Sunday, September 20, 2015

An Ill Wind

It's an ill wind that blows no good.

~ Irish proverb:  is olc an ghaoth nach séideann do dhuine éigin
...a relic phrase from the Treat Potato Famine - an Gorta Mór - p. 172, Irelands Great Hunger:  Relief, representation, and remembrance  Volume 2, by David A. Valone

This is a time of desperation for so many refugees who have been forced to leave their homes and seek safety in a foreign land.  It is another tragic repeat of many such travails in the past that occur when the human population outstrips the ability of their homeland to sustain them, and conflicts result.  The images in this post were compiled at Views of the Famine, which includes contemporary accounts of the disease, impoverishment and eviction which led in turn to starvation and emigration - one million of each, for two million of the Irish during the period 1845 - 1852.

Although I’m extremely fond of certain specimens of Homo sapiens, and am no less appreciative of our accomplishments of an artistic, intellectual, and scientific nature, I think a strong case can be made that our species has been that rare ill wind that has blown no good - at least from the point of view of most of the other forms of life on the planet.

As evidence for that rather bleak assessment I offer the review of a book that was thoughtfully left by an anonymous commenter as a link to the most recent post here at Wit’s End.  The book is titled Invaders:  How Humans and Their Dogs Drove the Neanderthals to Extinction, by Pat Shipman.  The review is titled Blame the Dog, but as the author Steve Donoghue later clarifies, that is meant only in jest, as he wrote in an exchange of comments:  “...if wolf-dogs hadn’t been available, early Homo sapiens would have used some other animal, even killer canaries.”  Although it seems to sadden him, he places the blame for mass extinctions and genocide, in the Pleistocene and today, squarely on us.

There is an informative discussion in the comment section, which I will leave to the reader to explore.  At the end of this post is a video about one of the discoveries mentioned, a cave containing the cannibalized remains of several Neanderthal individuals.

Following is the transcript for my most recent segment which will be archived at, which airs Sundays at 3pm ET on ActivateMedia:

Thank you Gene, and greetings listeners.  This is the 14th Dispatch from the Endocene.  You will be able to find the transcript, and links to references, at the radio website - and also my blog, Wit’s End.

It was my 61st birthday this week!  Maybe because of all the lovely wishes and gifts I am so grateful to have received, or maybe because I’m finally getting used to being old, or both, I had a wonderful day.  I think I have finally passed the point where I regret aging, and I am just astonished, and joyful, to have another reprieve from death and oblivion in which to appreciate this glorious, splendid miracle known as Earth.  So I hope that will sound as inspirational as I intend it.  Because it’s on to doom.

Regardless of whether you gaze into the sky, hike in a forest, or snorkel in the sea, it has become trivial to find evidence of an increasingly rapid mass extinction.  Biologists who specialize in every ecosystem have warned of dwindling wildlife populations for years - and now anyone who isn’t locked in a windowless prison can easily take note of the obvious loss of birds and bees, of fish and flowers.

I almost said anyone who isn’t in trapped in a cave - but bats are disappearing too.  A relentless parade of new studies and reports constantly emerge, chronicling the demise of all sorts of species that once made our world such a rich, and perhaps even unique, biosphere in the galaxy - a paradise teeming with marvelously exotic and seemingly improbable forms of life.

The most recent Living Blue Planet Report has determined that the decline in tuna and mackerel populations has been a “catastrophic” reduction of nearly three quarters over the past 40 years; and, overall since 1970, the population of marine vertebrates has nearly halved.

One article about the update quoted Louise Heaps, chief advisor on marine policy at World Wildlife Foundation UK, as saying, “We are destroying vital food sources, and the ecology of our oceans.”

A major factor in collapsing fisheries is excessive harvesting.  For example, the report cites sea cucumbers, which have fallen over 90% in places, because they are a delicacy in Asia.  Populations of endangered leatherback turtles are described as plummeting, and a quarter of shark species are expected to become extinct within ten years, in order to supply the appetite for shark-fin soup.

In addition to overfishing, plastic pollution is building up in the digestive systems of fish. Also, crucial habitat such as coral reefs and mangrove swamps along coasts is being lost.  Meanwhile CO2 will continue to acidify the ocean even after we stop emitting it into the atmosphere.

I was astonished to read a quote indicating that until recently, not just among right-wing conservatives but even for environmental conservationists, the sanctioned attitude towards the ocean and the atmosphere was that they were considered to be a convenient bottomless receptacle  for human sewage, garbage, and filthy by-products.  Louise Heaps said “I am terrified about acidification…That situation is looking very bleak. We were taught in the 1980s that the solution to pollution is dilution, but that suggests the oceans have an infinite capacity to absorb our pollution. That is not true, and we have reached the capacity now.”

September is the time of year for the beleaguered monarch butterfly to commence its arduous migration south, from North America.  These amazing creatures fly 3,000 miles using unfathomed navigational skills that have confounded lepidopterists, which makes it all the more terrible that their numbers are plunging.  Rebecca Riley, an attorney with the National Resource Defense Council, said “The monarch population that overwinters in Mexico has plummeted more than 90 percent in two decades – it is a perilous decline”.  There are numerous reasons, the least well known of which is that milkweed, the only food for the caterpillars, is extremely sensitive to air pollution.

In a discovery that inspires adjectives from staid scientists such as surprising, disconcerting, and alarming, it has just been determined that warming of drylands, which comprise 40 percent of Earth’s land surface, is now expected to initiate enormous amounts of carbon release.  Such landscapes are normally protected by what is known as “biocrust”, described as “a combination of mosses and lichens that are in effect glued together by photosynthetic microorganisms called cyanobacteria, which provide structure to the landscape through the carbohydrate molecules they secrete.”  On top of this structure grow lichens and mosses.

Damage from humans who trample this delicate covering underfoot and crush it driving off-road vehicles has long been a concern, but this research indicates global warming will add to dust storms, erosion, and yet another amplifying feedback to global warming.

As the Pacific Northwest warms and dries, it is been established in a newly published paper that many of the region’s amphibians - frog, newt, and salamander species - will be unable to survive the changed environment.  Lack of winter snowpack and high temperatures mean that wetlands are already becoming ephemeral or disappearing, leading to “massive breeding failures” and deaths of adult frogs.  It doesn’t help that frogs have been dying from a fungus that some attribute to chemical pollution.  It can be expected that birds, snakes and mammals that feed on amphibians will be impacted, in addition to all the other creatures large and small, from mountain lions to shrews, who rely on ponds for drinking water.

A particularly egregious item in the roster of human malfeasance this week was an episode in Costa Rica, where a protected beach was inundated with enthusiastic tourists.  The crowd disrupted the periodic nesting of sea turtles, who periodically crawl laboriously up the sand from the ocean to lay their eggs.  So many people taking selfies and pictures of their children sitting on the turtles’ backs led to the creatures heading back to the water without having laid any eggs.  Which might not have mattered, because apparently it is legal for people to collect and sell them, in a controversial program of “sustainable” harvesting, which is criticized for encouraging poaching.

None of this should be a source of consternation, since it would appear to be deeply embedded trait that is nothing unusual for homo sapiens.  A new paper puts our species in a very special niche, that of “super-predator”, by isolating behavior that is unique to humanity.  From an article describing the research:

“The paper — more than 10 years in the making — surveyed 2,215 predator species around the world. It found that humans kill adult animals at rates up to 14 times higher than any other predator. Not only that, but we also target an abnormally high number of other predators, not just for food but also — as with Cecil the lion — for sport”.

One of the scientists said, “We also use ‘super-predator’ because of our enormous dietary breadth. What other predator has thousands of prey species that it preys upon? What other predator impacts entire food webs? None.”

“I would hazard to guess that we are the only predator that commonly and at very high rates kills animals we are not intending to kill.  What a sort of grotesquely sloppy predator we are that can do that.”

The abstract of the paper, in Science Magazine, notes:

“In the past century, humans have become the dominant predator across many systems. The species that we target are thus far in considerable decline; however, predators in the wild generally achieve a balance with their prey populations such that both persist.”

I’ll make a prediction.  Nature will ensure that humans eventually achieve a balance with our prey populations, and fairly soon.  We will all be at zero.

Thank you so much for listening, and if we’re all still here next week, please tune in for Dispatch #15.


Biocrust CO2 emissions:

Pacific Northwest amphibians, wetlands threatened:

Turtles in Costa Rica:

Humans are super predators, article about the research:

Original paper Super Predators:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

If only...

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

   ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

The paintings in this post are by the Kennis & Kennis, twin brothers who specialize in reconstructing animals who are now extinct.  They also have a gallery with photos of their amazing sculptures at their website, like this Neanderthal, one of all the other hominid species that didn't survive to cohabit earth with homo sapiens.
Following is the transcript for this week’s episode of Extinction Radio’s Dispatch from the Endocene.  A podcast for this and all the other segments of the show can be heard at the website. 

Thank you Gene, and welcome listeners!  This is the 13th Dispatch From the Endocene.

Once a glimmer of awareness that a self-induced human extinction may be imminent first flickers into our consciousness, it seems inevitable for certain questions to immediately follow.  Whether you come to this knowledge because you learned about amplifying feedbacks in climate change, or from a broader ecological perspective of overshoot, it often becomes urgent to understand why humans are so blind as to destroy our precious home, and whether things could have turned out differently, and how there can be any meaning to our lives if it’s all going to disappear with no one left to remember anything we accomplished, or learned, or loved.
To address these issues honestly, it helps to have a realistic understanding of human behavior, without distorting the past to accommodate the powerful desire that our better angels might ultimately prevail.  An accurate reading of hard-wired tendencies matters to the degree that it gets to the heart of why, even when we intellectually realize that our way of life is unsustainable and exploitative, still we are unable to stop ourselves from continuing down a ruinous path…a path that began to unfold long before civilization, long before agriculture.  It has its roots in language and the use of symbols, imagination and the potency of belief systems - abilities that bestow on the one species that possesses them to cooperate in large groups, whether for constructive or destructive activities.
Despite the threat implicit to most people by the lack of free will, going through the process of understanding that we are fundamentally animals with genetically coded traits like any other can become quite comforting as one travels the road towards acceptance of extinction.  The recent discovery of yet another vanished hominid species in South Africa simply adds to the roster of several others that were out-competed, to put it politely, by our direct ancestors.
I’m in the middle of a terrific book called “Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, that looks into how our minds evolved over time.  I thought I would share a bit from it, where he writes about the short-sighted hunting by early hunter-gatherers, which led to results quite similar in kind, if not in scope, to the ongoing massacre of the biosphere by contemporary society.  In substantiation of this, I will post links to some academic papers on this topic at the Extinction Radio website, and also on my blog, Wit’s End.  So here goes, starting on page 78 - 
“The extinction of the Australian megafauna was probably the first significant mark Homo sapiens left on our planet.  It was followed by an even larger ecological disaster, this time in America.  Homo sapiens was the first and only human species to reach the western hemisphere landmass, arriving about 16,000 years ago, that is in or around 14,000 BC.  The first Americans arrived on foot, which they could do because, at the time, sea levels were low enough that a land bridge connected north-eastern Siberia with north-western Alaska….

At first, glaciers blocked the way from Alaska to the rest of America, allowing no more than perhaps a few isolated pioneers to investigate the lands further south.  However, around 13,000 BC, global warming melted the ice and opened an easier passage.  By 10,000 BC, humans already inhabited the most southern point in America, the island of Tierra del Fuego at the continent’s southern tip.  The human blitzkrieg across America testified to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens.  No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.
The settling of America was hardly bloodless.  It left behind a long trail of victims.  American fauna 14,000 years ago was far richer than it is today.  When the first Americans marched south from Alaska into the plains of Canada and the western United States, they encountered mammoths and mastodons, rodents the size of bears , herds of horses and camels, oversized lions and dozens of large species the likes of which are completely unknown today, among them fearsome saber-tooth cats and giant ground sloths that weighed up to eight tons and reached  a height of sex meters.  South America hosted an even more exotic menagerie of large mammals, reptiles and birds.  The Americas were a great laboratory of evolutionary experimentation, a place where animals and plants unknown in Africa and Asia had evolved and thrived.
But no longer.  Within 2,000 years of the Sapiens’ arrival, most of these unique species were gone.  According to current estimates, within that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of its forty-seven genera of large mammals.  South America lost fifty out of of sixty….

Thousands of species of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds and even insects and parasites also became extinct (when the mammoths died out, all species of mammoth ticks followed them to oblivion).

…some scholars try to exonerate Homo sapiens and blame climate change (which requires them to posit that, for some mysterious reason, the climate in the Caribbean islands remained static for 7,000 years while the rest of the western hemisphere warmed).  But in America…We are the culprits.  There is no way around that truth.  Even if climate change abetted us, the human contribution was decisive.”
I hope you get a chance to check out some of the research from archaeology and paleobiology upon which this excerpt is based, studies that are compelling to the unbiased.  If you get a chance to read the book, Sapiens, I highly recommend it - and there is also a link to an interesting panel discussion about the “great leap” in cognition.

There is a companion conviction to the discredited notion that it was climate, not humans, that caused mass extinctions over 10,000 years ago, and that is, that tribal people before agriculture were peaceful, lived in harmony with nature, and were egalitarian.  This popular notion, which bolsters the hope that our blatant exploitation and pollution of the environment was preventable and is the fault of a few bad actors, doesn’t bear up to scrutiny of the actual record immutably buried in the ground.  There are numerous examples, but to take just one I found recently, consider the Crow massacre.  Here’s a summary of the wiki description:
The Crow Creek massacre site is in South Dakota, along the Missouri River.  It occurred around 1325 AD, when a fortified village was attacked and at least 486 people were killed.  Most were mutilated in various ways such as tongues being removed, teeth broken, decapitation, hands and feet cut off and other dismemberments, and most commonly, scalping.  The remains of some of the victims showed evidence of previous battles (scalpings and embedded arrows) and most were chronically malnourished, with stunted growth and nutritional deficiencies.  It appeared that domesticated dogs were eaten during famine.

To make matters worse by modern standards, a recent study of the markings of scalping wounds concluded that women were brutalized far more than men - and the reason is far more profound than competition for resources.  The Crow males considered women more like beasts of burden, a sub-human source of labor, - thus they were dispatched in a method more like butchering animals than the symbolic, ritualized dispatch of an enemy.

So much for the noble savage nonsense.

Thanks for listening.
Further reading:

From my blog, prior posts:

Articles about megafaunal extinction:

Global Late Quaternary extinctions linked to humans, not climate change:
Excerpt from the above:  "The global pattern of late Quaternary megafauna extinction presents a clear picture that extinction is closely tied to the geography of human evolution and expansion and at most weakly to the severity of climate change. The pattern of extinctions closely followed the hominin paleobiogeography hypothesis with increasing severity of extinction with reduced period of hominin–megafauna coevolution, notably with uniformly high extinction in areas where H. sapiens was the first hominin to arrive. By contrast, only in Eurasia was there a climate change signal."

Excerpt from the above:
  • "Would the Australian megafauna have become extinct if humans had never colonised the continent? We argue ‘‘no’’.
  • "Globally, heavy extinctions in the Late Pleistocene (Australasia), terminal Pleistocene (Americas), Early to Middle Holocene (West Indies and Mediterranean islands) and Late Holocene (Madagascar, New Zealand and Pacific Islands) always coincide with human colonisation (Martin, 2005). If climatic change solely, or primarily, caused these prehistoric extinctions, the mechanism over the span of 440 millennia must have been different in each case, with the concurrent human invasion merely coincidental.
  • We concur with Burney and Flannery (2005) that the interesting debate is no longer ‘climate versus humans’, but rather, ‘how humans did it’, and that greater attention should be given to how climate change, soil fertility, landscape fire, and various other ecological stresses compounded human impacts. In this context, mechanisms used to explain the extinctions, must be contextualised ecologically via robust localised studies (Prideaux, 2004), continental-scale over-views (Roberts et al., 2001), and fundmental biological principles (Brook and Bowman, 2005).
  • Furthermore, such a theory must be concordant with the evolutionary diversification of biotas, and in the case of Australia, consider the predominance since the Oligocene of infertile, drought- and fire-prone landscapes. Genuinely ‘falsifiable’ hypotheses should be used to advance understanding and reduce uncertainty, while stimulating debate and fostering the development of new ideas and innovative tools (Johnson, 2005). Considerable progress has been made in the use of novel geochronological methods, intensive palaeontological work, simulation modelling, meta-analysis, and perhaps most critically, ecological and evolutionary theory (Barnosky et al., 2004; Burney and Flannery, 2005). Using these transdisciplinary approaches, and emerging technologies such as stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses, improved answers should continue to emerge.
  • In sum, the question is no longer if, but rather how, humans induced this prehistoric extinction event. "
Crow Creek massacre and what it says about the role of women:

p. xi - “Of the four explanations presented for the disparity in total cuts observed on males and females, the first explanation, that female victims of the Crow Creek massacres suffer higher levels of brutality, is the most plausible.”  It is outlined on p. 83

Video of discussion, Planet of the Humans, Leap to the Top, hosted by Brian Lehrer, with a helpful breakdown of the timing of each segment

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dispatch From The Endocene, #12

This week’s Dispatch from the Endocene will be mercifully brief, at least compared to previous episodes.  I would like to start off by expressing my deep gratitude, and admiration for the founder of Extinction Radio, Mike Ferrigan, who has been a wonderful host and interviewer.  Thanks Mike for your tenacity in starting and keeping this unique collaborative effort alive.  I am going to miss your delightful accent, as well as your gigantic and generous empathy.  At the same time, I’m really excited to see what directions the new producers will take us, and thanks to you all - for picking up the torch.

Following is the transcript and links for this week's Dispatch From The Endocene, archived at Extinction Radio.

What is the Endocene, anyway?  What happened to the Anthropocene - a geological epoch that was over before it was even officially named?

When the Anthropocene began is somewhat arguable, but I would place it back when humans first started to make their presence known on a global scale, by using fire to permanently alter the landscape and biosphere, and by hunting other species to extinction.  Both of these atrocities at a global scale are almost exclusively reserved for humanity alone.

When that transitioned to the Endocene is, in my estimation, around the time we started not just changing habitat or altering the balance of species by deliberate actions, but much greater impacts that are leading inexorably to our own extinction.  Still chief among them are over-hunting and over-fishing, but with a population that has grown from 1 billion to over 7 in about two centuries, the impact of so-called sustainable wildlife hunting is incomparably greater.  New, too, is the inadvertent side effects of our consumption that are poisoning everything to death - such as CO2 causing climate change, ozone killing the forests, plastics infiltrating the water, and nitrogen runoff causing dead zones in the oceans.

This week produced new examples of these trends that began in earnest with the Industrial Revolution, and accelerate by the day.  As always there will be links at the radio website and my blog, Wit’s End.

One freakish aspect of climate change that is a bit of a surprise is the increasing frequency and intensity of hailstorms.  Aside from the damage done to car windshields and roofs and agricultural crops, just days ago a gruesome event in Spain killed hundreds of flamingos, that were pummeled to death with balls of ice, some the size of tennis balls.

A new study indicates that as many as nine out of ten seabirds have pieces of plastic in their guts, which in addition to being toxic, reduces the space they have to eat, you know, food.  One of the researchers found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in just one bird.  There is a wrenching, tragic video that is brilliantly produced by Chris Jordan, a photographer who has been documenting the demise of the albatross on Midway Island that everyone who uses any plastic - that’s all of us - should be required to watch.

Scientists recently recorded the lowest levels of oxygen ever found in the ocean, off the coast of Africa.  Dead zones like this and the famous area in the Gulf of Mexico are the result of run off from fertilizers and sewage, and they are expected to spread and intensify, choking off life as they expand.

You would think that with so many wild animals imperiled, people would refrain from pushing the population of endangered species over the edge - but perversely, the opposite is the case, at least for the rhinoceros in South Africa.  Poaching of this protected animal has intensified this year, following a record killed last year - most of them within the confines of a National Park.

Unfortunately, this sort of desperately stupid defiance seems to characterize the human species when faced with limits to expansion and consumption.  Instead of exercising restraint, it appears that ever more frantic greed prevails.

If anyone hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend a movie about extinction that has an emphasis on the biological aspects, which are at the heart of the Endocene.  It’s title is “The Call of Life”.  If you can’t find a link to watch it online by googling, check the radio website, or my blog.

As always, thanks for listening, and try to find some love and comfort in these last days that will keep your heart from shattering into pieces of irremediable grief.


Seabirds, plastic:

Chris Jordan’s film Midway about the albatross -

Dead Zone in the Ocean:

movie about extinction - Call of Life

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Last Scene

..............Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

        ~ William Shakespeare, As You Like It

A recent storm that battered Seattle and Vancouver caused me to look for photos of the trees that fell, but the story of an earlier storm, last December, popped up with this photograph.  As usual, wind is blamed for damage when clearly the problem is a tree that is covered in lethal cankers, and rotted on the inside.  The accompanying report indicated the terrible toll the storm took, not only leaving thousands without power, but a 61 year old man hospitalized from a tree that fell on his house, and a fire that resulted when a tree fell on a propane tank.  A teenage boy died when a tree fell on his car, and a homeless man sleeping in a tent died from a fallen tree as well.
Even earlier, in April 2014, a storm toppled at least a dozen large trees in a park in Tacoma, Washington, "like matchsticks" which was no wonder since they, too, were rotted.
Is it any wonder wildfires are burning like never before?  All that rot produces methane, which is highly flammable.
Today I went through Oldwick and witnessed once again what I see occurring everywhere I go - trees being cut down.  The sound of chain saws and chippers is deafening, and there is a stink of diesel fumes and scorched wood in the air.
The shady little village I love is being denuded of trees - those that don't fall over are being pre-emptively removed.  My favorite, the magnificent copper beech, is still standing - but it has been heavily pruned (amputated) and it hasn't got much time left.  I took this photo in June of 2009, because I already felt that the crown was disturbingly thin, and discovered that the leaves were covered with aphids, a well-known effect of exposure to pollution.  I noticed that winter that sap was leaking from the trunk, staining the bark.
This is how it looked this morning:

The only thing that will end this horror is oblivion.

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