Changing Places

I have changed places (moved) many times in large part because many places (particularly, natural environments) are changing. Environmental change endangers much of life on Earth, including human life. Thus, numerous times, going back to my first year as a student at Purdue University, I have been hired by some entity (non-profit organizations, universities, governments) to help monitor and/or respond to those environmental changes. This conservation-related work has led me to work/learn in 15 states in the U.S.A, as well as to Canada and to Costa Rica (one of which was reluctant to let me in…), and to more adventures than I ever thought that I might experience. It has been a great ride. That said, I’m glad to be in a place now where I plan to be for at least a couple years. Travel can be tiring, and settling down for a bit (so I’ve heard) can be rewarding.

I’ve decided to submit this post to WordPress in order to deliver to you a couple videos. Video 1 overviews a project led by Indiana University which has caused me to (very happily) move again. Video 2 is a short song/poem by one of my favorite artists about moving. I hope that from the first video you will learn a bit about why acknowledging, caring about, and responding to the dangers of environmental change is important. From the second video, I hope that those of you who are also ‘movers’ (or have moved at least once!) will feel the glow of companionship via ‘I can relate to that!’ thoughts.

Or maybe these videos will cause, ‘hm, I didn’t know that people thought that way’ thoughts, which are important, too – and may eventually lead to another category of thoughts which aren’t possible now…

Video 2 can be better fit into a short window of time, but both are relatively brief. I hope that you enjoy them.

Video 1

 

Video 2

 

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

Seeing Upon Rocky Shores (Point Pelee and Isle Royale)

I am sitting upon a Canadian rock, watching the rhythmic, breaking grey waves of Lake Erie. The wind presses hard against my face, and a slight rain falls, but these sensations which might cause most people to get up and go towards shelter are over-ridden by something in me which wants to stay where it is. And I am watching and listening to the violent splashes of water on rock, feeling the mist, when I think of how incredible my mind is, which has created the whole scene around me. ‘Cold’ doesn’t exist without a mind to create it, nor does the particular image that I see of atoms interacting and light reflecting, which some might naively call just another lousy wave breaking at their feet. The gull flying over my head sees the stunted hackberry tree that is shivering in the wind at my back differently than I do, as its mind creates a different, more one-dimensional image of the world (because of its monocular vision due having an eye on each side of its head), an image that is, for example, probably better used for detecting floating fish on the surface of the water than mine is. We all see in a way which helped our ancestors to survive, and miss essentially everything that wasn’t helpful. I am reminded of the fact that approximately 95 percent of our Universe is apparently made of matter/energy which human astronomers cannot even identify, and of how my human eyes can perceive far less than one hundredth of a percent of the light waves entering them. So for a while I watch the incredible detail of the rolling waves, and the deep feeling of air in my lungs and wind upon my face, grateful for what I can perceive and aware of the awesome beauty that I cannot imagine.

I walk to the southern-most point of the Canadian mainland, at Point Pelee National Park (a world-renowned place to see birds in migration), where the juniper, hackberry, and maple trees give way to the ever-shifting sand that becomes a point jutting into the lake. I stand as close as I dare (for fear of being taken by waves) to where the sand disappears beneath the water, which is not as far as the gulls who have congregated further to the south. On my right (to the west) are the same waves that I had been watching from my thoughtful rock, but to my left the water is as calm and flat as one’s swimming pool before one-time (long ago) 250 pound high school wrestling champion Uncle Billy jumps in. The contrast and close proximity between calm and not-calm is striking, as seen here:

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Point Pelee

So, as usual when at such spots, I sit down again and take in what I feel lucky to be able to see. I watch a Sanderling (a type of bird, see below) braving the waves that pushes it around near the Point as it searches for food amongst the sand to provide energy so that it can continue its flight from the Arctic to, possibly, the southern tip of the South American continent. What a journey! As the Sanderling walks near my feet, I spot a walleye that has been pushed by the waves onto the sand, where it struggles until another wave pushes it closer to the calm water, then closer again, and closer again until finally it reaches deep water on the other side. And it is very clear to me in the wind on the Point that an unexpected sandbar could catch any of us, and that it may take waves that we cannot control, waves that may never come, to push us to calmer waters. So I enjoy the current while I can, before deciding to get up.

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Sanderling, which didn’t appear to mind me

I begin walking along the calm shore, and pass a woman who through the wind is able to say to me, ‘this is beautiful.’ And it is, though certainly the beauty that she sees is different than the beauty that I see, just as, though probably to a smaller degree, the walleye’s view of the water and the Sanderling’s view of the sand is far different than how I see those small parts of our world. The beauty that I see is a reminder of the tenuous nature of life, and of humanity’s impact upon that life on this planet.

I worry very much about our fellow inhabitants of Earth, which interact with the world in such a way that is determined by past conditions. The gull sees the way it does because  the long line of its ancestors were determined, among other reasons, by who could see fish the best and therefore past on their genes the most effectively. But this line of reasoning goes beyond vision, of course. Everything about the Sanderling, from its plumage, to its bill, are adapted to survive. And if we humans are drastically changing the environment in which these species live, what chance does the Sanderling, for example, have? What chance do we have if the many species that our ancestors interacted with disappear? If our eyes were suddenly confronted with conditions that they were not adapted for, would we, blinded, have a chance to survive? Probably not, and the same problems are being faced by other organisms as we militantly convert the landscape, and other conditions, which they depend upon.

As I walk along the calm beach, I am reminded of a recent trip to Isle Royale, another national park. Because of our love for the natural world, a friend of mine and I drove all of the way from Indiana to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, Houghton specifically, where we caught a ferry that took over six hours to reach the beautiful wilderness island in Lake Superior, a backpacking naturalist’s paradise. We spent four nights and five days on the island, hiking over 40 miles through the backcountry, before taking a float plane back to the mainland. The island is famous for the long-term study that has taken place there to understand the predator and prey population dynamics of moose and wolves. The wolves control the moose population, preying upon the weak and elderly, so that the plants on the island aren’t heavily browsed by moose, which in turn causes the moose population to be healthier than it otherwise would be. When the moose population declines, so does the wolf population, which causes the moose population to go up, and so on, which causes a predictable, wave-like cycle in regard to numbers of these animals on the island. But, because of a recent warming of the globe (which humans have likely caused due to the burning of fossil fuels), the water between the island and Canada does not freeze as often as if otherwise would, which has isolated the wolf population, caused deadly inbreeding, and reduced the number of wolves to only two, from an average during the last 75 years of around 25. These wolves, half-siblings as well as father and daughter, will die soon. Not surprisingly, the moose population is rapidly increasing, which, if the National Park Service does not intervene by introducing more wolves (or by finding another way to control the moose population), could result in a serious degradation of the island’s plant-life, and therefore endanger all of the animals on the island which depend upon that plant-life. We saw a total of six moose while on the island, including this one, which would soon be followed across the trail by her calf:

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Courtesy of my friend Lincoln

It seems that the park’s size (~900 square miles) is not large enough to sustain an isolated population of wolves (if immigration were still possible, the population would likely survive due to new genes wandering in). This is an important reminder that habitat size, and connectivity of existing habitats, is crucial for the preservation of natural systems. Even mainland parks like Point Pelee National Park are essentially islands surrounded by developed land, and the survival of its inhabitants depend upon immigration from nearby habitats (which often don’t exist). Here is an aerial photograph of Point Pelee National Park, which has an obvious border with the adjacent, developed land:

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Point Pelee from above

There is a well-established ecological principle that after an episode of terrestrial habitat destruction, calculating the fourth root of area remaining as wildlife habitat will provide a somewhat accurate prediction of the percentage of species that will remain. For example, if 50 percent of Earth’s land area is set aside for non-human life and the rest made useful only for humans, approximately 84% of the species originally present will avoid extinction into the foreseeable future. This is the rationale of the great biologist, E.O. Wilson, who is valiantly campaigning to set aside half of the world for wild things. His book on the subject can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Half-Earth-Our-Planets-Fight-Life/dp/1631490826. It is not surprising that, even though the ~ 6 square miles that encompass this park were protected in 1918, species within it are still being lost. For example, of the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) present before European habitation, six of eleven amphibian species and 10 of 21 reptile species no longer exist in the park (Hecnar and Hecnar 2013). Protecting large areas of habitat and connecting them to other protected areas is absolutely crucial for protecting wildlife.

I continue to walk along the calm side of the Point, aware, as always, of the threat that life on our planet faces, and feel that I have no choice but to do my best to do whatever I can to help preserve what is left. I see a swirling cyclone of over 50 migrating Blue Jays rapidly enter the trees to my left (these birds, like hawks and butterflies, don’t want to cross Lake Erie during their southern migration, so follow its coastline to the west to cross the Detroit River, where I have seen them every day for the past three weeks). And as I watch them enter the trees, I see a small falcon, called a Merlin, flying just over the tree-line, which is certainly what had frightened the jays. As I watch this predatory bird, I forget everything but the moment, probably like the falcon. I watch as the Merlin goes after a small flock of songbirds, probably American Goldfinches, and soon focuses on one, which repeatedly dives towards the water before ascending to avoid the fast-pursuing falcon. The small songbird flees over the beach, into the trees and out of sight, as the Merlin is gaining ground. I am left to wonder what will become of the little songbird, and of the little falcon, which needs a meal to survive.

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Merlin

I later think that this series of events near the Point could be related metaphorically to what is happening to life on this planet. It appears that for many awe-inspiring species, doing all that they can do to survive, there is a fast-approaching killer closing in on them. And I am ashamed to know that we as humans, with our destruction of habitats, changing of the climate, and lack of understanding of what we are or what we can cause, are acting as a major killer of life on this Earth, which could be thought of as a fleeing songbird. We as a species are not evil, just as the falcon is not evil. We are all doing what we think that we need to do to survive. But no matter how bleak the situation currently looks, I, like I imagine that the little songbird escaped (and the Merlin found another, less Anthropomorphized meal!), am optimistic that we can change our ways and priorities before it is too late to save ourselves and much of the rest of life on Earth. Awareness of, and a strong conviction by, a large number of people are all that it will take to improve our situation as it relates to our natural environment, and there are many ways that you (!!) can help, such as by educating someone else, joining (and/or donating to) a conservation club, doing citizen science by, say, reporting what birds go to your bird feeder on this website (http://feederwatch.org/), voting responsibly for environmental protection in elections, not being pessimistic, and/or creating some wildlife habitat by planting native species in your yard.

As I type this, I am glad to know that wild, rocky shores, teeming with non-human life, still exist, and hope that they do for as long as there are people to see and understand the beauty which we are privileged enough to have the capability to see.

 

Literature Cited

Stephen J. Hecnar and Darlene R. Hecnar. 2013. Losses of Amphibians and Reptiles at Point Pelee National Park. Parks Research Forum of Ontario.

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.

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