Monday, September 24, 2007

AP Bored, Sends Someone to Point Out Obvious

In the category of "Well, Duh," the AP has recently sent some otherwise under-utilized writers to "review" USGS coastal maps. In doing so they point out the bleeding obvious: historical locations will be lost if/when the tides rise.

While it might be easy to laugh at the AP for directing us to something so obvious that it hurts--that historical locales are in no way special--I do appreciate that they seem to be attempting to raise awareness. Sure, the story isn't particularly newsworthy. However, it does have a certain degree of activism attached to it, as if to say, "Seriously--this is what will happen." I question the validity of using the perennially underfunded historic site as a poster child. Then again whatever it takes. One would presume that eventually the AP will have something for everyone to relate to. Hopefully.

In related news, my love for Good magazine grows apace as I remember Meryl Rothstein's bit on Eve S. Mosher. An artist, Mosher put her paint (and a little GPS) to good use and is currently drawing a line around New York City that indicates what some have predict to be the catastrophic flood line. 10 feet above normal, the line--and the maps she has created--seem to be disturbing some people who would otherwise not have any overt stake.

Mosher's High Water Line project is available on-line.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Into the Skepticism

It's always dangerous to attempt to pre-judge a movie. Highly anticipated movies like Star Wars: Episode I can land with a thud. Before it was released into theaters, stories ran wild that James Cameron's Titanic would be the biggest flop in movie history; instead it was exactly the opposite, becoming the highest grossing film of all-time.

The point being one never knows how good a film will be, nor how successful it will be, until it gets in front of an audience.

I raise these points as a caution (mostly to myself) about the upcoming Sean Penn adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I have no idea, of course, how good or bad the movie will actually turn out, but I am cautiously skeptical about Penn's ability to transform the spirit of Krakauer's book onto the screen.

The trailer for the film is now online (thanks to JS for pointing this out to me this morning) at Apple's trailer site, and I am less than impressed with how the movie is, at least, being marketed. I read Into the Wild for the first time earlier this week and while it's a very good book, it's one that doesn't read as the basis for the inspirational movie that the trailer sells.

Now, I am fully aware that trailers don't always represent the truth of the film, so I hope the film embraces the complexity of Christopher McCandless and his decision to go "into the wild" that the trailer forgoes in favor of the up-with-individualistic-loner-who-spits-on-the-capitalist-world take on McCandless. There's certainly some of that in McCandless, but what's so engaging about Krakauer's book is that McCandless resists any easy categorization. Instead of either celebrating or damning McCandless (though Krakauer is clearly tilted more to the former position than the latter), Krakauer's book is an attempt to figure out the totality of McCandless and his actions.

The inconsistency in McCandless is what makes him (and Krakauer's book) so interesting. He's unable to forgive the sins of his father's double-life, yet doesn't apply the same moral indignation to his literary heroes (notably Jack London and Leo Tolstoy): "Like many people, Chris apparently judged artists and close friends by their work, not their life, yet he was temperamentally incapable of extending such lenity to his father" (Into the Wild, 122).

Dennis Harvey's Variety review offers some hope; both that the film is Penn's best directorial effort and that the movie keeps a some of the incongruities of McCandless' story. Harvey also references Terence Malick's amazing The Thin Red Line as an influence, which is a good thing given that film's constant thematic of people simply trying to figure out who they are and what they're doing while not getting themselves dead. TRL is also about the disconnect between the individual and his nation and that's a theme of Into the Wild, as well, though here it's not about duty and war but rather cultural expectations.

Similar to Into Thin Air, Krakauer's book is as much about himself as it is about his subject. There's no reason to expect Penn to have made Krakauer a character in the film but it would have been a clever move.

I'll go see Into the Wild when/if it hits theaters around town, but I hope I leave the film more conflicted than inspired. There's much to admire about McCandless, but his story is a cautionary tale, as well. We can't forget that he's a kid and like many passionate youths (myself included, back in the day) he often comes off as a insufferable, derivative prig, speaking in absolutes to hide the troubled interior that's still trying to figure things out. What makes McCandless' death poignant is that his experience in Alaska might have allowed him to find answers and peace.

I hope that comes through in the film.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

God Said Protect the Earth--Or Else!

Well, Or at least one of his reps here on earth did for Him.

Pope Benedict XVI's closing message to a weekend of kid-friendly Catholicism was an urgent plea for the young Catholics to take the lead in conservation measures "before it's too late." Benedict pointed a number of times to humanity's role as steward and the sacred call to protect His creations that becoming environmentally friendly would respond to.

A little preachy, to be sure. (Get it? He's the Pope!)

Amusingly, though, some attendees were non-plussed by Benny's message, given the mountains of plastic bottles and trash the weekend had produced--even though they were all given recyclable goodies and a hand-crank cell charger. Said one participant, "It's a good idea here, because there's so much garbage!"

No word yet on whether the young lady was excommunicated for her sassy mouth.

Bonus Pope Fun Fact: Green is the liturgical color of hope in the Catholic church. Coincidence?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Kiss Your Tide Goodbye

The innovators at Chinese company Haier have recently put into production their version of a washing machine that doesn't require detergent and is creating some buzz. The machine, WasH20, amplifies the autoionization properties of water molecules to clean clothes. The more basic hydroxide solution allegedly pulls stains right off apparel, while the acidic hydronium ion solution steralizes the clothes. Since it doesn't do much in the way of adding pretty "moring rain" or "lavender poodle" (or whatever) scents to the clothes, traditionalists still have the option of using soap as the machine is a hybrid.

The most interesting part about the machine, however, is the response many bloggers are having: it's some kind of hoax. Tech blog makes it sound like this is as crackpot an idea as the electrolysis car. The washer, however, makes real sense (if only because it's going into production--we've been waiting like 80 years on the car). The big deal with the bloggers seems to be that people are misunderstanding the science that runs it. For one, unlike most posters are saying, the machine makes hydronium ions (like I mentioned) and not H+, the incorrect shorthand they teach you in high school chemistry to get you by. Also, I am not sure why all these people seem to think the the clothes will smell the same as when they went it (i.e. stinky). Various combinations of bacteria and their wastes are the reason your clothes smell in the first place--sterilizing your clothes will kill the perpetrators and make inert the smellies.

Granted,since I don't live in France I haven't seen the machine in action, but I know I have a better grasp on the science here than these bozos. (If the machine worked by electrolysis, it would blow up your clothes, more than likely. Go read a science book.) Bottom line here's a good idea in the works, and a way to reduce phosphate contamination. Though to be fair, there are a bunch of organic, non-phosphate detergents out there that smell nice at competitive prices.

As always, though: the bad news. (And it's not the price--the thousand bucks they want is pretty standard for your higher quality units, plus you don't have to buy the detergent.) For now Haier only has plans to sell the washer in France. Of course, it should be worth the wait--check out the link in the bottom corner for customizing options ("Personnalisez-moi"). It looks like doing laundry in an converted Formula One racer.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"For People Who Give a Damn"

That's the tagline for a new slick publication to hit the market (nationally at your local Barnes and Noble, it seems). Good has at it's center the idea of sustainability (environmental, or I wouldn't be talking about it here) housed in a magazine that's meant to be a little bit hipper than your run-of-the-mill enviro-rag. Beyond the usual articles, they have fiction and a few comics poking people into figuring out how to make the world a more ecologically tolerable place to live.

The current issue--Sept./Oct. on their six-a-year schedule--focuses primarily on the concept of design. One article looks at the educational pluses a sustainable school carries along with it, showing how the school itself, with all its new fangled gizmos, can be a teaching tool. Another looks at how so-called "high concept" design in advertising is putting a fresh face on environmentalism, in this case in a water resource project for low-income families in rural Alabama. Also, apparently willing to bite the hand that feeds most environmental causes, the article "Against Philanthropy" argues just that--giving money to charities often times only helps support exactly that which you're fighting against. It's a short piece, but the point is well taken: do your research.

Of course the editors at Good don't seem too convinced about that particular argument. As a mater of fact, right now all new charter subscriptions will have all of their $20 donated to one 12 environmental charities of the subscriber's choice. (Take note, MBQ: one is Oceana.)

To reiterate, you do good right off the bat and they reward you with a magazine subscription that seems to have a promising future ahead of it. And, even beyond the print magazine itself, they run quite a few other features on their accompanying website, including many of the print features and a blog with newsy tidbits, polls, and adorable pictures.

Pretty good deal, especially since it was money I was going to give to some of the same organizations anyway. For one, at least, I'm in.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Green Grow the Searches

In contrast to all the other endeavors these guys have cooked up (at least in terms of pimping themselves on their own sites), mega-engine Yahoo! has finally moved their environmental foray, Yahoo! Green, from the beta-stage to the prime time with very little fanfare.

There's not too much that one might call new in the Green features--there's a dedicated columnist and a counter of carbon savings--but for the most part the site is a portal that provides other Yahoo! content in aggregate (news, Yahoo! Answers, chat).

Still, lots of good info here and you don't have to look around. Besides, if you have to have an aggregate, better this than Yahoo! Kitten Punching. Or, and I'm not kidding, the other new product they're working on.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where Stalks the Cat of Death?

So here's a weird little story from the Boston Globe that seems perfect for a Sunday morning. The article is about a cat named Oscar that shows up at your bed when you're going to die.

Oscar is the "mascot" for the dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Adopted by the Center as a kitten in 2005, Oscar is confined to the dementia unit, but seems to have pretty close to free range inside the ward. According to the article:

"When death is near, Oscar nearly always appears at the last hour or so. Yet he shows no special interest in patients who are simply in poor shape, or even patients who may be dying but who still have a few days. Animal behavior experts have no explanation for Oscar's ability to sense imminent death. They theorize that he might detect some subtle change in metabolism -- felines are as acutely sensitive to smells as dogs -- but are stumped as to why he would show interest."
Oscar is the subject of an article by Dr. David M. Dosa, a geriatric specialist and an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Medicine in the New England Journal of Medicine, called "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat."

I was hoping for something a little more scientific about the article, but the Globe story is where the scientific theorizing of Oscar's activities get the most ink. Possibilities raised were a general sense of empathy, or being drawn to a change in the patient's metabolism or "mental aura." I'm not sure how a scientist defines "mental aura," but it was a Tufts scientist who said it, so I'm printing it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Border Buggers Wildlife

Reuters is reporting today that the US-Mexico border fence--the literal one, not that crazy laser one they proposed--is harming the ecosystem that transcends the political borders between these two countries. Not for the first time, mind you--I had this bookmarked months ago, but the link died. Especially at risk are ocelots and, not intuitively, butterflies.

The border fence itself is moronic, from both a practicable policy standpoint and an ecological standpoint. What's next? A moat and black knight patrols? At least the butterflies could skitter across. At this point, though, those backing the fence seem too entrenched to let it go and look for other, more manageable solutions. Until then, looks like the wildlife will have to wait for amnesty programs or file and wait for work permits.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Protesters are Stupid

If I had to pick one reason why conservative political organizations are 100 times more successful than liberal political organizations it would come down to the difference between lobbying and protesting. An oversimplification, to be sure, and I don't mean to ignore the ever-important economic factors that are always in play, but there has to be a reason why conservative extremists like the NRA can keep semiautomatic weapons legal and liberal extremists like PETA have a hard time correctly identifying which fashion designer to hit in the face with a pie.

Was that a cheap shot? Yes, it was.

Make no mistake - I have no love for the NRA, but when they're on my TV they're serious, focused, and usually effective at achieving their goals, while every time I see PETA (whom I also have no love for) on my TV there's some celebrity taking her clothes off to protest the fur trade.

My abhorrence for the ineffectiveness of the public protest was brought home again on Friday as PETA protested outside the offices of the NFL in New York City in an effort to get Falcons' QB Michael Vick suspended.

It isn't their desire to see Vick suspended that I take issue with (though I think the NFL has taken the correct course in not giving Vick a major suspension; right now the burden of what to do with Vick rests with the Falcons, not the league) nor their right to protest. If they want to make hollow displays of genuine outrage, I'm all for their right to do it.

I just wish they weren't so damn stupid about it all.

Honestly, while I take the political passions and issues of concern to PETA with the utmost seriousness (whether I agree or disagree with them), and while I believe that the bulk of PETA's membership takes those same issues with the utmost seriousness, I don't understand the always-present cutesiness that accompanies the public protest. Pies, clever phrases, nude celebrities ... it's not hard for me to see why some people think they're a crank organization.

Dog fighting is an incredibly serious issue, as I'm sure PETA would agree, so why are they standing outside the NFL offices carrying signs that read "Sack Vick"?

Are we trying to get things done or are we trying to be clever with words? When the group hits Atlanta on Monday they'll also be carrying signs that read "Tackle Cruelty."

F***ing stop.

It's this silly mix of perceived cleverness and desperate attention grab that absolutely drives me crazy about PETA in particular and protests in general. Signs and chants ... to take a deadly serious issue and boil it down to semantic cleverness, I just don't get it. I don't. You're not going to change the world through a neat turn of a phrase; or if you are it's going to be a bit more than "Sack Vick." Why would an organization that uncovers such serious issues as Columbia University's history of animal abuse bother sending 50 people to New York to carry signs that they know won't sway the NFL?

For the publicity?

The Vick story is hot right now, so PETA's protest gets them in papers and on TV sets across the country today. Maybe that's why they do it, but is "Sack Vick" the message they want to get across? If so, why? It's a generic message read on its own. I'd rather see them carrying signs that read "Vick Tortures Dogs" because then the focus of the message is on the issue. Such a message would help brand Vick as the bastard he is (allegedly ...) and keeps the victims of Vick's abuse - the dogs - at the fore of the story.

I simply don't see protests of fifty people with cutesy signs moving the needle. PETA would better serve their cause taking a cue from the takedown of Don Imus or the scare tactics of the NRA. It's not about getting your name in the paper, it's about getting your target's name in the paper, rebranded in such a negative light that no one wants to be associated with that target. It's not about winning the the hearts and minds of millions of Americans; it's about winning the select few hearts and minds that can get things accomplished.

PETA's form letter urging the NFL to suspend Michael Vick can be found here.

The Humane Society's letter can be found here.

The ASPCA's press release on the Vick indictment can be found here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sailing Sachs's Current

I sat down to read Aaron Sachs’ recent book The Humboldt Current as a pleasure trip. Meaning I left the pencil behind to just read straight through its pretty dense 358 pages. In short, what I found was an outstanding book that presents some great research and poses far-reaching implications.

The thesis, if it could be boiled down to one sentence is this: “Ecology would have been unthinkable outside the context of nineteenth century exploration” (Sachs 346). Here Sachs doesn’t use ecology to mean the scientific principles of interdependence—that would exist with or without humans and their exploration—but instead the human-mapped science cum political movement (as proto-environmentalism) dealing with interdependence. In short, exploration—for exploration’s sake—based in natural history produced a meaningful science of ecology that in turn spurred the political action of conservationism. Using Humboldt’s grand theory of interdependence (Haeckel didn’t coin the term ecology until after Humboldt’s death) outlined in his five-volume life’s work, Cosmos, as the center, Sachs explores the growth of an environmental consciousness in Humboldt’s American disciples that was set apart from the resource-use frenzy of the day.

(Why Humboldt, by the way? Because almost everyone in the country, including Jefferson whom Humboldt met when he was 35 on his only trip to the States where the naturalist was received like a rock star, adored this guy. Even 10 years after his death in 1869, in towns across the country, there were parties and speeches celebrating Humboldt’s 100th birthday.

Sachs constellates five main figures in the book: Humboldt, and the Americans J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir. Using the main compass points to point to their geographical areas of interest, the book breaks easily into four parts that are themselves something like concise biographies (Melville and Muir are paired in “North”). Each, despite their bad raps as promulgators of Manifest Destiny and the gospel of wealth, shared a Humboldtian love of natural history that put knowledge of interdependence over commercial possibilities. Reynolds’s quest for the South Seas Expedition, for example, was about looking for the open seas at the South Pole simply because it would be nice to know how ocean currents worked, despite his having to cop to a commercial sealing and whaling expedition to get him there in the end. King, first head of the USGS, spent his early years hiking the American West to measure altitudes and gain some kind of spiritual insight, despite living the later years of his life a cattle man and land speculator. Melville (up past the Bering Strait) and Muir (into Alaska in his complicated and often forgotten piece “The Cruise of the Corwin”) sailed and traipsed around Alaska despite being pegged as a power-mad, piss-poor sailor (Melville) and promoter of wilderness tourism for man’s sake alone (Muir). If interdependence is the message, then for Sachs the mode of exploration is borne out by travel narratives. All were best-selling authors and made a good buck on the lyceum circuit (save Muir who came too late and grew an orchard). Sachs’s close-reading of these travel narratives make up the heart of the analysis. A careful reader, his point is well taken and that nuance he provides at the level of the word is excellent. It’s through this analysis that he paints a picture of the whole of the 19th century as a good deal more environmental than we normally give it credit for—meaning more than Thoreau and G.P. Marsh.

The book itself, like all good histories, is also a great compendium of factoids and anecdotes about historical figures and episodes. For example, King caught some grief for climbing the wrong mountain. Henry Adams apparently really did know everyone and is all over the second half of this book. Sachs also outlines the political intrigues that rocked the funding of a number of voyages, pointing out the beginnings of the commercially funded trip. He supplies some social history, following the public’s furvor over buying out runs of Humboldt’s works and the ways in which invoking Humboldt could turn a vote in Congress. Sachs does some close reading of Emerson (he says he’s not a Humboldtian), Thoreau (almost the ideal Humboldtian, he gets an epigraph for every single chapter), Poe (a Humboldt plagiarist), and the other Melville (himself stealing from Reynolds). Welcomingly, Sachs, in the Mocha/Moby Dick sections supplies all the generic whale-as-symbol readings, but also that whales also do strange things sometimes in the real world. Who knew?!?! He also digs into American visual culture, hitting up a number of painters, as well as the emerging photography of the time. As far as interdisciplinarity goes, this guy does it all. Scholars in American Studies take note.

While I would say that there is no part of the book that fails, there are some small portions that don’t quite seem to fit neatly into the scheme. In these cases it seems that Sachs is bound by the academy’s code of dealing with race, class, and gender and is working toward the hat trick. Class and race issues do, admittedly, fit fairly squarely into the work here on a one-by-one basis. Reynolds, for example, was a farmer’s son trying to make it in the world; the study of natural history, as Sachs points out, was a way to transcend the Ohio farm of his youth in 1820. King married an African-American maid in secret for fear of being disowned by friends and family, the pressure ruining, to a degree, his health and happiness. Additionally, each person profiled in the book has a messy, complicated relationship to the native peoples they encounter. You can see in Sachs’s profiles how each one vacillates on the savage-civilized question and where to put some kind of ethical superiority. In the end, it’s all still open to interpretation, though those fully committed to the Humboldtian project embraced a kind of “unity in diversity,” at least on the page.

The part that doesn’t jibe, however, is the time spent with each man addressing the deep and complicated homosocial possibilities that the explorers encountered on their journeys. Sachs makes clear that exploration brings men together in exceptionally close ways, especially in contrast to the urban Victorian world. However, never at any time does he call any man homosexual, nor does he find compelling any evidence that they had admitted it to others or themselves (at least in their writing and letters). He does admit the complexity of applying a presentist lens to 19th century characters and their language—how difficult it is to parse not uncommon declarations of love between men as merely 1850s locutions or deep sentiment, how hard it is to know precisely what people mean when they express themselves to one another at all? These portions are interesting in and of themselves, but I’m not sure they add anything to the larger argument of the book (there’s no “eco-homo” argument, to pun on Nietzsche). Of course, I can’t fault him for trying a trifecta—writing on environmental topics with literal place taking a central role isn’t terribly fashionable. He might as well give his stodgier readers something to nibble on.

But the point that piqued my interest beyond the high quality scholarship was that Sachs wrote in a much more vibrant way than many other writers, in history or elsewhere. I think this is due in large part to the high caliber of his academic training and also his practice from years as an environmental journalist before starting graduate school (i.e. getting corrupted). What makes Sachs stand out is that he is willing to drop into the first-person and talk about his trips to visit archives and the places where these people traveled themselves. He’s not willing to sit around in the ivory tower—he’s got to hit the ground, and that makes his work stand out.

Not that this method’s been without trouble for him. In a short anecdotal essay on the History News Network, he remembers his initiation into the world of academic writing: getting canned by an unnamed two-time Pulitzer-winning historian for using the first person (four times in 139 pages) in his senior thesis at Harvard.

"With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding "we" or the awkward, self-deluding formality of "the author," but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader's Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia..."

Thank God he ignored the criticism. His Current isn’t rife with digressions into the first-person, certainly not to the point of distraction; when he does it, the personal only adds to the writing. It, too, adds to his own investment in this work is personal. Unlike many forgettable first books, there is no, as one colleague put it, “sound and fury, signifying tenure.” Sachs likes what he does, but also has a careful eye for analysis that makes this a good academic work. That makes the “Acknowledgments” a tasty treat at the end of the book—9 full pages of him divesting the names and tales of everyone who helped out along the way. Because there is an actual person behind this book, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t published by the University of Wherever, but by mainstreamers Viking/Penguin.

All in all it’s a great book that begs to be read slowly, for pleasure. If you can take anything from the work, it’s that when thinking about ecology in the U.S. it would be wise to think about Humboldt—the Einstein of his day in terms of celebrity, Sachs says. Though we forget Humboldt (Sachs says it’s a result of the rise of specialization and lab work instead of teamwork and fieldtrips at the turn from the 19th to 20th century) it might be in our best interests to go look him up again as the environmental problems we’re facing become more complicated. Or, in a more Humboldtian fashion, interdependent.

Water in Darfur--a "Mega-lake," even

Boston University scientists recently utilized radar data to uncover a large underground lake--about the size of Massachusetts--in the Darfur region of Sudan. I'm woefully unfamiliar with the civil strife in Darfur (as, I imagine, most Americans are), but I'm skeptical that this water finding is as much the solution to the problems there as the headlines and article quotes indicate.

To be sure, water is better than no water, just as employment is better than unemployment. But it's not clear from the articles exactly how much water is in this lake (as big as Massachusetts, but how deep?), when it can begin to be utilized, or how long it can be projected to last (will it be exploited something like the Oglala aquifer?). Add in political strife that must run deeper than water shortages and the effects of climate change that are likely to stretch water resources even thinner in that part of the world, and this lake might not buy much time at all.

Sorry, I guess I'm just cynical today. I'm seeing the lake as half-empty rather than half-full. Har. har. har.

