Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Bighorn Sheep in the Catalinas and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction

The ongoing effort to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains near Tucson, like other programs designed to increase populations of endangered animals, has caused its share of controversy. Though only 13 of the 31 bighorns released last November are known for certain to be alive, and three mountain lions have been killed because they preyed on the sheep, state wildlife officials want to transplant more captured bighorns in their quest to create a sizeable herd (see the August 27 Arizona Daily Star). Critics of the program cite loss of animal life and question whether wilderness regulations are being violated. One of these critics, Ben Pachano, spokesman for Friends of Wild Animals, suggests that environmentalists on the advisory committee should ask themselves “why they’re supporting a project backed by notorious anti-conservation groups like Safari Club International.” (Back in March the Star revealed the “dominant role of hunting-related interests in planning and financing the November bighorn reintroduction.”) Critics also question how bighorns can make a comeback in the Catalinas when they proved unable to thrive there in the 1990s. But whether or not Game and Fish officials carry out this second attempt at bighorn transplantation, the issues raised by critics – about the role of hunting, the extent of habitat degradation, and the transportation of wild animals – are part of a much larger story of the dramatic impact our species has had on the natural world.

Having just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History, I learned that over the course of the past half billion years, there have been five major mass extinctions of species, with causes that have ranged from the landward progression of plants to the asteroid strike that ended the age of dinosaurs. There was a time when people thought that the natural world was created as it is now and that it remained unchanged throughout history; Kolbert weaves together the discoveries made by historical geologists and evolutionary biologists to tell the sweeping story of mass extinctions and their consequences. She credits the French naturalist Cuvier with introducing the notion of extinction, the understanding that species are born and die just as individual organisms do. And in the case of the Sixth Extinction that is now underway, Kolbert shows us the many ways that human activity leads to loss of diversity on our planet.

Kolbert begins her story in Panama at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), and she accompanies EVACC staff on expeditions to scoop up increasingly rare frogs that belong to disappearing species. Many of these endangered creatures are being killed off by a type of chytrid fungus, called Bd for short, which has either been spread around the world with shipments of African clawed frogs (once widely used for pregnancy tests) or with North American bullfrogs, which are exported for food. Both types of frogs are unharmed by Bd but are carriers, and in either case, Kolbert says that without human involvement it would have “been impossible for a frog carrying Bd to get from Africa to Australia or from North America to Europe. This sort of intercontinental reshuffling, which nowadays we find totally unremarkable, is probably unprecedented in the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life.” Kolbert lists numerous other examples of this reshuffling, such as the introduction of cane toads to Australia and the threat they now pose to the endangered northern quoll. Sometimes, as in the case of the Catalina bighorns, individuals are transported to help save their species, but the book shows that the human inclination to “reshuffle” our planet’s flora and fauna has often had disastrous results.

When Kolbert investigates another of the human-caused drivers of species extinction -- climate change and subsequent habitat loss and degradation -- she introduces us to Ken Caldeira, the scientist who is credited with coining the term “ocean acidification.” One of the consequences of global warming and ocean acidification is that many coral reefs will stop growing and will no longer be there to support the huge diversity of ocean species that seek shelter in these reefs. [Here’s an interesting side note: the negative effects of too much carbon dioxide on coral was discovered by another scientist, Chris Langdon, who was studying the failed ocean “system” at Biosphere I here in Tucson.] Caldeira, Kolbert notes, cares a great deal about the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. One of his published scientific papers states that if emissions trends continue, in fifty years time “all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve.”  But Caldeira is also a leading proponent of geoengineering, which he first investigated when he was hired by the Department of Energy to look into the feasibility of carbon-capture and deep sea injection as a solution to carbon dioxide emissions. Caldeira is fully aware of the destruction climate change will wreak on the oceans, and he supports the possible use of a technological fix like geoengineering. But if you agree with Clive Hamilton and others who see geoengineering as a form of hubristic technological tampering with natural systems, not a true solution, you will be aware that geoengineering's potential consequences could lead to even greater destruction of habitat and loss of diversity.

