Category Archives: Book Review

Review of the Sixth Extinction, Part 2

And I’m back with a second part to my thoughts on the Sixth Extinction, because the book has just stuck in my craw. I’m still mulling it over.

Extinctions seem to be quiet. Most go unnoticed. The end might be violent (see:  great auk) or unassuming in the wild (see:  baiji freshwater dolphin) but it is the most grievous sort of death. Humans take some comfort that they have passed something on to future generations of their ilk when they die; no such succor can be had for extinct species.

According to Dr. Anthony Barnosky, about 900 species’ extinction can be directly attributed to human cases over the last century, and around 20,000 species now are known to be at risk. The even more terrible news is that humans have killed off half of all wildlife in the last 40 years. (HHMI, 2015)

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Biodiversity in the Age of Humans, HHMI 2015.

We don’t even seem to be aware of the magnitude our actions can have–seven billion is a jumbo number to try to visualize and connect down to my own measly life.

And yet, even at much lower numbers, we have been having an outsize impact for thousands of years.

As Kolbert incisively noted:  “When Alroy [a paleobiologist] ran the [extinction] simulations for North America, he found that even a very small initial population of humans—a hundred or so individuals—could, of the course of a millennium or two, multiply sufficiently to account for pretty much all of the extinctions in the [fossil] record…if every band of ten hunters killed off just one diprotodon a year, within about seven hundred years, every diprotodon [large marsupial] within several hundred miles would have been gone…From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all…For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible…Alroy described it as ‘geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.’ ” (233-234)

We can perceive what we are currently unleashing, so at least we aren’t in the dark anymore. While there are a lot of players involved in the extinction game, spread all over the world, there are definitely things that can be done in our backyards.

And, for me, that’s the challenge–to not let this be such a hulking, intimidating beast of a task that I don’t even try beyond the shallowest of actions. Those actions matter, but they are not nearly enough. I will be working through different steps I can take locally to shore up all wildlife–because even species that are common are likely struggling.

Review of The Sixth Extinction

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This cliche that came to mind while reading that the Javan rhino, once widespread in Southeast Asia, is down to “less than fifty individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve” (Kolbert 2014, p. 222). The colossal creatures remaining here are in trouble–bears, big cats, elephants, rhinos. I had the privilege of hearing forest elephants once while trekking in the rainforest, which the book also notes have lost an estimated 60% of their population. Pick a large species, and it is likely doing poorly.

engraving_of_java_rhinoceros_hermann_schlegel_1872

H. Slegel, engraving of Javan rhinoceros, 1872.

This is scary. Species are losing resiliency, hammered by threats on all sides. You can’t save a population that is in a single reserve; one or two random events and they could be wiped out. Or they could just fade away, with no new migrants from other areas coming in. This cascade of extinctions has been going on since humans began pulsing out of Eastern Africa. To put geologic terms in perspective, it’s like blinking and seeing that someone took half of the stuff in your house while also finding that the house is tilting and much of the remaining stuff is crashing down.

The unflinching The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminded me of a college lecture. The anthropology professor was delineating what made humans unique among animals:  Language–he said that other animals communicate and can learn new words; Tools–other animals (crows, chimps at least) use them; Fire–use of fire and the ability to cook food was the distinguishing feature.

There is another distinguishing feature of humans–willful destruction. We knowingly destroy habitats, which means that animals starve to death, die from disease, or are forced to perish while migrating across hostile terrain. We knowingly “salt, pluck, and deep fry [the great auks] into oblivion”(62), “cut into and cut off” wild places (172), and create conditions for a “steady degradation in diversity over time” (179).

There might even be enough of a lag that it will take a while to see the true extinction debt, which is difference between the number of species doomed by an environmental change and the number that have actually vanished. How likely are Kirtland’s warbler, the whooping crane, the Devil’s pupfish, the Florida panther, and even the little brown bat to make a self-sustaining comeback?

The truly terrifying extension of this argument is: If the last mass extinction was 65 million years ago, and there have been 5 major ones over the last 500 million years, we are ahead of the average by about 45 million years. What happens if we wipe out all of this intricate, marvelous, irreplaceable and then there’s another shock to the system? Can we really rule out making this planet uninhabitable?

Kolbert pulls no punches:  “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (p.235) and “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (266)

The next question is what to do about it, which the book doesn’t really address. On the other hand, I prefer that to anodyne statements about recycling and reducing waste. Those things are easy; my guess is that the real change will come with things that are difficult.

