Biodiversity and the limits to growth

pleistocene.JPGWe hear frequently in the news these days that earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. To many people this is difficult to believe, thanks in part to the vigorous efforts at obfuscation by the likes of Bjorn Lomborg and conservative think-tank hitmen on their days off from distributing climate change misinformation.

The evidence for ongoing mass extinction is admittedly indirect (like the uncontroversial evidence that the world was round prior to 1969, when astronauts documented it photographically). But the evidence of the first wave of extinctions caused by humans is better documented from fossil data.

A new paper by Anthony Barnosky in PNAS reexamines this fossil data, in the light of some basic principles of ecology, and comes to some sobering conclusions about our place in the world, and who we will be capable of sharing it with in the future. Basically, he starts from the well-established premise that the biomass of all life on earth is ultimately limited by incoming solar energy, and then examines how that energy has been divvied up among the larger animals during the last few hundred thousand years.

barnosky2.jpgToward the end of the last ice age, between say 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, humans got restless and spread out over the wide world, along with rapid increases in hunting efficiency and other environmental impacts caused by deliberate fire setting. At around the same time, on every continent except Africa (where, not coincidentally, wild animals had evolved alongside humans for millions of years and presumably developed a healthy wariness), most of the world’s large vertebrates disappeared within a few thousand years. This general picture has been known for some time. The new twist is that the collective biomass of all these lost giants was essentially replaced with an equivalent biomass of people (see lower graph). In other words, we co-opted the share of the earth’s resources that formerly supported those creatures and basically substituted ourselves — and our domesticated livestock — for most other large animals in earth’s ecosystems.

But then our ingenuity allowed us to escape — temporarily — the limitations of incoming solar energy. Beginning with the industrial revolution, appropriation of fossil fuels began to subsidize exponential human population growth that has now reached far above what the earth can support once fossil fuels run out. As this energy supply dwindles, the human population will likely commandeer resources currently used by the remaining smaller animals, with sobering consequences for biodiversity.

barnosky.jpgThe punch line from the paper is that the rise of Homo sapiens starting in the late Pleistocene initiated a sudden and irreversible “regime shift” in the planetary ecosystem, that is a shift between two quite different ecosystem states, from one that supported a diverse array of large , relatively specialized animals (elephants and their relatives; grazing ungulates such as horses, camels, and their kin; big predatory cats and wolves; giant ground sloths, etc.) to one in which virtually the entire upper end of the global ecosystem’s biomass spectrum is made up by a single, hyper-generalized species: us.

A few interesting factoids:

1) Many of the huge mammal species of the Pleistocene weathered (literally) hundreds of thousands of years of climate change before going down the tube suddenly between 40,000 (in Australia) and about 10,000 years ago (in North America). During that long span of time, global climate and vegetation see-sawed several times between balmy and very cool conditions. This suggests that climate change alone could not have been responsible for the mass extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. Suspiciously, the extinctions on each continent occurred very shortly, usually within a few thousand years, after Homo sapiens arrived on each continent. Yet these humans were sparsely populated by today’s standards and only had stone tools and fire. Makes you think.

2) Some megafauna, including mastodons, survived into the Holocene (i.e., modern, post-ice-age times) on isolated islands without humans until surprisingly recently. For example, on Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic, dwarf mammoth fossils have been dated as recently as 4000 years ago. That may sound like a long time ago, but consider this: The oldest pyramids in Egypt are dated at ~2600 BC, that is, 4600 years ago. In other words, ice age mammoths were still walking the earth by the time the great classical civilizations began to flourish.

Although the role of humans in megafaunal extinctions is already widely known in general outline, the approach from ecological energetics used in this paper highlights the fundamental physical constraints we face in attempting to conserve some semblance of wild nature. There is only so much to go around. Energetic considerations suggest it will be very difficult to maintain populations of other large vertebrates as long as we are using the lion’s share (so to speak) of the planet’s available energy. All of which reemphasizes the necessity to rethink Western society’s quasi-religious, ultimately destructive, cult of economic growth.

[Original source: Barnosky, A.D. 2008. Megafauna biomass tradeoff as a driver of Quaternary and future extinctions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105, Supplement 1:11543-11548.]

Posted in Biodiversity, Science, Sustainability | Tagged , | 7 Comments

An administration that believes in science

virginia_winners.jpg“Imagine — in four months we could have an administration in Washington that believes in science.”

That was our former Governor, who brought both parties together to save Virginia from the disastrous policies of previous Governor Jim Gilmore; the favorite to take Virginia’s second US Senate seat into the Democratic column this November. That was Mark Warner, keynote speaker tonight at the Democratic National Convention.

Imagine. After eight years of an administration that has not only ignored science, it has shown open contempt and hostility for the role of evidence in policy decisions on a wide range of issues from stem cell research to critical environmental issues to birth control. After eight years of an administration, and its lapdog Republican Congress, that has almost literally declared war on science. An administration whose pathetic stance on so many of the weighty issues of our day have made possible the surreal spectacle of men who aspire to be President of the United States stating on national TV, with straight faces, that they believe every word of the Bible is literally true.

Imagine. Elected national leaders, sitting in the White House, that understand — as the surging European Union and China clearly do — the central importance of science to navigating the tumultuous future of this country and the world.

David Gergen, commenting on CNN after Gov. Warner’s address, noted that it was the first time he could remember a convention keynote speaker talking about how science and technology were the key to the future, the key to jobs and the economy. Rather than merely irritants to faith-based initiatives. What a breath of fresh air. “It was not a barn-burner speech”, says Gergen, but isn’t it refreshing to hear — on the floor of the Democratic National Convention — a keynote speaker actually spending time on the necessity of science? Imagine.

just_one_look.jpg Now, to be fair, John McCain has been talking about the seriousness of climate change for some years, almost a lone voice in the GOP until quite recently. I salute him for that. But in his new incarnation as presidential candidate, his handlers appear to have successfully steered him back to “staying the course” of energy policy written by Dick Cheney’s industry buddies in the smoke-filled room early on: “Drill here! Drill now!” As Nancy Pelosi said to protesters chanting this nonsense the other day, “Can we drill your brains?” Let’s hope that Senator McCain, when he returns to his life as a Senator in January, also returns to his senses on energy policy.

And keep an eye out for Mark Warner as we approach 2016, after Obama’s second term . . .

Posted in Politics, Science, Sustainability | Comments Off on An administration that believes in science

Arise patriots: Leave no child inside!

binocular_kids.jpgAlright, all you people who have been fondly recalling your idyllic childhoods lying in old fields, catching lightning bugs, plunging into the swimming hole, and chucking rotten apples at each other in the old orchard, and lamenting that kids nowadays don’t understand all that (“Not like when I was a lad, b’God!”):

Uncle Sam wants you!

. . . to get American kids off their softening butts and push them affectionately but firmly into the bright light of day. And, with your permission, he is willing to give them a little boost in that direction, not only to get back in the swing of playing outside, though that is surely part of it, but equally importantly to understand what is going on out there. Since most kids today don’t have the leisure nor the inclination to learn the rudiments of ecology informally through daily experience, they need a pointer in that direction. And they are surely going to need that ecological literacy as they reach voting age and face some of the most momentous decisions about the future of planet earth yet. As Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) put it, “The next generation is the one that’s going to make or break us as a planet.”

Here’s where you get the chance to put your money where your mouth has been. Your elected representatives are about to make some concrete decisions that will determine whether kids get that chance. Specifically, the House of Representatives is preparing to vote in September on the “No Child Left Indoors Act” (see here for a summary, and here for the full text of the bill) — and they need to hear from you very soon. Here’s the dope, courtesy of the ever vigilant Ecological Society of America:

kid-fishing.jpg“On June 18th, the House Committee on Education and Labor passed the No Child Left Indoor Act (NCLI) by a 37-8 bipartisan vote. The legislation would support local and statewide efforts to enhance environmental education by:

Establishing a grant program to help the field of environmental education become more effective and widely practiced.

Providing capacity building grants to educational agencies in states with peer-reviewed environmental literacy plans, and providing states with funding to develop these plans.

Broadening the already successful Environmental Education and Training Program to provide teachers with enhanced professional development and training in environmental education, which they can then integrate into the curriculum.

Extending the full National Environmental Education Act authorization, including Environmental Education and Training, at $14 million through fiscal year 2009.”

Here are some points worth making, again courtesy of the ESA:

“Environmental education has a measurably positive impact on student academic achievement, as well as motivation, critical thinking, and interest in careers in science and math.

Regular education “in the field” gets kids outside, and thus contributes to healthy lifestyles through outdoor exercise and recreation.

Environmental education provides critical tools for a 21st Century workforce; students who understand complex environmental issues can make informed decisions in their own lives and find solutions for environmental challenges facing the nation. Business leaders also increasingly believe that an environmentally literate workforce is critical to their long-term success.

Hands-on environmental education is a solution to the growing trend of “nature deficit disorder”—children today spend half as much time outside as kids did just 20 years ago and, on average, spend over six hours every day plugged into electronic media.”

By all accounts most Congresspeople actually listen to their constituents, and it takes relatively little effort to reach them. Here is your chance to exercise democracy, and get a karmic boost therefrom. If you live in my neck o’ the woods, in Virginia’s 1st district, you can contact our Rep. Rob Wittman as follows (if you live elsewhere, you can find your Congressperson’s contact info here):

smile.jpgRob Wittman’s Washington, D.C. Office:

1123 Longworth House Office Building,
District of Columbia 20515-4601
Phone: (202) 225-4261
Fax: (202) 225-4382

Yorktown Office:
4904-B George Washington Memorial Hwy.
Yorktown, Virginia 23692
Phone: (757) 874-6687
Fax: (757) 874-7164

Give your Congressman a ring! Let freedom ring!

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Education, Politics, Sustainability | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Friday poetry: Your Catfish Friend

catfish.jpg[Editor’s note: Shortly before we left California in 1994 and headed east to settle on Timberneck Creek in Tidewater, Virginia, where we remain to this day, I happened across the writer Richard Brautigan. He was from California, evidently, at least that’s where his works take place. He is most famous as the author of the unique work “Trout Fishing in America“, which is difficult to describe or to categorize among the genres of fiction, poetry, memoir, and stream-of-consciousness journals of hallucinations. The cover of the book has a photo of him and his girlfriend hanging in Washington Square in San Francisco and — no, I am not making this up — the first chapter of the book is entitled “The cover for trout fishing in America”. It describes, you guessed it, the cover of the book. How could such a thing attain the status of a cult classic? How, indeed, can we be sure that it is a cult classic? For me, the key evidence came when I was listening to NPR one morning, around that same time when we were living in the Bay area, and I heard a story about a kid who, as soon as he turned 18, changed his name to “Trout fishing in America.” Legally and officially. There was something about him asking his Dad for the money for the legal fees as a gift when he graduated from high school. It is beyond my powers of imagination to picture what went through either his head or his father’s in this transaction, but it really happened. I heard it on NPR. Anyway, my point in bringing all this up is that Brautigan also wrote several books of poetry. The following is from the book “The Pill versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster.” On the surface it would have to be considered pretty corny, but I have to admit that I’ve always found it quite touching. I’ve even been known to recite it to my wife (don’t tell anyone). It’s my favorite by Brautigan. Number eight in a series.]

brautigan.jpgYour Catfish Friend
Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”


Posted in Biophilia, Poetry | 5 Comments

The blue and the green

carnival_of_the_blue.jpgCarnivals, that is. The latest incarnations are now online. Blue at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Notes blog. And, on a related note, oceanophiles may also enjoy checking out Rick MacPherson’s links to various marine-themed blogs he likes here . . .


And the Green is at EverydayTrash. Lots to read and think about here. Bon voyage.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Blogospheria, Oceans, Science, Sustainability | Comments Off on The blue and the green

Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project: update

green_man.jpgHow time flies. The fresh new breezes of spring were beginning to blow — three whole months ago — when I painted the shed door green and started the herbaceous phase (as opposed to the woody phase, which has proceeded via occasional tree plantings over the last decade) of the TBRP. It has been a delight, usually, and an education always, following its evolution. I have been meaning to file a progress report for some time. For now I will focus on one component, the “butterfly patch”:

The experiment has proven to be a microcosm of the workings of ecosystems generally, revealing clear evidence of both bottom-up and top-down control. For the uninitiated, this is the geekish ecological jargon for control of the biological community’s health and composition by resources (such as water and light — nourishing plants at the bottom of the food chain) versus feeding by animals (influence cascading from the top of the food chain), respectively.

patch_3_aug_08.jpgEverybody knows about bottom-up control, particularly if you live in a place where you get the sort of beastly hot summers, with associated dry spells, that we do here. The may apples couldn’t hack it (despite growing wild in the woods not far away from here — go figure), nor the little native orchid I planted. Alas.

Then, a few weeks after getting the plants in the ground, after carefully nurturing my little charges and watching them grow, pulling the grasses and red maple seedlings threatening to choke them, coming out every day like a proud papa to encourage them and check their progress, one day I walked out into the fresh morning air to find a scene of devastation — thriving plants reduced to shorn stems, leaves gone, broken stems hanging forlornly. Top-down control, slinking in stealthily in the dead of night. I’m guessing groundhogs (or whistle pigs as we like to call them), which are quite common around here, and we see them regularly snuffling around in the yard. I used to think they were cute.

It was a rude awakening. But what’s to be done? It’s supposed to be natural. And, happily, closer inspection revealed that several of the plants were untouched, where others had been more or less devoured. So I decided to let the critters participate in the project, eat what they want, and to allow the natural succession to take its course, with those plants that are defended in some way allowed to prosper. The blue aster I’d bought at the native plant sale got hammered repeatedly, and never bloomed (although now, in early August, it’s looking like the forlorn stems have rallied yet again and may just flower for the first time if they can escape the villains’ attention for another week). On the other hand, the black-eyed Susans, of at least three varieties, have fared very well, as have several attractive little wildflowers that came up from the packs of (mostly, as I discovered to my annoyance after planting them, non-native) wildflower seeds the NASA people were giving away at Earthfest.

The Joe-Pye weed I got from the native plant sale also got stripped and its prospects looked grim. But it came back with a vengeance and is now thriving, with big clusters of dusty rose-colored flowers. The wild quinine (that’s the one with white flowers on right side of the photo above left) has also pulled through and proved its mettle, flowering abundantly.

greenbee.jpgThese latter two plants especially have proven to be an amazing draw for a wide variety of insects. And that is the really cool thing about this little project — what an unexpectedly rich font of biophilia it’s blossomed into, if you’ll pardon the pun. This tiny patch of wildflowers, maybe a square yard, is astonishingly rich in life. Almost every day we see insects we’ve never before noticed on the property (partly, no doubt, because I am paying a lot more attention to them). The plot is swarming with small, native bees of at least four species, one with a metallic green body (see photo at right, from here). Beautiful little ermine moths sucking at the tiny flowers. Big zebra swallowtails, tiger swallowtails, one of the dark swallowtails, and several other butterlies and skippers fluttering about the flowers. In the last few days we’ve had several buckeyes (a species I’ve just now identified — see photo below by Bill D) fluttering around the Joe-Pye weed all day, right outside the window. A juvenile preying mantis guarding the same station faithfully day by day. Even our resident hummingbirds have sampled the butterfly bush a few times. This is way better than going to the zoo. It sure beats the same old crap on television, it’s probably as good for your karma as meditation, it’s free, and it’s interactive!

buckeye_butterfly.jpgThe cool thing is: almost anyone could do this. The plot literally takes up a square yard — though now that the experiment has proven successful I am keen on extending it, making this the first step in the gradual conversion of our relatively sterile suburban lawn to low-maintenance, environmentally friendly, biodiverse, wild and woolly pseudo-prairie. Anyway, all you need is a bit of dirt, some native plants, and literally a few minutes a day. I installed a 50-gallon rainbarrel under our downspout and have not used the hose for gardening ecological engineering since.

Finally, based on the admittedly minimal sample size of one, I can also report that the patch has caught the attention of local kids (OK, kid singular). He has developed a tolerance for my stopping to crouch down and see what’s going on in the patch every time we walk by. He even joins in occasionally (“Look Dad – one of those green bees!”). Then, of course, it’s back to the baseball statistics . . .


Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project | 11 Comments

Friday poetry: Cold Mountain

han-shan.jpg[Editor’s note: A millennium before Charles Frazier, before Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, there was the original “Cold Mountain”, a modest group of poems thought to have been authored by the mysterious hermit Han-shan, who scribbled them on rocks and trees around his humble abode and left them. The story goes that they were collected by an official who wished to be enlightened. And that, fittingly, is how the most influential Zen poetry in history has come down to us. Or at least, that’s how the story goes. The poems cover a lot of ground, but the following one hits home at the moment (although I would switch groundhogs for mountain monkeys). This poem, seventh in a series, is from Burton Watson’s translation.]

From: Cold Mountain
My house is at the foot of the green cliff,
My garden, a jumble of weeds I no longer bother to mow.
New vines dangle in twisted strands
Over old rocks rising steep and high.
Monkeys make off with mountain fruits,
The white heron crams his bill with fish from the pond,
While I, with a book or two of the immortals,
Read under the trees — mumble, mumble.


Posted in Biophilia, Books and media, Poetry | 3 Comments

How to solve global warming

climate_solutions.jpgIt’s familiar dilemma: after you’ve changed out your old incandescent light bulbs, got serious about recycling, started eating local farm produce, switched to reusable shopping bags, maybe even bought a Prius, one comes to the uncomfortable question: How are we going to make a real dent in the voracious global carbon appetite? How, in other words, can we make more than symbolic progress towards getting global climate change in check?

The question is urgent, possibly the most urgent of our time. And there are many parts to its answer, but they all inevitably boil down to decisive action at the highest levels of state, national, and international government. And as we look forward, in matter of a few hundred days, the long-overdue departure of the current administration in Washington may at last provide a chance for progress.

But how to proceed? What can an ordinary citizen do? If it all seems mind-numbingly wonkish and impossible to grasp (Cap and trade? carbon credits? What the . . ?), do not despair. There is hope. And it comes in the form of an extremely concise and clear little book called Climate Solutions, by Peter Barnes (Chelsea Green Publishing). This is undoubtedly the best summary I have seen of the complex, byzantine economic and geopolitical context of the problem of climate change and how we as citizens — as the stewards of our various governments — might approach it. I highly recommend the book.

Most proposed legislation to reduce global warming calls for a cap-and-trade system, in which a “cap” (limit) is set on the total amount of carbon that can be released to the atmosphere, the cap declines over time, and tradable permits for emitting this carbon are issued to allow the market to determine how the reductions take place. The crucial issues are how the permits are issued (whether simply given free to big utility companies, or auctioned off), who gets the money from sales of the permits (the government or the citizenry, as administered through a trust fund), and whether there is a “safety valve” that basically allows the whole thing to be jettisoned if it gets too inconvenient.

carbon_market.jpgBarnes argues cogently for a “cap-and-dividend” system, in which permits are auctioned off, the proceeds go to a “sky trust” that pays dividends to citizens (rather than the government or utility company shareholders) and/or is used for projects that are clearly in the public interest, no carbon offsets are allowed to serve as fudge factors, and there are no safety valves.

In a strikingly unusual and altruistic move, the author and publisher claim that they are actually making a FREE PDF copy of the book available to maximize its practical impact. That is supposed to be at I couldn’t find the free PDF of the book there, but there is other interesting stuff which gets at the sam material, including free citizen’s guides to the “cap and dividend” model that Barnes advocates. If you can afford the modest price of this book, I encourage you to buy it, read it, loan it to as many friends as possible to support the effort that went into it, and then act on it by voting and organizing. If you can’t afford it, download the free stuff. We will all need to be on our toes about this as the issue actually comes to serious discussion — and a vote — in the fresh air of the next administration.

Some key quotes:

“When people don’t pay the full cost of what they’re doing, but instead transfer costs to others, economists call this a ‘market failure’. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, has said that climate change is ‘the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.'”

“The big question in climate policy is whether polluters should pay pollutees, or vice versa. If carbon permits are given free to historical polluters, energy prices will rise and we’ll all pay more to whoever gets the permits. That wealth transfer — which over time could exceed a trillion dollars — will flow straight from our pockets to the shareholders of private companies. It will be less visible than tax-funded transfers, but a huge shift of wealth nonetheless.”

Fossil fuels are unique. There’s no other source of energy that’s as concentrated and convenient as fossil fuels. This means that we can’t simply replace fossil fuels with something else. We also have to use less energy, and use it smarter.”

“The big problem with a carbon tax is that it has to be very high to decrease pollution sufficiently. When people are addicted to a substance or a source of energy, they’re willing to pay a lot more before they stop using it . . . A carbon tax is an economist’s dream but a politician’s nightmare. The economist imagines that politicians will keep raising the tax until it reduces pollution sufficiently to solve the climate crisis. That assumes heroic behavior by a majority of Congress members for several decades, an assumption not grounded in reality.”

“In cap-and-dividend, permits are also sold, not given away free. However, the revenue doesn’t go to the government — it comes back in the form of equal dividends to all of us who pay it. This revenue recycling system is sometimes referred to as a sky trust.”

Several bills pending in Congress address the market failure that causes climate change. However, most of them replicate errors of the European trading system: They give free permits to historic polluters, cap carbon downstream rather than as it enters the economy, allow offsets and safety valves, and offer little protection to consumers and businesses.”

And finally, in a nutshell:

* Auction, don’t give away, permits.
* Cap all carbon entering the economy.
* Protect consumers and manufacturers.
* Don’t count offsets against permits.”

The devil is in the details, of course, but a surprising depth of the details are in this little book and it is written for regular people, rather than hard-core policy wonks. Power to the people!

Posted in Books and media, Politics, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The silent world

cousteau_the_silent_world.jpgA few months ago I happened to pick up a copy of Jacques Cousteau’s classic first book, The Silent World, less from a burning desire to read it than for the mysterious and evocative cover photo, and out of a sense of comradely solidarity with this pioneer submariner. It gathered dust on my bedside table for a while, as books often do, before the opportunity arose to read it, in this case during a week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place, appropriately enough, dominated by the edge of the Ocean.

What a book. I would be the first to admit that Cousteau is not the most talented writer — the prose is often pedestrian and the organization a bit clunky. But this is not a novel to be read for the art of its language. This is the real McCoy. It is a tale of exploration of a fabulous new world hitherto almost completely unknown. After reading The Silent World, I’m left with the powerful sense that Cousteau was an explorer in the classical mold, in the company of Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and the early astronauts.

It’s fashionable in some professional circles to dismiss Cousteau with a condescending wave. He was not a “real oceanographer”, they might say, and this is true enough. He had no formal training in marine biology, though he did have the naval Captain’s years of practical knowledge of the Sea. And he had some engineering background. Many passages in the book describe activities that the team undertook in the name of research to learn about animal behavior and diving physiology and so on, which seem quaintly sophomoric to us in the modern world where we’re accustomed to seeing the wonders of the universe in high-definition while we loaf on the living room sofa.

scuba_lesson.jpgBut that is part of the point. Cousteau was not an egghead product of the universities as many of us are know. There was essentially noone to teach him the skills and understanding that we take for granted today, either as marine biologists or sport divers. He was, to use the old cliche, a student in the school of hard knocks. He and his buddy Emil Gagnon invented underwater breathing, something that humans had been trying to figure out for literally thousands of years. That alone is enough to qualify him for heroic status.

But there’s more. The human stories behind the Cousteau saga are fascinating. The aqua-lung, as they called their creation, was cobbled together from scrounged parts while Cousteau and his homies were laying low in Nazi-annexed France during the war. They tested the thing out in a hidden cove to escape the attention of Italian occupation troops. They fed themselves in those lean times by spearing fish. Everything was trial and error, including terrifying dives to great depths, in caves, and such places where divers not infrequently passed out or lost their bearing from nitrogen narcosis. Some never came back.

After the war, as a naval officer, Cousteau was detailed to Marseilles to run “a collecting center for returning sailors in a commandeered castle.” He convinced his superiors that the aqua-lung had promise in a variety of naval applications and wheedled their permission to conduct a series of explorations. His buddy Taillez quit his job as a forest ranger, and a motley crew was assembled as the “Undersea Research Group.” Their activities included location and salvaging of wrecks, which led them eventually to the wrecks of cargo ships from classical times, the merchant marine of Greece, Phoenicia, Carthage, and Rome. The treasures they found had been sitting on the bottom of the Mediterranean since they sank two millennia ago, and offered unprecedented insights into the life of those times. Cousteau was, without a doubt, larger than life.


“I have recounted how the first goggles led us underwater in simple and irresistible curiosity, and how that impulse entangled us in diving physiology and engineering, which produced the compressed-air lung. Our dives are now animated by the challenge of oceanography. We have tried to find the entrance to the great hydrosphere because we feel that the sea age is soon to come.”

Reading these tales of high adventure half a century or more later inevitably brings the wistful sense, all too familiar nowadays, of what has been lost from the oceans, which were still comparatively virgin in the 1940s and 1950s when Cousteau first penetrated them. The descriptions of schools of gigantic fishes moving placidly among colorful reefs, which Cousteau and company were the first humans to see in their natural habitat, are almost nowhere to be found in the world oceans of today. But I am willing to bet that the situation would be far worse had the mysteries and beauty of the Ocean world not been brought to such wide popular attention by Cousteau’s lifelong passion.

What “professional” ocean scientist today can claim that kind of victory?

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Books and media, Education, Natural Patriots, Oceans | Tagged , | 9 Comments

But somebody’s got to do it

curacao_boat.jpgEgad, it’s been a month again. Just thought I’d drop a note to let concerned readers know that I am indeed still alive. For the last two weeks, I’ve been pedal-to-the-metal doing field research in the Caribbean, around the island of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles to be specific (the previous three weeks, and for that matter the last several months, require a more prosaic excuse, with which I will not bore you). For some reason, it’s always very difficult to convince people that I have been working my you-know-what off on a tropical island. They invariably jump to the conclusion that we’re sitting around drinking fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Which is not true at all — we never use those little umbrellas. I do realize that this does not qualify me for hardship pay. Hence the title of this post.

caracas_baai.jpgDon’t misunderstand me — I’m not complaining. If you’re going to be working somewhere, a tropical island is a favorable place to do it. Our team was on Curacao as part of a research project, supported by the National Geographic Society, studying the ecology and biogeography of symbiotic Caribbean shrimp, which I have alluded to before. This may sound a bit obscure (OK, it is obscure) but we argue that the high diversity and clearly definable habitats of these shrimp, which inhabit living coral-reef sponges, makes them an ideal group for studying general questions about the origin and maintenance of coral-reef biodiversity. And, since the Carmabi Research Station where we set up shop is surrounded by hotel beaches and tiki bars, we got a lot of practice honing this argument for the constant stream of mildly amused random passers-by who were wondering what on earth we were doing so intently while they lay all day in a state of sun-and umbrella-drink-induced torpor. I hope I don’t sound like an ingrate.

iguana_on_the_beach.jpgSo (as the old explorers’ tales go): there we were. Very interesting place, Curacao. Quite different than anywhere else I’ve been in the Caribbean. Looks more like Texas. I’m told that the name Curacao derives from a Portugese term that translates roughly as “wasteland”. And it surely must have seemed so to exhausted 16th century sailors looking for decent food, water, and precious metals. The island is very arid, with a negligible layer of debris that passes for soil covering the limestone rock and supporting a burnt-looking vegetation of vicious thorn scrub (Acacia of some sort) and saguaro-like cacti. Not much good for anything other than goats. And lizards of several sorts, which are ubiquitous. Those enterprising colonialists did manage to find a use for the place as a hub of the slave trade, which they would no doubt be happy to forget. Nowadays, however, it’s a bustling place with a population of 150,000 people supported mainly by the massive oil refinery that processes the fruits of Venezuela’s wells a few miles away on the South American mainland.

kristin_uw2.jpgFor our specific purposes it was an equally interesting place. Great diving: clear water, and lots of the magic coral rubble that produces shrimp, in relatively shallow water. Indeed, the reef at Eastpunt, at the windward eastern end of the island removed from much human influence, had without a doubt the highest coral cover and diversity of any place I’ve seen in the Caribbean in the last few decades. Easily 80-90% cover of live coral. And small but healthy thickets of the formerly dominant shallow-water Caribbean corals Acropora cervicornis and Acropora palmata, which have long since succumbed to disease and various other stresses elsewhere. Very strange — like a visit several decades back in time. A rare and much valued ray of hope in a bleak outlook for Caribbean reefs. It is a tremendous relief to know that these reefs exist at least somewhere. Hope springs eternal.

To be continued . . .

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Oceans, Science | 9 Comments