The World is going to Hell: The inexorable forces of humanity are overwhelming wildlife
The World is going to Hell: The inexorable forces of humanity are overwhelming wildlife. In my Wildlife Politics book's final chapter, I discuss how there are two competing themes in the U.S. wildlife conservation movement--one of optimism by the "new conservationists" and one of pessimism by more traditional conservationists. A major reason for the emphasis on optimism is that a purely gloomy outlook is not likely to engender enthusiasm and attract new followers to the conservation movement and I certainly agree with this idea. However, as I continue to follow developments reporting the status of wildlife in the world, I find it hard to maintain this optimism. Recently on Sunday in May, I read reviews of the following books in the New York Times book review: (1) Life and Death Along the Colorado River David Owen. May 28 2017 (2) THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT LAKES by Dan Egan, and (3) THE GULF
The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis. I was struck by common themes of the books that humanity has transformed nature to its wants but in the process is endangering other wildlife and created problems that appear insoluble—in other words, the Earth is going to hell. This resonated with other notable articles that I will cite below that contribute to a pessimistic assessment of the prospects for wildlife conservation. I know that there are some significant positive developments (which I will cite below too) but overall, the seriousness of the problems makes it hard for me to understand why these environmental-conservation issues are not more visible in politics and why the need to deal with them does not have a higher priority for humans? In general, the vast majority of people support efforts to maintain or improve the environment according to all surveys but unfortunately, the priority given to conservation-environmental issues so low that there is no powerful political movement to give top priority to them. I do not see any solution to these problems other than massive disasters that make headlines.
Owen’s book, Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River, has very little to say about wildlife issues directly—the only discussion include short sections on invasive species that are blocking a dam’s intake gratings and the Salton Sea lake in California that is much more salty than the oceans and has killed many fish and birds species that use it. However, the description of the huge importance of water rights demonstrates that access to and usage of water is all important—to sustain populations, development, and agriculture. He shows how the “compact” that allocates water from the Colorado River is, in a sense, nonsensical since it gives water rights that don’t add up---there is not nearly enough water for promised water to be taken by states as promised in the compact. However, Owens notes that the compact has endured because states fail to push for their full rights because they know if they did, the entire compact and hence water allocation system would break down and could make matters worse. The book does not offer any solutions. It describes how desalination is very expensive and requires great energy sources to support it. If desalination is implemented, it will allow development in environmentally disastrous places (note: DuBai is one place that is established on basis of desalination and is able to do so because of its fossil fuels.) He notes that organic vegetables use especially heavy amounts of water and rely on manure. He characterizes cloud seeding as akin to moving money from “one pocket to another.” He argues that “managing growth” such as placing limits on development in urban areas would simply result in more sprawl and that “densely populated cities” make “wild places possible.” He studies other “solutions” such as seeding clouds and desalination but none of them are likely to work. He points out that western states and the Federal government in trying to deal with the situation face a “Catch 22” type of conundrum—the formal compact allocates far more water to various states and users than can be provided” and if they pushed for their “full legal rights” of water, the entire compact would be blown-up and matters could be worse. He points out that western states hate the Federal government but without investment of Federal government, there would be even less water to fight over.
So, why talk about this book that does not directly to do with wildlife? Protections for endangered fish such as smelt in California has already drawn the enmity of the Wall Street Journal and farmers but so far these conflicts have been relatively small scale. Reading this book made me realize that there will be inevitably less water for wildlife and threatened species in the future. The Endangered Species Act is likely to be emasculated so that any valuable resource like water will no longer be diverted to save endangered species and water will become more problematic for all species. Humans already have settled around areas with water—as I detail in my Wildlife Politics book, protected areas for animals have been largely relegated to areas with little water, lots of rocks, and generally unproductive land. Wildlife interests are not going to prevail against the powerful array of human interests that demand water. The one long-term palliative (I am sure there are weaknesses and limitations to it too) that could moderate the problem from my perspective is population control—fewer humans or stabilizing population would at least limit demands for more water and more development.
Dan Egan’s book on the Great Lakes discusses the problem of invasive species that have been caused by humanity via ships referred to as salties: “It would be hard to design a better invasive species delivery system than the Great Lakes overseas freighter. The vessels pick up ballast water at a foreign port to balance less-than-full cargo loads” (xv). The invasive species brought in include zebra and quagga mussels, alewives, and lampreys. Anglers are one of the groups that have contributed in a major way to the problem—they have encouraged the introduction of a “desirable” alien species to the lake, salmon, which require the invasive alewives—unfortunately, the alewives consume the phytoplankton in the lakes and thus harm other species such as native lake trout. The Great Lake states and the Federal government have been trying to maintain enough alewives to support chinook salmon but not so many as to destroy lake trout and the book cites a USFWS as admitting that he did not know if this is possible. The book contends that the salties (ocean ships) could be replaced by trains but the shipping industry has vetoed this option. As with the Colorado River, the most serious problems are “self-inflicted” by humanity and anglers, a group that theoretically belongs to the conservation coalition, is one of the causes.
Jack E. Davis’s book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea” reveals how the area has become the major source for oil with more than 180 thousand wells and associated infrastructure such as pipelines that have “denuded” the area of its “wetlands and mangrove forests” that, along with massive agricultural runoff, have created “dead zones” in the Gulf and stopped nature from depositing its sediment in the ocean. The book illustrates the theme of conflict between scientists and the perceptions of interested parties over the numbers of fish that exist—I discuss how similar disagreements exist in many cases in Chapter 2 of my book. Fishermen have lauded the use of old oil rigs as magnets for red snapper which they are catching in large numbers but Davis cites an expert as stating that the “easy pickings” around the rigs belies the fact that actually their numbers have “plunged by 97 percent” since the end of World War II and that there are high levels of mercury in the areas. There are also common perception that shrimp and menhaden populations are healthy and large but the book cites evidence from experts that the shrimp numbers are likely to be temporary and that menhaden populations have actually suffered major declines which affects other species. Yet the politics of the region have been little affected by these threats—the oil and gas industry reign supreme. Davis does cite one case where a pro-business newspaper did welcome the return of pelicans to the area due to the banning of DDT but they did this because nature was good for humans and visitors to the area.
An article reported by John C. Cannon summarizes studies that show that “60 percent of primates are sliding toward extinction at https://news.mongabay.com/2017/01/running-out-of-time-60-percent-of-primates-sliding-toward-extinction/ The threats to apes affects all continents where they exist--South America, Africa, and Asia. Analysis of the data shows that loss of tree cover and fragmentation of habitat are the primary cause. In Southeast Asia, the expansion of palm oil plantations is a direct cause. Overall, it is the “expansion of agriculture” that has pushed species such as “Yunan snub-nosed monkey” in China to “near extinction.” Deforestation and expansion of agriculture seem to me to inexorable forces that meet demands for food and the needs of humans near areas and conservationists have a hard time with the ethics of restricting these forces that affect the fortunes of the poor.
An article in the New York Times by Austin Ramzy describes how isolated islands in the South Pacific have been inundated by human trash even though humanity does not live in or visit the islands is available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/16/world/australia/henderson-island-plastic-debris-south-pacific.html?mcubz=2&_r=0
Nevertheless, humanity’s trash affects the wildlife such as turtles becoming tangled in fishing nets and crabs using plastic containers “for shelter.” Other articles have shown that tiny plastic pieces are consumed by marine life with potentially harmful effects. As with deforestation and agricultural expansion, the spread of humanity’s effects due to dissemination of its trash is inexorable and will certainly increase in the future.
Most of the focus on threats to wildlife has been on mammals and certain species of marine animals. However, a Science magazine article by Gretchen Vogel summarizes evidence that there has been a major decrease in insects with an article titled “Where have all the insects gone”” (Science, May 12, 2017, Vol. 356, Issue 6338). Research has focused on Germany and England. There are variations—speculation is that the variation may be due to the fact some areas may have already experienced declines. Causes include habitat loss such as less plant diversity. Another cause is the use of insecticides like neonicotinoids that have become popular. Some insects adapt to the insecticides like aphids but others do not. The loss of insects affects wildlife such as birds that depend on them and the article suggests insect declines have played a significant role in the drop in populations of birds such as swifts and larks. It is hard to get humanity to act to save insects unless they are “charismatic” like the monarch. As I reported in a previous blog, Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy" documents huge declines in butterflies and other species mostly due to humans. As I argued, humans sometimes become conscious about individual species (e.g., recent concern about sharks and monarchs), but the need to retain entire ecosystems is a much more difficult concept to “sell” to humanity and the changed consciousness does not match up against the powerful and universal forces threatening wildlife.
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