IBI Watch 3/31/13

31 03 2013

Our Techno-Fetish //

The excitement is spreading. Scientists are moving closer to an achievement once only dreamt of in science fiction. In not too many years, these experts may revive long-extinct species. The main target for now – the wooly mammoth. You can read about it in the current National Geographic cover story. All hail, this amazing technical wizardry! And no kidding – this really would be one astonishing success.

For me, this is the height of irony. While various experts and scientific institutions are pursuing this Frankenstein quest, what is happening to the mammoth’s modern cousins?  The stories are almost too sad to tell. Check this latest elephant massacre in Chad. And this is no isolated incident. Say – do you think lust for ivory might in any way fuel the misguided enthusiasm for restoring mammoths?  Just look at the tusks on those artist representations. Nor is slaughter and mistreatment of these magnificent social beasts strictly an African phenomenon. This opinion piece from naturalist and author Andre Vitchek illustrates elephants’ fate in Indonesia.

To be fair, the accounts of the would-be species revivers, including the NG piece, do explore the complexities and even the foolishness of this business. In addition to the wanton, greed-driven, extinction-threatening elephant campaign of the ivory smugglers, humanity’s relentless destruction of wildlife habitat is generally the main cause of species decline. So the simple question is – if we were to revive and restore mammoths and other species, where in the hell would they live? By the time these restored relics walk, the human population would be what, nine, ten billion?  But the interest in stories like this, to my mind, points up a very serious flaw in human nature, and it has many parallels.

You can also sense growing enthusiasm for climate geo-engineering. These are efforts to counter the effects that our greenhouse gas emissions are having on the atmosphere. The most popular are various schemes to block out some of the sun’s energy – including pumping sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere, deploying mirrors in space, seeding the oceans with iron, and other wild ideas.

And then there is the deepening crisis for the plant kingdom’s essential pollinators. Recent stories on the sudden and steep decline in monarch butterflies suggest that extinction for those beautiful orange harbingers of summer could be just over the horizon. And new research points ever more strongly to our techno-agriculture model – in this case nicotinoid herbicides (see Monsanto) as the chief culprit in the shocking decline in honeybees. Without those tireless free servants to our agriculture, a whole array of crops is in serious jeopardy. (See this Scientific American article on at least one effort to fight techno-ag on behalf of the bees.)

What inextricably links these three stories is this. First, we are able to generate all sorts of energy around what I call technological whiz-bang. If we can conceive it, synthesize it, build it, we can find investors who see great profit potential. We worship those who produce man-made tech breakthroughs. But just try to generate similar enthusiasm around conserving the natural world. It is a constant, uphill struggle. Just this week, Monsanto for one is finding more support in our federal government. And on the energy/environment front, just check all these common-sense votes that that show the degree to which a healthy environment hangs in the balance right now. Just the same, we can find progress from time to time. The new clean fuel regulations are an example. And though Big Oil predictably wails, these have the support of the auto industry. Who could have predicted that?!

For a concerned citizen, impact on these issues varies. When it comes to protecting and saving pollinators, there are some hands-on remedies. As for elephants and other targeted wildlife, it probably comes down to supporting organizations doing good conservation work – such as World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Wildlife Conservation Society. On climate change, several organizations merit support, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350.org and the Climate Reality Project.

But the sad truth is – progress is often hamstrung by our gerrymandered system, which puts overwhelming power in the hands of this proud prince of pignorance, and a whole crowd of corporatist obstructionists (catalogued in the same piece). To make real progress, we need to end corporate personhood and the purchasing of politics once and for all.


Must be Global Cooling – Right?

Our ex-President W once famously told us that he didn’t do nuance, see? But maybe the Decider was onto something, especially when it comes to human-caused climate change. It has been downright cold and nasty these past few weeks in various parts of the northern hemisphere. Here are a few examples from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ukraine, and the American midsection.

Hey wait just a minute! I thought the planet was warming . . . These widespread outbreaks of unseasonable winter cold in early spring provided fuel for the fires of pignorant (pretend-ignorant) denialists, and confuse many who do not dig deeply into this crucial issue. But here is the need for nuance. These very outbreaks are just further evidence of uncontrolled, chaotic changes our greenhouse gases are wreaking on the global climate system.  First, it is no secret that Greenland has been melting. Here is an update on that, featuring glaciologist Jason Box. And the Arctic sea ice is on death watch.

So what gives with all this Arctic warmth, and brutal cold and snow far to the south? Increasingly, scientists are discovering that – to no real surprise – the two phenomena are connected. This short audio (15 minutes) from Minnesota Public Radio’s ClimateCast explains the connection very well. I highly recommend this clip. Of course, the explanation will be cold comfort to baseball fans at Target Field on Monday when our Minnesota Twins open the season in 35-degree conditions.

And yet – the melting of the Arctic and the bizarre warping of Northern Hemisphere weather patterns raise two important questions. First – it’s one thing to get weird weather in late winter and early spring; what happens if dramatic, melt-related cooling happens during the height of the growing season? Second – if all this warping of the jet stream, and chaotic change in weather patterns result from the seasonal melting of the Arctic, how dramatic will the changes be when the Arctic is completely free of ice in summer, and freezes ever later in the fall?


Finding Environmental Progress

We need some good news. First – an idea that needs exploration and further development – environmentally friendly indoor farming. Second, people seem to be driving less. Third – something I have noticed is that young people in particular seem less interested in driving for the fun of it.


On Bicycling and Opening Minds

As a cyclist and progressive, I really liked this article by Andreas Aarsvold. This young fellow speaks some universal truths.


“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”  ~Robin Williams


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