Update: It looks like the media may have jumped on this bandwagon way too soon, apparently ignoring the likelihood that this "mega-lake" is actually dry. Shocking.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Artificial Phytoplankton Enhancement

Robert Kunzig's Mapping the Deep is a concise, story-driven history of ocean science. By "story-driven," I mean that Kunzig balances the science with the stories of the people who made the science happen. It's a well-written book, though I will admit to having my eyes glaze over from time-to-time as Kunzig dug into the minutia of one too many tube worms, xenophyophores, and holothurians (sea cucumbers) for me to stay locked on for 325 pages.

Kunzig is primarily focused on the deep sea - there are no whales or dolphins or sharks or turtles as key players in the text, but if you want (mostly) hard science placed into (mostly) readable terms, Kunzig delivers. (Kunzig served as the European editor of Discover magazine when he wrote the text and the writing is on that level.)

The one issue I want to bring up here comes in Kunzig's chapter, "Greening the Oceans," which starts with the importance of phytoplankton but quickly moves to the importance of iron to that phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are, of course, plants that convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates through photosynthesis. All life in the sea depend on phytoplankton to bring them oxygen and the plant exists wherever sunlight penetrates the ocean. There is incredible diversity in phytoplankton; no one knows for sure, according to Kunzig, exactly how wide a range that diversity actually encompasses, but there may be as many as 5,000 different species solely in the Gulf of Maine, solely in the month of August. The cataloguing of phytoplankton diversity has been a hundred-year-plus project, and in the last twenty years (the book was published in 2000, so this means the 1980s and '90s), as scientists have "zoomed in on the microworld ... they have discovered whole classes of phytoplankton they never knew existed." He points to a 1988 discovery of a new species whose size is "about 30-millionths of an inch across, that populates the ocean in concentrations as high as five million cells per ounce."

What's remarkable about the diversity of phytoplankton is that it all performs the same function; as Sallie Chisholm, a biological oceanographer at MIT, tells Kunzig, "the diversity it incredible. And yet they all essentially do the same thing; they use light and water and carbon dioxide to make organic matter."

The importance of phytoplankton to our planetary climate can't be overstated as they play a vital role in taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and thus keeping the planet cooler than it would be if the carbon dioxide remained.

Kunzig explains that one of the curiosities of phytoplankton had been why certain large areas of the ocean (such as the northern Pacific off Alaska, the equatorial Pacific, the entire Southern Ocean around Antartica - Kunzig, 211) that should be the oceanic equivalent of rain forests were, instead deserts. The answer, put simply, is that those areas of the ocean suffer from a deficiency of iron.

Phytoplankton need iron to perform three primary functions: to make chlorophyll, to make nitrate reductase (an enzyme which allows the process of turning nitrates into proteins), and to make DNA. They don't need a lot of iron - perhaps, Kunzig explains, as little as "1 atom of iron for every 10,000 atoms of carbon, 1,500 atoms of nitrogen, and 100 atoms of phosphorus," yet there is a deficiency in certain parts of the ocean; much of the iron in the oceans come from atmospheric dust, putting the oeans at the mercy of "the geometry of winds and land masses." The equatorial Atlantic, then, gets peppered with Saharan dust, while the equatorial Pacific has no powerful feeder system and gets a relative trickle of dust, and thus, iron.

John Martin, former director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, had the idea that to fix this natural deficiency all one had to do was dump iron into the ocean and watch the phytoplankton population explode. While Martin made outlandish statements (designed to grab attention more than pushing hard science) that all he needed was a "tanker of iron" and he could bring about "the next Ice Age," the core hypothesis that adding iron to the oceans would result in a dramatic increase in phytoplankton population was a smashing success. One scientist told the press that Martin's open-ocean tests turned the equatorial Pacific "from a desert to a jungle, from clear blue to dark green.

"It was," that scientist said, "almost biblical."

In the footsteps of Martin's success came the idea to dump iron across the oceans of the world as a solution to global warming. More phytoplankton, after all, equals more carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere.

The question then, as phrased by Kunzig: "Is it wise, is it moral even, for us to attempt to fix nature on so grand a scale? To tinker deliberately with the biogeochemical cycles and the climate of the entire planet?"

I immediately thought of Tom's post here at the Yawp from last week:
"As Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature (and in the shorter introduction to his annotation of Walden), environmental issues are not technological problems. If they were, all we would have to do is fix the problem, like replacing the head gasket on an ailing car. The real issue is attitudinal."

Dumping iron into the oceans on a planetary scale isn't a technological fix as much as it is a biological fix, but the point, I think, is the same - instead of fixing the root cause of the issue (changing humanity's attitude) and creating less carbon dioxide, iron dumping attempts to "fix the problem" after it has become a problem. The best solution would be a combination - alter the attitude for a long-term solution and apply the band-aid for a short-term fix - but likely what would happen is that if the iron dumping lowers carbon dioxide levels governments would simply pat themselves on the back for a job well done and do nothing to lower those levels at the production end.

Unfortunately, too many people in too many positions of power see a solution as an excuse to keep making the problem.

To get at the heart of Kunzig's question, though, are such solutions a good or bad policy to adopt? Most scientists, according to Kunzig, are aghast at the idea of turning the planet into some large test tube. Martin makes an interesting point, however, when he argues:
"We're already involved in the biggest experiment ever. We're finding out what's going to happen if we dump three billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year. That is the biggest manipulation of the environment ever. [...] We'd better know about ways, if we have to, to bring carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere."

Martin makes clear, however, that if the cost of this is to "kill the whales and penguins" he wants no part of it. Man can "stew" in his own mess. But if there are no averse environmental impacts (and we don't know whether there would be), then Martin is for it.

I think it's dangerous to attempt to, in essence, put the Earth on a phyyoplankton growth hormone, but the point behind Martin's acceptance of that idea - that we're already experimenting on the Earth in huge and dangerous way - speaks directly to the kind of attitudinal shift McKibben is talking about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nuclear Power + Geological Facts = Bunny Suits

News from the BBC reports that an earthquake in Japan yesterday leaked some radioactive material from a power plant. Apparently the plant is located on a fault line.

While Japan relies almost exclusively on nuclear power, it is a system that is well maintained. As the report profiles in a biography of leaks related directly to the fault, the issues here seem to have been a result of bad planning.

If anything, because of the growing demands for clean (that is, carbon-free) energy, it doesn't seem unreasonable for managers to turn to nuclear power. However, as the Japanese case demonstrates, planning nuclear futures will require perhaps a wider range of factors than previously thought.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Long Road from Law to Implementation

A victory of sorts for those seeking to protect North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in fishing lines as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to finally enforce a 2005 decision that, primarily, forces fishermen to use rope that sinks to the ocean floor instead of the current floating rope they've been using.

I say "of sorts" because the Ocean Conservancy and Humane Society had to sue the NMFS to actually get them to enforce a 2-year old rule and, as the AP articles points out, "it is uncertain what the final rule will look like."

But whatever the rule does eventually look like it will take effect in October.

Massachusetts has already forced their fishermen to use the new lines (as well as rotating fishing lanes out of Boston Harbor to the north to avoid an area of high right-whale concentration), but other states have not. The biggest impact of the enforcement of the decision will take place in Maine. The Portland Press Herald has a rather even-handed and balanced article on the matter, where they point out both the economic truth that this is going to cost the lobstermen money (the paper puts the price tag at $10,000 to $15,000), and that the NMFS helped cause the lawsuit because of their too-slow regulatory procedures.

I'm reminded of a David Brower quote from John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, where (in a chat about dams, IIRC) he points out that conservationists have to win all the time, but the other side only has to win once. His point was that whenever a dam proposal goes up, if the anti-dam forces lose, the dam (which are hard and expensive to undo) gets built, but if they win there's nothing to stop that proposal coming up for debate again and again.

What the right whale/fishing lines issue points out is that even if the environmentalists win and get a decision to go their way, there's still a long way from a new rule being passed to it being implemented. At least here, unlike with the dams, the environmentalists were able to take advantage of the legal system and force the MNFS to act.

I'm not averse to the concerns of the lobstermen here, either. I have no idea if the $10,000 - $15,000 cost to lobstermen is accurate (it was provided to the Portland Press by the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association) but that's not an insignificant number. Nobody likes to have new and expensive government fees thrown at them. It seems to me that something could be done to offset the financial burden (a lobster tax, a no-interest loan) until 2008, when the lobstermen were told the new rules would be taking place.

As I read through all the stories and press releases, I'm still struck by the lack of details provided - there's a lot of specifics that need to be agreed in the next 2 1/2 months.

Which makes me wonder if they new rules will, in fact, go into effect before the end of 2007.

North Atlantic right whales are endangered; it is believed there are only 300-350 remaining in the wild. Right whales winter in the American Southeast (off the coasts of Florida and Georgia) and summer in the Northeast (New England and Canada).

The Ocean Conservancy's Press Release can be found here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Closing the Loop with Cheap Reads: Half-Price Books' B(eco)meGreen Program

On a recent trip to friendly chain reseller Half-Price Books in Indianapolis a couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure of visiting their bathroom for the usual reasons. While there (besides finding out that Batman had been there) I noticed a sticker on the paper towel dispenser that said, “R(eco)gnize these come from trees, use only what you need,” and directed you to a website, B(eco)meGreen.

No idle graffiti, but a coordinated campaign--when I left the privy I noticed some of the employees wearing similarly designed shirts bearing the B(eco)meGreen logo--the site is sponsored by the bookstore itself as an initiative to get people to take part in conservation measures. As they point out, the reselling of books is an environmentally friendly practice. There’s a long list of tips with interesting information attached and a research/news library. Additionally, there’s a glossary of environmental and ecological terms to catch you up on the lingo used in environmental writing so you’ll know what the experts are talking about—do you know what assimilation means in the ecological sense? There’s also an obligatory merchandise page. All in all, lots of info about environmental awareness.

My favorite thing on the website is the Freebies area. While there aren’t too many of them available (yet), they take the opportunity as a teachable moment. Under the Screensavers heading, the site brings up a message reminding you that screensavers don’t save electricity, and that if you are going away for more than a minute you should turn off your monitor and put your computer to sleep. Here giving away disposable media turns into a useful transfer of knowledge and consciousness spreading.

It’s this attention to awareness that this site does best. As Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature (and in the shorter introduction to his annotation of Walden), environmental issues are not technological problems. If they were, all we would have to do is fix the problem, like replacing the head gasket on an ailing car. The real issue is attitudinal, that business as usual no longer plays. People, McKibben argues, have to figure out how to make smarter choices about the things they want and how they go about getting them. That’s not to say that technology doesn’t play a part, but that technology isn’t the end solution—we can’t wait for the Great Leap Forward to save us all. McKibben’s line is an iteration of what David Brower was putting out there thirty years before—“What kinds of growth must we have?” and “What kinds of growth can we no longer afford?” Neither deny that we can continue to grow—a happy rejoinder to otherwise conservation-unfriendly economists. And, though worded differently, these focusing questions beg for the same shift in thinking. Instead of pointing out what is wrong—the band aid approach—they take a kind of macro-scale view of figuring out how to change behavior and perceptions of the human connection to the world.

Like the above questions, B(eco)meGreen points toward the ways people interpret the world around them. Instead of simply asking for someone to use fewer paper towels, the sticker about remembering that paper towels come from trees looks at processes. At the bottom of the process is the idea that if you can get people to close the loop, so to speak, in their thought processes, then they will make better decisions. (Obviously, this means that there is some absolute standard of right and wrong, but that’s not the point; this seems like a good idea.) People go to dry their hands, they remember trees, that trees are a good, and then will reduce their consumption—or better yet dry their hands on their pants.

The same process works, as a colleague in climate change policy told me, when in Japan power companies install power usage meters inside subscribers homes (as well as some participating companies' offices). Closing the loop here means putting up the tangible evidence of power use—the meter—to remind them of the effect of their actions. The monitor or television stays on overnight, it will be reflected on the meter. The most amazing part of the study was, however, was that at no point was anyone notified. The users apparently were motivated only by seeing the numbers increase. By making a cyclical thought, the pieces slide into place. It was like when I was a kid--to walk out side door to our house you had to go by the spinning meter. I knew when it was going faster, we were using more power. On the way back in, I would see it and read in the dark. (Well, mostly dark.)

Another thing the program has going for it is placement. A corporation has every right to call itself environmentally responsible if they send out a memo explaining what employees can do to save resources. But those messages are soon forgotten (and the memos often not recycled, I’m sure). Using stickers with a quick-read message pops up every time a person dries their hands. Sure, some people will manage to ignore the message, but I suspect the program will do more good than harm. It’s a cold bastard that hates trees. What's more is that this program extends even beyond the employees and effects the customers as well.

All in all, the program is a good idea. I’d love to see it extend outside of the Half-Price Books chain. That said, did I mention you could buy the stickers on the website? Too bad only the easily-stolen magnet version comes in packs of 100. That's a hint, HPB.

Baseball Bugs

They're not harmful and they'll be gone in a week, but hey, they're an annoyance, so let's kill them anyway. I mean, you know, they might get in someone's beer or something. We can't have that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Quick Hit: Mixed News from South America

Thanks to Jon Sealy who reports from his web-log on a BBC story about Brazil's giving the green light to the construction of two dams along the Amazon's largest tributary, the Madeira River.

Good news: it's for hydroelectric (that is, relatively clean energy) for Brazil's expanding energy needs. Bad news, from the article: "The river is said to have one of the most diverse fish stocks in the world."

Plus there's the inevitable failing of all dams due to sediment. Sheesh. Good luck, Amazon.

Planets Go Round and Round

Dava Sobel's Longitude was a pleasant surprise when I picked it up while doing research for a paper on Umberto Eco's excellent The Island of the Day Before. Sobel's writing style is hard to categorize, exactly - her style is too breezy to be hard science, too soft to be academic, too poetic to be journalism. Yet it's all three of those classifications at various times which makes her ... what exactly? Academic Popcorn? Beach Reading for Eggheads? Lyrical Poetry for Scientists?

However one wants to label Sobel's writing, Longitude is an engaging set of short non-fictive stories that tells the story of the quest for (if you can't guess) longitude. It was highly enjoyable and a quick read, so when I saw her latest book, The Planets, sitting in the bargain rack I grabbed it and looked forward to a day or two's worth of Sobel walking me through space.

If Sobel was a less-talented writer you could say Planets was too gimmicky, but she's talented enough to turn "gimmick" into "high-concept" and deliver a story that is equal parts about the Milky Way's planets as it is about humanity's fascination with them. There are 12 chapters to Planets, one for each planet (Uranus & Neptune share a chapter), the Sun, Earth's moon, and an Overview and Coda to frame the book. (The chapters progress by the planet's relative distance from the sun.) Instead of naming each chapter for a planet, however, Sobel names them by the subject she covers alongside the planet, so the chapter on Mars is called "Sci-Fi," Jupiter is "Astrology," Saturn is "Music of the Spheres," and so on.

By focusing on a different subject with each planet, Sobel's book continually refreshes itself. Though the numerous scientists who have scanned the cosmos in search of planets do tend to run together, the subjects rhythmically shift, giving each planet a distinct personality and context. Such an approach risks running itself off the rails through a credibility loss - Venus comes across as the planet of poets, for instance, as if poets wrote of no other planet, or as if Venus was ever looked at except through the poetic lens.

Sobel's a romantic and doesn't hide it, however. Calling her interest in planets her "planet fetish," Sobel's text is colored with a lyrical quality that would be annoying if 1) she attempted to hide it, and 2) wasn't able to pull it off. Her romanticized style is tinged with a playfulness, such as when she writes much of "Night Air" (the Uranus and Neptune chapter) as an imagined letter sent from Caroline Herschel to Maria Mitchell, an American astronomer, or in "Sci-Fi," when she writes from the perspective of "Alan Hills 84001," an allegedly Martian meteorite discovered in the Antarctic in 1984.

Because Sobel continually blends science in with her romantic playfulness, Planets doesn't take the plunge into a cosmic mysticism that would make her work unreadable (to me, at least). It is by no means a comprehensive look at anything, but it does manage to convey the relationship between humanity and the planets with whom we share the Sun's light and energy.

Dava Sobel's website (which is very pretty) can be found here.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why I Hate John McPhee: An Admiration

I’m not too proud to say that I’m not a great writer. There are just some things that I haven’t yet been able to work out of (or into) my emergent style. (Do I have a style? I hope.). Writing is practice, and I need more.

That said, there are a good many people I admire, who seem to have it down pat that I would like to emulate. Barry Lopez and Cass Sunstein jump to mind quickly; there are many more, of course. Lately, though, the first person on this list has been John McPhee. Point blank: he’s amazing, if only for his output. In his forty-two year career, McPhee’s written twenty-eight books. Yes, twenty-eight—that’s two-third of a book a year, not even counting the occasional pieces and the two readers made of selected work. To borrow from one of his titles, he gives good weight.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read three of them and bought even more, hoping to knock them out over the rest of the season. They are amazing books that are about whatever it is that catches his eye. Several are about the hard science of geology (the four books and a new essay collected in one volume as Annals of the Former World), others are more pointedly about the environment and humanity’s place in it (like Encounters with the Archdruid and The Control of Nature). One—his first, A Sense of Where You Are—is about Bill Bradley’s pre-politco, pre-pro-baller days as a player on Princeton’s basketball team. His most recent—Uncommon Carriers—is a catalogue of the people who drive and pilot the world’s shipping vehicles, along with places in-between.

Instead of trying to give a report on each book I’ve gotten to so far—a job that would no doubt go on too long—I’d rather point out the things that turn me a little green with envy, things that almost immediately inspire awe at his ability to weave so many things together cogently.

(For the record, the reason three books—Encounters with the Archdruid, Oranges, and Basin and Range—keep popping up is because they are the ones I have read just recently.)

One thing that strikes the reader almost immediately about McPhee is that he has a curious, wandering eye. Plotting out the distances he covers, both literally and in terms of subject matter, boggles the mind. The story of Oranges—the narrative of meeting orange producers—stays almost exclusively in one small growing area in Florida. The research manifest in the workings of the book, however, goes literally around the world, as if he went to a library and didn’t leave until he had found every reference to oranges in written history. And it reads like it, too; one section is simply a loosely connected compendium of anecdotes in the history of citrus cultivation. Once, referring to Faulkner, Virginia Hlavsa remarked how the Southerner had a “promiscuous intellect.” That description seems to apply to McPhee as well, in that he’s as much happily distracted by details, of cataloguing the things in his gaze, as he is outlining the big, abstract ideas. I imagine him on assignment with pockets full of notebooks, scraps of paper tucked between pages, while he idly watches the scenery and making mental notes about the people with whom he travels.

It’s that ability to blend in and take notes, I think, that makes him a great watcher. While he often employs the first-person, telling stories of his own or how he meets certain people, when he gets into discussion with others, the interviewee almost always dictates the direction of the conversation. There are times, like in the three outings that constitute Encounters with the Archdruid, that McPhee lets his travelmates (conservationist David Brower and his antagonists) go on and on and on, arguing and poking at each other. It is not uncommon to see an unbroken, page-long quote. If anything, his apprentice’s mode of talking with (more like listening to) people seemingly allows his subject to get closer to the core of what each person really wants to say. Instead of the agenda one gets in even the best articles of the slick magazines, McPhee’s quality in interviewing is to let people go on undirected, asking for clarification only when absolutely necessary. McPhee knows that people best tell their own story, that the writer’s job is to put the pieces together in an interesting way. In Basin and Range this method lets the geologists he travels with look like stereotypical, idiosyncratic intellectuals, chewing up some of the soft shales they knock out of roadcuts. At the same time, because he and his subjects often spend such a long time together, people open up to him. Those same off-the-wall geologists are willing to admit that most people in their profession have at best educated guesses about the history of the earth, that they’re storytellers as much as the next person.

I could go on for days. From the interviews he does, he creates some of the most coherent, shorthand metaphors and similes for complex thoughts; Basin and Range is rife with the distillation of tricky geology into nifty little packages. Other comparisons are just beautiful images—from Encounters, “Spread around the summit like huge, improbable petals were nine glaciers.” His pacing is impeccable, keeping his hands off the action, letting the stories almost tell themselves.

But what’s worst—for me, being depressed at the amount of work ahead in order to live up to his standard—is that he does it all so effortlessly. His prose is completely unlabored. His sentences have a clear grace that never bore. I mean, a book about oranges? I love them, could eat pounds a day. But 149 pages about a single fruit? I read the book in a day. When I got to the end of the book, I literally cursed aloud at McPhee’s easy style. I was completely hooked, hungry for oranges and another 150 pages about them.

If anything, his Oranges is the most concise example of what McPhee does best—writing stories that maintain throughout them a sense of awe. As MBQ and I were talking the other day, it’s the kind of books we’d like to see academics write but don’t for whatever reason—tradition, aloof intellectual pretense, pride, lack of skill, stubbornness, whatever. (To be fair, this is a "more often than not"; of course there are academics that makes the list I mentioned at the opening.)

So, for the record, when I call McPhee a jerk, it’s out of love, respect, and admiration (read: envy). He's a jerk because he put the bar so high that I doubt I'll ever reach that level. In any event, though, if you don’t have any of his books, go get one, any of them—they’re amazing.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

So This is Earth Day...

Apologies to John Lennon for the title.

I figure since it's Earth Day, someone should post something here to mark the occasion. That's not my being snotty, either. But what can academically minded people say about such a strange holiday?

I'll say two things, if only briefly, of which only the second is academically minded.

One, Cassie and I decided to spend the day not using our cars and expending as little energy at home as possible. To be honest, though, it wasn't that hard. It was easy to leave the TV off--if all you have is CBS, all you had today is motocross, golf, and a Dean Cain made-for-TV movie. No losses at all there. We cooked a quick dinner and spent most of the day walking and futzing about the library. We are both mid-papers so the computers were our big conceit, but even then I turned off the monitor every time I left the room. I suppose in retrospect, though, I should have better power settings to manage that kind of thing.

But because it was so easy I felt at least a little guilty. To fix that I waited for Cassie at the library after I had finished sitting under one of the beautiful trees blooming a bright purple on campus near Meredith Hall (thanks for the pic, Carbon Copy). I read Mary Oliver's "The Honey Tree" with bees zipping around above me in the buds and Annie Dillard's "Living Like Weasels" trying to remember if I have ever seen a weasel in-person. It was a nice day and I still got lots of writing done later on. Maybe it's the change in the weather, but it made me feel optimistic. About what, though, I can't say.

Two, I was thinking today about holidays. How Valentine's and Mother's Day are supposed to be the product of greeting card companies. From that I puzzled that Earth Day has to be a political holiday (holiday?). No big break-through there, to be sure. However, I get the feeling that lately, because of the furor over the ill-effects of global warming has a lot to do with refugees, and MBQ telling us about how the CIA says the next World War (god forbid) will be fought over water, I was reminded somewhat tangentially of how little I knew about environmental justice as a field. So I went back to the big article that was my introduction, Dorceta Taylor's "American Environmentalism: The Role of Race, Class, and Gender, 1820-1995." It's a great article (and a huge piece of forest if you print it, I might add) and I wish I could post a copy here. (Sigh. Intellectual property laws.) However, I did dig up her CV from her space at the University of Michigan. It includes a great "Selected Publications" list highlighting her work on environmental justice. Hopefully you all can find copies through your own libraries. So much to read, so little time.

So I sound like an ivory tower Garrison Keillor today. What of it?

Happy Earth Day. Go change out a light bulb.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Australia's Saltwater Crocs: "Shoot the Bastards."

There's an interesting legal dispute brewing in Queensland, Australia right now over what to do with an apparently growing saltwater crocodile population. What's particularly interesting in this humans v. animals showdown is that instead of the choice being between killing vs. saving the "salties," sanctioned killing is countered by criminalizing human contact in acknowledged croc territory.

At the center of the controversy is increased contact between humans and the crocs. From Reuters: "Fears that crocodile numbers have exploded in northern Australia, with more sightings off surf beaches, in swimming holes and near towns, have sparked calls for the re-introduction of crocodile culling. But a new saltwater crocodile conservation plan for the tropical state of Queensland proposes instead to slap heavy fines up to A$7,500 (3,000 pounds) on swimmers caught in crocodile waters, as a means of separating man from man-eater."

Bob Katter, a Queensland pol who's leading the anti-croc forces thinks it's crazy, but doesn't exactly reek of sanity himself: "I think that there should be a bounty paid on crocodiles for a period of time and in selected areas and I think that there should be proper armaments provided to people to be able to do that cull. Surely people have the right to protect their kids from a dangerous predatory animal. Action needs to be taken to cull them and push them out of settled areas. Shoot the bastards. The people who tell us we can't shoot them would die of fright if they saw one."

Katter is doing a couple things here that I find questionable. Let's start with the idea that sounds sane - giving people the right to protect their kids from the crocodiles. That makes sense, of course; if a non-threatening herbivore decided, for some reason, to chomp down on your kid's leg (let alone Katter's "dangerous predatory animal") I'm all for hitting, kicking, stabbing, shooting, tickling the animal to protect the child.

Katter, however, is equating protection with preemption on a dangerous scale since he's not talking about self-defense but mass-preemption. Since he's taking the realistic protection argument to a ridiculous extreme, I thought it might be fun to see how his methods stack up legally if the crocs were actually human. That is, instead of putting environmental law to the test here, let's see how Katter's argument looks under the lens of human law to see if we can illuminate this topic from a side-angle.

Preemption (officially, the term is "anticipatory self-defense") is an intertionally accepted (meaning, legal) action; it is a customary law, meaning that it is recognized and understood despite not being codified. Defined by Emer de Vattel: “Certain rules and customs, consecrated by long usage and observed by Nations as a sort of law, constitute the customary Law of Nations, or international custom.” Article 38.1.b of the Statute of the International Court of Justice cites “international custom” as an authoritative function of international law.

While it is therefore legal to make a preemptive strike (and I honestly don't know if anyone has ever tried to apply this law to animal culling in a court of law), the possible attack must be imminent, and your preemptive strike must be in proportion to the expected attack.

In The Law of War and Peace (1837), Hugo Grotius argues that “it is permissible to kill him who is making ready to kill,” but reminds us that “the danger … must be immediate and imminent.” Crocs are not running the streets of Queensland and snatching babies from cribs in the middle of the night, so the idea that the danger they pose in "immediate and imminent" seems a large stretch.

Katter also potentially violates the concept of an accepted proportionate response. While he states that crocs should be culled in "selected areas" and for a "period of time," he doesn't offer specific guidelines. In terms of proportionality, the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention outlaws indiscriminate attacks as those “which are not directed at a specific military objective, those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective, or … are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” Further, a state must take specific precautionary measures in their military operations. Reinforcing the conditions of discrimination, military leaders must “ do everything feasible” to verify they are not targeting civilians or civilian objects, “take all feasible precautions” to limit “incidental loss of civilian life,” and refrain from attacks where the incidental loss of civilian life or objects “would be excessive in relation to concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” By leaving the time open and failing to give strict guidelines on how many crocs could be killed, Katter is leaving open the possibility that the response to the crocs would far outstrip the potential harm they could bring to humans. He's right to mark certain areas as acceptable (and thus others as not), but the open-ended questions he leaves of time and overall size of the culling would put him on shaky legal ground.

The second problem I have with Katter is the idea that he not only wants crocs culled, but that he wants a bounty placed on them. He wants to turn Queensland's waters into a Wild Wild West showdown where anyone can go out and bag a croc and collect a bounty on it. Yeah, that's safe. Even more insane, he wants to arm people to do it: "I think that there should be proper armaments provided to people to be able to do that cull." As if offering a cash prize wasn't enough, Katter will give you the armaments to go out and do it. If the salties are that big of a problem, why not, I don't know, have professionials take care of the problem. Maybe that will ultimately be his plan, but for now he's leaving the doors too far ajar.

I think Katter is, to an extent, playing off bloodlust by apparently turning the cull into a job for weekend warriors instead of professionals. The long term effect of this, of course, is that you get people involved in sanctioned killing, which makes it potentially easier to get them involved next time.

On the other side of the issue Queensland Environment Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr told Reuters concerns are overblow: "It's more likely that more people are visiting or moving into croc habitat, and so more people are noticing crocs. Saltwater crocodiles are a vulnerable species with only about 30,000 believed to be left in the wild in Queensland. In developing this plan, the Environmental Protection Agency aimed to get the balance right between public safety, sustainable commercial use of saltwater crocodiles and protecting these ancient, vulnerable animals in the wild. Crocodiles are one of Australia's native predators that keep the ecosystem functioning and without them, Queensland would be a very different place."

What makes this all sorta tricky is that crocs are, well, not all that cude and cuddly. Growing up to seventeen feet in length, and living for seventy years, saltwater crocs are predators in the truest sense - they hide, they're patient, they're entrenched, and they're vicious and decisive when they do attack, dragging prey into the water where victims have to fight the croc and drowning.

The Reuters article is peppered with slams at the crocs. Reuters writes that there is a fear that "crocodile numbers have exploded." Exploded is never a good thing when talking about predator population, apparently, and just to be sure they use the term twice more, stating "many people in northern Queensland believe crocodile numbers have exploded," and "Nelson-Carr rejected fears that crocodile numbers had exploded." Reuters has a quote from Nelson-Carr saying the croc pop in the area is 30,000, then adds, "but some crocodile experts estimate there could be 65,000 to 70,000 crocodiles in Queensland state." Of course, they don't mention who these experts are, or offer any direct quotes from them, so even if the higher numbers are correct there's no reason to believe them from this report.

By all estimates that I could find, saltwater crocs are not in danger of going extinct. National Geographic puts the estimate at between 200,000 to 300,000 worldwide, which makes it tougher to garner support for protecting one population base, even if that base might represent between 10% and 30% of the total population.

It will be interesting to see where this goes and if the Queensland government ultimately decides to act and then study, or study and then act based on exactly how many crocs are out there and exactly where they're taking up space.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Let Us Now Praise Famous Canids

Just a quick hit here about something that piqued my annoyance (not that it takes much, you know).

As many saw as the "cute" feature that rounds out broadcast news programs, a coyote made a visit to a Chicago Quizno's. It maimed no one and got taken away (angrily) by the city's animal control.

Amusingly, there's not much else to report. Coyote--he come, he go. The AP reported in a wire service piece that the event isn't even uncommon, that the city's animal control group captures some dozen or so of the weedy guys--gals, actually, I suppose--inside city limits (read: exclusively urban areas) each year. Incidentally, they take them to the vet and then, they claim, the coyotes are released into the wild. Not too bad, all in all, especially when you compare it to what happens to the wildlife corralled in Miami as featured on Animal Planet's Miami Animal Police. A quick count of an episode I watched a couple weeks back had five of six "out of place" wild animals put down by city ordinance, not danger.

Anyway, the part that annoyed me was the ridiculous coverage. I know papers and news shows have to be sold. Yet, unsurprisingly, the scientific fact didn't match the situation, especially in the headlines. The best/worst was ABC News video link (there's an ad first) to the story: "Coyote Wolfs Out at Sub Shop."

Let's get this on the record for good measure. Canis lupus (the common gray wolf) is not Canis latrans (the common coyote). I think that the categorical difference here should be enough; I won't even burden us with the scientific facts that go with all this. The top level should be enough here. Maybe I'm just annoyed that ABC didn't even bother getting the phrase "wolfs down" correct. To be fair, though, it didn't eat anything so the direct obejct for that phrase would be lacking. Even worse, if they meant that the coyote was acting like a wolf, as we mean people act like swine when they "pig out" by getting down on some food, it still didn't match up. The coyote basically stalked around, didn't bother anyone, and--and I'm just guessing here, people--wondered why the hell nobody was dropping a sandwich for him. Admit it: Quizno's smells good.

I'd like to say that there's some complexity at work here on ABC's part, that they were really thinking hard about the comparisons between wolves and coyotes. That maybe they meant the mysterious, almost unpredictable actions of wolves like Barry Lopez talks about in Of Wolves and Men. "Are wolves like this?" he asks. "Maybe, sometimes" he hears. In that way maybe the coyote was being like a wolf and was dropping by Quizno's for reasons we can't know. I wouldn't mind. Given that some people I know have had varied, fairly benign experiences with coyotes, I might be like the people who sat around and finished their sandwiches, more amused by the occurrence than threatened. Maybe. I can't be sure since I wasn't there.

In any event, I can be pretty sure that ABC was being clever, not smart. Not a big deal in the long run, but it did make me want to go learn more about coyotes. So there's a small plus, also probably not their point, either.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Planet Earth Runs at the Wrong Speed

Planet Earth, the new 11-part documentary from the Discovery Channel and the BBC, promises more than it delivers. Or maybe it delivers what it promises, but we've become so numb to seeing gorgeous images of land and animal all over the television dial that it's near impossible to pull off something truly awe-inspiring.

None of which is to say that Planet Earth is bad, just that it's not the revolutionary leap it professes to be.

There's nothing wrong with the images, which are beautifully shot and impeccably edited, but after three episodes they get a bit redundant. Seemingly everything in this show moves in either slow-motion or fast-motion. It's often extraordinary - such as a one-second shark attack leaping out of the water to snag a seal slowed down to 47 seconds or numerous time-lapse sequences of clouds pouring over mountain ranges - but slow-down scene after sped-up scene feels a bit dishonest after a time. Yes, seeing a vampire squid unfurling in the dark deep is beautiful, but Planet Earth relies on beauty to the point where it's little more than a moving post-card, beautiful but not deep.

Three episodes debuted on Sunday night - "Pole to Pole," "Mountains," and "Deep Ocean" - and they all follow the same basic structure: an unconnected set of vignettes with an emphasis on predator/prey relations. The opening episode, "Pole to Pole" offers a loose structure of moving from the North Pole to the South Pole but it was so loose as to be nearly absent. It starts very strong, slowly working down from polar bears in the Arctic down to the start of the planetary tree-line in northern Canada, but this overt structure is soon forgotten and Planet Earth dissolves into one vignette after another.

As 10-15 minute chunks, it's fine, but taken as a whole it all starts to bleed into a whole host of other documentaries shown all over the place. We could definitely use a stronger narrative - if you're going to have a narrator, you might as well have them tell a story instead of sounding like she's narrating her vacation photos.

Worse, while the production is entitled Planet Earth, it's real focus is on the non-human creatures that populate the planet - there's little about the actual Earth, except for a few quick infodumps through narration and time-lapse photography.

It's interesting television but it's not compelling television. It also relies on its beauty to go light on the science. In the segment on the panda bear (you knew there'd be a panda bear segment, just like you knew there'd be a polar bear segment and a penguin segment) from "Mountains," narrator Sigourney Weaver informs that the panda doesn't hibernate like other bears because it's sole food supply is bamboo, which doesn't provide enough nutrients to build up the fat needed to hibernate. This also prevents the mother panda from providing nutritious milk to its babies, resulting in the mother panda being able to provide for only one baby at a time; if she gives birth to two offspring, one is abandoned.

The obvious question - why is bamboo their only source of food? The panda is a bear, after all, so why doesn't it hunt? A quick perusal of the World Wildlife Fund website reveals pandas "are closely related to bears and have the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source." Even more, its not bamboo that's light in nutrients, but rather that pandas are "not designed to process plant matter," meaning "the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts - as much as 83 pounds or about 40 kg, and for up to 14 hours, each day." So pandas have chosen to become herbivores yet have chosen to stake their health on a food source that doesn't provide them with an adequate diet. I didn't hear an adequate explanation of that seemingly colossally bad decision.

That kind of information isn't what Planet Earth is going for, but if you half-raise an idea it's not really the audience's fault for completing it.

Further, there's plenty of rare footage - several times already they've heralded their footage with narration like "this is the first time a complete wolf hunt of caribou has been captured on film" or "this is the first instance of recorded intimate behavior between snow leopards," and so on. And it is amazing footage to see, for the first time, a mother snow leopard caring for her one year old cub (which is nearly her size yet incapable of hunting for itself), but, honestly, when you look at it, it's a cat licking another cat and anyone who's seen a domesticated cat give birth to a litter has seen this behavior. I'm not arguing all cats are the same, of course, just that if Ripley wasn't telling you it was the first time you were seeing it, you wouldn't think it was the first time you were seeing it.

And while it's great that they've captured a wolf hunting down a young caribou, if we're only getting to see one minute or so of edited footage, then it looks just like any other wolf hunting down a deer we've ever seen. The show can't show the entire hunt, of course, due to time restraints, but when you draw attention to what makes you unique and then the final result you offer doesn't look all that unique it's not the audience's fault if the footage appears to come up short.

The show is stronger when they show you the moments you are not familiar with seeing - such as elephants swimming in the Okavango Delta, or the Delta itself coming alive each year as the water rushes in, or a mother panda caring for her infant inside a darkened cave, or the teamwork between dolphins and birds to trap a school of bait fish so that they both may feed. For every sequence that's awe-inspiring, though, there's one you've sworn you've seen before, and no matter how gorgeous the images are, the repetitive hunter/hunted trope wears thin.

I'm sure I'll tune in every Sunday night to catch each new episode but the show is a bit of a letdown. Too many pretty pictures too often sped up or slowed down result in a show about nature that doesn't actually represent nature, as it is, all that much. We're getting a soft sell here - we're getting the visual but we're not getting it is nature gives it to us. We're also not getting the sound to go along with it. Nature is beautiful, but it's also raw, powerful, and comes with a kick-ass soundtrack.

You don't get a sense of that rawness, of that power, anywhere in Planet Earth, to the detriment of my enjoyment.

Planet Earth airs Sunday night at 8 PM EST on the Discovery Channel.