Thursday, August 30, 2012

Largest Oil Spills in History

One thing that's great about this era of data visualization is the abundance of ways there are to look at data interactively. Here's a look at the largest oil spills since 1901. These are actual spills and blowouts and don't include equally catastrophic events like ongoing seepage or waste, which has taken such a toll on the Ecuadorean Amazon. Still, these are a bunch of black marks on the Earth and a reminder that it's time we reduced our consumption of fossil fuels such as oil before switching to alternative renewable green fuels.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

What is Shark Finning?

You may have heard that it's shark week on one of the networks. You may have also heard that one of our inhumane practices is shark finning, where sharks are caught and their fins are sliced off for shark fin soup -- the rest of the shark is discarded. Because sharks are apex predators, overfishing of sharks has a destructive effect on ocean ecosystems. They are also evolutionary survivors, dating back 200 million years into the geological records. In fact, in the 17th century, when Nicolas Steno dissected a shark's head he found that its teeth resembled the triangular-shaped "tongue stones" commonly found embedded in rocks, thus opening the door to the interpretation of these "tongue stones" as the fossilized remains of once-living creatures.

Here's what shark finning is all about thanks to Earth Hour's helpful infographic on Pinterest. Read to the end to see how high shark fins are in mercury. Ready to start calling restaurants in your area and ask them to stop serving shark fin soup? You can find a list at (Want a bigger version than below? Clicking all the way through will bring you here, which is large and legible).

what is shark finning

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Dispatch from the Freshwater Crisis

Last week I came across the fine online literary magazine, Canary, "A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis", run by Charles and Gail Rudd Entrekin, and there I found the terrific essay "Liquid Fractures: Karst, Gushers and Absence" by Corinne Lee. Lee is primarily a poet who elegantly and expertly places us in the Texas hills, her backyard, while simultaneously conveying the gravity of the freshwater crisis. She kindly agreed to let me republish the essay in its entirety. I've long been wanted to feature more creative work on Eco-Now, so I'm pleased to present Lee's essay. Thanks also to Gail Entrekin for publishing it in the first place. 

Liquid Fractures: Karst, Gushers and Absence 
                                                           by Corinne Lee

I live in the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by holes. These karst fissures provide conduits, or portals, to subterranean aquifers and, eventually, aboveground springs. When it rains, water immediately is funneled deep into the earth, usually ending up miles from my home.
Corinne Lee, Freshwater crisis essay

       In the canyon next to my house, storms occasionally create a huge, raging river that disappears literally overnight, sinking into subterranean vaults of water. Below ground, the water follows mazes of fault lines––most created by a violent, 3 ½ minute earthquake that occurred 30 million years ago. That temblor created hills, steep cliffs, and an enormous fault line scar called the Balcones Escarpment. Just five miles from my house, the same fault wound can be viewed underground, at a cave appropriately called Wonder.

       The karst on my land is home to nine endangered species: five spiders, three beetles, and one daddy long-legs. Water that sinks into the holes travels in hidden passages that can extend for blocks or even hundreds of miles. Occasionally, scientists drop dye through Hill Country karst and attempt to monitor where it exits. Sometimes the dye appears in a spring twenty feet away. Sometimes it appears in a spring fifty miles distant. Sometimes it vanishes forever.

       Most of the water on my seven acres of karst ends up in the Edwards Aquifer or in San Marcos Springs, believed to be the oldest Native American settlement in all of North America. More than 200 springs jettison from limestone silt, creating habitat for eight additional endangered or threatened species.

       This water historically has been pure, and its temperature remains miraculously stable year-round at precisely 71 degrees. Due to that remarkable consistency and clarity, a Spanish explorer named the resulting river Los Inocentes, but as the centuries passed, the name did not stick.

       Perhaps that was just. The water in the river issuing from the springs is increasingly not pure. It contains caffeine, acetaminophen, BPA, DEET, flame retardants, sunscreen, birth control pill residue, fertilizer, and countless other pollutants. The majority of these pollutants are excreted by human beings. Most of the contaminants cannot be removed from the water by filtration or any other method; they are permanent poisons that are eternally wedded to fresh water. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that 30 American states have highly contaminated groundwater and must remediate it, but there is no process for removing all but a handful of the pollutants.

       This process of permanent freshwater water contamination is occurring worldwide. In Valencia, for example, cocaine, heroine, morphine, and ecstasy permeate the water; these drugs are in concentrations that are actually pharmacologically active. In short, by drinking water, we are consuming our increasingly drug-saturated culture and sharing one another’s pharmaceutical proclivities with neither awareness nor consent.

       As freshwater descends through karst, it collects microscopic dissolved solids in rock, but it does not filter out drugs such as ecstasy. On a global basis, external geography is transforming into internal geography: our bodies are absorbing chemicals from water and are morphing in response. Young girls, for instance, are entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages. Ten percent of Caucasian American girls are developing breasts at age seven. The average American girl now begins puberty at age nine, three years younger than when I was a girl in the 1970s.

       Other species are also being affected. Amphibians are vanishing all over the world. Frogs have malformed sex organs, missing eyes, and extra limbs. Scientists actually now have a difficult time finding wetlands that do not contain deformed frogs. Where I live, mussels downstream from local springs are in crisis: They are considered to be a “canary in a coal mine” species because they remain in one place, continually filtering water, and live long but grow extremely slowly. Some mussels live more than a century. Last year, 15 different species of Texas freshwater mussels were added to the state threatened species list. The federal government is considering officially listing the majority of these species as endangered.

       We should listen to the mussels. A quarter of all human beings worldwide depend upon karst formations for drinking water. However, this water is obviously in crisis, as liquids descend with virtually no filtration and the majority of pollution cannot be remedied. Clearly, subterranean creatures are imperiled, representing more than half of the U.S. Natural Heritage Program’s endangered species.

       According to biologists, karst is our richest path to sustaining diversity: there is far more life below ground than above. Soil is alive, and just a quarter teaspoon contains millions of microorganisms that are indirectly critical to our life on earth. Yet we dread everything under the surface, Hell always boiling beneath topsoil. There are few official collections of subterranean photographs around the world, and films about caves and aquifers typically receive little, if any, recognition. Often, the high point of a horror movie is when a foul hand bursts through a grave and claws at the hero or heroine above ground.

       We deny our increasingly polluted subterranean world perhaps because we fear the ultimate engulfment––death. Instead, we typically celebrate explosive gushers of crude oil and other liquids. Notwithstanding the recent catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Western imagination is saturated with phallic images of towering oil blowouts, called “wild wells.” There are no epic feminine tales of water sinking into ground fissures, roaring rapids suddenly plummeting through karst into silence.

       This subsuming nature of deep earth is not only feared, but also completely ignored. Indeed, the local city council recently approved a 3,400-home development directly on top of the most sensitive karst features in the area where I live. Pollutants from the resulting 10,000 residents will descend almost instantly into the aquifer and springs. This development will include a golf course that will be watered with treated human effluent containing chemicals that will be permanently bonded to the water and descend through karst to an aquifer. The majority of that aquifer’s water dates to the American Revolution; therefore, the consequences of our current pollution upon future human beings are incalculable and potentially tragic.

       The amount of earth’s water is finite. It has been with us since the dawn of time; scientists believe that water is a byproduct of star formation. It is distributed in proportions that speak to issues of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, scarcity, and bounty. In India, for example, tens of thousands of people have protested American soda bottling plants, which withdraw so much groundwater that the earth is actually sinking and collapsing, polluting aquifers. Worldwide, the pumping rate for aquifer water has recently doubled.

       Many developing nations are expected to exceed fresh water demand by 50% before 2030, yet 97% of earth’s water is saline. Only 1.4% of the world’s fresh water is on its surface. The 1.6% of global water held in karst fissures is therefore critical, as it is the sole source of fresh water for a quarter of humanity. Unless it is mitigated, the crisis affecting this water will result in ongoing, increasing fractures dividing nations, cultures, and even species.

       After Alice falls down the limitless rabbit hole, which is perhaps the quintessential karst formation, the White Rabbit repeatedly checks his watch and warns of time. “[H]ow late it’s getting!” he says. Later, Lewis Carroll adds a comment that we all should heed: “There is not a moment to be lost.”

This essay is also the script for Stan von Miller’s and Corinne Lee’s 2011 documentary “Liquid Fractures: Karst, Gushers, and Absence.” To view the film, go to:

Special thanks: Texas Cave Management Association, San Marcos River Foundation, Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust, Texas Master Naturalists, Joe Furman, JanaĆ© Reneaud, Dianne Wassenich, and Arron Wertheim
© Corinne Lee

Corinne Lee is a citizen of both Switzerland and America. She was educated at the University of Southern California, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard, and the University of Texas, Austin. She teaches art, literature, and creative writing. Her book PYX won the National Poetry Series and was published by Penguin in 2005. Ms. Lee was chosen in 2007 by the Poetry Society of America as one of the top ten emerging poets in the United States. Six of her poems were featured in Best American Poetry 2010, edited by David Lehman. Ms. Lee is a Master Naturalist for the state of Texas. She lives on seven acres in the Texas Hill Country with her husband, children, and an ever-changing assortment of animals ranging from chuck-will’s-widows to vinegaroons.

You can read more of her work at

Friday, August 10, 2012

Eco-Art for an Endangered World: An Interview with Xavier Cortada

Xavier Cortada is a Miami artist who has created eco-art installations at the North and South Poles and many places in between to explore how humans relate to the natural world. He has worked with groups globally to produce numerous collaborative art projects, including peace murals in Cyprus and Northern Ireland, child welfare murals in Bolivia and Panama, AIDS murals in Switzerland and South Africa, and eco-art projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Holland and Latvia. He kindly agreed to answer some of my questions over Skype.
Xavier Cortada, reclaiming the North Pole, reforestation, endangered world art
Cortada reclaiming the North Pole for nature. 

Daniel Hudon In 2007 you planted a replica of a mangrove seedling in the moving ice sheet of Antarctica where over the course of 150,000 years it will journey to the seashore where it can theoretically set its roots. In 2008, you planted a green flag at the North Pole to encourage reforestation in the world below. What inspired you to go to the poles for your work?

Xavier Cortada I’m interested in using art to engage, to change the way people see themselves by creating ritualistic installations. At the South Pole, all the longitude lines converge – these are the man-made coordinates for dividing Earth into 24 times zones and here they converge, effectively showing us that we’re all inter-connected. What happens in one part affects what happens in another. The poles are also where we’re seeing the most global warming; this is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

I planted the mangrove replica on the moving ice sheet to get at the idea of long time. Humans have a certain arrogance and though we have populated all the other continents for thousands of years, we’ve had a permanent presence at the South Pole for only 50 years. Meanwhile, this mangrove seedling is traveling 10 meters per year and in 150,000 years it will travel 1500 Km and reach the nearest shore and “set root” as it were. I contrasted this with flags in the colors of the spectrum with milestones of world history – the Eagle has landed, the fall of the Berlin wall and so on, 50 events in total – so that people can see that these 50 events as 50 flags, stretched (10 meters apart) over 500 meters on the ice, happen in the blink of an eye. Really, it humbles us and reaffirms the notion that we’re simply custodians who must learn to live with nature.

endangered world art, xavier cortadaThe next year, I traveled to the North Pole and planted a green flag, which said, “I hereby reclaim this land for nature.” As the Arctic sea ice melts, nations clamor to raise their flags over newly open waters to claim the natural resources that lie beneath them -- oil, manganese, diamonds, fish – and to control shipping lanes. In addition, rising sea levels threaten the world below. So this was a signal for people to join me in a global restoration effort and keep the pole frozen. For this project, I was asking future participants to plant a native tree in their yard as well as a green project flag and state what the says I hereby reclaim this land for nature. The idea was to use the green flags as catalysts for conversations with neighbors who will then be encouraged to join the effort and help rebuild their native tree canopy. As you know, reforestation reduces the greenhouse gases that cause global climate change. Ideally, as you watch your tree grow, your interest in environmental advocacy will also grow.
Daniel: Not many people have been to both poles. What was your experience like at each?

Xavier: I felt very lucky. Many people suffered and died to get to each of these places and I just took a three-hour plane ride from Ross Island to the South Pole.  On the “journey,” I drank fruit juices and ate chocolate bars. When I got to the South Pole I was in awe for the historic meaning of the place and had an adrenaline rush for all the installations I was going to do in a short time. It was an exhilarating journey and it strengthened my resolve for the Endangered World Project.

My partner, Juan Carlos Espinosa, came with me to both poles and at that time our state would allow us to get married (it still doesn’t), so we exchanged wedding bands at the North Pole – we’ve been to the top and bottom of the world together. Our rings are inscribed 90 N on one side and 90 S on the other side. So the poles inspired art and the inscription inside our wedding bands!

endangered world art, xavier cortada, endangered species art

Daniel:  On those expeditions you also began your Endangered World project. How did you first tune into the biodiversity crisis?

Xavier: I could see the changes. I remember canoeing with my biology professors across the Everglades, snorkeling with my fraternity brothers in the Florida Keys and seeing the coral get bleached more and more as the years went on.

Daniel:  How did participatory art become your forte?

Xavier: I come from a social justice background. Participatory art grew out of seeing art as a vehicle to communication. I organized collaborative murals to give voice to those at society’s margins.  Whether it was gang members in Northern Philly or street children in Bolivia -- art became an instrument for problem solving. I’ve always wanted my art to be inclusive so that I’m working with the viewer to help change attitudes.

Sometime ago I started painting mangroves. Here in South Florida, they’ve given way to sea walls and development, but they’re important because they create an interface between land and water where marine life can take hold. Small fish find refuge from predators in their intricate roots, which also serve to protect the shoreline from erosion during hurricanes.

After that, I started putting mangrove seedlings in plastic water-filled cups and hanging them in the windows of retail shops on South Beach where they would have grown if we hadn’t destroyed their habitat.  These vertical nurseries served not just to nurture the seedlings for future planting along Biscayne Bay but also invited passersby to join the Reclamation Project ( and participate in the reforestation.  I’m not trying to be alarmist, instead, I don’t want you to lose hope that you can do something.

endangered species art, xavier cortada, endangered world
Cortada's Endangered World Installation at the South Pole

Daniel:  As you planted the endangered species flags around the South Pole, did you feel connected to the world above you and to these species? What were your thoughts?

Xavier: Planting the 24 flags of endangered species [one for every 15 degrees of longitude] at the South Pole was almost like exiling them – they are in peril and I am serving notice that I understand. I was creating a testimony through a ritualistic installation.

Daniel:  What about at the North Pole?

Xavier: I’d brought 360 white flags, one for each degree of longitude, with the name of an endangered species to be handwritten on each, but the flags were confiscated at the port city of Murmansk [read details about the irony of surrendering white flags here]. I guess the Customs official thought I could sell them. Anyway, I still had a large canvas so I hand-wrote the names of all 360 species on a circle on this canvas and at the North Pole spoke the degree and names of each endangered animal to each degree direction where they live. It was ritualistic. I was standing on the thinning sea ice (we’d traveled by icebreaker and because of global warming we made the journey in only five days – record time – because of the thinning ice; usually it takes a few days longer) and recognizing the peril that these animals are in. Saying the name of something is valuable. I felt a connection as I spoke to each – from that one location I could connect to all 360 different habitats. At the end of the decade some of these animals may no longer exist. For example, we’ve already lost the Yangtze River dolphin. So in saying the names I was saying to the animal that I’m going to wage this campaign for you – we’re not forgetting you, we’re going to try some bio-remediation before it’s too late. With actions and words together it was trying to use art to keep the animals alive.

endangered world art, xavier cortada, endangered species art
Cortada's Endangered World Installation at the North Pole

Daniel:  How did you make this a participatory installation?

Xavier: Well, first let me tell this story that before leaving the North Pole I took a chunk of ice and on the ship I asked the chef to serve it to everyone as part of a performance art piece: The North Pole Dinner Party. In it, my fellow passengers consumed the North Pole.  They understood that it’s something worth fighting for [keeping the North Pole frozen] because it’s now part of them.

The South Pole has a treaty, but who owns the North Pole? It’s just frozen water. Political powers shouldn’t be so eager to plant their flag at the North Pole – if it stays that way [frozen] then no country wants it, but if the pole thaws, then countries will want to exploit it, open shipping lanes and so on, as I mentioned. I wanted to create a piece at the North Pole that reclaimed it as a real – not symbolic – gesture. So I planted a green flag to encourage reforestation in the world below. Planting more trees will sequester more carbon and thus keep the North Pole frozen. The green flag is symbolic of our commitment to reducing our footprint. If we create this movement and plant both a green flag and a tree, we’ll create a world of North Pole citizens who will work to keep the North Pole frozen. 

I then took the 360 degree longitude locations [the Endangered World installation] and wrote them on 360 bricks and made a brick wall and installed it in Borger, in the Netherlands. This isin the Drenthe province, where Van Gogh painted the potato eaters and where there are many hunebeds, or graves, that were built in 3500 BC from boulders left behind by the receding glaciers of the last ice age. The brick wall forms a portal for one of the graves. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes us humans. How many can go extinct before the door crumbles and the grave is revealed?

life wall, endangered world art, endangered species art, xavier cortada
The Life Wall

But it’s called the Life Wall – my work is full of hope. By acting locally we can have a global impact. You can adopt one of the species on the Life Wall and pledge to engage in an eco-action. Just get a small stone and write the longitude of your adopted animal on it and that stone will remind you of your eco-action. The idea is to create eco-emissaries who will act as agents for good. You pay with your actions, that’s what brings you into the conversation so that we can see ourselves in new ways. The solution lies in consuming less and we get there through advocacy and awareness.

Endangered World had another iteration as 80.15 W, which is the longitude of Biscayne National Park. There I made drawings on carbon paper, a metaphor for the impact or carbon footprint that humans have on that animal, including the 17 endangered species from the park.

In 2009, I posted 180 drawings of the animals featured in his Endangered World installation on Facebook. These pencil drawings portrayed animals struggling for survival in the Eastern Hemisphere (Longitude: 0 degrees to 179 degrees East). I changed my profile image every day to one of these drawings to say, “I am this endangered animal. I am this endangered fish. I am this endangered mammal.” Because we are all interconnected. What endangers one species affects all, including our own. That’s my point: We are all inter-connected. The more we think in silos the more we do so at our peril. My work is about blurring lines and finding commonality.
Biscayne National Park, Xavier Cortada, endangered species art
Biscayne National Park
Daniel:  What do you say to people who argue that there’s a techno-fix to our environmental problems?

Xavier: My goal is to create eco-emissaries  to become an intelligent part of the dialogue. The solutions are for consumers to lower their consumption – anyway, consumption makes us feel hollow inside.  Having more only makes you want more.

People need to take responsibility. As I said above, when you plant a green flag next to a tree, as your tree grows so will your advocacy. It’s about you acting and engaging, not just awareness. I want to create a dialogue so people will fall in love and commit to doing something.

After the election in 2008, there has been no real discussion about global warming because everyone was focusing on the economy and not realizing the environment poses a greater threat. With the BP disaster in 2009 another opportunity was lost. These have just strengthened my resolve to create more eco-emissaries. We need more sustainable practices.  For instance, through our monoculture we’re destroying forests growing plants whose properties we don’t yet know. It may be efficient for agriculture for this season’s food needs, but at what cost to future generations.

Daniel:  What sort of response have you had to your eco-art and what can we look forward to in the future?

Xavier: Juan Carlos Espinosa and I were invited to spend this summer as artists-in- residence at the White Mountains National Forest (see  There, Icreated works about time, space and species in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  I worked with scientists to understand how global warming is affecting two species of butterfly and the Bicknell’s thrush. The White Mountain Arctic (Oeneis melissa semidea) and the White Mountain Fritillary (Boloria titania montinus) are glacial relics.  These butterflies evolved as subspecies at the mountain’s alpine elevations after the glaciers receded.  Scientist’s have yet to discover the plant the Arctic Butterfly uses to lay its eggs, so it is difficult to gauge potential global climate change threats.

The Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) only summer habitat is below the alpine area in White Mountain National Forest, a habitat shrinking as global climate change allows hardwoods to encroach from below and high winds at the alpine elevations restrict the upper boundaries of their dense Balsam Fir habitat.  This bird species migrates to habitats beyond the forest boundaries, wintering on the island of Hispaniola, where its habitat is being deforested. Researchers are focused on the effects of acid rain and the deposition of mercury at the top of WMNF mountains as possible causes for dwindling species population.

In terms of response, Native Flags has been very successful: 750 trees planted in St. Petersburg and all 336 schools in Miami for three years in a row have planted a green flag and a tree on Earth Day. You can read about the 360 Eco-actions that have been adopted for the Endangered World installation. This year, we’re going to plant 500 wildflower gardens to recreate Florida’s biodiversity of 500 years ago when Juan Ponce de Leon first landed.  In the summer, we’ll distribute 900,000 native wildflower seeds to plant across the state. I’m now Artist in Residence at Florida International University’s College of Architecture and The Arts.  That’s where I’ve based my community arts practice.  Through my office (Office of Engaged Creativity) I have the potential of reaching and engaging 40,000 students! 

Daniel:  I hope you can create 40,000 or more eco-emissaries, we need them!

Xavier: As I said I’m just trying to create a dialogue so that people will fall in love with the natural world and commit to doing something. So thanks for creating this dialogue with me so that I can share my work.

For more information:

Cortada's sketch of the bonobo, endangered. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Endangered Species at the South and North Poles: The Eco-Art of Xavier Cortada

endangered species art, Xavier Cortada, blue whale
Blue Whale, 150 Degrees W

On a brisk January day in 2007, with the sun low on the horizon, Miami artist Xavier Cortada exiled 24 endangered species to the South Pole. He did this to serve notice that he understands their plight and to serve notice that our world is endangered.
endangered species art, Xavier Cortada, black rhino
Black Rhino, 15 degrees E
He planted 24 white flags around the pole and on each flag was printed the name of a species that was threatened. There were 24 flags because Earth's longitudes are divided up into 24 zones.
endangered species art, Xavier Cortada, Siberian Tiger
Siberian Tiger, 135 Degrees E
So on each flag, the name of the endangered animal was accompanied by the longitude of the primary habitat where it was threatened.  The twenty-four animals Cortada selected for the flags are endangered because their habitats are environmentally threatened by man and/or because they have been hunted to the brink of extinction.  
endangered species art, Xavier Cortada
Asian Elephant, 75 Degrees E
The installation included the well-known and the not-so-known, from the European sea sturgeon (0 degrees), the Black Rhino (15 degrees E), the Eastern Gorilla (30 degrees E), the Ring-tailed lemur (45 degrees E), all the way around to the Maned Three Toed Sloth (45 degrees W), the Polar Bear (30 degrees W) and the chimpanzee (15 degrees W). The links, as on Cortada's page, take you to the Arkive, where you can find more information about the status of each animal. You can see the whole list here. Below is part of the installation at the South Pole: 
Endangered species art, Xavier Cortada
Endangered World: Art at the South Pole
Unless we act soon, the banners will soon bear the names not of endangered species but of extinct species. The next year, the Endangered World installation had another iteration 180 degrees away, at the North Pole, which is losing more and more ice each summer due to global warming. This time, Cortada brought flags of 360 endangered species, one for every degree of longitude. After the sea sturgeon at 0 degrees there was the Togo Slippery Frog at 1 degree E: 
endangered species art, Xavier Cortada

the red-bellied monkey at 2 degrees E: 

the Mallorcan midwife toad (3 E), the European mink (4 E), the pond bat (5 E), the sculpin (6 E): 

the asper (another fish, 7 E), the slender-horned gazelle (8 E):
 and so on, degree by degree you can see these fragile, elegant animals sketched with elements of ephemerality, as if they have been brought into a temporary existence and could disappear just as quickly. Here is a human cousin, the bonobo at 22 degrees E: 

and here is another cousin, the Sumatran orangutan at 99 degrees E: 

Such a picture of tragedy there. As if it's telling us, "Look, if you keep taking us as pets, shooting us for bush meat, or pulling our forest out from under us for palm oil, we'll all be gone." Of course, these are all our cousins because all life on Earth originated from the same common ancestor some 3.7 billion years ago. We have the same DNA code, use the same amino acids, have many of the same metabolic processes. Our differences are literally by degrees, a point that Cortada makes through the interconnection of the longitude lines at the South Pole.  But for some animals, it's already too late. Here's what the the Yangtze River looks like without its eponymous dolphin: 

Haunting, isn't it? The dolphin, nicknamed the "goddess of the Yangtze" couldn't compete with the population growth, overfishing and development in the river basin and was declared extinct in 2006. 

In 2009, Cortada sketched 180 of the species from the Endangered World installation and posted them for 180 consecutive days as his Facebook profile image (these are the sketches you see above). You can see the Facebook gallery here and see links and information to the entire Endangered World installation here.

But Cortada isn't content to raise awareness. He wants us, through actions like his Facebook installation that connect us to the endangered species, to become eco-emissaries. The Endangered World installation has had additional iterations in the Netherlands and Biscayne National Park in Florida where anyone can participate by pledging an eco-action for one of the struggling species in the installation. By engaging in eco-actions, we "adopt" the species and do our part to protect it. Saving species is hard work and is going to take a lot of personal responsibility from all of us. Becoming an eco-emissary is an excellent first step. You can see the eco-actions people have already pledged here

Endangered World is one of Cortada's many eco-art projects. He has also been involved in reclaiming the North Pole not for shipping lanes and natural resource extraction but for nature, regrowing mangroves in south Florida, telling the stories of people affected by climate change, investigating how climate change is affecting birds and butterflies in New Hampshire's White Mountains and portraying it through ritual, restoring the wildflower biodiversity of Florida, and motivating eco-emissaries to plant a green flag with a tree so that as their tree grows so will their commitment to the environment. And that's not all. 

From his statement, Cortada is now using DNA from a diverse group of individuals [to] create work that will challenge the way we see one another and to liberate ourselves from false notions of who we are-- or aren’t. Moreover, by depicting the migrations of our ancestors over the past 60,000 years, we can see how they settled the planet in response to changes in environmental conditions: For our ancestors, the natural world was the only world.  They navigated through it —slowly moving where nature provided them with better opportunities to hunt and gather.  

Our early ancestors found a way to become a part of natural balance as they populated the planet.  Today, we are destroying that balance by overpopulation and by our attempt to use and control nature for our benefit.
It would be amazing if we could look back on the early part of the 21st century and say, Yes, that was close. W e turned a corner there. If we hadn't become eco-emissaries, we'd be lost. 
Humans haven't been on the planet that long. The leap from hunter gatherers to eco-emissaries is not large, but it's significant. By taking his art to the poles of the Earth, Xavier Cortada has reminded us that we live in an endangered world. Our response is up to us. 

For more information about Xavier Cortada and his participatory eco-art, visit his webpage at

You can buy the above poster here or visit his online store for some wonderful originals (be sure to check out the mangroves!). 

And stay tuned for an interview with Xavier coming soon! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Portraits of Endangered Animals

Joel Sartore, National Geographic, endangered animals, gray gibbons
Gray Gibbons

In January of this year, veteran National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore (whose work was previously described here), began his latest assignment. Dubbed The Great American Zoo Trip, Sartore was heading off to eight different zoos to photograph endangered animals in portrait situations so that people like you and me could better connect to them. In the past five years, Sartore has collected 1800 photos of endangered animals and he hoped to add another 25 to his collection. 
In the first of 13 dispatches for the project, Sartore said, “My job is to get you to look at them in a new way, to understand that all of this complexity and beauty has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. It would be a crime to doom even one of these species to extinction. It may also threaten our very existence. It is folly to think that we can doom everything else to extinction but that we’ll be just fine.”
endangered animals photos, musky caiman
Musky Caiman

Yet, this is a crime that we are committing. Not pointing any fingers but we humans, all 7 billion of us and counting, are consuming resources, converting natural areas into farmland, polluting watersheds and the atmosphere, over-hunting and over-fishing, introducing invasive species and altering the atmosphere. We are sending 100 species per day to extinction.
Sartore also writes that zoos still have a substantial “inventory.” Because many species don’t breed well in captivity, in the past, zoos have been able to get replacements from the wild, but for some species, the captives are all that are left. In a sense, zoos are becoming like arks, preserving the last of their kind. 
Reading the dispatches in the series, you see the important work that zoos are doing to promote interest in animals, particularly endangered animals. These are places where we can see live animals – not videos or webcams – with our own eyes and admire their cuteness and quirks, their grace and majesty, and establish a bond between human and animal. 
Joel Sartore, tawny frogmouth, endangered animals photos
Tawny Frogmouth

The series is a crash course on animal behavior, from lions to frogs (did you know that chimps like to throw their poop?) and you find out that animals can be pretty finicky about stepping onto black or white portrait paper. The shoots have to happen very quickly! But the final photos are dazzling. The animals are by turns mischievous, pensive, playful, stoic and majestic.
But the saddest part is hearing that when the world zoo population of any animal slips below 50 individuals, tough choices have to be made. If more individuals can be got from the wild, the species can go forward. Otherwise, the animal will be “phased out.” Like the gray gibbon, pictured at top. There are too few left in the wild to bolster the population. So, soon we’ll lose the gray gibbon. 
Sartore also points out the incredible dedication zoo keepers have for animals as well as those who work in wildlife recovery centers, who help heal injured or diseased animals and get them back into the wild as quickly as possible. They work with very little funding and could use whatever support we can give them.
Spotted Hyenas

That is the message of Sartore’s “Biodiversity Project” (he’s inviting new names for it): the natural world is in danger and zoos are providing life support for many unique and beautiful species. It’s up to us to educate ourselves about endangered species; it’s up to us if we want to save them.
Read all the dispatches here.
View a photo gallery from the collected dispatches is here.
joel sartore, endangered animals photos
Silkie Showgirl Chickens

This piece was originally written for the good people at -- click over there and see what they're up to! 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Meatless Monday and Meat Consumption in the US.

Meatless Monday, USDA
It's hard to know how to take the infantile Republican reaction to the USDA's recommendation, now retracted, to eat less meat one day per week. Beef is the most water intensive food we have, so in a summer when half the country is suffering from drought conditions, it makes sense that we can do with one or two fewer hamburgers. As an article in Salon put it, it was as if the USDA had declared war on the American Way of Life.