A Selection of Quotations by E.O. Wilson

I know I’m late to the party. I plan on making up for years of not reading these works immediately.

Some of the many spot-on quotations from E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life (2010):

Extinction:

“[Hawaiian] honeycreepers disappeared as vanished species usually do, not in a dramatic catacylsm but unnoticed” (97)

“The committment must be much deeper–to let no species knowingly die, to take all reasonable action to protect every species and race in perpetuity…Insofar as biodiversity is deemed an irreplaceable public resource, its protection should be bound into legal canon.” (342)

“What is urgently needed is knowledge and a practical ethic based on a time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply.” (312)

“By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment.” (182)

Insects

“So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity could probably not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash into extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The land surface would literally rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them all but a few remnants of the land vertebrates.” (133)

Valuing Ecosystems

“Each ecosystem has intrinsic value. Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place.” (158)

“Beyond commodity value, economists fall short.” (305)

“If a price can be put on something, that something can be devalued, sold, and discarded.” (348)

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Dead horseshoe crabs. Photo by author, 2016.

Thoughts on Conservation & Omnivore’s Dilemma

“…whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water–of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap…You can buy honestly price food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food” (Joel Salatin, quoted in Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan).

This book changed the way I eat, how focused I am on where my food came from and how it came to be. Eating can be a great act of conservation, but is most often a story of destruction. From the palm oil plantations causing habitat loss to the conversion of Amazonian rainforest to cattle pasture, our eating choices affect far-flung ecosystems. It’s easy to pay lip service to wanting to protect the rainforest, but make no connection between the vague descriptor of ‘habitat loss’ as a reason for a species’ decline and their purchase of Oreos, baby food, or a Starbucks coffee. Not that companies are offering up transparency either or making it easier to avoid palm oil (often labeled ‘vegetable oil’). And not that it’s easy to track down the origin of the innumerable consumer products floating through our daily lives. But, we have the information to be better consumers, both ecologically and socially, yet we often lack the time and consciousness to act on that information in meaningful ways.

“But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things:  What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.” (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 411)

I don’t believe it is hyperbole to say that our appetites shape the landscapes of the world, and have, with noticeable frequency, pushed species towards and into extinction. What we eat every day matters. I’m already a farmers’ market fiend, but I am going to pay more attention to where my coffee comes from, and what labels say about added oils.

And, no more Starbucks.

Review of War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales

War of the Whales

(Check out that link, if only to hear the echoing sonar)

I’ve been on a bit of a book kick lately and still have a pile waiting for me. I definitely recommend this one on whales, the Navy, and the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court. Although, if your views run anything akin to mine, you will need to find a sturdy wall to bang your head against at multiple points.

Meticulously researched for 6 years, this book weaves together complex and competing national security, environmental, and legal concepts. It illuminates impacts of human activity that are not often considered. Human activity has permeated everywhere. Even the deep ocean is haunted by our sounds.

Exhibit One: “Of the 200 [marine mammals in 1999] that stranded alive [on U.S. shorelines], some were euthanized on the beach by Fisheries officials. Most of the others soon died of exposure to the elements, or suffocated when their bodies collapsed under their own weight, or drowned when the high tide washed over their blowholes. Only five marine mammals that stranded alive that year were actually rescued from the beach and returned to the ocean.” (pg. 70).

Exhibit Two: “The Marine Mammal Protection Act had been on the books for almost 20 years, but the Navy had never applied for a permit–as the law mandated–for any experiment or exercise that might ‘injure or harass’ any marine mammals.” (pg. 162) Essentially, underwater sonar activities went unregulated until the mass stranding in 2000 set activists in motion.

Exhibit Three:  “[A key lawyer] Reynolds wondered if saving the whales was simply a grandiose fantasy. Having barely escaped commercial whaling, were the survivors doomed to be overrun by the ceaseless naval arms race after more and more powerful acoustic weapons? Would judges and politicians continue to defer to admirals in their ‘balance of hardships’ calculations, until there were no more whales left to save?” (pg. 344-345)

Resources:

American Cetacean Society

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales

Washington Post Book Review

Review of Octopus! The most mysterious creature in the sea (by Katherine Harmon Courage)

“Head-turning intelligence is turning out to be far less rare in the animal world than we once presumed (which makes us the dummies for assuming we were the only ones with any wherewithal at all.” (Courage, 119)

I recently read Octopus! by Katherine Harmon Courage. Already one of my favorite animals for their intelligence and camouflage abilities, I loved delving into the lives of these cephalopods. I could have done without the chapters on eating octopus, as they are off my list of edibles due to their intelligence and charisma, but with over 250,000 tons caught annually, I understand why she included information about the importance of the octopus catch and octopus cuisine. (Especially as we exhaust fisheries and begin eating our way down the marine food web, with species depleted quickly in many regions.)

