From Michael McCarthy in The Independent today
I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come.
Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn’t happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.
I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.
Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.
It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).
This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed’s greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.
What it doesn’t do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.
You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.
There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man’s limits.
The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn’t (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).
In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what’s Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.
Except that it isn’t. What’s Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth’s problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.
We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).
It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.
Check out my Bats Myth-buster for kids http://environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com/jargon-busterfor-kids/
America’s bats are dying in record numbers because of a deadly fungus that thrives where they sleep. Now there are signs that it could happen here
Full of dark hollows and snug crevices, caves provide the ideal habitat for bats. But with their low temperatures and humid conditions, there’s something else they’re perfect for, too: breeding the fungus Geomyces destructans.
Since 2006, some one million bats across six different species have been killed in North America – all as a direct result of white nose syndrome (WNS), a disease brought on by exposure to Geomyces destructans. The fungus, which infects and invades the living skin of hibernating bats, turning their snouts a frosty white, is thought to be transmitted from one cave to the next by people moving between them. In some bat colonies, exposure to the fungus has produced a mortality rate in excess of 95 per cent. It is, says Alan Hicks of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, “the gravest threat to bats… ever seen”.
And it’s not just limited to the United States. In Canada, several fungus-hosting caves have been identified. Affected species include the already-endangered Indiana and grey bats, as well as the little brown bat and the cave bat. In Europe, meanwhile, five different species have been infected – though the mortality rate remains far below that in North America. How long it will stay that way is unclear.
The problem is that, aside from the disease’s gravity, scientists know very little about it. It’s not yet apparent, for instance, whether Geomyces destructans is the only cause of illness, or whether other pathogens are involved. Nor are we certain of the various ways in which the disease spreads; as well as the role of humans in spreading fungus, scientists have pointed to the typically quite-high levels of bat-to-bat interaction. In autumn, the mating season brings together large numbers of males and females, while hibernation sees bats resting in large, tightly packed groups. Indeed, as things stand, scientists are still not even confident of how and why white nose syndrome kills the affected animals. One theory is that infection interrupts bats’ hibernation, forcing them to use up precious energy reserves.
Whatever the answer, more work is needed if the world’s bats are to be saved. In a recent review published in Conservation Biology, a team of scientists led by the University of California, Davis’s Janet Foley argued for the creation of a “road map” to tackle the problem. “In the three years since its discovery, WNS has changed the focus of bat conservation in North America,” they wrote. “A national response is required.”
The news (The Independent) that primates – spiders monkeys, tamarins, and lemurs amongst others – are threatened with extinction as a result of hunting for bushmeat and habitat destruction, has me chilled and angry! If we cannot have respect for our closest members of the animal kingdom - one yardstick of our attitude about other species with which we share this planet, I would argue – what hope is there for other, smaller life forms? If we allow this to continue, we the savages for doing so!
As a Zookeeper for a short period in native New Zealand (I moved onto Education after this), I was priviledged to work on the Primate Section with a number of animals including a group of gregarious Spider Monkeys, a very cute Golden-Lion Tamarin, a couple of lively, regular-calling Lemurs, and a large troop of chimpanzees, amongst others.
The spider monkeys’ enclosure was difficult to keep clean but I loved there quircky characteristics. The chimps – a species made famous by Jane Goodall - were hard to figure out and could be very sweet with each other or also get angry! They had very strong bonds and I was not surprised to find out that they are 98% genetically simlar to humans; our closest living realtive, animal-wise. My favourite was the Golden Lion Tamarin, a tiny (in comparision to the others) animal, with considerable positive ‘spunk’ – you could imagine I having lots of attitiude to help to survive, despite all the odds.
The latest survey by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) shows these kinds of species are amongst those critically threatened.
Yes, animals that provide bushmeat are an easy target; yes, the countries this happens in, are very often very poor. But, also, yes, there are always alternatives – ecotourism, foreign assitance to help develop local agriculture.
Where there is demand by humans, the hunting of these animals and the destruction of their habitat will continue. Just as in Copenhangen, the governments will need to work together to find altenative – viable – solutions, to what are not intractiable problems. In this International Year of Biodiversity, we owe it to the peoples of these countries, to the species, and ultimately, to ourselves!
On the brink of extinction – 25 of our closest relatives
Governments around the world need to take drastic action to save the most endangered primate species, a new report is demanding
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Today a group of the world’s leading zoologists reveals the 25 most endangered members of the primates – the biological order which contains monkeys, tarsiers, lemurs, gibbons and the great apes, including, of course, humans.
We may be doing fine, at least in terms of numbers: at 7pm last night, the human population of the world had reached 6,803,362,494. It hit 6 billion in 1999 and will hit 7 billion possibly as soon as next year. But our primate cousins are in a very different position.
There are just over 630 species in total, and incredible as it may seem, more than 300 are now threatened with extinction, from developments such as the destruction of tropical forests, the illegal wildlife trade and commercial hunting for bushmeat. This morning, the dangers facing the “top 25″, the species really living on the edge, will be highlighted at a conference in Bristol Zoo.
The list includes five primate species from Madagascar, six from Africa, 11 from Asia, and three from Central and South America, all of which are now in need of urgent help to survive.
Conservationists want to highlight the plight of species such as the golden headed langur, which is found only on the island of Cat Ba in the Gulf of Tonkin, north-eastern Vietnam, where just 60 to 70 individuals remain.
Similarly, there are thought to be fewer than 100 individual northern sportive lemurs left in Madagascar, and about just 110 eastern black crested gibbons in north-eastern Vietnam.
“The purpose of our Top 25 list is to highlight those that are most at risk, to attract the attention of the public, to stimulate national governments to do more, and especially to find the resources to implement desperately needed conservation measures,” said Dr Russell Mittermeier, chairman of the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“In particular, we want to encourage governments to commit to desperately needed biodiversity conservation measures. We have the resources to address this crisis, but so far, we have failed to act. The results from the most recent IUCN assessment of the world’s mammals indicate that the primates are among the most endangered vertebrate groups.” The report gives a fascinating insight into some of the animals which, although they may share a distant common ancestor with us, are hardly known by most of us at all.
Madagascar is home, for example, to the stunning silky sifaka, a wonderful white lemur which is now one of the rarest mammals on earth, whose numbers may be down to no more than 100 because of forest destruction from slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging and firewood collection.
Africa holds creatures as remarkable as the rondo dwarf galago, with a tiny frame, huge ears and huge eyes, and the roloway guenon, a strikingly attractive dark-and-white treetop monkey with yellow thighs and a white beard – both shrinking drastically in numbers.
Asia’s vanishing primates include such creatures as the pig-tailed snub-nosed langur – if you can’t remember that, it’s also usefully called the simakobu monkey – which is down to perhaps 3,300 individuals on its Indonesian islands, and also, sad to relate, an animal which is very familiar to us, the Sumatran orang-utan.
On Sumatra the “old man of the woods” has had a very rapid recent decline because of deforestation and its population is now thought to be below 7,000.
Three of the primates on the top 25 come from Central and South America and include the cotton top tamarin, found only in Colombia, with a fantastic white head of hair, and critically endangered.
However, despite the gloomy assessment, conservationists point to the success in helping targeted species recover. In Brazil, the black lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus) was downlisted to Endangered from Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as was the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) in 2003, as a result of three decades of conservation efforts involving numerous institutions, many of which were zoos.
Populations of both animals are now well-protected but remain very small, indicating an urgent need for reforestation to provide new habitat for their long-term survival.
* Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates, 2008-2010 has been compiled by the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the International Primatological Society (IPS), in collaboration with Conservation International (CI).
The editorial of Church of England newspaper
‘It is savage irony that Haiti was the richest agrarian economy for her Spanish and French slave masters, producing immense wealth from its sugar plantations as well as goldmines. Haiti is indeed a stain on the conscience of the West.’
Haiti’s earthquake have put the country into the headlines, of course for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. But it has raised many questions and issues that needed to be asked; more than the answers, our discussions, deliberations and ethical responses are what are important.
Haiti seems to be one of those countries, like many other Carribean and Pacific islands, refereed in case studies of primary or high school geography. Though I am a geographer, I knew near-t0-nothing about Haiti. Before, of course, the earthquake made it front page news. Are we, using this tragedy, to understand from the past and learn to better assist in helping the Haitians themsleves shape their own future.
A quick check regarding background:
‘The French colony, based on forestry and sugar-related industries, became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean, but only through the heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation.’ http://geography.about.com/library/cia/blchaiti.htm
So what now? What should be done?
* The world, esp the US and the West needs to assist Haiti – with aid food, water, medicines now; with medium and long term support of the economic and political structures.
* Tourism is vital for the island - see Simon Calder’s aricle below.
* The west needs to work with the future Haiti government, to help it to realise its own, very real potential.
Simon Calder In The Independent this week
Guilt makes awkward baggage for the holidaymaker. From self-reproach about the impact on the planet of a flight to the sunshine, to the twinge of remorse about supporting human rights abuses by visiting China, many of us would prefer to leave our consciences at home. But in a part of the world that has fallen victim to a humanitarian disaster, should the very notion of tourism be abhorrent? One in five respondents to an online poll conducted yesterday by CruiseCritic appears to think so. They described the return to Haiti’s Labadee Beach of cruise ships as “in poor taste”.
Now, from an ethical perspective you can criticise cruise lines for reducing tourism to a caricature. A vessel the size of a housing estate drifts around the Caribbean, her kitchens serving up absurd quantities of food in a region where many go hungry. She destabilises communities by delivering thousands of visitors at the start of the day then scooping them up before dark, before embarking on the next futile arc in the never-ending circle of indulgence.
Avatar is about our battle for earthly resources reflected in how we view the natural world, its cultures and ourselves. As a film experience, it uses latest special effects to show a adventure ‘about’, ‘in’ and ‘for’ the environment; however it does so much more than this, in the way it very intelligently develops a series of themes on a number of levels.
A US Marine, Jake Sully, is tasked with finding out about what seems at first an alien environment, getting to know its inhabitants, and thereby enable his military bosses to discover how to conquer it for the precious mineral and so rescue Planet Earth from an energy crisis.
With the help of his new companion Neytiri, a girl of the Na’vi people, he struggles, but eventually succeeds, in learning about the natural world around, how he can not only tolerate it, but work and play within it, and gain to respect it. Animals and plants that at first are appear hostile, are shown to be defensive, just as he was first. Through gaining and consolidating his skills and knowledge, Jake learns how to source the basics – food, water and warm – by a growing understanding of the rhythms of nature. There are strong resonances here with regards to children’s desire to ‘be outdoors’ and the bush experiences encouraged as part of outdoor education, so often lacking in what has become known as ‘nature deficit disorder’ in many highly urbanized young people.
This ‘fish out of water’ feeling is highlighted when he comes across animals and plants that glow at night, when disbelief and uncertainty are replaced by wonder and ‘being’ in the moment. Disbelief makes way for ‘taking charge’ when Jake must choose his own animal to ride. Here the animal might kill if he shows fear, but accepts his rider when they none. An animal in the natural state can ‘smell’ fear and reacts negatively to it; a false move – running – might mean death for the person, as a mistake!
These experiences give way to a fresh awareness of the fragility and sacredness of all life, so values now come to the fore. When killing an animal, Jake is seen to make peace with its spirit – acknowledging a new concept that he had likely not considered before he came to Pandora.
With all this new-found awareness, of the natural world, all of its many aspects and the tribe’s connectedness to it – Jake realizes that the very people who brought him to Pandora, and their technology, seek only to take what they want and move on with it.
This same technology, which provided the ‘way in’ to this other world by way of the Avatar Programme, now threatens its very existence. The invasion of men and machines – for the minerals and resulting wealth, and against the indigenous peoples and their sacred lands – is no less a metaphor than a historical truth. Whether it is the American Indians versus the US Government, or the prospectors going into the Amazon Basin – or indeed, some would argue, the Iraq War – this game of White invader going after local people for their natural resources, is a pattern all too familiar. However, familiarity does not breed contempt as some have argued, since history keeps on repeating, yet we are not listening!
Despite reaping deep and massive destruction to the landscape and ecology – if not unlike a nuclear, than certainly similar to the Amazon burning! – an invasion is ostensibly halted with Nature’s help.
Avatar holds a candle to our entire approach to the natural world, drawing in historical presumptions that block our potential understanding of the future us and our relationship with the planet, and through this, everyone who calls it home. Only those with the true and growing understanding of Nature and our range of responses, can we see our way forward to a life lived in harmony on our planet.
If the world of Pandora is so easily likened to our burning habitats, invading countries and displacing indigenous peoples now, Avatar – for its make-believe take – is uncomfortably more real than we would like!