From the Salon article: "Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, called the recommendation “heresy” and pledged to “have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told his drought-stricken constituents that “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate” for the USDA suggestion. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, proudly posted a photo to his Facebook page showing a Caligulian smorgasbord of animal flesh that his Senate colleagues were preparing to scarf down as a protest against USDA." It boggles the mind.  These are not leaders, these are children who cry when they don't get their own way. 

NPR recently presented a nice series of graphics about meat consumption in the US. Here's what it takes to make a quarter pounder. 

meat consumption in the US, what it takes to make a quarter pounder
What it takes to make a quarter pounder.
Though US beef consumption has gone down in recent years -- chicken is now the meat of choice -- the average American still eats 270 lbs of meat per year, which is 2.7 times the global average. That's an average  of about 3/4 of a pound of meat per day -- or 3 quarter-pounder burgers per day. Gad, yes we can stand to cut back.
meat consumption in the US

Here's a nice summary video that explains the hidden costs of hamburgers from the Center for Investigative Reporting

I'm definitely down with Meatless Monday -- and more -- how about you?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

9 Great Biodiversity Resources

Biodiversity Resources, US Botanical Garden
From the US Botanical Garden, listed in the
CSIRO's enormously  useful database

Want to delve a little deeper into the world of biodiversity but don’t know where to start? Here are some biodiversity resources to help you out, to educate you and to tune you in to the living world.

  • The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s science agency, maintains an incredible database of all things biodiverse. The database is organized into categories starting with General Zoology, then lists of resources for individual phyla, plants, algae, prokaryotes and viruses
  • The Encyclopedia of Life gives “global access to knowledge about life on Earth”. Put your favorite animal in the search box and see what comes up. You can also browse or create collections, rate photos and contribute specialized knowledge. So far, the encyclopedia has 1.1 million pages and counting! See the variety of tools and activities by visiting their explore biodiversity page.
  •  The Tree of Life provides information about our evolutionary tree of life. It has been growing since 1994 and its goal is to have a page of images, text and video of every species on Earth. You can explore the tree by looking at images and movies of different groups, browse popular pages, check out some user-made treehouses or live dangerously and go to a random page
  • The Arkive is a comprehensive multi-media guide to the world’s endangered animals, plants and fungi. You can search for species by species group, eco-region, geography or conservation status. If you don’t know where to start, just go to the explore page and select a random species!
  • The IUCN Redlist is widely recognized as the most comprehensive database for describing the conservation status of threatened animals and plants. Check out their photo gallery for 2012. Try putting in your own favorite animal into the search box, like the gray wolf, or bluefin tuna and see what comes up. You’ll get information on taxonomy, geographic range (be sure to open the map), habitat and ecology, population, threats, conservation actions and a bibliography for more information.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife service is the principal federal partner for administering the Endangered Species Act and they maintain a great site about US endangered species and I recently wrote about the site here. Try launching the interactive map to find endangered species in your state or simply search the database (by species, state or county). Again, try putting in “gray wolf” or your other favorite species and see what comes up. If I put Massachusetts into the search box I see that three species of beetle are endangered here, four species of turtles, sturgeon, terns, plovers, wedgemussels and five species of whales. I also find out that the gray wolf used to be found in Massachusetts because it’s listed here but is  no longer found here.
  • Again in North America, try the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History tool for North American Mammals. Skip the “Map Search” (which doesn’t seem to be working) and go to “Enhanced Map Search (BETA). You can left-click on any region to get a list of species or you can search for a species, or you can toggle orders, families and species by checking and unchecking the appropriate boxes. See my previous description here for additional things to try.
  • Or try the new Mapping Life tool, which allows you to map and produce lists of species for about 25,000 species worldwide, including all described birds, mammals and amphibians. See the Dashboard for information on the various lists. Try right-clicking on a map region to get a list of all species that are found at that location. Or put in a species like the piping plover, gray wolf or grizzly bear and look at the Expert Range Map. Very cool.
  • If you don’t want to explore individual species, how about exploring protected areas? Now you can enter your favorite national park and get a list of which species you expect to find there. The database presently contains amphibians and mammals; birds will be added within a year. Once you have entered a protected area in the search box, you can filter the display according to the IUCN’s threatened categories. Try putting in Yellowstone or go further afield and examine the fauna of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, Tanzania’s Ngorogoro Conservation Area, or China’s Huanglong World Heritage Site.

Do you have a favorite biodiversity tool or resource not listed here? Please share in the comments below.