But the book really gets going after that portion. I could nerd out about all of the octopus facts, and the remarkable diversity of octopuses (e.g., blanket octopuses, venomous blue-ringed octopuses, or the Giant Pacific Octopus) but I want to provide a brief overview of their camouflage tricks and encourage you to read the book.

Octopuses are considered to be the smartest invertebrate. Oddly enough for solitary animals, they learn well through observation, while also engaging in complex behaviors that were not taught (like tool use). They are able to change color, texture, and reflectivity in well under a second to blend in with their background. How do they change so fast? According to Courage, “Teams of researchers and millions of dollars have not yet been able to fully understand or even begin to replicate it” (83). We don’t know how they deal with all of the environmental stimuli, as light scatters everywhere underwater and the ocean bottom is a festival of textures and colors. To hide in plain sight, they use chromatophores to change color, iridophores to change reflectivity and hue, leucophores to adjust white coloring, and muscles to create texture. It’s still not clear how they ‘know’ what to shift to. Scientists think that they may be processing the input locally and instantly, without involving their central nervous system. Not bad for a creature that Aristotle deemed stupid.

http://katherinecourage.com/book/

More Resources:

Octopus Adorabilis

Octopus Movement

Octopus

Ten Curious Facts

Review of Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Part Two)

This book asks uncomfortable, troubling questions. It made me wonder, when is it worth saving a species from the gaping maw of extinction? What is the actual goal? Is the goal just to have the species exist so that we don’t have to add another name to the long roll call of human-caused exile? Is the goal to prop them up long enough for us to figure out a way to make the populations self-sustaining again? Is the goal to restore them to a level where they can function as a key player in the ecosystem? It also strikes me that this is a very anthropocentric view, where we decide what species is important and what is not, often based on completely random (to say nothing of incomplete) criteria. Taking a species by species view seems futile in a large sense. We attempt to fix one piece in isolation of an entire structure. But people rally behind an icon, not an ecosystem.

There are monumental, cumulative forces that drive extinction. It takes heroic, relentless, painstaking acts to prevent a species slipping over into the abyss. At one point, in the 1950s, there were only twenty-one whooping cranes on Earth (Mooallem, 200). “The situation looked hopeless. The New York Times blamed the species’ looming extinction on its own ‘lack of cooperation.’ ” (Ibid) At that point, humans seemed to have little nostalgia for rare species. I am always puzzled by the fact that we idolize rare species, while resenting species that thrive in the environments we have created. It is only when a situation is bleak that we seem to get interested. Canadian geese, deer, pigeons–I find it remarkable that they have become ubiquitous (at least where I live). As Mooallem says, “It’s a thin and erratic line we draw between the wilderness that awes us and the wilderness that annoys us” (258).

Operation Migration, among others, have done extraordinary work in trying to re-establish whooping crane populations. Mooallem details their dedication and the madness to their (relative, precarious, hard-earned) success. Humans teaching birds to fly without making them tame is a remarkable feat, to state the obvious. I support the effort, because I’m a bleeding heart who thinks every individual animal values its own life as much as I value mine, and because I hate that we are tossing aside biodiversity like a cartoon character frantically pawing through a pile of garbage to find one thing worth saving. And I know we lose something irreplaceable every time we lose a species.

I’ll end with this jewel from Mooallem. (Again, read this book.)

“In the end, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of wildlife. The stories of the polar bear, the [Lange’s metalmark] butterfly, and the whooping crane, had, at times, even lowered my confidence in our ability to see the problem clearly. There’s a fluidity to nature that’s not easy to recognize or accept, and climate change will only accelerate and distort such changes. There’s also a fluidity to how we feel about nature–the way our baselines subjectively reset and will keep resetting far into the future, while, in the background, the empirical damage piles up.

These are destabilizing thoughts. I still don’t know what to do with them. But neither does anyone else, it seems, and so their weight has a way of compressing conservation down into a nearsighted exercise–one that can be pursued only by focusing on the little picture of the present and by blocking out the yawning uncertainty that the moment is adrift in.” (292)

From this video:  “But we had to try.”

About the flock in Texas

Information about Sandhill Cranes & Whooping Cranes

Operation Migration