For the Conservation Curious

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The Politics of Science March 31, 2010

I wanted to start this blog off with a quote from President Harry S. Truman that recently appeared in a Climate Progress blog. Truman was responding to McCarthy-era attacks that accused people of being Communists. McCarthyism now refers to “making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence” (Wikipedia). If you follow any of the climate change news out there, you can see that Truman’s quote is as timely now as it was back then…
“Continuous research by our best scientists is the key to American scientific leadership and true national security. This indispensable work may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumors, gossip, and vilification. Such an atmosphere is un-American…. Now and in the years ahead, we need, more than anything else, the honest and uncompromising common sense of science. Science means a method of thought. That method is characterized by open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and truth. When more of the peoples of the world have learned the ways of thought of the scientist, we shall have better reason to expect lasting peace and a fuller life for all.” (emphasis added is mine)

  

“A fuller life for all”; I like that phrase a lot.  To think that science can do such a thing is not so far-fetched. Think of how scientific breakthroughs have increased life expectancy, even in developing countries, through medicines, surgical procedures, prosthetics and transplantations.  Science has improved fuel efficiency of vehicles, created mechanisms for alternative energy sources, improved agricultural output and turned salt water into potable water.  It seems like the boundaries of science and how it can improve our lives are limitless.  Yet there are people out there right now that question science, or even go so far as to bash science and scientists, because of political ideologies. 
 
You cannot fully separate science and policy, like the separation of church and state.  For science must be used to effectively guide policies on health care, pollution abatement, endangered species protection and climate change.  While all of those policy areas can be contentious at times it is the last – climate change – that has been drawing much of the fire lately.  Congress is in the process of working on climate change legislation.  Whether or not you think that they should pass something like this, you should recognise the need for the application of science into their policy decisions.  For science is really nothing but “knowledge,” and our politicians should be knowledgeable about the policy issues that they are dealing with.  Unfortunately their party affiliation has a lot to do with whether or not they listen to science; whether or not they listen to reason.
 
Listen to certain media spokespersons on cable news channels and you may get the impression that scientists are wrong, that they are manipulating data, that they are lying to the public to push a certain agenda.  But why would scientists risk their credibility, their tenure at their academic institution and their major funding sources to further a cause?  Scientists value their standing in the academic and scientific communities more than just about anything else – their livelihoods depend on getting papers published, being asked to speak at symposia, creating something new through their research, etc.  Having their name attached to something that is untrue or false would be a death sentence to their scientific careers.  So I ask again, why would they make this stuff up?
 
The truth is, they are not making this up.  The evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of their findings and statements.  If you look closely at who is calling scientists liars it leans far to one side of the political spectrum.  I do not believe that political side hates the planet.  They want their great, great grandkids to be around just the same as the other side does.  But what I believe is causing the rift is the typical political squabbling that always happens between the two parties.  When one side says A is true, the other side says B is true, and no one will see eye to eye.  Unless we can find a few champions to bridge the partisan gap, our futures and the continuation of quality of life for all on the planet may be in jeopardy.
  
Change is scary to many, and certain changes can threaten people’s livelihoods.  But ultimately changes based on science, ie. grounded in truth and knowledge, will lead to better policy decisions and improvements.  This must be the case with climate change as with all policy issues on the table.  Economics are important, truly, but where will our economy if temperatures continue to rise, floods become more common, precipitation becomes more erratic and species continue to decline and disappear?  True, some manufacturers – of air conditioners, fans, boats, sunscreen, and insect repellant – may make out like bandits for a while, but others – of snowmobiles, skis and furnaces – may lose out, and much sooner than we might think.
  
My call to action would be for people to put aside their political leanings, whether ultra-conservative or uber-liberal, and think just in terms of science versus fiction.  I can’t speak for every scientist but those that I do know, I trust, and can say with certainty that they are not out to push an agenda.  They are simply out there expanding their minds and in the process hoping to expand others’ as well.  We cannot let the political party divide doom us to the dangerous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change.
 

  

 

 

 

REPOST – Mountain Top Mining March 29, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 4:08 PM
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I had to repost this because it’s such an important move ahead against mountain-top mining, which in my opinion is one of the worst abuses against the natural world that I can think of (tar sand gas extraction being another).  This comes from a March 29, 2010 blog post from Climate Progress.

“Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its first Clean Water Act veto ever for a previously permitted mountaintop removal project, “the largest mountaintop-removal permit in West Virginia history.” Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has the story in this repost. The veto would reverse a permit granted in 2007 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Arch Coal to dig a 2,278-acre coal stripmine and fill six valleys and 43,000 linear feet of streams with the toxic debris.

Based on the “unequivocal” evidence that the damage from mountaintop mining is irreversible, the EPA is finally enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect West Virginia’s residents: Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation’s energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward. But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution — and the damage from this project would be irreversible. This recommendation is consistent with our broader Clean Water Act efforts in Central Appalachia. EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming. The EPA began the process to halt this permit more than a year ago.

Although this veto will be finalized after a sixty-day comment period, many other projects continue. Coalfield residents are putting their lives on the line to stop mountaintop removal projects in Appalachia, which Barack Obama called an “environmental disaster.”

If you’re not familiar with mountain-top mining, a heinous practice that is taking place in the once-lush, green forested mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, check out a gripping video at http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2198.  Even if you live on the other side of the country or the planet, you can’t help but be moved by this movie.

 

Recipe for a Conservationist March 26, 2010

Take one child, preferably under the age of 10.

Place outside in an area with trees, a stream and sunshine.

Remove the watchful eyes of adults.

Let simmer for an hour or two.

Stir in a magnifying lens, bug collection jars, a net and some imagination.

Check back after 30 minutes to observe.

You should see a smile, eyes filled with wonder and dirty hands.

Repeat as often as possible. Include excited, adventurous adults when available.

Results may vary, but you should see one Conservationist with a varying degree of scientific curiosity.

 

Why Conservation Matters – Part 2 March 23, 2010

You’ve probably all heard the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I like to tie that saying in with my thinking about endangered species and extinction – if a species that no one has ever seen before goes extinct, does it really matter? I mean, who’s to know? Unfortunately that scenario probably plays out all the time, as people cut down rainforests, dredge river beds and fill in wetlands. Particularly in remote areas of South America, Africa and Indonesia, what were once areas untouched by the hand of man are now falling to the pressures of development, timer harvesting, the bush meat trade and other impacts to the natural resources. In these places the biodiversity, or variety of living things, is enormously high. There could be hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of unknown species living in the tree canopy, the leaf litter or the streams. The majority of these unnamed creatures are insects, but also include plants, small amphibians, birds and even an occasional mammal.

So back to my earlier question: if these species become extinct, does it matter? With our busy, over-programmed lives it can be easy to think that no, in the grand scheme of things those species are not important. What is one variety of ant compared to the entire wealth of species on the planet? Yet that ant performs a role in its environment, and that role may no longer be filled. The web of life describes the interconnected nature of one species to another. Pull on one of the web’s strands and many individual species feel the tug. Remove one of those species and the overall shape of the web changes. Remove enough of those species and the web falls apart.

From the lowliest micro-organism to the mightiest redwood tree, each species has a role to play and a niche to fill. Conserving as many species and special places as possible is important to our well being. Conservation is about protecting the things that we love, but it is more than that. For I may not love spiders but I recognize (and love) that they play an important role: they eat some insects that I dislike even more. And just because I will never see 99.99 percent of the species on this planet doesn’t mean that they are not valuable and worth protecting. They exist (and love being alive), therefore they deserve our respect.

Conservation of these 3 to 30 million species (the exact number is unknown because there are so many unidentified species out there!) does not have to be at odds with human progress, either. So many times people pit conservation against economic development, saying you can’t have one with the other, but I disagree. So much of our economic development is tied to the cleanliness of our environment and the abundance of our natural resources. Look at tourism – people don’t visit Yellowstone National Park to see the strip malls; they go for the natural scenic vistas and wealth of animals. Look at recreation – people don’t choose to swim in polluted waters or fish in rivers where all the fish have lesions and tumors; they want clean water and healthy organisms.

Even some industries that may traditionally be at odds with the environment can be tweaked to support it: Agriculture can use organic practices, a variety of plants (rather than just one) and no-till to help protect the surrounding environment. New housing and commercial developments can use low impact development principles to reduce lot sizes, keep as many trees on-site, reduce construction impacts and provide healthy outdoor recreation. Quality of life doesn’t have to suffer for conservation.

 

Taking Water for Granted March 22, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 7:29 PM
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In the last blog post I noted that we should love the environment because it provides fresh water for us to drink. Yet that is a very North American-centric way of thinking. We are truly blessed in this country to have an abundance of clean water (at least an abundance by the rest of the world’s standard, although it is not distributed equally throughout the country). I wrote from my naïve point of view, so I want to add a little more clarity to the subject, especially since today, March 22nd is World Water Day.

I just read a wonderfully poignant article in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine by Tina Rosenberg, called The Burden of Thirst. It follows one woman’s trek up and down a mountain in Africa, three or more times a day, carrying a 50-pound jug of water on her back. She can spend up to 8 hours of her day getting water for her family. And it’s not even clean water. It is filled with sediment and the feces of donkeys and cattle. According to the article, “nearly 900 million people in the world have no access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people have no safe way to dispose of human waste—many defecate in open fields or near the same rivers they drink from. Dirty water and lack of a toilet and proper hygiene kill 3.3 million people around the world annually, most of them children under age five.”

Makes you really appreciate what you have, doesn’t it?! This same woman says she doesn’t wash her clothing because they barely have enough water to even drink. She bathes once a year. Yet here in the US we shower daily, wash our clothes whenever we want to and pour millions of gallons a day on golf courses and other landscapes (even in desert areas). This post is not to make you feel guilty but if you pause for just a second and think how we could take clean water a little less for granted than we do, that is a small step in the right direction. If you take a moment to donate to a charity that is building sanitary toilets and drinking water wells in developing nations, then you are helping to provide a better life for people. No one should have to spend 8 hours of their day getting water, especially when the technology exists to help them TODAY.

As I have said, conservation is about saving the things we love. I love clean water. It is an essential ingredient in beer, it keeps my vegetable garden alive, and it doesn’t harbor disease causing micro-organisms. The US is not immune to water-related problems – think of the drought that plagued the Atlanta area in recent years, the clash between agriculture and the Endangered Species Act in southern California, and leaking infrastructure country-wide that loses millions of gallons of water a year, and we have our hands full. But as such a wealthy country (wealthy in both per capita incomes and clean water-wealthy) we can do much to make future World Water Days better for all.

 

Why Conservation Matters – part 1

Conservation shouldn’t be a term attributed solely to tree hugging granola eaters, yet unfortunately that is an image conjured up by many when they hear the term.  I know because I have been called a tree hugger on more than a few occasions (in a loving, teasing manner, of course).  Conservation is important to everyone, whether they are an urbanite, a rural farmer or an indigenous tribe member.  Merriam-Webster defines conservation as: a careful preservation and protection of something, especially the planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect.  We all have possessions that we try to preserve and protect, whether it’s a treasured family photo album, an HD LCD TV or a pet pooch, so we can all inherently relate to the principles of conservation.  We conserve what we love.

Shouldn’t we all love the environment then, which gives us clean air to breath, fresh water to drink, resources to build shelter from and plants to harvest for food?  Conservation of these precious resources should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately, judging from the conflicts over natural resources and the mentality of conservationist versus capitalist, not everyone sees eye-to-eye on this issue.  Over the course of the next few blog posts I will discuss some of the reasons why conservation is so important to me and why I think it should be a universal truth.

Returning to the concept of conserving what we love, I take a mental journey back through time to when I was a youngster exploring the wood lot next to my childhood home.  My sister and I would spend hours turning over logs in search of critters and “archeological relics” (really just old bottles and knick-knacks from when a home was demolished decades earlier).  That free time outdoors, without the watchful eyes of my parents always bearing down upon us, gave a sense of freedom and made us feel like scientific explorers. What an adventure!  I credit much of this time to the development of my scientific curiosity and love of nature.

Unfortunately, not many children get to experience something like this nowadays.  Either they live in an urban environment where the closest thing to a wood lot is a vacant lot, or they live in the suburbs where they are overwhelmed with electronic gadgets and organized sports.  Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls this “nature deficit disorder.” Children are becoming disconnected from the natural world.  How can they learn to love something (and therefore conserve it) if they never have any experience with it?  My generation (I straddled generations X and Y) may be the last to truly appreciate nature, if we don’t become more proactive about it… and fast!

It’s a scary thought to me to think that things with the environment could get worse – they’re already bad enough! With the impacts of climate change on the horizon, and developing nations becoming developed (with the added consumerism and fossil fuel use tied to it), we are at a pivotal place on the conservation timeline.  What we do now will affect generations to come.  So why does conservation matter, now more than ever?  Because we are being bombarded by so many messages, new technologies and time wasters that distract us from what’s really important in life.  The simple things: taking a walk in the woods, having a picnic by a pond, watching the squirrels run through the park: all of these activities bring us closer to nature and build an appreciation for the natural world. 

We conserve what we love.  I love nature, the environment, the great outdoors.  I do so because I was raised with the natural world outside my door.  But for those that weren’t and aren’t so lucky as to have that kind of experience, it is still possible to be a conservationist.  How we build the love of nature into them is what I, and a whole host of great organizations and individuals, dedicate our life’s work to.  And we will continue to do so until conservationist is a term used not to describe just tree huggers but all people.

 

Science isn’t Scary March 15, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 8:16 PM
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 I am a scientist at heart.  I studied zoology and environmental science in college, did some ornithology field work and now work on invasive plant issues.  Being analytic, methodical and fact-based really gets me going.  Yet the more time I spend talking with my significant other, familiy members, friends and the average person on the street I discover that my penchant for science is not shared by most people.  Science, in fact, scares them. 

I am not talking about science fiction.  I can understand why people may be frightened by the thought of intelligent robots taking over the world, Terminator-style, or that one day we will all be plugged into computers 24-7, never directly interacting with other people ever again, but science, real science? Well, it’s amazing!

The fear that many people have of science is their belief that science is “over their head.”  They envision every scientist being a bespectacled nerd in a lab coat, huddled over a beaker full of steaming liquid, pale as a ghost because he or she never leaves their lab.  These “egg heads” talk in science-speak, a language full of jargon and acronyms that could make your head spin.  How can the average person relate to that? 

Even some of the smartest people that I know pretend to be dunces when it comes to science.  It’s sort of like me with math – if I really tried I could do those algebraic calculations, but come on… that would require work! (Just kidding) How many people have I heard say, “My worst subject in school was science (followed closely by math – see a pattern?!)”?  Too many!  That intimidation factor has stayed with them over the years and sunk so deeply into their subconscious that any time they hear the word science they cringe and imagine themself back in 3rd period chemistry, struggling to figure out how much of powder x will go into liquid q to get a color change.  Erase that image from your minds, people!  There is so much more to science than intricate calculations, high-tech lab equipment and pass or fail grades.

I have created this blog to break down the myth that science and environmentalism are for a narrow segment of the population.  I want to decode science-speak and hopefully bridge partisan ideologies to show that science is understandable, invaluable and there for everyone’s benefit.  My career depends on getting people on-board the science wagon, but it is more than that.  I hope you will come to see that our very lives and well-being depend on science.  Without it, we would all be a bunch of Neanderthals grunting in an unlit cave, struggling to stay alive.  For science is really just “knowledge,” and who doesn’t want to be knowledgeable?