Thursday 18 December 2014

Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.

This is one of many many videos circulating the interweb telling us about the mess we are making of our planet. But what I liked about this is that it points out that far beyond the loss of any particular species is the unknowable (until after the fact) underlying role that they play within not just their own specific environment, but how that impacts on the whole planetary ecosystem. Many years ago I was given a copy of the Gaia Atlas of Planet Management that was one of the first things I ever read about the idea of the interrelatedness of all species and environments on the planet. And this is beside the fact that there is something about the slaughter of whales that is unspeakable. (Did you know whales have best friends, Tish told me that when we were chatting the other night.) It's that fact that we should not be annihilating species, like the whales or the tigers or the polar bears, not because they are amazing, or beautiful or fascinating, but because doing so fundamentally disrupts the entire food chain and will have profound impacts on things we are only just beginning to understand.

My reading in the last few weeks has included 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert, an interesting and far-reaching study into the decline in species currently happening on our planet. It added to the stuff I found myself learning about when we went to Costa Rica and also the Coursera course that I did last year on the History of Humankind. Through the book she draws on a variety of examples from very diverse environments and times to explain how the impact of human beings is leading to what is now being termed the Sixth Extinction.

She begins with the mastodon and Georges Cuvier, a naturalist from the 1800s, one of the earliest studiers of the fossil record. It was he who first proposed the idea that there had been periodic mass disappearances of species from our planet. Although much of his research and findings have since been superseded his basic conclusion was surprisingly accurate:
"In fact, the American mastodon vanished around thirteen thousand years ago. Its demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as the megafauna extinction. This wave coincided with the spread of modern humans and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it. In this sense, the crisis Culvier discerned just beyond the edge of recorded history was us." (p.45)
The following chapter on the great auk tells the same story in much more detail, since this flightless bird's destruction was well documented. It was pretty much unmitigated slaughter, characterised thusly (giving rise to the title of the post), on a visit to a museum in Iceland:
"In addition to a pair of auk bones, the display featured a video recreation of an early encounter between man and bird. In the video, a shadowy figure crept along the rocky shore towards a shadowy auk. When he drew close enough, the figure pulled out a stick and clubbed the animal over the head. The auk responded with a cry somewhere between a honk and a grunt. I found the video grimly fascinating and watched it play though half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat." (p.58)

Moving on to something that I had always thought of as a thing, but that turns out to be a creature, she gives an examination of what is happening to coral. It is an example of another species that we should not be saving because it is pretty, but because it serves a fundamental purpose in the ecosystem of the oceans:
"What sets them apart from other calcifies is that instead of working solo, to produce a shell, say, or some calcitic plates, corals engage in vast communal building projects that stretch over generations. Each individual, known unflatteringly as a polyp, add to its colony's collective exoskeleton. On a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to this same basic task. Given enough time (and the right conditions) the result is another paradox: a living structure. The Great Barrier Reef extends, discontinuously, for more than 2,600 kilometres, and in some places it is a hundred and fifty metres thick. By the scale of the reefs, the pyramids at Giza are kiddie blocks.
The way corals change the world - with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations - might be likened to the way humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures corals support them. Thousands - perhaps millions - of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food. This coevolutionary venture has been underway for many geological epochs. Researchers now believe it won't last out the Anthropocene." (p130)

Even something as tiny as the ant, a creature I have both killed off vehemently and played host to when the kids were younger, can be far more significant that you might imagine:
"Army ants are famously voracious; a colony on the march can consume thirty thousand prey - mostly larvae of other insects - per day. But in their very rapacity, they support a host of other species. There's a whole class of birds known as obligate ant-followers. These are almost always found around any swarms, eating insects the ants have flushed out of the leaf litter. Other birds are opportunistic ant-followers and peck around the ants when, by chance, the encounter them. After the ant-following birds trail a variety of other creatures that are also experts at 'doing exactly what they do.' There are butterflies that feed on the birds' droppings and parasitic flies that deposit their young on startled crickets and cockroaches. Several species of mites hitch rides aboard the ants themselves; one species fastens itself to the ants' legs, another to its mandibles. A pair of American naturalists, Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer, who spent more than half a century studying Eciton burchellii, came up with a list of more than three hundred species that live in association with the ants." (p.184)

Another quote from the same chapter, that discusses 'the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project' gets to the root of why the fragmentation of nature is so damaging. (The project itself is using the fragments of forest to learn about biodiversity and ecology, not as a solution to forest destruction). It does not work to just save little pockets of forest, or to create safe reserves for a species, because you are not dealing with the needs of all the other species that go along with them:
"The statary phase can last for up to three weeks, which helps explain one of the more puzzling discoveries to come out of the BDFFP: even forest fragments large enough to support colonies of army ants end up losing their antbirds. Obligate ant-followers need foraging ants to follow, and apparently in the fragments there just aren't enough colonies to ensure that one will always be active. Here again, Cohn-Haft told me, was a demonstration of the rainforest's logic. The antbirds are so good at doing 'exactly what they do' that they're extremely sensitive to any changes that make their particular form of doing more difficult.
'When you find one thing that depends on something else that, in turn, depends on something else, the whole series of interactions depends on constancy,' he said. I thought about this as we trudged back to camp. If Cohn-Haft was right, then in its crazy, circus-like complexity the ant-bird-butterfly parade was actually a figure for the Amazon's stability. Only in a place where the rules of the game remain fixed is there time for the butterflies to evolve to feed on the shit of birds that evolved to follow ants. Yes, I was disappointed that we hadn't found the ants. But I figured I had nothing on the birds." (p.191-2)

Some change has happened deliberately, like the hacking down of the rainforests, others simply from carelessness, like the introduction of invasive species from one continent to another, from the ubiquitous rats to the weird fungus currently killing off America's bat population. What we can no longer deny (ok, I know some people manage to) is the massive and seemingly irreversible damage that we are inflicting on the world. Yes, over the millions of years of the planet's existence there has been a constant loss of species, a steady replacement of creatures with other creatures, the environment of the planet has been in a state of constant change, but change mostly happened so slowly that creatures could adapt themselves over time. The change that is happening now, man-made change, is so abrupt that there is just no time to change, no room for adaptation. I was left feeling both informed but also completely impotent. The problems are so massive and it seems like even when people try and fix them they often end up making things worse. The structure of our economic culture just does not allow for the changes that need to happen.

"The one feature these disparate events have in common is the change, and to be more specific, rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky as a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world.
This capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fullest expression. Indeed, this capacity of probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks. As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed the limits of that world. 'In many ways human language is like the genetic code,' the British palaeontologist Michael Benton has written. 'Information is stored and transmitted, with modifications, down the generations. Communication holds societies together and allows humans to escape evolution.' Were people simply heedless or selfish or violent, there wouldn't be an Institute for Conservation Research, and there wouldn't need to be one. If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap." (p.266)

I think idea that we have escaped evolution, that in a way we have taken over control of what happens on the planet, is quite profound. Humans are no longer evolving based on our genes and our ancestry, but we are adapting based on the combined knowledge and experience of our whole species. 
The book is by turns depressing and inspirational, tales of destruction and loss coupled with individual efforts to tackle the problems. You can't help but profoundly admire these people who see a problem and decide that is the one they are going to try and solve, most of us just feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. I feel a whole lot better informed about all sorts of stuff, and inspired by her extensive bibliography to read some more. Also this article by the wonderful George Monbiot summarises much of what the book discusses much better than I have managed to. 

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