Birds and Bombs

Anyone who has read my writing on this website knows that I spend a lot of time observing birds. I’ve learned that there is much which can be learned from studying the behaviors of birds (and other organisms) which can be applied not only to wildlife conservation efforts, but also to my daily activities as a part of human society. Yes, sometimes I do leave bird society! In fact, I’m confident that if people more closely observed animal behavior and related such behaviors to their own, then human society would be in far less danger of unraveling, possibly explosively, due to our actions.

Take territoriality, for instance. Some birds defend territories, some don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Blue Jays, and Florida Scrub-jays. If I were to walk into a patch of forest where I knew Blue Jays existed and played a recording of Blue Jay flight calls (calls that they utter when they are flying, possibly to stay in contact with a mate, siblings, or offspring—depending on the time of year), I likely wouldn’t attract resident Blue Jays who are ‘looking for a fight,’ who wish to drive away ‘intruders.’ In other words, Blue Jays aren’t territorial.

Florida Scrub-jays, however, will station a member of their group on the tallest available perch, which offers an unimpeded view over a territory up to 50 acres in size, which is usually covered by short scrub oaks. Especially just prior to the breeding season and when acorns are on the trees in the fall, if that sentinel scrub-jay sees, or hears, a nearby scrub-jay within its territory that is not a part of its family, one could say that ‘all Hell breaks loose.’ That is, the sentinel jay will begin calling and will fly ‘aggressively’ toward the ‘intruder’ (me with playing a recording) or the actual intruder, with a flight consisting of undulating dips (not unlike the routes of some roller coasters). Its family members will follow in a similar way, and the intruders will likely be chased away. Very rarely, there may actually be a fight, which involves locking feet together, and pecking at one another while on the ground.

Here is a link to a video which contains a recording that I captured when Florida Scrub-jays were acting territorial:

Point being, two closely related species can have very different ways of behaving in similar circumstances. Why might that be? The difference in the tendency to behave in a certain way is due to differing past circumstances that the ancestors of these species encountered. Scrub in Florida has historically been basically a series of small islands surrounded by a sea of other habitat types (this situation is getting worse, due to human-caused habitat destruction, hence the necessity of translocation). So, the scrub-jay ancestors of current scrub-jays found themselves in a situation which required them to aggressively defend pieces of land where scrub existed. Those that did not do this probably did not pass on as many genes (which directly influence behavior; aggressive scrub-jays tend to make aggressive scrub-jays) and thus those that were territorial prevailed. Alternatively, the ancestors of Blue Jays inherited and came to depend upon a much wider range of habitats, covering a much larger area than the scrub which Florida Scrub-jays depend upon (most of the eastern United States, currently). In fact, because Blue Jays are so good at using a variety of forested habitats, I even have seen them in older scrub, beside scrub-jays. And so, it seems, because there is a lot of their required habitat available, and therefore all of those things which habitat provides directly or indirectly (food, shelter, mates), Blue Jays are not generally inclined to be territorial.

In other words, both Blue Jays and Florida Scrub-jays, like all other living things, are products of their environment. They behave the way that they do because of circumstance. As the sound waves produced by the call of an unfamiliar scrub-jay are perceived by the sentinel bird, hormones are released which cause a territorial response by that sentinel scrub-jay, along with his/her family. And maybe, I speculate, they experience feelings that we could recognize as they take their undulating path toward the ‘enemy.’ Alternatively, the Blue Jays in the tall forest less than fifty meters away watch a ‘stranger’ jay fly by, without so much as an internal ripple of indignation.

Remarkably, circumstance has allowed most human beings to possess the capability of understanding such processes. For one who does in fact understand them, the world can become a much more intelligible and tolerable place. Even, maybe, an infinitely wonderful place. Reasons for the behaviors of friends, neighbors, family, and ‘enemies’ can thus become clearer (though usually remain murky, at best, due to so many factors being involved). And for me, at least, with even a small degree of understanding comes a profound appreciation for the good things that people do. Compassionate, altruistic, and loving behaviors can be identified and cherished if one pays attention. A kind act in the supermarket: ‘you only have two things, go ahead.’ A call, ‘out of the blue,’ from a friend who you haven’t heard from in years. A kind, thoughtful conversation with a stranger. A commitment to not part till death.

However, the fact that many humans and non-humans constantly behave mindlessly and destructively is also painfully apparent. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, as hard as that is for anyone to initially admit. A co-worker goes out of their way to make you look like a fool, and cause you pain. A spouse cheats. A relative holds an unreasonable, destructive grudge. A dog bites, a snake strikes, a Blue Jay watches as a scrub-jay chases. An egocentric, ignorant president or dictator impetuously orders a nuclear strike.

bomb

The simple fact is that we as human beings are in an extraordinarily precarious position. The environment upon which we and our family (including non-human life on Earth) depend upon is being altered due to selfish acts which are not always easy to identify. Territorial impulses cause people in one country to hate people in another country. We possess the capacity to destroy life on Earth with our technologies, and seem to be on the track to doing so. We are constantly bombarded by information which lessens our ability to focus upon the real issues that threaten us. Many of our leaders are no more conscious of the causes for their actions than a scrub-jay is, and far less admirable. These leaders possess the capability to, and seem intent to, destroy life by selfishly exploiting natural resources and those who depend upon them. They might gravely and tirelessly prepare for hurricanes which scientific projections suggest will radically and negatively alter the lives of their voters within a few days, ‘because we must prepare for the worst,’ but ignore related, long-term climatic projections which suggest a threat of far greater magnitude and severity, simply because doing so will not get them re-elected. These leaders behave in a way that is dictated by voters. An ignorant electorate will yield politicians who behave ignorantly, even if they aren’t actually ignorant. Selfish actors, it seems, are never in short-supply. It is obvious that they will destroy life as we know it if we allow them to.Earth

And so, I’m doing my best by writing this to provide to you with some information that I have been lucky enough to happen upon, due to circumstance. When you see a bird, or another type of animal, I hope that you will take the time to watch the way that it behaves and wonder why it behaves the way that it does. What about the way that it behaves might have helped its ancestors to survive? Examining life in such a way may cause you to be inclined to examine your own behaviors. And I’m sure that you have already, but maybe not using the ‘lens’ that I have suggested that you use to observe a bird, which has been influenced by the same types of historical pressures as you. Does the hawk eat the sparrow because it’s evil? No. It does so because that is how its ancestors behaved to survive. Do you, when no one is looking, do something which might, for no good reason, hurt the feelings of, or prospects for, someone else, because you are evil? No! More than likely, you, like the hawk, are behaving in a way which helped your ancestors spread their genes. Luckily, though, you possess the ability to be conscious of your actions and thus modify your behavior. What impulses do you have which might have helped your ancestors to survive, which may in fact be harmful to you, your family, and/or the rest of life on Earth? Taking the time to think about this simple question is very important. Not only can an honest answer to this question allow us to lead happier lives, but it just might allow us as a species to avoid self-destruction.

Luckily, there are many, many people who in fact are aware of much or all of what I have written in this post. They may be among those who have devoted their lives to developing technologies which lessen our environmental impact, like solar-powered vehicles. They may be educated activists who attempt to bring public attention to pressing social justice and/or environmental issues. They may even be politicians who must carefully mince words in order to be re-elected, so that they can do some genuine good. Or, more likely, they are plumbers, secretaries, high school teachers, and other important members of society, who we meet and interact with every day. There is a lot of reason for hope and optimism, but only if human consciousness can outpace a terrifying unconsciousness that seems to be leading toward global catastrophe. These are dangerous times, which require that the majority of us be awake. Indifference will result in disaster, to a degree which we simply cannot accurately predict.

I want you to know that I understand the reasons for sensationalism, which some people might characterize this post as being caused by. It is true that an author might sell more books if he/she convinces readers that they have written about an important issue. A news network might describe a situation as being far more dire than it is, to get more viewers. This happens. I can assure you, though, that the primary cause for me writing this post is that when I woke up this morning, I felt inspired to attempt to spread some information which might help to protect the experience of life on Earth, which I’m fascinated by. The cause for that feeling this morning was certainly affected by my exposure to others, in the past, who have concluded similarly. My hope is that maybe I can affect readers similarly.

And so, I encourage you to pay attention/care, and to the best of your ability speak out against things that you believe to be wrong, organize effective means of causing change, vote responsibly, and generally act in a way which might preserve this wonderful place for our descendants. Our behavior will have a profound impact on them.

If you don’t believe me, just watch the birds.

 

Blue Jay

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Climate Change is Not a Centaur

Centaurs, the half-man and half-‘beast’ creatures of Greek mythology, are now almost unanimously perceived as a human-created idea that many people in the past believed to be real.  There were centaur-fearing people, werewolf-fearing people, etc.  There are still some of these fearers, and large numbers of people today who fall into many disparate x-fearing categories (many of which are entirely human-created and not in the least, objectively, real).

Those things that can be influenced by a human being are worth worrying about by that particular human.  For example, a father may worry that if he died unexpectedly he would leave his family in an extremely difficult situation.  Investing in a life insurance policy can abate such fears.  There is no point in worrying about ways to prevent the very brain aneurysm which could leave his family in trouble.  Either it will happen or it won’t – there is essentially nothing that he can do.

Many argue that ‘climate change’ is not human-influenced, and therefore is not something for us to worry about it.  Some of those people who believe that centaurs exist may warn you that, if you go out into the forest, a pack of sweaty horse-men are going to trample you to death.  But there is nothing that you can do about it anyway, they might say, since centaurs can be anywhere at any time (including your home) so there is no reason to worry.  What will be, will be.  Don’t pick up your axe when the centaurs come clattering your way.  Such an outlook is not favorable to most of us.  It would be better to go down fighting a centaur, if it were a real creature, rather than allowing it to trample you.  It does not take a biologist to know that almost anyone will fight when presented with a situation that is apparently deadly.  Survival is the most engrained natural instinct of any living thing.  So if our life (which in genetic terms includes that of our offspring) depends upon it, we are naturally inclined to fight, say, a centaur – or any other threat that we perceive as real.

“I’m tired of hearing about centaurs.  Centaurs are not real.  I am a rationalist.  But even if centaurs do (or does, keep reading) exist, humans cannot possibly offer any resistance.  So let’s not worry!  Frankly, I’m quite sure that the Romans created the idea of centaurs so that we waste our time and resources trying to eradicate this myth!”  Replace ‘centaurs’ with ‘climate change’ and ‘Romans’ with ‘Chinese’ and this is essentially what Donald Trump has said in his so-far successful campaign to become president of the U.S. of A.

There are disconcertingly many who argue that climate change is such an illusion.  Human-caused climate change, they may argue, is as real and worth taking measures against as a centaur.  The fact that a major political party in the U.S. largely believes or pretends to believe that climate change is illusory is baffling from an ethical standpoint, considering the preponderance of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise, though expected from a political standpoint.  The support that candidates who deny human-caused climate change receive is a testament of the startling, and willfully ignorant, beliefs of a large percentage of United States citizens.

In the United States of America, many people are skeptical of science in general because, due to little or no fault of their own, they have not been trained in science.  Such a fact undermines the efficacy of statements by scientists, such as: humans are causing irreversible harm to the biosphere by burning fossil fuels.  People, understandably, don’t want to lose jobs and/or infrastructure associated with fossil fuel consumption, and will align with anyone who agrees with them.  Many (I stress, not all) Republican politicians, therefore agree for selfish and exploitative reasons.  They want to be elected, and say whatever it takes to gain the support of those who they do not ultimately care about the well-being of.  Being purposely selfish and exploitative are expected in the animal kingdom, which includes us humans, because that is usually the best way to have a lot of offspring.  But we must recognize this avoidable natural tendency now, and take it upon ourselves to demystify the notion of human-caused climate change before it is too late.  Let’s not allow the selfish people take advantage of us and the world that we love.

It is true that we as humans have a short reference frame, if one considers the vastness of time, and so the increase that we have seen in global temperature since we have been recording it could be a tiny, natural, and otherwise (if we weren’t living in the moment) brief and unnoticeable trend that is ultimately independent of human activity.  It is also true that a changing climate is natural.  There used to be tropical forests at the North Pole, for example.  Isolated weather anomalies do not prove human-caused climate perturbation.  Phenomena like solar flares could be more responsible for climatic variation than anything humans can do.

Such is the material of, for example, gabbers who are paid by oil and coal companies to talk on television or the internet in order to confuse people about the facts, and convince them that human-caused climate change is as real as a centaur.  The most devious and effective trouble-causers are those who construe veritable facts to support claims that are untrue.  Such is what the afore-mentioned political gabbers seem to be doing.  A puppet of such political strings should not be ridiculed, but should rather be reasoned with.  It is by talking to our neighbors, I think, that progress can and should be made.

This much is undeniable: we rely upon the plants and other animals which rely upon the climate that they evolved to (or were ‘created’ to, whatever floats your boat/arc) flourish in.  A changing climate negatively effects them, and therefore us.  John Muir said it best: “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else…”  And so it goes with us and the other things on Earth.  Just like a typewriter can no longer compete in the current technological climate, and has therefore gone extinct, so to do biological organisms go extinct when the climate changes.   If the climate changes substantially, it would not be that big of a deal for the Earth in the long, long run considering it is an inanimate object that would likely support different kinds of life after we, or something else, eradicated the life we know.  But it is a big deal for us as a species, in our short crawl of that long run, considering that when the other species go, their replacements will not likely come anytime soon.  We have one chance here, and if the thermostat is turned up, at best we will be uncomfortable.  At worst our civilization will be destroyed.
Climate Figure 1

Figure 1.  From Wiki Commons, showing how atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature correlate.  The increase around 1900 seems directly related to human activity soon after the industrial revolution.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that it allows solar energy to gain admittance through the atmosphere but not leave. 

Anyone who has been in an uncomfortably hot room knows that tensions can run high, especially if there is melting ice-cream waiting to be eaten.  And if tensions become high enough (due to increased competition for natural resources, etc.) in a world where there are nuclear weapons and irresponsible leaders, than the end of our civilization could be much closer than most are willing to acknowledge.  Climate change makes an already difficult situation (living in this place among others who live in this place) more difficult to due resulting conditions such as sea-levels rising, weather unpredictability, and resource scarcity.  So let’s keep the thermostat from being turned up while we can, before Uncle Donny throws his empty ice cream bowl at Granny’s heat-stricken head.

Metaphors aside, my message in regard to climate change on planet Earth is as follows.  Even if we are not changing the climate, we should be worried that it is changing, and do everything in our power to combat major environmental perturbation.

A fish will die a terrible death if, say, hydrochloric acid begins to mix in sizeable amounts with the water in its bowl, whether or not that fish is the ultimate cause of the acid being poured in.  If Nemo, though, can push a button that diverts the acid from entering his environment, then he had better do so before it is too late.  And we, of course, are able to push a multitude of buttons here in our fish bowl called Earth that can reasonably maintain and restore the environment upon which we depend.  But the majority of us fish have to open our eyes first!

A few buttons worth pushing:

Forests should be spared from being cut down, or allowed to grow again, because they combat climatic perturbation by absorbing and assimilating the very carbon dioxide that is released when we breathe, or blithely burn trees, coal, and oil.  Such ‘fossil fuels’ as coal and oil, when burned, release carbon from organisms that lived long ago, and it has of course become fashionable for many and profitable for fewer to take advantage of this to provide, so-called, cheap energy.  But a hefty environmental cost is being paid, even if not apparent to those who have been duped into thinking burning coal is ‘cheap.’  Other technologies, like solar panels, could be nationally embraced so that we may someday utilize the sun’s energy in a sustainable and cost-efficient way.  One only needs to look at a photosynthesizing plant to see what is probably the best answer to our dire energy-consumption problems.  Furthermore, burning fossil fuels is an obvious dead-end, considering that oil, coal, and natural gas will likely run out or become too hard to access, which makes the development of renewable energy systems even more important.  And while there are many gifted minds already at work trying to develop efficient solar energy utilizing systems, and other renewable energy systems, they would stand a much better chance of achieving their goal if we all as educated citizens cared and demanded the development of such technologies be a global priority.  The job creation that would likely result from implementing a new, clean-energy infrastructure would be unprecedented in magnitude.  Anyone and everyone can/should drive less, recycle, re-use, join pro-environment clubs, and support politicians who are not selfish exploiters.

But for any of this to happen we must care about the issue that confronts us, and see climate change for what it is (a global challenge) and for what it isn’t (a centaur).  If we don’t care soon, our prospects look bleak.  This must become an everyday conversational reality if we are to salvage this strange and wonderful opportunity that is life on Earth.  One only needs to look at the fossil record to see how fast chances to develop consciousness evaporate.  Over 99 percent of the species that have ever lived, of which we are but one, are now extinct.  The time to see, care, and make a difference is now.

There are disconcertingly many examples of the effects that human-caused climate change has already had on the natural world.  It is probably not a coincidence that the mass extinction that we are currently experiencing is correlated with recent climatic perturbation.  For the sake of brevity I will mention only a couple of the first dominoes that are falling, and have chosen just two organisms that depend upon cold temperatures (though species are imperiled for a variety of reasons, not just temperature change).  Polar bears and pikas are famous for being among the first to suffer the consequences of human-caused climate change.  The bears can’t go any further north to find suitable habitat to replace what is being lost due to warming temperatures, and pikas can’t go up any further.  Both species could very well be extinct before the end of the century.  Should those of us at lower latitudes and elevations be so foolish as to assume that the first dominoes will fall but the others (like us), won’t?  And even if the other ‘dominoes’ (plants and animals upon which we depend) fall, are we as a species still so ignorant as to believe that we could stand unaffected?  I sincerely hope not.

Climate Figure 2

Figure 2.  The stoic stare of an endangered species, the American pika.

Choosing to remain ignorant in regard to the topic of climate change is as unacceptable as shooting pikas with pellet guns.  For by not caring, and not educating ourselves, we are condemning them in the short-term and ourselves in the slightly-longer-term.  I have heard pikas yip, and have watched them scurrying in the rocks.  They have as much a right to live as anything else.  Even the things that aren’t cute and cuddly so far as our mammalian brains perceive deserve to live, too.  And those of us who love life and living must do our best to protect the other organisms that us Homo sapiens have imperiled.  Even if we as a species could stand alone without the others (which we probably can’t), would we want to?

Without question, we have made some small steps in the right direction.  A recent step was the international agreement which happened in Paris, signed by 195 countries, to curb fossil fuel use and limit global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  But if it were not for those who call climate change a man-made myth, the deal would have likely been much more politically-binding and effective.  If it weren’t for the mythologists, a frustratingly large fraction of which reside in the seemingly drunk and disoriented U.S. (hyperbolically ‘drunk and disoriented,’ due to having consumed too much oil, see Figure 3), the deal would have likely elicited a global celebration.  Those of us who love life should be proud of this deal, and do our best to continue encouraging such acts of sanity and fore-sight in a place where irrationality and myopia are much too common.

Climate Figure 3

Figure 3.  Also from Wiki Commons, these data show what countries are most culpable for climate change.  Other ‘developing’ regions will soon increase Carbon emissions rapidly.

We can make a difference, but must act fast if we want to save the natural world and our place in it.  Climate change is a major obstacle which could unite the world in the effort of combatting it.  Truly global citizens we could be become, united by adversity, if we are willing to come together to stand up for life as we know it.

If you have read this far, you are probably either my mother (love you!), someone who really agrees with what I’ve written, or someone who really disagrees and enjoys the feeling of indignation that comes with reading something counter to what you believe.  It is unlikely that an ‘on-the-fence’ person has read this far, which is ironic considering these are the people who are exactly who I want to reach!  So if you agree with my position, please spread the word.  This is important stuff, despite being less than real to most people.  If you disagree, please consider what I have proposed, and ask yourself if you are really different than a fish dependent upon a suitable environment.  If you are on the fence, I commend you for giving me this much of your time, and encourage you to make an informed decision in regard to how you will live your life and influence the lives of others.  If you are my mother, pet a basset hound for me and think about naming the next one Pika (and imagine how enraged you would be if someone shot him/her with a pellet gun!).

So please be aware: human-caused climate change is not a centaur.  It is a process that we should spend time thinking about, as well as one that we can and should combat, together.

 

Note:

More informative graphs can be found at:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Valued_image_candidates/Graphs_of_Global_Warming