And while that happens, all of us can stop supporting the disgusting meat industry by refusing to buy its products. Learn more here.
Coal-fired powered, Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in Nottinghamshire, England. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)Loop Images / UIG via Getty Images
A hummingbird flew into New York’s Times Square Friday, and has been hovering and flitting high over the heads of tourists and workers ever since.
Never mind that the bird arrived via jumbo screen — the arresting image was intended to turn attention to humanity’s tenuous place in nature. The onscreen message: “Earth Overshoot Day is August 1…Because We Have Only One Earth…#MoveTheDate.”
Created by the Global Footprint Network environmental nonprofit, Earth Overshoot Day estimates the point in the year when humanity has consumed more natural resources and created more waste than Earth can replace or safely absorb in a year. The Aug. 1 date projected this year is earlier than any time in the dozen years the calculation has been made and a warning, especially, of the heightened challenge from the accumulation of greenhouse gases.
“Fires are raging in the Western United States. On the other side of the world, residents in Cape Town have had to slash water consumption in half since 2015,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of the Oakland, California-based Global Footprint Network. “There are consequences of busting the ecological budget of our one and only planet.”
The electronic billboard campaign in Times Square — with additional images of a blooming hibiscus from renowned slow-motion nature filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg — will be followed by a YouTube and Facebook livestream July 31 and Aug. 1. The live video feed will feature environmental leaders from around the world, including representatives from the United Nations, the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Day Network and others.
The Earth Overshoot concept is designed to bring urgency to climate issues that can seem distant in time and place. It aims to keep citizens and decision-makers in touch with spiraling carbon dioxide levels, particularly Americans who don’t live in coastal flood zones or in the path of more frequent and sizable hurricanes.
When the first overshoot calculation was announced in 2006, it found that Earth used a year’s worth of resources by Oct. 9. The Global Footprint Network determines the date by drawing data from the United Nations, the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among others. These estimates of productive land and sea area, grazing land, cropland and fishing grounds are expressed in so-called global hectares. This measurement (roughly 2.5 acres) is meant to be a standard unit, projecting average productivity, that can be tallied to represent the Earth’s total “biocapacity.”
The researchers then examine the demand side: mankind’s need for crops, livestock and fish, timber and space for urban development, along with a calculation of the forests’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The difference between this “ecological footprint” and the Earth’s biocapacity represents the overshoot.
The Aug. 1 date declared this year means that, for the final five months of the year, mankind is overdrawing natural resources. Framed another way, it would take 1.7 Earths to supply the resources needed to feed, clothe and sustain Earth’s 7.6 billion people for a year.
Global Footprint Network also calculates the biocapacity and ecological footprint at the national level, offering a look at how much each country is living beyond its home-grown resources. It shows, for example, that the United States has a biocapacity of 3.6 hectares per person but that the average consumption is 8.4 hectares per person, meaning that Americans are running a 4.8 hectare per-capita deficit. Stretched across a population of 317 million, that country uses all of its native resources by March 15, the formulation suggests. To continue consuming at current levels indefinitely, the U.S. would need the resources of five Earths.
That’s in sharp contrast to nations that have little industry and relatively few cars and trucks and often substantial forests, pumping oxygen back into the biosphere. So Suriname in the northern end of South America, has a biocapacity of 97 hetacres per person, but each of its 496,000 inhabitants only uses 2.7 hectares, on average, annually. So the tiny nation produces a large 94.6 hectares of “reserve.” Because the construct is only theoretical, though, Suriname can’t escape the excess carbon dioxide most other countries pump into the atmosphere. And it exports surpluses of wood and commodities that other countries can’t produce on their own.
Andrew Simms, a progressive British political economist who helped conceive the idea, said it is important to show how cultures live beyond their own resources. “The wealthiest countries, in particular, depend on a much larger land base than they have themselves to enjoy the material lifestyles they are accustomed to,” Simms said. Wackernagel said his group uses the statistics conservatively and that, if anything, the overshoot date underestimates humanity’s impact on the planet.
