Eventorum – Whither the Whales?

Image: a North Atlantic Right Whale with her calf. See: “New Research Helps Explain a Sudden Population Crash for Rare Whales”, in the NY Times, By Catrin Einhorn, Sept. 1, 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/01/climate/whales.html)

Right whales, wrong time. Human activities are leading to the demise of these majestic beings. Only 356 individual Northern Right Whales are thought to remain. Global warming (which affects their food supply and reproduction rates), ship strikes, and entanglements in fishing gear are the primary culprits. Every choice we make, every single day has impacts and implications that range far beyond what is immediately evident.

Copyright ©️ 2021 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Frankenfood

A less than abstract lesson from Frankenfood: why humanity is screwed. Rather than recognizing that we’re screwing up the planet, we’d rather invent a fake food to pretend that we’re not. This point is made abundantly clear in this excerpt from a recent news story about engineered coffee:

“As we got deeper into the process, we learned more about the threats to the coffee world as a whole — threats to the environment from deforestation, global warming and [a devastating fungus called] rust, and we were even more committed to making a consistently great coffee that was also better for the environment,” Stopforth says.

The future of coffee is uncertain. The amount of land suitable for growing coffee is expected to shrink by an estimated 50% by 2050, according to a report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

NPR, The Salt (July 8, 2019) – A Bitter End For Regular Joe? Scientists Engineer A Smooth, Beanless Coffee

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Leaving no Room

Perhaps Agent Smith from the Matrix (“and we are… the cure“) was right about humans: two stories from this past week.

No room for elephants: “Botswana mulls lifting elephant hunting ban” (BBC).

And this, so that the wealthy can have their second (or third) rarely occupied homes, the locals (elk, deer, bear, lynx, cougar) must forfeit theirs: “Forest Service Approves Road Across Public Land For Wolf Creek Village Project” (Colorado Public Radio).

Copyright ©️ T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #7 – Momentary Monarchs

About the Image (above): A female monarch butterfly (from Wikimedia Commons).

In the waning days of last summer (2017)  I saw a monarch butterfly.  It was the first I had seen in a great many years where I live near the Rocky Mountains.  In Provocations #7, I ask are monarchs with us for just a relative moment longer?  Are they headed the way of the great northern white rhinoceroses?

I seem to recall seeing many more of these remarkable beings twenty years ago when our children were young.  Back then, our daughter even found a monarch chrysalis, and she “raised it” in a jar.  When the butterfly emerged, she made sure the wings could fully unfold and harden, and then she released it.  A profound and moving experience for her, for the whole family actually, and an instructive connection to the cycle of life as well.

Today, I have had so few sitings!  Virtually none.  So I did a little digging.  Scientific studies show a clear and disturbing decline in monarch butterfly numbers (see figure).  An 80% decline in the last decade alone.  Experts have concluded that there may only be a couple more decades left for these beautiful animals, before they become extinct. 

 

monarch-graph_800

The decline observed “in the eastern migratory monarch butterfly population as surveyed by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico.”   The black dots represent an adjustment to reflect a reanalysis of the data (from
https://www.umesc.usgs.gov/management/dss/monarch.html)

 

The reasons for this decline point to humankind as the culprit.  At the top of the list are modern agricultural practices, which have witnessed the widespread adoption of herbicides that are used with genetically modified corn and soybeans in the United States.  These destroy the principle summer habitat of the monarchs. Habitat loss (deforestation) in the wintering grounds in Mexico is another likely cause.  One can only imagine how many end as roadkill, adorning the grills of myriad vehicles in the U.S.  While verging into speculation, one might reasonably ask what climate change has in store for these animals.

So many challenges for such a delicate and exquisite creature.  The world will be a much smaller and sadder place without monarchs in it.

What can you do?

There are things you can do to help.  As always, the most effective tool you have is your pocket book and the personal choices you make.  Drive less.  Consume less. Demand labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and do not buy foods or goods that contain GMOs.  You can also grow some milkweed in your yard or garden (find seeds for your region here). 

Parting Words

I once again go back to Wendell Berry, the fount of so much wisdom.  The closing words in his March 2015 essay Farmland Without Farmers in The Atlantic were:

“We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Extinction

Image credit: Photo by Ami Vitale, National Geographic Creative

The tide of the 6th great mass extinction on Earth continues to roll, will we ever learn? After Last Male’s Death, Is the Northern White Rhino Doomed? [Published on National Geographic, March 20, 2018].  Meanwhile, Trump Administration Quietly Decides — Again — To Allow Elephant Trophy Imports [Published on NPR, March 6, 2018]

Eventorum explained.

Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems

Provocations #5 calls attention to the situation in which multiple issues or complications begin to add up and compound one another.  This is the third of what I have called the ‘trinity of the unwise.’

About the Image:  “Haida Spawning Salmon” by Haida artist Clarence Mills.  In First Nations tradition the Salmon is, not surprisingly, a symbol of instinct, persistence, and determination.  Image found on Pintrist, prints available here.

