Species Extinction is a Great Moral Wrong by Philip Cafaro and Richard B. Primack

FrogSharing the Earth with other species is an important human responsibility.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artiface, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge ad sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic  fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.” —Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House

Nearly three decades ago, conservation biologist Michael Soulé published an article titled “What is Conservation Biology?” Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé’s success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this new field. At its heart was the belief that the human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong. “The diversity of organisms is good,” Soulé wrote, and “the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad.” Other species have “value in themselves,” he asserted—an “intrinsic value” that should motivate respect and restraint in our dealings with them.

In an article published in the journal BioScience titled “What is Conservation Science?” Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier attempt to update Soulé’s conservation philosophy, but lose sight of this moral commitment.

Specifying the ethical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give a prominent place to increasing human wealth and “working with corporations.” Recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. In fact, the article’s rhetoric serves to normalize extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the local extinctions of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as “nostalgia” for “the world as it once was” and suggests that people need not keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.

Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration in this one article, but rather an essential part of the view that conservationists should accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch (so named due to the pervasive impact that human activities now have on Earth’s ecosystems).

An earlier essay that they published with Robert Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity—because such extinctions will not necessarily change whole ecosystems or inconvenience human beings. There, the authors argue that: “… Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature … In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species—from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo—with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.”

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question! And also, perhaps, for other species that preyed on or otherwise interacted with them. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors; they are not real catastrophes as long as the “ecosystem functions” that benefit humans remain intact. This is shortsighted. There is an extensive body of ecological research showing that even though there is often redundancy in biological communities, as species are lost, ecosystems start to lose functionality and become more prone to collapse. Leaving aside the scientific absurdity that some of the most abundant tree and bird species in North America could disappear with “no measurable effects,” there is an ethical blindness here that is even more troubling.

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next few centuries if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-hogging path. In one sign of the times, in 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to the effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet in response to this threat Kareiva, Marvier and Lalasz had this to say: “Even that classic symbol of fragility—the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block—may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth’s history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends—the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.”

Such a glib statement (“seemingly stranded on a melting ice block”) is both scientifically unjustified and morally obtuse. As Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, correctly points out, “no credible scientist believes that polar bears, who hunt from sea-ice platforms, will rapidly evolve to sustain themselves hunting harbor seals in open water.” And equating past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused rapid climate change fails to acknowledge the human responsibility for this threat. Karieva and Marvier suggest that the polar bear’s fate depends on “two opposing trends” as “the environment changes,”—when it really depends on whether or not humanity substantially reduces our greenhouse gas emissions.

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to too many, as long as this destruction does not harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human population and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our population and economic demands, not make excuses that will lead to greater ecological damage.

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses or making light of extinction.

LeopardA Matter of Justice, Not Economic Convenience

To be clear: We do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important aspect of conservation. Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours.

But it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to concern for our own well-being, or to assume that it is acceptable to extinguish species that do not benefit humans. Such an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, which is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is primarily a matter of justice, not economic convenience.

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature’s order, creativity and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When humans take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much and have brought a meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, the science of conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Biologist Colin Tudge put it well in his book The Variety of Life: “The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.”

From this perspective, even one human-caused extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species as on how well we do so with other people.

Michael Soulé is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence. Human beings should preserve them whether or not it is convenient or economically beneficial for people.

Dr. Philip Cafaro, PhD is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, an affiliated faculty member with CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability and Book Review Editor of Elsevier’s Biological Conservation journal. His main research interests are in environmental ethics, consumption and population issues, and wild lands preservation. He is the author of Thoreau’s Living Ethics and Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, among other books. 

Dr. Richard B. Primack, PhD is Professor of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity.  His research concerning the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts is the focus of a new book titled Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods.

First posted on 12 February 2014 at: http://www.elsevier.com/connect/species-extinction-is-a-great-moral-wrong   Reprinted with permission.

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From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles: The Great Turning by David W. Orr


We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

“Only connect” – E. M. Forster

Implications for education and the educated

Vicious Gyres

Fifteen-hundred miles west of Seattle, in the middle of the North Pacific, a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge is caught in ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. It is estimated to be the size of the lower 48 states at a depth of 100-1000 feet. But no one knows for certain how large or how deep, only that it is massive and growing. Some of the most amazing things humans have ever made float in what has been renamed the “North Pacific Garbage Gyre.” They are made primarily of oil extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth, which is another remarkable story. The impact on marine organisms and sea life is poorly documented but it is between disastrous and catastrophic. Some of the debris is ingested by birds and fish who mistake floating plastic doo-dads for food. Some of it breaks down into long-lived toxic compounds. Despite its size and ecological effects the North Pacific Garbage Gyre is distant enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

Another gyre of gases circulates around the Earth six miles above our heads, the result of our annual combustion of four cubic miles of primeval goo—ancient sunlight congealed in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, shale oil, and tar sands. The atmospheric residues, chiefly CO2 reached 400 ppm in May of 2013—the highest concentration in hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps several million years. The atmospheric CO2 gyre is changing the thermal balance of Earth in an instant of geologic time and locking us into a future of extreme heat, drought, larger storms, rising sea levels, and changing ecologies that will increasingly imperil economies, public health, and social and political stability, that is to say, civilization itself.

A third gyre of long-lived chemicals cycles through our bloodstream, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues. They are in our air, water, food, everyday products, and many toys. In the words of the President’s Cancer Panel babies are born “pre-polluted,” poisoned by toxic substances that pass through their mother’s umbilical cords. A typical sample of chemicals in the average body would include 200 or more that are suspected or known to cause cancer and cell mutations and disrupt the endocrine system. It is possible that, singly or in combination, invasive chemicals also cause behavioral abnormalities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects of chemicals one by one, we don’t know much about the possible combined effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed or the several hundred that we’ve ingested, absorbed, and inhaled.

We Knew Better

The three gyres have many things in common. They are vicious cycles or “wicked problems” that are complex, long-term, and non-linear—a fancy way to say they are unpredictable with lots of unknowns. They involve virtually every discipline listed in a college catalog and much outside the conventional curriculum as well. But they are not so much problems that can be solved with enough money and effort as they are dilemmas that could not and cannot be solved. With foresight, however, each could have been avoided.

The effects of each gyre will last for a long time. Toxic and radioactive trash will threaten human health and ecologies for centuries to come. The loss of biodiversity driven by climate change, pollution, and over-development is permanent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect climate for thousands of years, requiring a level of public and private vigilance for which we have no good historical precedents. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals last a lifetime in the human body, and some are passed on to our offspring.

The causes of each gyre were known a long time ago. It required no great prescience to see that our mountains of trash would someday rise up to haunt us. Similarly, the first warning of impending climate change was given to Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But a half-century later we still have no de jure climate policy and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever before. And the adverse health effects of the promiscuous use of chemicals were suspected at least from 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

The consequences of pollution gyres were not understood except in hindsight. In Wendell Berry’s words, “we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.” Even so, we knew better. And long ago we knew we had good alternatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, solar technology, and natural systems agriculture that have improved greatly in the years since. But widespread adoption was blocked by money, by political dysfunction, and often by the lack of imagination. As a result, it has been profitable for some to create a throwaway economy. It is highly profitable to extract, sell, and burn fossil fuels that are diminishing the human future by the day. It is profitable to pollute our air, food, and water and undermine human health. The three gyres, in other words, are neither accidents nor anomalies, but the logical results of a system of ideas and philosophy deeply embedded in our culture, politics, economy, technology, and educational system.

The causes of the three gyres were once thought to be evidence of prosperity measured as economic growth. But a large part of our wealth is fraudulent. We are simply offloading costs of pollution and environmental damages onto people living somewhere else or at some later time. We are beneficiaries of self-deception and conveniently bad bookkeeping.

By undermining ecological balance, climate stability, and our reproductive potential the three gyres are the primary causes of the “6th Great Extinction” now underway. This time, however, it is not about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but us. The approach path to oblivion, in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s words, is a “system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes . . . feeding on one another and growing in strength . . . [leading to] an age of unprecedented violence.” The stakes in other words, are total, but there are no effective legal sanctions for the destruction of oceans, ecosystems, climate stability, human health, or actions that risk civilization for a few more years of corporate profits. We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.” Neither do we acknowledge the right to life of our co-passengers on spaceship Earth. Our courts are blind to the plight of those who are suffering and many more who will assuredly suffer because of our dereliction. Indeed, there is no national or international legal regime commensurate with the depth of the human predicament or the requirements for ecological justice across generations.

Most important if one traces the causes of each gyre back far enough there are students in classrooms acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to work unperturbed in the extractive economy that drives each gyre. They are the dutiful acolytes of Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and all of those in our time who share the dream of total human mastery over nature. We educators have equipped our graduates with the tools and technology necessary “to affect all things possible” in Frances Bacon’s words, but not the wherewithal to understand the consequences of doing so. Accordingly, generations of students have learned how to dismantle the world and concoct all manner of things—but not why that was often a bad idea—or how to repair the damage. We taught them how to manipulate, make, conjure, communicate worldwide, and sell everything under the sun but not how to think about the effects of doing such things. They learn how to grow an economy beyond the limits of Earth but almost nothing about physical, ecological, and moral limits to the scale of the human estate or the concepts of enough and sufficiency.

The epitaph for Western culture could be an educational system in which students learn more than they can comprehend in ethical or ecological terms. Learning is a fast process but comprehending the limits and proper uses of knowledge, which is to say acquiring wisdom, takes much longer.

My point is that the gyres of disintegration are not the work of the uneducated but rather that of those certified with Ph.Ds, MBAs, LLBs, Master’s degrees, BA and BS degrees. In other words, the ecological and climate disorder we see around us reflects a prior disorder in how we think and what we think about. That makes it the business of all of us in the “education industry” who purport to improve thinking. But to improve thinking we must address problems of education not merely those in education and so transcend the industrial-technological model of learning. Tinkering at the margins won’t do.

The irony, of course, is that the same education, science, and technology that threatens life on Earth also gave us the capacity to discern the effects of our actions. We can measure our pollution down to parts per billion. We can chart the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with great precision. We understand in detail many of the biological effects of long-term exposure to toxic substances. And since we know what we are doing we can also decide to change our course and do much better.

Transformative Education 

In the long view of history, however, we do not know yet whether the Western model of formal education will prove—on balance—to be a positive force in the evolution of a humane and sustainable civilization, or simply a training ground for advanced cleverness serving ever more powerful and destructive domination of Earth. If education is to play a positive role in a “Great Turning” toward a sustainable global civilization, our goal must be to enable coming generations to connect learning with a reverence for life and equip them with the analytical, practical, and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere.

This is hard to do in the blizzard of euphoria about our technological prowess and “breakthroughs” in everything but those things that matter. It is harder to do when ideas and communication are being compressed into 140-character tweets that exist like flotsam in a flood of meaningless, de-contextualized information. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the rising generation spends on average nine hours a day in front of one kind of screen or another, in danger, as Hannah Arendt once said, of becoming “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible.”

The condition of our children has deep cultural roots including the pathology that Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Since the dawn of the age of television young people have increasingly lived indoors marinating in an entirely human-made world. The resulting damages are many: to the growth of intellect, to their sense of reality, to their basic affiliations, and to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the “psychic thread” that connects us to nature. Louv argues that “the re-naturing of everyday life can be an important component of strengthening physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness . . . and relations between parents, children, and grandparents.” Experience and mountains of data show that the emotional disposition to learn is enhanced by time spent out of doors and the acquisition of practical skills.

The deep challenge is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation—as best we are able—for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them to see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will need to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalisms of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us— a variant of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will need to rediscover old truths and forgotten knowledge. They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. We must educate them to be the designers of a another kind of gyre that turns vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that might someday transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, and technologies, as well as our hearts and minds. We need a generation that rises above despair or fantastical thinking and sees the world as systems, patterns, and possibilities that give hope an authentic foundation.

In other words, if education is to serve the interests of humankind and life in the long emergency ahead it must be transformed beginning with a transformation in our thinking about education and the purposes that ideas serve. Samuel Johnson once said that the assurance of the gallows in a fortnight could concentrate the mind wonderfully. Similarly, the prospect of a civilizational collapse ought to concentrate our thinking about the substance and process of education in what could otherwise be “our final hour.” We cannot continue to equip students for success in an economy that is driving civilization to the brink of collapse. Rather, we must enable students to help build bridges to something better than what is in prospect.

Critics, predictably, will argue that saving the Earth, or humans for that matter, is not the business of educators while refusing to say exactly whose business it is. Purists will argue that doing so involves making value judgments and education ought to be value free, which is itself a value and conveniently obeisant to the forces driving us toward oblivion. Pessimists will argue that transforming the academy is a good idea, but is not feasible and so should not be tried. Trustees will wish not to offend the powerful and wealthy and thereby risk one form of insolvency while presumably avoiding another. Incrementalists will recommend caution and piecemeal change and hope that it doesn’t come up a day late and a dollar short. Traditionalists, eyes to the rear, will want no change whatsoever.

But we no longer have the luxury of preserving the status quo whatever we might otherwise wish. The landscape of education, including that wrought by the avalanche of television and electronic media, is rapidly changing and with it the mindscape of our civilization.

Many questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “anthropocene”? What is the proper balance between intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in ways commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality?

There are also practical questions having to do with our responsibilities to the communities in which we exist. What do we know that could be put to good use in developing durable economies based on renewable energy and local farm and food systems. What do we know about nurturing decent and fair communities? How should we spend and invest institutional assets locally to promote sustainable development?

From such ongoing conversations many results are possible. I will suggest only the most obvious. The first is a requirement that no one should graduate from any college or university without a firm grasp of how the world works as physical system and why that is important for their lives. For comparison, we would be justifiably embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be even more so to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, and systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. They should also be taught the social, political, economic, and philosophical causes of our predicament and master the ethical, analytical, and practical tools necessary to build a durable, resilient, and decent world. In short, we should equip them with the capacity to integrate disparate subjects and disciplines into a coherent and ecologically grounded worldview.

And we should do these things in the spirit that Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now:”

There is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’ 

Connection and Affection – The Great Turning

E. M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” belies the fact that we are already connected. The greatest discoveries of the 20th century revealed that we are stitched together in more ways than we can possibly know.

  • Despite all of the things that divide us, we humans share 99.5% of our genes,
  • We share 98% of our genes with our nearest kin, the large apes and bonobos;
  • 90% of our dry body weight isn’t us but a rowdy congress of bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers living in and on our bodies;
  • Our minds evolved to mirror each other’s feelings and to empathize with each other;
  • Every breath we take includes molecules once breathed by Socrates, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, or Idi Amin for that matter;
  • We have an innate affinity for life, that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “Biophilia;”
  • All of us are made of stuff that was once in stars;
  • Plants are linked in networks, communicate by chemical signals, and help each other in ways that resemble altruism;
  • And we are now connected globally as never before by social media, emails and smart phones in a thickening web of communication and intelligence as predicted long-ago by theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

In short, we are connected over time as a small part of the vast enterprise of life that stretches back 3.8 billion years and as far forward as the Angels of our better nature, luck, and sunlight allow. The problem is not to connect, but to recognize and act on the reality of our connectedness.

Forster’s further observation—that our capacity to connect “all turns on affection” sounds quaintly irrelevant. Affection is the antithesis of the calculating mind that we associate with rational economic behavior, shrewd career decisions, and the self-referential narcissism that infects the teenage “I” generation. Affection is complicated and paradoxical. It thrives, however, at the crossroads where enlightened self-interest, altruism, and foresight meet. Affection is born in compassion, empathy, and an enlarged sense of self. It acknowledges that nothing and no one is an island complete in itself. Everything and everyone is connected to the mainland.

Affection changes what we think is important, what is trivial, and what is dangerous. It changes the substance and process of learning. Affection would help us acquire the patience to see learning as a lifelong process not to be confused with formal schooling. Informed by affection we would not so easily confuse information with knowledge or rationality with reasonableness. It would help us understand that thinking is often overrated and intuition under-appreciated and that true learning cannot be certified by grades and degrees. A dose of affection might even help us comprehend and mediate the evolutionary divisions between the right and left hemispheres of our own minds.

Affection deals in wholes, including the parts that are inexplicable and mysterious. It connects us to the creative, artistic, musical, humorous, intuitive, empathic sides of ourselves. Albert Einstein put it this way “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Affection, then, causes us to celebrate mystery and opens us to the sense of wonder. Beyond the facts, data, theories, and analysis that permeate education, the inexplicable remains. What we know is like a drop in an ocean. What we don’t know is the ocean. Deep knowledge is elusive, rather like “studying darkness with a flashlight.” The fact is that we are infinitely more ignorant than we are smart and always will be. And that is OK. D. H. Lawrence captured the essence of the matter by observing that “Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen but there is a third thing that makes it water, and no one knows what that is.” And no one ever will.

Affection permits us to be compassionate with our own imperfect selves and the imperfections of others. Affection isn’t reserved just for the easy times. In a world of paradox, irony, and tragedy, affection moderates pretensions and punctures illusions. It is kind and forgiving. Clear-eyed affection helps us acquire what Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno once called “the tragic sense of life” which is neither resigned nor gloomy. To the contrary, it is a realistic perspective that permits us to laugh at ourselves and each other. It is the quality by which we have triumphed over tragedy before and it has equipped us to do so again.

Finally, affection helps us to see what could be, without losing sight of how things are. Affection causes us to hope for improvement. And hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up rooted in daily practice as something we do, not just what we wish for. It is a discipline requiring skill, competence, steadiness, and courage. It is practical. It bonds us to each other, and to real places, animals, trees, waters, and landscapes. The hopeful are patient not passive. They are creators of the gyres of positive change that could, in time, redeem the human prospect. They are people who will know how to connect us to a better world struggling to be born.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is a well-known environmentalist and author. His many books include Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. He holds a B.A. from Westminster College, an M.A. from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Bioneers Award, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, a Lyndhurst Prize awarded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University for his work in Environmental Education. 

David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach? “I come from a long line of preachers,” he says laughing. “My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . .” For Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that “we are all meaning-seeking creatures—a small part of a much larger pattern.”

“It is no accident,” Orr states, “that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio.” Orr wrote “most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves.” He puts connectedness at the center of his philosophy. His vocation—our responsibility and relationship to the Earth we’ve inherited and the Earth we will bequeath—has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

It is no surprise that he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause—he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for education—if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.” Source: Oberlin’s Presidential Lecture, November 8, 2013.

Reprinted with permission.

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Population: Passing on the Baton by Jonathon Porritt

'Facing the Population Challenge' Edited by Marilyn Hempel

‘Facing the Population Challenge’ Edited by Marilyn Hempel

I’ve been tracking the population debate for the best part of 40 years. So how come I’d never heard of Professor Albert Bartlett before?

Al Bartlett died last year, at the age of 90, after a lifetime teaching Physics at the University of Colorado, and strenuously advocating zero population growth and environmental sustainability. He captured that advocacy in 21 ‘Laws Relating to Sustainability’.

I won’t stick them all in here, but here’s a taste:

[1] Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A population growth rate less than or equal to zero, and declining rates of consumption of resources, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a sustainable society.

Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.

The term ‘Sustainable Growth’ is an oxymoron.

In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, the only smart growth is no growth.

[2] In a society with a growing population and/or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and/or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

[3] The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

[4] The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

[5] One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

[6] The benefits of large efforts to protect the environment are easily cancelled by the added demands that result from small increases in human population.

[7] If, for whatever reasons, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

[8] The addition of the word ‘sustainable’ to our vocabulary, to our reports, programmes and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programmes, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

Most of which makes a heck of a lot of sense to me.

So I’m very grateful to Marilyn Hempel, Editor of the new book, ‘Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders’ in which I first encountered Al Bartlett and his sustainability laws, and to Malcolm Potts, one of the liveliest and authoritative of those Elders, who I had the privilege of getting to know when we were both on the Royal Society’s Working Group that produced the ‘People and the Planet’ report in 2012.

Marilyn asked Malcolm and 14 other Elders (including Paul and Anne Ehrlich) to write a short piece in answer to the following question: ‘If you could assemble the world’s leaders in a room and address them, what would you say?’

The responses are inevitably somewhat uneven, and inevitably somewhat repetitive, but those world leaders would sure as hell have got the message at the end of the 15 sessions! Collectively, the wisdom of these Elders is mighty impressive.

Al Bartlett himself puts it most succinctly: ‘Every government needs an Office of Common Sense. But don’t venture in there until you understand the arithmetic of population.’

I’m sure that all those Elders will be hoping that their work will be picked up and taken forward by the next generation (and, no doubt, by the one after that!) of population campaigners. Including, I imagine, Emily Maynard, who emailed me recently with a new infographic aimed particularly at public health practitioners. It’s somewhat apocalyptic for my taste, but with 76 million more of us on Earth at the end of every year than at the start of that year – year after year! – the logic is compelling. http://www.mphonline.org/overpopulation-public-health/

Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders’, edited by Marilyn Hempel, published 2014 by Blue Planet United, ISBN 9780692212271 

CLICK HERE to order the book online.

Source: http://www.jonathonporritt.com/blog/population-passing-baton

The Hon. Sir Jonathon Espie Porritt, 2nd Baronet, CBE (born 6 July 1950), is a British environmentalist and writer, perhaps best known for his championing of Green issues and his advocacy of the Green Party of England and Wales. Porritt appears frequently in the media, writing in magazines, newspapers and books, and appearing on radio and television regularly. He has also written a number of books. His newest title, The World We Made (Alex McKay’s story from 2050) was launched in October 2013. Porritt acts as advisor to many bodies on environmental matters, as well as to individuals including Prince Charles. From 2000 to 2009, he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission set up by the then prime minister, Tony Blair. He was, however, critical of the Labour government for its environmental record and its pro-nuclear stance, and has campaigned against nuclear power. Porritt is a patron of Population Matters (formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust).

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Why the Earth is Farting by Alan Weisman

WhyEarthFartingAfter two consecutive summers averaging 5 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, frozen methane is not merely thawing, it’s exploding.

Every day, you have a close personal encounter with methane, a key ingredient of something we don’t usually mention in polite company: farts.

Perhaps that’s why methane is also called “natural gas.” Unfortunately, neither propriety nor intestinal discipline can suppress its unpleasantness lately, because now not just us, but the Earth itself is farting.

Recently, three new craters, one of which measured approximately 100 feet wide and over 200 feet deep, were discovered in the Siberian permafrost. The explanation for them is even more alarming than asteroid strikes: Apparently, after two consecutive summers averaging 5 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, frozen methane is not merely thawing, it’s exploding. Scientists fear that, like chronic bad digestion, this phenomenon could be ongoing. Methane in the air surrounding these craters already measures 53,000 times the normal concentration.

Then, just a week into a research trip, a team from Stockholm University found “vast methane plumes” shooting from the sea floor off the Siberian coast. Columns of gas bubbles, they reported, were surfacing around their icebreaker in waters saturated with 10 to 50 times more methane than usual.

This was the marine equivalent of melting permafrost, the undoing of frozen crystals called methane hydrates, locked solid for millennia by the pressure and temperature of deep oceans.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research calculates that methane hydrates hold trillions of tons of hydrocarbons, from two to 10 times the amount as all conventional deposits of fossil fuels, but they’re probably too costly or unsafe to harvest. Now, as ocean temperatures rise, they’ve begun collapsing, spewing as much gas skyward as the thawing tundra.

Airborne methane produces 86 times the heat-trapping greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Although CO2 remains in the atmosphere far longer, after 100 years methane is still 30 times more potent. With sea level increases from 3 to 6 feet already predicted by the century’s end, such stunning global flatulence isn’t merely embarrassing, but devastating for civilization.

So what do we do? First, we recognize that the reason this is happening involves a misleading term: positive feedback loop. It’s misleading because for us there’s nothing positive about it. It means that as temperatures rise, warming land and seas fart (belch, if you prefer) more methane — which then warms things further, so dangerous eruptions accelerate. Feeding back on itself, warming begets more warming.

Second, we admit that this loop began with us. By now, the link between fuel that jet-propels our industrialized civilization and excess CO2 and methane in the atmosphere is challenged only by those who profit obscenely from it.

Third, we stop compounding the problem by ceasing to pretend that energy derived by shattering our bedrock to squeeze even more natural gas from it is somehow “clean.” Not only does burning methane crank planetary heat higher, but fracking wells also inevitably leak. At least 2% of their methane output, the EPA conservatively estimates, seeps into the atmosphere, thickening the gas layer that’s already turning Earth into a hothouse.

Nor will the other 98% go to heat our homes. Enormous pipelines are now proposed to transport fracked methane through New England’s conservation lands and orchards, through northern Minnesota’s prime tourism and wild rice lake districts, and across the Ogallala Aquifer-fed farms of our nation’s heartland. Each will terminate at a port, where its gas will be exported, not used domestically.

What will remain is scarred land and the methane that escapes or explodes (most recently on June 26, in East Bernard, Texas, into 150-foot flames). Such pipelines will be subsidized by rate-payers, not by vastly wealthy corporations that own them — unless we refuse to let them be built, and instead commit our energy funding henceforth to truly cleaner options, like wind and solar.

The last time there was this much atmospheric CO2 was 3 million years ago, when seas were 80 to 100 feet higher. Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric methane has more than doubled, and the amount now gushing from the seas alone is 34 times what we thought just seven years ago.

Until we stop putting more carbon dioxide and methane overhead, prepare for more rude farts to foul your air, and our future. With coastal cities, fertile deltas and much of the world’s rice crops threatened by floods or salination from encroaching seas. And with grain harvests predicted to fall 10% for each added 1 degree C of average temperature, farting greenhouse gases isn’t merely vulgar — it’s deadly.

See: http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/12/opinion/weisman-craters-methane/index.html?iref=allsearch

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Cost of Raising a Child in the U.S. Climbs to $245,340 by Alan Bjerga and Kasia Klimasinska

Photo by Erin, Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ephotography29/3293404966/in/photolist-622yyf-61Xm6c-gNRJ8-6dXHpH-eicv8f-6vKA54-5dpXja-6YNroa-7hZkmq-6YNrg2-6YNrmt-6YNreD-6YStbu-6YStaq-6YNrdF-622yBu-5gJJSr-5Czciz-5CDuqm-5CDuUw-622yHJ-5cbeWT-5doJAe-6YSt1q-6YSt9u-2R3BFE-nQHLtM-nQDY7J-nyeVpX-61Xmbk-622yxh-622yGo-622yDj-61Xm78-5Cz9Jr-a9VJ8-5CDtQG-5CzcAt-5CDs6A-5Cz9XH-5CDvb5-5duiq1-5Czbqi-5CzcJ2-5Czc6c-5CzbHa-5Czcb4-5CDv65-5CDsDG-5CDsf7

Photo by Erin, Flickr, Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/622yyf

The cost for a middle-income family to raise a child born last year to age 18 is $245,340, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) annual report Expenditures on Children by Families. The report showed wealthier families spend more than twice as much on their children as poorer households.

Housing was the largest expense at 30%. Child care was the second-biggest cost in more affluent homes, while lower-income households spent a greater proportion on food. Costs have climbed as the need for day care has increased and a recovery in U.S. home prices adds expense.

“Improving economic times would definitely help families be able to afford to spend more on kids,” Elizabeth Peters, director of the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “And they allow them to think about starting to have a family in a situation when they wouldn’t have before.”

The study, conducted since 1960, tracks seven categories of spending, such as housing, transportation and clothing, and is used to help courts and government agencies estimate child-support costs, the USDA said. For typical two-child, two-parent families with income from $61,530 to $106,540 before tax, annual spending on each child was $12,800 to $14,970 in 2013, according to the report.

Adjusted for anticipated annual inflation of 2.4 percent, raising a child in a middle-class family would cost $304,480 through 2030, the USDA said.


“Even if the growth isn’t as high as it has been in previous years, families are still spending a lot on raising children,” said Katie Hamm, the director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based group aligned with Democrats. “It’s really difficult for the families.”


For the complete article and report, go to Bloomberg Business Week:


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Majestic Whooping Cranes Face Uncertain Future by the David Suzuki Foundation

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.

The whooping crane has long been the flagship of the conservation movement. The majestic bird—North America’s tallest—flies more than 8,000 kilometers each year, breeding in northern Alberta and wintering in marshes along the Texas coast. Still, its future remains uncertain.

Today we think of species becoming endangered when sprawling big box stores and subdivisions displace remnant natural areas within and around our cities or when large-scale industrial resource extraction fragments wilderness areas.

Whooping cranes have a longer history. In the late 1800s, Canadians began farming the prairies, expelling cranes from their breeding habitat. At the same time, Americans drained west coast marshes, where whooping cranes overwintered. Hunting also contributed to their decline.

North America was once home to more than 10,000 cranes. By 1938, the population reached an all-time low of 14 known adults.

In the early 1940s, the conservation movement leapt into action.

Over seventy years later, after significant breeding-area protection, captive breeding, aircraft-led migration and relocation efforts, the whooping crane has made a slow, often tenuous comeback.

Today there are several captive-bred and non-migratory populations, but only one—shared by the U.S. and Canada—that is self-sustaining and wild. That group breeds every year in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Northwest Territories and Alberta, and winters in Texas, flying about 4,000 kilometers each way. Although the population has been steadily increasing—there were 74 nests counted in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2013 and a few breeding pairs outside the park—it still faces a number of perilous risks in Texas and Alberta—not un-coincidently, the oil kings of North America.

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon. According to COSEWIC, Canada’s independent science assessment body of at-risk species, U.S. chemical spills are one of the biggest threats: “…the greatest concern is in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the Texas coast. Numerous oil and gas wells and connecting pipelines are located in bay and upland sites near the cranes’ winter habitat, and many barges carrying dangerous, toxic chemicals travel the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway daily through Whooping Crane winter habitat. A spill or leak of these substances could contaminate or kill the cranes’ food supply or poison the cranes.”

Although the birds have a national protected area in Canada to breed, they still need to survive along their migration and stopover route—right over the Alberta tar sands. One of the most serious threats to the population is juvenile birds dying during their migration from Wood Buffalo to Texas. They risk landing in toxic tailings ponds, flying into power lines and exposure to water and air contaminated by the bitumen extraction process.

The fact that there is only one self-sustaining wild population of crane heightens the risk of a single, catastrophic event.

Crane recovery efforts cannot be done in isolation. National parks that protect Canadian breeding areas are important, but insufficient if the cranes can’t safely make their way back to Texas for their blue crab feast.

For the whooping crane—and for Canada’s over 300 other at-risk species—we need to find ways to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems even where development occurs.

Source: Our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation – “solutions are in our nature”. <http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/wildlife-habitat/science/species-at-risk-act/majestic-whooping-crane-faces-uncertain-future/>

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NOT YET? The Power of Ignorance, Denial, Faith, and Greed by Paul Ehrlich and John Harte

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.

The summer 2014 issue of CALIFORNIA, the magazine of the University of California Alumni Association, was touted as the “Apocalypse Issue.” It contained articles, mostly excellent, on a series of potential California and global problems: asteroid collision, epidemics, extinction, climate disruption and earthquake.  In stark contrast, though, was a summary article, “Apocalypse Later” by Brendan Buhler, interim Science Editor for the issue. 

Buhler’s essay hinges around two assertions about the future.  On the one hand he says that apocalypse is far off in the future.  It is “not yet”; there is time.  Time for what?  For the technological solutions that he asserts are just around the corner.  To advise a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to confronting severe threats to us and our descendants, and a thoughtless confidence when it comes to future breakthroughs in technology, is a lethal combination; it is not the advice we and many of our scientist colleagues offer up in the classroom.

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.  Education can cure ignorance, and most of the essays in this issue of CALIFORNIA are a useful step in that direction.  But denial, blind faith, and greed are pervasive and recalcitrant, as Buhler demonstrates. 

Greed, long recognized as the basis of modern economic systems, is illustrated by Buhler’s assertions about salvation via new supplies of oil made available by melting ice caps.  Those who would exploit these resources do so out of greed, not out of concern about the collapse of civilization, and in fact the exploitation of those resources will hasten collapse.  Buhler expresses faith that farm yields will begin to rise again, faith in a second coming of the Green Revolution.  And his assertion that biofuels could well be the path to sustainable energy denies a growing body of scientific literature demonstrating the many ways that reliance on biofuel technology will leave the planet in even worse shape than it currently is: more vulnerable to energy supply disruption because of energy dependence on a capricious climate, more depauperate of biodiversity, and shorter of food as critical resources such as water, nutrients, and land become even more depleted.   

To see Denial in operation, consider the rant that frames the entire article: Buhler’s dismissal of the concerns about population size found in both Malthus and The Population Bomb.  As is true of so many critics of Malthus and the “Bomb“, Buhler appears to have not understood the content of either.  A widely cited passage from the latter stated “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Let’s evaluate that passage in the light of the reality today.  Buhler denies that some 300 million people have died of hunger or hunger-related disease since the “Bomb” was written, and that at least two billion people are hungry or nutrient malnourished today – despite the crash program of the “Green Revolution.”  

Buhler notes the many barriers to improving food security – the brutal crashes in fisheries, ocean acidification and warming, soil loss, and the like, but simply asserts “there are solutions to these problems.” He does not note how far above the long-term carrying capacity of Earth the human enterprise has expanded.   

In short Buhler’s implication that controlling human numbers is not required to solve food problems may be true for the very wealthy, at least for now, but the failure of human beings to solve the production/distribution problems exacerbated by overpopulation has already caused, and is now causing, so much death and misery that “not yet” seems like a very bad joke. 

Buhler might have the ignorance excuse for not realizing things like the many nonlinear negative effects of population increase, or the frequently-studied tight relationships between human population size and epidemics, and human numbers and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.  But only denial can explain his (and most of the media’s) failure to point out the way human population growth helps drive climate disruption, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and soil loss (all those things which Buhler tells us have solutions, but just “not yet”).

Buhler’s “Apocalypse issue” doesn’t touch on one of the most significant elements of the approaching apocalypse:  building resource/climate wars could easily become nuclear, especially if triggered by the not unlikely possibility of nuclear terrorism.  He doubtless is unfamiliar with the doom inherent in even minor nuclear conflicts.  In his funniest statement Buhler says that “As [oil] supplies dwindle….before long it’s resource wars.”  We wonder if he even knows about Iraq!  But overall, Buhler sadly suffers from a clear case of what political scientist Gunther Anders calls “apocalypse blindness” – an inability to weigh up and respond appropriately to real dangers.   He does not make the connections among the generally excellent other articles in the “Apocalypse Issue” that would tie them together in the notorious perfect storm of environmental existential problems that are already ruining millions of human lives and darkening the future of civilization.  “Not yet”?  Nonsense.

Pete Seeger summarized our situation best when he wrote about Vietnam:  “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”  To a nation eager to cease fighting an unwarranted and unwinnable war nearly 50 years ago, the nation was told “not yet”.  Today, it is most disappointing to hear that same bad advice, “not yet”, given to university students eager to get to work on a warranted and achievable transition to a sustainable economy and a humane population size.  Means of achieving the former exist in the form of improved efficiency and ever more affordable energy from wind and sun.  Progress toward a sustainable human population worldwide can be made by affording women basic human rights and access to contraceptives, which give women the capacity to exercise freedom over their own reproduction.  Amazingly, in place of advocating these sensible strategies for reducing the risk of apocalypse, Buhler offers up biofuels, oil from under the ice caps, and obliviousness to the population issue. A magazine representing a great institution of higher education can do better than feature such a splendid example of ignorance, denial, faith, and greed

Source: Millenium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/not-yet/

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