IBI Watch 10/6/13

6 10 2013

Blame It on Mother //


Look for this formula in media articles on science, and you usually will not be disappointed. Here is how it goes:

  • Identify the environmental problem or threat
  • Offer a summary of evidence
  • List the apparent causes, including both natural and man-made
  • Detail efforts to mitigate or cope with the natural causes
  • Ignore the man-made causes because they are just “business as usual.”
  • Bypass or downplay the interaction between man-made and natural causes

I was reminded of this formula when I listened to a recent Minnesota Public Radio story on efforts to propagate “clean” bees. That’s right, 50 million years of evolution produced an amazing little social creature, on which an incredible, complex network of life depends, but we in our infinite human wisdom know the real problem – the bees are not sufficiently “hygienic.” In other words, it is their own damned natural fault that they are bringing those nasty, natural varroa mites back home and instigating hive hari-kari.

To be fair, that MPR story does mention the biggest of several elements in the room – modern agricultural chemicals, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides. But the complexity of Colony Collapse Disorder makes it easy for media to latch onto the threads of apparent “feel-good” efforts like stories like that one about breeding better-behaved bees, or of simply planting the right flowers as somehow solving this massive problem.

But what about looking at the big picture, i.e. how we humans with all our wizardry and of course our endlessly expanding population have changed things? I have found no better example of looking at the big picture of bee decline than this TED Talk by Marla Spivak. Give her 17 minutes, and I guarantee you will have a deeper understanding of this complex problem, and a clearer idea of what you can do to help. If you’d rather cut to the chase (though you would be missing much valuable learning), tune into that video at 12:30, when Spivak summarizes all the factors, natural and man-made. I also like her counsel – suggesting that we learn from insect societies, that the sum total of our individual actions creates the world we all have to live in. So we need to choose wisely.

So our alteration of the natural world often enhances natural forces that we don’t like. Another good example is the fungal infection that is devastating US bat colonies. White-nose syndrome is the ailment that, on first glance, appears to be just an unfortunate natural consequence. Tough luck, you poor batties. Deal with it. But as soon as you read into the research, you see the human alteration. Though it is not 100 percent certain, it appears that spelunkers may have introduced this non-native disease into North American caves. We are watching the results play out.

When you apply that thinking, that is, looking at how we change the natural world in the name of progress, thus enabling natural-appearing collateral damage, you are moving straight into the territory of two authors whose work I heartily recommend.

First there is David Quammen, one of the finest science journalists. Get a copy of The Song of the Dodo and you will learn to see through all the fluffy science articles you find that follow the formula. It starts with myths many of us were taught in school and that are often perpetuated in well-meaning media stories. For instance, mosquitoes are well along in the process of decimating native Hawaiian songbirds. A nasty natural pest? Yes, but there is one problem with blaming Mother Nature for that one. Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, having been unintentionally introduced by Captain Cook in 1778. And that extinction of the “stupid, flightless bird” that gave the book its name? Well, you will just have to read the book.

The main point of Quammen’s work is this – island biogeography tells us that islands are natural evolutionary dead-ends. That is, creatures migrate to islands, diverge from their larger population, and, often, if the island is not large and diverse enough, eventually go extinct. We are creating man-made islands everywhere, where creatures just cannot survive. If you watched the complete Spivak video, this will ring true in terms of the lack of natural, bee-nourishing plants on vast tracts of our factory-farmed landscape. Once you understand this, you will know better in future (if we don’t change our ways) when a tsunami wipes out the last remaining wild orangutans in Indonesia, or a harsh winter kills off the last monarch butterflies, or a hot summer finishes off Minnesota moose.

And second, there is Alan Waisman, whose new book asks a vital question – what is Earth’s total human carrying capacity? I can’t wait to read Countdown, which follows several years after The World Without Us. NPR Science Friday interviewed the author, who hopes to wake us up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, a human population of 11 billion is something we might want to rethink – before Mother Nature imposes her own solution. That one involves a lot of collateral damage.

Waisman’s solution is far wiser. Educate women, the world over, and empower them to make family planning choices. He cites two shining examples – Italy and – surprise! – Iran.

Far wiser as well would be this choice – see through this covert blaming of natural forces for environmental problems we humans have caused or enabled. Wiser to would be supporting organizations that are working to deal with the problems:

World Wildlife Fund

World Conservation Society

United Nations Population Fund

Even wiser would be working to fight the real problem – lack of leadership by the United States on these issues, caused in largest measure by corporate control of our politics and media. These organizations deserve support in that regard:

Get Money Out

Move to Amend

Represent Us

The Age of Fighting Back, Upon Us

If Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell is right, climate scientists are, at long last, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His recent commentary was dated just before release of the IPCC’s fifth Assessment Report, but was right on the money. Because money is what the lingering manufactured controversy is all about in the end. In a five-page broadside, Goodell calls out the biggest, deepest-pocketed denialists – the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson, Craig Idso to name a few of the oiliest. He also names the world capital of anti-science, fossil-fueled denialism. Can you “name that country?!” Most important, he points out scientists and messengers who have found themselves in the crosshairs of denialist rage.

Atmospheric scientist Ben Santer reports death threats from ignoramuses and a home-delivered dead rat from a Hummer-driving “patriot.” And the attacks against “hockey-stick” proponent Michael Mann are already well known. But they are detailed in his recent book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Here are several other books by climate scientists from my own reading that I can recommend– James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and Stephen Schneider’s Science as a Contact Sport and, best of all, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

This fight against anti-science is not going away, and we need scientists to step up their speaking out to counter the chorus of well-paid pignorance (pretend ignorance) that threatens to drown out their world-critical message.

Climate Change – Culture, Magic and an Offer

Yes, strange headline, I know. But here are the connections.

First – one little-explored impact of runaway climate change is the effect on indigenous culture. Effects on livelihoods that depend on sea ice are obvious, but who ever thinks about the extinction of languages, surely a cultural tragedy of our modern era? Well, Greg Downey for one.

Second – Bonnie Blodgett wrote a fantastic column in the 9/29 Star Tribune pointing out the errors in our magical thinking. This piece deserves wide reading, for its insight and also for the way the columnist weaves in the thoughts of several recent books. I particularly cheer her take on this one.

Third – The offer. The Blodgett column in particular reminded me of how reluctant most of us are to engage with the reality of environmental problems, particularly climate change. I am a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. Any Twin Cities reader of this blog is invited to request a presentation from this blogger. Church group, social group, community group large or small does not matter. It is enlightening, not all gloom and doom, and even entertaining. I might even throw in a related song or two for the right interested group. Think about it.

Wolves Return; What Happens?

The answer – a cascade of surprises, as reported by science journalist George Monbiot on NPR.

Science Shut Down

The current partial federal shutdown has many victims. Unfortunately, that club does not include members of Congress. But it does include scientific knowledge and progress, in a variety of ways. Considering the Tea Party’s role in promoting pignorance, hey, maybe they are winning after all?

“We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Jeff Syme


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN




One response

3 11 2013
IBI Watch 11/3/13 | IBI Watch

[…] Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, well-known Twin Cities food writer, got the story on pollinator decline just about right in an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio this week. Her prognosis was a bit too bright, in my view. It strayed close to that deluded notion that if we just plant our gardens right, all will be well again. But she covered the issues well, except for one – corporate control of agriculture (and everything else!). Read more at my recent post, the cover story – Blame it on Mother. […]

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