The same article described a major assessment of life's different animal groups and the news is not good. For example, 25% of assessed mammals and 41% of assessed amphibians are threatened. Why it went under the title "Are we in the midst of a sixth extinction?" is a mystery when the answer is obvious.
new york times, biodiversity, extinction

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Space Travel and the Techno-Fix

My whimsical piece about avoiding depression while living at the space station is up at the Boston Globe site.
I wrote it after reading the diary of Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, who spent 211 days in space. Two things struck me while reading the diary: there is incredible beauty on the Earth, which astronauts at the space station have a privileged and unique view of, and space travel itself is terribly depressing.

To see the former, you can check out this time-lapse video taken by space station astronauts of the Earth. The northern lights look spectacular.

It's a unique perspective to be able to admire Earth's beauty from space and worth a few minutes of our time. But I think we should remember that despite the successes of the space program -- however you want to measure them -- we're not leaving this planet anytime soon.

Denise Levertov comments on this on her poem, For Those Who Want Out:

"Those Who Want Out"

In their homes, much glass and steel. Their cars
are fast - walking's for children, except in rooms.
When they take longer trips, they think with contempt
of the jet's archaic slowness. Monastic
in dedication to work, they apply honed skills,
impatient of less than perfection. They sleep by day
when the bustle of lives might disturb their research,
and labor beneath flourescent light in controlled environments
fitting their needs, as the dialects
in which they converse, with each other or with
the machines (which are not called machines)
are controlled and fitting. The air they breathe
is conditioned. Coffee and coke keep them alert.
But no one can say they don't dream,
that they have no vision. Their vision
consumes them, they think all the time
of the city in space, they long for the permanent colony,
not just a lab up there, the whole works,
malls, racquet courts, hot tubs, state-of-the-art
ski machines, entertainment...Imagine it, they think,
way out there, outside of 'nature,' unhampered,
a place contrived by man, supreme
triumph of reason. They know it will happen.
They do not love the earth.

There's no silver bullet for our environmental problems. There's no techno-fix. Certainly, there's no escape -- if anything, things on a space colony will be worse than on our planet. Our task is to keep developing our sense of awe and wonder for what we have while we still have it.