Monday, July 20, 2015

Dispatch from the Endocene, #7

Below is the transcript and links for the 7th Dispatch from the Endocene, which aired on Sunday, July 19.  The podcast can be heard at the Extinction Radio website.  My part begins at 1 hour 6 minutes into the broadcast.  Many thanks to the hardworking producers, and all the other contributers, especially for the marvelous poetry from Rex Eagle and Benjamin the Donkey...enjoy!

Welcome to the 7th Dispatch From the Endocene, and thanks for listening.  Links to all the information I will mention will be found at the Extinction Radio website.

There is never any lack of material when the topic is the staggering and accelerating loss of earth’s biodiversity.  Much of it is directly due to hunting animals for meat or dubious medical purposes, and logging or other forms of habitat destruction for mining or agriculture.  Less disruptive but perhaps more despicable, there is illegal collecting of protected species - for enthusiasts of plants like orchids, or tropical birds.

One particularly sad episode was the discovery of 3,800 endangered Philippine forest turtles, found tossed in a cement tank in a warehouse.  The turtles were in horrible dehydrated condition, the injured buried under piles of the dead.  Rescuers were able to nurse many of them back to health and release them, but the episode highlights the nefarious activity of poaching for the exotic pet trade as another reason that wildlife is endangered.

Another more elusive cause is no doubt anthropogenic in origin, but harder to trace directly to warming, to pollution, or disease.  That would be incidents like the unexplained dieoff of sea stars up and down the west coast of North America, a tragedy which is updated in a well-researched and worthy article that I highly recommend.  Another is the sudden and inexplicable desertion of their nests, by thousands of sea birds in Florida.  Indeed, a new study reveals that globally, sea bird populations are down by an incredible 70 percent since the 1950’s, which doesn’t bode well for marine species in general.

Yet another pressure on wildlife comes from competition with domesticated animals for habitat and food, which affects little vulnerable mammalian species such as the elusive, and adorably fuzzy Chinese Ili Pika.  For a comprehensive, updated list of links to worldwide dieoff events, you could do worse that visiting  Even though they are religious fundamentalists they post exhaustive links to legitimate news stories.

Probably anyone who knows anything about climate change has spent an annoying week swatting at the avalanche of news reports, most of them stupidly distorting recent research regarding sunspots.  There is nothing in the research to indicate we are heading for a mini ice age, but you would never know it from the sloppy media coverage.  

Aside from that, the frenzy it stirred up reminds me once again that the environmental movement made a colossal mistake by allowing the debate over climate change to dominate research and activism.  Not that CO2 isn’t the most important initial forcing greenhouse gas, or that climate change isn’t an existential threat.  But the single-minded emphasis on that facet of overshoot has enabled deniers, both the idiot and the malicious types, to deflect any serious conversation about what underlies climate change.

In fact, as recounted by the UK Guardian environmental editor John Vidal following his recent heart bypass surgery, the concern with CO2 led to a turn towards diesel fuel in Europe, which has since led to far worse health impacts from higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution.  He wrote:  “So was my health and that of millions of others cynically traded off against the urgency to control climate emissions? Those working in the UK government in the 1990s recall how climate change trumped any objections from scientists, or from the few people who understood the health implications of a major switch to diesel.”

A similar question might be asked about ethanol and other biofuels, which also emit far more nitrous oxides, a precursor of ozone.  And yet another question might be asked, but almost never is - How much is air pollution sickening wild animals, insects like bees, and plants and trees?

For whatever complicated reasons, the issue of climate change seized the discourse decades ago, and ecology was left to the “softer” science of biology, a discipline looked down upon by physicists and atmospheric chemists.  It turned out to be quite fortuitous for corporations that climate change dangers in the future are easier for people to ignore and for politicians to quibble over, than even more pressing concerns such as not having clean water, running out of fish, and forests being poisoned by ozone.  

There are still lots of climate and social justice activists who claim overpopulation isn’t a problem, even accusing those who are concerned about it of being racist.

So with all this running through my mind it was a fun coinkydink that a friend emailed me an essay titled “Facts - The Coming Destruction of Civilization in the Very Near Future”.  The author is named Jason G. Brent, and his website is, where you can find more of his writings and a link to his book, called “Humans - An Endangered Species”.

The fascinating thing about the essay is that Mr. Brent makes a persuasive case that civilization is going to collapse, and the human population is going to plunge precipitously if not disappear entirely, without ever once even mentioning climate change.  He comes to this conclusion simply by exploring various scenarios to answer the question he poses, which is:  “How long will it take humankind to completely consume all of the Earth’s resources and destroy itself?”

The way in which he examines this seldom-asked question probably derives from his background as an engineer, with degrees in business, and law.  Mr. Brent looks at the compound growth of population and the economy and has discovered it will inevitably end in a disaster for humanity.  It’s a sort of “do the math” for population similar to McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, Do The Math, for CO2 ppm in the atmosphere.  He compares various UN population projections and relates them to two major, finite resources, essential to contemporary life.  Oil, and fresh water, are both already severely constrained and about to become dramatically more so.  This scarcity will have an increasingly devastating impact on human society, and he predicts civility will break down in horrendous ways should the human population continue its trend of compound growth.

Ultimately Mr. Brent brings us to a point even more rarely considered, which is, when are we going to discuss coercive birth control?  Is it better to hope that voluntary birth control will be sufficient, or leave reduction to be effected by resource wars, at least some of which will almost certainly deploy weapons of mass destruction, rendering swathes of the Earth irradiated?

He lays out the only available options as three:

a) War, starvation, disease and other horrors.
b) Voluntary population control.
c) Coercive population control

To those who recoil at the thought of coercive, I was surprised to see that he quotes my Facebook friend Paul Chefurka (thus proving what a tiny minority the doomer world represents!):

“Is there bread and milk on the store shelves?  If so, everything is fine, so abortion and infanticide can be regarded as sins.  Cut the food supply by 50% and watch the morality change”.

My thought has always been that only coercive birth control will be effective, but it’s not worth pursuing because it will never be acceptable.  Mr. Brent makes the case that even so, it must be put on the table, because the alternatives a and b are, respectively, unthinkable and highly unlikely to succeed.

An interesting contrast to his position can be found in James Hansen’s 2014 Opinion paper, in which he promotes widespread proliferation of nuclear power plants.  According to his analysis, the other so-called clean energy sources - wind, solar, geothermal and so forth - will be wholly insufficient to power modern society - and enable the people of developing nations to rise out of poverty which translates into greater consumption of energy and manufactured products.  He went so far as to call the faith that green technology will save civilization a myth, and scornfully posted a clip from a post-Three Mile Island anti-nuclear protest with Ralph Nader and people promoting not only solar and wind, but also, wood-burning stoves and coal.  He seems frustrated that the general public and the politicians pandering to their anti-science tendencies fail to accurately assess relative risks, noting that fossil fuel emissions kill far more people than nuclear ever dreamed of.  In fact, a new study just emerged claiming that air pollution kills nearly 9,500 per year in London alone.

And yet Hansen seems to have no cognizance that overpopulation is the root of our imminent reckoning with limits to growth.  Perhaps he hangs his well-known hat on the notion that greater prosperity from nuclear power will lower the growth rate without any deliberate effort required, which is…another myth.

There is a video on youtube that zooms in and out of a massively detailed NASA photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy.  It’s truly beautiful and terrible that highly advanced technology has enabled us to see such a wondrous sight that we would never be able to view with the naked eye, although we might imagine it. The universe is so vast, that watching it I had to feel convinced that there must be many, many other planets where life has begun, and places where intelligent, sentient, sophisticated species have evolved - and then, as more and more planets and stars emerged from infinity I could only think that the solution to Fermi’s Paradox must be that sad, and paradoxically comforting notion, that by the time a species achieves the technology to travel or communicate through space, they will have run out of resources, and out of time.

