IBI Watch 5/26/13

26 05 2013

A Three-Beast Tale //

We humans could be doing so much more to share the world with our fellow travelers. Here are stories of three of our fellow large mammals and the treatment they are receiving from the most intelligent – at least that is our assumption – and most destructive – that’s obvious – species in the system. Note the absence of the term “fable” in the title of this piece. That’s because this is all too true.

First up – the elephant. Anyone following environmental news knows that poaching is on a dramatic upswing. And “poaching” seems too tame a term for what is happening in recent years. The prize, of course, is the animal’s ivory tusks – most valued in China and Southeast Asia. Globalization means ever more money flowing to that part of the world, and driving elephant slaughter and ivory smuggling. Scientists fear the extinction of Africa’s forest elephants. And as National Geographic reported earlier this year, today’s crisis is far more serious than those in the 1970s and 80s that ultimately led to a ban on ivory trading in 1989.  To understand how ghastly and sad all this is, just consider the intelligence of these giants. And if you follow that link, you will understand that our steady destruction of the species is itself the cause of the occasional “elephant rage,” or attack on human settlements. Courageous conservation workers in Africa try to stem the massacre, and NGOs help as well. The World Wildlife Fund has a special focus on the species, and Save the Elephants has enlisted prominent Chinese media personalities to halt the illegal trade.

The rhinoceros may be less charismatic than the elephant, but it suffers a similar fate. Like the pachyderm’s tusk, the rhino’s horn is the focus of various health myths. Big money in China and Southeast Asia drives another illegal smuggling trade and massive slaughter of the beasts. As this PBS article notes, all species are on the road to extinction thanks to habitat loss and senseless slaughter. Just read the numbers in this HuffPost piece to understand the concern that we may soon extinguish the rhino. World Wildlife Fund is on this case too – just another good reason to support that organization.

With both rhinos and elephants, it is easy for us in the west to point the finger at others – in this case Chinese customers and African poacher/suppliers – and say it’s their problem, not much we can do except support conservationists. But this is not so with a third example. To learn our impact here, walk up and down the aisles in your supermarket – in particular snack foods and personal care. Read the boxes of crackers and cookies and just try to find one that does not contain an innocent-sounding ingredient: palm oil. Hey, at least it’s not trans fat, right? Now walk over to the soaps and read labels. Same thing. Palm oil, palm oil everywhere. So what is the problem? This. The miracle substance is unsustainable for orangutans. Considering how we are crowding our fellow primates off the planet, can’t we do something about this situation? That is the focus of the Rainforest Action Network. The RAN graphic shows another benefit of preserving orangutan habitat – fighting manmade climate change. Learn more here. See how the Sierra Club weighed in recently. And then help by finding palm alternatives and not buying this stuff. Next, sign Jason DeGrauwe’s petition..

And when you look at the forces driving these three and so many animals toward the cliff of extinction, one jumps out at you. It is our unrelenting expansion of the human population. We stand at 7 billion right now, but not for long. Buried in the story about orangutans and palm oil is this startling fact: every single day, more human babies are born than the entire remaining wild population of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans combined. The implication is clear – we either learn to share space with our fellow travelers, or our grandchildren will inherit an incredibly crowded but grossly impoverished world.

Here are three organizations educating and advocating on behalf of a sustainable human population: The Population Connection, World Population Balance and the UNFPA.


Climate Pignorance – Humorous and Harmful

Haven’t we missed Sarah Palin? Fortunately, she has not gone away from the political scene for good. She resurfaced this week to shed some light on the climate change “debate.” Heck, she even used a scientific term correctly – gluteus maximus. At least she is entertaining, unlike this guy who is merely pious and sickening. And of course the former Alaska governor is no newcomer to climate pignorance (pretend ignorance). The Skeptical Science site has dedicated an entire page to her past pronouncements.

Sarah Palin and James Inhofe are one thing, but if you want to see the biggest hurt of climate pignorance – public confusion and policy paralysis – you must seek out the big boys. And no one is bigger than these brothers. Just a couple of businessmen, pursuing their interests – which happen to include a veritable gusher of well-funded disinformation.


A Season for Cutoffs

The word “cutoffs” suggests the season that unofficially starts this very weekend. But here in the Twin Cities, summer has been slow in arriving. We have had one brief outbreak of strong warmth, and a couple of stretches of decent temps, but mostly it’s been cold and gloom these past few months.

As with everything, there is a scientific explanation. We have had a number of cutoff lows – seems like a series of them in fact. And they have not been a local phenomenon. In fact, today, as I finish this post, the very same cutoff low that gave us a solid week of gloomy, rainy weather here in the Twin Cities is spinning over the northeast coast. That means it took an entire meandering week to crawl from Iowa to Maine. Oh and by the way, the deadly tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma, was part of the very same system. And with the turtle-like pace of the low’s eastward progress, some of the same areas in the South received repeated daily poundings of severe weather.

So what is going on with all this? I glance at NOAA’s national radar animation most days, and I have been curious about all these lows. I have also checked with several scientists. The verdict – cutoff lows are not that unusual, and are more common in spring and fall. But now here is where it gets interesting – the climate disruption connection.  And though we must repeat for the gazillionth time the old misused saw that no specific weather event can be unequivocally linked to manmade climate change, the associative evidence continues to pile up. And Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis, whose video work on Arctic amplification I linked to a few weeks ago (see Wacky Wobbly Weather) says that more frequent and persistent cutoff lows are precisely one of the phenomena that have been predicted as we change the chemical content of the atmosphere.

So the choice is clear. We can either continue to use a tight focus, finding some precedent for pretty much every weather event, and fool ourselves into believing the siren song of business-as-usual fossil-fueled energy, or we can get serious about the problem, tax carbon and build a sustainable energy future for the long haul. Let’s choose wisely.


3-2-1 Busted

The IRS has had more than its usual share of headlines and hatred this past week, with revelations that it targeted conservative groups unfairly. Fox News loves the story. For Michele Bachmann, it is a dream-come-true distraction from her own troubles.  The whole affair calls for a little perspective. Daily Show perspective, for instance.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Albert Einstein


Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 3/17/13

17 03 2013

A Most Important Question //

You don’t hear this question asked often enough. And yet, the way we live our modern lives gives an unfortunate answer by default.

Here’s the question – does the natural world exist in order to be used as desired by humans?

If the world is simply a storehouse of resources for our taking, then our cruel treatment of wild animals is OK. This includes our escalating elephant massacre, in the name of the ivory trade. See a new NY Times commentary. It also gives Japan a free pass for its continuing mass slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, despite that Oscar-winning undercover documentary. And hey, the ongoing shark slaughter – we need that shark fin soup, right? – is after all, just hunting despised predators. And the vile bear bile harvest industry is only exploiting a product from some dumb beasts (though the “dumb” beasts seem to be taking action against the practice). Then there are the abuses in our factory agriculture. Ham sandwich anyone?  But these are OK if we are free to exploit at will, as are the genetically engineered weed-resistant crops being forced by the likes of Monsanto – which are fingered as the chief culprit (aided by habitat destruction) in a shocking decline in the monarch butterfly population. Learn more about the monarchs here.

But it’s funny – no matter how much we think we own the place, and anything that we do in the name of human well-being, damn the natural world, is OK, nature has a way of outsmarting us. Witness the weeds that are coming back to trump our “magic.”

If our answer to that question is that human needs and wants always trump natural systems, then I suggest that we are paving the way to a world without us. It won’t be this year, this decade, or even this century, but if we continue our wanton disregard for natural systems, we are threatening our own extinction along with the wave of species extinction we have already unleashed.

A far better answer to the question is – the Earth and evolution have provided wonderful opportunities for humanity that we have all-too-well exploited. The earth and everything in it are not for us to exploit, but protect. After all, we have no choice but to take on the role of stewards that our relentless interference has imposed on us. In the words of Colin Powell in advising President W before the latter invaded Iraq, “You break it, you own it.”

Worthy organizations are struggling to protect what is left of the natural world. Here are some of the most deserving – World Wildlife Fund; Sea Shepherd; National Wildlife Federation; Wildlife Conservation Society.


