I dashed up to the Cape to see the parents for a weekend - my dad is a pyromaniac.
Back home, the roses began blooming.
Welcome to the fourth Dispatch from the Endocene and thank you for tuning in, and thanks to the producers of Extinction Radio. This episode could be titled, Squabbling Over the Scraps. The blame game continues.
When people are tempted to point to simple explanations for complex phenomena like societal collapse and species extinction, scientists - and especially those of an ecological bent - often advise exercising caution in assigning causation. Generally speaking it's never exclusively one trigger, rather there are multiple influences that interact and accelerate the process - although some may be more critical than others. Like the loss of dozens of species of megafauna, it might primarily be due to hunting, but in some cases, that could have been exacerbated by a change in climate or the spread of a disease, or an invasive species (other than ours), culminating in a wicked converging synergy.
For humanity’s prospects, that is not a reassuring thought at all, because right now there is a confluence of massive, intractable dilemmas that will soon, in my opinion, explode into what I call the great convulsion - with all the sudden, uncontrollable violence implied in that word, convulsion.
We have crucial resources dwindling, climate change, way too many people, over 400 nuclear power plants that will never be decommissioned, all sorts of truly noxious pollution - and throw into that mix the very well known and highly predictable human behavioral response to scarcity and famine - such as war, mayhem, fascism, cannibalism, demagoguery and so forth - and the future doesn't look promising.
Often in the blogosphere you hear doomers or potential doomers wonder, how soon will collapse and chaos affect the developed world? When, it already has. We had Katrina, then Sandy, now a permanent drought in the western United States, meanwhile the ocean is close to empty of fish. The world has millions of refugees, more than ever before in history - victims of water and food shortages, and of extreme weather, and military conflict. Compared to historical levels we are way past peak oil and peak seafood. Climate change has passed irreversible tipping points in amplifying feedbacks. Hello, collapse is here.
Where I live in New Jersey, over the past few years I have been disturbed to note an increasing number of cowbirds. Cowbirds are originally from the plains of the midwest, and are considered an invasive species in the East, having expanded their territory thanks to - surprise! - deforestation. They have shiny iridescent black bodies and brownish-purply heads, and make a peculiar and distinctive, sort of liquid burbling sound ending in a screach. Their reproductive strategy is diabolical and really exceeds polite boundaries of mere resource competition.
They lay their eggs in the nests of other songbirds, over 30 per season. Cowbird babies hatch earlier and they are larger than the offspring of the nesting mothers. They commandeer all the food she delivers and as they grow, they crowd out her own hatchlings. The cowbird mother monitors her eggs and if the nesting mother rejects one, the cowbird can retaliate by ransacking the nest, in what is known as ‘Mafia behavior”. This threat keeps the songbirds in line, and renders human attempts to remediate the imbalance counterproductive if not futile. This spring I have watched mother finches leading their cowbird fledgelings, already larger in size than they are, to my feeder, apparently unaware that their own babies are dead and that they are teaching grotesquely large imposters to find food.
So it occurred to me that, if this keeps up, eventually cowbirds will be their own undoing, because after they wipe out all the other birds they be unable to raise their own brood - they don’t know how to build a nest or how to sit on it to keep their eggs warm. And right after I had that thought, it also occurred to me just why I hate cowbirds so much.
It’s because, they are parasitic, just like us.
In the news I wanted to focus on three recent reports about endangered species, the first is about large herbivores, the next birds in Europe; and lastly, one about plants in New England. Links to sources will be on the Extinction Radio website.
A number of organizations collaborated to produce a report, titled the European Red List of Birds. The origins of the joint effort began in 2012, when more than 100 ornithologists and stakeholders from 40 countries met in the Czech Republic. I’m going to refrain from calculating the extent of their collective emissions of CO2 and other pollutants to travel to the conference. I’m sure they mean well.
According to their research the top threats to birds in Europe are ‘Biological resource use’, and ‘agriculture and aquaculture’ followed by ‘climate change and severe weather’, ‘pollution’, ‘invasive and other problematic species, genes and diseases’ and ‘natural system modifications’.
Margaret Atwood wrote the introduction, and she concluded - Quote
Perhaps it is time to rewrite John Donne’s famous sermon: No bird is an island, entire of itself; every bird is a piece of nature, a part of the ecosystem; if a single species be extinguished, mankind is the less, as well as if a whole family were, as well as any manner of thy friends were; any bird species’ death diminishes me, because I am involved in the natural world. And therefore never send to know for whom the Red List is compiled; it is compiled for thee. First the birds, then us. Unless we pay attention, we’ll be on the Red List next. Take note.
Sadly, that unabashed anthropocentrism characterized the entire page, where she lists the reasons to be concerned about birds being pushed to and then over the edge of extinction. Here they are, in order of importance - One. obvious economic value - such as pest control for lumber, for orchards and agriculture; Two. hidden economic value such as replanting forests by distributing nuts and seeds, the better to soak up our CO2 emissions; and Three. The psychological and emotional value to humans. She claims that birds are symbols of hope and without them, depression and hopelessness would be costly.
She might be right about all that -
As Emily Dickenson famously wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers."
I am at a loss to know whether this crass monetary assessment of the value of avian life was made out of desperation, to convince people that birds matter to human wellbeing before they all disappear - or perhaps it is cynical but accurate, with its underlying assumption that humans couldn’t care less about preserving a wild species absent some specific economic value to humans. It’s the same tactic taken lately by Jeremy Jackson in his ocean apocalypse lecture series. He seems to have given up on people caring about the beauty and magic of coral reefs or fish being massacred by pollution and overfishing, so he now concentrates on the financial and food losses from sea level rise and acidification.
Getting back to the major threat to birds, I wondered, what exactly is “Biological resource use”? Appallingly, the report states that within ‘biological resource use’, ‘hunting and collecting of terrestrial birds’ represents the largest threat, affecting a total of 42 threatened species. This threat category relates mainly to illegal killing of birds, especially in the case of protected species, such as birds of prey that suffer from persecution.”
So it is humans directly killing birds that, like the American Passenger Pigeon gone over 100 years ago now, that is the largest reason species are threatened with extinction. Keep that in mind as we turn to
endangered large herbivores.
Following is an abbreviated version of the Science Daily summary of a study that was published in the online Journal of Science magazine. An international team of wildlife ecologists conducted a comprehensive analysis of data on the world's largest herbivores, and they warn that many populations of animals such as rhinoceroses, zebras, camels, elephants and tapirs are diminishing or threatened with extinction in grasslands, savannas, deserts and forests.
The lead author said “I expected that habitat change would be the main factor causing the endangerment of large herbivores. But surprisingly, the results show that the two main factors in herbivore declines are hunting by humans and habitat change. They are twin threats."
The highest numbers of threatened large herbivores live in developing countries, especially Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Only one endangered large herbivore lives in Europe (the European bison), and none are in North America, which, the authors add, has "already lost most of its large mammals through prehistoric hunting and habitat changes.”
I can’t resist adding that by that measure, the LEAST sustainable people in the world were the first prehistoric immigrants to North America, where most of the large animals were extirpated shortly after the arrival of humans over 10,000 years ago. On other continents many went extinct and many are currently endangered - but at least a few of them were able to persist through the millennia.
The authors note that 25 of the largest wild herbivores now occupy an average of only 19 percent of their historical ranges. Competition from livestock production, which has tripled globally since 1980, has reduced herbivore access to land, forage and water and raised disease transmission risks.
Meanwhile, herbivore hunting occurs for two major purposes, the authors note: meat consumption and the global trade in animal parts. An estimated 1 billion humans subsist on wild meat, they wrote.
To me that is astonishing, and very frightening, given how rapidly depleted the populations of animals are, and how rapidly that segment of the human population is growing.
The market for medicinal uses, they wrote, can be very strong for some body parts, such as rhino horn. Horn sells for more by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine. Africa's western black rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011.
In that study the authors coin a new term, “the empty landscape" - referring to a terrestrial habitat without large animals. A depauperate world is horribly tragic to contemplate. But the trend is likely to be even worse than that, according to the last study I will review, called “State of the Plants”. According to The New England Wildflower Society, which sponsored the research, so many species of plants have been identified as endangered that they are considered to be canaries in the coal mine, the harbinger of losses to come.
Despite the calm technical language in the report it would be hard to exaggerate how terrible the contents are, because the species considered at risk are just the beginning, and ultimately the potential for plant extinctions is much greater than those identified so far.
Their report notes that 22 percent of all native plant species in New England are now either extinct, rare, or in a state of decline. Some have been trampled by incautious hikers, others drowned by man-made dams, still others, strangled by invasive vines.
The report also found that 31 percent of all the region’s plants are not native to New England, while 10 percent of those, or 111 species, are considered invasive.
96 species of native flora have disappeared from New England, though they live elsewhere, and three native plants are now extinct.
I can personally attest that in the countryside where I have lived for 30 years, the brilliantly colorful swathes of wildflowers which adorned the meadows and woodlands and roadsides in a gorgeous abundant parade through spring, summer and fall have all but disappeared.
The loss of plants and the rise of invasive species is part of a worldwide phenomenon. The report cites a global survey by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that found more than half of 19,000 species examined are considered at risk, noting that nearly 13 million acres of land a year are being developed around the world.
Similar to the paradox I mentioned earlier, of ornithologists flying in airplanes to save birds, I found two particularly bitter passages in this report on plants.
First, hikers who no doubt consider themselves nature lovers are directly killing nature. Well, that is already obvious from the ridiculous popularity of the oxymoronic “ecotourism” fad - but specifically, the report names the problem of Trampling. It says, quote “A popular destination for recreationists, alpine and subalpine habitats are threatened by trampling on many peaks and ridgelines. Short growing seasons do not allow delicate alpine plants sufficient time to grow following such disturbance; thus, denuded footpaths can take decades to recover.”
And I might add that is, of course, if they recover at all.
Second, typically, there is barely passing reference to the particular focus of my blog, Wit’s End, which is mostly about the toxicity of air pollution to vegetation and especially trees. The sole passage reads: “Increasing aerial transport of ozone, plus nitrogen deposition, may exacerbate the stress of climate change. Many alpine plant species are already at the limits of their physiological tolerances and are strongly nutrient-limited in these environments. Changes in nitrogen input may result in altered allocation between roots and shoots and disrupted mutualisms with mycorrhizae, on which many alpine species are heavily dependent. Acidic precipitation has also been a significant driver of conifer mortality, as it leaches calcium from needles and makes them more susceptible to desiccation.”
They could have added that the “altered allocation between roots and shoots” actually means that root systems shrink, leading to a greater likelihood of landslides especially in these times of excessive rainfall saturation..and they could have added that acidic precipitation on leaves and needles means they are more vulnerable to attacks from insects, disease and fungus, all global epidemics…AND, they could have added that dying vegetation leads to more ferocious wildfires…but, they didn’t.
Lastly, since dams are implicated in plant extinctions, I would like to recommend the movie DamNation, it’s well worth watching. Before I saw that film, I never appreciated how destructive dams are for very broad distances around river ecosystems - and of course the valleys they flood - or how many of the world’s waterways have been sliced into dead pieces. There are more than 800,000 dams worldwide, some 40,000 of them are over 49 ft high. And yet hydropower is often presented as a benign source of so-called clean energy. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Thanks for listening to Dispatch from the Endocene. I hope you think it’s as much fun as I do! Please tune in next week when I’ll talk about what is known, and what still remains elusive, about the mysterious and terrifying dieoff of moose, and of bees.