Tag Archives: Bill McKibben

Big Players

There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.

Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)
Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)

Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.

Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.

Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)
Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)

Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.

Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.

Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)
Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)

Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.

These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.

Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)
Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)

Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.

The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)
Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)

Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It  is happening all over the world.

Amazon forest by Dams999 (CC)
Amazon forest , Dams999 (CC)

Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.

Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.

Dung beetle 'debate', Jochen Smolka (CC)
Dung beetle ‘debate’, Jochen Smolka (CC)

More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

The quote from Pericles is found online (here).

Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyer can be read online (here).

Philip Adams on Radio National, Late Night Live, ‘Advance Australia Where?’ (listen here).

The quote from Stephen Harding is in his article: ‘Gaia and Biodiversity’ in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. E. Crist and H. B. Rinker.

For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).

To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.

Climate Change and the Question of Community

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Wikimedia Commons
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2014

It is now official: Australia has just experienced its hottest year on record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, ‘2013 will go down as the year that registered Australia’s hottest day, month, season, 12-month period – and, by December 31, the hottest calendar year’. This was the year, it will be recalled, that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to the temperature maps. Deep purple and pink joined the colour coding to indicate maximum temperatures of 50-54°C (122-129°F).

In case that was not enough, another report tells us that climate scientists at the University of New South Wales have published the results of a study showing that global warming is almost certain to be more extreme than previous models indicated. They have developed a method for analysing the effects of clouds on global temperatures, and their results show that on current trends we’re looking at global warming of at least four degrees by 2100. If you are in any doubt about whether four degrees really matters, Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees is well worth reading. In 2100 the earth is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the world we now know.

The year 2013 also saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s latest book. In Oil and Honey McKibben takes on the fossil fuel plutocracy. His data are as bleak as ever, and lead directly to the point he has been making for some time: that we are in the midst of irreversible, unfathomable changes. Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg discussed this sense of impending doom in his review of the book. Klinkenborg contends that we are living in the midst of a rolling apocalypse that is changing pretty much everything. Our language, and our sense of time and destiny, aren’t up to the task of communicating this new, accelerating, event. For example, the great floods in the US in 2013 were described as ‘Biblical’. Klinkenborg offers the awful reminder that these floods are NOT Biblical. There is ‘no wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.’

It is too late to avert global warming completely, as McKibben (along with others) has been telling us for a while now. Our political systems are not responsive to the need for quick and strong action, and the fossil fuel industries are at this time well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on government is a sign of the subversion and retreat of democracy. On the one hand, scientists have determined that if we are to keep global warming to a manageable degree, we cannot put more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by mid-century. On the other hand, the fossil fuel magnates plan to extract, sell, and burn every skerrick of oil, gas and coal. In McKibben’s words, the crucial number is 2,795 gigatons. That is ‘the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies…. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.’ In sum, ‘we already have five times as much oil and coal on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.’

McKibben continues to urge humanity to try to contain and reduce carbon emissions, and to ‘re-democratise’ our societies so as to require governments to act in the interests of the people rather than the mega-rich fossil fuel magnates. Most importantly, though, he urges us to acknowledge that tough times are all around us and are going to get worse, and to respond to that knowledge by fortifying ourselves and our communities to face these tough times. The safer places, he says, will be in ‘strong communities’, so a wise response to global warming will involve building and sustaining such communities.

This advice leads directly to the question of community. Is a strong community a fortress, or is it a web? Is it strong in the sense of unyielding, or in the sense of resilient? Who is in, and who is out? Aside from politicians and a certain type of populist, it seems clear to all that in times of change individuals and communities need to be flexible, adaptive, resilient, and capable of quick, intelligent, organised responses.

In the context of community, as in the context of climate change, it is necessary to ask if our languages, values, and sense of solidarity are up to the task of imagining and building the necessary strength. Nestled within these questions is the deeper question of ethics. This question involves the assumption of response, responsibility, care, concern, and the refusal to abandon others.

Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake LiYu, Taiwan
Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake Li Yu, Taiwan

Traditional ways of thinking about community are based on what we have in common. A community is made up of people who share language, values, and understandings of the world that enable them to sustain their commitment to working together for their common (shared) goals. This type of community is called the ‘rational community’. If those shared elements are lacking, then community building involves finding ways to develop shared values, and to accelerate the power and resilience of groups of people who work, communicate, and celebrate together. Many people are addressing these questions, and there are excellent programs in existing towns, neighbourhoods and social groups that work to develop resilience and the capacity for transformation.

In the years since World War II a number of philosophers have been addressing the question of ethics and community. Do communities demarcate a domain within which shared values, norms and belief systems prescribe ethics for action? If so, how can we imagine or understand an imperative toward ethics that arises and commands us from outside the domain of shared values and goals? What of the strangers, the excluded, the refugees, the helpless?

Alphonso Lingis has written an excellent book on this subject: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing In Common. This ‘other’ community does not come into being through what we have in common. Rather, it is made of people whose lives brush against each other without necessarily having anything in common. In these encounters, meaning arrives mysteriously. We often do not, and may never, understand others with whom we do not share the qualities of the rational community, and yet we recognise their personhood. We recognise our shared vulnerability, and it follows that although our ethical responsibilities have no clear rational command, they nonetheless make claims upon us. Lingis’s phrase ‘nothing in common’ is used in opposition to the rational community where what holds people together and gives them cause for care and concern is based on what they have in common. Breaking free from that which is shared, the analysis asks how ethics command us in the absence of shared religious and economic interests, and the solidarity of shared values.

This brings me to the conjunction of ethics, climate change, and multi-species communities. Concepts of community for this time of massive change must challenge our traditional concepts, as the philosophers are doing. At the same time, they must be far more inclusive. Climate change impacts on the lives of many, many species. In this rolling apocalypse of climate change, earthlings are enormously vulnerable. We are mortal, we experience meaning in life, we suffer, we struggle to remain alive. These are creaturely conditions that are inherent in the lives of all multi-cellular organisms, and perhaps of many single-celled creatures as well.

Multi-species communities arise in recognition of creaturely vulnerability. It needs to be said again and again that many of our fellow earthlings are at or near the edge of extinction. An incredibly large number of them are affected by climate change. Although the factors that push a species toward extinction are complex, climate change is not only a factor in itself, but also further impacts on creatures’ capacity to adapt to the changes that are now happening.

Probably everyone is familiar with the image of a polar bear on an ice floe, and has heard about coral bleaching. Other creatures are affected by other aspects of climate change – rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme weather, and much more. In addition to specific climate change impacts, almost all creatures now also experience a great number of other, more direct, human impacts. Violence is a large and visible factor, as I have been writing about recently. So too are numerous others: loss of habitat and related issues of over-crowding and urbanisation, plastics, toxins, ocean acidification, and many more. Of course these and other impacts affect humans as well. This is the point. Earthlings today have one great thing in common (with a few exceptions): extreme vulnerability to the unstoppable damage now in process. Our species is not exempt, but at the same time, our species has huge responsibilities.

My current research is dedicated to exploring questions of multi-species communities that form around animals that are vulnerable to extinction. I am interested in communities of care, by which I mean communities in which humans acknowledge and act upon their ethical responsibilities toward other (non-human) creatures. There is no single model for how such communities come into being, and how they work. The research is on-going, and involves a number of people including many of those in the Extinction Studies Working Group.

Here are just two examples of the kinds of multi-species, ethical, responsive and responsible communities I am talking about.

Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons
Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Scientists tell us that there are seven species of sea turtles on earth, and six of them are endangered. These ancient and beautiful creatures are experiencing a huge number of threats some of which are directly attributable to humans. Hunting, pollution, plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and other hazards have driven many species of sea turtles into the zone of the endangered – they may not survive the rolling apocalypse. The problems are all interconnected, but at the same time, climate change poses a number of quite specific threats. It is difficult to imagine in the abstract, but the specifics are arresting:  sea level rise that wipes out beaches and nesting habitats; weather extremes involving storms that damage beaches and seagrass beds; hotter sand from increasing temperatures leading to death before the eggs even have a chance to hatch. Bear in mind that the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop. With increasing nest temperatures, there are likely to be more females than males, thus threatening genetic diversity.

It is impossible to think of turtles without also thinking of plastics in the ocean. The long slow death of a turtle that has eaten plastic is almost too terrible to contemplate. In the midst of all this suffering, people are rescuing sea turtles, creating protected areas for them, healing their wounds, protecting their nests, and developing hatcheries where nest temperature can be controlled.

Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.
Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.

WWF initiative that brings scientists together with Indigenous Rangers in North Australia is a great example of human action in the face of the many disasters afflicting sea turtles. Long live the turtles and the people who work so hard to help them survive!

A second case study brings us from sea and beach to land and air, in order to consider the vulnerability of flying-foxes to climate change.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

Of the four species in Australia, two are endangered, while world-wide a large number of species is threatened. We know from experience here in Australia that when the temperatures hit 40°C, approximately, flying-foxes start to suffer severe heat stress. Wherever possible they camp in rainforest gullies, mangroves and other heat-protected areas, but the combination of habitat loss and rising temperatures is lethal. According to Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox scientist, in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

Most vulnerable to heat are the females and juveniles — bad news indeed for endangered species. In urban areas, volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can.

In spite of all the help, it seems that some 50,000 flying foxes have died of heat in the last fifteen years, and the number will grow as temperatures rise. Welbergen concludes that flying-foxes are showing us a glimpse of the future, when not only more flying-foxes but also many more species of animals will be affected by heat stress.

Sydney flying-fox rescue volunteer Storm Sandford was interviewed last year (the hottest on record, it will be recalled). Her inspiring story is a perfect example of a multi-species community that arises in response to vulnerability. Her actions emerge in recognition of the needs of others. Her human response to that need is an exemplary demonstration of the generous spirit of all the people who rescue and care for flying-foxes, She gives us a glimmer of how life can be ethical, committed, and engaged in the midst of terrible and unstoppable events.

Juvenile in care, Sydney.
Juvenile in care, Sydney.

Multi-species communities in the time of climate change are made of this: the recognition of vulnerability, the responsiveness of love, the capacity to act, and the refusal to stand by and do nothing.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript

Since posting this little essay a few days ago, a media release came out concerning heat stress in Queensland. I reproduce it here:

6 January 2014
Media release

Extreme heat event devastates Qld native Flying-fox colonies.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of native flying-foxes have died as a direct result of the weekend heat event with temperatures of over 43°C. The deaths will continue over the next few days as surviving orphans from dead mothers will slowly die of dehydration.
Many colonies across South-East Qld have been severely affected including those at Camira, Mt. Ommaney, Pan Pacific Gardens, Regents Park, Boonah, Bellmere, Pine Rivers and Palmwoods. Reports indicate all Western Suburbs colonies and inland, and colonies from Gympie down to Yamanto have been devastated.
Deaths include Grey Headed Flying-foxes which are on the vulnerable to extinction species list and Black Flying-foxes. Flying-foxes are Australia’s only nocturnal, long-distance pollinator and seed disperser.
Volunteer rescuers have been overwhelmed with the mammoth task of collecting dead bodies and tending to survivors as part of their service to the community. Currently there are over 200 baby flying-foxes in care “We have never seen this type of heat event devastation before and the massive amount of casualties as a result. From the initial call onwards, the camps fell like dominos.” says Louise Saunders, President, BCRQ.
“A huge thank-you to all the dedicated volunteers who rallied to the call and worked so hard in the diabolical heat to save the bats that were still clinging to life”. Bat Conservation & Rescue Qld wish to thank the many residents adjacent to colonies who came to the carers and offered their assistance and support.
“Never try to perform your own rescue. For your safety and for the sake of flying-foxes, always call a wildlife rescue service,” BCRQ president Louise Saunders said.
“A frightened flying-fox is likely to bite or scratch, potentially exposing a well-meaning rescuer to Australian Bat Lyssavirus. Less than 0.5% of bats may have the virus, there is a safe vaccine to protect anyone who may be exposed. Anyone exposed to a scratch or bite must seek prompt medical attention. “That inevitably means vaccinations for anyone bitten or scratched, and death for the flying-fox because Queensland Health requires them to be euthanased for testing.
for the full text, see: http://bats.org.au/uploads/news-events/media/press-releases/Heatdisastermr6012014.pdf