Insectageddon: Farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown

George Monbiot writes: Which of these would you name as the world’s most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating – on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the world’s cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left – as in the German case – to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the “moth snowstorm” that filled the headlight beams of our parents’ cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthy’s lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects – not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families – are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes. [Continue reading…]

Out of sight, out of mind — the issue here is not just generational in the sense experienced by those of us old enough to remember insects, birds, and other creatures in greater numbers. The issue is above all one that springs from the physical separation between humans and nature in a world where humans experience life predominantly inside cities and predominantly as the seemingly most commonplace species.

I happen to live in a town where squirrels undoubtedly outnumber humans and where bears can show up in the most unexpected places and yet even here, for most people most of the time, nature remains in the background of human affairs.

While the rapid demise of flying insects should provoke alarm in anyone with even just a rudimentary understanding of the interdependence of species, a more commonplace response is likely to be that this loss signifies a welcome reduction in unwanted pests — fewer mosquitoes, fewer flies, and less irritants to complain about.

When it comes to human appreciation for non-human forms of life, insects get short shrift.

Butterflies are admired and yet most people would be hard pressed to name a single species, let alone recognize and appreciate any species in its larval form.

Bees are appreciated as productive, yet potentially dangerous and to most people indistinguishable from wasps.

Ants are lauded in the abstract as exemplars of industry and complex social organization and yet bound to suffer swift extermination when they turn up where they’re unwelcome.

Even so, the objective truth that insects would grasp if they had the cognitive capacities to do so is that the most prolific forms of life that have lived sustainably on this planet for hundreds of millions of years are now at risk from the life-threatening effects of human infestation.

No, this isn’t an argument for the elimination of humans, but as the late-comers on the stage of life, we have to do a hell of a lot better learning how to harmoniously co-exist with the creatures around us. Not only do their lives depend on this, but so do ours.

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The fall of Harvey Weinstein should be a moment to challenge extreme masculinity

Rebecca Solnit writes: This past week was not a good week for women. In the United States, it was reported that a man who allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl was granted joint custody of the resultant eight-year-old boy being raised by his young mother.

Earlier in the week, the severed head and legs of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who disappeared after entering inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, were discovered near Copenhagen. A hard drive belonging to Madsen, Danish police said, was loaded with videos showing women being decapitated alive.

A Swedish model received rape threats for posing in an Adidas advertisement with unshaven legs. The University of Southern California’s dean of medicine was dumped after reports resurfaced that he had sexually harrassed a young medical researcher in 2003. A number of men at liberal publications were revealed to have contacted Milo Yiannopoulos, urging him to attack women – “Please mock this fat feminist,” wrote a senior male staff writer at Vice’s women’s channel, since fired. And, of course, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was described by the New York Times as a serial sexual harasser; his alleged offences, according to a TV journalist, including trapping her in a hallway, where he masturbated until he ejaculated into a potted plant.

This week, the New Yorker ran a follow-up story by Ronan Farrow (the biological son of Woody Allen, who has repudiated his father for his treatment of his sisters), expanding the charges women have made against Weinstein to include sexual assault. He quotes one young woman who said “he forced me to perform oral sex on him” after she showed up for a meeting. She added, “I have nightmares about him to this day.” Weinstein denies any non-consensual sex.

Saturday 7 October was the first anniversary of the release of the tape in which the United States president boasted about sexually assaulting women; 11 women then came forward to accuse Donald Trump. And last week began with the biggest mass shooting in modern US history, carried out by a man reported to have routinely verbally abused his girlfriend: domestic violence is common in the past of mass shooters.

Underlying all these attacks is a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm and even take the lives of others. Though there is a good argument that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation – and most mentally ill people are nonviolent – mass shooters and rapists seem to have a lack of empathy so extreme it constitutes a psychological disorder. At this point in history, it seems to be not just a defect from birth, but a characteristic many men are instilled with by the culture around them. It seems to be the precondition for causing horrific suffering and taking pleasure in it as a sign of one’s own power and superiority, in regarding others as worthless, as yours to harm or eliminate. [Continue reading…]

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Disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men

Amanda Ripley writes: Jordan has never had a female minister of education, women make up less than a fifth of its workforce, and women hold just 4 percent of board seats at public companies there. But, in school, Jordanian girls are crushing their male peers. The nation’s girls outperform its boys in just about every subject and at every age level. At the University of Jordan, the country’s largest university, women outnumber men by a ratio of two to one—and earn higher grades in math, engineering, computer-information systems, and a range of other subjects.

In fact, across the Arab world, women now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. And yet, most of those women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use for very long.

This is baffling on the most obvious levels. In the West, researchers have long believed that future prospects incentivize students to invest in school. The conventional wisdom is that girls do better in school as women acquire more legal and political rights in society. But many Middle Eastern women do not go on to have long professional careers after graduating; they spend much of their lives working at home as wives and mothers. Fewer than one in every five workers is female in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

This spring, I went to the Middle East to try to understand why girls are doing so much better in school, despite living in quintessentially patriarchal societies. Or, put another way, why boys are doing so badly.

It’s part of a pattern that is creeping across the globe: Wherever girls have access to school, they seem to eventually do better than boys. In 2015, teenage girls outperformed boys on a sophisticated reading test in 69 countries—every place in which the test was administered. In America, girls are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests, to graduate from high school, and to go to college, and women continue their education over a year longer than men. These are all glaring disparities in a world that values higher-order skills more than ever before. Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, has studied gender and education around the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Ridge believes she can draw a dotted line between the failure of boys to thrive in school and votes for Brexit and for Donald Trump. Disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men, Ridge says, left out of the progress they see around them.

And the gender gap in the Middle East represents a particularly extreme version of this trend.

“If you give girls a quality education, they will mostly run with it and do amazing things. It propels them,” says Ridge, one of the few researchers to have written extensively about the gender gap in the Arab world. But for boys, especially low-income boys, access to school has not had the same effect. “These boys struggle to find a connection between school and life,” she says, “and school is increasingly seen as a waste of time.”

Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children. [Continue reading…]

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The future of life necessitates that we rise way beyond the nationalist viewpoint

Yuval Noah Harari writes: Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson. [Continue reading…]

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After a decade of reduction, global hunger is rising again due to conflict and climate change

Quartz reports: After a decade of progress made to cut the number of undernourished people on Earth, global hunger appears to be rising again.

The primary driver of growing hunger is the increase of conflicts around the world, many of which have been compounded by climate change, according to the 2017 State of Food Security and Nutrition report published by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on Sep. 15.

Among the 815 million undernourished people—representing more than one in 10 people alive today—more than 489 million live in parts of the world afflicted by armed conflicts. Many of these are regions that have suffered years of violence, including the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes of Africa, and the parts of the Middle East affected by the Syrian War. Countries outside these regions that have faced similar ongoing conflict include South Sudan, Yemen, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. [Continue reading…]

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There are an estimated 40 million slaves in the world. Where do they live and what do they do?

The Washington Post reports: Slavery is not a thing of the past. A report released Tuesday by the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Office (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there were 40.3 million people in some form of modern slavery around the world on any given day last year.

But by its very nature, the accuracy of that figure is hard to gauge. Slavery tends to be a hidden, illegal practice — one in which the victim’s ability to speak out is limited. The authors of the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery study admit there are gaps in the available information: Although extensive United Nations data has been used in the study, some countries and sub-national regions are missing.

“It’s difficult or even impossible to do research in areas of high conflict,” said Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation’s executive director of global research, pointing to areas such as Syria or northern Nigeria that had to be excluded from the study. Because of this, David said, the estimate of 40.3 million is probably conservative. [Continue reading…]

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The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes ‘didn’t exist’

Lindsey Bever writes: The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.

California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn’t reach for his camera.

“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.

Hofman started shooting.

“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag. “The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”

Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” [Continue reading…]

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Why do Americans know so little about the world the U.S. has shaped?

Ishaan Tharoor writes: In a recent excerpt from her new book, American journalist Suzy Hansen described her bemusement when a friend in Istanbul suggested to her that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had been somehow planned by the U.S. government.

“Come on, you don’t believe that,” said Hansen.

“Why not?” snapped back her friend, identified as Emre. “I do.”

“But it’s a conspiracy theory.”

Emre laughed and said: “Americans always dismiss these things as conspiracy theories. It’s the rest of the world who have had to deal with your conspiracies.”

This pronouncement prompted Hansen, an accomplished storyteller and reporter who has written powerfully about recent political events in Turkey, to reflect on what may underlie her friend’s animus. Her much-acclaimed new book, “Notes from a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World,” is a memoir of a young American who moves abroad and slowly grapples with how the rest of the world sees her nation — and how little her nation really sees the world.

She looks in particular at the extent to which U.S. foreign policy has shaped politics, societies and the fates of ordinary people elsewhere. In one anecdote, when Hansen asks an Iraqi man what his country “was like in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was growing up,” he replies: “I am always amazed when Americans ask me this. How is it that you know nothing about us when you had so much to do with what became of our lives?” [Continue reading…]

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This is how our world could end

Peter Brannen writes: Many of us share some dim apprehension that the world is flying out of control, that the centre cannot hold. Raging wildfires, once-in-1,000-years storms and lethal heatwaves have become fixtures of the evening news – and all this after the planet has warmed by less than 1C above preindustrial temperatures. But here’s where it gets really scary.

If humanity burns through all its fossil fuel reserves, there is the potential to warm the planet by as much as 18C and raise sea levels by hundreds of feet. This is a warming spike of an even greater magnitude than that so far measured for the end-Permian mass extinction. If the worst-case scenarios come to pass, today’s modestly menacing ocean-climate system will seem quaint. Even warming to one-fourth of that amount would create a planet that would have nothing to do with the one on which humans evolved or on which civilisation has been built. The last time it was 4C warmer there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 80 metres higher than it is today.

I met University of New Hampshire paleoclimatologist Matthew Huber at a diner near his campus in Durham, New Hampshire. Huber has spent a sizable portion of his research career studying the hothouse of the early mammals and he thinks that in the coming centuries we might be heading back to the Eocene climate of 50 million years ago, when there were Alaskan palm trees and alligators splashed in the Arctic Circle.

“The modern world will be much more of a killing field,” he said. “Habitat fragmentation today will make it much more difficult to migrate. But if we limit it below 10C of warming, at least you don’t have widespread heat death.”

In 2010, Huber and his co-author, Steven Sherwood, published one of the most ominous science papers in recent memory, An Adaptability Limit to Climate Change Due to Heat Stress.

“Lizards will be fine, birds will be fine,” Huber said, noting that life has thrived in hotter climates than even the most catastrophic projections for anthropogenic global warming. This is one reason to suspect that the collapse of civilisation might come long before we reach a proper biological mass extinction. Life has endured conditions that would be unthinkable for a highly networked global society partitioned by political borders. Of course we’re understandably concerned about the fate of civilisation and Huber says that, mass extinction or not, it’s our tenuous reliance on an ageing and inadequate infrastructure, perhaps, most ominously, on power grids, coupled with the limits of human physiology that may well bring down our world. [Continue reading…]

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We can’t thrive in a world without darkness

Rebecca Boyle writes: Sound dominated my senses as we left the village of San Pedro de Atacama and walked into the desert night. The crunch of shoes on gravel underlay our voices, which were hushed to avoid waking any households or street dogs. Our small group of astronomy writers was escaping from light and, without any flashlights or streetlamps, we struggled to see, so our other senses were heightened. Land that looked red by day was now monochromatic, the rods in our retinas serving as our only visual input.

After about 15 minutes of hiking, we stopped to take some pictures of the sky. I fumbled with my gear and tried to get my bearings, but everything was alien. I was horribly jet-lagged after 10 hours hunched against the window of a 757, another two-hour flight north from Santiago and a two-hour bus ride, and it wan’t just my oxygen-hungry brain that put me out of sorts. The Atacama Desert looked like Mars as drawn by Dr Seuss; I was surrounded by wrong-coloured cliffs and swirling rock formations. But I was determined to photograph something even more bizarre: the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy you can see only from the southern hemisphere. I perched my camera on a rock and aimed at the sky, but the cosmic smudge would not resolve in my viewfinder. I stood, brushed dirt from my jeans, and looked up.

The unfamiliar sky momentarily took away what little breath I had left at 8,000 feet in elevation. Above the horizon was the conspicuous Southern Cross. Orion was there, too, but looked as disoriented as I felt, upside down to the world. And there were so many constellations I’d never seen, with hopeful, Latinate names such as Dorado and Reticulum. Countless stars blazed into view as I stared into the smear of the Milky Way.

To most people who have travelled outside the developed world – whether to camp or to meditate or to hunt – such bright and plentiful stars are a glorious sight. But this beauty instilled in me a creeping sense of guilt. At home, 1,500 miles north, I wouldn’t recognise such spangled heavens. From where I live in the American Midwest, the stars might as well not exist. After journeying millions of years, their light is swallowed by city glare and my porch lantern. Those that make it through will still fail: not even bright Betelgeuse can outshine my iPhone. Yet I am an astronomy writer, a person who thinks about stars and planets all the time. What does my neglect of the night sky say about the rest of humanity?

‘We are all descended from astronomers,’ the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson intones in the rebooted version of the TV show Cosmos. This is as poetic as it is true. Everyone owns the night sky; it was the one natural realm all our ancestors could see and know intimately. No river, no grand mountain or canyon, not even the oceans can claim that. But since Edison’s light bulbs colonised our cities, the vast majority of humans has ceased to see those skies. More than 60 per cent of the world, and fully 99 per cent of the US and Europe, lives under a yellowy sky polluted with light. [Continue reading…]

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The real threat of artificial intelligence

Kai-Fu Lee writes: What worries you about the coming world of artificial intelligence?

Too often the answer to this question resembles the plot of a sci-fi thriller. People worry that developments in A.I. will bring about the “singularity” — that point in history when A.I. surpasses human intelligence, leading to an unimaginable revolution in human affairs. Or they wonder whether instead of our controlling artificial intelligence, it will control us, turning us, in effect, into cyborgs.

These are interesting issues to contemplate, but they are not pressing. They concern situations that may not arise for hundreds of years, if ever. At the moment, there is no known path from our best A.I. tools (like the Google computer program that recently beat the world’s best player of the game of Go) to “general” A.I. — self-aware computer programs that can engage in common-sense reasoning, attain knowledge in multiple domains, feel, express and understand emotions and so on.

This doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too. [Continue reading…]

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Plastics: The immense, eternal footprint humanity leaves on Earth

The New York Times reports: If human civilization were to be destroyed and its cities wiped off the map, there would be an easy way for future intelligent life-forms to know when the mid-20th century began: plastic.

From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. And since plastic does not naturally degrade, the billions of tons sitting in landfills, floating in the oceans or piling up on city streets will provide a marker if later civilizations ever want to classify our era. Perhaps they will call this time on Earth the Plastocene Epoch.

A new study in Science Advances published Wednesday offered the first analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured: how much has been made, what kind and what happens to the material once it has outlived its use.

Roland Geyer, the lead author of the study, said, “My mantra is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without good numbers, you don’t know if we have a real problem.” [Continue reading…]

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New study finds as many as ‘50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone’

Ed Yong writes: Imagine if every animal and plant on the planet collapsed into a single population each, says ecologist Gerardo Ceballos. If lions disappeared except from one small corner of Kenya, the prey they keep in check would run amok everywhere else. If sparrows were no more except in one Dutch forest, the seeds that sparrows disperse would stay in place everywhere else. If honeybees became isolated to one American meadow, the flowers that they pollinate would fail to reproduce everywhere else. None of those species would be extinct per se, “but we’d still be in very bad shape,” says Ceballos.

He uses this thought experiment to show that fixating on the concept of extinction can lead scientists to overestimate the state of the planet’s health. Extinction obviously matters. If a species is completely wiped out, that’s an important and irreversible loss. But that flip from present to absent, extant to extinct, is just the endpoint of a long period of loss. Before a species disappears entirely, it first disappears locally. And each of those local extinctions—or extirpations—also matters.

“If jaguars become extinct in Mexico, it doesn’t matter if there are still jaguars in Brazil for the role that jaguars play in Mexican ecosystems,” says Ceballos. “Or we might able to keep California condors alive forever, but if there are just 10 or 12 individuals, they won’t be able to survive without human intervention. We’re missing the point when we focus just on species extinction.”

He and his colleagues, Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, have now tried to quantify those local losses. First, they analyzed data for some 27,600 species of land-based vertebrates, and found that a third of these are in decline. That doesn’t mean they are endangered: A third of these declining species are listed as “low concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning that they aren’t in immediate peril. But that, according to Ceballos’s team, provides a false sense of security. Barn swallows, for example, still number in the millions, but those numbers are going down, and the birds are disappearing from many parts of their range. “Even these common species are declining,” says Ceballos. “Eventually, they’ll become endangered, and eventually they’ll be extinct.”

The team also analyzed detailed historical data for 177 species of mammals. In the last century, every one of these species has lost at least 30 percent of its historical range, and almost half have lost more than 80 percent. Consider the lion. If you divide the world’s land into a grid of 22,000 sectors, each containing 10,000 square kilometers, around 2,000 of those would have been home to lions at the start of the 20th century. Now, just 600 of them are. These royal beasts, which once roamed all over Africa and all the way from southern Europe to northern India, are now confined to pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, and a single Indian forest. Their numbers have fallen by 43 percent in the last two decades.