When you have more than one problem affecting something, they begin to interact in unexpected ways and can often amplify the severity of the situation, leading to bigger and more complex problems than might otherwise be anticipated. It pretty much boils down to the old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.”  On the surface it’s a simple concept, but the devil’s in the details.

Feedback

What we are really talking about here is a process called feedback.  For the technically inclined, insights into feedback processes come from systems and complexity theories.  Of concern here is a phenomenon known as positive feedback.  With positive feedback, when system starts to run out of control, processes internal to the system interact causing the system to go further astray.  In every day experience, think about a microphone that picks up a noise emitted by a speaker system it is connected to, which amplifies and rebroadcasts the sound, which the microphone then picks up again, and so on, until everyone in the room is covering their ears from all of the squealing and screeching.  Another example that is harder to experience directly, but is real none-the-less, comes from climate change: human activities emit greenhouse gasses which cause the atmosphere to warm, which in turn melts the permafrost in the Arctic, which releases more greenhouse gasses, further warming the atmosphere.

For the curious wondering about negative feedback, a familiar example of this is the thermostat in your home: you set the temperature, and when the air becomes too cool the heat comes on, stopping at some set point until the house cools to some lower set point, and the then heat goes on again.  Negative feedback loops are ubiquitous in engineering.  Another? The cruise control system in your car.  I recognize that the terminology can be somewhat confusing in that often times, negative feedback processes can be beneficial, whereas positive feedbacks are not.

Getting back to the environmental problems created by positive feedbacks, the list of examples is literally endless: the Fukushima disaster; the Deepwater Horizon disaster; invasive species; industrial agriculture; inequalities in income. To name just a handful (recall Provocations #4, A Question of Scale).  Let’s take a deeper look at one other example…

Extinction

In a scientific paper published in March 2011 in the prestigious journal Nature, Anthony D. Barnosky and a number of his colleagues asked, “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?1  Towards the end of this important paper, they write

“Hypotheses to explain the general phenomenon of mass extinctions have emphasized synergies between unusual events [my emphasis]. Common features of the [previous “Big Five” extinction events] suggest that key synergies may involve unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affect many different lineages.”

Sound familiar?  In this more formal scientific context, compounding problems become “synergies between unusual events.”

So pick your favorite animal, Salmon, Polar Bears, Whales, Sea Turtles… yes I know that I have a bias towards sea animals.  And yes, I know that it is not grammatically correct to capitalize the names of animals (they are not proper nouns).  I chose intentionally to dignify their existence in this way.  I digress. The story is the same for all of them.  Many species are under direct threat due to over-harvesting or exploitation by humans.  They are also under duress due to habitat loss caused by humans. Furthermore, many experience disrupted patterns in reproduction, feeding, hibernation and migration caused by climate change, specifically human-induced global warming.  Humans compete with natural ecosystems for resources (e.g. draining wetlands). Lastly, many animals health is compromised by toxic pollutants dumped by humans into their habitat; pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, plastics, and so on.

Any one of these (over-harvesting; habitat loss; global warming; direct competition; toxic ecosystems) is enough to put an entire species at risk.  But taken together, it is a hammer blow.  The very conditions that science tells us leads to mass extinctions.  And many new threats are emerging, genetically modified organisms and intentional monocultures to name two.  I am sure there are others.

State Shifts

In a subsequent study called “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.”2 published in Nature, June 2012, Anthony D. Barnosky and colleagues note the plausibility of “planetary-scale tipping points”, which lead to surprises.  These surprises are sudden shifts in the state of our planet’s biosphere (“the worldwide sum of all ecosystems”). This may be one of the most important scientific papers of the current era.  Humans are a part of the biosphere too, so the fate of the biosphere is our fate too.  We have litterally and figuratively baked uncertainty into our future.

Final Thoughts

So Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems, concludes the trinity of the unwise… for now.  The systems thinking needed to understand these compounding problems, these “synergies between unusual events”, is fascinating science.  But it also means that humanity is in trouble unless we wake up.

Seemingly, all scientific papers call for more study, more understanding (Barnosky et. al. are no exception; nor are many papers I have written).  It is the nature of such things.  But the truth of the matter is that we know all we need to know to act.  Stop polluting. Stop consuming.  Preserve nature.  Farm sustainably.  Ensure that the basic needs of all are met. These messages are not new, we simply need to act on them.

I’d love to hear from others in the comments section about their favorite examples of compounding problems, or of human and scientific insights to help understand them.

Today’s Quote – to inspire action, which can be daunting in light of what we face:

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

− Confucius. (Confucius: The Analects)

References Cited:

1Barnosky, A. D. et al. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471,  51–57 (2011).  doi:10.1038/nature09678

2Barnosky, A. D. et al. Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486,  52–58 (2012).  doi:10.1038/nature11018

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved