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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To Midway and Back: An Email Interview with Barbara DiBernard


Beach, Midway atoll.


In an earlier post, we took an imagined journey to the islands of the Northwestern Hawaiian atoll, following the life of the Laysan albatross and the troubles this beautiful bird now faces due to plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre.

Today we would like to welcome Barbara DiBernard, professor of English and of women's studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Barbara has participated in several study tours to environmentally sensitive areas, volunteering in efforts to protect endangered species, and recording her observations in award-winning photographs. Having recently returned from Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian Archipelago, where she worked to preserve albatross populations, Barbara has kindly consented to share with us her photographs and reflections on her experience, as well as on continued efforts to ensure the albatross's survival.

All photographs by Barbara DiBernard.


RLM: Could you convey to us a few general impressions of Midway Island? What do you see on arriving at the airport? Where on the island did you stay? Are there many remnants of Midway's naval history, e.g. WWII-era military bases? How many people, if any, live permanently on Midway?

BDB: As the plane approaches the runway on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, at 9 p.m., the landing lights illuminate thousands of albatross lined up on each side and as far as we can see. Everyone aboard the 19-seater charter plane gasps. Of course we expected to see albatross; that’s why we came, but the reality of them and sheer numbers are overwhelming. This atoll belongs to the birds, particularly the Laysan albatross, and we are privileged to be able to spend a week with them.

Laysan Albatross adults and chicks in varying degrees of maturation.



Midway Atoll, 1250 miles west-northwest of Honolulu, is part of the leeward chain of the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll consists of a circular coral reef approximately 5 miles in diameter inside of which is a shallow white sand lagoon and 3 islands. Midway Atoll, the other Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the ocean around them were declared the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006, forming the largest protected marine area in the world. This vast, remote, and largely uninhabited marine region encompasses approximately 139,793 square miles (362,061 square kilometers) of Pacific Ocean in the northwestern extent of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

“The name Papahanaumokuakea comes from an ancient Hawaiian tradition concerning the genealogy and formation of the Hawaiian Islands...Papahanaumoku is a mother figure personified by the earth and Wakea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky...

Endangered Laysan duck.

thus the naming of the monument is to honor and preserve these names, to strengthen Hawaii’s cultural foundation and to ground Hawaiians to an important part of their history” (informational handout). Midway is also a National Wildlife Refuge and is designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. Because of these designations, several agencies are charged with the preservation of the historical sites as well as the reef, the islands, and their flora and fauna. For more information, you can go to www.hawaiireef.noaa.gov or www.fws.gov/pacificislands. Currently the Monument Draft Management Plan is on these sites, laying out several options for how the Monument should be maintained over the next few years.

Laysan albatross

Only one of the islands within Midway Atoll is inhabited. About 50 people live on Sand Island at this time, including the Monument director, Fish & Wildlife staff, biologists, people there on special projects (such as invasive plants specialists, who were there during our time on the island), and those who care for the grounds and buildings and do the cooking for visitors and staff. In addition, a few volunteers are on the island at any given time. They come for a few weeks or month at a time to help with research and special projects. The Oceanic Society (www.oceanic-society.org), with whom I traveled, has several 1-week trips a year on which 15 visitors at a time can participate in a Natural History Tour.

Visitors stay in “Charlie Barracks,” refurbished barracks from the time when the atoll was a navy base. The rooms are comfortable, the lobby of the building has a computer with internet capabilities, and everyone eats together at the Clipper House restaurant, right on the beach. There are no cars or trucks on Midway. Staff and visitors travel in golf carts, ride old fat-tire bikes, or walk. Cell phones don’t work on Midway. Everyone leaves their rooms unlocked, and you can drop your backpack or other belongings anywhere and know they will be there when you return. I found the lack of vehicles, the lack of cell phones, the safety, and the sense of community among the most positive aspects of being on Midway.

There are remnants of Midway’s military history on the atoll and the designation Battle of Midway National Memorial mandates that the history be preserved. While it has not been feasible to preserve everything, some sites are being maintained. Among them are the “bombproof” command/communications building into which a Japanese bomb was deflected on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Lt. George H. Cannon died after refusing medical attention until he was sure communications were restored, and received the first Medal of Honor given to a U.S. marine in WWII.

Eastern Island.

You can also see shrapnel holes in metal beams of the old seaplane hangar that were made by Japanese shells during the Battle of Midway in June 1942. A pillbox on one of the beaches has been maintained as well. The current operating airplane hangar has a small historical exhibit, and plans call for this to be expanded and moved to a new location in the future. One of the interesting things about Midway is this contrast between the natural and human ecologies. You can be biking through a remote area of the island deeply involved in watching the albatross when you come upon an old artillery bunker, for example.


RLM: Describe for us the variety of wildlife you saw. It appears from your beautiful photos that the birds and other animals are almost completely unafraid of human presence. Is this a correct impression, and if not, how did you manage to get such stunning close-up shots? What did you observe of the life-patterns of animals on the island?

Laysan and black-footed albatross.

BDB: Seventeen seabird species for a total of about 2 million nest on Midway Atoll each year. The most recent population counts include 487,524 nesting pairs of Laysan albatross, 24,085 pairs of black-footed albatross, 32,066 pairs of bonin petrels, 5,000 pairs of red-tailed tropicbirds, 53 pairs of red-footed boobies, 87 pairs of great frigatebird, 6,000 pairs of black noddy, 1,000 pairs of brown noddy, 7500 pairs of fairy terns, 1000 pairs of wedge-tailed shearwaters, 400 pairs of gray-backed terns, and 45,000 pairs of sooty terns. As I mentioned above, the atoll measures approximately 5 miles in diameter. Within it, Sand Island is 1.8 miles long by 1.2 miles wide or about 1200 acres; Eastern Island consists of 334 acres, and Spit Island consists of only 6 acres. Obviously the bird population is very dense.

Sub-adult Laysans dancing.

Certainly on Sand Island, the Laysan albatross are the most overwhelming feature. At the time we were there, albatross chicks were sitting on their nests waiting to be fed about once a week by their parents, who alternate feedings. They were 2-4 weeks from fledging. Everywhere you looked were albatross chicks. In many areas, there was a chick about every 3 feet. At this age, some chicks are beginning to investigate their surroundings a bit, and often roads are impassable without moving several chicks before driving a golf cart through. Chicks are also on the sidewalks in front of buildings, taking shelter from the sun next to bike racks, and on the boardwalk leading to the restaurant. We saw many adults feeding their chicks, regurgitating the oil that they make of the fish and squid they consume while out at sea. There were also hundreds of sub-adult Laysan albatross dancing to find a life-long mate. They perform an intricate series of steps, bows, feather preening, sky-pointing, and bill clapping, accompanied by clicks, calls, and moos. The grouping of dancers was very fluid. At times 1 or 2 albatross would join 2 who were dancing, then one of the original dancers would wander off and start dancing with another bird, etc.

Chick on sidewalk, feet raised for thermal regulation.



Adult Laysan feeding its chick.



Pair of adult Laysan albatross.



Fairy tern.

Fairy terns are beautiful all-white birds. They nest on bare branches, or at times on top of bike racks, roofs, or air conditioners. Their chicks were just starting to hatch (our guide told us they were voted “cutest chicks on the island”), and it was always a delight to find one perched on a tree branch, on the roof of the porch of the barracks, or, in one case, next to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in an outdoor shrine. Bonin petrels nest underground. Their population had been almost decimated by the rats brought in by ships. However, with the total eradication of the rats a few years ago, their population has rebounded. One reason to stay on the paths was to avoid crashing through a petrel burrow. If you did, you had to instantly drop to your knees and dig until you opened up the burrow in both directions so a chick would not be trapped.

Fairy tern with fish to feed its chick.



Fairy tern chick.



Laysan chick and bonin petrel chick.

Yes, it’s true that many of the birds are unafraid of human presence, as in the Galapagos. That is one of the most amazing aspects of being on Midway. I’m a birdwatcher at home, so I am aware of how difficult it is to get close to birds and how lucky one is to get a good glimpse through binoculars. On Midway, you can sit in a field of albatross only a few feet away from the closest bird and observe for hours at a time with no sign of disturbance. Fairy terns are very curious and would often flutter right above our heads, and red-tailed tropicbirds, even those sitting on nests, would let us approach within 3 feet.


RLM: What was a typical day like for you and other volunteers in your program? How many people were in your group? What were the daily activities and the overall goals of the stay?

Red-tailed tropicbird.

BDB: There were 15 people in our group. The goals of Oceanic’s Natural History tour were to learn about the natural and human history of the Atoll; to learn about the wildlife, especially the albatross, but also other seabirds, spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals; to learn about and have a chance to experience the healthy coral reef and the fish and other creatures who live there; and to gain an environmental consciousness about the threats to the wildlife who nest on or use the atoll. I believe that the privilege of visiting Midway also charges each of us to help educate others about the need to preserve the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the creatures that live there.

Green sea turtle, fairy tern, and Hawaiian monk seal.



We would usually do a natural history excursion in the morning, with some of us traveling by golf cart and others by bike. Our naturalist and a Fish & Wildlife ranger would take us to part of the island to observe a particular species and educate us about it. We always had time for silent observation as well, just “being there.” After lunch we would have another excursion, then some free time to wander, swim, and take pictures. Most of us would gather at the beach to watch the sun set, and then our naturalist gave talks illustrated with slides of his own photographs. We had a talk on Laysan albatross, on the other seabirds, on the Hawaiian monk seal, and on fishes of the reef. We had 2 snorkeling excursions on the outer reef as well.

Red-footed booby.



Great frigatebird.




RLM: Tell us about your consciousness of the presence of plastic pollution. Is there plastic debris on the island itself, or mostly at sea where the albatross feed? What did you observe about the threats faced by albatross, and by other wildlife on the island?

Marine debris, Sand Island.

Fishing nets, Sand Island.

BDB: There is a huge pile of marine debris on Sand Island. One of our most memorable excursions and talks was at this pile. It is shocking to see the things that have washed up on Midway Atoll and/or have been pulled off the reef. Of course there is a great deal of fishing line, netting, rope, etc. Seals, dolphins, and turtles are all at risk of drowning from being caught in these. But we also observed a computer monitor, tires, laundry baskets, buoys, plastic bottles, glass bottles, plastic toy figures, sunglasses, “disposable” cigarette lighters, and many other kinds of debris. Our naturalist emphasized that we should be aware of what happens to our garbage. Many garbage dumps are placed so that in bad storms they are overwhelmed and the debris ends up in the ocean. Other debris comes from fishing boats.

While we were on Midway, we helped remove an estimated 900 lbs. of rope and netting which was caught on the rocks and would almost surely be washed back out into the lagoon in a bad storm. Fortunately, a Coast Guard cutter visited Midway while we were there and was able to take this rope and netting as well as about half of the other debris off the island. Getting debris or even recyclables taken away is a significant logistical problem on Midway. Not many boats visit, and few of the ones that do have the capacity to carry a significant amount of marine debris.

Removing ropes and nets.

Sand Island has much less plastic debris throughout than when I last visited in 2000. I imagine that Midway’s inclusion in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and the plan to make Midway the educational site for visitors within the Monument led to this change. In 2000, the island was littered with plastic and other debris, the most noticeable being cigarette lighters. I learned then that virtually every lighter of the hundreds of thousands collected there had been brought to the island by an albatross, picked up inadvertently while feeding and often regurgitated into a chick’s body. The lighters on the island were the result of chicks expelling them in boluses or from the carcasses of chicks or adults who died from ingestion of debris. As you pointed out in your blog, the problem is with the “seafaring junkyard of plastic waste” in the North Pacific Gyre.

Plastic fragments from stomach of dead albatross chick.




RLM: You mentioned you have been to Midway on three different occasions. Have you observed changes, positive or negative, over the course of these visits, to the plastic situation or to other aspects of the island's ecology?

BDB: As I mentioned above, Sand Island is cleaner than when I visited in 1999 and 2000. However, the amount of debris getting caught on the surrounding coral reef or washed into the lagoon has not lessened. No matter how much debris humans pick up and dispose of on Midway, albatross will continue to ingest plastic while feeding and turtles, dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals will continue to get caught in nets and ropes. While everyone is excited because endangered Hawaiian monk seals (population approximately 1100) have started pupping on Midway again, the mortality rate of pups in a recent year was 100%. Some of them must get drowned in marine debris, others may not get adequate nourishment from their mothers, and others may not be able to find adequate food on their own when they are weaned.

Midway is in a state of transition. With its designation as part of a Marine National Monument, in addition to its previous designations as a Wildlife Refuge and the Battle of Midway National Memorial, comes change. I read through the parts of the Monument Draft Management Plan that deal with Midway, and significant positive changes should be coming within the next 10 years, including making the atoll as close to energy independent as possible. In addition, old buildings that are a threat to the wildlife, such as those with lead paint (curious chicks often nibble at it and biologists have documented cases of chick carcasses with lethal levels of lead), will be destroyed and green buildings will be constructed.


RLM: What is your sense of Midway's future, particularly with regard to plastic pollution? Are there feasible ways for us to clean up the plastic already in the North Pacific Gyre or on Midway? If we can't clean up what's already there, how can we control the situation and most effectively safeguard the future of albatross and other animals?

BDB: This is for people more knowledgeable than I! Obviously, we have to reduce the amount of plastics we use, and we have to dispose of garbage more carefully. I’m a teacher, so I do believe in the value of education.

Plastic from albatross carcass.

When I returned from Midway in 2000 I gave a slide show to local groups in which I talked about the mortality of albatross from eating or being fed plastic. As part of my talk, I passed around a basket which contained plastic from one albatross carcass—bottle caps, toy figures, 2 lighters, a toothbrush handle, a belt buckle, unidentified pieces of plastic, some with sharp edges. Someone who heard one of my talks invited me to talk to her college class 2 years later and told me that the basket of plastic had made such an impression on her that she had asked herself of everything she bought since, “Could this hurt an albatross?”

I do believe in the ability of human beings to change. My partner and I were remarking yesterday that when we were growing up and well into our adulthood, the right of people to smoke anywhere was unquestioned. Neither of us could have foreseen the change that has come about in the U.S. in regard to smoking. And as author and transgender activist Leslie Feinberg said in an interview, in the repressive and homophobic 1950s, she could never have imagined that the ‘60s were right around the corner.

Still, the problems are massive. As Charles Moore wrote in his article “Trashed,” “Entanglement and indigestion, however, are not the worst problems caused by the ubiquitous plastic pollution...Plastic polymers, it turns out, are sponges for DDT, PCBs, and other oily pollutants...Plastic resin pellets concentrate such poisons to levels as high as a million times their concentrations in the water as free-floating substances...After [jellies and salps] ingest the toxins, they are eaten in turn by fish, and so the poisons pass into the food web that leads, in some cases, to human beings.”


RLM: Could you tell us a bit about what first inspired you to join volunteer efforts helping to preserve endangered species? What are some of the rewards and challenges of taking such a journey?

Red-footed booby and chick.

BDB: I’ve always had a deep connection with the earth and its non-human creatures. Growing up, I spent most of my time in the woods around our house. When I need sustenance, I still lie on the ground and feel strength and spirit flow into me. I never questioned that everything is connected, that I am part of a web that includes all animals, plants, people, and the earth and oceans. When I first learned about service trips, that I could contribute in a small way to ongoing research that would help preserve threatened and endangered animals, it seemed an ideal way to put my beliefs into practice.

I have been fortunate enough to participate in research on spinner dolphins and Laysan albatross on Midway; bottlenose dolphins, coral reefs, and American crocodiles in Belize, and leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad.

Sooty terns.

Through these expeditions, I have experienced moments of “grounded transcendence,” when I felt part of a web of life and beyond my ego. For me, these moments have their own value; they don’t need to lead to anything else.

However, I also believe in the value of citizen participation in science. For me to add a small bit to the data about leatherback turtle nesting, to the lives of crocodiles in Belize, or to the mortality of Laysan albatross on Midway is rewarding. Working with scientists has also enriched my life generally as well as my profession as a literature teacher.


RLM: What would be your advice for someone interested in taking action on the problem of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre and the Northwestern Hawaiian atoll? Can anyone participate in the type of program you did? If we can't actually make a trip to one of the Northwest Hawaiian islands, can we still take actions to protect the wildlife vulnerable to plastic pollution? And if we do go on a volunteer trip, how can we best extend our positive effects even after returning home?

BDB: Education, education, education! Your blog is a good example. Being aware of the huge area of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, as well as its implications for albatross, sea creatures, and humans has to be the first step. Noticing what plastics we use, whether we can reduce them, and making sure they are disposed of responsibly, is important too. Just within the last month, a column from a free-lance writer about the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre was printed in the Lincoln, NE newspaper. This tells me that word is getting out, that this is a problem that bears on all of our lives.

Great frigatebird and chick.

Anyone with the physical capabilities can participate in Oceanic’s natural history tours of Midway or other places. There are also other organizations, such as Earth Watch, the Sierra Club, Elder Hostel, and others that sponsor study tours and service trips on environmental/ecological topics. I encourage everyone who is interested to join one of these. I know that my knowledge of sea birds, dolphins, sea turtles, crocodiles, and coral reefs is more alive for me because I have been able to take these trips. As I said above, I also consider it my responsibility to talk to whoever will listen when I return!

Thanks for asking me to do this interview!

Laysan albatross in flight.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Trash Talk: Lager Radios and Pepsi Guitars


Photo: Michael Daecher. From About.com.

Anouk Zijlma, Guide to Africa Travel at About.com, has posted a beautiful photo gallery of recycled toys made in Capetown, South Africa by local artists using scraps such as might be found in the average city trashcan. Bottle caps and barbed wire, spray cans and potato chip wrappers find new life as toy cars, miniature guitars, and, most impressively, a working radio whose faceplate still displays the name "Castle Lager," a local beer.

Visit photo gallery at About.com

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Asparagus on Mars


Photo: Frank Vincentz


"Sailors
Fighting in the dance hall.
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go.
It's the freakiest show.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy.
Oh man!
Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?

As an escape for the fantasy through science fiction or as a literal terraformed escape from an overpopulated Earth, Mars has been our favorite alternate world since long before the wistful and surreal David Bowie song.

Last week, two news stories appeared in quick succession: on Wednesday, the Environmental News Network reported on climatologist James Hansen's speech to the National Press Club, warning of fast-approaching climatic tipping points beyond which global warming will become uncontrollable. Two days later, on Friday, BBC aired a NASA news brief marveling at the unexpected fertility of Martian soil analyzed by the Phoenix lander. Quoted in the article was a NASA chemist, opining that "You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well."

The juxtaposition of events suggested an unstated but irresistible conclusion: at least we have a getaway planet. But soil with some asparagus-friendly nutrients does not guarantee easy living on Mars. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their book Cradle to Cradle, the idea of terraforming of Mars "provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we'll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge."

James Hansen's Wednesday warning to the government and public about Earth's climate is dire:

"Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

"The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation."

Beyond simply sounding an alarm, Hansen offers policy proposals and a call to action, specifically in the form of a carbon tax:

"A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

"Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

"Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses."

Difficult as a carbon tax might initially be to draft into law, compare that effort with the Herculean labor of wrestling Mars into some semblance of habitability. In the words again of McDonough and Braungart,

"Let's not make a big mess here and go somewhere less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let's use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet."


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Monday, June 23, 2008

Reimagining the American Dream

Photo: New York Times

One of today's three top most-read articles in the New York Times is titled "The New Trophy Home, Small and Ecological." Highlighting the growing popularity and social cache of green building, the article centers around a luxurious $2.8 million dwelling recently constructed in Venice, CA, earning the highest Platinum level of the LEED ratings' energy certification.

Actors and luminaries of Hollywood visited the Venice home, considering purchase or seeking inspiration for their own LEED-certified home building projects. The Times article compares LEED certification to "a Prada label," observing

"Custom-built homes dominate the first batch of certified dwellings. Today, dinner-party bragging rights are likely to include: 'Let me tell you about my tankless hot water heater.' Or 'what’s the R value of your insulation?'"
Certainly it is inspiring that not only are the rich and famous opting to live in zero-energy houses, but that the news story describing these homes reached the most-read list. More inspiring still, however, are the reader comments following this piece. Some samples:

"No. I never had a giant overblown tract house MacMansion, so I won't miss it. Price? Green should be cheaper once you get rid of the size and useless gizmos. I have an old house, well designed originally and updated with insulation and a lighter colored roof. The cistern is still out back for gray water from rain. We need a national program for rooftop solar, and I have more to do - but my costs over time versus a tiny utility bill and a very comfortable house, I have a bargain! And a big kitchen garden - I eat for almost free in the summer. Old small well designed houses can be green gems. I've got one - who needs a plaque?"
- Missbike, New Orleans.

"To make a building truly green you also have to make it last a long time. To do that it better be beautiful. If it's beautiful it will be cared for. If it's cared for it will endure. Enduring architecture requires artful design, none of which was mentioned in the description; and I am guessing it's not one of the LEED requirements. Beauty can be more enduring than technical proficiency. It's an important distinction."
- Michel Pariseau, Deep River, CT

"The LEED approach to more responsible construction is well intentioned. Yet, design organized by checklists and point systems promotes fragmented thinking that disconnects us and what we build from genuine ecological processes. Wrapping the architecture of the box in a 'green' lexicon does not bring us closer to living in harmony with nature's renewing rhythms. 'Green' materials and building systems do little to promote ecological dwelling if our structures are not shaped by the geometries of sunlight, the cycles of wind and water, the colors of local plants and the spatial dynamics of the land. To design homes and communities that are actually ecological, lay down the checklists and let go of your ego's grab for gathering green points. Walk outside, observe the patterns of Earth and climate and imagine forms of dwelling that harmonize and delight in what you see."
- lawlor358, larkspur, california

"Oh dear, can someone please inform the 'environmentalists' that their landscape is covered with a non-native invasive grass (Pennisetum setaceum)?"
- elg29, Brasilia

Platinum LEED-certified home in Venice, CA - $2.8 million

A news story about that home in the New York Times - $1.25, newstand price

A reading populace smarter than the breaking news - priceless.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Good Watermelons Make Good Neighbors


Watermelon leaves. Photo: Derek Ramsey.

"Several hundred kilometres from the simmering conflicts between pastoralists and farmers [over natural resources] in Sudan's Darfur region, the two communities in the village of Gereigikh in North Kordofan State have learnt to cool the tension with watermelons."

So opens a recent report from the Global Policy Forum, an international watchdog organization following UN policy decisions.

Drought has scorched North Kordofan for nearly half a century, and precious land and water must be shared between crop farmers and herders, setting the stage for strife. However, the Global Policy Forum report continues, quoting a village leader,

"'Our farmers discovered that whenever the Kawahla tribe [traditionally pastoral] brought their livestock into the fields, the animal droppings helped improve production, so the members of the Gawamha [traditionally farmers] started planting watermelons to attract the livestock to the field,' recalled Ad-Dukhri Al-Sayed, a community leader in Gereigikh, about 100km northeast of the state capital, El Obeid. 'The situation has improved so much. Now everyone lives in peace, we never have problems.'"

