Going….going……… gone?

 

You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”.  In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects.   And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne.  In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time.  When was the last time that happened?

 

Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle.  It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.

 

The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of  individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.

 

The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring.  Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons,  eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy.  Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes.  And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).

 

But insects?  Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets).  Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.  

 

If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg –  if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom.  What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?

 

Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question:  loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above.  Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”  

 

Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.”  “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.”  “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”

 

Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next?  By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.

 

If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them.  In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.

 

One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate.   This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.  

 

Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial.  Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome.  But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?

 

First don’t hunt for a silver bullet.  We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start.  Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that  it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.

 

Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle.   When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players.,  Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response.  And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.

 

Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked.  “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance.  Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.

 

             *If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?

 

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Mogielnicki’s minnow ?

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Recently I received an appeal from the development office of one of the institutions of learning I’d attended. For $10,000 I could have a lecture hall seat named for me or someone I chose. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Think of all those dormitories, libraries, laboratories and sports stadia bearing the names of generous donors. In fact a large enough amount can even buy the name of a whole school. The UCLA Medical School became the David Geffen School of Medicine for a gift of $200,000,000 and Cornell Medical School became the Weil Cornell Medical College for the same amount. There are lots of other examples according to a recent NYTimes article by Danielle Ofri who ruminates that since medical students often say they learn most from their patients perhaps the schools and their various parts should be named for patients. An interesting idea. My mind peregrinated.

The present state of  biodiversity appears to be on the cusp of a sixth extinction – the rate of loss of existing species exceeding by orders of magnitude that of new species formation. According to those who study these things, anything approaching this scale of downsizing of life forms has occurred only five previous times in Earth’s history. Each of those episodes has apparently been triggered by a cataclysmic physical event –  a massive meteor strike, widespread volcanic eruptions, a comet collision – that sort of thing. This time the cause appears to be the unintended consequences of the doings of a clever hairless ape making life easier for itself.  So it appears that the burden is on him and her to find a way to turn things around. The problem is that almost any way one can imagine takes lots of money and lots of effort. Generating either will be a challenge but we have looked to the sages of academic institutions for guidance in the past.  Maybe now we should take a cue from their fund raising methods. (Perhaps you can you see where this is going…..)

There are already plenty of eponymous species’ common names and most of them commemorate a long dead 19th century naturalist who was the first to collect a skin and show it around among the naturalist establishment of the time. Think Swainson’s hawk, Dall’s sheep, Wilson’s plover and Thomson’s gazelle. A few names honor even less meritorious individuals. The common Anna’s hummingbird of the West Coast was named by its naturalist discoverer after the wife of an amateur ornithologist friend. (Could there be an interesting back story here?) And the name of the Minke whale seems to have originated as a jibe at a Norwegian whaler who mistook Minkes for the much larger blues. (Is it to honor this confusion that Norway continues to allow the killing of both Minke and blue whales?)

So here is a modest proposal. Change the common names of selected species – particularly endangered or threatened ones – to honor the individuals who have contributed in a major way for their welfare. How about the Carlson’s osprey and the Leopold’s cougar – the former to honor the ground-breaking work of Rachel Carlson showing the devastation DDT causes to bird reproduction and the latter that of Aldo Leopold for defining the critical role of predators in maintaining ecosystem stability. There are other obvious candidates: the Fossey gorilla, the Goodall chimpanzee, the Nielsen orangutan. And there are many less celebrated but equally accomplished individuals: let’s have the Rabinowitz jaguar for Alan Rabinowitz, founder and CEO of Panthera and let’s give Paul Watson due credit for founding Sea Shepherds and co-founding Greenpeace by bumping the bumbling whaler Minke and having instead the Watson’s whale.

Of course, there are many others who have spoken eloquently and effectively about the challenges of conservation and there are plenty of species to go around, but financial support is critical and here is where the conservation community may put the lessons learned from colleges, universities and prep schools to work. Let’s start renaming species to honor individuals who have contribute major financial support to their continued existence! It is, after all, economic forces which are pushing so many species to the brink. And in economic battles, money talks.  For a billion dollars (1/75th of his present worth) we could have the Gate’s tiger. That amount would go a long way towards rescuing the magnificent creature we now know as the Siberian tiger from extinction. For another billion (1/60th of his present net worth) we could have the Buffet leopard prowling the snows of the Himalayas. And for another billion, the grizzly could be renamed the Bezos bear.

To the uninitiated, this all may sound far-fetched and totally unachievable with overwhelming bureaucratic, cultural and behavioral obstacles. But there already is an ongoing process with plenty of examples of successful name changes accomplished by those stereotypically mild-mannered folks, the birdwatchers. Over the past decade the American Ornithological Union has changed the names of multiple species and gotten the changes into common usage. The once-upon-a-time slate colored junco was lumped with the Oregon Junco to become the dark eyed junco. What was once the whistling swan is now the tundra swan. What was once the rufous sided towhee has been split into the Eastern towhee and the spotted towhee. And a couple of birds have even gone from descriptive names to eponymous ones: the fork-tailed emerald is now Canavet’s emerald and the Arizona woodpecker is now Strickland’s woodpecker!

But the naming honor need not be restricted to conservation celebrities and the ultra wealthy. Less enormous contributions could be honored in smaller ways. For coming up with this fundraising idea the Devil’s River minnow could be named after…… me! There are plenty of other obscure endangered species whose nomenclature would be candidates for eponymization to honor modest contributions. And, returning to the institutions of higher learning that inspired this idea, if individual seats in a lecture hall can be had for smaller but significant contributions, one can even imagine the same happening for parts of iconic endangered animals. How about the left canine of the Bezos bear being the (your name here) tooth. Or that lovely fuzzy tail of the Buffet leopard being the (your name here) tail. Given the number of human anatomical eponyms ranging from the Adam’s apple to the zonules of Zinn the possibilities are endless!

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Jaguars vs. Tigers

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A stunning jaguar often prowls across the top of my computer screen when I call up my NYTimes e-subscription.  It is elegance epitomized and one can only imagine how many sales of diamond necklaces it has helped close.  Clearly, the jaguar is to Cartier what Tiger Woods is to Nike (yes, he’s still on their payroll.) And Nike is not alone.  If one can believe the websites, it is commonplace for a corporation to spend tens of millions of dollars to use the image of a celebrity like Woods to promote their product.  Which invites the question, how much does Cartier pay the jaguar?

 

Of course, they probably pay the jaguar owner and trainer, but what do they do to keep jaguars roaming the planet? Or should they do anything?

 

Let’s take on the second question first.  Is there either a pragmatic or philosophical case to be made for Cartier to contribute to jaguar conservation?  From a pragmatic standpoint, I’m not sure. On the one hand, were the jaguar to become extinct, it would be a bit awkward for Cartier.  Suppose some company had used images of the passenger pigeon to promote their product. Wouldn’t they have come in for a bit of ridicule if they had done nothing as the numbers of those birds dwindled and then went to zero?

 

Fifty years ago estimates put the world population of jaguars around 400,000.  Today, the Feline Conservation Foundation puts that number at 10,000. Other estimates get up towards 20,000, and there is general agreement among biologists that the decline continues.  But it is no doubt quite in line with the image Cartier’s ad folks want to convey for the jaguar to remain painfully rare – just like their diamonds and emeralds. So from Cartier’s perspective it is something of a tossup.  Since the jaguar is not yet on the brink of extinction, we  don’t really need to support its conservation.  After all, we don’t want them to become commonplace – like squirrels or chipmunks.  So much for a pragmatic argument.

 

But isn’t there a philosophical case?   Isn’t there an ethical obligation for a company which is profiting from using – dare I say exploiting – a wild animal whose habitat is being nibbled away by palm oil plantations and whose numbers are being reduced by hunters and trappers on the payroll of cattle ranchers to step forward and help tip the balance a bit in the jaguar’s direction?  If Tiger Woods gets tens of millions of dollars to be shown wearing Nike footwear isn’t it fair to expect Cartier to do something for the jaguars that wear their diamond studded collars?

 

Well, there’s a pretty strong headwind against the fairness argument when talking about the treatment of animals as opposed to that of people.  We don’t think twice about stepping on ants on the sidewalk but we certainly tread carefully when little children are underfoot.  And what about the cattle in feedlots and what comes after all that corn?  I won’t even go there.

 

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Cartier really should contribute and contribute significantly to jaguar conservation, and if I can’t make a strong case that they owe it to the jaguars at least I think they owe it to…… me  –  and to the rest of us for whom the continued existence of this iconic animal in big tracts of wilderness is important, and to those for whom the idea that they might actually spot one in the wild some day holds great value.  And what about those indigenous peoples who have considered the jaguar a living deity for centuries – some of whom are probably working for trivial wages in the mines from which Cartier gets its gems?  Isn’t it right that a bit of the money cycling around between Cartier stock owners and the folks buying the diamond necklaces (many of whom are no doubt one and the same) be diverted to support the animal responsible in part for maintaining the speed of that cycle?  After all, if the value of those necklaces is enhanced by this iconic animal shouldn’t some of that added value cycle back to support the continued existence of that icon?  Don’t iconic animals add richness to the world and to the qualities and ideas for which they stand and doesn’t that create an obligation on those who use those animals for economic gain?

 

And if that ethical argument is not watertight perhaps we need a new ethics.  One in which, a priori, value gained by using  – either physically or in imagery – an object of nature would engender an obligation to contribute to the ongoing worldwide welfare of that natural object.  So, Cartier would contribute to the conservation of jaguars, Weyerhaeuser would contribute to the preservation of virgin forests, commercial fishermen would donate some of their earnings to ocean conservation.  The world would certainly be a better place.  Isn’t that the goal of ethical principles after all?  So, even if we have to invent some new ethical principles, I hope I’ve made the case that Cartier should contribute to jaguar conservation.

 

Of course the Cartier jaguar would not be the only species to benefit were this principle to be widely adopted. There’s Gorilla Glue, Jaguar Automobiles, the MGM Lion, the Chevy Impala, the Dodge Ram, the Mercury Cougar, Wolverine Boots, Eagle Claw Fish Hooks.  And then there are those professional sports teams – the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Carolina Panthers. The list goes on and on.  Each of those businesses must  profit, to some degree, from the use of those creatures in their marketing.  Isn’t it reasonable to expect each one to step up to the plate?

 

Well, perhaps they do, but a search of the web sites of several organizations  involved in jaguar conservation – The Jaguar Conservation Fund, Panthera, Defenders of Wildlife, The World Wildlife Fund, Feline Conservation Federation and the Born Free Foundation – yielded no evidence of a Cartier contribution.  The Cartier website, while loaded with jaguar images and multiple jewel-encrusted renditions of jaguars, made no mention of any contributions or activities in the conservation domain.

 

I’ll admit right up front that my search has not been exhaustive.  But just as we all know that Nike isn’t getting those images of Tiger Woods for free, you’d think that it would be common knowledge that whenever the image of some iconic species was used to promote a product or a service, that species would be compensated.  And since that, at the present time, does not seem to be common knowledge, my cynical nature tells me that it is probably not commonplace – even though it should be.


So if any of you gentle readers happen to play golf with the CEO of an outfit that makes use of one of these species, please plant the seed.  If they would just pass the word on to their VP for marketing maybe all those conservation organizations which keep sending me pleas for a tiny contribution wouldn’t need to do so quite as often.