Friday, October 30, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
350 in fallen leaves
This image and the two below represent a small scale contribution from our daughters to 350.org's International Day of Climate Action from our little backyard in the central valley of California. In a region with limited opportunities for community action (only one event on the day in Fresno which we couldn't make it to), and considerable cynicism from a largely conservative population, our daughters helped stage this visual message in our own backyard using autumn's fallen leaves. The two older girls (9 and 4) are my daughters, and the youngest (1 yo) belongs to friends visiting us for the weekend, including the speaker for the seminar in the Biology colloquium last friday.
Does my future lie under this?
A more complete gallery is available on Flickr. And a whole lot more images from around the world may be seen at 350.org, and in their growing Flickr photoset, which includes the above pictures from our action! I haven't seen any report from the Fresno State event yet, but will post a link here when that is available.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
This just came from the organizers of the International Climate Action Day event on the Fresno State campus:
As you know the 350 Action is taking place tomorrow, October 24. There are now over 5000 actions taking place in 181 countries! We are going to have a very exciting day tomorrow! Here is the basic schedule for tomorrow:
1. We will be meeting at the Peace Garden next to the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State at 11 am. (There is relaxed parking at Fresno State on weekends.)
2. At 11:30, we will be leaving for the walk along Shaw (3.5 miles round trip) and the bike ride to Christmas Tree Lane and back (7 miles total). Please wear blue, the color of 350, and print out signs from this website to pin to your shirt or tape to your bike or whatever. Be creative! We want to make ourselves as visible as possible.
3. We will return to the Peace Garden by 1:00 PM and then move to the Peters Building where we will take a group photo to post to this website.
We look forward to meeting all of you tomorrow!
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone
Thursday, October 22, 2009
This Saturday, October 24, 2009, is another day for global action on climate change. And unlike the recent Blog Action Day, this is one where you get to actually go out into the real world, rub shoulders with fellow human beings, perhaps get your boots muddy, and participate in an action in your community to bring the world's attention to a specific climate goal: bringing our atmospheric CO2 levels below 350ppm, a benchmark deemed relatively "safe" based on our current knowledge of the climate. Where are we right now? Around 387ppm! So we've already overshot the safety limit, and have to act fast to pull back into the comfort zone if we are to avoid further problems. And don't tell me that global warming/climate change isn't real, or that you don't think we have problems already: tell that to the Maldivian's whose president last week held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the fact that their entire country is set to sink below rising ocean levels if we in the rest of the world don't do something to reverse ongoing global warming! Indeed, leaders of the world are meeting in Copenhagen this December for the UN's 15th Climate Change Conference to make a deal on what they(we) will do about climate change!
So what can we, as individuals do, to get our governments to act?
The environmentalist writer Bill McKibben (interviewed here on PBS' NOW program) would like us all to join in a global day of action, the International Day of Climate Action, being coordinated by an organization he set up called 350.org. Here's a video from the site to explain what the action, and the number 350 are all about:
And here's another short wordless video if you need further convincing:
Want to find a specific action in your neighborhood that you can participate in? Here's a map:
For folks in my local community, Fresno: you might want to join in this event of bike rides and walks being planned on our campus. Here's the invitation from the organizer, who also had a table at yesterday's Campus Sustainability Day event:
24 October 2009 - 11:00am - 4:00pm
Thank you very much for your interest in Fresno State Climate Action Day. So far we haven't defined the action, but we do have several ideas that we want to share with you. This is because we want everyone of the participants to be comfortable with the action.
This is what we are going to do:
- A 2x3.50mi bike ride from Fresno State to the Chrismas tree lane and come back. We calculate that it will take around 1.5 hours because I guess we are not gona go that fast (that distance usually takes me 40min). I think the timing will be good to take the picture at 2pm.
- The other option for those who doesn't have a bike, we will make a walk along Shaw Ave. from fresno state to Fresno street (its a 3.50mi round walk).
- We will meet at fresno state (peace garden next to the library) at 11:30am, so we have enough time to organize everyone; do the bike ride and walk; do a speech; and then organize everyone for the picture.
- We will have a table this wednesday in sustainability day on campus. Please come and visit us!
Please RSVP for the action so I can keep you posted with news about the event.
Thanks in advance.
Now get out there and do something meaningful!
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
... and it even includes, among some much better essays on a variety of topics, my recent post on climate change for Blog Action Day! Go check out the excellent compilation put together by Luke Jostins at Genetic Inference.
One of these days, I better host this carnival here, don't you think? Not in the middle of a semester though - that would be too much of a procrastination tool! :-)
I sure hope it has some real impact - the film looks very powerful and the reviews are good as well. But its another film apparently not likely to appear in the Fresno area, so I'll have to seek it elsewhere or wait for the DVD release in December! Meanwhile, you can find out more, including show dates and locations, on the film's website. Here's an excerpt the synopsis:
The Cove begins in Taiji, Japan, where former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry has come to set things right after a long search for redemption. In the 1960s, it was O’Barry who captured and trained the 5 dolphins who played the title character in the international television sensation “Flipper.”
But his close relationship with those dolphins – the very dolphins who sparked a global fascination with trained sea mammals that continues to this day -- led O’Barry to a radical change of heart. One fateful day, a heartbroken Barry came to realize that these deeply sensitive, highly intelligent and self-aware creatures so beautifully adapted to life in the open ocean must never be subjected to human captivity again. This mission has brought him to Taiji, a town that appears to be devoted to the wonders and mysteries of the sleek, playful dolphins and whales that swim off their coast.
But in a remote, glistening cove, surrounded by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs, lies a dark reality. It is here, under cover of night, that the fishermen of Taiji, driven by a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underhanded market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat, engage in an unseen hunt. The nature of what they do is so chilling -- and the consequences are so dangerous to human health -- they will go to great lengths to halt anyone from seeing it.
Undeterred, O’Barry joins forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Oceanic Preservation Society to get to the truth of what’s really going on in the cove and why it matters to everyone in the world. With the local Chief of Police hot on their trail and strong-arm fishermen keeping tabs on them, they will recruit an “Ocean's Eleven”-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers who will carry out an undercover operation to photograph the off-limits cove, while playing a cloak-and-dagger game with those who would have them jailed. The result is a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery that adds up to an urgent plea for hope.
Does this look exciting, or what? That trailer sure sucked me in much more energetically than either of the trailers for Creation or Darwin's Darkest Hour. Hopefully the whole thing delivers on what the trailer promises. Too bad, therefore, not to see any US air dates at the end there, although our neighbors to the north will get to see it, having helped produce it. I hope it does get here eventually. PBS, are you paying attention?
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Many campuses across the US are celebrating tomorrow, Oct 21, 2009 as Campus Sustainability Day. There is even a webcast you can join in via the Society for College and University Planning. If you prefer more direct human contact, and happen to be in the Fresno State vicinity tomorrow, why not check out our campus' First Annual Sustainability Day event - see full announcement below the fold. You might even to win a cool bicycle! I'm glad our campus is finally joining this event in its 7th year - better late than never, eh?
FRESNO STATE'S 1st ANNUAL
CAMPUS SUSTAINABILITY DAY
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 21, 2009
10:00 A.M. TO 2:00 P.M.
Don't forget to come out this Wednesday and learn about how your fellow Bulldogs are "Going Green". Various departments and student groups from the university, as well as businesses, organizations and programs in the surrounding communities of Fresno and Clovis will be there. Featured participants include:
- Fresno State Recycling Club
- City of Fresno Department of Waste & Recycling
- The Green Issue (Fresno State)
- Department of Risk Management & Sustainability (Fresno State)
- Center of Irrigation Technology
- Fresno State Organic Farm
- Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District
- Fresno Council of Governments
- Bulldog Pantry
- GRID Alternatives
- ...and more!
There will be a raffle for a brand new bike available to those who attend!
In the evening, Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation and Fresno State Alum Mary-Ann Warmerdam will be guest lecturing at Alice Peters Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. A reception will be held at 6:00 p.m. in the Alice Peters lobby. Enjoy the free food made from produce provided by the Fresno State Farm Market. The lecture is free of charge and open to all students, faculty, and members of the general public! Please encourage your students and colleagues to attend. A sign-up sheet will be at the lecture for any students needing to show proof of attendance!
Risk Management & Sustainability
California State University Fresno
Fresno State: Powering the New California
-- Please save a tree: Don't print this message --
Monday, October 19, 2009
It seems, according to an official brochure from the Forest Department at India's Sariska Tiger Reserve, that "The Tiger prefers to hunt large deer specially sambar, chital, nilgai and omnivore COLD BEER." Really, I'm not making this up:
Could be why the tigers went extinct from Sariska several years ago - maybe they were too drunk to avoid the poachers - and had to be reintroduced! Well, one hopes the replacements stay off the brew and put on their best tigerish behavior this week when environment ministers from SAARC nations come to visit them.
Meanwhile, over in Hayward, Wisconsin, a young black bear (apparently unaware of or undeterred by the tigers' misadventures) just wandered into a grocery store, and headed straight for the beer cooler in the liquor department:
The sad part is that the bear apparently didn't even get a drink after all that effort - although it did get the tranquilizers! Was it just cooling off after a long hot walk through suburbia? Looking for a cool place to hibernate? Well, at least this bear didn't become drunk and disorderly, unlike its cousins, the Indian Sloth Bears, which are well known for their predilection for alcohol from fermenting flowers of the mahua trees in central India!
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I'm often looking for videos on the web to enhance my lectures (or merely to jolt students out of the slumber my soothing voice may put them into from time to time), especially when teaching about animal behavior. Its always more impressive to see an animal carry out some astonishingly bizarre behavior than to read about it or have it be described in class by someone who may never have seen the behavior either! Places like Youtube are therefore quite the boon for the modern professor of ethology, and a casual perusal of this blog will show you how much I fall into that happy camp. The exciting thing is that lately, competition has been heating up among the online video portals, bringing us access to all kinds of video treasures. I stumbled upon one such treasure today when I discovered that youtube now has, in its growing Nature channel, Sir David Attenborough's entire series on The Life of Birds!
Since we have been exploring acoustic signals in my Animal Communication class in recent weeks, with birds (of course) starring as prime examples, this is a perfect time to share this episode where one of humanity's most eloquent communicators takes us on a wonderful exploration of some of nature's most Eloquent Communicators:
I captured this hummingbird in a feeder at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico last August when we visited the town to attend the 2009 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It was a lovely break from the meetings sessions to go for a morning of birdwatching along the Rio, which must be getting plenty of action these days since it is one of the significant migratory flyways in the arid southwest! You can read more about the history of the park here, and view more of my pictures from that day in my flickr album, also accessible by clicking on this picture (I think - but this is my first attempt to blog directly from Flickr, so I don't yet know how links work!).
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Students in my lab had better take note - this is how things work in the real world of academic research:
[via PHD Comics],
Thursday, October 15, 2009
California got one of its classic winter storms yesterday after a prolonged drought. You know, the kind that starts way out over the Pacific ocean, building up steam from the ocean's moisture, taking a few days to make landfall along the California coast, and emptying itself over lands that have been parched for too long. The kind of storm that was the lead character in George Stewart's 1941 classic of meteorological fiction: Storm. Except, in Stewart's incomparable novel we get to watch and follow along as the storm grows from a baby off the coast of Japan into a classic monster of a storm that explodes over the California coast and rages for several days soaking the valleys, burying the mountains in snow, and making rivers strain against the levies. Last night's storm was a bit different, being a remnant of a typhoon that had already raged over Japan a week ago, and poured itself out in a little less than 24 hours - but it did bring record precipitation in the mountains of the central Sierra Nevada: upto 14 inches in some places, almost monsoonal in its magnitude! This storm, while it did down its share of power lines and cause worries of floods and mudslides, especially in parts of the state that were aflame in summer's forest fires not too long ago, didn't quite pack the same kind of heavy punch that Stewart's storm did.
Here's what our campus looked like this afternoon, softly breathing air that had been washed clean by the downpour, basking beneath scattered remnants of the storm playing hide and seek with the sun:
As I watch these clouds, remnants of the storm marching along slowly towards the mountains in its wake, I marvel at the sudden realization that the water vapor in those clouds was part of the Pacific Ocean, just a few days ago, perhaps all the way across that vast ocean! These magnificent and sometime fearsome storms remind me of the elemental powers of nature, of sun-warmed oceans and water vapor and wind, and how connected everything is on this little blue marble floating in the cosmos. And how we, along with all other forms of life we know of - every last living thing we've discovered thus far - cling to the thin layer of life, the biosphere, near the surface of this marble, and how much we really depend upon all that energy being churned up in these storms!
Here in California, the summer was particularly heated due to ongoing human battles for control over water: whether farmers or fish had more right to it, whether water should flow through its natural river channels or out of its way where we force it closer to where the food grows! The great central valley of California is one of the world's great bread-baskets, a valley we humans have transformed from a semi-desert into a tremendously, almost preternaturally productive agricultural region. Yet it remains part of the dry American southwest, a region that has been drying up for quite a while before humans appeared on this continent, and that has continued to exhibit wide variation in climate, especially rainfall, in the manner characteristic of deserts. Indeed, the inherent unpredictability of rainfall around here has already swallowed several human civilizations that flourished here for a few centuries before crumbling into the sand and dust against that slow long drying trend, well before our current and most hubristic iteration of the game of civilization started but a century or two ago. So intent are we on "civilizing" ourselves and our habitats, and so supremely overconfident in our technologies that we think we can really tame all the forces of nature, that we can move mountains, change how, where, and when rivers flow, grow rice and cotton in this desert, and build ever-growing cities, without consequence to ourselves, never mind all the other living beings that have inhabited these places for a lot longer than us African upstarts.
Don't get me wrong, I dig the sheer gumption of our species in adapting to almost every shade of environmental variability our planet has thrown at us - and thriving in the unlikeliest of places, even if briefly. Indeed, one reason I so love Stewart's novel is that it is both a celebration of the elemental forces of nature, and of humanity's ingenuity and resilience in the face of such natural forces. For in that sprawling multidimensional, multi-disciplinary book the great author gives us a lesson not only in the birth, life, and ultimate explosive end of a great Pacific storm, he also gives a wonderful sweeping overview of the myriad ways by which humans had transformed California by the 1940s. While the storm itself is the leading lady of the story, the supporting cast of human invention is varied and impressive too, ranging from highways, railroads, and power lines that cut across some of the highest mountains on the continent, to dams that hold back water to harness its power, and to divert it through a network of canals to places where we want it to go before it ends up in the ocean, to the cities where people grow increasingly alienated from the earth and its varied powers. Back in the 1930s and 40s, even as the region was being transformed by large-scale government investment in the wake of a crushing depression that drove many a Joad family westwards, Stewart hurled his richly imagined storm against a tenacious human population, and his vision remained largely hopeful and optimistic. Its harder to maintain that optimism now, when we find ourselves in another economic depression, this time amid whole new threats from recent anthropogenic global warming which threatens prolonged drought cycles for the American southwest, turning many of our farms into dustbowls. And we continue to squabble over how fast we want to use up the little water we do have so we can continue farming in this cadillac desert!
How about we tone down some of our hubris, tone up some much-vaunted humility, and take a closer look at how other species have dealt with these same environmental challenges? For these arid regions aren't exactly depauperate of other species. And many other species have survived and adapted to cycles of climate change on this dynamic planet of ours throughout life's history. Clever as we think we are in our technological and cultural ingenuities, are we clever enough to learn from other lifeforms other ways of surviving on this planet? Do you think we are ready, as a species, to do this when faced with serious challenges? I don't know if we are, but allow me briefly, on this Blog Action Day highlighting climate change, to share some observations and provocations to get you thinking about how we may reorganize our lives, indeed our entire society, to develop some real resilience to survive through the onrushing global changes:
- The universe and our planet are highly dynamic (and nonlinearly so) places, and so is Life! Life has evolved and thrived on this planet mostly because it is able to adapt to changing environments and evolve new ways to spread and grow in novel places.
- Humanity's outlook, on the other hand, remains largely static or linearly progressive, a result of our relatively short life-spans, and our brain's unique ability to extrapolate based on experience, which is both an asset and a constraint. Because we haven't (personally for most of us) experienced drastic fluctuations in the environment, we find it hard to visualize its consequences, or even believe it is possible. Our collective memories are also fairly short for we don't seem to learn from the failures of collapsed societies.
- Other species (and even our ancestors) best exhibit their dynamic resilience in the way they move and disperse across the planet when faced with changing climates. Those that do not or cannot move as their habitats change are likely doomed to extinction, while those who disperse to new environments are more likely to survive even if in a new form. Like our ancestors who sought fortunes outside Africa as the climate changed there, populations of successful species tend to flow across the planet even as habitats and zones of physiological suitability ebb and flow across latitudes.
- Recently however, the human response to changing, unpredictable environments, is to actually change the environment to dampen and control that variability! We don't move ourselves so much as we develop technologies that give us our physiologically favored climates wherever we may be! This evolutionary peculiarity is perhaps unique in our species although many (most) other species also exhibit some limited levels of local climate control. No one has taken things as far as we have!
- Many (most) species exhibit some level of site-fidelity and territoriality, and many have come up with ritualized ways to control access to resources in the face of competition. Territoriality is mostly reserved against members of the same species, or a handful of other species who may compete for the same resources. We, however, are perhaps unique in extending our territoriality not just to conspecifics or actual competitors, but to virtually every other species in our habitats! As part of controlling our environments, we want to control populations of every other species occupying those environments, restricting their distributions according to our property boundaries!
- The human cultural notion of property, of ownership of land/water - chunks of this planet - containing natural resources, has fueled much of our rapid socioeconomic growth, but I think it is also a maladaptive trait over evolutionary times. For the notion of property, esp. private property, is an extrapolation of our territoriality which becomes a serious constraint when coupled with our static/linear, short-term mindsets. We so tie ourselves to specific places now that we have broken the evolutionarily adaptive flexibility (see point 3 above) that allowed us to survive major environmental changes in the past. We have sought to impose a static structure on the landscape wherever we live, and struggle furiously to hold those static lines we have drawn on the landscape in place against climate change.
- And perhaps the worst consequence of our static thinking about the landscape and our pan-specific territoriality is that we've doomed so many other species to becoming stuck into static compartments of their habitats, those boundary lines we've drawn on maps (where we decide whether they may live or not), where they are no longer able to flow to new places as the climate changes. Not only have we cleverly painted ourselves into corners of habitats while the climate changes, we've doomed many other species to extinction simply be being unwilling to let them come and go according to their own rhythms.
A good friend of mine in India, a keen naturalist and natural philosopher, once remarked that "movement is a very bad thing"; he was referring to the incessant movement of human beings across the planet which is inexorably linked to the destruction we have wrought to habitats all over the world, not to mention the invasive species we have moved along with ourselves to decimate native floras and faunas everywhere. The global reach of our activities can perhaps be best exemplified by the vast plastic flotilla now circling the great Pacific gyre, our plastic bottles and packaging and toys which have ended up thousands of miles from shore in the middle of the biggest ocean on earth. The same plastic gyre over which, no doubt, this winter's first Pacific storm grew in strength last week.
As I contemplate the remnants of that storm float across the skies of this central valley city, I now disagree with my friend: movement, far from being a bad thing, is in fact the very thing that has allowed life to flourish here on earth. What's bad about our current predicament is that we have (despite occupying the entire planet), in some very important ways, stopped moving even as the world continues to change around us! And as we paint ourselves thus into an evolutionary cul de sac, we seem hell bent on taking down as many other species with us as we can! So the large looming challenge of global climate change boils down to one key question for me: will we rediscover our adaptive flexibility and start moving with the world again (and allow other species to move as well)? Or will a future major storm wash away the vestiges of our civilization, cleanse the earth, and give a fresh start to life in our aftermath?
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Overwhelmed by cynicism and pessimism about the state of the planet and how little we are doing to fix urgent global problems? Hoarse from calling upon governments and politicians and CEOs to change policies and business practices towards social/economic/environmental justice? Despairing for the world we are leaving behind for future generations? Looking for something new to light that fire anew, to inspire you again to keep at it, to show that the world can change for the better, even if only in small steps incrementally?
Well, here are a couple of teenagers from the global south who just might do that: inspire you, perhaps revive your activist mojo, and leave you with replenished hope about the future. Last week, the Daily Show interviewed an African youth, William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill from a picture in a library book - when he was all of 14 years old:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
Meanwhile, in another small village in a poor corner of India, a nine year old boy started play-acting "teacher" with his buddies - friends who weren't as fortunate as he was to be able to attend the free govt. school 6 km away. Play turned into serious teaching when their hunger for learning, as a way out of their rather sorry lots in life, met his desire to lend them a helping hand. Today, 7 years later, Babar Ali has become the youngest headmaster in the world, running a purely volunteer school for over 800 kids whose lives are otherwise too busy with the mere struggle for existence to have time for formal schooling!And that BBC report, part of a new "Hunger to Learn" series includes some videos featuring interviews with some of the kids in that school. (Sorry the BBC doesn't enable embedding of their videos, so you'll have to go watch them there)
So cheer up! Things can't be all bad if our species can still produce such kids, even in the worst of circumstances, eh?
Monday, October 12, 2009
A little while ago, when giving this blog a makeover, I also submitted it to be part of the Nature Blog Network, an excellent collective of 876 blogs (as of today) where people write about all aspects of nature. For us bloggers, it brings in readers, and also provides some tracking tools to monitor traffic. But more importantly, as the blurb on their main page says, Nature Blog Network is "a nexus for the very best nature blogs on the net. If you're looking for outstanding blogging about birds, bugs, plants, herps, hiking, oceans, ecosystems, or any other natural topic -- or if you blog on those topics yourself -- this is the place for you!" So its a great place to discover blogs covering topics of interest to you but that you may not know about (like this one!). So go explore the nexus.
In addition to the listings of blogs in a top list, and among various categories, they also showcase individual blogs as part of a weekly series of Featured Blogs - and this week, they're featuring Reconciliation Ecology! What an honor to be featured among "the very best nature blogs on the net"! So if you want to read an interview with yours truly, head on over there to learn more about me and why I blog. And while there, you may get lost in a wide range of other nature writings.
If, on the other hand, you've come here after reading about this blog on the network: Welcome! I invite you come in and explore as you walk through some of my earlier writings - and hope you like enough of it to want to come back and walk with me from time to time.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
This had to be done, given how much yesterday's news has everybody agitated in this country, so here's my contribution to the "Kanye interrupts" meme. I had to call upon Kanye to step in on behalf of my old homeboy Gandhi!
Friday, October 9, 2009
Must the struggle for existence necessarily be a bleak experience? Can we not exult in the wonders produced by natural selection without despairing over "nature red in tooth and claw"? Why do Darwin's own words about the "grandeur in this view of life" invoke a contrary view in so many, that this evolutionary view of life must necessarily lead to nihilism and despair?
I've wondered about this for some time now, especially since the Darwin Day discussion panel we hosted on our campus last spring, when the philosopher on the panel brought up the not uncommon view that Darwin somehow displaced morality and left us morally and ethically adrift! And how many in the audience agreed, with even evolutionists on the panel nodding sadly to acknowledge the loss of moral innocence engendered by Darwin. (And I'm apprehensive about the new Darwin biopic "Creation" for it too may be too bleak.)
These questions disturb me again now since last night's performance of "The Origin Cycle " a musical performance of eight selections from "On the Origin of Species" at Stanford University. Let me state first off that I am no music critic (even my iPod listening tends towards spoken word podcasts/books rather than music), and that this particular genre of music is rather outside my normal listening sphere (and don't even ask me what this genre is!). So consider this more a response to the emotions evoked in me by the music, and my subsequent intellectual response to those emotions. I found the concert and performances quite wonderfully evocative - even though our 9-yr-old Darwin fan fell asleep after failing to track the words being sung by the soprano Jane Sheldon; she was still impressed enough to want to meet the musicians and get their autographs on the program! As the friend who invited us to the concert remarked, the compositions were quite complex musically - and appropriately so, I thought, given the subject. So the music did capture the chosen text quite well (I'll share the passages featured later tonight when we return to Fresno), but - and I can't quite put the finger on the role of any particular element in this - I felt the general emotional tone was on the darker side, with melancholy washing over me far more than joy. No wonder then, that the one upbeat composition in the middle, set to a passage about the "Tree of Life" really lifted me up, but all too briefly, before the mood became sombre again. I was hoping for more uplift towards the end, with the final two pieces revolving around Darwin's immortal words about the "Entangled Bank" and the grandeur in this view of life (Floreana) - but those compositions were darker too. The conductor, Jeffrey Means, later told me that "Tree of Life" was the ensemble's favorite too - but I didn't get the chance to ask him about the darkness of the other pieces. So I am left with the sense that the composers of these creative pieces too share a darker view of the meaning of Darwin's work even as they celebrate it. I, for one, would prefer more joy, and more thrill at the sheer intellectual adventure of Darwin, as seen in this week's Nova special on "Darwin's Darkest Hour", which was less dark than the title suggested - but perhaps I should leave that review for a separate post.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Two bits of environmental good news from India this week: (1) Earlier this week, India adopted the Gangetic River Dolphin, rare freshwater denizen of a few rivers in that region, as its National Aquatic Animal, as reported in India Today:
The Centre on Monday declared the river dolphin as the 'national aquatic animal' on a proposal moved by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Bihar, where the animal is known as Soòs, accounts for the largest number of Gangetic dolphins, whose number could now be only a few hundred. Besides the Ganga, the river dolphin is also found in the Brahmaputra, the Indus and their tributaries.
The smooth-skinned, grey-black dolphins come with long snouts.
"Like the tiger as national animal and the peacock as national bird, we have declared the dolphin as the national aquatic animal. It represents the health of the rivers, particularly the Ganga," environment and forest minister Jairam Ramesh said after the first meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority chaired by PM Manmohan Singh.
After the declaration, the government is expected to unveil a 'Project Dolphin' aimed at saving the rare freshwater species from extinction. The animal figures in Schedule-I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
(2) And hot on the heels of this good news comes word that the UPA coalition currently governing the country may have decided to shelve the potentially disastrous and tremendously hubristic plan to inter-link all of the country's major rivers into a national network, ostensibly to solve, in one fell swoop. both the chronic drought problems in the south and west, and the chronic monsoonal flooding in the north and east. The ambition was to build what would have amounted to the largest inter-river-basin water transfer project in the world! And the nationalistic BJP government which preceded the current one was really pushing hard for this boondoggle of a project as a matter of national pride, the environment (and pesky environmentalists) be damned. Fortunately, better sense seems to be prevailing in the current government, with the Union Minister for Environment & Forests, Jairam Ramesh, calling it a "human-ecological-economic disaster"! And it seems, the environmentalists had at least one powerful ally on this issue in Rahul Gandhi, who has spoken out openly against this project! As the Indian Express reports:
Less than a month after Rahul Gandhi warned against “playing with nature”, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh said the idea of interlinking India’s rivers was a “disaster”, putting a question mark on the future of the ambitious project.
“The interlinking of rivers will be a human-ecological-economic disaster. It is easy to do interlinking on paper. Interlinking of rivers has limited basin value, but largescale interlinking would be a disaster,” Ramesh said at a press briefing today.
In Chennai last month, Rahul had expressed concern over the environmental fallout of interlinking. “We should not play with nature on such a massive scale,” he was quoted as saying.
I wonder whether Ramesh and Gandhi can actually kill this boondoggle entirely - because the BJP and other allies of the project are already gearing up to push back. The key may lie in another word used by Ramesh in describing the project as a disaster - not must ecological, but economic too! That may very well be the key turning point... one hopes.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Looks like Sigourney Weaver really surprised Fox & friends by turning up in the wrong avatar! Didn't they get any notice from her agent about what movie she was really out promoting this week? But kudos to Weaver: what a way to throw them off script and take up the whole segment talking about a real environmental issue! Hilarious pwnage:
What's not hilarious but really sad and astonishing, is the comments thread on that video on YouTube - wow! The stupid, it burns like acid too...
Would that more towns/politicians/governments, prone as they are to prohibiting various things, start banning this sort of thing!! Its the kind of small-scale local action that, if it went global enough, could start helping us clean up this mess. Meanwhile, you can read updates from ongoing efforts to simply study and understand the latter here, here, and here - I don't think we are anywhere close to beginning a real clean-up there yet. Not even sure how we might or where to begin. Except at home. So think about this before taking your next sip!
We resume the Central Valley Café Scientifique tonight after a prolonged summer hiatus - and at a new venue too! My colleague Dr. Alejandro Calderón-Urrea will start the new season with a talk about GMOs and suicidal worms! You know where to find the details, don't you? The Café's website, of course! And you've always had our Google Group to get email updates. But now there are a couple of new ways for you to keep up with the Café: join us on our new Facebook page, and follow us on twitter too! And soon, if we manage to master the technology, we may start podcasting the talks afterwards! So watch this space (and all the above spaces too) for that development.
Most importantly, of course, I hope to see you in person tonight!
This past week has been a remarkable, mixed, week for the environment in the San Joaquin valley! First the good news: water began to flow through the San Joaquin river's heavily impacted (dammed / modified / channeled / dredged / damaged) course as part of a major restoration effort decades in the making, when federal authorities released water from Friant Dam, just above Fresno. The Fresno Bee has been covering the story really well these past few days, with a special feature, and you can jump into the stream with this report from Friday:
FRESNO, Calif. -- When Darrell Imperatrice was a boy, California's San Joaquin River teemed with so many king salmon his father could catch 40-pound fish using only a pitchfork.
Then the salmon vanished from the icy river for nearly 60 years, after a colossal federal dam built to nurture the croplands below dried up their habitat.
Now, as federal officials try to bring the fish back through a sweeping restoration program of the state's second-largest river - opening the valves for the first full day on Friday - those who know it best are debating its value and its virtue.
"There were so many salmon back then, you could fish any way you wanted, even dynamite. But when they built that dam, thousands of fish lay dead on the banks," said Imperatrice, who at age 82 still treasures his father's fishing gear. "There's no real restoration that will bring back the river I knew."
Yes, we are unlikely to ever really bring back the river from before agriculture took over this valley. But we sure can try, and this week we took a major step forward on that long arduous journey towards bringing the old salmon runs back to this damaged/heavily used river. Its an ambitious project that has (supposedly) pitted environmentalists against farmers (at least in the popular caricature, although there are farmers who are environmentalists too!) in many a legal and legislative battle over several decades - and that was before the water started flowing again! Let's see how far we can take this.
Which brings us to the week's bad news: even as the water started flowing down the river, a judge in Fresno reminded us that the battle to restore the river is far from over, when he decided that the government hadn't done enough to justify diverting water away from farmland for the sake of the endangered Delta Smelt - a tiny fish from the San Joaquin Delta that has become a symbol of the fight between "environmentalists" vs. "farmers". In hearing an appeal from some farmers against govt. rules favoring the Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, the judge didn't really raise any serious objections to the fish being listed under the ESA in the first place. Rather, he objects, oddly enough, to a lack of an environmental impact study... on humans!! You read that right - the judge wants the federal govt. to present a study of the environmental impact of saving the Delta Smelt on humans!! Talk about turning the ESA on its head! He apparently thinks that the current rules issued by the govt for water management in the delta are already causing the human environment to deteriorate: our air is fouled by dust from farms that haven't received water in the west valley, and land itself is sinking in some places due to increased groundwater pumping! As if over-irrigating and farming in arid landscapes, and careless use of underground aquifers, don't have anything to do with those environmental impacts! Those are not problems in this Cadillac Desert - but attempts to restore the natural environment for some endangered native species is what we have to worry about, because, darn it, it raises dust into our skies, and forces us to suck so much water from underground that our lands start sinking!!
And you wonder why us environmentalists always have that sinking feeling...
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Not that we ever feed our children any happy meals, but this news report in today's New York Times is compelling enough to make one want to give up meat entirely and become a vegetarian! Although the fault is hardly the meat's. Rather, it lies in how that meat is processed and delivered to us in neatly packaged chunks in brightly lit supermarket fridges! It was just such a package that destroyed a young woman's life as described in the NYT story today (and see this video report if words don't move you enough):
Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.
Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.
Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.
So what exactly did that seemingly innocuous home-cooked "angus beef" hamburger contain (besides the bacteria that sent the young woman to the hospital)? Check out this astonishing graphic accompanying the article. Not quite what you might guess if you try to visualize how beef might be ground up to make a burger patty in any normal, sane kind of process. But we live in insanely industrial times, so:
Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.
Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.
Aren't the scales of modern industrial food production just mind-boggling? Think about this the next time you bite into a hamburger: how many cows' body parts am I eating? which bits of the cow? and what other meat derivative is in there besides cow? Holy cow!!
There are many reasons advanced for vegetarianism, from ethical to environmental ones, and this story (especially the NYT video) makes for a particularly graphic example to turn people off meat. I can't say I'm going to revert to vegetarianism myself (I grew up as one in India), but this only reinforces our increasing attempts to avoid mass produced meat products! If we can't visualize the path of our dinner meats from individual well-raised animals from their farms all the way to the curry on our plates, we are safer off not eating that meat, aren't we?
Saturday, October 3, 2009
And it looks like this parrot, also of remarkable plumage, definitely was not "tired and shagged out after a long squawk" then, eh?! Television viewers in the UK have been fortunate these past few weeks, since the BBC has been airing the new documentary series "Last Chance to See" where Stephen Fry joined zoologist Mark Carwardine in retracing a journey the latter shared with the late Douglas Adams when they went around the world looking for species literally on the brink of extinction! Adams and Carwardine then wrote one of my favorite books about nature and wildlife conservation, full of delightful stories of strange animal behaviors and wry observations on the business of conservation in different parts of the world. Among the latter, my favorite was probably when they compared the govt. bureaucracies of post-colonial nations to headless chickens that continue to thrash around pointlessly even after being decapitated! Nevertheless, this snippet (and others like it on Youtube which is all that's available to those of us outside the UK) from the new series suggests that 2 decades on since the original journey, some of these wonderful creatures are still hanging on, i.e., Carwardine did get more chances to see them. I hope our future generations do as well! And I hope we get to see this series on television in our part of the world soon also.
What we won't see ever again, unfortunately, is the like of Douglas Adams, who considered Last Chance to See as his own favorite book, even though it was something of a "runt of the litter" not selling quite as many copies as his other bestsellers! Here he is speaking about his experience writing the book, and the oddities of animal behavior and evolution in one of his last lectures: