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.