There are certain tropes that linger in the public imagination long after they’ve been discredited. Such is the case with the “balance of nature.” In 2009, the ecologist John Kricher wrote a book about this “enduring myth,” and years before that, another ecologist, Daniel Botkin, published his seminal Discordant Harmonies in 1990, which I think was the first mainstream book “to challenge the then dominant view that nature remained constant over time unless disturbed by human influence.”
The shelf life of this outdated ecological concept rankles Botkin, who last year wrote:
People give lip service to the idea that nature may not be constant, but when it comes to passing laws, setting down policies, giving advice, and deciding what to do, most of the time we act as if nature was balanced — constant. That is, as long as we stay out of the way.
He’s right. The meme is still very much part of our popular environmental discourse, thanks in part to journalists (and scientists) who continue to use the term, as in this 2009 Smithsonian article and more recently, in today’s New York Times piece on the beetle infestation in New jersey’s Pine Barrens:
Scientists say it is a striking example of the way seemingly small climatic changes are disturbing the balance of nature.
That scientists are still perhaps framing ecological problems this way is troubling. Botkin took note on Twitter. Read More
In 2012 Scientific American asked:
Are Wind Turbines Getting More Bird and Bat-Friendly?
In case you weren’t aware, wind energy has an ecological downside that’s hasn’t yet been smoothed out. As AP reporter Dina Cappiello wrote earlier this year, “the green industry is allowed to do not so green things”:
It kills protected species with impunity and conceals the environmental consequences of sprawling wind farms.
More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Now, before I go any further, it’s important to note that cats are way bigger bird killers than wind turbines (taking out an estimated 2.4 billion birds per year in the U.S.). That said, the question of whether the wind industry is being kinder to wildlife is a pertinent one. And one answer, according to research published in the December issue of Bioscience is no. A new study concludes that in 2012 “over 600,000 bats may have died as a result of interactions with wind turbines.” Why is this important and how are the bats dying? From the Bioscience press release:
Bats, although not widely loved, play an important role in the ecosystem as insect-eaters, and also pollinate some plants. They are killed at wind turbines not only by collisions with moving turbine blades, but also by the trauma resulting from sudden changes in air pressure that occur near a fast-moving blade.
Being a city boy (for all my adult life), my exposure to agriculture is woefully limited. I’ve parachuted onto actual farms in the Midwest during reporting trips for stories and every year around Halloween my wife and I take our kids to a farm in the outskirts to pick pumpkins, get lost in a corn maze and ride on a hay truck. When we trek on occasion to Eastern Long Island (you know, on the way to the Hamptons or Montauk Point), we’ll stop off at a roadside farmstand to pick apples or whatever’s in season. Oh yeah, and last summer while driving through central California, we stopped off at a pistachio farm. That was cool.
So I’m your stereotypically disconnected urban food consumer who nonetheless cares about the environment and how my food is produced. That’s why if you opened my refrigerator door, you would see organic milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, salad greens, fruit, vegetables. I’m so brainwashed that I’ve even taken to buying organic bananas, because they look so fetchingly yellow. To be extra sure that we’re not poisoning our kids with pesticide residue, my wife and I use all “all-natural, lemon scented” fruit and vegetable wash to detox our organic grapes and apples. (I know, what happened to good old fashioned tap water?) Even our frozen pizza is organic. (No GMOs, either, the package boasts.) On our bookshelves, you’d spot the works of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who teach us how to lead this virtuous, eco-conscious lifestyle.
The only thing keeping me from being totally pathetic is my stubborn refusal to join our local food co-op. A man has his limits: I’m not bagging groceries or stocking shelves during that 2 3/4-hour shift that members are required to work every four weeks. (If I was a reincarnated Phil Ochs, I’d write a song called Love me, I’m a liberal foodie.)
Some readers are by now gasping at the hypocrisy of their hippy punching, sacred cow busting blogger, he who lambasts the nature-worhshipping, organic-loving, GMO-fearing denizens of the world. Read More
Have you heard about the big event National Geographic is hosting with TEDx this week, the one about restoring species? No, not endangered species–but ones that are already extinct, like the woolly mammoth.
I have mixed feelings about the idea. In the abstract, I think it’s pretty cool. The prospect of regaining lost pieces of our evolutionary heritage is exciting, as I wrote in a 2006 Audubon magazine review of a book that argued for “reversing prehistoric extinctions when we have the chance.”
Ecologists and conservationists seem divided, though. A group of them expressed their enthusiasm in a 2005 commentary in Nature; others, such as the prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, argue forcefully against the “de-extinction” proposal. In a piece this week at the National Geographic site, he discusses a host of likely problems that cannot be ignored.
In a world of finite resources and attention, I’m inclined to side with Pimm, who writes:
Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity’s excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.
The thorny issues raised by Pimm are similar to those that have been debated in controversial endangered species reintroduction programs, involving wolves, black-footed ferrets, panthers, and lynx. Read More
As someone who tracks environmental discourse in real time, I find it valuable to step back on occasion and look at how public attitudes are shaped. For that, I depend on the work of scholars. One book from 2008 that I’ve only just read explores how several major contemporary environmental themes have been expressed culturally, such as in literature and movies. It’s called Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, by Ursula Heise, a UCLA English professor. (I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Heise several months ago.) In her text, Heise analyzes two conflicting impulses in environmentalism, which are famously summarized in the “think globally, act locally” slogan.
This is a tension that environmentalists haven’t come to grips with yet, especially when we consider the scale of today’s environmental challenges. Read More
As a child of the suburbs, my first real contact with raw nature was in 5th grade, when a friend and I built a treehouse in the woods behind the apartment complex we lived in. (This was a two-year pit stop after my parent’s divorce.) No adults helped us. It was pretty awesome.
I used to roam around a lot in these overgrown woods and soon found a shortcut to the nearest 7/11 (total travel time: 20 minutes), where I picked up baseball cards and the latest Jonah Hex and and Swamp Thing comic books. Being a latch-key kid had its upsides.
I don’t recall ever stopping to smell the proverbial roses in my newly discovered jungle, but I do remember pulling plenty of thorns and ticks off myself in the summertime. (This was pre-Lymes disease.) During this period of my life–and like a lot of non-city kids in the days before every hour of children’s lives were scheduled–nature was somewhere I played and escaped to.
In high school, my 10th grade english teacher introduced the class to Emerson and Thoreau. I was smitten. Nature took on a whole new meaning for me. I didn’t know about ecology yet, so Emerson and Thoreau served as my intellectual guides to an eco-philosophical world that I found intoxicating. Some years later, when I discovered John Muir and and Edward Abbey, my stoic romanticism (so precious for a well-off suburbanite) evolved into a lusty affair with wilderness. While my ensuing dalliances with nature in national parks and forests were enjoyable (and still are), they never developed into a religiosity that others came to embrace.
Eventually, I learned enough environmental science and environmental history to recognize that I had fallen victim to what I would call ecologies of the mind–modes of thought that are culturally and socially constructed. Read More
The state of humanity is getting better every day. On the whole, people are richer, healthier, and living longer than ever before. We are also a less violent species, it seems. Statistically speaking, my two boys, born in 2004 and 2007, can look forward to a nice long life. Several years ago, a Duke University demographer said:
It is possible, if we continue to make progress in reducing mortality, that most children born since the year 2000 will live to see their 100th birthday — in the 22nd century.
There’s just one problem. The planet they live on is going to be hotter, stormier, and possibly an ecological wasteland. At least that’s what scientists have lately been projecting. The state of the environment, they say, is lousy: Earth is nearing or on the verge of a dangerous tipping point. (See what you have done, Malcolm Gladwell?) As some have noted, there is an unfortunate disparity between the outlook for humanity and the outlook for the planet.
But what if we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here? What if this tipping points meme is a bit overwrought and not as imminent as we have been led to believe? Read More
As anyone who follows environmental discourse knows, sustainability is more than a popular buzzword. It’s a concept that frames all discussion on climate change, development, and ecological concerns. For example, today’s line-up of sessions at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting includes a panel called, “Getting to Global Ecological Sustainability: Climate and Small-Planet Ethics.”
But what if there is no getting to global sustainability, because it’s an impossible goal? This is an argument that is put forward compellingly by advocates of the emergent resilience paradigm. Read More
If there is one tenet for conservation biologists and environmentalists to live by in the age of the Anthropocene, it would be this pearl of wisdom from the ecologist Daniel Botkin:
Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.
Like it or not, such molding is much of what conservation is all about today. Read More
Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight’s State of the Union Address. Everybody has their own pet cause or issue, of course. So here’s what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say (my emphasis):
For the sake of the Earth, our family farms and our children’s health, we must send a signal across America and the world that organic is the future. Every child must have access to healthy and safe food. We’ve started an organic garden at the White House, and I will work to create a system to ensure that healthy and safe food is a reality worldwide.
I have realized that neither genetic modification nor chemicals help to produce more food. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Currently, 90 percent of all food commodities grown become biofuel or animal feed; this is a crime when 1 billion people go hungry. So I will work on a transitional plan for phasing out subsidies to a wasteful and unjust agriculture system.
I had promised in my first election campaign that I would ensure that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such. I apologize to my fellow citizens and to citizens of the world that I did not keep my promise. The right to know what you are eating is fundamental to any democracy.
Vandana Shiva has long been treated by environmentalists—and far too many environmental writers–as a font of green wisdom. She’s got an eco-schtick that many otherwise smart people find irresistible. Read More