As the report notes, clashes in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan are more complex, spurred not only by climatic hardship and resource shortage but by ethnic and political forces.

However, the truce between North Kordofan herders and crop farmers is a vital and timely step toward addressing the strains climate change continues to place upon the area. The Global Policy Forum report refers to a 2007 UN document highlighting the effects of increasing desertification:

"[The] scale of historical climate change, as recorded in Northern Darfur, is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture."

A member of development NGO SOS Sahel UK sums up,

"The two communities in North Kordofan have developed a symbiotic relationship - they have relationships in the market place over the supply of manure, labour, they buy livestock from each other. These relationships have cemented over the years."

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mangroves and the Hungry Tide

Their roots provide habitat for young shrimp and crabs; their leaves are food for the manatee. In the branches of Florida Everglades mangroves, roseate spoonbills find a nesting spot, while the mangroves of the Sundarbans forest in West Bengal and Bangladesh support the masked finfoot.

Roseate spoonbill with young. Photo from the National Park Service.


Mangroves in Sri Lanka helped to buffer coastal villages from the ravages of 2004's tsunami. In Myanmar's Irawaddy Delta, the mangroves have fallen to loggers, and over eroded shores where they once grew, the storm surges of Cyclone Nargis raged unchecked.

Recent studies have underscored the importance of mangroves in maintaining the vitality of estuarine ecosystems and protecting humans from extreme weather patterns. At Mongabay.com, a recent article describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis:
"Four days after the disaster Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), spoke about the mangrove-effect in Irrawaddy. As reported by the AFP news, Pitsuwan said that increased population in the delta led to 'encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential areas... All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.'"

Dr Deborah Brosnan, president and founder of the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, warns that all river deltas and their human populations are especially vulnerable to intensified weather patterns due to climate change.

Sundarbans mangrove swamp. Satellite photo from NASA Earth Observatory.


In the Sundarbans region, impenetrable mangrove swamp and invincible Royal Bengal tiger have managed so far to protect one another from human destruction. Writes Caroline Alexander in The New Yorker magazine,
"Washed by powerful, twice-daily tides flowing from the Bay of Bengal, and regularly buffeted by cyclones, the Sundarbans has always been unstable, its low landmasses constantly being eroded, silted, and reconfigured. Upstream pollution, from Calcutta; increasing salinity, caused by naturally occurring displacement of freshwater sources; and depredation of the forest by villagers cutting wood are long-standing threats. Still, the Sundarbans remains 'intact,' thanks partly to stringent conservation measures and to its inaccessibility, and partly to the Sundarbans tiger, whose presence insures that the forest is too dangerous to enter casually. 'Without the tiger, we would have no forest,' I was told by villagers, fishermen, wood collectors, honey gatherers—by all who cautiously skirt the forest." (Read more at New Yorker online)

Royal Bengal tiger. Photo from Bergoiata.org.


However, threats to the Sundarbans and other world mangrove forests are multiplying to include new issues, from overharvesting of shrimp to accelerated climate change. Mangrove forests enjoying fewer environmental regulations, such those in as Indonesia or Mexico, stand a still greater risk, as reported in an Environmental News Service article quoting a UN report.

Here is an interview at Grist.org with Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project, on initiatives to preserve and restore these intricate, beautiful ecosystems.

The Hungry Tide is a compelling novel by Amitav Ghosh about the Sundarbans, its people and environment, and the turbulence which characterizes both its political history and its continuing ecological balance.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Introducing Webcasts

As of the previous post on Symbiotic Planet, we are introducing audio webcasts for our features, indicated by clickable links

Listen to webcast.

Please let us know if this tool is useful to you, and feel free to contact us any with thoughts or suggestions in the comments or at trostomaten @ gmail.com.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: Symbiotic Planet

Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, by Lynn Margulis. Basic Books, 1998.

Listen to webcast of "Book Review: Symbiotic Planet"

"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" So opens every round of Twenty Questions, with a query intended as the base classification for anything on earth.

But is it really so simple? Lynn Margulis begins her book Symbiotic Planet with a challenge to our received notions about the forms of life on earth. Introducing us to "a strange sort of 'seaweed' that is not seaweed at all," she describes a green organism found in tidepools along the coast of Brittany in northwest France. Superficially similar to green stringy seaweed, these verdant threads are in fact thin transparent worms, inside whose bodies photosynthetic algae grow. The worms luxuriate on the surface of warm shallow tidepools, allowing their internal algae to soak up the sun, synthesize sugars, and deliver the worm hosts a nourishing meal intravenously, as it were. In turn, the algae benefit from the worms' motility, which takes them to the sunniest spots to photosynthesize, or buries them in the sand to hide from predators. Waste products from the worms' digestion become nutrients for the algaes' growth.

