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Posts Tagged ‘ecology

“Human nature scares the hell out of me”*…

Henry Gee, paleontologist and senior editor of Nature, argues that we Homo sapiens are setting ourselves up for collapse. He cites population decline, a lack of genetic variation, our socioeconomic fixation on growth (and the way that that’s plundered the planet), among other factors. But he singles out one phenomenon in particular…

 The most insidious threat to humankind is something called “extinction debt.” There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it. The cause of extinction is usually a delayed reaction to habitat loss. The species most at risk are those that dominate particular habitat patches at the expense of others, who tend to migrate elsewhere, and are therefore spread more thinly. Humans occupy more or less the whole planet, and with our sequestration of a large wedge of the productivity of this planetwide habitat patch, we are dominant within it. H. sapiens might therefore already be a dead species walking.

The signs are already there for those willing to see them. When the habitat becomes degraded such that there are fewer resources to go around; when fertility starts to decline; when the birth rate sinks below the death rate; and when genetic resources are limited—the only way is down. The question is “How fast?”…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct,” from @EndOfThePier in Scientific American (@sciam).

For chorus effect, see also “Headed for a sixth mass extinction? MIT geophysicist warns oceans are on the brink.”

And for a look at the (possible) aftermath, explore “The Earth After Humans.”

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we remind ourselves that “hope is a discipline,” we might send expansively-creative birthday greetings to Freeman Dyson; he was born on this date in 1923. A theoretical and mathematical physicist, mathematician, and statistician, he made material contributions– both processes and concepts— in quantum field theory, astrophysics, the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, and engineering.

He will forever be remembered by SciFi fans as the originator of the idea of (what’s called) the Dyson Sphere (or Dyson Shell): he proposed that a highly advanced technological civilization would ultimately completely surround its host star with a huge shell to capture 100% of the useful radiant energy. This Dyson Sphere would have a gigantic cluster of artificial planetoids (“Dyson cloud”) with billions of billions of inhabitants who would make use of the energy captured by the Dyson Sphere. He also made the intriguing speculation that a Dyson Sphere viewed from other galaxies would have a highly distinctive, unnatural light. He suggested astronomers search for such tell-tale colored stars, which should signify advanced, intelligent life.

Dyson was skeptical of some climate science, believing that the advantages of global warming (e.g., greater crop yields) were underweighted and that climate models were underdeveloped (and thus untrustworthy). Still he sounded the alarm (in a way resonant with Gee’s, above) as to the possibility of humanity poisoning its own future:

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author


“Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences.”*…

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.

Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.

Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:

The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines…

We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.

… “[Covid-19 is] the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.

For the philosopher of “hyperobjects”—vast, unknowable things that are bigger than ourselves—the coronavirus is further proof that we live in a dark ecology: “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.”

* “Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences. This is the paradox of the ecological age. And it is why action to change global warming must be massive and collective.” – Timothy Morton, Being Ecological


As we find our place, we might send classical birthday greetings to James Clerk Maxwell; he was born on this date in 1831.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Though he was the apotheosis of classical (Newtonian) physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.



“The Earth is what we all have in common”*…

Ancient Gateway, Angkor, Cambodia

There’s a pervasive notion in our society that nature is something outside, over there, other, from what we are as humans. From religious texts teaching that God provided humans with dominion over Earth, to futuristic literature pitching nature as our past and human ingenuity and technology as our future, the narrative that humans are beyond – or even superior to – nature is deeply entrenched.

This separation, this othering of nature, has arguably enabled our rampant destruction of the rest of the living world, and even led some to claim that our human nature is incompatible with nature itself.

Now a huge international study involving geography, archeology, ecology, and conservation adds to the wealth of sciences that exposes this idea as the lie it is.

Researchers found that for most of our history, humanity has lived in equilibrium with our world, despite us having altered most of Earth’s terrestrial surface far sooner than we realized. “Societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience,” said University of Maryland environmental systems scientist Erle Ellis.

Analyzing reconstructions of historic global land use by humans and comparing this to global patterns of biodiversity, the researchers found that by 10000 BCE humans had transformed nearly three-quarters of Earth’s land surface – you can view an interactive map of their findings here.

This upends previous models that suggested most land was still uninhabited as recently as 1500 CE. “Lands now characterized as ‘natural’, ‘intact’, and ‘wild’ generally exhibit long histories of human use,” University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson explained.

“There’s a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive,” said Watson.

In recent times, it’s certainly appeared that way, but clearly this hasn’t always been the case – humanity’s presence hasn’t always caused the life around us to wither away. The researchers note that in many areas, mosaics of diverse landscapes managed by people were sustained for millennia.