Several other species that were once thought to be safe are also now endangered. Since the 1980s, the giraffe population has fallen by up to 40 percent, from at least 152,000 animals to just 98,000 in 2015. In the last decade, savanna elephant numbers have fallen by 30 percent, and 80 percent of forest elephants were slaughtered in a national park that was one of their last strongholds. Cheetahs are down to their last 7,000 individuals, and orangutans to their last 5,000.

All told, “as much as 50 percent of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations,” Ceballos and his colleagues write. “While the biosphere is undergoing mass species extinction, it is also being ravaged by a much more serious and rapid wave of population declines and extinctions.” [Continue reading…]

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Good news, despite what you’ve heard

Nicholas Kristof writes: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations and improved nutrition and medical care. They’re no longer dying of malaria, diarrhea or unpleasant causes like having one’s intestines blocked by wriggling worms. (This is a good news column, but I didn’t say it wouldn’t be a bit gross.)

“There are deworming campaigns now, so it’s much rarer that we go into surgery for obstruction and see a big mass of worms,” explained Agatha Neufville, the nursing director at the Ganta United Methodist Hospital.

Nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty has been staying the same or worsening. So let’s correct the record.

There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.

Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.

Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s. [Continue reading…]

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The common acts of kindness that mark our species

George Monbiot writes: It is a blow to the heart: an atrocity whose purpose was to kill and maim as many children and teenagers as possible. No parent, hearing the voices of those still seeking news of their children, could fail to imagine the frantic play of hope and despair, the terrible wrenching of attachment. The person or people who did this meant to hit where it hurts most, and they succeeded.

The purpose of terrorism, whether perpetrated by lone attackers, organisations or states, is not only to change political outcomes: it is to demoralise the people at whom it is aimed, to erode and degrade their humanity. Attacking a concert crammed with happy young people, detonating a bomb apparently stuffed with nails and bolts, is the clearest possible statement of such intent.

It also allows us to see how we should respond. The terrorists want to drive us apart, to sow suspicion and fear, to oblige us to replace liberty with security and answer them with bombs and bullets of our own. For a terrorist organisation any of this, if implemented, would mean mission accomplished. So we should do the opposite. We defy them by proving that this is not what we are. And the proof is everywhere.

Human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal that we scarcely seem to notice them. We hardly see the daily acts of kindness that mark our species: people helping strangers to lift their suitcases on to a train, carrying pushchairs up flights of stairs, giving way to each other in traffic and on the pavement, listening to friends, volunteering for charities, giving their money to causes from which they cannot possibly benefit.

We might stop to notice the remarkable people who foster children or who take refugees from halfway round the world into their homes, and treat them as members of their families. But we see their tendencies as exceptional, rather than as unalloyed examples of the way that humans are naturally inclined to behave.

Because our minds are attuned to danger and difference, events like the attack on a concert in Manchester dominate perceptions of our species. We look back on the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015 and, remembering the perpetrators, tell ourselves that there is something evil lodged in the human mind. Less salient in our memories are the 3.7 million people in France who took to the streets to march in solidarity with the victims, and the millions who did the same elsewhere in the world. These people, not the few terrorists, represent the human norm.

This norm – cooperating with unrelated members of our own species – is, as a review article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology notes, “spectacularly unusual when compared [with] other animals.” It is a norm that is also innate. [Continue reading…]

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Manchester spirit: Tony Walsh recites ‘This Is The Place’ at a vigil for the bombing victims

HuffPost: Poet Tony Walsh became an instant symbol of Manchester’s defiance in the face of terror after reading his powerful ode to the city at a vigil to victims of the Manchester bombing.

Addressing thousands gathered at Manchester’s central Albert Square, the poet – known as ‘Longfella’ – gave a recital of his poem This Is The Place that paid tribute to the city’s rich history as an industrial and musical powerhouse. [Continue reading…]

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Human noise is making it harder for birds and animals to hear each other

Science News reports: Even in the wilderness, humans are making a ruckus.

In 63 percent of America’s protected places — including parks, monuments and designated wilderness areas — sounds made by human activity are doubling the volume of background noise. And in 21 percent of protected places, this racket can make things 10 times noisier.

Enough clatter from cars, planes and suburban sprawl is seeping into wild places to diminish animals’ ability to hear mating calls and approaching predators, a team of researchers based in Colorado reports in the May 5 Science. Human noise doesn’t always have to be loud to override natural sounds, though. Some places are so quiet to begin with that even the smallest amount of human noise can dominate, the researchers found.

“The world is changing, and protected areas are getting louder — the last strongholds of diversity,” says Jesse Barber, an ecologist at Boise State University in Idaho. Studies like this one that show the impact of human-related noise across the entire country instead of in a single park are important, he says, because “this is the scale at which conservation occurs.” [Continue reading…]

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Technology doesn’t make us better people

Nicholas Carr writes: Welcome to the global village. It’s a nasty place.

On Easter Sunday, a man in Cleveland filmed himself murdering a random 74-year-old and posted the video on Facebook. The social network took the grisly clip down within two or three hours, but not before users shared it on other websites — where people around the world can still view it.

Surely incidents like this aren’t what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind. In 2012, as his company was preparing to go public, the Facebook founder wrote an earnest letter to would-be shareholders explaining that his company was more than just a business. It was pursuing a “social mission” to make the world a better place by encouraging self-expression and conversation. “People sharing more,” the young entrepreneur wrote, “creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg penned another public letter, expressing even grander ambitions. Facebook, he announced, is expanding its mission from “connecting friends and family” to building “a global community that works for everyone.” The ultimate goal is to turn the already vast social network into a sort of supranational state “spanning cultures, nations and regions.”

But the murder in Cleveland, and any similar incidents that inevitably follow, reveal the hollowness of Silicon Valley’s promise that digital networks would bring us together in a more harmonious world.

Whether he knows it or not, Zuckerberg is part of a long tradition in Western thought. Ever since the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century, people have believed that advances in communication technology would promote social harmony. The more we learned about each other, the more we would recognize that we’re all one. In an 1899 article celebrating the laying of transatlantic Western Union cables, a New York Times columnist expressed the popular assumption well: “Nothing so fosters and promotes a mutual understanding and a community of sentiment and interests as cheap, speedy, and convenient communication.”

The great networks of the 20th century — radio, telephone, TV — reinforced this sunny notion. Spanning borders and erasing distances, they shrank the planet. Guglielmo Marconi declared in 1912 that his invention of radio would “make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” AT&T’s top engineer, J.J. Carty, predicted in a 1923 interview that the telephone system would “join all the peoples of the earth in one brotherhood.” In his 1962 book “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” the media theorist Marshall McLuhan gave us the memorable term “global village” to describe the world’s “new electronic interdependence.” Most people took the phrase optimistically, as a prophecy of inevitable social progress. What, after all, could be nicer than a village?

If our assumption that communication brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone — a billion and a half more, the United Nations reports, than have access to a working toilet. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised. [Continue reading…]

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Drought and war heighten threat of not just one famine, but four

The New York Times reports: First the trees dried up and cracked apart.

Then the goats keeled over.

Then the water in the village well began to disappear, turning cloudy, then red, then slime-green, but the villagers kept drinking it. That was all they had.

Now on a hot, flat, stony plateau outside Baidoa, thousands of people pack into destitute camps, many clutching their stomachs, some defecating in the open, others already dead from a cholera epidemic.

“Even if you can get food, there is no water,” said one mother, Sangabo Moalin, who held her head with a left hand as thin as a leaf and spoke of her body “burning.”

Another famine is about to tighten its grip on Somalia. And it’s not the only crisis that aid agencies are scrambling to address. For the first time since anyone can remember, there is a very real possibility of four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives.

International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. And they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One powerful lesson from the last famine in Somalia, just six years ago, was that famines were not simply about food. They are about something even more elemental: water.

Once again, a lack of clean water and proper hygiene is setting off an outbreak of killer diseases in displaced persons camps. So the race is on to dig more latrines, get swimming-pool quantities of clean water into the camps, and pass out more soap, more water-treatment tablets and more plastic buckets — decidedly low-tech supplies that could save many lives.

“We underestimated the role of water and its contribution to mortality in the last famine,” said Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist for Unicef. “It gets overshadowed by the food.”

The famines are coming as a drought sweeps across Africa and several different wars seal off extremely needy areas. United Nations officials say they need a huge infusion of cash to respond. So far, they are not just millions of dollars short, but billions.

At the same time, President Trump is urging Congress to cut foreign aid and assistance to the United Nations, which aid officials fear could multiply the deaths. The United States traditionally provides more disaster relief than anyone else.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, a large private aid group.

Aid officials say all the needed food and water exist on this planet in abundance — even within these hard-hit countries. But armed conflict that is often created by personal rivalries between a few men turns life upside down for millions, destroying markets and making the price of necessities go berserk. [Continue reading…]

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