October 18, 2017
Welcome back, dear reader, to the latest episode of This Week in the Environment. Today, I’ve focused on the natural world and all the fantastic creatures that live in, on, and under it in honor of World Animal Day. Humans in modern society (myself included) have largely divorced themselves from the natural world, abandoning the way of life we led for millennia and seeing ourselves as distinct and separate from nature. We are quickly finding out this is not a sustainable attitude. Our species has thrown the planet into disarray with our desire for more, bigger, and better. It’s time to fix things, don’t you think? For all the cute foxes! (ᵔᴥᵔ)
—Jon Conway, Ph.D., Greenpower Research Director
Charismatic megafauna like polar bears, spotted owls, or whales (or arctic foxes) have long been used by the modern environmental movement as a focal point for public sympathy. After all, it’s much easier to rally people to care about a regal, intelligent mammal like a whale than an complex abstract concept like sustainable fisheries management. You may have noticed the decline of large movements like the “Save the Whales/Spotted Owl/Polar Bear” campaigns of previous decades. These are likely a thing of the past now that humans have become the charismatic (well, some of us) megafauna in peril. That hardly means that the bears and whales don’t still need help, however; exactly the opposite is true. They and countless other plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms on this planet are more impacted by our species than ever before. Climate change doesn’t discriminate in who it harms, and all need saving—except maybe rats, cockroaches, seagulls, and jellyfish.
"We haven’t seen this level of mortality in right whales since we stopped whaling them."
Growing up in California, Yosemite was one of my absolute favorite places to visit. For a child it was a phantasmagoria of soaring mountains, endless sky, and big, majestic evergreens. Returning recently, however, I was profoundly shaken to find huge swathes of rust streaked and splotched over the mountains and valleys—death, disease, infection. Trees that had stood for centuries were nothing but skeletons grasping at the sky, and the once-pure air was thick and smokey. Wildfire, drought, and bark beetles have wrought destruction on one of Earth’s most precious places, and it is our fault. In the years between my visits I learned a great deal about climate change and the havoc we wreak on this planet, but seeing this magical place from my childhood dying before my eyes gripped me on a deep, visceral level. Many people likely have or will soon have an experience similar to mine, where the reality of climate change truly hits home. What’s yours?
I rarely broach the subject of the role of diet when discussing climate action, simply because I (and many others) have learned that there are few quicker ways to turn your audience against you than to tell them they should stop eating meat. The deep cultural roots of carnivory, the stigma vegans endure in many parts of society, and the plain fact that it tastes good make it very difficult to successfully pitch reduced meat consumption to all but the most dedicated climate activists. But really and truly, we need to cut back. Other parts of the world are increasingly starting to pick up America’s meat (over)consumption habits, especially when it comes to beef. Not only is this making people more unhealthy, it’s pushing the climate closer to the breaking point. Cattle for beef and dairy have, by a wide, wide margin, the most impact on the climate both because of the methane they produce and deforestation. Those of us in the US must reset the global standard to a sustainable level. So please, if you change one thing about your diet and you eat beef, eat less or replace it completely with something that won’t cause such suffering to so many people. There are more and better alternatives than ever!
Forests are often considered the lungs of the world (although that title really belongs to the ocean’s phytoplankton), but few think about what happens when they exhale. We have so badly mistreated the earth’s tropical forests, particularly in South America, that many are breathing their last breath. As forests are destroyed and degraded, largely for agriculture, they release much of the carbon that they have spent their long lives pulling out of the air and using to build their bodies. So not only is this yet another force driving us to the brink of climate catastrophe, it is erasing some of the most biodiverse parts of the planet at the same time.
This unique planet whose skin we are fortunate enough to temporarily live on has developed an extraordinary ability to self-regulate—really, almost as if it was alive. The intricate feedback between living and nonliving systems (let me tell you, microbes do work) keeps the planet habitable and thriving—unless it is hurt. Several times throughout the history of life, something has gravely wounded this self-regulation process; we call these events mass extinctions. Before humans, these were triggered by other forces of global devastation, like large meteors or intense volcanic activity. Now we have earned our place in the history books as the first (and possibly last) living creatures to cause a mass extinction. Our historically new culture of perpetual growth has always promised inevitable destruction; it’s just catching up to us now. We have two options: change or die.
"If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet."
Photo Credit: Arctic Fox Camouflaged, Eric Kilby. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Winners and losers.