They used strategies like planting, animal domestication, and managing the ecosystems in a way that made the landscape not just more productive for us, but helping to support high species richness too. “Our study found a close correlation between areas of high biodiversity and areas long occupied by Indigenous and traditional peoples,” said Max Planck Institute archeologist Nicole Boivin.

“The problem is not human use per se, the problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation.”

“We need to recognize that some types of human activity – particularly more traditional land management practices that we see in the archaeological record or practiced today by many Indigenous peoples – are actually really supportive of biodiversity. We need to promote and empower that,” said Bovin.

University of Maine anthropologist Darren Ranco noted that while indigenous people manage around 5 percent of the world’s lands that currently contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, they have been excluded from management and access in protected areas like the US National Parks.

These findings make it clear that we need to empower Indigenous, traditional, and local peoples who know their lands in ways science is only just beginning to understand, explained Ellis. While no one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies of our past, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity.

From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies, and a big part of this is recognizing that we are part of nature just as nature is a part of us.

Learning from our ancestors: “Humans Shaped Life on Earth For 12,000 Years, And It Wasn’t All Doom And Destruction.” Read the research in full at PNAS.

By way of an illustration of the issue, “Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows“:

In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock in the deep Earth contributed to the drifting position of the poles. But the new research shows that since the 1990s, the loss of hundreds of billions of tonnes of ice a year into the oceans resulting from the climate crisis has caused the poles to move in new directions.

Indeed, we’ve moved the poles 4 meters since 1980…

And for a look at just how much the earth has changed, “Google Earth Now Shows You The Consequences of Climate Change For The Past 37 Years.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating “Nothing Here“]

* Wendell Berry


As we find balance, we might spare a thought for Jean Nicot de Villemain; he died on this date in 1604. A diplomat and scholar, he introduced tobacco to the French court (and thus, into wide usage in Europe). In 1560, while serving as ambassador in Portugal, he was shown a tobacco plant in the garden of Lisbon botanist Damião de Goes, who claimed it had healing properties. Nicot applied it to his nose and forehead and found it relieved his headaches.

Nicot sent home seeds and leaves of tobacco, recommending its marvelous therapeutic value. He then sent snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France to treat her migraine headaches. She was impressed with its results, and became an advocate.

The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its active substance, nicotine, derive their names from his.

Nicot also compiled one of the first French dictionaries, Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606).


“If locusts are ravenous sociopaths, cicadas are more like frat boys – clumsy, loud, and obsessed with sex”*…

… and they are, themselves, the object of other species’ obsessions…

This spring’s emergence of periodical cicadas in the eastern U.S. will make more than a buzz. Their bodies—which will number in the billions—will also create an unparalleled food fest for legions of small would-be predators, including many birds and mammals. But some animals may benefit more than others, and any boost predator populations get from the coming buffet of winged insects will likely be short-lived, researchers say.

Tiny chickadees and mice have been known to wrestle these chunky bugs for a quick snack. Raptors, fish, spiders, snakes and turtles will gulp them down when given the chance. Captive zoo animals, such as meerkats, monitor lizards and sloth bears, will do so as well if the insects show up in their enclosure. Observers have even reported seeing domestic cats trap two cicadas at once, one under each forepaw.

This spring, three species of cicadas (collectively referred to as Brood X or Brood 10) will crawl out of the ground where they have spent the previous 17 years. They will coat the limbs and leaves of trees, sing, mate, lay eggs and then die. Uneaten corpses and body parts will add nutrients to the soil, bolstering the ecosystem and its denizens long after the boisterous insects disappear. But the famous periodicity of cicada broods can set some predators up for feast-then-famine scenarios—population booms followed by food insecurity and then sudden drops in numbers.

“In response to this superabundance of food, a lot of the predator populations have outrageously good years,” says Richard Karban, a University of California, Davis, entomologist who studies periodical cicadas. “But then the next year, and in the intervening years, there’s no food for them, so their populations crash again.”

Predators could be part of the reason that these slow-flying, defenseless and colorful cicadas emerge periodically instead of perennially. Over millennia, synchronized periodic emergences as a dense mob could have led to higher adult survival rates. Thus, the insects evolved to adopt their unusual life cycle—most of which is spent feeding underground—explains University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist and ecologist Chris Simon, who studies cicadas. “The predators are really important in driving the whole story,” she says. The success of the species effectively banks on sheer volume…

Most bird species do not travel to take advantage of cicada emergences… They live and eat in the same areas year after year, picking off the insects opportunistically instead of traveling to the cicada motherlode… cuckoos are an exception: they migrate to take advantage of insect outbreaks all over the country…

Despite all the eager predators, the life-cycle gamble on high-volume emergences pays off for periodical cicadas. Most survive predation to mate and then drop dead to the forest floor. But even if they go uneaten, their ecosystem impact does not stop there. Cicada bodies contain about 10 percent nitrogen, which is more than the concentration found in dead leaves and other typical forest litter, says Louie Yang, a University of California, Davis, entomologist, who studies resource pulses and phenological shifts. Plants such as American bellflowers will take up the nitrogen from the dead cicadas, and herbivorous mammals and insects will selectively feed on the higher-nitrogen fertilized leaves, he adds.

Patterns such as this one illustrate the ecological lens that periodical cicadas can provide on biological communities and evolutionary timelines. “I love the reciprocity of the whole system,” Yang says. “I think this kind of stuff happens all the time, but it’s usually hard to see. When these pulse events happen, it makes it really obvious—we can see that pulse pass through the system.”…

Billions of emerging insects will likely trigger predator population surges: “Brood X Cicadas Could Cause a Bird Baby Boom.”

Oh, and given climate change, 17-year cicadas could become 13-year cicadas: “The cicadas are coming. And they’re changing dramatically.”

* Catherine Price, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die


As we bear the buzz, we might recall that it was on this date in 1923 that insulin became publicly available for use by diabetics. Frederick Banting had discovered insulin in 1921, and refused to put his name on the patent. He felt it was unethical for a doctor to profit from a discovery that would save lives. He and his co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best, sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for a mere $1. They wanted everyone who needed their medication to be able to afford it.

Today, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves: Their drug, which many of the 30 million Americans with diabetes rely on, has become the poster child for pharmaceutical price gouging.

The cost of the four most popular types of insulin has tripled over the past decade, and the out-of-pocket prescription costs patients now face have doubled. By 2016, the average price per month rose to $450 — and costs continue to rise, so much so that as many as one in four people with diabetes are now skimping on or skipping lifesaving doses


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Now I wanna remind everyone of the House of Mouse Rules: No smoking. No villainous schemes. And no guests eating other guests.”*…

Alligator and python

In addition to being home to men with questionable decision-making skills, Florida also seems to have some issues with bizarre animal behavior, whether it’s freezing iguanas dropping from trees or alligators battling pythons in the Everglades. When it comes to those animals, however, Floridians can truly put the blame on non-natives. Neither pythons nor green iguanas made the Sunshine State their home until we brought them there as pets.

In fact, there are lots of problematic invasive species that have spread through the pet trade, from predatory fish that can drag themselves between bodies of water to a crayfish that clones itself to reproduce. Those high-profile cases lead to some obvious questions, like whether pets really are more likely to be invasive and, if so, why?

Two Swiss researchers, Jérôme Gippeta and Cleo Bertelsmeier have now attempted to answer these questions. And their conclusion is that yes, our pets are more likely to be problems.

To answer the question of whether pets really are problematic, the researchers generated some basic statistics for different groups of animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish). These included estimates of the total number of species, as well as the number of those that are classified as invasive and the number that are part of the pet trade.

If pets were no more or less likely to be invasive, you’d expect to see the invasive ones occupy similar fractions of both the pet trade and the total number of species in that group. But that’s not what we see in any of the groups. Invasive mammal species were present at five times the rate in the pet trade as they are in the wild around the globe. There was a similar result in birds; for amphibians, invasive species were eight times more common in the pet trade and about 10 times more common in fish.

Overall, invasive species were 7.4 times more likely to be kept as pets than you’d expect based on their frequency among vertebrate populations.

But cause and effect can be difficult to disentangle. Do we choose species that are more likely to be invasive as pets? Or have pets ended up with more opportunities to invade new environments because we transport them around the world?…

Spoiler alert: it’s the former… A new study finds the factors making them easier to keep also help them spread: “Unfortunately, we like pets that are likely to be invasive species.”

* Mickey Mouse


As we ponder proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that a different kind of “invader,” the Beatles, set a record: they became the first artists to hold all top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 on the same week, on April 4, 1964. 
#1. Can’t Buy Me Love
#2. Twist and Shout
#3. She Loves You
#4. I Want to Hold Your Hand
#5. Please Please Me
More Beatles on the Charts that week: #31 – I Saw Her Standing There, #41 – From Me To You, #46 – Do You Want To Know a Secret, #58 – All My Loving, #65 – You Can’t Do That, #68 – Roll Over Beethoven, #79 – Thank You Girl

At the time, the best-selling piece of Beatles merchandise was the “I Love Ringo” button.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

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