The Real Challenge for Environmentalists

By Keith Kloor | December 12, 2011 9:49 am

On Friday, when most environmentally-inclined people were despairing about the the torturous climate talks in South Africa (since ended, good roundup and assessment here), a short op-ed appeared in the NYT, arguing that despair over the fate of the planet was getting a bit stale. The three authors of the piece–a journalist and two scientists–don’t downplay the massive footprint of humanity, and the stress it has put on the planet’s ecology. That said, as the authors note,

humans have been changing ecosystems for millenniums. We have learned that ecosystems are not “” and have never been “” static entities. The notion of a virgin, pristine wilderness was understandable in the days of Captain Cook “” but since the emergence of modern ecology and archaeology, it has been systematically dismantled by empirical evidence.

Yes, it’s time we made peace with this fact. That doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, the authors write:

We can accept the reality of humanity’s reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon. We can restore once magnificent ecosystems like Yellowstone and the Gulf of Mexico to new glories “” but glories that still contain a heavy hand of man. We can fight sprawl and mindless development even as we cherish the exuberant nature that can increasingly be found in our own cities, from native gardens to green roofs. And we can do this even as we continue to fight for international agreements on limiting the greenhouses gases that are warming the planet.

The authors go on to suggest that it’s time for “a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism” to be built:

This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.

But can environmentalism rise to this challenge? Can it abandon doom and gloom over what’s done and move on to a new narrative for the new epoch?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ecology, environmentalism
  • hunter

    Many skeptics have been pointing this out for years.
    Now ask the next question:
    Has the AGW movement on balance offered even one policy, treaty, technology, or law that has actually worked?
     

  • Jeff

    Paging Grist, CAP

  • hunter

    @Jeff 2,
    I am certain we will hear something about Romm really really really getting mad about this very soon.
     

  • Nick

    Many skeptics have been pointing this out for years.
    As have most professional environmental scientists and serious environmental policy people. 

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    I guess I am once again out of touch with “environmentalists”. I was under the impression that modern environmentalism generally was concerned with preserving small areas where human impacts were lessened, not completely eliminated, e.g. national parks, ocean preserves/sanctuaries, etc.?

    Also, if people are not supposed to emote a little despair and gloom while we’re on the precipice of one of the Earth’s few genuine mass extinction events, when exactly is that response appropriate?

    I am perhaps perversely optimistic, in that I think/hope that we’re going to come in for a (relatively) soft landing as the scope of the problems we face looms a little larger relative to concerns about the economy. But I find the attitude in the op-ed (or at least the NY Times editors) to be a little schizophrenic. The headline given by the article’s webpage is “The Age of Man is Not a Disaster”. In terms of biodiversity, this is just undeniably false. There is a difference between offering a hopeful alternative future and pretending that the one we’re heading towards is not a problem. I think the message of the op-ed is muddled by the authors’ attempts to have it both ways.

  • Jonathan Gilligan

    David Victor’s book, “Global Warming Gridlock” discusses the extent to which we must become zookeepers for the planet as part of adapting to climate change and other environmental stresses, and that since we can’t save every ecosystem or endangered species, we will need to explicitly establish procedures for triage (death panels for nature).

  • http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com Andy Revkin

    Great to see this shift. Rene Dubos lives!
    A ‘Despairing Optimist’ Considered Anew: http://nyti.ms/sNRQui 
    Emma Marris’s book “Rambunctious Garden” is a vital read.

  • Paul in Sweden

    hunter Says:
    December 12th, 2011 at 10:26 am Many skeptics have been pointing this out for years.
    Now ask the next question:
    Has the AGW movement on balance offered even one policy, treaty, technology, or law that has actually worked?
    Since the topic is ‘Climate Science’ the appropriate response to that comment would be “Amen!”

    If we push aside the science consensus regarding anthropogenic contribution which ranges from a butterfly ‘fart’ to mid-range IPCC averaged climate model scenarios and were still be able to negotiate the billions of polar bear carcases on our way to a rescue boat towards Hansen’s NASA GISS sunken 3rd or 4th floor office…and just accepted the premise as true would the world’s actions have made a difference?
    Smoke and mirrors aside for a moment — come to my home, tell me my house is on fire(UN-witnessed by fact or data) and that I must agree to my government legally requiring me to take out a second or third mortgage with only a tacit suggestion that your new ‘Climate Science’ United Nations government will unsuccessfully go through to motions of putting out an end table in the far corner of my ground floor living room that is on fire only in your CAGW computer models.
    How can anyone still wonder why ‘Climate Science POLICY’ is not universally ridiculed?
    Did the New York Times’ Krugman start living in a Yurt in Central Park or the South Bronx? Is there any reason to take these people as being serious?

  • Dean

    The Op-ed is basically pointless because it avoids the real issue. Yes, there are “Some environmentalists see the Anthropocene as a disaster by definition”, but the real issue is the scale of impact and whether it is sustainable.