Human beings have an incomplete understanding of the natural world, and we understand technology better. So we are inclined to use our tools to solve problems. Whether those tools are as technocratic as geoengineering or as precise as captive breeding programs, they are all designed to end-run around the real solution to the problem, which would involve a change in human behavior. Kolbert takes a look at two captive breeding programs in her book, one for Hawaiian crows and another for the Sumatran rhino. She visits Dr. Terry Roth while Roth is giving a Sumatran rhino an ultrasound as part of a breeding program at the Cincinnati Zoo. Kolbert compares the near extirpation of Sumatran rhinos, which has been caused by habitat destruction and fragmentation, with the prehistoric extinction of other large mammals, megafauna like the mastodon and mammoth, because it seems increasingly likely these megafauna were hunted to extinction by human beings. This in turn leads her to talk about the Anthropocene  (a name that has been suggested for the current geological epoch because of the extensive impact of human activity), which is usually said to have begun with the industrial revolution. Kolbert questions whether or not the starting point of the Anthropocene was “the introduction of modern technologies—turbines, railroads, chainsaws…” She says, “the megafauna extinction suggests otherwise… Though it might be nice to imagine there was once a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”

Though I highly recommend Kolbert’s book, I think that her view of the Anthropocene is not helpful. Often humans are a destructive species, but it is human technology that has had the harshest and most irreversible effect on the natural world. This is largely because technology enables us to destroy not just plants and animals, but the places where they are best adapted to survive. Here in Arizona, we know that habitat is being destroyed to make way for roads and houses, and we see climate change take its toll as drought worsens. Solutions are not simple. Recently, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun to sterilize members of another threatened species, the desert tortoise, though such treatment seems counterintuitive. As it turns out, backyard breeding has led to the release of unwanted captive tortoises into the wild, and these released tortoises carry diseases that threaten native populations (see "Wildlife officials promote tortoise sterilization"). Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said “simply breeding more tortoises won’t save the species if not enough is done to improve and protect natural habitat and address threats in the wild.”  This is something the Arizona Game and Fish officials should consider as they decide on whether to relocate more bighorn sheep to the Catalinas, and it’s something to think about for anyone who recommends quick fixes for the problems we humans have caused.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Snowpiercer and Earthmasters: Complementary Views of Geoengineering

Korean director Bong Joon-ho's film Snowpiercer is an allegorical and sometimes phantasmagorical science fiction thriller about a geoengineering climate fix that goes terribly wrong. When the film opens, we see planes releasing something called CW7 into the upper atmosphere to help cool a warming planet. As a result Earth freezes catastrophically, killing everyone except the few hundred people who have bought or forced their way aboard the Snowpiercer train. This powerful, seemingly unstoppable, train circles the globe once a year, racing through the frozen wasteland, while preserving in miniature the oppressive social relations that existed before the Earth froze (in 2014). The first-class passengers in the front of the train who live luxurious lives complete with spa, conservatory, nightclub, and sushi bar contrast with the wretched masses at the rear of the train, who eat disgusting food and live in filthy, dark conditions. Wilford, the technocrat who created Snowpiercer, believes that these social divisions are necessary, and his point of view is echoed by his minion Mason when she says, "We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front; you belong to the tail. Keep your place." Though the film contains many violent scenes that earned it an R rating, it brings together environmental and social justice themes in surprising and effective ways.

There are lots of good reviews of Snowpiercer, and taken together they offer a more complete picture of this complex film than I have just given. Kate Aranoff at Waging Nonviolence emphasizes the class conflict aspects of the film and identifies Bongs major point as follows: Confronting the climate crisis means confronting capitalism and the inequality it produces.” Jason Mark at Earth Island Journal focuses on the film’s relationship to other eco-disaster and dystopic sci-fi fare, including the recent Elysium and The Hunger Games, and he calls Snowpiercer the smartest bit of cli-fi I’ve come across since reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” And Ty Burr at The Boston Globe tells us that Snowpiercer almost wasn’t seen in the U.S. because the distributor didn’t like “…the film’s dark tone, often brutal violence, and general creative weirdness” and believed American audiences wouldn’t understand it. But Bong refused to change the film, and I’m glad he refused, not only because Snowpiercer successfully brings together issues of class and ecology, but also because it makes an effective indictment, however strange and fictional it may be, of geoengineering.

And if you think Snowpiercer is just a science fiction allegory, and there aren’t any threats to our planetary well-being like CW7, maybe you should take a look at Clive Hamiltons 2013 book, Earthmasters:the Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. Hamilton says, “For sheer audacity, no plan by humans exceeds the one now being hatched to take control of the Earth’s climate.” He defines geoengineering, which will supposedly allow humans to end-run around the daunting collective task of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, as “deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.” One such form of intervention, solar radiation management, could include the possibility of spraying sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions. The fact that this action could hinder the repair of the hole in the ozone layer or might even have a negative impact on the Indian monsoons hasn’t stopped investors from backing the research. These investors include Bill Gates, whom Hamilton says is now “the world’s leading financial supporter of geoengineering research.” For example, Gates has invested in Intellectual Ventures, the company that did a feasibility study of the StratoShield, a hose designed to be held in the sky by balloons as it “delivers” sulfate aerosols. Though Hamilton is not opposed to appropriate uses of technology, he says  “…climate engineering is intuitively appealing to a powerful strand of Western technological thinking and conservative politicking that sees no ethical or other obstacle to total domination of the planet.”  

I first started reading Hamilton’s Earthmasters while I was taking Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC in which Geoengineering was a topic. Hamilton and Singer are fellow Australians and both are ethicists. In February of 2013, they debated the topic “Playing God with the Planet: the Ethics and Politics ofGeo-Engineering” at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne. Among other things, they disagreed on whether or not Bill Gates is really helping humanity with his geoengineering investments.

Singer said that we shouldn’t see Gates’ bankrolling of geoengineering research as sinister because he has already put a “vast amount of money into trying to reduce global disease, trying to help the poorest people in the world,” and the Gates Foundation has probably saved 5.8 million children's lives. We can therefore “assume [he] has some altruistic, benevolent impulses,” and wants to help prevent climate catastrophe. Hamilton didn’t deny that Bill Gates is a philanthropist but said he represents a “…technological world view, a Promethean world view” that doesn’t recognize that we have already made errors in our uses of technology and could easily make more. People with a technocratic, hubristic mindset think that “what we need is more technology, what we need is grander technological solutions, what we have to do is counter our previous technological mistakes with much more godlike technological contributions -- seizing control of the planetary system in total.” In Earthmasters Hamilton dubs those who are in favor of technological solutions like climate engineering Prometheans, after the god of technological mastery. But in their quest for mastery Prometheans can set into motion unstoppable and unfixable consequences. Hamilton calls those who err on the side of caution and oppose technological fixes Soterians, after the goddess of safety and deliverance from harm.

So is there really a discernible connection between the actions of technocrats as portrayed in Snowpiercer and those described in Earthmasters? After all, technocratic Wilford in Snowpiercer doesn’t cause the climate to go haywire, and he isn’t responsible for the film’s geoengineering catastrophe, though he is cruel and heartless in his attitude toward his fellow humans.  Gates, by contrast, has a philanthropic worldview, and he wants to invest in engineering the climate to help humanity. Is it a stretch to talk about the two men in the same breath? To me the Snowpiercer mogul and Microsoft billionaire are similar because, as each strives to protect human beings from themselves, he enters the realm of Promethean hubris. And in this realm where a few rich technocrats make all the decisions about how and when technology is used, when things go wrong – as is almost inevitable – it will be the poor and marginal who suffer the worst consequences.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On Neil deGrass Tyson and Sharknados

As I said earlier, I'm taking a MOOC called Climate Change in Four Dimensions, and this week one of the topics is Extreme Weather, Climate Change, and Communication. We've been talking about the importance of communicating information about climate change to everyone, and how scientists in particular need to be able to communicate their findings in a way that people find intelligible.

Recently National Review felt compelled to say bad things about Neil deGrass Tyson, the Cosmos star who has been a real science popularizer. For more about why they might have done this, see an article at the L.A. Times and this Fashion Sense by Alice comic.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Winter rains have been good this year, and wildflowers grow in profusion beside our neighborhood walking path. As local government decrees...