Sunday Observer

On “nomaphobia” and digital detox: Tuning out, turning on and doing without the the devices, if only for a few days.

There’s a hotel on Bali that has passed a “digital detox” policy for its guests — while poolside, anyway. The resort has banned smartphones from outdoor public areas to enforce relaxation, and the early word is that people are loving it.

I won’t be on Bali for the next two weeks, but I will be somewhere in the tropics, untethered from my digital devices.

So … no blog, no Dispatches, and no weekly columns for TVWorthWatching.com. Imitation is the sincerest form of — well, if not relaxation exactly, something close. As writer Hannah Ellis-Petersen put it recently in the Sunday Observer, does a hotel pool exist if you don’t put it on social media?

Ayana Resort in Jimbaran, Bali —perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean — is encouraging guests to simply soak in their surroundings and take pleasure in being alive and somewhere other than the concrete jungle — to stare at the wider, green world, rather than staring at a screen.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Ayana’s digital detox extends to tablets, MP3 Players and laptops, not just smartphones. It’s all part of an effort to “forcibly untether people from their addiction of checking the news, compulsively taking photos, updating social media and replying to emails even when on holiday.”

I will be taking photographs, mind, just not compulsively. And not on Bali. 

All of us need to take a break from the wired world on occasion. It’s hard sometimes to grasp just how pervasive — and easy — instant communication has become, across the entire globe. A conservation-photographer acquaintance of mine just this past week sent me a Facebook message from the Southern Ocean, off the northern tip of Antarctica. Her expedition ship had no Internet connection while in Antarctica, she noted, but she had discovered — presumably by accident and not out of some need to stay in touch with the West Coast of Canada — that her Facebook Messenger app worked, albeit sporadically, and assuming her ship wasn’t about to be tossed about in a Force 9 gale while trying to navigate the Drake Passage, somewhere off Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The life of a research assistant in 2018 is never completely cut off from the ends of the Earth, it seems.

On Bali, Ayana’s guests are encouraged to swim, “truly relax and be in the moment” and — spoiler alert — read a book. On actual paper.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

There’s even a new word to describe our need to be in touch 24/7 — “nomaphobia,” which experts are now labelling “the 21st century disease.” Surveys show that, even while travelling, one-in-five of us check our phone once an hour. More than one in 10 of us — 14%, if you must know — admit to checking our phones at least twice an hour. A 2017 Deloitte survey in the UK found that more than a third of those polled — 38%, if you must know — said they believed their were using their smartphone too much . . .  and then immediately went back to looking at their phones.

After all, how were they to know the results of the survey they had just taken, if they didn’t look it up online?

Myself, I plan on reading Paul Theroux’s new book, Figures in a Landscape: People and Places, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman’s book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival — in the original hardcover.

Back in two weeks.




David Attenborough's ‘Dynasties’ — a betrayal of the natural world he loves, or a celebration. You decide

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

I stumbled across that epigraph quite by accident  recently, during my online travels through social media. I liked it enough that I made it the introductory inscription on my Facebook page — no, I’m not above stealing — and I’ve seen nothing since to suggest the inscription is in vain.

One of the unintended consequences of growing old, the novelist and raconteur Paul Theroux wrote in his Siberian travelogue Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is being confronted by the same old arguments, made time and time again, often by younger people who carry on as though they’ve thought of that argument for the first time.

And so, with Dynasties, a new BBC natural history program about to make its debut on BBC (Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One and Nov, 17 on BBC Earth; Jan. 19 in the US, on AMC Networks’ BBC America), presenter David Attenborough is once again having to defend his approach to wildlife documentary filmmaking against environmental activists who insist that, by focusing on nature’s wonder and deliberately side-stepping the human-made catastrophe facing the world’s last wild places, Attenborough is being part of the problem, not the solution.

At age 92, Sir David is more easily irked than he was at, say, 32, when his early BBC effort Zoo Quest, a studio-bound program featuring animals from the London Zoo, let alone at 52, when his landmark, career-defining series Life on Earth changed the way many TV viewers viewed the natural world.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough has devoted the final episode of virtually every nature program he’s ever made to climate change, the environmental crisis and the looming mass extinction, he recently pointed out in a pithy exchange in The Guardian, a fortnight before Dynasties’ BBC debut. This didn’t start with this year’s Blue Planet II, he said testily, even though few programs he’s made have had the real-world impact of that series’ final episode, in which he focused on how our careless use of plastics is killing the world’s oceans — and getting into our food chain, whether we like it or not. Science and technology can only do so much to counter humankind’s consumerism, rampant greed and penchant for excess.

That said, he added, turning to one of his most deeply held beliefs — that too much pessimism is a turn-off. Viewers overwhelmed into thinking the situation is hopeless, that the time to do something has long since passed, are tempted to give up. “There’s nothing I, one person can do, so why bother?”

That’s the real danger, Attenborough insists. The issue is not whether he fails to constantly remind you that virtually every wondrous, living breathing wild being you see in one of his eye-filling nature programs is staring extinction square-in-the-face. The worse danger, he argues, is that by being constantly told that the problem is so big it’s insurmountable, it becomes all too easy for the viewer at home to toss the remote aside and go back to noshing on Chilean sea bass and farmed salmon, chowing down on hamburgers and steaks made from soybean-fed cattle, and wrapping everything in plastic, all the while filling the gas tank to the brim, keeping the lights on all night and cranking up the air conditioning and/or central heating to the max, and leaving it there until winter or the spring thaw. 

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Regardless of what you think of him, Attenborough’s touch with ordinary, everyday people was apparent following the airing of Blue Planet II, perhaps proving his point: Millions of people around the planet tuned in, and his efforts — in the final episode especially — was credited with pushing the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans higher up on the political agenda.

Attenborough might argue, too, that had he pushed industrial fishing and overconsumption into Blue Planet’s agenda, as some environmental activists demanded he do, he might well have lost viewers rather than gained them.

Dynasties was filmed over two years in five locations, including Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, famous for its lion prides and the setting for one of BBC’s more popular natural history programs from the 1990s, Big Cat Diary, a precursor — stylistically and from a storytelling point of view — of Meerkat Manor: The focus is on individual family groups, filmed over a period of time (in Dynasties’ case, day in and day out, over two years).

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Dynasties’ producers have promised a grittier journey into the natural world with this new series, grittier anyway than anything in Planet Earth.

“The animals are extraordinary creatures in their own right and they live amazing lives,” Gunton said in a just-posted interview with BBC Earth’s online media service. “But they're also animals that have to share the world and compete with humanity. They are in trouble. There is an environmental subtext to this; all these animals are in decline because there isn't enough space for them. We tell incredibly dramatic stories of these animals living really difficult lives against their rivals, their enemies and each other, and that's hard enough. But when you superimpose them also having their space taken from them by humanity, which adds to the pressure, it almost feels unfair.

“Hopefully, I think it's going to make people think about our relationship with nature and also what goes on in nature in a way we very rarely see. The realities of these animal’s lives. Sir David Attenborough says these are important films, they're real documentaries. They tell a truth not often told.

“Every film has very moving moments, where you see heroic struggles against the odds. There are also extraordinary moments of connectivity where you absolutely empathize with the animals.”

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough himself defended his approach in an interview just days ago with BBC News.

“We all have responsibilities as citizens, but our primary job is to make a series of programmes which are gripping, truthful, and speak about something quite important,” Attenborough said.

“These aren't ecological programmes. They're not proselytizing programmes. They're not alarmist programmes. What they are is a new form of filmmaking, and a new form of wildlife filmmaking.

“What we have said is, we will show what happens. We are not going to tart this up, we're not going to distort it in any way. If it's a triumph, fine, if it's a tragedy, that too we will show.

“This series is about the problem, for a lot of these creatures, that there just isn't enough space for them to survive. Space is not as sexy as plastic, it's a harder thing to get your head around, it's a much bigger issue, so [with] the individual struggles in these creatures lives, that's a very good way of bringing it to attention.”

As a counter-view, the respected environmentalist and Guardian editorial-page columnist George Monbiot penned a furious denunciation of Attenborough’s approach earlier this week (links to both articles below), and more-or-less accused Attenborough of betraying the living world he professes to love so much. By knowingly creating a false impression of that world, Monbiot argues, Attenborough is unwittingly playing into the hands of the planet’s destroyers, not its defenders.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Monbiot argues that since just one scene in Blue Planet II’s final episode caused a sea change in the way millions of BBC viewers in the UK view disposable plastic in today's oceans, he could have done so much more if the entire series were rooted in environmental message-making.

Just as compelling an argument could be made that, had Blue Planet II been an environmental screed,  millions of viewers would have given up on the series long before that point in the program.

Who believe? Who is right, and who is wrong.

I can see the strength of both arguments. Based on my 25-plus years of experience covering the TV industry in my previous incarnation as a media journalist and critic, I lean toward Attenborough and his understanding of the way TV audiences think.

That’s not to say the question of environmental ruin and degradation should be overlooked entirely. Attenborough doesn’t do that anyway, regardless of what some of his more ardent critics say.

Es nidditmir de neshuma, as they say in Yiddish.

“My soul is vexed.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/04/attenborough-dynasties-ecological-campaign

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/david-attenborough-world-environment-bbc-films

Dynasties premieres Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One at 20:30 GMT, and Nov. 17 on BBC Earth in Canada. Americans will have to wait until Jan. 19, 2019, when it finally makes its debut on BBC America.






2018 Bird Photographer of the Year winners: More than just pretty pictures of our feathered friends.

Not all flamingos were created pink. Nature photographer Pedro Jarque Krebs, from Peru, won the 2018 Bird Photographer of the Year award — the ornithological equivalent of Best-in-Show — this past weekend for his colourful image of American flamingos preening in a lake mist. Yes, there were splashes of pink, but the predominant colour was a rich, vibrant red. Pink flamingos may still be a thing, but in Krebs’ image,  flamingos were allowed to show off their richer, more vibrant shades of vermillion.

Admittedly, Krebs’ work has relied heavily on digital manipulation and Photoshop in the past, but it’s the final image that counts. At least, in this case, the contest judges thought so.

Also, Krebs has had a reputation in the past for using captive animals in his portraits, often under less-than-ideal conditions. (Not all nature-photography award contests are so forgiving; judging committees at many of the top, prestigious awards value authenticity — wild is wild — over the final image, any day of the week.)

All this aside, Krebs’ winning image is certainly arresting.

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

 

The Czech Republic’s Petr Bambousek was cited for Outstanding Portfolio, based in large part on his capture of a roseate spoonbill — genuinely wild —  preening its feathers in a pool of standing water.

Young Bird Photographer of the Year — an award of increasing significance, given the precarious state of the environment in these present, turbulent times — was awarded to Johan Carlberg of Sweden, for his stylistically fetching composition of a great crested grebe — also preening! — during golden hour.

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

Best Portrait awards went to nature photographers from Italy (Saverio Gatti, with the gold medal), the Netherlands (Roelof Molenaar, silver) and Sweden again (Ivan Sjogren, bronze).

Other category winners hailed from France, Greece, Spain, Kuwait and Singapore — proving, if nothing else, that bird photography is a global pastime, and not just the private hobby of a handful of well-to-do bird enthusiasts and world travellers from North America and the UK.

The Bird Photographer of the Year awards are managed by the UK-based peer group Nature Photographers Ltd. and the British Trust for Ornithology, a spiritual cousin of the US’s National Audubon Society.

More and more, as Canadian polar explorer, trained biologist and 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Paul Nicklen told The Sunday Observer this past weekend, nature photography — or conservation photography, as some prefer to call it — is on the front line in the social-media battle for hearts and minds.

It will be hard if not impossible for humanity to survive, let alone thrive, on a desolate, despoiled planet — that seems obvious — but the present-day toxic mix of greed, denial, militant ignorance and an almost wilful disregard of basic facts means the argument has to be made over and over again.

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

David Attenborough can’t get the message out on his own — not at his age, and not with so many deep-pocketed, big-money interests arrayed against him. Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Fox News and others still perpetuate the belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax, intended to bring western economies to their knees, even as he evidence suggests otherwise and entire ecosystems collapse around us.

That’s why my favourite category in every nature/conservation photography contest award I can think of is that which celebrates wild animals in their natural  environment.

And so it is with this year’s Bird Photographer of the Year awards.

Salvador Colvée, from Spain, won the Birds in the Environment category for his striking image of an ostrich wandering the crest of a sand dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert — the world’s oldest, in geological terms — not far from the aptly named Skeleton Coast. The cold-water Benguela Current from Antarctica follows the Atlantic coast from from South Africa to Angola, creating early-morning sea mists that stretch as far as 500 kms. inland across an arid, deceptively barren desert landscape, nurturing mosses and lichens that in turn feed a surprisingly complex ecosystem that includes, yes, ostriches, as well as large mammals like oryx, desert-adapted elephants and even the increasingly rare, hard-to-spot desert lion.

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

This is what the award-winning images in the  Bird Photographer of the Year contest are all about: showing nature in all its beauty, but also showing its hardiness and resilience in the face of existential threats. After all, threats don’t get much more existential than climate change and species extinction.

Another wildlife-in-its-natural-habitat image: Nature photographer Richard Shucksmith, from the UK, won a pair of awards, including the popular People’s Choice award, for his over- and underwater image of a northern gannet, the same kind of image that propelled Nicklen’s early career as a photographer, while at the same boosting his profile and spreading the wider message about the need to preserve what remains of  the world’s embattled polar regions.

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

Nicklen’s above- and below-water split-screen images from Antarctica remain the gold standard against which all similar images are judged today.

Despite some 22 assignments for National Geographic and a new book (Born to Ice, published by the high-end, German-based specialty publisher teNeues, https://books-teneues.com), Nicklen would prefer to be known for his on-the-ground conservation efforts and his co-founding of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy with his partner, conservation photographer, environmentalist and frequent National Geographic speaker Cristina Mittermeier, than as an accomplished photographer. One is a calling; the other, a life’s mission. SeaLegacy is dedicated to the idea that future generations won’t have to know the world’s wild wonders solely through photographic images from a distant, fading past.

That’s why these contests — and the positive image they present — are critical to our understanding of Planet Earth and what’s at stake.

These aren’t just pretty pictures of birds. They’re a reflection of life itself.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2018/aug/20/2018-bird-photographer-of-the-year-in-pictures

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2018/mar/08/bird-photographer-of-the-year-2018-in-pictures


©SeaLegacy.org

©SeaLegacy.org

“Thirty years of climate hysterics proved wrong time and time again” — What price willful blindness?

Media tycoons can be just as dimwitted, disingenuous — or downright dishonest — as the next person.

I have posted already about the frightfully stupid column by a media tycoon weeks back in a national newspaper in Canada, and its audience-grabbing headers, Thirty years of climate hysterics being proven wrong over and over again, and, There is no justification for the self-punitive nonsense of the Paris climate accord, and — yes! there’s more! — Most of our political and academic leaders are so far over-invested in defending against something that is not happening, they continue to call for the sacrifice of others.

You see, because if media tycoons are known for anything, it’s their selflessness and finely tuned sense of sacrifice, honed over many decades, centuries even, of looking out for their fellow human being.

Economic suicide — i.e. shutting down oil fields and getting off fossil fuels once and for all — is only tempting to those who have forgotten what pre-industrial life was like, it ended.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Why stop at the pre-industrial age, though? If we’re dealing with the semantics of history, why not rewind all the way back to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction period, the so-called K-T event, some 65.5 million years ago. For many years, palaeontologists believed this event was caused by climate change that disrupted the dinosaurs’ food chain.

Scientific discoveries in the mid-1980s, based on geological findings of the rare element of iridium in rock samples taken from that time, suggest the most likely culprit was a meteor or asteroid that kicked up so much dust it effectively triggered a global blackout, ushering a new ice age. The theories are many; the proof in short supply. What evidence there is shows that the planet did slowly became cooler during that time, the late Mesozoic Era, during which the dinosaurs died out, after surviving some 160 million years in a hot, humid, tropical climate. Dinosaurs, like today’s reptiles, you see, were cold-blooded; they obtained body heat from the sun, and so would not have been able to survive a considerably colder climate.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Mammals are warm-blooded, and while it’s a stretch to say all mammals are ill-suited to adapt to a suddenly hotter climate, “economic suicide” is clearly a matter of degree. As environmental activist and marine wildlife conservationist Paul Watson once told me — though you don’t need an activist to tell you this — there’s not much point in worrying about what you do for a living if the entire planet is unliveable.

In the time between my last post and this post, this has happened:

More than 50 forest fires have broken out in Sweden, a nation more known for its cold and snow than fires which — and this is true — are now breaking out inside the Arctic Circle.

@World Health Organization/Twitter

@World Health Organization/Twitter

But wait, there’s more. Following catastrophic floods across Japan, temperatures there have now reached north of 40°C, and thousands have been hospitalized for heat-related reasons.

Toronto, a city known more for its obsession with ice-hockey than anything else, has recorded temperatures that exceeded 30°C on 18 days so far this year, well ahead of the 10 such days all last last summer.

Oh, and scorching weather across the UK has melted panels on the roof of the Science Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, as well blistering agricultural fields throughout a verdant land more known for its craggy highlands and rolling sea mists than once-in-a-generation heatwaves.

As an article in the Sunday Observer this past weekend by science editor Robin McKie noted, climate scientists point to a number of factors, not just climate change and global warming but also the jet stream, which is uncommonly weak right now. A weak jet stream causes weather patterns like high-pressure ridges in the northern hemisphere to stall, which in turn leads to substantial increases in sea-surface temperature across the North Atlantic, which in turn cause more drought on dry land. One factor feeds on the other. The more heat there is, the hotter it gets. Everything is connected, as David Attenborough keeps reminding us in his nature programs.

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

Again, you don’t need a science degree to understand this, but constantly rising global carbon emissions — man-made or not, regardless of whether you think they’re the whole cause or only part of the cause — DO. NOT. HELP.

As events of the past week and the summer so far  suggest, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, and, as one marine scientist (with the Scottish Marine Institute, Oban) told the Observer: “That is something . . . we should be very worried about.”

You know, on second thought, any economic fallout from the Paris Agreement may be a small price to pay.

 

https://www.dw.com/en/the-global-heat-wave-thats-been-killing-us/a-44699601


©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons


Sand mining — the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of.

As incredible as it might seem, the world is running out of sand.

Depending on who you talk to, whether in academia or in the conservation community — or with anyone who keeps up on the news and reads between the lines —sand is the new gold, the new coltan, the new diamonds.

The New Yorker, The Guardian, al-Jazeera English, The Economist, Business Insider, the journal Science and countless others have weighed in on the looming sand crisis.

As headlines go, though, this one is decidedly unsexy. Sand doesn’t have its own lobby group. Sand isn’t an icon animal on the brink of extinction, nor does it seem as immediate and far-reaching in our day-to-day lives as the precarious state of the world’s oceans. Not even David Attenborough, probably,  could pull off a cautionary documentary series about sand, and get people to watch.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

I’ve enclosed a couple of links below to the more authoritative, recent — and reliable — media accounts of what for all intensive purposes looks like a looming existential crisis.

Here at a glance, though, are the big-picture issues, facts, questions and arguments, whittled down to a few brief, basic pointers.

• The problem, as always, is overpopulation — too many people, with more arriving all the time — coupled with overheated economies competing for a finite and ever-dwindling supply of natural resources.

• Sand is vital for use in construction. It is one of the  primary ingredients of concrete.

• The world’s largest, ever-expanding deserts contain huge deposits of sand, it is true, but it’s the wrong kind.

• Desert sand is composed mostly of tiny, finely rounded grains, sculpted and smoothed by wind erosion. The sand used in concrete is of a more jagged, rough-edged kind — the kind found, ideally, at the bottom of riverbeds.

• Riverbed sand is prized because it has the right texture and purity, and is constantly washed clean by running water. Freshwater, not salt.

• As the sand needed for construction becomes more sought after, there’s a growing black market in sand that’s illegally obtained.

• Demand drives the market, as always. Sadly for the environment, a hollowed-out riverbed in a protected, environmentally sensitive area can take decades, generations — centuries, even — to recover.

• In the meantime, illegally dredged sand leaves  environmental ruin in its wake. Sand barriers and coral reefs that protect coast communities can collapse; drinking water is polluted; and habitat that sustains fish, turtles and other riverine life is destroyed.

• Illegal sand-dredging is conducted on an industrial scale, with hundreds of trucks filled, often late at night, in a matter of hours. 

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Strange but true: The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is surrounded by sand, part of the Arabian Desert, a vast desert wilderness that stretches from Yemen in the Persian Gulf to Jordan and Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. And yet, the Burj Khalifa was constructed with concrete incorporating “the right kind of sand” — imported from Australia. Everything comes at a cost.

Sand may not be a headline grabber, but the numbers are truly vast. 

Consider this: In 2014, the most recent year for which hard figures are available, sand accounted for 85 percent of the total weight of minded material on Planet Earth that year. That’s an issue because, according to published reports, sand is replenished by rock erosion over thousands years.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

High demand inevitably leads to scarcity, which in turn means money — and money means trouble. The world sand extraction market is estimated to be worth some USD $70 billion a year; a cubic metre of sand can fetch as much as USD $100 in areas of high demand and short supply.

Sand mining is unsustainable over the long term. More and more, scientists insist this is a hidden ecological disaster in the making. We’ll be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years, they say.

Life’s a beach, it seems, in more ways than one. To paraphrase the late great Jimi Hendrix, even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand

https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jul/01/riddle-of-the-sands-the-truth-behind-stolen-beaches-and-dredged-islands

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970


Of angels and demons: How humankind changed the planet and created the Anthropocene epoch.

Humankind’s footprint on planet Earth is now so deep that scientists argue we need to have our own epoch named after us: the Anthropocene.

Epochs are traditionally measured in terms of millions of years — longer than an age, but shorter than a period. Since humankind has been living on the planet for little more than a blink-of-an-eye in geologic time, that’s saying a lot. According to the Cosmic Calendar, an eye-opening chart that distills the 13.8 billion year history of the universe down to a single year, humankind’s early ancestors first walked upright at 10:30pm on the final day of December. Modern humans evolved at 11:52pm; the early human migrations out of Africa happened some time between 11:56pm and 11:59pm.

anthro1 Cosmic_Calendar.png

Everything we know and have achieved — from the early cave paintings to the beginnings of agriculture, permanent settlements and so on, to reading, writing, art, music, the Industrial Revolution and the age of the Internet, has happened in the final minute of the last day of the 12th month of the Cosmic Calendar year.

That’s a pretty sobering thought when you consider that roughly 1.2 seconds ago in geologic time, Columbus arrived in America; everything from overpopulation and human-influenced climate change to the despoiling of the rain forest, fouling of the oceans and mass extinctions has unfolded since then.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Geologists don’t just identify epochs out of thin air. An epoch has to leave a geological imprint in solid rock — in sediments buried below the ground, in ice glaciers (now melting) or on canyon walls, if you like. The Anthropocene epoch, many of these geologists now argue, is an actual thing because evidence of human activity is now being imprinted in geological formations. “We are mining the planet’s surface, acidifying our oceans, creating new rock layers laced with plastic, and exterminating many species,” science editor Robin McKie wrote this past weekend in London’s Sunday Observer. “The consequences of these actions will be detectable in rocks for millions of years.”

A new study by University College of London researchers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin identifies colonialism — the way guns, germs and steel shaped the New World — as the prime mover behind the tectonic shift on the geologic timescale; other scientists cite the detonation of the first atomic bomb as the moment when the Anthropocene epoch dawned (their argument being that the earliest atomic bombs left a radioactive record in Earth’s rocks), while still others point to the proliferation of plastics, which are forming their own geological layers by becoming embedded in rocks.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The real question, of course — and the great unanswerable — is how the Anthropocene epoch will shape and change planet Earth, and whether our home world can survive it, or whether, as geological time has shown over the ages, epochs and periods, nothing is forever and all life changes eventually, even life itself.

“We have become a new force of nature, dictating what lives and what goes extinct,” Maslin told the Sunday Observer. “Although, in one crucial respect, we are unlike any other force of nature: Our power, unlike plate tectonics or volcanic eruptions, is reflexive. It can be used, modified or even withdrawn.”

“It would be wise,” Maslin and Lewis wrote later on the BBC’s website, “to use this immense power to give the best chance for people, and the rest of life, all to flourish.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44389413

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jun/10/colonialism-changed-earth-geology-claim-scientists

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons


‘The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away.’ Now for the hard part — keeping it that way.

Hearing of that super-colony of Antarctic penguins spotted from space, I immediately thought about The Lost World.

Not the part about how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s band of Victorian explorers discovered a lost world of dinosaurs and early humans hidden on a towering mountain plateau in the jungles of Venezuela, but rather the part about how, having stumbled over a find of extraordinary and rare beauty, they weighed whether or not to tell the outside world.

Late last week, the journal Scientific Reports announced the discovery of a previously unknown “super-colony” of Adélie penguins in the east Antarctic peninsular.

The find was dramatic, the “how” somewhat less so.

The colony numbers more than 1.5 million birds, a sizeable number by any reckoning, but especially in the facts-challenged world of 2018.

The penguins were spotted living among and around a rocky archipelago in east Antarctica known as the Danger Islands — aptly named, as it turns out — after gargantuan  patches of their guano appeared in images taken by the US Landsat satellite.

This was one satellite picture of the polar regions that wasn’t all about the melting ice cap. For that reason alone, it immediately caused a stir.

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Researchers used a computer algorithm to scan images for signs of possible penguin activity. The scientists were genuinely surprised by the scale of their find, as University of Oxford researcher and science team-member Dr. Tom Hart told BBC News.

“It’s a classic case of finding something where no one really looked,” Hart told BBC. “The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn’t really try that hard.”

As Heather Lynch, a researcher with Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, told BBC.

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away,” she said. “We thought, ‘Wow, if what we’re seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it’s going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.’”

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

Knowing how many penguins there are is one thing.

Ensuring their survival for future generations — future generations of people, as well as penguins — is another entirely.

The discovery will only truly mean something if a long-proposed marine protected area is signed into international law, a super-protected area, if you will, for the super-colony of penguins, and other Antarctic species.

It’s a big deal because, continent-wide, Adélie penguin populations have fallen by more than 65% in just the past 25 years, according to some estimates.

Just in the last seven years, thousands of chicks died in an unexplained mass die-off of chicks and stillbirths in the west Antarctic peninsular.

Some conservationists are concerned that the discovery will lead people to think that the Antarctic isn’t in so much trouble, after all.

To most people’s minds, endangered animals are either endangered or they aren’t. Mid- and long-term factors like habitat loss caused by climate change, which manifests itself in the form of warmer, more acidic waters, loss of sea ice and mass die-offs of krill, plankton and other micro-organisms that underpin the entire ecosystem, are harder to weigh in the mind than waking up one morning to learn that all the penguins have suddenly disappeared.

The Danger Islands lie in an area of the Weddell Sea that has yet to feel the effects of climate change the way other parts of Antarctica have.

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

That doesn’t mean the Adélie penguins, all 1.5 million of them, are out of danger, though.

As conservation writer Lucy Siegle noted this past weekend in the UK Sunday Observer,  “Enthusiasm for this (discovery) needs to translate into a legally enforceable marine protected area, so that the penguins, left undisturbed for 60 years, remain that way.”

It was Einstein, after all, who said that whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.

 

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/adelie-penguins-colonies-discovered-antarctica-environment/

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/12/penguin-catastrophe-leads-to-demands-for-protection-in-east-antarctica


Poisonous toads, bleached coral, debt forgiveness and 2 new marine parks.

Poisonous toads, bleached coral, sloppy tourists, debt forgiveness and two new marine parks — this has been the past week in enviro-news.
An invasion of toxic toads from Asia is threatening what’s left of Madagascar’s already fragile ecosystem, according to a report in Sunday’s Observer by The Guardian global environment editor Jonathan Watts. The numbers are frightening, and the speed with which it’s happened has taken even most pessimistic conservation estimates by surprise.

In slightly more positive news, the Seychelles has established a pair of vast marine preserves in a world first. The proposal, as reported by Guardian environment editor David Carrington, would enshrine marine protection in exchange for debt forgiveness. It’s an innovative scheme backed by the likes of ardent conservationist and enviro-crusader Leonardo DiCaprio, and if the calculations are right it could conceivably show the way to saving large expanses of the world’s oceans.

©Pixabay

©Pixabay

And in another Sunday Observer report, Guardian culture editor Hannah Ellis-Petersen asks whether a temporary ban on tourists can help save the Thailand beach made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie — yes, DiCaprio again — The Beach.

Much like the ecosystem itself, the three stories are different and yet connected in important ways. Tourism — too many people, treading on fragile coral and smashing their way through previously pristine wilderness areas — climate change and invasive species all play their part. 

The crisis facing Madagascar seems especially poignant, because it mirrors what has already happened in one island paradise — Hawaii — and could conceivably be a harbinger of things to come in the Galapagos Islands.

©Pixabay

©Pixabay

Much as rats arrived in Hawaii, the Asian common toad, Duttaphrynus melanostictus, is believed to have been a stowaway aboard a ship from far away, in this case a container ship from Vietnam unloaded at a Madagascar port and then accidentally opened a nickel processing plant. (Nickel, used in smartphones and other handheld devices, is a huge driver of Madagascar’s otherwise rocky economy.) The toads are large, nondescript looking and poisonous. They lack the bright markings and vibrant colours that would otherwise warn predators like snakes and birds to stay away. They’re bigger and tougher than the local toads, and they breed, well, like rats, only more so. Frogs local to Madagascar lay roughly 10 eggs at a time; the Asian toad spawns an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 at a time. The Asian toad was first spotted, so to speak, in Madagascar in 2008. Today, it’s believed there may be as many as 7 million of them — by conservative estimates. More liberal estimates put the number closer to 21 million.

It matters because, in the short term, biologists worry the toad will spread to the Betampona Nature Reserve, home to Madagascar’s famous ring-tailed lemurs. The toads do not pose a direct threat to the lemurs, which are critically endangered as it is, but could prove deadly to the forest the lemurs depend on to survive. It’s the story of the world’s ecosystems in microcosm: The smallest player in the circle of life plays a major role in the big picture, regardless of size. Once again, humankind has interfered in the natural order of things. Even a casual reading of the situation suggests it may already be too late.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/24/madagascar-toxic-toads-lemurs-ecology-threat

©Pixabay

©Pixabay

All power, then, to the Seychelles scheme, which — if it pans out, and even if it doesn’t — is at least trying to address the problem, rather than add to the already growing litany of environmental woes.

Dubbed tongue-in-cheek as “Debt for Dolphins,” the Indian Ocean nation of Seychelles will establish two large marine parks in exchange for much of its national debit to be written off.

If enacted, the legislation will throw a lifeline to tuna, dolphins, sharks and turtles caught in fishing nets, as create a barrier against overfishing. Seychelles relies on tourism for a large portion of its foreign exchange, but tourists are unlikely to come to dive if there is nothing to see underwater. That’s especially true of the coral reefs, which sustain marine life and are under threat from “bleaching” — the whitening that results when ocean temperatures rise precipitously and the living coral dies — throughout the world’s tropical seas.

Again, why care about the Seychelles?

Simply, the Aldabra archipelago, Seychelles’ jewel in the crown of biodiversity, rivals the Galapagos in ecological importance, marine scientists say. It’s not just manta rays, humpback whales, tiger sharks and clownfish, or ‘nemos’ as some call them, either. Aldabra is home to the dugong, or sea cow, said to be the single most endangered species in the entire Indian Ocean. Some 100,000 rare giant tortoises roam the tropical beaches and swim the local waters. The protected marine reserve at Aldabra will encompass some 74,000 square kilometres (28,500 square miles), roughly the size of Scotland.

©Pixabay

©Pixabay

A second, even larger marine reserve, 134,000 square km in all (52,000 square miles) is centred on the main Seychelles island of Mahe.

The parks are the indirect result of the first-ever debt swap for marine protection, and involve some $22 million owed to the UK, France and Belgium. (The swap was facilitated through the NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which raised some $5 million from donors to pay off part of the debt and help cut the interest rate charged by lenders.)

Enforcement may no longer be the bugaboo it once was, either: New satellite programs are being designed to monitor fishing boats from space and detect erratic or illegal fishing patterns.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/22/debt-for-dolphins-seychelles-create-huge-new-marine-parks-in-world-first-finance-scheme

Another potential solution — albeit temporary — to the crisis facing the world’s surviving coral reefs is about to tried in Thailand, on the sands of Maya Bay, the cove on the small  island of Koh Phi Phi Leh made famous in Danny Boyle’s 2000 cult film The Beach, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio as a disaffected backpacker who tries to find paradise — and encounters greed, lust and murder instead —  on an idyllic, untrammelled beach in Thailand.

@Allstar/Cinetext/21st Century Fox

@Allstar/Cinetext/21st Century Fox

Maya Bay is no longer untrammelled. The tiny, white-sand cove is now so choked with so many tourists that 80% of the coral has been destroyed. The despoiling of Maya Bay mirrors the destruction of once-pristine coves and beaches throughout Southeast Asia.

Money trumps the environment every time, even though it’s the environment that attracts tourist dollars in the first place.

Now, recent announcements from Thailand’s government suggest Maya Bay could be closed to visitors for as long as six months, to give the fragile marine environment time to recover. The Philippines is reportedly considering a similar action for its equally famous — and equally troubled — island of Boracay. More than 2 million tourists descend on the eight km-long (5 miles) every year. It’s not hard to imagine raw sewage and detritus from construction sites will destroy what’s left of the coral — and this after a massive die-off in 2015 sounded an alarm in conservation circles, though not among the developers themselves, it would appear.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/25/can-tourist-ban-save-dicaprios-coral-paradise-thailand-maya-bay-philippines-boracay

©Pixabay

©Pixabay

It may already be too late, of course. 

Jojo Rodriguez, an NGO marine conservationist who has been monitoring Boracay’s coral reefs since 2012, told the Sunday Observer that it will take more than six months to solve the problem.

“Maybe 60 years, if we are lucky,” Rodriguez told the paper.

As campaigners point out, though, Southeast Asia’s coral reefs continue to die. A six-month ban on tourism may not seem like much — and it isn’t — but it’s a start.


Rewilding: replacing the silent spring with a raucous summer.

There are some wonderful things to be said for rewilding, cautionary Michael Crichton blockbusters and Nimby protests aside.

Nature’s ability to recover from ruin and destruction constantly takes the experts by surprise — and yet, seeming no-brainers like bringing back hummingbirds and green fields where now there are weed whackers and parking lots face a constant struggle for public opinion.

Even the word itself, “rewilding,” is discouraged by some government agencies, for fear of the controversy it might cause. Dense thickets of sallow, eight metre-wide blackthorn hedges and grassy meadows might not seem like an existential threat to anyone with even a remote connection to nature, but the R-word has a way of galvanizing opposition, from sheep herders in the UK angry about wilderness replacing food production to scientists who warn that wild boar illegally reintroduced to Scotland carry the CC398 strain of MRSA superbug that is resistant to antibiotics.

Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone are a source of constant controversy with ranchers in the park’s border areas, and even a plan to reintroduce the rare wild lynx to parts of the northeastern UK are being met by the kind of opposition usually reserved for registered sex offenders moving into the neighbourhood.

As more wild animals adapt to living in urban environs — from raccoons in Toronto to leopards in Mumbai — it’s as if the very notion of allowing nature to reclaim areas that were once wild is both unneeded and unwanted.

And yet, as surveys have shown, rewilding has unexpected side benefits — everything from alleviating the threat of flooding in urban flood pans and alongside riverbanks to the simple calming effect nature has in an otherwise frantic, frenzied urban environment.

Rewilding as a way to combat flooding isn’t pie-in-the-sky, airy-fairy thinking, either. Just this past weekend, the Sunday Observer’s Patrick Barkham reported that a plan to restore 30,000 hectares of upland bogs in Yorkshire is designed in large part to pre-empt flooding, as bogs act as giant sponges for floodwater.

Rewilding alleviates soil erosion, too. Noted biologist John Lawton, author of Making Space for Nature, has argued the case for “more, bigger, better and joined” wild areas.

In a 2013 manifesto for rewilding the world, Oxford environmentalist George Monbiot argued that a mass restoration of ecosystems, “offers us hope where there was little hope before.”

For some, returning the Americas to a time when four-tusked mammoths and two-ton bison walked alongside beavers the size of black bears — two-and-a-half metres from nose to tail — sounds worryingly like something out of Jurassic Park, but the reality is more prosaic. About the worst thing that can be said about replacing a parking lot with a grassy meadow is that there’s less money to be madefrom a patch of green than there is yet another place to park cars in an already traffic-congested city.

Inevitable controversies aside — your wolves just murdered my sheep! — Monbiot argues that rewilding puts a positive face on conservation, as opposed to the usual cries of alarm — Henny-penny, the sky is falling! — that, after a while, begin to lose their effect.

“Environmentalists have long known what they are against,” Monbiot wrote in 2103. “Now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.”

More bird song, in other words. Bring on the raucous summer. And never mind the Nimbys.


Blinding ‘em with science: how the March for Science silenced its critics.

The day after is always a day for taking stock. The March for Science should never have had to happen in the first place, not in 2017.
Then again, there’s a march for everything these days, it seems. And Earth Day — April 22nd — made an ideal companion date.
Much of the world has forgotten, you see, what entire generations took for granted ever since 1543 when Copernicus published his heretical idea, from his deathbed no less, that the sun is a motionless body at the centre of the solar system. The planets revolve around the sun, not the other way around.
Oh, and the world is round, not flat. And, as a general rule, gravity exists — not a sure thing until 1664, when Isaac Newton signed off on his law of Newtonian physics — and penicillin does in fact kill bacteria, which wasn’t a sure thing until 1928, when Alexander Fleming got a little jiggy in his lab while playing with mold and fungi.

©Getty Images/New York City

©Getty Images/New York City

Twenty years later, Donald John Trump would be born. And, 20 years after that, Scott Pruitt.
The arc of human evolution is marked by a steady upward curve in human knowledge and evolution, with just the occasional dip. Now, though, thanks the war on science, many scientists — and everyday, regular thinking folks — think we may no longer be looking at a dip but rather the beginning of a slow, steady dive into oblivion. The concept “mass extinction” was unheard of just 10 years ago. Now, it looks like the probably path to the future.
One-off protest marches have their place — just look at the examples below of some of the clever, creative turns-of-phrase on display just yesterday — but whether they have any tangible effect is another matter. Cumulatively, perhaps, but even then, it takes time.
The only thing that counts, at least now, is that last November, 62 million voters in the U.S. decided that climate change is a hoax. And any objection to that idea is tantamount to fake news. Evidence-based policymaking is for losers. The Obama administration’s signature Clean Power Plan was a thinly disguised conspiracy by media elites and kale-chip eating tofu lovers to kill the fossil-fuel industry. Coal is clean; freak weather events are the inevitable result of loose social morals on the U.S. West Coast and effete enclaves in Europe; and if wild tigers, polar bears and elephants tigers don’t make it to the next century, well, they just lost the evolutionary lottery, that’s all.

©EPA/Washington DC

©EPA/Washington DC

Godless, liberal weenies: Charles Darwin taught you this, if you believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest. If you believe in evolution, you can’t have it both ways, right?
You want expert opinion? During last summer’s Brexit referendum in Britain, no less an expert than former UK cabinet minister Michael Gove said that the public “have had enough of experts.”
The March for Science was an effort by experts to fight back, and in one sense it was a miracle. “You know you’re in trouble when scientists take to the streets,” one of those experts declared in The Guardian two weeks ago. Scientists are not, by nature, rabble rousers. By training and temperamentthey prefer to avoid the limelight, happy to stay in their lab, playing with their mold and fungi, testing and retesting results.

©AP/Denver   

©AP/Denver

 

They tended to do well in math in school — another reason to hate them — but, generally speaking, when you think of your dedicated, died-in-the-wool protesters, scientists don’t exactly jump to mind.
Before the March on Science, there were worries that protests are counterproductive and can have unintended consequences. They can play into the hands of the power brokers, by showing the proverbial silent majority what a bunch of immature crybabies the protestors are, and how worthless their issue-of-the-moment is as a result. There’s also the fear that, by painting a bleak portrait of a steadily eroding environment and the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems, ordinary, everyday thinking folks may decide that it’s too late, and give up on doing anything.

©Twitter

©Twitter

Some argued that the March for Science risked making science political. It already is, though. And it wasn’t the scientists themselves who did that. It was always political. And not addressing that is a problem.
As Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor and former co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Barack Obama John Holdren noted this past weekend in the Sunday Observer, science is evidence-based. Science is driven by our desire to learn more about ourselves, our world and our universe. Most if not all scientists want their discoveries and new understanding to be applied to advancing economic prosperity — more and bigger research grants, if you want to be cynical about it — public health, environmental sustainability, personal safety and security and good governance.
This is nothing to apologize for. It is something to be proud of. And that, in the end, was what the March for Science was really about. It wasn’t timed to coincide with Earth Day as much as it was a reminder that every day is earth day, if we want the planet to survive beyond next quarter’s profit statements.
Oh, and some of those signs were really clever.


©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Reuters/New York City

©Reuters/New York City


Reason for hope: Time to celebrate conservation’s successes, as well as challenges.

I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid stories of environmental woe and sturm und drang since starting this blog late last year. There’s enough of that going around.

Besides, those contrarians who don’t believe humans are affecting the environment — the small but noisy and politically influential minority who insist climate change is a fabrication intended to deep-six the coal and fossil fuel industry — are unlikely to change their minds now.

As for the rest, as Sir David Attenborough so aptly put it when defending his sunny-skies view in Planet Earth, no one sitting at home at the end of a long, hard day wants to be told the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that it’s all their fault.

Pessimists often depict conservation efforts — underfunded for the most part, and stretched thin — as a cry in the wilderness, and about as effective.

There are success stories, though.

©BBC

©BBC

And the Attenboroughs of the world — not to mention the conservationists themselves — prefer to focus on those stories, rather than warning yet again of imminent threat of a mass extinction. The planet has lost 58% of its birds, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970 — this, according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and London Zoological Society, but virtually anyone who can read already knows that.

The same survey found that the average yearly decrease in animal biodiversity is now 2%, “with no sign yet that this rate will slow down,” but again, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone watching the nightly news.

The success stories, rare as they might appear at times, are in the news now, though, thanks to a specially arranged meeting of conservationists, the Conservation Optimism Summit, later this month in London, with gatherings in other cities around the world, including Washington, DC and Hong Kong.

The summit is timed at least in part to Earth Day, which falls on April 22.

©DNP/Freeland

©DNP/Freeland

The implications extend beyond one day in April, though. People need to hear that all is not lost, that there’s reason for hope. One of the surprising conclusions to be drawn from the past 25 years of conservation is that it’s the smaller, grassroots efforts that have a more pronounced effect on the ground than the efforts of big, bloated conservation organizations that are often weighted down by their own bureaucracy and burgeoning operating costs.

Some of the more radical environmental activists say people ought to be told what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear.

The truth is that there’s room for both.

Polar bears are in serious trouble — the bears need pack ice on which to hunt and sustain themselves throughout winter hibernation, and the ice is melting across the Arctic — but the panda bear, the iconic symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, has recovered significantly throughout its former range.

Rhinos are facing a devastating surge in poaching throughout their range in Africa, but the saiga antelope, an oddly shaped grazing antelope endemic to the Eurasian steppe, has survived not one but two population crashes in recent years. The Siberian tiger has made a comeback in Russia, and a new population of rare Indonesian tigers was discovered in a national park in eastern Thailand just last month, even as conservationists warn that the lion — one of the most iconic, most easily recognized animals on the planet — faces a population crash throughout much of its range in Africa, due to habitat destruction, human population growth and the inevitable animal-human conflict that results.

©University of Oxford

©University of Oxford

Despite its Pollyannaish and easy-to-ridicule name, the Conservation Optimism Summit has an important purpose, as Oxford University zoologist E.J. MIlner-Gulland, a summit cofounder, and Oxford professor of biodiversity, told the Sunday Observer this past weekend.

“We have to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we’re going to protect endangered species,” she told the newspaper. “If we’re too gloomy about saving wildlife, you people will think there’s nothing they can do and that would be tragic. And wrong.”