    They say: “It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.” as if this is a fact. It is not. It is a belief. We can’t really know for sure whether the scale of our impact can be ameliorated the way they want or not. It is also not a fact that collapse is inevitable, that is a belief as well. We don’t know which is true. There is no global computer model to test the impact of the extinction event we have triggered. This, much more than AGW (which will serve to enhance it), is the real experiment we are playing with the Earth.

    I understand that doom and gloom is not good politics compared to happy days are ahead. But for every doomster who predicted the end that didn’t happen, there is an ostrich who ignored the signs of doom that afterwards seemed very obvious. I wish I had a nickel for every finance expert who was absolutely positive that the financial industry had it all figured out and that there would be no more bubbles or serious business cycles. I saw an interview with author Niall Ferguson yesterday who said that a high-end investment specialist bet him a sizable amount of money in early 2007 that the United States would never again have a recession. Ever. Need I say more? Only time will tell.

  • Jarmo

    I think the following of doom and gloom school of environmentalism is greater than many think. There is something  morbidly appealing in the idea that humanity will cause its own downfall and some get to say: “I told ya.”

    Without a planetary Judgment Day the Green religion is like a Disney movie ;)   

  • ul

    “We have learned that ecosystems are not “” and have never been “” static entities”
    but:
    “We can design ecosystems…We can restore…”
    now, how do we do that  ?
    Seems to me that our track record is not the best. Yellostone is a good example for that.
    And the climate ? Are we not trying to get it “static” ?

  • hunter

    Andy @7,
    Gee, when did you stop being an apocalyptic hype promoter?

    Jarmo@9,
    You have pointed out a part of human pathos since the time of the great flood myths.
     

  • hunter

    Nick,
    The logical conclusion from your claim regarding ‘serious environmentalists’ is that they are precious few and far between.
     

  • Anteros

    Thingsbreak – I profoundly disagree with much of environmentalists thinking, and the problem I have is that the world views involved are  incommensurable – conversations are barely possible because we see the world so differently.

    One example – biodiversity. Environmentalists seem to assume, without having thought about it for more than two seconds – that more species = good, less species = bad. Sometimes it even seems that good and bad are actually defined by these two things, not the other way round. To me this is just nonsense.

    I think England, today, (where I live) is an environmental paradise compared with how it was when my ancestors walked in from flea-infested Northern Europe [not forgetting that 'other human beings' are the most important part of the environment] It was one dark, miserable, monotonous oak forest and now it is a garden of Eden – and varied beyond belief. Now, do we know whether there are more species or less species than ~25,000 years ago? Not really, but if there were 25% less would anybody seriously say it was a ‘bad’ thing? To me it is an ‘irrelevant’ thing – the environment is immeasurably better and the total number of species is not high on the list of important metrics.

    If there were only 4 million species at the end of the Permian rather than the 8  million now, would you say it was in some ways ‘worse’ then? And if there were 4 million again in a thousand years, what of it? To my mind the environment will likely be even better than it is now.

    I can barely comment on much of the article because it utilises, to me, such weird and unrealistic thinking – such as saying that mankind has put great stress on the ecology of the planet. Is that what trees did when they first evolved and covered the planet?

    I agree that human beings can ‘degrade’ the environment, but they do so in ways that most environmentalists don’t see -or don’t admit to seeing. They occur because of poverty, big/oppressive governance, and common/non-ownership. England is an environmental paradise because it is wealthy, we have a democratic un-oppressive government, and everything is looked after – it has an ‘owner’ – we don’t have the tragedy of the commons.

    Compare North and South Korea. One rich, one poor. One enormous oppressive government, one constitutional democracy. One a big communal uncared-for toxic mess, one with private ownership and responsibility. Where is the environmental degradation?

    Recall East and West Germany. One the first (rich) green country in Europe, the other a grey pollution-riddled concrete ‘place’.

    Aside from these contrasts I think environmentalist are wrong in their separation of humanity and nature – which is why environmentalism is so easily seen as a religion by anthropologists. There is the myth of the garden of Eden, the Fall, Expulsion from the garden and the prospect of damnation or salvation. It is no wonder there is so much apocalyptic talk – the subject has become nothing less than good v evil in the Universe.

    My interest in environmentalism overlaps with climate change because it seems to inhabit the same part of many people’s psyche – the coming catastrophe. I’ve mentioned this fact before, but there hasn’t been a day in human history since man first learned to speak that somebody, somewhere hasn’t been saying ‘we are heading for disaster’. It is not an exceptional event, it is life as it always was – it is normality for human beings. Expressions may change – Tb, you may say we are ‘on the precipice‘ but the thinking is always the same. Always has been, always will.

    Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘fragile ecosystems’ and how human beings are in the process of ‘destroying them’ I hear someone disconnected from reality. Ecosystems are fragile in the same way clouds are.

  • grypo

    This is a bit like doing the reverse chicken little dance, where the sky actually is falling and we twirl on the pieces like ballet dancers.

  • harrywr2


    #10
    I think the following of doom and gloom school of environmentalism is greater than many think
    I think it  quite normal for people to want to have some sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘greater purpose’ to their lives.
    There is no shortage of people who would imagine themselves to be Bruce Willis in Armageddon…sacrificing themselves to ‘save the planet’.
    Of course the George Carlin position is that  ‘the planet doesn’t need to be saved, humanity needs to be saved’.

  • grypo

    I like OPatrick’s connection to the neo-liberal economic paradise that is crumbling around its edges too.  The parallels are all too familiar.  We must need one of those corporate feel-good conferences to reestablish our false optimism, eh, OPat?

  • grypo

    I meant ‘Dean’.  WTF?

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @14 Anteros:
    the world views involved are  incommensurable ““ conversations are barely possible because we see the world so differently.

    It would seem so.

    One example ““ biodiversity. Environmentalists seem to assume, without having thought about it for more than two seconds ““ that more species = good, less species = bad. Sometimes it even seems that good and bad are actually defined by these two things, not the other way round. To me this is just nonsense.

    Is it actually that difficult for you to understand why biodiversity is considered to be a positive thing? From a purely selfish perspective, high biodiversity is associated with higher levels of ecosystem services (e.g. mangrove swamps buffering against tropical storms, plant and animal sources for medical breakthroughs, etc.). Additionally, biologically diverse ecosystems are more robust to stressors such as disease and climatic changes.

    Now, do we know whether there are more species or less species than ~25,000 years ago? Not really

    Huh?

    If there were only 4 million species at the end of the Permian rather than the 8  million now, would you say it was in some ways “˜worse’ then?

    It depends on the perspective that question is being posed from. If from one of the 4 billion species you just blinked out of existence, I assume they’d answer “worse”. If some of those species happened to be the therapsids that eventually gave rise to the mammals, from my own selfish perspective I would say it was “worse”. Just generally ecologically-speaking, decreased biodiversity is “worse” overall, but provides opportunities for a few winners among the losers.

    My interest in environmentalism overlaps with climate change because it seems to inhabit the same part of many people’s psyche ““ the coming catastrophe. I’ve mentioned this fact before, but there hasn’t been a day in human history since man first learned to speak that somebody, somewhere hasn’t been saying “˜we are heading for disaster’. It is not an exceptional event, it is life as it always was ““ it is normality for human beings. Expressions may change ““ Tb, you may say we are “˜on the precipice”˜ but the thinking is always the same. Always has been, always will.

    The questions of whether there have been demonstrable mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth and whether we are presently in or on the cusp of one are scientific in nature. Yes or no? If yes, do you agree that the actual answer to those questions is independent of whether or not it coincidentally aligns with some interest groups’ belief systems?

  • Menth

    @16 harrywr2

    In the words of Eric Hoffer: “In every passionate pursuit, the pursuit counts more than the object pursued.”

  • huxley

    I profoundly disagree with much of environmentalists thinking, and the problem I have is that the world views involved are  incommensurable ““ conversations are barely possible because we see the world so differently.
    – Anteros @14

    Incommensurable is the word. I want to underline the above bit from Anteros (with my highlighting) because I’ve not seen the point he makes addressed, yet I see this impasse over and over again in the current debates over climate, politics and current events.

  • huxley

    But can environmentalism rise to this challenge? Can it abandon doom and gloom over what’s done and move on to a new narrative for the new epoch?

    It could but it won’t. It’s not in DNA of environmentalism. A new generation of environmentalists might.

    IMO what we are now seeing is environmentalists flailing about because they realize that they have lost most of their political traction and it’s not coming back any time soon.

  • Dean

    @14 Anteros

    If you think that a preference for more species is made with only two seconds thought, then I can only conclude that you haven’t read up on it. I suggest that you start by looking up keystone species.

  • Anteros

    Thingsbreak -

    Thanks for the measured response. I don’t quite understand your ‘huh’ to my question of whether England has more or less species than 25,000 years ago. I’m not sure of the answer. My point was that whether there are more, or less is not an important factor in deciding whether the environment is better or worse. We can decide that first [and we may not even agree] and then see that the change in diversity isn’t an important factor. The environment is better [vastly, from my point of view] irrespective of whether there has been a decrease – or an increase – in biodiversity.

    Of course, I understand why most people think more species = better. I just think it is an illusion. Maybe there were only one million species at the end of the Permian – it simply doesn’t make any sense to say it was 8 time worse. My emphasis is on the lack of importance of the extra 7 million species. I don’t subscribe to this idea that less species has to be seen as heading towards the end of all life – I think that is simplistic and wrong. As I said, England might be a much better place environmentally with only half the species it had before we arrived. It might have twice as many – it isn’t important to me as an indicator of environmental health.
    I do understand the idea that species are valuable to some people simply because they have a bio-centric view. I don’t. I see life as a whole, as a phenomenon and as just about the most robust thing on earth. Take some pond water and put it under the microscope – there is life, teeming and abiding and adapting and being ‘as a whole’ indestructible.

    It seems very silly to me to try to ‘create’ ecosystems – it misunderstands the adaptability and flexibility of life. If we think of the last million years what have we seen? Changes of global temperatures of 6 or even 8 degrees C. Oceans rising and falling by 400 feet. Life as a whole? Not bothered – continuing and changing and adapting…. but thriving.

    I don’t know about ‘mass’ extinction – that seems unnecessarily doom-laden. It seems quite likely that the number of species on earth is changing quite a lot, I agree, but I am absolutely 100% OK with that. All the niches that exist on earth where the sun’s energy can be utilised by self-replicating creatures will be filled. If many of those niches change, so will the creatures that inhabit them.

    If I can use England as an example again, I think that because it is environmentally better than it was, it doesn’t make sense to bemoan the creatures that no longer exist here (or at all) anymore than it makes sense to bemoan the lack of trilobites or Dodos in the world.

    I don’t see fragility when I see ‘life’ and I don’t see ‘bad things’ when I see human impacts. I see some bad things but the balance sheet always looks OK. Perhaps also I see things improving rather than deteriorating. Just one example – air quality in London hasn’t been better in nearly 400 years.

  • Paul in Sweden

    Has ‘Climate Science’ reached a consensus ideal average temperature for Kepler-22b? Just wondering how 22b’s differences in hundereths or tenths to a degree have mattered in the computer models or MMORPGs?

    On our big blue and green planet there seems to be an awful lot of concern about preserving polar wastelands which could possibly be utilized, once again agriculturally to support our planet’s ever growing population(if we could convince our leftists and green elites to stop burning poor peoples’ food in rich peoples’ cars that are subsidized by the poor). That stands on its own, but just think of the treasure trove of dendro-palaeoclimatic archaeological finds that might clue us in on mankind’s adverse effects on our planet’s climate over the eons.

  • hunter

    For those who assert ‘happy days’ makes for better politics, I would suggest rethinking that completely. History shows the opposite to make far better politics.
    It is under crisis conditions that political power can get consolidated, imposed, and applied with far less resistance. At the extreme end, tyrants nearly always rule by dictatorship means after declaring an emergency. AGW is an ideal doom and gloom story because it is at its heart about the weather.

  • Dean

    Anteros – Whether you or I like more species isn’t the issue. It sounds like our value systems (between you and I) are so divergent that I don’t even know if can really discuss this, since I think some semblance of shared values is important to a discussion.

    Nonetheless, system robustness and productivity are generally tied to system diversity. An interesting analogy is that a lack of genetic diversity in a species can both make it more productive, while at the same time making it fragile and susceptible to threats. The lack of biological diversity in many of our crops, for example, is well known to make them more susceptible to pests. We have to step in and manage that genetic content as a result. In the mean time, they out-produce wild varieties by far, despite the wild varieties being far less susceptible.

    The UK may be an island but it trades a lot. We do not know exactly at what point the loss of species threatens the productivity of the biosphere that we so depend on. It is another of those uncontrolled experiments that we are taking with the world.

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @24 Anteros:
    I don’t know about “˜mass’ extinction ““ that seems unnecessarily doom-laden.

    There are events in the geological record during which the extinction rate increases dramatically. There are 5 “major” events and there is ongoing investigation as to whether the 6th is already underway or is still avoidable.

    Would you agree that these are scientific questions that should be at least hypothetically answerable irrespective of human psychological quirks?

    My point was that whether there are more, or less is not an important factor in deciding whether the environment is better or worse. We can decide that first [and we may not even agree] and then see that the change in diversity isn’t an important factor. The environment is better [vastly, from my point of view] irrespective of whether there has been a decrease ““ or an increase ““ in biodiversity.

    It sounds to me like you’re simply begging the question. You’re objecting to the inclusion of biodiversity in evaluating environmental quality without providing an alternative criteria that has some sort of external or objective basis.

  • BBD

    hunter
    It is under crisis conditions that political power can get consolidated, imposed, and applied with far less resistance. At the extreme end, tyrants nearly always rule by dictatorship means after declaring an emergency. AGW is an ideal doom and gloom story because it is at its heart about the weather.


    So is AGW a ‘story’? Literally a frightening narrative derived from ‘the weather’ by which the eco-Marxists seek one day to govern us all?

    Gosh.

  • Anteros

    thingsbreak -

    I’m well aware of the history of extinctions and extinction events. I think you automatically see the events surrounding the end of the dinosaurs as a terrible thing. Perhaps the other events too – I see them just as changes. Not good or bad, but certainly relevant in leading to the existence of humanity. I also think the comparison to current changes isn’t apt at all.

    When you say ‘whether the 6th [mass extinction event] is avoidable’ you clearly define extinction processes as bad things. I don’t.

    I probably agree with you that there are significant changes afoot – in many ways – as a result of mankind’s ubiquity on earth. I don’t see those changes necessarily as bad things – including a change in the total number of species existing. I don’t think it is an important criterion.

    It is a question of relevance and balance. If I can use England again as a before and after example, if there were now only half the number of species existing in my country I would still say the environment had improved – counting up the total number of species simply isn’t – to me – in the same ballpark as what makes the environment beneficial to humanity.

    It is not a case of providing an alternative criterion to biodiversity as a measure of environmental quality – I’ve never seen a justification for using it as a criterion in the first place. If more biodiversity = better environmental quality, then the tropics would be better environmentally than Iceland. They aren’t – they’re simply more biodiverse and claiming that as a good thing is just weak teleology.

    I can see the worry – that less is heading towards none, but I think that is simply not how things work. In rich, developed countries changes in diversity tend to slow down. We have more designated parks, reserves, wetlands, SSSI’s, national forests and so on than all the urban areas put together. ‘Biodiversity’ itself is not under threat in the sense that there are always going to be a hundred times more species than what is ample. Some less isn’t necessarily bad.

    I think it is a mistake to put biodiversity so high on the list of environmental criteria. I understand why people do it, and I think that is primarily for emotional reasons rather than rational ones. And that’s OK – I just think it is wrong! I don’t think we’re on the edge of a precipice, just an interesting change of slope.

  • Anteros

    Dean @ 27 -

    “We do not know exactly at what point the loss of species threatens the productivity of the biosphere that we so depend on”


    Here is a good example of the incommensurable world views- I don’t know how to make sense of that statement. It seems to be taking a piece of speculation – based on not a shred of evidence – and marinading it in imagination for many weeks until it can be served up as a genuinely horrifying ‘potential catastrophe. It’s nonsense. But I bet it fits in nicely with a predisposing emotional outlook. And also, being a viewpoint that wasn’t arrived at by using reason, it isn’t one that reason can get you out of.

    It makes about as much sense as wondering how long we can continue sinning before the Gods punish us.


    The productivity of the biosphere, as you put it, has never been correlated with the total number of species in existence. There has never been any evidence that an order of magnitude less species is any worse than an order of magnitude more.

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @30 Anteros:
    If more biodiversity = better environmental quality, then the tropics would be better environmentally than Iceland. They aren’t ““ they’re simply more biodiverse and claiming that as a good thing is just weak teleology.

    Again, you’re begging the question.

    I think you automatically see the events surrounding the end of the dinosaurs as a terrible thing.

    That’s a strange thought for you to have. As a mass extinction event, it was a “terrible thing” for a lot of life that had been present up until that point. It is of course a matter of perspective.

    f there were now only half the number of species existing in my country I would still say the environment had improved ““ counting up the total number of species simply isn’t ““ to me ““ in the same ballpark as what makes the environment beneficial to humanity.

    It is not a case of providing an alternative criterion to biodiversity as a measure of environmental quality ““ I’ve never seen a justification for using it as a criterion in the first place.

    That’s because you’re simply ignoring the justifications for valuing biodiversity in terms of environmental quality. I provided one such review up-thread. There are plenty of others.

    I think it is a mistake to put biodiversity so high on the list of environmental criteria. I understand why people do it, and I think that is primarily for emotional reasons rather than rational ones.

    Apparently you do not. Or at least in the case of persons like myself, you do not.

  • Anteros

    Thingsbreak & Dean -

    I think I have an analogy that explains my views on biodiversity. I think we can agree that there are reasonably clear points at which the dwindling numbers in a species put that species ‘at risk’. In various ways it can be calculated or at least guessed at. And also, beyond a certain number, further increases make no measurable difference. Correct?

    Intriguingly, many environmentalist suggest that it would be better if there were less human beings. I partially sympathise with this view, but none of us are concerned that fewer people leads to any kind of ‘threat’ to the existence of humanity – there are orders of magnitude more of us than is even relevant.

    I think the same thing is true for biodiversity, except that [apart from in rare cases where too many species leads there to be too few in each species..] greater biodiversity doesn’t cause the problems that supposedly too many humans does.

    My view is that once there are thousands and thousands of species, there are no profound benefits to having thousands and thousands more – apart from the fact that we simply like there to be more – it is more fascinating and delightful etc etc.

    To worry that -


    “We do not know exactly at what point the loss of species threatens the productivity of the biosphere that we so depend on”


    - is a little like worrying that something terrible might happen if the human population falls below 1 billion.




     

  • Anteros

    Thingsbreak -
    “you’re simply ignoring the justifications for valuing biodiversity”


    I’m not. I’m certainly not ignoring them. I’m moving them much further down a list of important criteria and therefore not worrying about them.


    As I said, it is a question of balance. I’m a humanist, so I put human welfare first and that of cockroaches second. If there end up only being 17,000 species of cockroach and at the same time everybody has access to clean drinking water, then I’m a happy bunny. I don’t worry about relative quantities of species.

     

  • Dean

    “It seems to be taking a piece of speculation ““ based on not a shred of evidence ““ and marinading it in imagination for many weeks until it can be served up as a genuinely horrifying “˜potential“˜ catastrophe. It’s nonsense.”

    It is not “without a shred of evidence” but since you don’t seem to be willing to address the evidence, which is substantial, I will move on.

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    Anteros:
    I’m not. I’m certainly not ignoring them. I’m moving them much further down a list of important criteria and therefore not worrying about them.

    On what basis?

    Also, you don’t consider arbitrarily and without justification choosing to “move something down a list of importance and therefore not worrying about it” to be basically the same as ignoring it?

    Seriously?

    You pretty much nailed the definition of ignoring something, from my perspective.

    I’ve never seen a justification for using [biodiversity] as a criterion [for environmental quality] in the first place.

    I have provided you with an example where the justification is discussed. You have completely avoided it.


    I’m a humanist, so I put human welfare first and that of cockroaches second.

    You’re ignoring the benefits that biodiversity provides for humans.

  • Anteros

    Thingsbreak –

    I sense a disconnect now.

    I gave you a long, clear analysis of why I think beyond a certain point biodiversity is relatively unimportant.

    For you to then say I am ignoring the benefits that biodiversity provides for humans is simply idiotic.

    I have gone out of my way to explore the different value we both put on biodiversity and you’re stuck with ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. Hm – same kind of fundamentalism you express with your catastrophic global warming?

  • EdG

    TB et al

    I am fully supportive of the concept of maximizing biodiversity because

    a) it is the ecological equivalent of economic diversity or, for individual investors, a diverse portfolio.

    b) as an almost life-long naturalist and birder (and I’m old) I enjoy seeing that diversity and its interactions. Thus we are lucky enough to own and live on a large chunk of biodiverse land in an ecologically diverse area and we manage it to maximize that.

    In terms of the often heard argument that the loss of any species has some significant ecological effect, that depends entirely on the specifics. Some species matter much more than others to the whole system.

    That said, this concept has been taken to convenient extremes by the so called ‘Conservation Biology’ industry as is most evident in the Endangered Species Act listing business. They are now inventing ‘subspecies’ and ‘distinct populations’ to individually ‘save,’ and sometimes using very dubious – to put it mildly – methods to do that, including OJ Simpson style DNA work. Adding to that they also use extremely dubious – to put it very mildly – historic baselines of where and how abundant some species were to exxagerate the current scenario.

    Finally, this listing business is conveniently flawed by the use of political jurisdictions and boundaries, which mean nothing in the real world. For example, if you look at the list of Species at Rick in Canada (google COSEWIC) you will discover that the vast majority of birds, for one example, listed as Threatened or Endangered in Canada are at the extreme northern edge of their ranges there – due to habitat limitations, period. Look at range maps of the Spotted Owl or worse, the Sage Thrasher or Williamson’s Sapsucker. Or vice versa, the (Mountain) Woodland Caribou in the US. Thus one ostensibly cooperative project on the US-Canada border I am very familiar with ended up doing nothing because the Americans were concerned with high elevation species that barely ranged into the US (but were much more secure and abundant in Canada) while the Canadians were worried about valley species that barely extended into Canada (but were much more secure and abundant in the US). Extend that thinking to state or provincial ‘at risk’ lists and you begin to see the problem. This only actually helps the burgeoning ‘listing’ research industry and their ’cause’ (by racking up their headline totals) while missing the larger pictures which actually do matter.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Has anyone considered the question of how many species are being created by human action?

    Species are created by the genetic isolation of groups of the same species, through the spread into new areas and the fragmentation of their habitat, and through new opportunities and niches opening up. Urban counterparts to wild species are common. What other changes and adaptations are going on, unnoticed, that increase diversity?

    Species creation is hard to measure. Since we don’t know all the species there are, how can we tell if a new something is really new? It’s not a question I’ve seen people pay any attention to.

    And if in future we really decide that diversity is a good in itself, there’s always genetic engineering. How many new species do you want? There seems no obvious limit.

    Ecosystems are fragile only in the sense that a haphazard pile of bricks is fragile. Each leans against the others in an intricate network of forces, and pulling one brick out can cause many others to slide and tumble. But after it is all over, the resulting random pile looks much as it did before, a random pile, only different in detail. Species evolve and adapt, they solve the problem of whatever environment they’re in. Besides the lack of evidence that there is a dangerous level of extinctions (elevated, yes, but not catastropic), there seems no obvious reason to think there should be. Life can adapt to humans, too.

    (PS. It’s notable that you get more diversity where it’s warmer. Is it possible that a warmer world could be good for life?)

  • Anteros

    NIV -

    Your P.S. was cruel – where can the poor doomers go if good things happen in a warmer world?

  • DeNihilist

    Why is there this belief that nature cares? Nature is a continous evolvement, without feeling or morals. Dinosaurs are wiped out, mammals grow in prominence.

    Humans are doing as intended. There is no right (ie protection of other species) or wrong (ie wiping out of other species), there is only the process of evolution. PERIOD!

    If human progress leads to a mass extinction event, then that is as it should be. Why do so many humans think we are extra ordinary and special? We are not. We are part of nature and we will do as we ought to.

  • hunter

    BBD,
    Your powers of misunderstanding are profound.
    AGW is of course a story. It is a social mania built upon a particular interpretation of physical science. Or do you see it as a revealed truth, transferred by immaculate transcription through the IPCC, as do so many others?
     

  • EdG

    NiV writes:

    “Species are created by the genetic isolation of groups of the same species, through the spread into new areas and the fragmentation of their habitat, and through new opportunities and niches opening up.”

    Exactly. Yet if you read what the ‘Conservation Biology’ manifestos say, this isolation is pure doomsday with ‘genetic inbreeding’ allegedly bound to cause nothing but defective mutants etc.

    They choose to ignore scenarios like Kodiak island where the bears have been isolated for about 10,000 years. So this blanket suggestion that islolated populations are necessarily ‘bad,’ and that all species – the status quo – must be saved is actually anti-evolutionary thinking. And I thought they believed in evolution?

    That said, isolation and habitat fragmentation can spell the end of some species or at least some populations, depending entirely on the specifics and the actions we take to conserve them.

    “Urban counterparts to wild species are common.”

    This is more about the ‘cultural evolution’ of species which have learned over time that (modern) humans are a neutral factor in their survival, allowing them to exploit human-created habitats near people. To generalize, wildlife is more intelligent than most people assume, so they can evolve through learning and rapidly adapt to changing conditions.. Like all the deer or raccoons living in suburbia. Needless to say, if people still hunted those deer they wouldn’t be there.

    “What other changes and adaptations are going on, unnoticed, that increase diversity?”

    Complex question, which I hope was partially addressed above. But here’s another simple example. How many species of birds are there in the USA today? Far more than there were in 1491. Some, like European Starlings, have caused significant problems for native species while others, like (European) House Sparrows occupied a niche (towns and cities) than never existed before. Of course, the purists object to these ‘alien’ species… while apparently forgetting how many of our ‘native’ mammal species in southern North America (south of Berengia) were ‘alien’ species 14,000 or so years ago. Like elk, moose, grizzly bears, and gray wolves. And humans.

    Nor do I hear too many people complaining about honeybees, another introduced ‘alien’ species.

    I am not suggesting, for a second, that all ‘alien’ species are ‘good’ as some are definitely not. Some invasive plants in particular are an ecological disaster. Florida is a classic example of a place loaded with ‘alien’ species, from parrots to pythons to plants, with the full range of effects. The whole thing is much more complex in its details than the simplistic stories tell. Like most things.

  • Anteros

    DeNihilist -

    Your comments aren’t going to go down well with those who are anthropomorphic in their feelings about nature – that it is, poor, vulnerable, innocent, fragile, pure and in need of protection from greedy, nasty unnatural mankind.

    I think another common fallacy you allude to is that of seeing a fixed state rather than a process. Life, species, and systems are in constant motion, constant change. To think that if we alter something, other parts of nature won’t be able to cope I think misunderstands life the universe and everything.

    Most peoples greatest dichotomy is between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – you’re going to irk an awful lot of people if you hint that there is another way of looking at the world..

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @39, 40

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/275/1630/47.short

    The past relationship between global temperature and levels of biological diversity is of increasing concern due to anthropogenic climate warming. However, no consistent link between these variables has yet been demonstrated. We analysed the fossil record for the last 520″ŠMyr against estimates of low latitude sea surface temperature for the same period. We found that global biodiversity (the richness of families and genera) is related to temperature and has been relatively low during warm “˜greenhouse’ phases, while during the same phases extinction and origination rates of taxonomic lineages have been relatively high. These findings are consistent for terrestrial and marine environments and are robust to a number of alternative assumptions and potential biases. Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner. Our findings may have implications for extinction and biodiversity change under future climate warming.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #45,
    Interesting. Thanks.

  • BBD

    hunter

    BBD,
    Your powers of misunderstanding are profound.
    AGW is of course a story. It is a social mania built upon a particular interpretation of physical science. Or do you see it as a revealed truth, transferred by immaculate transcription through the IPCC, as do so many others?

    No. Just boring old physics, really.

  • BBD

    NiV and Anteros

    Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died is worth reading if you are interested in extinction events. It deals with the Biggie: the end-Permian.

  • DeNihilist

    BBD @ 48,

    and yet life lives and evolves. We may lose the rest of the big species by humans following their natural path, yet the microscopic will survive.

    Nature does not have a soft spot for life that is large enough to see with bare eyes. Nature has no feelings, just evolution.

    So why do some humans have to continually portray nature as an entity, seperate from its creation? That we humans stand outside nature and molest “her”?

    We will do what we will do, and when the time comes we will simply vanish back into the cauldron, naturally. and the natural evolution will continue unabated.

  • DeNihilist

    Anteros @ 44

    I find most people refuse to debate with my point of view. Don’t know if it scares them, or if they really “believe” that somehow humans are special and exist outside of nature.

    All things are after all just dust in the wind. So why are humans so afraid to grasp their destiny and run with it? Right now, on this planet, we are at the top as we evoled to be.

                   Why are so many afraid of this height?

  • DeNihilist

    P.S. – remember the great discovery of the Bhuddha – His deepest realization, is that at the core of all of this that we experience around us, is pure, unadultered nothingness. No light, no sound, no thought, no emotion, nothing.

  • hunter

    BBD,
    Many true believers confuse plain old physics with their interpretation of plain old physics.
    Eugenicists confused evolution with their interpretation of evolution. If you are historically literate you might find it illustrative. But if you were historically literate, you would not be an AGW believer.
     

  • Ian

    #51
    I don’t think that the Buddha’s notion of ‘nothingness’ is necessarily commensurate with a general understanding of the term. As Zoketsu Norman Fischer explains the point:
    But the Buddhist view (which is more experiential than doctrinal) is the opposite of this: that exactly because things are radically impermanent (not impermanent against a backdrop of the wish for permanence, but impermanent in the sense that things arise anew every moment) they are sacred and in a sense eternal. Every moment partakes of eternity, if only we could fully live it, beyond our various deeply held conceptions of it.
    FWIW

  • DeNihilist

    Ian, or as Osho said, ” only no thing can be eternal”
    :)

  • Howard

    DeNihilist says were are at the top as we evolved to be.  Is that right?  Virus, bacteria and the great collective fungal matte remain the apex predators as you elude in #48.  What is the top, relatively, absolutely? I suppose ‘mericans are the top of the top, right?  I don’t know.  I do know that the Siddhartha was one crazy and self-centered evangelist who taught Steve Jobs to sell nothing for much.  Who would Buddah scam?  Everyone!  and so it goes.

    What is interesting about the philosophy of evolution is the concept of manifest destiny versus free willy.  The warmistas believe in the re-perfection of man through decarbonization.  That sounds like what a woman tries to do to their boyfriend turned husband.  Free will loses to bud and NFL everytime.  The deniers believe we are consumption machines driven by our lizard brains to burn it all down.  Let’s party like it’s 1999.

    Where is the middle way?  Not to worry, the iPhone kids who are quietly taking over will let Siri show the way. aaaaaaaaaaoooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmmm

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @ 37 Anteros:
    I sense a disconnect now.

    Yes, I think we’ve converged on it.

    I gave you a long, clear analysis of why I think beyond a certain point biodiversity is relatively unimportant.

    From my perspective, you have not done this. From my perspective, you acted as though you didn’t understand why biodiversity is considered a positive/part of environmental quality. I gave you a link to but one of many reviews that discuss the benefits biodiversity provides, from a purely selfish perspective, to humans. You have not, from what I can read, acknowledged or discussed or refuted any of the information presented therein.


    For you to then say I am ignoring the benefits that biodiversity provides for humans is simply idiotic.

    This is what you seem to be saying that you are doing in your own words. You do not discuss the benefits. You- without providing any justification- decide to “move them much further down a list of important criteria and therefore not worry about them”.


    I have gone out of my way to explore the different value we both put on biodiversity and you’re stuck with “˜I’m right and you’re wrong’.

    I have yet to see you address the benefits provided by biodiversity, provide justification for “moving them much further down a list of important criteria and therefore not worrying about them”, provide an alternative criteria for judging environmental quality, etc.

    From my perspective, all you have done is repeatedly state that you don’t value biodiversity as much as others, without actually bothering to tie this into some sort of objective or external basis.

    Hm ““ same kind of fundamentalism you express with your catastrophic global warming?

    Please provide some sort of evidence for me having “catastrophic global warming fundamentalism”, whatever the hell that means, or withdraw the claim.

  • Keith Kloor

    Very interesting and mostly constructive thread. One quick note:

    For years there’s been a debate in the scientific community over the best ecological metric: biodiversity or ecosystem services? Lately, folks have come around to agreeing that these two metrics need not be mutually exclusive. A good argument for that is made here

  • Alexander Harvey

    Biodiversity is not the only issue.

    Some species that are extant have lost most of their genetic varaince. This occurs with or without our influence. Cases being the southern white, (and other) rhino and the cheetah which are each close to being clones. There are currently significant numbers of southern whites and cheetahs but they are fragmentary remainders of their previous species.

    We do have methods for maintaining species, for instance there is currently little risk that maize will become extinct yet it risks becoming narrow and unrepresentative of its own species.

    Alex

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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