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Flight Ways: Birds living on the dull edge of extinction

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In Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren tells the stories of five species of bird:

  • Albatross
  • Little Penguin
  • Indian Vulture
  • Whooping Crane
  • Hawaiian Crow

Each species sheds light on a different “extinction story.” We begin with the albatross — birds that spend most of their lives gliding inches above the sea, ingesting plastics and other contaminants that they in turn feed to their offspring, resulting in increased numbers of dead offspring. Fishing lines have had an equally devastating effect on the adults. Most humans may never set eyes on an albatross, but by eating seafood or by simply participating in a global economy that relies on shipping plastic stuff, we have all had an impact on these majestic birds.

albatross

As van Dooren writes, “Our flight ways have crossed, and each of us has become implicated in the fate of the other.” He continues:

Standing among a colony of albatrosses along a windy cliff top on the island of Kaua’i, I was reminded of the shifting and consequential nature of this entanglement. … I reflected that perhaps what is most tragic about the current situation is not the “failure” of albatrosses to adjust or adapt to new threats and an altered environment … Rather, what is most tragic is another failure to adapt. Our own failure … Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances.

We move on to the little penguin, which has for many years nested along the outer shores of Sydney, Australia — shores that are now lined with homes and sea walls, presenting obstacles and predators that have driven this species to the edge. This story is one of place — how animals not only lose real estate to humans but also their future. And humans, the late arrivals, too often view these penguins, simply searching for their old homes, as pests.

The Indian Vulture presents a tragic irony — a bird long associated with death now facing the death of its species, due largely to chemicals fed to cattle that may lengthen the life of cattle only to poison the birds. Vultures have long lived symbiotically with humans, playing the role of garbage collector — and, for the ethnic group known as the Parsee, vultures dispose of the human dead as well. But as the vultures pass away from sight, dogs and rats take up their role and, in turn, bring diseases back to the human communities. Extinction doesn’t just impact the species itself — its impact can be felt far and wide.

The story of the whooping crane is one that I thought I understood until reading this book. You might have seen videos of this human-assisted migration — an ultralight plane being used to teach young birds how to migrate south. But there is a darker, sadder story underneath the “feel-good” story — one of significant bird suffering. The birds selected for breeding never get to leave captivity. And other birds have been sacrificed over the years (sandhill cranes, chickens) to incubate the eggs, with limited success. Finally, the result of human intervention has been largely unsuccessful; that is, the captive-raised birds have not been particularly good at rearing their young, which raises doubt about the long-term viability of this conservation model. Van Dooren doesn’t suggest that we should stop trying to save this species, but he does urge a greater awareness for the costs that birds must pay to support this effort.

Finally, there is the Hawaiian Crow — a bird that does not exist outside of captivity. There are roughly 100 birds left alive — and humans are doing their very best to reintroduce the species into the wild. It is a story of hope.

Van Dooren writes about the “dull edge of extinction,” a phrase that captures the slow-motion disaster that is extinction. What we see here are examples of birds living on this edge, some perhaps destined to cross over, some perhaps not. And humans are playing violent and benevolent roles along the way. Van Doren highlights the inherent tensions between animal conservation and animal welfare. At what point is the cure worse than the disease?

This is an academic book, heavily footnoted, but the annotations do not get in the way of the stories, which are enlightening, albeit sad. Van Dooren does an excellent job of going beyond the science to the emotional experience of observing and spending time among the birds. The author is keenly aware of the role that stories play in raising awareness and, more important, empathy. This book is another example of the growing importance of environmental humanities in pushing society forward.

Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction
Columbia University Press

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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

cowspiracy

Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Tim Folger, Series Editor…

 

Science is a scary word. At least, it used to be for those of us who grew up messing around in the hazy world of literature and art, not empirical facts. Science was what made it possible to go to the moon, so science meant rocket science. But it seems to me now that a fear of science is a result of a rigid (and, in my day, gender-biased) educational system, where disciplines are divvied up into discrete categories, as if one had nothing to do with the other.

Best, cover

 

How wrong, and how sad. Science seeks answers to the same questions that the humanities do: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? It is all about observation. Galileo studied the moon and determined that it was not flat, and from this went on to claim that the Earth was not the center of the universe. In the Foreword of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, series editor Tim Folger points out that Galileo’s discovery was rejected in his time, not unlike climate change in ours. And so it goes.

 

I’m glad to see Nature Writing is part of this series, and not because it makes for an easy segueway to “science,” but because we need to rethink nature altogether. We have made nature plush and Disney-like by removing most all of our predators, as J.B. MacKinnon writes in “False Idyll” (originally published in Orion). “We have rendered nature an easy god to worship,” MacKinnon says. “Nature is not a temple but a ruin.” If Man against Nature is one of the great recurring themes of literature, then we have been battling a straw dog. In “Our Place in the Universe” (Harper’s) Alan Lightman contemplates the enormity of the universe and wonders how such a remote concept can ever fit into our idea of nature. He notes that in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” Emerson separates humans from nature, and crowns nature as being morally superior. To Lightman, we are not separate so much as insignificant.

universe

The essays in this collection, each a small revelation unto itself, cover the waterfront, what is left of it. From “Which Species Will Live?” (Scientific America), Michelle Nijhuis argues that it is not enough to save specific species, but the eco-systems in which they live, or what is the point? Sylvia Earle, in “The Sweet Spot in Time” (VQR) writes about the disappearance of coral, the sad state of ocean life as a whole, and how this is the moment to take action, “the next ten years will determine the direction of the next ten thousand.” In “Recall of the Wild” (The New Yorker) Elizabeth Kolbert (whose most recent book is The Sixth Extinction), writes about the strange re-wilding programs taking place around the world. Governments in Europe are using marginal land to introduce herds of animals, like feral horses and deer, and letting them roam under the high power lines. The article raises questions about the ultimate purpose or benefits of re-wilding, with the sober realization that now even wilderness is a human creation.

deer

In “Out of the Wild” (Popular Science), David Quammen writes about our most dangerous predator, and the smallest, the zoonotic viruses that are transferable from animals to humans, such as Ebola, SARS, and AIDS. Tim Zimmerman in “Talk To Me” (Outside magazine) interviews researchers who are attempting to communicate with dolphins, even though the sentiment is that we might very well have nothing to talk about. It is a sentiment that ties in to Nathaniel Rich’s “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” (The NYT Magazine), which looks at Turritopsis dohrnii, a jellyfish that instead of dying, returns to being a polyp to start its life cycle over. The conclusion of which is that we are perhaps intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality, but we don’t deserve it.

The benefits of a book like this is that it directs the lay reader to the best in science writing, and that will help make us all more science literate. And we’d better pay close attention to science, because it is going to have to save us from ourselves. “As Sylvia Earle says, “We may be the planet’s worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope.”

hope

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)

 

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