Mass Baby Production – for Better or Worse

I have to hand it to this Star Tribune commentator. In a clever opinion piece, he lays his case for continued population growth. It is entertaining, a bit snarky, and of course misguided. It is just more of the old-line thinking that says there can be no real change; the only way forward is an ever-growing population, with sufficient numbers of younger people in order to take care of the older people. And it glorifies mass baby production, like this organization does.

This thinking pays no attention to the real-world notion of a finite planet with exhaustible resources.  Commentator Mike Adams takes aim at the most ridiculous extreme of this sort of thinking – the (sadly) oft-heard right-wing notion that the earth could actually accommodate more people. This extreme thinking basically goes this way – the physical space required by people’s bodies is nowhere near filled to Bangladesh- like levels, so don’t talk about overpopulation. This commentary was shared by our friends at Growthbusters – who are dedicated to rational population policy. Other groups working toward that end are World Population Balance, Population Matters and Population Connection.

Many studies show that educating women in poor countries is the best way to stabilize population. On this issue and so many others, UNFPA deserves support.


Preparing (or not) for a Harsh Future

For those who are not shoving their heads under the sand or other dark places, tracing the trends in man-made climate change is a grim enterprise. Here are two stories on just that. First, a look at how the fantasy of the far north will become a short-order breadbasket is just that – a fantasy. And at the opposite end of the spectrum we have Phoenix – a technologically marvelous oasis in the desert, but for how long?


Decision Time Looms

With considerable justification, environmental activist Bill McKibben, author of many books including Eaarth, has made stopping the Keystone XL pipeline his main quest. His 350.org group was the driving force behind last month’s big Washington rally. And yet, for some, the debate has been subverted by the notion that the biggest question on Keystone is the safety of transporting the bitumen. Yes, it does behave differently in pipelines, and if spilled it has additional dangers in that it does not float the way purer oil does, but sinks to the bottom – making cleanup nigh impossible. That’s the thinking behind the Nebraska governor (Pilate-like) moving the planned pipeline route away from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Those water concerns, while serious, pale in comparison to the overall effects on the climate. Producing that stuff uses dramatically more carbon-based fuel, plus water, in the process, not to mention the fact that vital boreal forest land is replaced by a strip-mined wasteland. Then there are the vast tailing pools, a lingering hazard to wildlife that have somehow survived. Get the big picture here.

In spite of all that, stars appear to be lining up for approval. A recent State Department environmental study gave it an effective free pass. But the more we learn about that study, the more it resembles the same old fox-in-the-henhouse approach. The epic impact of tar sands oil is exactly the focus of this well-researched William Boardman blog post.  And I made a major resource discovery just this week that I want to share. NPR’s Alex Chadwick oversees a terrific radio show and web site – Burn, an Energy Journal. I love the irony of this post’s title: On super-highway to climate catastrophe, a demand for full tanks. The site is full of resources, and I highly recommend it.


Get Out the Money; But How?

It’s no secret. No matter what issue you analyze and trace to its source, it all comes down to money. That is, the money that rules our political system. I have long maintained that any progress on government of, for and by the people will be limited without a major change in the corporate control of politics. Democracy Now hosted an interesting segment, a debate of sorts, between two allies who have contrasting ideas on the best way to pursue that laudable goal. John Bonifaz, of Free Speech for People, is working on a national effort to amend the US Constitution to destroy corporate personhood (which was supercharged by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision). Mark Schmitt, of the Roosevelt Institute, opposes the amendment effort, but supports other paths to campaign finance reform. Watch the discussion and see what you think.


Far-East Freedom Fighters

The thought here – We don’t need no stinkin’ seat belts! Next time you see drivers on American roads doing foolish things – mainly playing with their devices while drifting out of lane or slowing to a crawl – remember that we have no monopoly on stupidity. Who are these guys fooling?


Where was OSHA?

For St. Patrick’s Day – a song about a fellow who was badly damaged at work.


“Do not wait for extraordinary circumstances to do good action; try to use ordinary situations.” -Jean Paul Richter


Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN