(Just in time for Earth Day) Distress Signals from Earth

A steady stream of reports on the deterioration of the environment is issued. There is a brief flurry of media coverage. The corporate-funded climate change deniers make counter claims. We wake briefly to the crisis then most of us lapse into a couch potato stupor. Neoliberal dogma and an almost mystical belief in capitalism makes almost certain that little will be done to avert coming calamities. Charades called climate summits offer nothing more than photo ops of smiling world leaders and vacuous press releases. We blithely turn our heads away from reality. As the ice caps melt it is not just penguins and polar bears that are in danger. The wider implications for the planet and humanity are profound. What level of catastrophe is it going to take for business as usual policies to change? Will we hear the distress signals from Earth?


Paul Ehrlich (click to view archive)

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies in the Department of Biology and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous honors including the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, given in areas where the Nobel Prize is not awarded, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the Blue Planet Prize.  He is active in the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. He is author of over 40 books.


Program #EHRP001. Recorded in Fort Collins, CO on February 17, 2014.

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Researchers Discover Why Zebras Have Stripes

It’s an evolutionary abnormality that has stumped scientists for hundreds of years: Why do zebras have stripes?

Hypotheses have included mating rituals, protection from predators, camouflage and heat protection, though no evidence has backed up the claims. But in a paper released Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers at University of California, Davis may have proven the reason: to protect the animal from disease-carrying biting flies.

“No one knew why zebras have such striking coloration,” wrote Tim Caro, lead author and a UC Davis professor of wildlife biology, in a press release. “But solving evolutionary conundrums increases our knowledge of the natural world and may spark greater commitment to conserving it.”

The biting fly explanation has long been suspected, as flies tend to avoid black-and-white striped surfaces. To find out once and for all, researchers noted the geographic distribution of zebras, horses and asses, and noted differences in zebra stripe patterns. They then overlapped the data with variables such as temperature, terrain, predator range and biting fly distribution.

While the other factors did not correlate with stripe patterns, one factor overwhelmingly did: the biting flies.

“I was amazed by our results,” wrote Caro. “Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies.”

Researchers noted that the short coats of zebras make them particularly susceptible to the flies, which may explain why the stripes do not appear on other animals.

However, as researchers mentioned in the release, one mystery solved leads to yet another mystery: why biting flies avoid black-and-white striped surfaces.

And the wonder continues.


Does Anyone Know Where the Love of God Goes…?


Oso, Washington, is a very small town (at least, it used to be). Until now, most people had never heard of it—it doesn’t even show up on Mapquest.com. Suddenly, in the time it took for a mountain to tumble down to the valley below, everyone worldwide seems to have heard about Oso.

I knew of it because we built our family cabin at Lake Cavanagh, which is at the end of the gravel, potholed Oso Road. Now half the town is under a mountain of dirt, rock and mud.

When it first hit the news, I thought it was just a standard mudslide like the ones we regularly see around here when the rains come down extra hard in the winter. Because of all the logging that Washington State is famous for, washouts are now commonplace. Logging slash left behind from years of clear cutting clogs up in the creek beds and blows out the culverts in a dramatic race to the bottom, taking out everything in its path and choking the salmon spawning streams below. But these slides are usually limited by the size of the creek where they originated.

It wasn’t until I saw aerial photos of the enormity of this washout that it became clear something strange and new had happened in the town of Oso. This was no surface water run-off, but though timber companies will probably never admit it, you can bet your bottom dollar that this will also ultimately prove to be the result of clear-cut logging in years past. Trees grew tall and wide in this neck of the woods, before the initial assault on old growth cedars around the turn of the 20th century. Many of the forests in Washington have been logged off several times by now. The aerial photos reveal smaller, even-aged trees on the slope above the washout. I learned from having a 300′ deep well drilled in western Washington, that, despite the sometime steady rain, there is really no aquifer to speak of. And no real rocks in these foothills either. Water finds its way through cracks and fissures in the claylike soil that passes for rock.

While old growth trees are vast reservoirs for rainwater, younger, smaller trees only hold so much. Although this winter has been a comparably dry one, heavy rains in late February and March have made up for it. In a sure sign of climate change, the northwest has been seeing more downpours measured in the inches per hour, rather than per day. Excess water can fill the cracks and fissures to overflow, forcing the cracks to expand and sometimes, as we saw in Oso, break away large chunks of earth.

For now all we do is hope for the people who were trapped, entombed, in their uprooted houses. Hope that they died quickly, that is. President Obama stated today that we should “pray” for the victims. Pray for what? Their souls, that they made it to heaven? If anyone is trapped under the mud this long, they’ve surely run out of oxygen by now.

Also in today’s news, a train derailment resulted, surprisingly, in no deaths. It was a “miracle,” the media announced. So my question to the media is, where are God’s miracles in the case of the Oso mudslide? All of this reminds me of those haunting lines in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” asking, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

If you think you know why any loving god would save a train full of people, while letting others suffer under the weight of a mountain, more power to you. Personally, I still haven’t figured it out.

Maybe If We Had Worshipped the Creation

Created by Jim Robertson

Sunday school children are taught that it is blasphemy to worship the creation instead of the Creator. Rather than encouraging people to praise the miraculous (in the non-secular sense of the word) living planet and all its incredible diversity of sentient life forms, western religions threaten eternal damnation if you don’t swear blind allegiance to some patriarchal creation of the human imagination, created in the image of man.

Hence, Homo sapiens has run roughshod over the Earth, destroying the very same natural systems that allowed us to come into being and trampling the rights of all other beings in our obsessed quest for domination over a world we’ve proven unworthy of even having dominion over.

Now, with so much of the land divided and conquered, the seas losing oxygen and turning acidic and the air encrusted in carbon, only fire remains untamed. Maybe if we had worshipped the creation and treated the Mother Earth with the respect she deserves, we would be feeling her love—instead of her punishing wrath.

Why is it so hard for otherwise hyper-intelligent humans to feel a sense of awe for a living world that came into form through the process of evolution, rather than one created by a mythical man-like creature? We see it happen every year, when life springs forth from a formerly frozen “wasteland.” Do people really believe some grey-bearded Santa Claus look-alike (minus the jolly disposition) waves a magic wand at every plant that shoots up to the heavens and every animal who, in their own way, rejoices?

Religion is supposed to teach humility, but after constantly being reminded that they are the Creator’s crowning achievement, humankind is anything but humble.

Holy bear

Sea otter return boosts ailing seagrass in California

[Proof that nature can take care of her own, if only we'd step aside and let her...]

Sea otter return boosts ailing seagrass in California

By Suzi Gage BBC News

sea otter ecology A sea otter enjoys a crab in California, and helps seagrass in the process.

The return of sea otters to an estuary on the central Californian coast has significantly improved the health of seagrass, new research has found.

Seagrass was deemed to be heading for extinction in this region before the otters returned.

But scientists found that the animals triggered a chain reaction of events that boosted the water-dwelling plants.

The research is published in the journal, PNAS.

The urbanisation of California has led to a huge increase in nutrient pollution in coastal waters, from increasing use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

It’s almost like these sea otters are fighting the effects of poor water quality”

End Quote Brent Hughes University of California

This is said to be the reason for the dieback of seagrass, which has also been declining worldwide.

This research suggests that the hunting to near-extinction of sea otters in the late 19th and early 20th Century may have exacerbated the problem, and conversely that their reintroduction is helping revive ailing seagrass populations, even in the face of hugely nutrient-rich water.

Links in the chain

The researchers assessed seagrass levels over the past 50 years in the Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay, and mapped their increases and declines.

They looked at a variety of changes that may have affected the grass, but the only factor that really matched the changes in seagrass was sea otter numbers.

They theorised that sea otters were eating the crabs which prey upon small invertebrates in the water.

These invertebrates eat a type of algae which blooms when there are more nutrients in the soil. It grows on the leaves of the seagrass, shading them from sunlight and causing them to die back.

This is quite a complex cascade of effects, so the researchers tested out their theory by comparing similar estuaries with and without sea otters, and by doing experiments in the lab, and in the field.

These experiments, which included putting cages that sea otters either could or couldn’t access, down on the seagrass, confirmed their hypothesis.

otters Sea otters have been responsible for improving the health of the seagrass in these estuaries.

Brent Hughes, lead author of the study, said: “This estuary is part of one of the most polluted systems in the entire world, but you can still get this healthy thriving habitat, and it’s all because of the sea otters.

“So it’s almost like these sea otters are fighting the effects of poor water quality.”

Hughes described seagrass as “the canary in the coalmine” in terms of predicting levels of nutrient pollution in the water.

Foundation species

It also acts as a nursery habitat for many species of fish and it uses CO2 from sea water and the atmosphere, thus potentially helping with climate change.

Not only that, but it acts as protection to the stability of the shoreline.

Hughes said: “It’s what we call a foundation species, like kelp forest, salt marsh or coral reef. The major problem from a global perspective is that seagrass is declining worldwide. And one of the major drivers of this decline has been nutrient inputs from anthropogenic sources, via agriculture or urban runoff.”

These findings are of particular interest at the moment, as a ban on sea otters moving along the coast to southern California was lifted last year. The ban was in place as there was a fear the sea otters would impinge on fisheries in the area.

Hughes told BBC news: “That’s important because there’s a lot of these kind of degraded estuaries in southern California because of all the urban runoff from places like Los Angeles and San Diego.

“Coastal managers will now have a better sense of what’s going to happen when sea otters move in to their systems.

“There’s a huge potential benefit to sea otters returning to these estuaries, and in to these seagrass beds that might be threatened.”

Sab All Hunting, Not Just the Wolf Hunt

It never pays to procrastinate. Although I re-blogged Earth First’s “Manual for Sabotaging Wolf Hunts” a few days ago, I just now read the first speciesist lines of its pro-hunting introduction: “Lets shoot straight right from the start. We are hunters and proud of it.” (What part of the universal truth, that hunters are psychopaths and total scumbags, does EF fail to understand?) Their inconsistent attitude that it’s ok to hunt other species besides wolves prevents me from spreading the word about their manual any further.

It’s always sad when good-hearted people try to align themselves with their enemies and take on their ugly traits in order to boost the popularity of their cause. While it may seem like fun to emulate Elmers, when it comes right down to it, hating and killing wolves is a natural component of the redneck hunter’s credo. Rare is the hunter out to get “his” deer—whether for the purpose of subsistence, sport or trophy hunting—that doesn’t eventually resent the competition from natural predators.

Species like deer, moose, elk or feral hogs are every bit as sentient, and can experience fear and pain in the same way, as wolves. All animals value their lives; the frivolous taking of an innocent life is not something to be proud of. If we modern humans (7 billion and counting) can lead healthier lives without killing and consuming animal flesh, and thereby messing with the food chain, why should we inject ourselves into natures’ intricate web by playing top predator?

Remember, every grazer or browser we claim for ourselves is one less for the wolves who really need them.

Text and Wildlife Photography © Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photography © Jim Robertson


If the Global Warming Doesn’t Kill the Humans…

I trust you’re all familiar with the Onion news, right? Good. In that case you’ll get it as you read my parody on the following “article” from
America’s finest news source, the Onion:

If The Heat Doesn’t Kill The Elderly, I Will
Jul 13, 2005
By Rudolph Milner

It is now high summer, and the sun is broiling the American Southwest, sending temperatures soaring upwards of 110 degrees. The heat has struck hardest among the elderly, dozens of whom have died of heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you, like me, are a right-thinking person, your mind recoils in horror at this fact: The old and decrepit are dying by mere dozens?

Fifty years ago, a heat wave of this magnitude and duration would have claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of shriveled-up old codgers. The streets would have been littered with their withered carcasses. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. By providing today’s elderly with unprecedented access to air conditioning and situating them in safe, supervised retirement communities, we have thrown Mother Nature’s natural-selection process completely out of sync. And don’t look for winter to solve the problem, either: Even more old people have heating than have air-conditioning, and more and more are getting it every day.

Like you, I had high hopes for this summer. Like you, I am deeply disappointed in the low death toll among the elderly…

Call me warped, but I have to confess I got a good chuckle or two from this piece of pseudo news. Still, as much as I envied the Onion’s ability to make light of a serious issue like human mortality, I felt they were unfairly picking on the elderly when it’s actually the whole of the human race who deserves lampooning. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness to decrepit old codgers everywhere, I’m going to hereby restate this piece and edit out all the ageist rhetoric in hopes it will come across a bit more senior-neutral:

If the Global Warming Doesn’t Kill the Humans…

It is now high summer, and the sun is broiling the American Southwest, sending temperatures soaring upwards of 110 degrees. The heat has struck humans by the dozens, some of whom have died of heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you, like me, are a right-thinking person, your mind recoils in horror at this fact: Homo sapiens are dying by mere dozens?

Fifty years ago, a heat wave of this magnitude and duration would have claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of humans. The streets would have been littered with their carcasses. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. By providing today’s humans with unprecedented access to air conditioning and situating them in safe, supervised communities, we have thrown Mother Nature’s natural-selection process completely out of sync. And don’t look for winter to solve the problem, either: Even more people have heating than have air-conditioning, and more and more are getting it every day.

Like you, I had high hopes for this summer. Like you, I am deeply disappointed in the low death toll among humans…


The True Nature of the Grizzly Bear

Here’s another older letter to the editor (this time to small, local paper in Northeast Washington), that I found in my archives…

A couple of months ago I may have sided with the attitude that if grizzly bears come back to the North Cascades on their own, fine, but there’s no need to reintroduce them. But now, after a rash of anti-grizzly letters have appeared in this paper, I’m ready to become one of the champions of their full recovery here. I hope your readers are laughing off the letters from these misguided, close-minded fanatics and will learn for themselves the true nature of the grizzly bear, instead of jumping on the fear bandwagon and turning their backs on this vanishing species.

One of the common misconceptions frequently stated is that these bears are fearless and have no respect for man. This would lead you to believe that grizzlies would soon be wandering the streets of Winthrop. The fact is, grizzlies will avoid man if at all possible and will choose to inhabit the most rugged and remote areas. I worked for years in known grizzly country in Montana and the Selkirk Mountains of Washington and only sighted a grizzly in those areas once (although I saw numerous black bears).

On the other hand I’ve seen scores of grizzlies and have had numerous positive encounters with them in Yellowstone and national parks in Alaska where bear hunting is not allowed. In one case, I came face to face with a large grizzly on a narrow, brushy trail. I rounded the corner and nearly prodded him with my fishing pole before seeing him. The grizzly did not charge, but merely waited until I moved off the trail before he continued on. As John Crawford put it in an article entitled, “Getting along with grizzlies,” “…Confidence devoid of cockiness and a deep basic respect and fondness for grizzlies” should be our attitude if we meet up with Ursus arctos. Crawford goes on to describe other typical bear encounters. In one case, two B.C. trail workers met a grizzly who was running toward them in pursuit of a grouse. The bear did not see the men, but when he got a scent of them, “he reacted as though he’d run into a wall. His front legs stiffened; and mud splattered as his paws pushed out to break.” Then, “the bear turned and walked slowly, sullenly away. As soon as he was out of sight…he broke into a gallop…”

To those people who can’t appreciate living near one of the last wild areas in the lower 48, there are plenty of place to live where you won’t have to face the remote possibility of encountering a wild animal. If we are not willing to allow grizzly bears to exist in the rugged Cascade Mountains, what can we say if elephants are wiped off the African continent, or pandas have joined the dinosaurs?

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

China’s Poultry Industy is Losing One Billion Yuan PER DAY

While an article in the Hindu Business Line tells us that China’s poultry industry has  lost 65 BILLION Yuan since the end of March, what I found shocking is that the industry has been losing an average of one billion Yuan a day for the past two months! What I want to know is, how many millions of birds does it take to raise one billion Yuan and what kind of horrendous living conditions must that many birds be forced to endure? How miserably confined, overcrowded and devoid of any semblance to natural bird life must it be like (for the short time their allowed to live).

The article (inadvertently) points out some shocking facts, which I’ve highlighted incage_1 bold

Bird flu costs China’s poultry industry $65 bn: State media

Beijing, May 21:

China’s human H7N9 bird flu outbreak has cost the country’s poultry industry more than $65 billion as consumers shun chicken, government officials said according to state media yesterday.

The sector has been losing an average of one billion yuan a day since the end of March, the Beijing Times said, citing Li Xirong, head of the National Animal Husbandry Service.

H7N9 avian influenza has infected 130 people in China, killing 35, since it was found in humans for the first time, according to latest official data.

Poultry sales have tumbled and prices plunged, Li said, causing major financial problems and job losses as a result.

Another agriculture ministry official, Wang Zongli, said government agencies should set a good example for the public by treating “poultry products in a correct way”, the report added.

In a stunt to boost confidence, officials and poultry business leaders in the eastern province of Shandong held a widely reported all-chicken lunch last week, according to Chinese media.

China has seen several food safety scares in recent years, including one in which the industrial chemical melamine was added to dairy products in 2008, killing at least six babies and making 300,000 ill.


Wolves Under Tyrannical Control

According to a recent article about the planned destruction of Washington’s Wedge pack, Bill McIrvin of the Diamond M ranch said in an interview in July that he believes radical environmental groups are conspiring to introduce wolves in order to force ranchers off public lands. Yeah right—nice thought—but that sounds pretty paranoid to me.

Most “radical” environmentalists are smart enough to know that cattle ranchers have wildlife and the wildlife agencies by the balls with a death grip that won’t let go until Nature hertself is under their tyrannical control.

If the rancher is this suspicious of environmentalists, how paranoid must he be of the wolves? And why should we blindly accept all his claims of depredation at an almost unprecedented level?

I can just see him laughing under his hat at the wildlife agents he’s duped into doing his bidding by annihilating the entire Wedge pack (he’s stated several times he won’t settle for anything less). Heck, even the presumed wolf-champions at Conservation Northwest (in an obvious effort not to appear “radical”) have turned their back on the pack for the sake of the cattle rancher.

Not only will McIrvin be allowed to keep grazing his cattle on public national forest land, but now he’s got the state sharpshooters’ promise that they’ll spend as long as it takes to kill each and every wolf in the pack.

No, there’s not much chance of crafty extreme environmentalists covertly re-introducing wolves to this crazy cattle-industry controlled world. But we can always hope that some animal ‘extremist’ will usher them back into Canada for now, until the ranchers of Eastern Washington can put their prejudices aside and learn to live with the diversity of wildlife they’re fortunate enough to have in their backyard.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson


Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson