I am fascinated by the way, throughout most of our historical development, we human beings have found ways to share our resources for the common good. Throughout British history, for example, villagers set aside arable and pasture lands and then carefully worked out rules for how they should be allotted.
It turns out that the East Anglian Fen dwellers, who were the basis for my Infinite Games adventure series about their resistance to encroachments of early modern capitalism, followed all kinds of regulations about fishing, fowling, island pasturage, and gathering material for baskets, mats, and thatching.
So that is how I spent the scholarly interstices of my winter (when I wasn’t running around advocating for our environment): researching the history of commons and land-use methods in American, American Indian, and British history. I was curious whether our long history of sharing land means that we can develop the will to avert the tragedy of our planetary commons.
With thanks to Cousin Sarah for her home made sausage photo
“What’s needed now is research on tactics and strategies at the organizational and societal levels: moving beyond public opinion and messaging to get elbow-deep in how the proverbial sausage is made.” Sarah DeWeerdt, “Climate research needs a better understanding of power,” Jan 8, 2019 in Anthropocene Magazine
Every day, protesters from our local resistance movement shouted outside our Republican Congressman’s office, demanding he hold a town hall and deploring his cowardice for not doing so by brandishing rubber chickens. If, as Deweert suggests, “What climate advocates need to know is how to build enduring relationships with political decision-makers,” was this the way to do it?
I didn’t think so, and that was why I was not among them. I had been visiting him for several years as a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, promoting carbon fee and dividend policy. CCL’s long term goal is to develop the political will of both citizens’ and legislators to reduce global warming. Our strategy is for local chapters to cultivate their Members of Congress; our tactic to that end is civil conversation. Here’s how that goes:
1. We start our meeting with a statement of gratitude for an action he/she has taken.
2. We ask for his/her views on environmental issues and listen as he/she talks for items we hold in common.
3. We speak from those common interests, then provide information on carbon fee and dividend policy.
4. We have one “ask” per meeting. For example, “would you consider joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives?
5. We offer ourselves as resources on environmental questions and provide a notebook of carefully organized background materials as we say our goodbyes.
By no means a moderate, our Congressman came out against Pipeline 5, which endangered Lakes Michigan and Huron; he signed a letter to President Trump asking him to urge Canada not to dump Nuclear Waste near Lake Huron; he joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives and, to top it all off, co-sponsored The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act when it was introduced in the House of Representatives late in the 2018 session.
Did I mention that CCL is bipartisan? Our Congressman’s political will was undoubtedly influenced by a member of our group who had worked in his previous campaign. With local chapters conducting respectful visits with Members of Congress all over the country for a period of years, you can see how this tactic of civil discourse creates legislative results. That is how interest group politics works: think of the Sierra Club, for example, The National Organization for Women, The League of Conservation Voters, The NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In “The Path of Greatest Resistance,” a review of two books on the Resistance Movement, David Cole worries that demonstrations and marches do not, in and of themselves, create movements. “The challenge is this,” assert researchers quoted by Deweerdt: “in most cases, the null assumption is that activism becomes power at scale: that collective action is merely the sum of its parts, and the more people who take action, the more likely a movement is to achieve its goals.”
Historically, political sausage is made by mass demonstrations as the end result and public face of long term planning. Take the case of the Civil Rights Movement: the Selma March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Poor People’s Campaign were effective public outcomes built upon years of organization. The timely dissemination of strategically worded press releases, careful decisions about who was to speak on TV and word by word crafting of their statements were tactics in a long term strategy designed to create national support for the desired legislation.
“Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform,” Cole asserts, “will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.”
Wait a minute! Contemporary political movements use smartphones and screens to sharpen their messaging and widen their base; tweeting and posting, messaging and emailing are powerful and effective tactics of long term organizational strategies.
Flash back to 1967 when I set up the first National Organization for Women Chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. This involved telephone calls back and forth to Betty Friedan on our landline (a hard person to reach, which she made up for by calling us day and night), a telephone tree for letting members know about actions and meetings (extremely time consuming, as you couldn’t leave a voice message for fear you were talking to a misogynistic family member), and tons of slow moving snail mail to and from national headquarters.
Fast forward to 2019, when social media has exponentially strengthened political effectiveness. In the case of CCL the organization’s web site provides detailed instructions on such tactical items like how to set up a a meeting with your Member of Congress and what talking points to use. I am in a group that alerts me by email when to respond to a newspaper article with a Letter to the Editor, and also a Social Media unit which notifies me when a Tweetstorm needs to be raised or a Post needs a commented on and shared. Where in an earlier life I established newsletters for every NOW chapter I joined, now I administer the Facebook page for our local CCL.
From my experiences as a long ago NOW organizer and a present day environmental activist, it seems clear that the development of political will and the achievement of legislative success depends both on crowds waving rubber chickens and lobbyists making nice, on a strategic blend of rabble rousing and long-term planning.
Are you concerned with our environment but are not a political joiner? Do you love nature and want to learn more about it? Are you curious about the insects, animals, plants and fungi all around you? Have you been keeping lists in little notebooks, texts, and miscellaneous scraps of paper all over the house?
Since I wrote about “How I Became a Citizen Scientist” four years ago, the peril to life on earth has increased, but so have ways to transform your observations into environmentally useful data. A recent project, “Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes,” lets you make your observations of spiders, ants, and other creepy crawlers sharing your home.
Here in Detroit, our previously polluted Detroit River has been cleaned up to harbor all kinds of birds, animals (even beaver), and fish stocks; you can see folks fishing for walleye (which they apparently intend to eat) all along the banks. This makes for lots of new opportunities for citizen scientists. In “Reconnecting in Detroit: The Transformative Potential of Citizen Science,” John Hartig lists “angler surveys, identifying aquatic invertebrates collected from river and lake sediments, counting birds, listening for frogs, spotting salamanders, collecting butterflies of dragonflies, or measuring water quality.”
In Oakland County, the northwest segment of the Detroit Metropolitan Region, I am astonished at what my nature loving neighbors get up to in the middle of winter. In mid-December, Oakland Audubon members range far and wide collecting data for their Christmas Bird Count. Right now, in the dead end of January, there is a stonefly search going on in the Rouge River. Organized by The Friends of the Rouge, this citizen science project helps volunteers examine cold, soggy samples of river detritus to count stoneflies. These are “a primitive group of insects named for their habit of crawling on stones in a river. They have high oxygen needs, which limits them to clean, well-oxygenated streams.” Since they hatch in the wintertime, that’s when data must be gathered.
Before it gets warm yet in March, The Friends of the Rouge also train intrepid little bands (some of them in their 80s) to recognize particular species of frogs and toads even when they are all singing together.
They go out in the dark of spring nights, scrambling around secluded ponds and river inlets to identify which species are singing and to get an estimate of their numbers.
As for me, I am sitting in my warm house counting the birds that come to my feeder, turning my scribbled little lists into useful data in the Michigan Audubon’s Winter Bird Survey. I haven’t reached the stage of collecting data about the spiders who come up my bathtub drain, the mealy bugs that burrow into my cornflakes, or the moths munching on my woolies, but it might come to that yet if cabin fever has its way with me!
“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”
Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort. Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.
I have discovered that many creatures have already adapted to climate warming – I just read about a bird population in an area documented 100 years ago are now so smart now that a whole variety of species lay their eggs “almost exactly counterbalancing the two-degree rise in average temperatures recorded over the last century.”
Which leaves me with the inevitable, haunting question: but what about humans? How far does global warming have to rise for us to become extinct?
So I spend the summer writing an article for Impakter, an international on-line magazine where I am a columnist, about whether we can learn anything from our history on earth that will help us survive global warming.
Review of Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. W.W. Norton: New York, 2017
I don’t know about you, but I have always considered evolution a long, drawn-out process, requiring thousands of years of mutations for genes to adapt.
That was before I got to thinking about recent developments among our Whitefish.
The Great Lakes, chockablock with fresh water fish like Lake Trout, Perch, Whitefish, Walleye and Chub, were landlocked for millennia. Few adaptions were needed in such static conditions. until the St. Lawrence Seaway and its associated locks opened pathways for creatures like the Sea Lamprey, Alewife, Quagga and Zebra Mussels to invade us.
And we all know what happened then.
Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (which is also a compellingly readable history of sportfishing) accounts for the invasions and die-offs that have plagued our fisheries since the 1950s. First, the dread Sea Lamprey attached itself to the bellies of Lake Trout and Whitefish to suck their blood dry. They were no sooner extirpated by a scientifically produced toxin than the Alewives, their natural predators having been decimated by the lamprey, multiplied exponentially. However, overpopulation, predation from the newly introduced Chinook and Coho Salmon, and kidneys inefficient at processing fresh water cut Alewife numbers significantly.
Quagga and Zebra Mussels, flushed into lake waters with ship ballast, went to work on the surviving Alewives’ plankton supply, that also happened to feed the little shrimp-like critters Whitefish need to survive.
Fortunately, there was an ugly little invasive bottom feeder called a Gobie, whose round mouth is ringed with razor sharp teeth to crack mussel shells and get at the flesh inside.
Which brings me back to our Whitefish. Almost overnight, they suddenly adapted to eat not only the invasive mussels but the sharp-toothed Gobie. Scientists were surprised to find “a paste of crushed mussel shell” in Whitefish excrement, causing them obvious pain from a kind of fish hemorrhoids.
“But then nature stepped in,” Egan explains; they developed a “stiff ridge on their bellies” to help digest the tough shells. Not only that, they began to eat the Gobies, sharp teeth and all, creating a whole new food chain.
A traditional Great Lakes Fisherman named Ken Koren, who was one of the first to report these sudden developments, said that he felt like he was “watching evolution at work.”
If evolution works that fast, can other plants and creatures adapt fast enough to maintain abundance despite the ravages of climate change?
The problem is humans. Or, as Pogo puts it, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Egan quotes a fishermen named Hendrickson who insists he is “’absolutely’ convinced the species is evolving before his eyes.
‘What we’re seeing with the whitefish, well, they might be the most adaptable fish in nature…..They’re more adaptable than some people I know.'”
It is spring again, and I am slinging my binoculars around my neck to look for warbler “fall outs,” when dozens of colorful little bundles of pluck and determination pause to feed along our Michigan rivers in their migration from as far away as Mexico and South America. Sadly, these days it is more of a trickle than the cascade of birds I used to see, a fact that undercuts my springtime élan with a strain of dread.
We nature lovers know that environmental despair can paralyze our wills, keeping us from working on behalf of our beloved planet. That is why I have been writing about Snow Shoe Hares and Leaping Lizards, House Finches and microscopic Tardigrades, cheering myself up with evidence of new adaptions and instances of abundance that might lessen both the extirpation and extinction of species.
There is a depressing video of an emaciated Polar Bear going the rounds of social media to illustrate species depletion by thinning sea ice, so you can imagine how encouraged I was by an article in the British Guardian explaining that the decline of polar bears in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea is overridden by significant numbers elsewhere in the Arctic. Polar Bears are divided into “stocks,” or populations living in different areas; the stock in one place may decrease due to local conditions while others are stable or actually increasing, Fact checking around, I found the total count at 26,000, up from 12,000 in 1970. Since this does not include stocks inf the vast area under Russian control (for which no data has been made available) it looks like cause for hope.
Polar Bear Counts as a Political Weapon
The problem with getting all hopeful about these statistics is that climate deniers use the rise in polar bear population to pooh-pooh “being hit over the head” by environmentalists. Here is Susan Crockford, for example, in Canada’s Financial Post: “Polar bears are flourishing, making them phony icons, and false idols, for global warming alarmists.” The article insists that it is thickening sea ice in the Beaufort Sea that is leading to Polar Bear depletion: “There are also strong indications that thick spring-ice conditions happened again in 2014–16, with the impacts on polar bears being similarly portrayed as effects of global warming.”
Unfortunately, the Financial Post is looking at present Polar Bear populations, not future ones, which are predicted to decline as global warming advances. Their numbers have recently increased, but the endangered designation is derived from calculations like those of Polar Bears International. which predict that the species will be extinct by 2050 because of global warming.
Where Does This Leave Us?
It seems clear that some (though not all) members of the business community will continue to deny the seriousness of climate change, using whatever rhetorical weapons they can muster.
They are preaching, however, to their own choir, folks whose greed for profit makes them deny proven scientific findings.
For the rest of us, facts about the loss of abundance and diversity must be faced if we are to keep on fighting for the natural world we love so much. But how can keep our spirits up amid so much evidence of species decline and natural disaster?
For me, the answer is hope, which I understand as the opposite of conviction or certainty; I am neither convinced nor certain that global warming can be mitigated, but I hope like mad that nature can rebound someday to its onetime glorious diversity and enormous abundance. Hope helps me take heart from good news about what is being done both at home and around the world, but I must find ways to strengthen my heart so that I can absorb the bad news as well.
Taking heart, “dwelling in possibility” as Emily Dickinson put it, involves a summoning of strength from each other, taking courage from companionship in action, but also from an inner strengthening, finding ways to build up my personal courage.
John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia, deals with the despair of his daily dealings with the lumber industry by remembering
“… that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.”
Joanna Macy, proponent of eco-philosophy and a self-strengthening ecological depth psychology, suggests each of us build up an “ecological self”:
“This greening of the self.. . involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is . . .‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .Thus the greening of the self helps us to reinhabit time and our own story as life on Earth. … the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”
In my recent blog about furry little Pitas and their trouble coping with rising temperatures, I wondered whether they might develop thinner coats in time to avoid extirpation.
( Extirpation is the loss of a species population in a particular habitat or, local extinction. Extinction refers to the loss of the entire species on a world-wide basis)
Since I can be cheered up by even tiny bits of hope from nature these days, I was pleased to hear that Snowshoe Hares are not only developing cooler winter coats but, in some warming areas, discarding them altogether.
Scientists, examining hares living in Pennsylvania, the Eastern United States, and the Yukon report that “In addition to finding greater numbers of the animals with thinner winter coats in the more southerly population, (they) found a small number of individuals which did not develop a full winter pelt…. Clearly adapting to present climate conditions.” But, they ask, “can the hares change quickly enough to keep up with global warming?”
If so, can a similar flexibility impact the fate of other species? One way to approach this puzzle is to take previous periods of climate fluctuation into account. as does Lucas Isakowitz, citing Jonathan Rolland’s research on such periods.
“’You have to imagine that 40 million years ago, global temperatures were much higher, and there were tropical areas in the poles, even in Antarctica,’” said Rolland. “’As the Earth began to cool, some species evolved, while others just moved to warmer climates.’” Birds and mammals proved themselves to be better at evolving than their cold blooded counterparts, which explains why they were able to move into habitats in more northern and southern regions.”
The problem, concludes Isakowitz, is that the present global warming caused by human impact isn’t spread over millions of years, but has increased more and more rapidly during the last few centuries.
I take heart, nonetheless, from the adaptability of the Snowshoe Hare, and from those indefatigable House Finches that have not only spread far and wide over American in recent decades but have developed mutations for new habitats. When they decided to nest in cities, for example, their beaks changed shape to be more useful for cracking bird feeder seeds, while urban finch males developed new city songs that they realized were appealing to newly urbanized females.
Then, too, there is the lowly and Tardigrade:
“MICROSCOPIC BUG THAT’LL SURVIVE UNTIL THE SUN DIES DISCOVERED IN PARKING LOT IN JAPAN,” reads a header in my local newspaper, touting the Tardigrade as “The world’s most indestructible species, … an eight-legged micro-animal (that) will survive until the sun dies.”
There is no question that global warming and habitat degradation have led to the decline of natural abundance, and that we human beings are responsible. Under the delusion that we are other than nature, we have given ourselves permission to destroy it.
In a review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Verlyn Klinkenborg finds McCarthy’s hope that encouraging “joy in nature” can meliorate nature’s demise undermined by anthropocentrism: it ”values nature mostly for what it offers us… as a species, we repeatedly fail to acknowledge the equal and inherent right of all other species to exist, a right implicit in existence itself and in no way subordinate to our own.”
The industrial revolution is a very recent blip in human history; our hunter-gatherer and farming ancestors felt themselves in nature, a part of nature. They used their considerable brains to adapt elements of nature for their use, but stood in awe and reverence before forces with their own agency that were far beyond human control.
Joy in nature is central to my life, so much so that the loss of natural abundance lowers my spirits considerably. Take, for example, the Pika, a small furry mammal that Joseph Stewart mourns has gone entirely extinct north of Lake Tahoe due to global warming. “Pikas are adapted for the cold, with high metabolisms and thick fur covering them from the bottoms of their feet to the insides of their ears…..These same adaptations that allow them to survive during the wintertime also make them very vulnerable to overheating in the summertime.” Spending too much time underground, trying to cool over during hot weather, they don’t to get enough to eat and so they fail to reproduce.
Such accounts leave me fearful that, as the climate shifts beyond the capacity of species to tolerate warmer habitats, everything will go extinct, including ourselves. But what about adaption? What if a Pika or two were born less furry than the others? These might give birth to offspring that could survive hotter temperature than their neighbors. Or, do Pika have the capacity for migration to cooler areas?
Isn’t evolutionary adaption much too slow? We know that plants and animals can evolve to tolerate new conditions, but is global warming hastening along too swiftly to allow for significant mutation?
Well, consider the case of the Italian Wall Lizard, once native to balmy Tuscany, which have escaped pet stores and adapted to New York City for the past 50 years. These “sprinters in evolutionary change,” writes Jim Dwyer, seem to have found warm enough lairs to survive; they are spreading north along the Hudson River and Northeast into Connecticut. Not to mention House Finches, which also escaped from pet stores in the twentieth century and are widely abundant; what is more, they have evolved new kinds of beaks to deal with seeds typically found in bird feeders.
On a visit to an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I learned that tropical climates exhibit the greatest species diversity of all other ecosystems. As the earth heats up, won’t species proliferate in the warmer climate?
After Christmas’s Baroque extravagance of gold and red and tinsel and splendid carols and Messiahs are over, the simplicity of Michigan’s deep winter snows calms my spirits. Suddenly, my birdfeeder becomes the busiest place in my quiet yard.
Those of us who love nature to our very bones are discouraged to hear that climate change has already destroyed many bird species, and we are profoundly disheartened by apocalyptic prophesies of “mass extinctions,” not to mention “the death of nature” altogether.
And then a Carolina Wren appears in the snow, a bird which does not belong in a Michigan winter. I check with my local Audubon Society – they have seen them for a couple of winters now; I look them up on the internet and discover that though Carolina Wrens feel the cold, our changes in temperature may account for what I am observing in Michigan, where the numbers of observations are up to 26% from just 8% 10 years ago.
The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has become similarly widespread beyond its original southern range, where it had been on the decline, and I remember when we first saw Cardinals move north in the same way.
It seems, too, that we will not always see ubiquitous White-Breasted Nuthatches at our feeders, the National Audubon Society having predicted a northern shift in their range. They have established a climate watch for Citizen Scientists this winter and spring to document nuthatch and bluebird locations.
It seems to me that these new birds of winter, demonstrate an encouraging adaption to climate change. When we think of Darwinian mutation, the process of gene modification over a lengthy series of adaptions, it wouldn’t seem that any species would have time to save itself from global warming.
My sightings at my backyard feeder having raised my hopes, I am thinking a lot about species adaption this winter and plan a series of blogs on the subject, looking for further signs of hope that we human beings can mitigate or even survive what we have done to our beloved planet.