As we humans on earth are, for all but the shouting, out of our brief time here.  If you want to keep up with all the bad news that Fox won’t tell you, check out the website Global Risk Report - which presents an excellent aggregate of the latest and most interesting articles, research, and blog posts about energy, the economy, and the environment.

That’s all for this week, thanks to the producers of this show and especially to Mike Ferrigan, our founder, whom I will greatly miss.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Stewards of Planet Earth

The entire west coast of North America is very hot and very dry, and there are a truly staggering number of wildfires as a result.  Still, it is ironic that you can see a news video like the one embedded in this Seattle Times article, "Burning Rain Forest Raises Concern About Future" - which begins with a shot of a huge old tree, smoke pouring out of a gigantic hole at the base.  Obviously, the process of interior rot began long before this season's unprecedented drought and heat wave, and yet none of the firefighters interviewed seem to have any inkling that the forest has been dying for some years - not even the firefighter who says, a couple of minutes into the film, that the trees are rotted on the inside!

It would appear that nowadays people think it is normal for trees to be rotten.  Perhaps we will soon get used to regular reports of fires raging out of control, and people dying in heat waves.

Following is the transcript for the 6th Dispatch from the Endocene, which aired on Extinction Radio on Sunday, July 5 (embedded below, starting at 6:54 in):

Hello Mike, and welcome, listeners, to the Sixth Dispatch from the Endocene.

No sooner had I finished my last Dispatch, when immediately a new paper was released - which proclaimed that hey, there really IS a Sixth Mass Extinction underway or, at least, the beginning of one.  This publication ignited countless sensational headlines, even in mainstream media, and other silly version at Motherboard/Vice - “We Are 100%, For Sure, in the Middle of a Major Extinction Event”!

Probably anybody who is savvy enough to be part of the Extinction Radio audience is already aware of this research and its explosive impact in the past two weeks, but for convenience there will be links to some of the news articles and author interviews at the website, as for the other studies that will be part of today’s episode.

The unusual hoopla may have come as a surprise to those biologists and ecologists who have been shouting from the mountaintops for years, even the authors, including Paul Ehrlich and Anthony Barnosky - that human overpopulation is outstripping the earth’s ability to provide resources and absorb pollution.  The primary warning  - that humans are destroying essential habitat for other species, and hunting them to oblivion - goes back to ecologists like Aldo Leopold starting in the 1920’s, and even to Thomas Malthus over two centuries ago.

Just last fall, a study in Conservation Biology, titled “Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction" found that the natural, prehistoric rate of extinction had been overestimated.  A summary of the research in PhyOrg stated that the prior estimate had “skewed the current rate, making it appear to be only 100 times faster during human times. With the new data, the researchers hypothesize not only that current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction but that future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher.”

Nevertheless this newest assessment, titled “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction” subjected the data to rigorous analysis.  In an effort to end criticism of biological alarmism, the authors used very cautious calculations to compare the prehistoric rate of extinctions for vertebrates with the current rate and found that, using the most extremely conservative parameters, it is now at least 100 times higher.  

There is doubt it is far worse than that, if only because there are so many insects and other invertebrates and plants for which there is little data or that haven’t even been discovered and named - tiny populations that inhabit such a rare specialized niche we will never even know they existed before they go extinct.

Inevitably, even as the import of their research is obviously dire, the last line of the abstract includes the obligatory hopeful statement - that it’s not too late to reverse the trend, as long as we hurry up.  In the discussion section, the authors even made the preposterous assertion that “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species, and to alleviate pressures on their populations - notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain and climate change.”  

I had to laugh at the absurdity of qualifying “mass extinction” with the word “true”.  “True” as opposed to, what, a “phony” mass extinction?  A “pretend” mass extinction?  A “fantasy, only in your nightmares” mass extinction?

Despite that cowardly disclaimer, the attention given their conclusions would seem to indicate their results hit a nerve within a rising crescendo of growing anxiety.  Recently we have seen a slow collective awakening to overshoot and collapse that is reflected in contemporary literature, movies, and news about massive dieoffs that are becoming more difficult to avoid completely, because they are affecting a huge number of species, almost everywhere you care to look.

This causes me to wonder how long it will before the climate and environmental activist communities are forced to stop blaming public ignorance and corporate manipulation of the media.  What or who will they blame for the conspicuous lack of action, when it eventually becomes clear that people DO know humans are causing mass extinctions, as well as creating climate chaos - but we simply aren’t willing to give up the conveniences and luxuries of modern civilization…no matter how badly our own offspring will fare in the aftermath?  

Most people I come across don’t even bother with active denial, they simply ignore the warnings - because they understand at a visceral level, perhaps even better than scientists and green activists, that to "do something" about those problems would require a huge personal sacrifice, and nobody is willing to do that (not even the scientists and the activists).  Nobody wants to give up lights, planes, iphones, electronic toys, reproducing, cars, and strawberries in winter. As for the billions of people that can’t access those options yet, they aspire to have them.

And it is worth repeating that the sixth mass extinction is not being driven, at least not yet, by climate change.

Here is how one academic posed the issue in an article published in in 2013:

“What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.”

“Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.”

“The reason is that climate change is A problem, not THE problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.”

“Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.”

“Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.”

“The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.”

Speaking of having enough oxygen to support the life we know, you will find a link to new research that traces a serious depletion in the concentration of oxygen due to a variety of human activities, including producing fertilisers essential to feed the billions of people already on earth.

One prominent scientist not associated with that Sixth Mass Extinction study we began with, but who has been in the forefront of extinction warnings over a very long and distinguished career, is Professor Eric Pianka of the University of Texas at Austin.  He is one of the world’s experts on herpetology and an evolutionary ecologist, soon to be conferred the well-deserved title of Eminent Ecologist, by the Ecological Society of America, next month.  He has had a fascinating career, doing extensive field work in the Great Victoria desert of Australia and the Kalahari in Africa.

Some of you might recall a sordid episode in 2006 when Dr. Pianka’s acceptance speech upon receiving the “Distinguished Texas Scientist of the Year” award, was twisted out of all recognition and distorted to imply he favored a global Ebola epidemic, to cull the human race.  If you missed it, the outlines of the controversy are actually a good introduction to his perspective, so a link about that, plus others to his writing will also be found on the Extinction Radio website.

Being familiar with some of Dr. Pianka’s essays as well as his endorsement of Reg Morrison, author of Spirit in the Gene, I emailed him seeking a less sugar-coated scientific assessment of the prospects for biodiversity - given the general unwillingness of people to rein in their consumption.  Specifically, I asked him what he thought the odds were the human species will make it to, say, 2050 - and he replied:

“We blew right past our chance to ease into a sustainable existence decades ago in the mid-1980s and we are well into the anthropocene sixth extinction.”

“Collapse is now inevitable but it’s impossible to predict exactly when this will happen.  It will differ in different places, depending on populations and resources, especially water.”

In another message, Dr. Pianka later added the following:

“For me, the disparity between what we are, and what we could have been, is the greatest tragedy.”

and he reflected, further:

“For the first and only time in the long history of life on Earth, a product of natural selection has understood the process by which we became to be what we are: we actually learned to understand our hard-wired instincts and fathom our subconscious mind but we have failed to find the willpower to overcome those instincts.

We also learned a lot about matter and energy, and even managed to date our cosmos.

As a scientist, I treasure human knowledge.  We got SO close, but then we blew it.
Some think that intelligence inevitably destroys itself.

We humans could have been God-like stewards of planet Earth.”

If you check out only one link I encourage you watch the youtube video where Dr. Pianka discusses and then reads James Dickey’s poem, “For the Last Wolverine”.  It is a presentation filled with both love and grief that encompasses all the pathos implied in our battered world.  The poem is even more heartbreaking for having been written in 1966.

The poets seem to have known for longer than science what we have lost.  Another is Robinson Jeffers, author of The Purse Seine, written in 1937.  Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel, California and witnessed the over harvesting of the once fabulously vast schools of sardines off the shore of Monterey.  The image of the fish trapped in the net was not unlike humanity trapped in crowded cities, divorced from nature, and he ended that poem with the lines,

“…There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”

To see Dr. Pianka’s evident sadness at our failure to be stewards of the Earth brought to mind the original Wizard of Oz book, where all residents and visitors in the Emerald City were required to wear green glasses - because it wasn’t really emerald.  Most people live their lives wearing the equivalent of tinted lenses, blinded to reality by believing in dreams and spirits, souls and immortality, irrational hope and denial.

Once that layer of wishful fantasy is removed, it is common to experience profound despair and regret, and then, to attempt to find meaning amidst the spectacular and insane festering waste we have rendered our only precious, splendid home, Earth.  Often the first reaction is an intense desire to do something about the impending catastrophes…and then finally, after a period of time, to realize there is nothing to be done.  Often people are desperate to believe that there could have been better outcome, and so they blame capitalism or agriculture.

From an article in the Washington Post about how we have exceeded boundaries beyond which the ecosystem can cope, I found this observation - “Humanity may have run into trouble with planetary boundaries even in prehistoric times, said Richard Alley, a Penn State geoscientist…The invention of agriculture may have been a response to food scarcity as hunting and gathering cultures spread around, and filled up, the planet, he said. “It’s pretty clear we were lowering the carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago,” Alley said."

Jared Diamond wrote in a paper some time ago (1987!) called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”:

“As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth…Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

It's been about 15,000 years since we hunted the megafauna to extinction.  We turned to agriculture, nearly simultaneously and independently all around the world, because of a continual process of overpopulation and migration, until eventually we filled even the most marginally habitable places and then overpopulated them as well.  In order to survive, people started to grow food and domesticate livestock.  We can no more divest ourselves of that proclivity than we can shed mysticism and the use of tools, language, symbols and expressions of art.

The people who began agriculture no more knew (or cared) that it would ultimately devastate ecosystems than the hunter/gatherers knew (or cared) that they would eat dozens upon dozens of slow-moving tortoises, flightless birds, and large herbivores to the point of extirpation.  Similarly, most people now are still blissfully unaware that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and that humans are causing it.

What did Jesus say?

"...forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Personally I find a lot of comfort in the philosopher Camus.  Life is absurd; it has no intrinsic meaning; so make your own.

I should add - dance, dance, dance, and sing.  Kiss the sky.  Hug your loved ones.  Bear witness to the fleeting beauty that still lingers on our blistered planet.  Spare some time to admire the trees, being choked and poisoned by atmospheric toxins.

And thanks for listening to this Dispatch From the Endocene.  extinction paper by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich, Anthony Barnosky, and others.

The Real News video interview with Gerardo Ceballos

Aldo Leopold and Malthus

2014 study by Jurriaan M. de Vos in Conservation Biology, "Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction."

Links for Dr. Pianka:

His rendering of the poem “For the Last Wolverine”, probably the most important link in this post

His video “Domino Effects”

Dr. Pianka’s explanation of the speech:

Reg Morrison - Spirit in the Gene:

Jared Diamond on Humanity’s Worst Mistake:

Thursday, July 2, 2015

One Weedy Species

Following is the transcript for my Fifth Dispatch from the Endocene.  The Extinction Radio Link is embedded at the end, where my segment begins at 1:29 minutes in.   The next installment airs Sunday, July 5.  Thanks to all the producers and contributers for a truly unique show!

Greetings listeners, and welcome to the fifth Dispatch from the Endocene.  I want to thank Extinction Radio for hosting another episode on their website, where they will be posting links for further reading on the topics in this segment.

Last week I said I expected to be talking about the ghastly moose situation, but since then a couple of other things seem more dire unless, of course, you are a moose.  Still, I’ll save them for another time.  One thing is certain - there is no lack of material when the subject is the spectacular ongoing crash of biodiversity on planet Earth.  That is, for anyone who is the least interested, and unfortunately, most people aren’t.  If you are still listening, you are in a very tiny exclusive cohort.

After a four-year review, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed this week that the Eastern Cougar, also knows as a puma, or panther, is officially extinct.  This is felicitous, because it lightens up the load on the burgeoning endangered species list.  It has been eighty years since the last known specimen was killed in New England, so what took them so long to declare it extinct?  And what does that have to do with calculating the number of species that are going extinct today - and how massive is the 6th mass extinction, really?

I want to illuminate these inquiries with a study from 2007 titled:  Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians.  Frogs, salamanders and caecilians (Sicilians) are considered to be the most at risk compared to any other taxon, which makes the scientists sad, because most of those amphibian species already managed to survive four mass extinctions and thus, are called “sentinels of environmental health.”  In other words, if the amphibians can’t make it through humanity’s influence of pollution, habitat destruction and epidemic fungal disease from global warming having survived this far, it doesn’t bode well for all the other, more recently evolved, life forms.  The paper informs us that, quote:

“The rate of extinction of amphibians is truly startling. A recent study estimates that current rates of extinction are 211 times the background extinction rate for amphibians, and rates would be as high as 25,000–45,000 times greater if all of the currently threatened species go extinct….”

“What Is the Principal Cause of the Present Extinction Spasm?” the scientists wonder, and then write
“Human activities are associated directly or indirectly with nearly every aspect of the current extinction spasm. The sheer magnitude of the human population has profound implications because of the demands placed on the environment. Population growth, which has increased so dramatically since industrialization, is connected to nearly every aspect of the current extinction event. Amphibians may be taken as a case study for terrestrial organisms. They have been severely impacted by habitat modification and destruction, which frequently has been accompanied by use of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, many other pollutants that have negative effects on amphibians are byproducts of human activities. Humans have been direct or indirect agents for the introduction of exotic organisms.”

“Furthermore, with the expansion of human populations into new habitats, new infectious diseases have emerged that have real or potential consequences, not only for humans, but also for many other taxa, such as the case of Bd and amphibians. Perhaps the most profound impact is the human role in climate change, the effects of which may have been relatively small so far, but which will shortly be dramatic (e.g., in the sea). Research building on the Global Amphibian Assessment database showed that many factors are contributing to the global extinctions and declines of amphibians in addition to disease. Extrinsic forces, such as global warming and increased climatic variability, are increasing the susceptibility of high-risk species (those with small geographic ranges, low fecundity, and specialized habitats).

“Multiple factors acting synergistically are contributing to the loss of amphibians. But we can be sure that behind all of these activities is one weedy species, Homo sapiens, which has unwittingly achieved the ability to directly affect its own fate and that of most of the other species on this planet. It is an intelligent species that potentially has the capability of exercising necessary controls on the direction, speed, and intensity of factors related to the extinction crisis. Education and changes of political direction take time that we do not have, and political leadership to date has been ineffective largely because of so many competing, short-term demands. A primary message from the amphibians, other organisms, and environments, such as the oceans, is that little time remains to stave off mass extinctions, if it is possible at all.”

Notice the emphasis on the oceans, in a paper written almost ten years ago - and voila here we are with news of massive die-offs in the Pacific grabbing the headlines, such as an article from the Seattle Times declaring “Toxic algae bloom might be largest ever”.  That story quoted a scientist who said, quote, “The fact that we’re seeing multiple toxins at the same time, we’re seeing high levels of domoic acid, and we’re seeing a coastwide bloom — those are indications that this is unprecedented.” unquote.  So the fish and shellfish are being poisoned, and so are animals that eat fish like sea lions and birds.  The coast has been closed for harvesting clams, geoduck, scallops, mussels, oysters and others.  The article mentions nutrient availability, much of which is from sewage, agricultural fertilizer run-off, and nitrogen deposition from burning fuel.

However, another insidious influence wasn’t mentioned, even though it was made famous in research published back in 2001 by Jeremy Jackson and numerous co-authors.

The paper described how historical overfishing predated any of our more recent attacks on ocean life, after he realized that at the time Columbus arrived in America, there were millions upon millions of green turtles in the Caribbean.  This study was a reminder of what a pristine ecosystem looks like, and its a far cry from what we have today.  It places the primary reason marine ecosystems collapse on overfishing, back to pre-historical eras in some areas, which set the stage for algae blooms such as are now unprecedented on the west coast.  I recommend reading the entire paper, especially to understand what happened in the Chesapeake Bay, which is an epic tragedy, but here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

“Few modern ecological studies take into account the former natural abundances of large marine vertebrates. There are dozens of places in the Caribbean named after large sea turtles whose adult populations now number in the tens of thousands rather than the tens of millions of a few centuries ago. Whales, manatees, dugongs, sea cows, monk seals, crocodiles, codfish, jewfish, swordfish, sharks, and rays are other large marine vertebrates that are now functionally or entirely extinct in most coastal ecosystems. Place names for oysters, pearls, and conches conjure up other ecological ghosts of marine invertebrates that were once so abundant as to pose hazards to navigation, but are witnessed now only by massive garbage heaps of empty shells.”

“Such ghosts represent a far more profound problem for ecological understanding and management than currently realized. Evidence from retrospective records strongly suggests that major structural and functional changes due to overfishing occurred worldwide in coastal marine ecosystems over many centuries. Severe overfishing drives species to ecological extinction because overfished populations no longer interact significantly with other species in the community. Overfishing and ecological extinction predate and precondition modern ecological investigations and the collapse of marine ecosystems in recent times, raising the possibility that many more marine ecosystems may be vulnerable to collapse in the near future.”

Let’s take one example from the paper that describes the knock-off effects of human hunting.

“Northern Pacific kelp forests presumably flourished before human settlement because predation by sea otters on sea urchins prevented the urchins from overgrazing kelp. Aboriginal Aleuts greatly diminished sea otters beginning around 2500 yr B.P., with a concomitant increase in the size of sea urchins. Fur traders subsequently hunted otters to the brink of extinction in the 1800s with the attendant collapse of kelp forests grazed away by sea urchins released from sea otter predation. Legal protection of sea otters in the 20th century partially reversed this scenario. However, kelp forests are again being depleted in areas of Alaska because of increased predation on sea otters by killer whales. The whales shifted their diet to sea otters from seals and sea lions, which are in drastic decline.”

After tracing numerous examples of ocean ecosystems around the world, the paper concludes:

“In summary, historical documentation of the long-term effects of fishing provides a heretofore-missing perspective for successful management and restoration of coastal marine ecosystems. Previous attempts have failed because they have focused only on the most recent symptoms of the problem rather than on their deep historical causes. Contrary to romantic notions of the oceans as the “last frontier” and of the supposedly superior ecological wisdom of non-Western and precolonial societies, our analysis demonstrates that overfishing fundamentally altered coastal marine ecosystems during each of the cultural periods we examined. Changes in ecosystem structure and function occurred as early as the late aboriginal and early colonial stages, although these pale in comparison with subsequent events. Human impacts are also accelerating in their magnitude, rates of change, and in the diversity of processes responsible for changes over time. Early changes increased the sensitivity of coastal marine ecosystems to subsequent disturbance and thus preconditioned the collapse we are witnessing.” end quote

Looked at this way, the sixth mass extinction began long ago, as weedy humans, like an invasive plant, migrated out of the habitat where they evolved in Africa, and rarely found resistance to slow our frenzied growth.  Our collective blindness to the consequences of exponential will be our undoing.  Hey, even the Pope, in his Encyclical, has said, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

There’s not much to add other than to repeat Pogo’s trenchant observation as he surveyed a cartoon landscape for the first Earth Day in 1971, a vision the Pope now refers to as “an immense pile of filth”, which was that “We have met the enemy, and he is us”.

Thanks so much for listening to another Dispatch from the Endocene.  I’ll be back next week with another, maybe.


Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians

videos from the Colloquia - In the Light of Evolution II:  Biodiversity and Extinction

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