Animal, or vegetable? In a symbiotic relationship such as this, the answer is not clear-cut. Frederick William Keeble, the discoverer of the seaweed-worms, compromised in his 1920's treatise by dubbing them "plant-animals." Furthermore, the case of Convoluta roscoffensis, as the seaweed-worms are scientifically known, is anything but anomolous. In Symbiotic Planet, Margulis gives us example after example of symbiotic partnerships between jellyfish and algae, between cows and protists, all defying the rigid boundaries we normally take for granted to divide kingdoms of life.

A simple hand-lens suffices to detect the symbiotic green algae inside their transparent worm hosts. Turn to a scanning electron microscope to probe the internal workings of an animal cell as it digests sugar. Inside the cell are mitochondria, oxidizing the sugar to release energy stored in its chemical bonds. These mitochondria, though so integrally incorporated in an animal's cells, so deeply implicated in its very sustenance, have an independent ancestry as free-living, oxygen-breathing bacteria. Over generations their symbiosis with host cells became so routinized that neither symbiont could survive without the other, and the oxygen-breathing bacteria renounced their individuality to become mitochondria, organelles inside cells. Mitochondria still carry their own bacterial DNA, resembling that of modern-day independent oxygen-breathing bacteria.

Symbiotic Planet is, first and foremost, a book about innovation. Describing the incorporation of free-living bacteria as mitochondria and other cell organelles, 'serial endosymbiosis theory' is Margulis's prime scientific innovation, and the story of this theory's development forms a major thread in the narrative. Part scientific memoir, Symbiotic Planet chronicles Margulis's brilliant and unorthadox career, as well as her ideological influences ranging from such luminaries as Gregor Mendel to the obscure but prescient Konstantin Merezhkovsky (1855-1921). A Russian botanist specializing in the study of lichens, Merezhkovsky rejected Darwinism as failing to provide a complete explanation for the development of new species through natural selection.

Konstantin Merezhkovsky



According to Merezhkovsky and Margulis, it is not natural selection but symbiosis which truly advances evolutionary innovation. Natural selection can hone the adaptation of a species to its niche, but Darwin's Origin of Species fails to live up to its title in that it does not describe the origin of any new species at all, but merely the development of existing species under selection pressures. The overlooked importance of symbiosis in combining disparate life-forms to create a new whole would have been clear to Merezhkovsky through his study of lichens, which are in fact a symbiotic pairing of algae and fungi.

Haeckel, Lichenes. 1904.


Symbiotic Planet paints for us a new picture of nature. While the eat-or-be-eaten, survival-of-the-fittest model familiar from introductory accounts of Darwinism appropriately describes inter- and intra-species competition driving natural selection, there is more to the story. The symbiotic incorporation of bacteria as mitochondria took place over the course of a "violent, competitive, and truce-forming past," writes Margulis. Having tried and failed to eat another bacterium, some primal cell must have made the decision to keep its undigested and still-living dinner as a functioning member of its own expanded body. This creative merger represented an evolutionary jump unachievable by simple random genetic variation.

Our neglect of symbiosis is not confined to an academic debate on the nature of evolution. Not only do we reconstruct from the fossil record an imagined history in which symbiosis plays but a minor role, we envisage our own future on the planet as an extension of the simplistic survival-of-the-fittest paradigm. Margulis whimsically describes her bemusement on watching an episode of Star Trek for the first time:

"I was struck by its silliness. The lack of plants, the machinate landscape, and in the starship, the absence of all nonhuman life-forms seemed bizarre. Humans, if someday they trek in giant spaceships to other planets, will not be alone. In space as on Earth, the elements of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus and a few others, must recycle. This recycling is no suburban luxury; it is a principle of life from which no technology can deliver us. Human voyages into deep space require ecosystems composed of many nonhuman organisms to recycle waste into food. Only very short stints in constant contact with mother Earth are possible in the absence of 'ecosystem services.'"

Although hypothetical future intergalactic adventure may seem like a frivolous example, the human-centric character of these imagined odysseys is telling. Such narrowness of focus has brought on the crisis of dwindling nonrenewable resources, such as peak oil. Bent only on the immediate extension and expedition of our existing technologies, we have used the resources which are readily at hand, however temporarily, and without thought for collateral consequence.

Margulis writes at the end of Symbiotic Planet's opening chapter,

"The tendency of 'independent' life is to bind together and reemerge in a new wholeness at a higher, larger level of organization. I suspect that the near future of Homo sapiens as a species requires our reorientation toward the fusions and mergers of the planetmates that have preceded us in the microcosm."

Rather than using oil to power lawn mowers on municipal grounds, why not move to a symbiotic solution, as Silicon Valley has recently done in employing goats to graze down brush-covered areas? For that oil we have already converted to plastic now littering drains and clogging sewers, perhaps newly-discovered plastic-eating microbes can break it down. Both these solutions are merely preliminary moves toward a more symbiotic mode of innovation.

Symbiotic Planet closes with a chapter on Gaia theory, the study originating from James Lovelock's observation that the Earth's surface behaves like a living system in homeostasis. Although Margulis advances as motivation for Symbiotic Planet the quip "Gaia is just symbiosis as seen from space," the final chapter on Gaia theory is the book's weakest section.

While the rest of the book is bold and original, the chapter on Gaia theory is mainly reactionary, and herein lies its disappointment. Margulis spends a large proportion of the chapter in disclaimers and debunkings of romantic notions nonscientific people might draw from a misunderstanding of Gaia theory's premises. To the mythologically and anti-scientifically inclined, Gaia and the concept of a living Earth may appear to represent a antropomorphized Earth-mother goddess who personally manages the planet's cycles.

Certainly such a picture is a misapprehension of Gaia theory, which though fancifully named is a serious branch of science. Every scientist rankles at undeserved censure from anti-science detractors, but worse is to be mistakenly applauded as a champion of their cause, as Gaia theory sometimes has been. More intriguing to read, however, would be a development of the fascinating ideas Margulis presents in the preceding chapter of Symbiotic Planet, detailing the manner in which symbiosis allowed life to extend its range to dry shores, beyond the nutrient-filled sea where it originated. By gradual collaborations and fusions, life became more and more adapted for carrying its necessary elements to new frontiers. Ever more creative instances of symbiosis went hand in hand with the expansion of ecosystems to cover the whole Earth, resulting in the Gaia phenomenon of a self-regulating, living globe. A symbiotic planet is a homeostatic planet.

Margulis's objections to the popular Earth-goddess myth extend beyond the defense of Gaia theory as legitimate science. Promoting conservation as our responsibility to "heal our sick planet" is, to Margulis, simply another instance of human hubris and inflated self-importance. She writes,

"...[T]he planet is not human, nor does it belong to humans. No human culture, despite its inventiveness, can kill life on this planet, were it even to try. More an enormous collection of interacting ecosystems, the Earth as Gaian regulatory physiology transcends all individual organisms. Humans are not the center of life, nor is any other single species."

A few paragraphs later, discussing the early evolution of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), Margulis continues,

"Oxygen was expelled as a metabolic waste product. This waste, at first disastrous, eventually powered life's continued growth. New wastes test life's tolerance and stimulate life's creativity. The oxygen we need to breathe began as a toxin; it still is. The oxygen release from millions of cyanobacteria resulted in a holocaust far more profound than any human environmental activity. Pollution is natural."

These passages sound, at first blush, shockingly anti-conservationist. If pollution is natural, should we stop worrying about the emissions from our cars, in the expectation that some carbon monoxide-loving organism will evolve to lap up our exhaust? Should we throw our plastic bottles in the ocean to provide dinner for some future phthalate-lover?

Certainly we could, Margulis opines, destroying not life in the long run but merely ourselves. To quote from Symbiotic Planet's concluding chapters,

"The planet will not permit our populations to continue to expand. Runaway populations of bacteria, locusts, roaches, mice, and grass always collapse. Their own wastes disgust as crowding and severe shortage ensue."
As to the continuation of life after our demise, Margulis writes,
"The notion that we can destroy all life, including bacteria thriving in the water tanks of nuclear power plants or boiling hot vents, is ludicrous. I hear our nonhuman brethren snickering, 'Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now,' they sing about us in harmony."

Reading such passages generates at first an uncomfortable feeling that the environmental movement is being cut down to size as a rather mean and self-serving endeavor. No longer our hope to revitalize our engagement in Earth's ecosystems, it seems, in an existential turn of plot, to be merely our last bet at saving our own miserable skins.

The foregoing chapters of Symbiotic Planet, however, hold in themselves the bright alternative to this dour prospect. "We" are not in fact an isolated or isolable phenomenon. As Margulis beautifully puts it, we are "a kind of baroque edifice," having "guts and eyelashes festooned with bacterial and animal symbionts." We are a product of our "coevolving, pointillist bacterial ancestry." Saving ourselves cannot be a mean or narrow enterprise, because it will require a practical realization of the fact that we are not independent individuals, but emergent phenomena resulting from the cooperation of myriad disparate participants. If we can become conscious symbionts in the future, just as we are unconscious products of past and present symbioses, then all that "we" are and all we touch stands a chance at survival and continued thriving.

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