Misunderstanding / Miss Understanding (a ditty I wrote)

I like words, and don’t know what I would do without them. But they are often misunderstood. So a couple nights ago, after a long day, I started strumming and said the first words that came to mind, which within half an hour turned into a song about how the same sounds mean different things to different people. When I began, I was frustrated by people purposely misunderstanding situations for their own benefit, but found myself smiling by the end after creating something that I had not originally intended to create – a familiar cycle for me when I pull out the old guitar and make a song, or when I write anything for fun. I have included lyrics below this video, so feel free to take a look at them before or after you watch me ‘singing’!

 

Lyrics:

Mis(s )understanding I don’t care for you much

Mis(s ) understanding you’re a bitch, I don’t like

You create trouble due to laziness, you lie and deny

I wish you didn’t exist, but don’t get me wrong

I know we’re at the point, in this very song

That maybe two of ten agree what’s going on

So I guess I must accept this strange phenomenon

And admit that my ‘it’ could be your ‘she’

While ‘to be(e) or not to be(e)’ could involve honey

Why I Care About Natural Things

The following is a draft of the introduction to a book that I am currently in the process of writing (I will share the title for this book at a later date). This excerpt explains why I have decided to take on this project, for which I have been compiling notes since the spring of 2015.  Hopefully I will have this book completed, and published, by 2018. Because I have been busy documenting a hawk migration (see my daily reports here: http://www.drhawkwatch.org/hawk-count-monthly-summary), I haven’t had much time to write much else than the beginnings of this book, which is my first non-fiction project. So, I thought that I would share a bit of it, and a picture of a group of people at the hawk watch count site scanning the sky for hawks and other raptors. Their feeling of awe towards the natural world offers daily inspiration to me.

hawk-fest

Here is the excerpt!

I used to wonder how studying plants and animals could be beneficial to humanity, and therefore to me financially, if I chose wildlife biology as a career. Recklessly (so far as careers go), without a real answer, I chose it anyway, because it was fun, I enjoyed being outside, and believed that non-human life should be protected despite being unable to articulate specifically why. But in the process, my studies have liberated me in regard to the way that I see our world and my place in it. Further, I can now articulate why non-human life must be protected. So, the shorter answer to the question of why I wrote this book is that I am attempting to share what I have been fortunate enough to learn about the wisdom that can be attained from studying and preserving the natural world. 

Here is the longer answer (if you were satisfied with the short answer, feel free to skip ahead!):

I happen to find more joy in interpreting facts than in establishing them, which in some regards makes me less of a scientist and more of a philosopher. Given the incredible amount of scientific knowledge that has been and is being generated, I believe that people like me can help make otherwise esoteric bits of information useful. So, in relation to several different topics with a link to biology that effect the lives of many people, I will try to explain in the following chapters some of the obstacles to having, and reasons to have, hope.

A sample of the topics that I will discuss, from a naturalist’s perspective, are: evolution, understanding ourselves and others, free will, climate change, death, hostility between groups of people, (G)god(s), homophobia, and the interdependence of all life on Earth.

This book is not a technical description of the mechanisms by which the topics that I discuss work. There is plenty of literature already in existence which can supply that information. Rather, I will present ways to think about the situation that we are in, and you can choose if they suit you. I have not cloaked my writing with formality, though rather have tried to present myself just as I would if the reader was a friend who wanted to know why I care so much about things like birds and trees. I am not a world-renowned authority in biology, and don’t claim to be. I do, though, know enough of the basics to be able to see the incredible all around and within myself, which have caused endless inquiries about life, many of which are presented in this book. Some of my ideas are, I admit, audacious, but all are inspired by scientific thought. Further science could disprove what I present, which is what makes scientific thinking so beautiful. With science, we are stuck with nothing but the truth.

I consider the natural world to be much like an abstract, mind-bendingly beautiful painting (like those of Salvador Dali, for example) that tells me something about what I am and where I am. If one does not look at the exquisite painting that is life in the right way, they might miss what can be learned. And this painting is being consistently burned away year after year so that people can fuel their vanities. Imagine billions of people smoking their cigarettes in front of a Dali painting, and stamping out the flaming end on the beautiful canvas. Before long, the priceless, irreplaceable painting will be gone, destroyed by the residue of careless and ignorant people. That is exactly what is happening to the natural world that I love, and in the following pages I will try to explain what we can learn from Nature in addition to how and why most of what is left of the natural world must be protected. The only way for this to happen is if the vast majority of people change the way that they relate to the world that surrounds them. In so doing, I believe that many of them could become much happier.  

Not long after trying to describe the basics of science and how it supports the reality of evolution to my mother, I had an interesting dream. There was a grizzly bear in our front yard, and I wanted her to join me in approaching it, for a closer look. She didn’t want to, though did eventually acquiesce and drove me over to see it, on a four-wheeler. She was in the front, I was sitting on the back. Once we got close, I started taking pictures and then the bear aggressively charged toward the vehicle. I told her to ‘go!’ and she did. The bear was surprisingly fast, and had equally surprising endurance. It succeeded in scratching my hands, though we escaped. Once we reached the end of our road, somehow (due to dream logic), I was suddenly driving a motorcycle and my mother still drove the four-wheeler. I raced to the north down the road we had arrived to, leaving her at an intersection with a bear approaching. As I was speeding down a dirt road on the other side of the block, I thought that she might decide to go back toward the bear alone, ill-equipped to do so, and therefore expose herself to danger. Upon feeling very guilty, I awoke. This example of the subconscious eloquently using a metaphor (which goes to show how much the sub-conscious mind can perceive and create) is a perfect analogy for understanding other ‘grizzly bears’ in one’s front yard, in addition to evolution and its implications. ‘It’ is there, undeniable, and without the appropriate preparation can be daunting. And I felt in the dream that my mother was not prepared to think about a particular grizzly, mainly because she had not had years of schooling involving the study of evolution, such as I have.

So, I think that it is important for everyone to avoid facing grizzlies alone. There should be open discussions led by educated individuals about many such subjects (maybe dynamic and honest weekly meetings that the whole family could look forward to?). There is no reason for someone to have to grapple with such a difficult subject alone. Especially because it can turn from daunting to beautiful if approached correctly. This book is an attempt to help people turn a frightening grizzly bear (or bears) into a beautiful thing, so that an incredible painting can be saved and live to inspire others as it has so inspired and liberated me and others like me.

Vegetarianism for the Environment

Vegetarianism has, among some groups, a bad reputation.  The fact that I have chosen to not eat meat has meant that I have on many occasions been asked, ‘why?’  Here I will attempt to answer that question with a scientific basis, and hopefully provide a new, ecological perspective for those who are interested.

We are, like all animals, dependent upon the environment in which we live. Energy does not flow efficiently from organism to organism, as explained in what is called the ‘ten percent rule.’ Approximately ten percent of the energy in food that is consumed is transferred to the flesh of the consumer. There can be many herbivores in fertile areas (e.g. bison herds) because of the large amount of edible material, such as grass and foliage, which is available to them. However, in those same areas, there are by necessity less animals that eat the herbivores.  For example, imagine 1000 units of energy (created by photosynthesis) in the grass of a given area. If in this hypothetical, ultra-simplified example it takes 1 unit of energy to sustain an animal, then there can only be 100 animals that eat the grass (primary consumers), ten animals that eat the primary consumers (secondary consumers), and one animal that eats the secondary consumer (tertiary consumer). The following figure demonstrates this principle.

Rule of Tens

In this way, energy availability controls the amount of animals that can survive in an area. If hawks could eat grass (directly, rather than indirectly by eating snakes, which acquired energy from mice, which acquired energy from grass, which acquired energy from the sun), there would be a lot more of them.

Human beings are currently acting like apex predators, based upon our meat consumption, though have, in the context of the above figure, an exceedingly ‘mouse-like’ population, due to the recent exponential growth in human population.  This is a recipe for disaster.  All humans should realize this because we, like all animals, are vulnerable to massive population declines due to the starvation of many individuals if our resource requirements exceed the resources that are available.

A diet that consists of less meat and more plant products substantially reduces energy consumption. According to the June 2016 USDA Acreage report, over 10 percent of the land area in the continental US is used to produce corn and soybeans.  In my home state of Indiana, about 48 percent of the land area is used to produce corn and soybeans, according to estimates that I acquired from the Indiana Soybean Alliance and a USDA report.  The vast majority of this corn and soybeans are used to feed livestock, which we then eat.  By time that we eat a cheeseburger, 99 percent of the energy that was originally in the plants that were used to feed the animal from which the meat was acquired has been lost.

It may someday soon become necessary to replace the corn and soybean fields (see the latter below) in Indiana with crops that we can directly eat, and to therefore eat less meat, especially if we feel the moral obligation to get the most out of the landscape so that we can share our surplus food with starving people elsewhere (there are, shamefully, many such people). Further, if we used less land for agriculture, then more would be available for the many species of plants and animals which are grappling with extinction due to our grossly unnatural transformation of the landscape.

soybeans

It has also been shown that a plant-based diet considerably reduces greenhouse gas emissions because less energy is required to get the food to the plate (i.e. less energy is required for farm equipment fuel, labor, and irrigation) and therefore is less of a threat to the Earth’s climate than is a meat-based diet (Eshel and Martin, 2006). These authors estimate that if all Americans consumed a plant-based diet, national greenhouse gas emissions would be lessened by six percent.

However, many scientists believe that meat consumption has been a very important part of our evolutionary past, so it makes perfect sense that we are programmed to savor the taste of meat (and maybe even make fun of vegetarians).

Consuming meat, and being predators, likely was a major cause of our large brains. Predators must be smart enough to catch their prey, whereas as herbivores need to be only smart enough to find plant material to eat (our language suggests this knowledge: ‘sly as a fox,’ ‘wily coyote’; ‘don’t be a sheep,’ ‘stupid cow’).  Having predatory ancestors likely helped us on our way to becoming human. It is likely that protein-rich diets allowed our ancestors to allot more resources to brain material, which gradually led to us and our huge brains (and our exceptional, at least on Earth, cognitive abilities). Incidentally, plant-based diets can now provide, due to our advanced technologies, more than enough protein to fuel any human mind, without the cardiovascular disease that may accompany meat consumption.

So, I am not saying that eating meat is all bad (if my ancestors hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about this stuff).  If the laboratory production of meat becomes viable, then the issues that I have overviewed will not be a major problem. That said, many people wouldn’t want to eat meat created in a lab (this decision will have to be made, probably, within the next fifty years, I’d guess). Currently, not everyone can or should be a vegetarian, and many have livelihoods that are based on meat production, which complicates matters, but all of us should consider the environmental (and therefore ethical, because we all share this environment) implications of consuming meat and other animal products like eggs and dairy. And all of us should do our best to be sure that what we eat (and the people who provided what we eat) is not abused before it is eaten, for obvious moral reasons, considering that we are all in this together.

And that is my answer!!!

If you have any conflicting or like opinions, feel free to share in the comments section!

 

Literature Cited

Eshel, G., and Martin, P.A. (2006). Diet, energy, and global warming. Earth Interact. 10, 1–17.

Counting Birds – How and Why

Many of you reading this know that I am currently in the Dakotas conducting breeding bird surveys. Few understand specifically what it is that I am doing out here, or why it is important. So I am going to explain!

My employer, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, is a non-profit organization with the goal of ‘conserving birds and their habitats through science, education and land stewardship.’ Just as a vehicular crash is likely if the driver is asleep at the wheel, the crash of a given bird species population may be likely if human beings aren’t paying attention (unfortunately, we are inflicting many unnatural stresses upon birds and other natural things, which puts them in an especially precarious state). Considering that many bird species have distinct breeding and wintering habitats, and depend upon habitats to be intact throughout migration pathways, a lot goes into understanding if species x is flourishing or floundering. In order to understand this, data need to be collected so that inferences can be made about the state of birds. Land managers and policy-makers can use this information to make informed decisions, and maybe even save a species from extinction and/or prevent an ecological community from collapsing.

I have been lucky enough to be one of the many people out in the field collecting the data. This is my fifth summer conducting what are called point count surveys (I’ve done this in Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho). A point count survey is a commonly used method to determine bird densities. Groups of points are randomly chosen within a given area (say, the state of South Dakota, or in a specific national park) so that statistically valid inferences can be made about bird populations in that area. This random-choosing of point locations means that my work could be done 20 miles from the road in a wilderness area (which makes the job an adventure, to say the least. See one of my videos below to see a recent adventure) or in the parking lot of a shopping mall (which rarely happens).

 

I prefer angry rattle snakes to angry shoppers. The latter are more dangerous than the former, in my opinion. This video was a surprise for you, Mom – Love You!!

When I conduct a point count survey, I spend six minutes at a spot marked by GPS. Here I record all birds that I detect (mostly by their vocalizations) and note what minute each bird is detected in, as well as how far away it is from me when detected, what sex or age it is if I know, and if it was with other birds. Individual birds are not counted twice. Here is the datasheet that I use to record bird data.

Datasheet

I also record vegetation information at each point, so that statisticians can later see if there is an association between certain types of vegetation and the presence of certain bird species. Managers can then use this information to manipulate vegetative communities in ways that are good for birds. From the data that I collect, bird densities are determined. When I conduct a point count survey, I am essentially standing in the middle of a ‘bull’s-eye.’ It is expected I detect 100 percent of the birds that are in the exact center, and a smaller percentage of the birds present as distance from the center of this bulls-eye increases. Different ‘detection functions’ are used for each species, based on how easily detected they are at a given distance. For example, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is less likely to be detected 200 meters away than is a noisy bird like a Western Meadowlark (which has a code of ‘WEME’ – we use four-letter codes when recording species). With this information, estimates of bird density can be made and the birds that I don’t count are, in theory, accounted for. Each morning (I start about 30 minutes before the sunrises and stop no more than five hours later than sunrise) I collect all of this information at as many as 16 points spaced 150 meters apart, which covers a square kilometer (if one considers the edge of the grid to be delineated by the 150 m radius of the points on the outside).

IMG_5935
Picture of a ‘WEME,’ taken by my friend Bill Farrar

There are many exciting/interested uses of the data that we collect, as the Bird Conservancy is contracted by many entities (such as the National Park Service), but I will give only one example for the sake of brevity. The World Wildlife Fund is developing a program which would allow beef to be certified as ‘bird-friendly.’ This would allow consumers, who selectively buy with an environmental conscience, to feel assured that the beef that they are consuming is derived from cattle which were raised in an environmentally-friendly fashion. I am helping to collect the data to determine if this certification is worthwhile, i.e. if the ranchers who are embracing these practices have better bird (and therefore other wildlife) habitat on their property. Here is a link to the World Wildlife Fund website, where they briefly describe this project: http://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/beef. Incidentally, as I was working on this project, my vehicle got stuck in the Sandhills of Nebraska, on this trail:

DSCF5390

A couple of wonderful ranchers saved me, after over four solitary hours of futilely trying to dig myself out! I could write an entire book about the adventures that I have had doing these bird surveys – and maybe I will someday. But that is for some other time. As for now, I hope that you understand a little bit more about how point count surveys are conducted, and why doing so can be important. In a future post, I plan on describing just how important other species are to our own survival. And it is by way of conducting biological surveys that we can take steps towards better protecting and understanding the wonderful diversity of life which we are a part of.

Thank you for reading!

 

To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:

HDJ.Final.Color

This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.

 

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

Dustin Brewer’s ‘blog’

I love to write, mostly to excise tedium-borne mental ‘tumors’ (only metaphorical, of course) that are too easy for adults to incur.

I don’t know what will come out.  Based on what goes in, my ‘blog’ (strange word) could involve musings about: the natural world (and why it needs protecting, for example),  music and literature (maybe a Vonnegut quote, or an as of yet unheard melody, will inspire some paragraphs), or something ‘far out’ such as what it might mean for us Earthlings if a newly discovered planet (as far as we are concerned!) shows signs of intelligent life.

Most of my writing exists in Word files and journals that I have lost or yet to lose.  Some of my writing also exists in the form of novels (published and unpublished).  A small portion will also now exist entirely for the purpose of being vulnerable on the internet.

That these words are vulnerable (able to be seen by you) means at least that I will feel obligated to think/write better, even if you care very little to read what I’ve written.  But I do hope that some of you care to read about something that I will write about.

And maybe someone on the other side of the world will have a lonely thought, which causes their fingers to type an obscure sentence into Google, which will run its algorithm to display my words to that person who has no idea who I am.  And they could decide that I’m an idiot.  But my words could help, and are much better used here – naked and there for anyone to see – than safe and unread in my journals or novels.