The calculation is not without critics. A World Wildlife Fund official in Britain wrote a column in 2010 calling the footprint “clever” and “succinct.” But he added that the diverse array of data it compiled — from greenhouse gas emissions, to rainforest destruction, to corn yields — was hard to reconcile and made the calculation “a useful guide stick rather than anything absolute.”
Rush Limbaugh offered a less generous critique after the announcement of the overshoot date in 2015. “If we have exhausted our yearly allotment of natural resources,” Limbaugh asked, “then why are we still breathing?”
Wackernagel responds that just because resources like water and oxygen remain available, it doesn’t mean they aren’t being depleted to threatening levels. “We can live off of depletion for a time,” he said, “but not forever.”
“We can live off of depletion for a time but not forever.”
Regardless of the calculation’s degree of precision, it has met the Global Footprint Network’s goal of driving conversation about natural resources. Coverage has grown steadily, with organizers saying the story received 1.3 billion web hits in 2017, across more than 1,900 websites. In a few countries, including Japan and the United Arab Emirates, governments have discussed reshaping public policy around the limits suggested by the overshoot calculations.
The awareness gap seemed on display Friday at the south end of Times Square, not far from where the giant images of the hummingbird and hibiscus appear a couple times an hour. A dozen Americans said they had never heard of the Earth Overshoot concept, though several said they had deep concerns about damage that humanity was inflicting on the Earth.
George Allen, 61, declared it “not a good thing” that President Donald Trump has rolled back measures to slow down global warming. ” His wife, Regina added: “It’s important to us that we do all that we can do to make sure that we protect the Earth so that our grandchildren can live on this Earth and live well. But not just them, but their children, and their children’s children.” As proof of their commitment, the couple, from Louisville, Kentucky, said they were deeply committed to recycling.
When a young German family was asked about Earth Overshoot, even the 8- and 11-year-old daughters did not hesitate to recognize the term. Back in their hometown of Bielefeld, the Hoeners said the topic of environmental costs can come up among among neighbors, in school and, often, on the news. The state of North-Rhine Westphalia, the most populous in Germany, has made the ecological footprint central to its reckoning of environmental costs and benefits.
Nadine Hoener, visiting New York with her daughters and husband, said the ecological footprint concept comes up “all the time,” adding: “In Germany, people are quite aware of that problem.”
This seems unlikely to happen in the U.S. anytime soon. Wackernagel, a Swiss-born PhD, trained in community and regional planning, is quoted routinely in European publications. He has the lead essay in the 2016 annual environmental report for North-Rhine Westphalia.
But he has grown accustomed to an American identity closely attached to the idea of unlimited horizons. Wackernagel recalls President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural address, in 1985: “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.”
But the world’s population has ballooned by nearly 3 billion since then, driving the need for more creative solutions. And the overshoot date can play a role in communicating both urgency, and opportunity, Wackernagel believes.
“By seeing the world more clearly, we have a leg up in understanding the forces and trends,” he said, “and hence, we can steer innovation — a deep American value — towards where it gives us the highest chances to succeed.”
In 2008, Cabot Oil and Gas started fracking operations in Dimock, Pennsylvania. It was around that time the community started noticing their water was turning brown and making people and animals sick. One woman’s water well exploded. Fracking had come to town.
It’s a familiar story in other rural communities—from Pennsylvania to Montana and Texas—where fracking has contaminated drinking water resources and emitted toxic air pollution associated with higher rates of asthma, birth defects, and cancer.
But the story is similar in other communities where fracking or other extreme fossil fuel extraction isn’t happening. Air and drinking water that’s been dangerously polluted from industrial operations affect communities across Iowa, including the state’s largest city, Des Moines. Polluting facilities are operating in Central Oregon, North Carolina,Wisconsin, and Maryland. None of those places are fracking, but they are host to another environmental hazard facing rural communities: factory farms.
Like the fossil fuel cartel, this highly consolidated industry prioritizes profits at the cost of our environment. Factory farms are an industrial model for producing animals for food where thousands of cows, pigs, or birds are raised in confinement in a small area. While farms can and do apply manure as a fertilizer to cropland, factory farms produce more manure than nearby fields can absorb, leading to runoff into surface waters and contaminants leaching into groundwater. And storing concentrated quantities of manure releases toxins like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the air, threatening nearby communities—and even leading to worker deaths. The nearly half a million dairy cows on factory farms in Tulare County, California, produce five times as much waste as the New York City metropolitan area and carries chemical additives and pathogens like E. coli, many of which are antibiotic resistant.
Factory farms are also an issue of environmental injustice. In North Carolina counties that contain hog factory farms, schools with larger percentages of students of color, and those with greater shares of students receiving free lunches are located closer to hog farms than whiter and more affluent schools. Just like with fossil fuel infrastructure, these toxic facilities are more likely to be in places that are least able to resist their development.
Another thing factory farms have in common with fossil fuels: They are a danger to the climate. Livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Methane emissions from the digestive processes of cattle contribute 39 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production, and manure storage and processing contribute 10 percent. Additionally, monoculture crops like corn and soy are a hallmark of our highly consolidated food system and are one of the reasons we can raise mass quantities of livestock. These crops contribute nearly half of the emissions from the sector. Meanwhile, more sustainable meat production methods like smaller farms and grass-fed operations may have lower greenhouse gas emissions than factory farms. Without a rapid transition away from factory farming, we will not avoid catastrophic climate change.
Yet attempts to regulate factory farms have been weak-kneed and ineffective. For example, federal law requires they report significant releases of toxic pollutants like ammonia. But the Environmental Protection Agency actually does little to monitor, much less prevent, these emissions. In 2009, for example, the agency rolled back regulations so that only the largest facilities had to report these emissions—and only to local, not national, emergency response officials. In 2018 Congress went even further, granting an exemption from reporting requirements for air emissions created by manure on farms. Similarly, the EPA does not collectcomprehensive data on factory farm size or location, making oversight impossible. And while the Clean Water Act regulates water pollution from industrial facilities, the EPA has looked the other way; the agency estimated in 2011 that less than half of the facilities required to get discharge permits had actually obtained them.
Calls to ban fracking have been proliferating since we have found that it is too dangerous to simply regulate. The inherent risks to our environment, our climate, and our communities are simply too much.
Now, we need to say the same thing about factory farms. Both industries are putting rural communities at risk so that large polluting companies can become larger and more profitable. Climate advocates who are already facing down the fossil fuel industry should find common cause with those who are fighting to stop industrial agriculture in their community.
Systemic change is needed. We can’t shop our way out of the damage that is being done to our environment by simply choosing to reduce meat consumption or ride bikes to work. While these are meaningful steps, we must also demand policy action. It’s time to reverse the decades of pro-industry policy that have made Big Ag and Big Energy bigger and badder, and create policies that start phasing out pollution from agriculture and energy.
We know how to do it: We need to demand meaningful laws and regulations—including bans on new polluting factory farms and fossil fuel infrastructure—that prioritize people over profit. This is already happening at the state level in places like Iowa, but we need to work at all levels, starting now, to enact the changes we need to protect our environment, our water, and our communities.
Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet.
The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.
The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.
Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface.
“I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock.
The transformation of the planet by human activity has led scientists to the brink of declaring a new geological era – the Anthropocene. One suggested marker for this change are the bones of the domestic chicken, now ubiquitous across the globe.
The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.
“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.”
The destruction of wild habitat for farming, logging and development has resulted in the start of what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in the Earth’s four billion year history. About half the Earth’s animals are thought to have been lost in the last 50 years.
But comparison of the new estimates with those for the time before humans became farmers and the industrial revolution began reveal the full extent of the huge decline. Just one-sixth of wild mammals, from mice to elephants, remain, surprising even the scientists. In the oceans, three centuries of whaling has left just a fifth of marine mammals in the oceans.
“It is definitely striking, our disproportionate place on Earth,” said Milo. “When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.”
Despite humanity’s supremacy, in weight terms Homo sapiens is puny. Viruses alone have a combined weight three times that of humans, as do worms. Fish are 12 times greater than people and fungi 200 times as large.
But our impact on the natural world remains immense, said Milo, particularly in what we choose to eat: “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.”
“I would hope people would take this [work] as part of their world view of how they consume,” he said. ”I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?”
The researchers calculated the biomass estimates using data from hundreds of studies, which often used modern techniques, such as satellite remote sensing that can scan great areas, and gene sequencing that can unravel the myriad organisms in the microscopic world.
They started by assessing the biomass of a class of organisms and then they determined which environments such life could live in across the world to create a global total. They used carbon as the key measure and found all life contains 550bn tonnes of the element. The researchers acknowledge that substantial uncertainties remain in particular estimates, especially for bacteria deep underground, but say the work presents a useful overview.
Paul Falkowski, at Rutgers University in the US and not part of the research team, said: “The study is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive analysis of the biomass distribution of all organisms – including viruses – on Earth.”
“There are two major takeaways from this paper,” he said. “First, humans are extremely efficient in exploiting natural resources. Humans have culled, and in some cases eradicated, wild mammals for food or pleasure in virtually all continents. Second, the biomass of terrestrial plants overwhelmingly dominates on a global scale – and most of that biomass is in the form of wood.”
A 2017 study showed that if all Americans substituted beans for beef, the USA would come close to meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas goals originally set by the Obama administration in 2009.
Perhaps spurred on by shocking polemical documentaries like Cowspiracy and the UN’s reportthat showed that processed meat is as carcinogenic as cigarettes, veganism is on the rise. Lately, veganism has risen from its grassroots origins and become a widespread form of eco-activism.
Believe it or not, the meat and dairy industries are starting to listen and lab-grown meat is set to become a reality.
Is veganism just another bandwagon? Or, do these almond-milking vegaholics know what they’re talking about?
“What’s so wrong with eating meat?”, you may ask.
As all of the current U.S. generations currently alive have enjoyed, we no longer have to go out and hunt for animals when we want to eat meat. In fact, we don’t even have to go to the grocery store. We can order 24 chicken nuggets from the driver seat or have groceries delivered by an Amazon contractor.
Our lifestyles have changed drastically, but we still claim that we need to eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The sheer numbers involved with keeping everyone fed on steak and cheese are causing a lot of problems behind the scenes.
The brutality of the meat and dairy industries have been exposed in documentaries you may have come across on Netflix. Vegecated, Forks Over Knives and Earthlings are cited as contributing factors by many vegan converts.
However, critics question the validity of the facts provided in these “life-changing” documentaries.
Perhaps it was because the revelations of what has become normal were so shocking or maybe because people aren’t ready to face the consequences of their lifestyles. But, Cowspiracy, in particular, got a bad rap for using questionable statistics in the original version.
Although such advocacy documentaries still have their value and are worth watching if you want to get informed, they should be taken with a pinch of salt.
A more reliable source of facts about veganism and the environment are reviewed research papers and official reports. Although these reports may not have the same drama, the facts are clear-cut. The environmental impact of animal agriculture and it’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water waste is extreme.
Here’s the impact that meat and dairy have on the environment explained in facts and figures:
A study carried out by Dr. Marco Sprinmann at the University of Oxford attempted to estimate what the world would be like if we all went vegan in 2050.
The results are astonishing and show that in one single year greenhouse emissions would be cut by two thirds. $1.5 trillion would be saved in climate damages and healthcare expenditure. He also estimated that global mortality would be reduced by 10%, with 8 million fewer deaths caused by chronic disease.
Springmann also emphasized that these figures are probably an underestimation.
Veganism doesn’t have to be all granola and lettuce.
As consumers become more aware of the extent of the current sustainability crisis, eating habits have begun to change. This move towards more plant-based diets has had repercussions in the food production industry. Big names have started to invest in meat and dairy alternatives.
We saw the first synthetic burger make its debut in 2013. It quite literally took to the stage and was eaten in front of an amazing audience. T
he fact that humans could grow real meat without harming animals or the Earth left us in awe. Although the lab grown meat cost thousands to make at the time, now it can be produced cheaply on a commercial scale. Just five years later, the race is on to get it on the shelves.
Something that we wouldn’t have believed to be possible is fast becoming a reality. Could synthetic meat replace traditional meat completely?
A startup called Memphis Meats is currently developing “clean meat” with investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Just For All is another major player in the synthetic meat industry who promises to launch their products in supermarkets by the end of the year. Even the some of the world’s biggest meat companies like Tyson and Kraft are attempting to reinvent carnivorous staples.
Most successful lab grown meat products are created using cell proliferation.
Let’s say we want to create a cruelty-free, eco-friendly chicken nugget. No tempeh, no tofu–we want the real deal.
As chickens have an unlimited source of cells that are constantly regenerating and regrowing, the scientists figured that they could take a handful and continue to grow them infinitely. All that is needed from the animal is a cell sample. This could be a feather for example.
This feather is then taken to the lab where it is provided with plant-based nutrients. Just as the cells would grow in the animal, they multiply quickly in the lab turning into a high-density food source–a.k.a. meat.
And it’s not just chicken, any kind of animal protein can be grown from a single cell in the lab. Synthetic meat is estimated to be 10 times more efficient than the world’s highest volume slaughterhouse.
This cutting-edge technology that is used to re-create food is going to drastically change the meat and dairy industries. Just for all’s products range from cookie dough to mayonnaise. Other companies are producing scrambled “eggs” from mung beans and brewing cow’s milk from yeast.
In the current world we live in, it is unlikely that everyone will go vegan. Meat is the centerpiece of our plates and ingrained in most cultures. However, synthetic meat offers another solution to the major problems mass-production of meat and dairy pose.
A recent Ketchum survey shows signs of an optimistic response to lab grown meat. 62% of Americans are likely to try synthetic animal products, which rises to 71% among millennials.
Synthetic meat is also seen as a threat to the animal agriculture industry. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that livestock supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.
Farming still employs over 26% of workers globally. That’s not accounting for those working along with other parts of the meat-supply chain like in processing and packaging.
Additionally, synthetic meat is still meat. Although Lab-grown meat is dubbed “clean meat”, as it lowers the risk of microbial and antibiotic contamination.
Eating too much of it is still detrimental to human health. It increased our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Synthetic meat can ease the negative impact on the environment but at the end of the day, processed meat is still carcinogenic.
The power to reconsider what we consume is in our hands. This choice empowers us to choose what the future of our planet will be. We can choose to cut down our meat and dairy consumption, become a vegetarian or take the plunge and go vegan.
With the current state of our environment, we need to consider every option possible. Yes, food choices come down to personal circumstances. But, simply eating less meat and dairy could help us prevent negative environmental impacts to the Earth.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Thursday that the Yellowstone grizzly bear will no longer be listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. The grizzly’s population has rebounded and it now “stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” he crowed.
A species being removed from the ESA is rare and, in normal circumstances, should be celebrated. It means that a population has recovered enough to no longer require extra protections, which should be considered a good thing. And the grizzly bear has: When the species was listed in the 1970s, it was estimated that a mere 150 existed. Today, there are about 700 individuals.
This decision, however, seems unlikely to be met with applause. As the New York Times reports, environmental organizations are already lining up to sue to stop it. And 125 Native American tribes have banded together to oppose the delisting because they weren’t consulted in the decision-making. Also, any good feelings animal lovers get from the words “conservation success story” are likely to be squashed by the fact that the delisting means the bears could now be hunted. People really don’t like it when charismatic megafauna get killed.
Should the grizzly bear be delisted—or this just yet another awful environmental move by the Trump administration, divorced from science and decency? One political litmus test is to check what the Obama administration thought of the grizzly bear’s fate. In March 2016, Dan Ashe, then the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended the delisting. And the recovery numbers do look strong (700 sure sounds small, but Yellowstone grizzlies are a top-of-the-food-chain predator living in a small land mass—what matters more is the populations’ stability, not its size).
But scientists have dramatically different opinions about how to read those numbers. Luke Whelan over at Wired has a good rundown of how the two sides of the debate see the issue. One school of thought says that because the bears’ populations have plateaued, that means they’ve hit the carrying capacity, or the number of animals the habitat can sustain, and are in good shape. Under this logic, delisting makes sense. The counterargument suggests that the carrying capacity is lower than it should be because its habitat and food sources have changed since the bear was listed in the ’70s, primarily due to climate change—which means that the bear needs to stay protected. In fact, most of the environmental groups planning to sue over the move basically want to keep the bear listed because of the threat climate change will increasingly pose. And climate change does pose a threat—warmer temperatures are causing white pine beetles to move further and further into grizzly habitat, killing pine trees and hurting a critical food source.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say definitively—it depends on how you read the science, and how you think the ESA should be applied based on that science. Arguing that climate change is going to pose a threat to an animal and therefore warrants (somewhat) proactive listing is a tough sell—honestly, on a long enough scale, climate change and the cascading food chain and habitat problems could justify listing most animals on the ESA. That would be an interesting precedent to set. It’s also unclear how ESA protection could help address the pine beetle problem. The ESA has limited resources and offers limited protections—indeed, many conservationists think it is actually most successful when wielded as a stick to inspire (or coerce) proactive solutions before a species requires listing, rather than as a real way to solve environmental problems. And through that lens, it’s clear that what the grizzly bear really needs is for climate change to be taken seriously, and minimized. The ESA can’t force that—it’s not equipped to.
When the government is this bad at accepting basic truths, it makes it hard to have faith that their decisions are good ones—even decisions that seem positive or reasonable. It also creates a world in which we have to fight to keep species listed on the ESA because we know we’re not going to do much else to stop climate change from screwing them over in the long run. It is exhausting and demoralizing to live in a world like this.
In front of me is a small booklet with the catchy title, A Critical Evaluation of the Proposed Reduction in the Mid-continent Lesser Snow Goose Population to Conserve Sub-arctic Salt Marshes of Hudson Bay. It was published by the Animal Protection Institute (now Born Free USA) and the Humane Society of the United States in 1998, and co-authored by biologist Vernon Thomas and me.
The arguments we made failed to stop the U.S. and Canada from enacting an absurd increase in bag-limits and open seasons and the use of electronic decoys for hunters after the “lesser” snow goose, which breeds in the mid to western arctic. The geese had undergone dramatic increases in numbers. For reasons too complex to address here, it was feared they’d damage large parts of the arctic ecosystem by their habit of “grubbing” – pulling plants out by the roots when feeding. They were called “overabundant,” a term that is entirely in reference to subjective value systems.
What bothered me then, and what bothers me now, is the lack of scientific rigor in the documentation presented to defend the vast increases in hunting kills proposed and enacted. References to previous high numbers of snow geese were misrepresented or ignored.
We made several predictions, and in the two decades since then, we’ve been proven correct. Put simply, one prediction was that the proposed hunting increase wouldn’t work. It didn’t. We predicted that the real threat to arctic and subarctic ecosystems came from global climate change. That is proving to be true, too.
But, governments and the public trust wildlife management types have made something out of a career out of alarmist rhetoric about the population “explosion” in these geese, and in the Ross’s goose. Sadly, they are believed. Ross’s goose is a smaller version of the snow goose and was apparently once reasonably abundant (it’s hard to know as early observers tended not to distinguish it from the snow goose), but had become endangered by the early 20th century, and is now again common, perhaps more so than ever before. The Americans have already been shooting extra numbers of this species and, although we were able to slow Canada down, years ago, now it has again proposed an increased bag limit for Ross’s goose.
I have written to the Canadian government in opposition to increasing bag limits for this small goose. Beyond a “natural” tendency people attracted to wildlife management have to “manage,” to control, nature, what I think was behind the original concern two decades ago can be seen here. Numbers of hunters were in freefall, and it’s hunting that justifies so much of the wildlife management profession and pays the expenses and salaries of wildlife management professionals.
But, not only are increasing numbers of people taking pleasure from viewing and photographing – but not killing – wildlife, even many who dohunt refuse to kill more than they can eat, and, as we predicted, just knocking the top off the population curve allows high numbers of these species to continue.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,
Earth has so far gone through five mass extinction events – scientists are worried we’re on course to trigger a sixth – and the deadliest one happened 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian geologic period. In this event, coined “the Great Dying,” over 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct. It took about 10 million years for life on Earth to recover from this catastrophic event.
Scientists have proposed a number of possible culprits responsible for this mass extinction, including an asteroid impact, mercury poisoning, a collapse of the ozone layer, and acid rain. Heavy volcanic activity in Siberia was suspected to play a key role in the end-Permian event.
Recently, geologist Dr Benjamin Burger identified a rock layer in Utah that he believed might have formed during the Permian and subsequent Triassic period that could shed light on the cause of the Great Dying.
During the Permian, Earth’s continents were still combined as one Pangea, and modern day Utah was on the supercontinent’s west coast. Samples from the end-Permian have been collected from rock layers in Asia, near the volcanic eruptions, but Utah was on the other side of Pangaea. Burger’s samples could thus provide a unique perspective of what was happening on the other side of the world from the eruptions. Burger collected and analyzed samples from the rock layer, and documented the whole process in a fascinating video:
Burger’s samples painted a grim picture of Earth’s environment at the end of the Permian period. A sharp drop in calcium carbonate levels indicated that the oceans had become acidic. A similar decline in organic content matched up with the immense loss of life in the oceans during this period. The presence of pyrite pointed to an anoxic ocean (without oxygen), meaning the oceans were effectively one massive dead zone.
Bacteria ate the oversupply of dead bodies, producing hydrogen sulfide gas, creating a toxic atmosphere. The hydrogen sulfide oxidized in the atmosphere to form sulfur dioxide, creating acid rain, which killed much of the plant life on Earth. Elevated barium levels in the samples had likely been carried up from the ocean depths by a massive release of methane.
Levels of various metals in the rock samples were critical in identifying the culprit of this mass extinction event. As in end-Permian samples collected from other locations around the world, Burger didn’t find the kinds of rare metals that are associated with asteroid impacts. There simply isn’t evidence that an asteroid struck at the right time to cause the Great Dying.
However, Burger did find high levels of mercury and lead in his samples, coinciding with the end of the Permian period. Mercury has also been identified in end-Permian samples from other sites. Lead and mercury aren’t associated with volcanic ash, but they are a byproduct of burning coal. Burger also identified a shift from heavier carbon-13 to lighter carbon-12; the latter results from burning fossil fuels.
The Permian was the end of the Carboniferous period, which means “coal-bearing.” Many large coal deposits were created in the Carboniferous, including in Asia. Previous research has shown that the Permian mass extinction event didn’t coincide with the start of the Siberian volcanic eruptions and lava flows, but rather 300,000 years later. That’s when the lava began to inject as sheets of magma underground, where Burger’s data suggests it ignited coal deposits.
The coal ignition triggered the series of events that led to Earth’s worst mass extinction. Its sulfur emissions created the acid rain that killed forests. Its carbon emissions acidified the oceans and warmed the planet, killing most marine life. The dead bodies fed bacteria that produced toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, which in turn killed off more species. The warming of the oceans produced a large methane release, which accelerated global warming faster yet. As Burger put it,
Things went from bad to worse, and you can now begin to understand how life nearly died out. Global warming, acid oceans, anoxia, not to mention a toxic atmosphere. We are lucky to be alive at all!
Scientists are observing many of the same signs of dangerously rapid climate change today. There’s more lighter carbon-12 in the atmosphere because the increase in atmospheric carbon levels is due entirely to humans burning fossil fuels. There are an increasing number of dead zones in the oceans. Burning coal was causing acid rain, although we largely solved that problem through Clean Air Acts, and in the US, a sulfur dioxide cap and trade system implemented by a Republican administration.
We’ve had less success in tackling carbon dioxide pollution, which continues to rise. As a result, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, and temperatures increasingly hot. Scientists today also worry about potentially large releases of methane from the ocean floor and Arctic.
These are some of the similarities between the climate change that nearly wiped out life on Earth 252 million years ago and the climate change today. Both appear to have largely been caused by burning coal. A 2011 study found that over the past 500 years, species are now going extinct at least as fast as they did during the five previous mass extinction events.
It’s enough to make you think; maybe coal isn’t so beautiful and clean after all.