Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

On genocide

July 1, 2008

This will be the second of what might become quite a few posts inspired by Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us. This time, I’ll be focusing on a discussion from the book of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, i.e. mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, monstrous marsupials, and other cool stuff.

Weisman interviewed Dr. Paul Martin, the first proponent of the hypothesis that the giant, hairy animals of the Pleistocene were driven extinct by human hunting. This is a controversial, hotly debated hypothesis, my understanding of the subject tells me it is probably correct, but that’s not the point of this post. Rather, I have a bone to pick with the author over the manner in which he depicted the hypothesis in his book.

Weisman refers to the hypothetical over-hunting more than once as a “slaughter,” and even as “genocide.” He depicts the first human settlers of the Americas as brainless, bloodthirsty killing machines, rather like the first Dutch sailors to arrive at Mauritia, who clubbed the dodo into extinction simply because it was easy. He imputes to these first hominid arrivals to the Western Hemisphere a slovenly disregard for life, a brutish fondness of killing whatever animals didn’t have the sense to fight back. This portrayal is absurd, as I hope to demonstrate.

Dr. Martin based his hypothesis partly on the revelation that the Pleistocene megafauna went extinct within 1000 years of the first humans’ arrival in the Americas. 1000 years is the briefest batting of an eyelash in geological terms, so the brief interval strongly suggests that humans had something to do with the extinctions.

To a human being, however, 1000 years is a barely imaginable length of time. Could a campaign of genocide, which, remember, is the deliberate extermination of a race or group, be sustained for 1000 years by a loose band of hunter-gatherers? No modern genocide attempt has lasted that long.

No genocide, then. What about wholesale slaughter? Of course not. It’s absurd to imagine that anyone would deliberately eliminate their own food source. A far more likely explanation, and one offered in the book, is that the megafauna of North and South America simply hadn’t evolved the wariness of humans that their cousins in Africa developed. They were easy prey, and simply couldn’t compete with a new, efficient predator.

It’s possible that I’ve read too much into this part of Weisman’s excellent book, but to my mind it adds to a trend that runs throughout. The premise of the book, after all, is an exploration of what the world might be like if all humans were to disappear; implicit in that is that humans have some intrinsic negative effect on the world, that will begin to “heal” once we’re gone. The depiction of the hypothetical over-hunting of the Pleistocene megafauna as a “slaughter” or a “genocide” is just a part of it.

I hope to explore this particular beef with the book more in a later post. I’ll reiterate that the book is otherwise excellent, and I highly recommend it.


On voluntary extinction

June 30, 2008

First, an apology. It had always been my goal to make at least one post a day, so that any readers would get used to content appearing regularly (leaving aside, of course, whether that content is of any worth.) Busy busy busy, as I said before: there’s a lot of family in town, a lot of trips to and from the airport and to local tourist destinations.

But enough of that. I recently finished reading (listening to, actually) Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. It’s a wonderful book, for reasons I’ll make clear in a later post, but I came across something disturbing in it that I wanted to mention here.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement advises adults voluntarily to cease breeding, in the hope that the gradual “phasing out” of humanity will allow Earth systems to recover to full health. Their aim is noble, and their means entirely peaceful, and for that I give them credit. However, the entire movement is based on a core assumption which happens to be false.

This assumption is easy to tease out if you examine their mission statement:

Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense.

I take no issue with the second sentence. The first one, however, bears scrutiny: phasing out the human race… will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Implicit in this statement, of course, is the assumption that not phasing out the human race will cause the systems that sustain the biosphere to continue their downward spiral. We’re given two choices only; either humans disappear, or the world of life falls to ruin.

Many people probably see that as a reasonable expression of our situation. With the shocking damage humans have wrought in the last few decades alone, it’s easy to imagine that we are inherently destructive, and that nothing short of our extinction will allow any hope for other living beings. Happily for humans, the evidence does not support this view.

The discovery and classification of hominid fossils establishes that humans have existed for several million years, and that humans of our own species have been around for at least a few hundred thousand. Just the magnitude of that span of time demonstrates that humans are perfectly capable of living on the Earth without destroying it. Similarly, almost wherever our civilizational juggernaut has encountered indigenous tribal peoples, we’ve found them living in intricate balance with the other organisms sharing their habitat. There’s no reason to imagine that, had we never arrived in North America, the sundry Native American peoples would not survive for tens of thousands of years more, just as they had from as long in the past.

The example of tribal peoples from the past, and of those still around today, establishes that there is nothing intrinsic in humans which prevents us from living sustainably. That should fill us with hope at our situation. As bad as we have allowed it to become, there is still time to change our ways.

Every extinction should fill us with sadness, remorse, and anger, including our own. We should do everything we can to ensure that we, and as many other species as possible, survive into the coming ages.

Chimpanzees catch human viruses

June 21, 2008

Researchers in Tanzania have confirmed that chimpanzees are catching human viruses. Virginia Tech’s Dr. Taranjit Kaur and researchers from the US Center of Disease Control and from Japan are working together to determine how harmful the human viruses are to chimps, and to figure out how the viruses are transmitted to them.

The researchers increasingly suspect that human scientists and eco-tourists are the source of the respiratory viruses found in chimpanzees. If this suspicion is borne out in research, it could be disastrous for those African countries whose economies depend increasingly on eco-tourism. This would also be very bad news for the chimps, as their protection also depends on the income from eco-tourism.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. They share some 96% of our genome, many of our facial expressions, and transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Sadly, it looks as though their very kindred with us is threatening to undo them.

No new carbon dioxide caps for the US

June 7, 2008

According to BBC News, a filibuster in the Senate successfully blocked a bill that would have introduced carbon dioxide caps and instituted a carbon credit system for factories, refineries, and similar facilities.


The point may be a moot one, as President Bush had vowed to veto the bill anyway. Let’s just hope we have a more science-friendly President next year.

Biofuels argument stalls UN food action

June 5, 2008

I found this article from BBC News pretty interesting. The UN is currently working on a resolution to counter rising food prices, and Latin American is holding out because of its language regarding biofuels. Brazil produces ethanol from sugarcane, and is one of the leading producers of biofuels in the world. Delegates from the region are apparently worried that the resolution will add to the “demonising” of biofuels.

Here’s the offending passage from the resolution, as quoted in the article:

It is essential to address the challenges and opportunities posed by biofuels, in view of the world’s food security, energy and sustainable development needs.

Seems spot on to me. Simple economics dictates that biofuels will drive up food prices. Land that might be used for producing food gets converted to producing biofuels, reducing the amount of food produced in total. The supply goes down, and the demand remains the same. Add to this the fact that a lot of fossil fuels are burned in the production and distribution of biofuels, and I for one begin to wonder exactly how they alleviate any problems.

Would Brazil lose any export income if it went back to producing sugarcane for food? I don’t know. Biofuels seem to me to be nothing more than a way for politicians and governments to look like their doing something about climate change and the energy crisis, when in fact it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

A little camera shy

May 31, 2008

The Javan rhinoceros is the world’s rarest, and one of its two subspecies lives only in Java. There are only about 70 left in the wild. 90% live in Ujung Kulon National Park, where the World Wildlife Fund has set up motion-activated cameras to track their behavior.

I guess this one doesn’t appreciate being filmed! Toward the end of the clip, it mounts a startling attack on the camera.

For more information on efforts to save the Javan rhino from extinction, head here.

Uncontacted tribal peoples found

May 30, 2008

I found this news on CNN: a group of indigenous people in Brazil were photographed from the air. These people have had no contact with the civilized world; when they saw the aircraft overhead, the men drew their bows in threat.

There are around 100 uncontacted peoples in the world, and the majority of them are found in the vast reaches of the Amazon rain forest. There they are in danger from disease, encroachment, and especially logging, which reduces the territory available to them and crowds unfamiliar groups together.

This kind of news both thrills and distresses me. Indigenous peoples like those photographed above practice a way of life that has continued unbroken since the first word was broken, since the first tool was fashioned. In so doing, they have managed something which their “civilized” counterparts are having difficulty figuring out: they have lived on this Earth for thousands of years without bringing it to the brink of destruction. This means that every time an indigenous people is absorbed or destroyed, a sustainable way of living that has existed for as long as humanity is lost forever. This must not be countenanced.

The CNN article mentions two organizations that are doing all they can to prevent the loss of the remaining uncontacted peoples in the world. One is Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, and another is Survival International. Their aim is laudable, and they must be supported.

Can we rebel against our genes?

May 21, 2008 has recently posted a speech by Professor Dawkins at something called the New Scientist & Greenpeace Science debates. As I began to listen to it, my hackles began to rise slightly, because his ideas seemed to clash with passionately held ideas of my own. Fortunately I kept my ears open and my brain switched on, and I think that ultimately I do agree with Professor Dawkins’ thesis, though I’m not sure if I’ve understood it in the way he intended. I will try to put my thoughts in order here.


Monkey Murdered, Mate Missing

May 12, 2008

Sometime last Tuesday night at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, a heinous crime was committed. It was a murder-kidnapping, in which a 17-year-old female was carried off, and it seems probable that her male partner died defending her.

Judging by the reactions to this crime, it was made no less poignant by the fact that the victims were spider monkeys.

Because spider monkeys are rare, it’s probable that the kidnapped female (named Mia) could be sold for a large amount on the black market. In fact, that’s probably what inspired this crime. That people would be willing to sacrifice such a desperately scarce animal (when it’s gone, it’s gone forever) for such short-term gain is a sad reflection on the priorities within civilized countries.

It’s worse than I thought

April 30, 2008

As promised, here’s a post on Orangutan Outreach, which director Richard Zimmerman pointed out to me in a comment to an earlier post.

The primary purpose of Orangutan Outreach is to preserve orangutans in their native habitat, and to rehabilitate orangutans held captive illegally. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that is why I refer the reader to their website.

If I’ve read correctly, the main threat to orangutan survival is posed by palm oil production. Palm oil is an ingredient of dozens of household products, as well as the basis for certain biofuels. The production of palm oil has lead to deforestation on a breathtaking scale in many countries, the displacement of millions of people, and the threat of extinction of orangutans, probably among others. The Orangutan Outreach page has information on what everyone can do to reduce this threat.

The page has a staggering wealth of information, pretty much all of which on topics I had never heard of. As I read over it, I began to reflect that, in this day and age, there is no excuse for this kind of ignorance. The continued existence of humanity is under threat from dozens of directions. All these issues can be remedied if action is taken, and all stem in some way from human activity. Further, information on all of these problems is freely available online.

I can easily think of one reason why ignorance of these issues persists. Reading about a small subset of these issues, for instance, has filled me with paralyzing fear. What can one person do in the face of all this? The answer is simple: one can do what one is capable of doing. If we all did that much, ensuring a bright future for humanity would be simple.

That’s enough confused babbling for today. Everybody head on over to Orangutan Outreach right now!