April 23, 2013
Salt evaporation ponds formed by salt water impounded within levees in former tidelands on the shores of San Francisco Bay. (More on how the colors are formed below.) Image credit: dsearls/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Over the weekend, Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente sharply laid out what she and other journalists such as Keith Kloor have called the key philosophical battle of environmentalism today — between, as she puts it:
the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists – between the McKibbenists, who believe we’re on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are.
Exhibit A of these eco-optimists for Wente? Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy. Wente says that “Kareiva and his fellow enviro-optimists are the key to saving environmentalism from terminal irrelevance.”
As Wente puts it:
He argues that the purists have been terrible for environmentalism because they’ve alienated the public with their misanthropic, anti-growth, anti-technology, dogmatic, zealous, romantic, backward-looking message. (As a young scientist, he testified in favour of restricting logging to save the spotted owl. Then he saw the loggers sitting at the back of the room, with their children on their shoulders. After that, he became convinced that environmentalism wouldn’t work so long as it was framed in terms of either/or.)
Read Wente’s full column and let us know what you think.
April 10, 2013
We talk a lot about the biodiversity crisis, the energy crisis, the water crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, deforestation and so on. But what about the soil crisis?
Today, around the world the mean rate of soil loss is roughly ten times the rate at which soil is replenished. In some countries such as China, the rate of soil loss can be as high as 50 times greater than replenishment.
It is hard to imagine a better indicator of our failure to achieve sustainability. What could be more fundamental than the soil that grows the plants from which 99% of humankind’s calorie intake is derived?
From a biodiversity and conservation perspective, this soil loss also impinges on many of our more traditional concerns. It represents nutrient and sediment flow into our rivers and estuaries, to the detriment of fisheries.
Conservation has many narratives of profligate humanity soiling their nest and creating some sort of eco-catastrophe. Often those narratives are overstated and excessive.
But in the case of soil, the doom-and-gloom has some merit. Some historians have examined the arc of human history as a series of civilizations bankrupting their soils.
And it is not just data and science. If you have gardened and felt the comfort and seduction of warm, fertile soil in your hands, you know how primal is the link between people and soil. When someone back in the recesses of time coined the term “Mother Earth,” I have to believe she or he was thinking of warm soil.
March 13, 2013
I was just revising the “marine chapter” for a textbook I have coauthored, and looking at reviews from professors who had taught a conservation course using our first edition. We were criticized for making marine conservation too much about fishing and marine protected areas, while neglecting ocean pollution as a big deal, and probably the greatest threat to our oceans.
It turns out these critics were right.
For much of human history the ocean has been viewed as a place to dispose of waste where it would be so diluted that it does no harm. We now know better.
Dead zones, floating mats of plastics, and toxic chemical residues in marine fish tissue are striking evidence that human waste and by-products could be every bit as much of a threat to our oceans as over-fishing.
Dead zones now affect more than 400 systems, and cover vast areas of the ocean — more than 475,000 square kilometers. Plastic debris in the oceans is now so common it is hard to find a beach without washed up plastics. This plastic is much more than a matter of aesthetics; all sea turtles, 45% of marine mammals, and 21% of seabird species are harmed by plastic.
The sheer volume of human waste products and the fact that most people live along coasts means that there will be no simple, single measure that can address marine pollution.
Take something as specific as cigarette butts — over 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded annually, and researchers have observed a 96-hour mortality effect (measured as LC-50) in larval topsmelt (a Pacific ocean silverside) at a dilution of one cigarette butt per liter of water. Latte-drinking enthusiasts in my hometown of Seattle have given rise to elevated caffeine concentrations in Puget Sound, which are known to cause chemical stress in mussels and other marine invertebrates.
So what are we to do?
February 4, 2013
Heather Tallis, one of the world’s foremost analysts of the connections between nature and human well-being, has agreed to join The Nature Conservancy as lead scientist.
Tallis, 36, will become the first woman to serve as lead scientist in the Conservancy’s history. She joins M. Sanjayan as one of two lead scientists for the organization.
“Heather brings incredible expertise in understanding and measuring how conservation impacts people,” says Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “She will be leading new efforts that conservation desperately needs — a scientific focus on how our work can both improve human well-being while also protecting biodiversity.”
Tallis comes to the Conservancy from her position as lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project, a path-breaking scientific collaboration based at Stanford University that seeks to understand and measure the economic values of nature. Measuring these ecosystem services — the benefits that nature provide people in the form of clean water, fertile soil, clean air and much more — has become increasingly important as human activity stresses natural resources and extreme weather events push communities to consider how healthy nature can buffer and protect us.