Monday, September 7, 2020

Cost of Harming Nature

 As I have mentioned numerous times, I read the National Geographic, cover to cover, every month.  (Two of my secret wishes include Nat Geo.  First, to somehow have an article published in an edition, and even more unlikely, to convince Donald Trump to regularly read this wonderful magazine).

I just started the September edition, but felt compelled to comment on a short article called The Cost of Harming Nature. Written by Enric Sala, it is an excerpt from his book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild.  Sala is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and is known for his work as an ecologist and oceanographer.

In this article, Sala talks about the importance of valuing all life, but takes us to the oceans, rather than on land where we see and hear so much more about biodiversity and the ongoing mass extinction of life among animal, insect, bird, and other forms of life.

Before going further, I would like to share part of a quote from Sala, that precedes the article.

"COVID-19 is yet another reminder that conservation is not just a luxury for rich countries or a romantic ideal.  Our very survival depends on our being better members of the biosphere, our larger community".

Can you imagine how quickly and efficiently our species would be able to address climate change if our leaders believed that winning elections depended on how they demonstrated agreement with this premise, how more environmentally sound the decisions of the business leaders of the world would be if they believed their children and grandchildren's lives were incumbent on acting in conjunction with that belief, and how enhanced the lives of all people on the planet would be if in following the meaning of that quote, we were able to focus our global resources on guaranteeing our limited fresh water is clean and more readily available, our air free of pollutants, and our land (and the food it produces) was returned to a state without chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics?

So, the main point of the article concerned how the presence of humans in the various Line Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, corresponded to a change in the animal biomass, both numbers and diversity.  In his research, with all variables, such as oceanographic and climate conditions, flora and fauna, equal, Sala found that as the population of humans increased, the health of the coral reefs decreased.  In short, "when people, even just a few hundred, start fishing, they trim the food web from the top.  And as their number increases from none to just a few thousand, the coral reef shifts from one with lots of sharks and corals to one without sharks but with lots of small fish and seaweed".

This, in itself, was no big surprise.  And, while disappointing, it doesn't mean that we can't reap the bounty of nature to feed ourselves if we do it responsibly, and with an eye towards sustainability.  

What also was no surprise was that as the presence of humans increased, there was more bacteria in the waters, up to 10 times the amount thnt in waters without human interactions, and that the bacteria included a much higher concentration of pathogens.  Especially worrisome to Sala and his team was the presence of Vibrio, a bacteria that causes diseases in corals, and humans.  Diseases such as cholera, gastroenteritis, wound infections and septicemia. 

I know, all bad news so far.  Where is the happy ending?

In April and May of 2009, while conducting research in 5 islands in the Line Island chain south of the equator, Sala found the same clean, clear water, extremely high fish biomass, no humans.  But they also found an abundance of giant clams, something they saw in their earlier expeditions, but did not take particular note of.  

As it turns out, giant clams are expert water filters.  In the process of taking microbes for food from the water they intake, the resulting outtake contains far less microbes, dangerous or otherwise.  To test this hypothesis, members of the expedition led by viral ecologist Forest Rowher, placed water from the lagoon in an aquarium, water from the lagoon with empty clam shells in another, and water with live, giant clams in a third.  And, you guessed it, the water with the giant clams was cleansed of most of its bacteria and viruses, while the other two aquariums became turbid and loaded with bacteria.

Additionally, Rowher added Vibrio to the water with the giant clams, and, while the Vibrio put in the control aquariums thrived, it was significantly reduced in the water with the clams.

Happiness abounds!

Except that giant clams are on the decline all over the Pacific for their meat and shells.  The very animal which helps maintain the health of the ocean, is slowly disappearing through improper harvesting methods by the alleged, smartest animal on the planet.

So often, we use the excuse that we need to develop (a fancy word for destroy nature) this forest or that farm, or the field just sitting there, empty.  That the extinction of an inconsequential bird, or mammal, or insect, is not important in the big picture when we are talking about feeding or sheltering people.  And, perhaps, that might be the case in certain circumstances when dire outcomes may be imminent.  But it should not be the norm, it must be the exception, pursued only when there is truly no other alternative, and not just because it is more convenient, and certainly not to feed the greed of those who only gauge the natural world by how much money they can make from it.

That next tiny animal, the last of its species, could very well be the "virus filter" that prevents the next pandemic, except we won't know it because it will have never prevented it.  If I were to tell you that an animal, or fish, or some other "insignificant" life form was a natural predator for COVID-19, but, alas, was not there for us when we needed it, would that encourage you to support biodiversity?  Or alarm you to think about all the other insignificant life forms we have helped make extinct, and wonder how many dangers in nature they may have contained, but won't contain in the future? 

Sala ends his article with an idea which I have also promoted.  "Even if it's just for selfish reasons -- for our own survival -- now more than ever, we need the wild.  A healthy natural world is our best antivirus".





Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Idealism VS Realism

I recently finished reading The Education of an Idealist, by Samantha Power.  It was another of those books which I bought for Nora for Christmas last year.

For those of you unfamiliar with Samantha Power, she is best known for being the UN Ambassador for the United States from 2013-2017.  (I could comment here that the fact that most people do not know that she was our UN Ambassador, illustrates the problem with how poor is our collective understanding and knowledge of who helps run our government and our relations with other countries, including myself, but...)

Power's story is extremely interesting on a number of fronts.  She was born in Ireland, immigrating to the United States with her mother when she was young, so she has an affinity (I won't say natural as there are far too many first generation Americans who seem to forget that without immigration they would not be in our country, including Donald Trump), for understanding and advocating for immigrants and refugees, knowing full well the difficulties of acclimating to a new home.  Her mother was a strong woman despite her unhappy marriage to an alcoholic, so Power has a wonderful role model in a woman who moved her family, on her own, to another country, defying many norms of the day to do so.  And, perhaps most importantly, she spent the early part of her working career as an overseas journalist, covering some of the worst events of the world in terms of human on human atrocities.

If one could imagine a resume for the perfect candidate to be our UN Ambassador, hers seems to embody the experiences that would be most desirable.

There are an incredible number of passages and chapters in this book, that are both universal in their description of the human experience, and relevant to the issues we are debating and facing today.

The chapter on the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015 is certainly one of them.  In it, Power describes a concerted effort between government (including the military), medical, and private entities, coordinated by a team of people (led by President Obama) to address the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the least lost of life.  To be clear, the death rate of Ebola was far greater than that of the current pandemic.  Had that disease advanced beyond Africa and around the globe, it would have resulted in a horrifying loss of life.

This is not to say that the two situations are completely similar.  China did not notify the world of the specifics of COVID-19 as quickly as they should have, and is far less isolated from contact to the rest of the world as compared to the 3 countries in Africa which were first effected.  There is no way of knowing that the same process used to combat, and ultimately contain Ebola would have worked for COVID. 

However, in contrast to the rambling coronavirus daily briefings that I watched in March and April, the process described by Power which tackled Ebola head on, in Africa, was inspiring.  First, we cared that it was happening in Africa, as opposed to clinging to an isolationist viewpoint that might have waited until it came to America.  It seems an extremely salient example of why only caring about America, is not only selfish and not in line with our Christian values, but short sighted, in that world problems will almost always effect America. 

Second, there was impressive collaboration between government and medical personnel, as opposed to what we so often witnessed this spring, when medical experts had to walk back the statements of top White House inhabitants and advisers. 

Third, there was real concern in America that Ebola would inevitably come to our shores.  Calls for travel bans emanated from many circles (including the current president).  People even worried that American medical professionals who went to Africa to help treat Ebola patients, would bring the disease back and some, again, advocated even banning them from returning to our country.  As it turned out, two nurses did contract Ebola in Africa, but were flown back to America, treated, and cured, without any spread of the disease.  (Had people like Trump been in charge, they would have most likely died in Africa).

Again, Ebola was very deadly, but not as infectious.  It is not completely fair to compare the handling of both without understanding these differences.  But, it is also true that even in the beginning of the COVID outbreak, Trump was comparing his actions, travel bans, discounting the seriousness, keeping victims or even people possibly exposed (like those on the cruise ships) out of America, while criticizing Obama's response to Ebola.  Obviously, you don't hear those comparisons anymore, since no Americans, that is ZERO, died of Ebola, and over 180,000 have died, so far, in this ongoing pandemic.

Samantha Power's life is a wonderful example of a person who understands the foolishness of only caring about oneself, whether that philosophy is applied to one's own life, family, community or nation.  And, even more importantly, her life is a wonderful example of why people choose to work for the United States government, either in the various, everyday occupations that move our mail, guarantee our food supply is safe, work to expose those who pollute our air and water out of expediency or greed,  monitor the spending of our various government agencies (the GSA) or, on bigger stages, work to establish positive relations between America and the rest of the world.  Yes, those in the deep state, as people who would destroy these institutions, call them, are the meat and potatoes of one of the reasons that America had risen to be the most respected nation on Earth, a nation that would prefer to lend a hand than to launch a weapon.  To me, attacking those people is far more unpatriotic than the current protests playing out in the streets of our nation.

There is a somewhat famous saying that people are more liberal, when young and naive, more conservative when older.  "If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart, if you are not a conservative when old, you have no brain".  Oddly, it is usually quoted by conservatives, you seem to think that they are insulting liberals by calling them brainless, unaware that they are referring to themselves as heartless.  At this point in my life, I believe there are far more brainless idealists in heaven, than heartless realists.

Samantha Power's book, in my opinion, attempts to bridge the gap between the belief that it is one or the other, by recounting the process by which she has had to, at times, jettison some of her idealism, to actually get something done, even if it was less than everything she wanted.  That doing good is doing better, and in that case, realism can be embraced so that something good is accomplished.  It is not that one is sacrificed for the other, but combined to create the best result.

It is far too easy to pretend that idealism must be put aside in the face of realism.  In reality, realism without ideals and values is just a fancy word for selfishness.  While idealism is rarely, if ever, achieved, or perhaps even achievable, acting without ideals lowers the bar to a point where humanity is lost.

We need to refute the false equivalency that idealism must be sacrificed to face and navigate in the real world, and embrace Power's non-stated, but obvious goal of marrying the best of both philosophies. 

Perhaps that should be a goal for all of us.