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Category Archives: Environmental Activism

The Joy of Nature Writing

In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, we who write about our love for nature are accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against the grim reality. What is the point of taking joy in forests and meadows that we have already doomed by our greed and folly? How can we go on fiddling about the wonders and beauty of our beloved planet when it is burning all around us?

Is nature writing a retreat from activism or a weapon against climate change?

British nature lovers and writers are particularly anguished about the utility of their pursuits in these darkest of times; In Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? Mark Cocker worries about nature writing in the context of species loss and land degradation: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalized re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”

When I read such catastrophic forecasts I sink into a kind of will-paralyzing dread.  Actually doing something on behalf of nature, however, always gives me a spark of hope. So, in recent years, I have written and lobbied on behalf of our beloved planet by dividing my work time down the middle, allocating half my week to nature writing and the other half to environmental activism.

Last winter, lighting my little candle against the encroaching darkness eventually  burned me right out: too many committee meetings, too many town halls to sit through and legislators to lobby; on the writing side, there were letters to editors, administration of three activist Facebook pages (@CCLDetroitMetroNorth, @BUCGreensanctuary, @annisvpratt), and exhaustive research for articles in the European magazine where I am a columnist. That is why, when May came around, I decided to restore my soul at my Betsie River cabin in Northern Michigan

Summer on the Betsie

I lolled on the banks observing fishes swim by, observed the intricacies of damselfly courtship, listened to what the eddies had to say to each other, puzzled over warbler repetoires and the mysterious projects of bank beavers. As  always, my soul was restored by nature’s intricate beauty: there were patterns in mushroom gills, chickadees’ wings stuttering overhead, and the startling green when black moss resurrects itself after rain.  

 

I always like to read a book at my my favorite spot, down on the dock with the river chortling by.

My Favorite Reading Spot

Robert Marfarlane, who is considered one of the best nature writers in England today, focusses on the sounds of locally used words for landscape attributes. In Landmarks he talks of creating “a work of words” that embed the particulars of nature, de-desecrating” them from mere objects, its rather than thous.

Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.” Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.”  

In his collection of essays about British nature writers Macfarlane gives examples from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain  about the Scottish Cairngorms:

• The “coil over coil’ of a golden eagle’s ascent on a thermal,” “the minute scarlet cups of lichen,”

•  The sound of moving water: “The slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate.”

 Shepherd considers the mountains “’not of myself, but in myself,’” (italics mine). As Macfarlane puts it, she finds in landscape an “inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” “Shepherd is a fierce see-er,” he concludes, “and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”

“Mysticism! I told you so,” we can hear our nature writing skeptics exclaim: “Mysticism has nothing to do with science, it’s pure escapism!” I feel quite the opposite:  it seems to me that the mind/matter interaction fostered by close nature observation makes a reader  environmentally “woke.” Clearly, a few definitions are in order:

• Empiricism assumes that our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world, then proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment. For nature writers it involves attention to the minute particulars of nature and an intellectual understanding of their interaction in material processes.

• Mysticism understands nature as suffused with divine spirit. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 Gospels purged by the early Christian church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While institutional Christianity declared the human soul existentially flawed and the natural world the enemy of the spirit, this kind of nature mysticism nonetheless persisted in the human heart.

• Immanentism: The belief that the natural world is pervaded with divinity. Like Transcendentalism, immanentism understands divinity as simultaneously present in and extending beyond materiality. It should not be confused with super-naturalism, which locates divinity entirely outside of nature, or with pantheism, which takes nature as all that there is.

Full disclosure: I am a flaming nature mystic.

The nature writers Macfarlane describes bring their readers into tune with their joyous syntheses of empiricism, mysticism, and immanentism by embedding the touch, feel, sound, and sight of natural phenomena into words.

To Pippa Marland, for example,  contemporary nature writing is a call to rather than a retreat from environmental activism: “I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.”

For a stunning example of how nature writing leads to environmental activism,  a single book for children had a significant impact on last summer’s climate march.

The Lost Words, Permission from Jackie Morris 

Two years ago, Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published as a deliberate act of linguistic anti-desecration.

A new edition of a standard British classroom reference work, The Oxford Junior Dictionary, had dropped forty words about nature – otter, acorn, bramble, and dandelion, heron, newt and willow among them. Their space was needed for words from modern technology like cut-and-paste, blog, and bullet-point. I had been following Morris on Twitter; her paintings of natural beings like wrens and otters against gold wash backgrounds fascinated me. 

Then my Twitter feed filled with news of classrooms where the book had been assigned; all over the UK, children were rushing into the countryside and “re-sacralizing” nature in their own drawings,  poems, and stories.

By the end of the summer the book had become a best seller, and the tremendous reaction to The Lost Words phenomenon culminated in a program at the Proms (a hugely popular London concert series), a video shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and CDs of songs inspired by Macfarlane’s poems and spells. The book contributed to the thousands of marchers participating in the September 20 Climate Strikes, bringing new energy and hope to the succor of our ailing planet.

London Climate Strike 2020

And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.

Planes, Trains, and Carbon Shame

I consider myself the last person to eco-boss my friends around.  I don’t like  it when greener-than thou people chide me for eating meat, purchasing vegetables in non-recyclable plastic, or using paper towels. Also, my personal reason for not flying does not have an ecological motive: I have always loathed it and switched to trains before global warming made it a moral issue.

For people like my daughters, who are at the height of their careers, business travel is a necessity; giving up airplanes is probably too much to ask at that stage of life. We retirees, however, have both time and (as I hope to convince you) options.

In Europe, the huge carbon footprints that airplanes produce have created a whole new vocabulary of shame. “In the Netherlands they say vliegschaamte,” explains John Vogel in his article on “Why I Only Take One Holiday Flight a Year” . “ The Swedes say flygskam; and the Germans Flugscham. The words all mean ‘fly shame,’ or the guilt that travelers experience when they fly off somewhere knowing they are contributing to climate change.”

“We were going away three or four times a year just because we always did,” says Sarah Jones, a marketing executive from Reading in the UK. “It was stupid. The climate thing was the last straw. We just thought, ‘this is crazy’, so now we go abroad a maximum of once a year and really look forward to it.”

Europeans are thus putting a lot of thought into catching an airplane at all.

In America, frequent leisure flying is beginning to produce similar feelings. “Is Travel Ethical in a Time of Climate Change,” worries Andy Newman; “If seeing the world helps ruin it,” does indulging in air travel make you “a bad person? … going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. And yet we fly more and more.”

Here are some Letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to Newman’s article:

Eliana M. Blum of New Orleans sees giving up air travel as a straight forward moral issue: “Unfortunately, right now there is no room for blurry areas when it comes to climate change. Those who are not actively helping the cause are in the wrong. Travel may be a difficult sacrifice, but it is a habit that must be broken. One family’s vacation is costing another coastal family their home. There is no world where that can be justified.”

Mark Bessoudo in London sees the point just as clearly, but is not ready to give up his flights: “In his ‘Confessions,’ St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. ‘Grant me chastity and continence,’ he pleads with God, ‘but not yet.’ To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, ‘I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet’.”

Lynn Englum, in Samoa to study climate-effected countries, admits to moral waffling: “Newman’s article touched a nerve as I grapple with my own carbon footprint, traveling around the globe to visit the places that are vanishing and/or heavily affected by climate change. I’m currently in the Pacific visiting island countries, and my only real option is via planes because boat travel would take months to hit the places on my list. Mr. Newman mentions that some might be thinking, ‘go see them before they disappear!,’ but that can be viewed as ‘evil’; In some ways that’s exactly what I’m doing for the primary purpose of bringing awareness about these vanishing places, but also to take this journey for everyone who can’t and, as Mr. Newman points out, shouldn’t.” 

So, what are our options?

Flight Abstinence

In Britain and Europe, which seem more eco-ethically conscious than we are,  No-Fly Pioneers  are active:  “The no-fly movement is a small but growing community of people who are drastically reducing the number of flights they take, or giving up air travel altogether. Many campaigners say they feel flying is about to receive the same attention as shunning plastic or eating less meat because of its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions, predicted to grow to as much as 16% by 2050…. Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year and suggested a tax should be imposed on further journeys. Berry hasn’t flown since 2005. Most flying is carried out by a small proportion of the population.”

Offsets

The Sonoma Climate Challenge argues that “If you need to fly, carbon offsets are a way to balance out your impact. Carbon offsets are small contributions to projects that lower carbon emissions like installing solar panels or planting trees. It’s easy—you contribute to a project and receive credit for a certain amount of carbon emissions reduced. It doesn’t cost much and helps to offset your impact when air travel is an important part of your plans.” 

Trains  

 The United Kingdom and Europe have far superior train systems to ours, but you can get around America by rail if you have the time. For me, trains as a substitute for flights took hold the week after 9/11, when my granddaughter was due to be born in Colorado and all planes in the United States were grounded. I took the Wolverine from Michigan to Chicago, where Amtrak had added 14 cars to the California Zephyr for the emergency.

I was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, which came with free dinner and breakfast in the elegant dining car, with delicious food and delightful conversation. I got on in Chicago at 3PM, and reached Denver at 8:30 the next morning.

Yes, the sleeper cost me as much as the plane, and the Amtrak sometimes runs late. On the return trip, for example, we missed my connection so I got put up (free) in a scuzzy hotel; having learned my lesson, on subsequent visits I treated myself to a nice hotel and overnight in Chicago on my return journeys. After this experience I often took to the Cardinal and the Capitol Limited trips to Washington and the Lake Shore Limited to New York City (see Catching the Midnight Sleeper.)  

Given that train travel is leisurely and enjoyable, is its carbon footprint really less than an airplane’s? First, it is important to note that airplane emissions have a significant impact on global warming. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change   reports that planes not only spew fossil fuel emissions but also produce vaporsvapors in the form of contrails and cirrus clouds that trigger climate warming.

 There is no question that passenger and freight transport incur a lower climate impact than airplane travel. The UN report concludes that “the transport specific climate impact is lowest for rail and bus travel and highest for air travel. Both (air and car) travel are about three times higher than the impact from bus and rail travel.” In fact,  train emissions are so low that they even have a climate cooling effect.

Although the UN report says that improvements in air travel are on the way, including modifications of aircraft and engine technology, fuel, operational practices, and regulatory and economic measures, environmental scientists do not think that these changes can be in place  before global warming passes the tipping point 

It is easier and quicker to make rail travel more eco-friendly. Older deisel engines, for example, are already being replaced by more energy efficient and carbon-friendly models. My Detroit-Chicago train, the Wolverine, has switched to new engines which are also  being installed for 75 other long-distance routes. Amtrak President Richard Anderson notes that “These new locomotives will offer increased reliability, more hauling power, improved safety features and lower emissions.”   In addition, many routes are being electrified, making it clear that the United States is swiftly retrofitting our rail passenger fleet to lower carbon emissions.

Given that Europeans have already achieved the technology to make rail travel far less ecologically costly than  flying, there is no reason why it cannot be done here, too.

Ocean Liners!

“Wait a minute,” a twitterer remarked, “how are you going to take a train across the ocean?”

I am coming up on the August anniversary of the all-time most exciting adventure of my life, an ocean voyage on one of the Holland-America student ships ($400 round trip) that used to ply back and forth across the Atlantic all summer long. The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt

carried 1500 American Field Service students, all sixteen years old, and 250 older folks, college age and upwards. A Professor from Bard college asked me to give one of the many small classes offered free to everyone on board, ranging from the history and languages of the countries we would visit to philosophical topics like my little course on Existentialism.

We single adults, like the students, shared (sex segregated) quarters with  bunk beds in each room, though there were staterooms for couples and older folk. 

With technological fixes to make it eco-friendly, why shouldn’t inexpensive ocean travel be revived? You could add the four or five day crossing to your travel plans and have a great opportunity to practice your languages, engage in interesting discussions, take in the vast majesty of the ocean, and make new friends, some of whom will become travel companions abroad and othersm  as in my case – I met my husband Henry on that grand old ship – dearly loved partners for your entire life.

Our Planet As Our Commons

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.

Thanks again to Claude Forthomme,  Senior Editor of the European on-line magazine Impakter.com, economist, poet, and eco-fiction author, who has done me the great honor of publishing my articles on politics and ecology

Here we go:      https://impakter.com/tragedy-of-the-commons-now-planetary-level-what-to-do

 

MAKING THE POLITICAL SAUSAGE: ORGANIZING FOR POLITICAL SUCCESS

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.

CCLers Lobbying

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.  

Did I mention that The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763) has been reintroduced in the 2019 session of the House of Representatives?

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.

And that is how the political sausage is made.

The Citizen Scientist in Winter

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.

American spiders and their spinningwork. V.3 Academy of natural sciences of Philadelphia,1889-93. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/26146

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!

It Is 2034, and Trump is Still President!

“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.

Here is the Book Review and Author Interview I wrote for Impakter, a European online magazine full of interesting articles. 

Climate Change and the Conundrum of Human Survival

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.

Here it is

 

What About Those Whitefish?

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITEFISH?

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.'”

The Polar Bear Conundrum

 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.

Polar Bears

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.”

I live in hope

 

 

 

 

The Hare, the House Finch and the Tardigrade

 

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.”