Hands Off Habitat!

Simmonds et al article

It’s time to gird our hearts to rebel on habitat destruction. A couple of days ago I mourned, the result of reading the remarkable paper (and covering article) by Jeremy Simmonds and three other Queensland scientists. Why mourn? Well, in my neck of the woods, the southern part of Australia, our bird species, both the “endangered” and the backyard ones), have lost well over half of their original habitat. This in a theoretically sparsely populated nation like Australia!

We all know how this happens even in today’s more environmentally conscious era. Land is needed so land is cleared. Conservationists battle some land or sea loss, using conservation laws, but the land destroyers chip away “in the name of necessity,” citing “low impact,” often gaming the system. Habitat loss appears incremental but it’s inexorable.


Surely now is the time to mark out a line: from now on, no more loss of habitat. None! Humankind must make do with what it has and surely it can do that. Even innocuous land clearing must be resisted.

Surely what we need is the equivalent of an Extinction Rebellion. Of course XR addresses habitat and diversity loss, and species extinction, within its ambit of the consequences of unaddressed climate change, but its bigger goals to do with emissions must stand paramount. What I visualise is something focused on precisely habitat loss, a calculus of square kilometres carried out by scientists.

Under legislation called for by such a movement, the onus of proof would not be on the negative impacts on “biodiversity” or this or that species. No, the onus of proof would be on the land clearing applicant – he/she/it would need to prove any land cleared has de minimis impact on all non-human species. Such a movement would defend all land under threat.

What might we call this movement? Land Moratorium? Land Protectorate? Hands Off Habitat? Expulsion Rebellion? 

Species extinctions: Is clarity needed?

Fred Pearce article

A couple of months ago, a British journalist who wrote a number of climate-change-related books over the noughties and into the 2010s, Fred Pearce, penned a trenchant piece titled “Global extinction rates: Why do estimates vary so wildly?” It’s an apt question and one I’d asked myself when I began researching, in the clumsy way amateurs do, the survival prospects of the fifteen Cranes species. Like Pearce, there seemed to me a disjuncture between oft quoted warnings of the current global extinction rate being “up to 100 times higher than the background rate” and my initial study of the IUCN data (the most authoritative), which shows only rare identified extinctions. So I read Pearce’s article with interest.

Unfortunately, the journalist isn’t about to proffer an opinion but merely to canvas the wide range of estimates. By his telling, observed, documented species losses are most infrequent; there may or may not be a gross understatement in the total number of global species often quoted as 1.9 million; modelled extrapolations bring up those assertions of frequent, accelerating extinctions; the whole field is a mess of imprecision.

As of now, I’m in limbo. It’s clear that even if documented extinction rates remain low, average numbers in almost all non-human species have declined and are now declining at faster rates, to the extent that we might be hovering on a precipice of clear vanishings of species. Humankind is undoubtedly bludgeoning and squeezing out the other species. But I am not alone in wanting more precision. And precision only comes about with governments acting with haste to fund concerted, wide-range studies. More science is needed.

The abyss with Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton article

Amongst the more-or-less climate change doomsayers (I say “more or less” because there’s a gradation from doom with hope to the worst extreme), Roy Scranton, novelist and essayist extraordinaire, ranks as depressing but weirdly uplifting. The thing is, he writes so passionately, the writing itself offers bizarre tangential hope.

The day I turn to his “We Broke the World” article in The Baffler, which I’ve kept lurking in a cupboard, my Melbourne sky is blue. I’m alone and lonely. The previous evening I went to my fourth Extinction Rebellion meeting and came away elated but, inevitably, also daunted. So what will Roy tell me this time?

He kicks off with a bravura scene asking me to stare at myself in a mirror and imagine my absence, my extinction. Nigh impossible, he tells me, and unpacks why, together with one of this idea’s consequences:

And so just as we are phenomenologically and cognitively biased toward presentism, which comprises both a strong belief that the future will be much like the present and a tendency to forget how different the past was, so are we biased toward what we might awkwardly call “presence-ism,” which is to say, a belief that whatever exists is and was and will keep on being. This fundamental cognitive bias against thinking non-existence makes certain problems challenging for us to comprehend. One such problem is the idea of extinction. … It takes a strenuous act of imagination to envision the massed herds and flocks of wild animals that once thundered over land now paved with highways and box store parking lots, dotted with cellphone towers, and crisscrossed by diesel-chugging tractor trailers and buses and SUVs.

What Scranton has dragged me to is, of course, the latest IPBES report, released at the end of May, a policy maker summary of its (global) assessment report on the state of Earth’s species. I took a look at the report in July, jotting down notes like ” Global warming fucks everything up. 5% of species could go extinct at +2 degrees, at +3 degrees this is 16%.” My Cranes-centered viewpoint had me gathering facts. What will Scranton conclude, I now wonder?

Scranton tears into the “absurdity almost depraved” of the IPBES science-administrators calling for “transformative change” (hence Scranton’s article title) akin to worldwide revolution. “Failing this,” he says to me, “we all face—all humanity—within our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children—a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere upon which human life depends.” Our presence-ism and presentism points us towards nihilism. After expressing some scientific caveats that can hardly assist, “it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re all totally fucked.”

But there’s a conclusion after the conclusion. Perhaps we can contemplate reality squarely, perhaps we can battle “reactive cycles of rage, depression, bargaining, and denial.” Perhaps I can. Andres, Scranton pleads, return to that mirror, meditate with observance, and “practice saying goodbye.”

Right now, Angel Olsen croons her song “Tonight” from her remarkable album All Mirrors. I put on my shoes and head off to write, to read and write.

We humans can save species!

ICF Whooping Crane update

I don’t know if you’re aware of the stunning success story of the Whooping Crane? Nearly extinct after World War II, decades of dedicated effort by government agencies and volunteers, in particular George Archibald at the International Crane Foundation (which he founded, take a look at it now!), have given rise to a latest count (from the ICF website) of 849 Whooping Cranes, 163 of whom are in captivity.

A couple of months ago, in the depths of existential despair as a result of events and my own reading, I chanced upon the August Whooping Crane Eastern Population Update from the pen of Crane Analyst Hillary Thompson. This discusses the 86 of the overall 849 Whooping Cranes in a handful of northeastern states, mostly in Wisconsin. Reading the report was a balm soothing my raging heart, a song about the dedication that humankind can show to non-human species, in a sense the best of humankind. Hillary Thompson goes into full details on the year’s 19 wild-hatched chicks, all banded and hence kept track of, and that story struck me as modern-day drama. I found myself affected by the final item in the report, “Mortality or Long-term missing.” Here’s what Hillary records: “9_03 (F) was found dead on 3 July at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau Co, WI. Cause of death appears to be predation.”

Thank you, Hillary. Thank you, ICF. Thank you and thank you.

Some look out two years, others like me accept responsibility out to 2100

Scott Morrison speech

I wasn’t as upset as some to hear Scott Morrison’s odd diatribe against climate protestors (see this Age article). What is refreshing is the explication of his moral horizon. It’s natural to expect humans to show great variability in short-termism versus long-termism. Having recently, after much angst, settled on a horizon of 2100, when my youngest grandchild’s children get to middle age, I saw a very much truncated view from our Prime Minister. Digest, if you like, these extracts from his speech yesterday:

Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector. … They are targeting businesses of all sizes, including small businesses, like contracting businesses in regional Queensland. … It is a potentially more insidious threat to the Queensland economy and jobs and living standards than a street protest. … Let me assure you this is not something my Government intends to allow to go unchecked. Together with the Attorney-General, we are working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians, especially in rural and regional areas, and especially here in Queensland.

Do you sense any horizon beyond right now or maybe one or two years hence (that is, election time)? I don’t. Younger generations pay heed. This is one government not on your side. Let’s work towards a change.

Tipping points on the edge of consciousness

Umbra: tipping points

We read IPCC, we read Wallace-Wells, we read Scranton. We think we’ve built a thick enough hide. But a while back a reader of Grist’s pointy Umbra column asked for “the full list of climate tipping points.” I could barely read Eve Andrews’s (Umbra’s) response, in which she confirms the question is “inherently, existentially, and unavoidably upsetting,” defines what a tipping point is, and then hits us. IPCC 2018 identifies four: “the ice sheets of West Antarctica and Greenland; the El Niño and La Niña cycle; the circulation of water throughout the Atlantic Ocean; and the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean’s ability to absorb carbon.” Umbra’s ensuing essay discusses the scariness of tipping points, the uncertainties around how many degrees, and the semantics (it’s more than that of course) of hopelessness versus hopefulness. In the end, she offers this view, one that flushes me with dread and hope equally:

The “tipping point” that I believe we should look out for is the one at which we have no idea what’s coming, and we can’t possibly prepare for it. And make no mistake, some communities are already reaching something very close to that reality. We’re currently at 1 degree C of warming, but barring some swift and comprehensive change, our business-as-usual policies and practices have us on track for as much as 3.5 degrees C. In my mind, that means the tipping point we should all be looking out for is the one that tips the scales in the direction of timely and aggressive slashing of carbon emissions.

My intro to the Black Crowned Crane

Zakouma National Park

Absorbing mass data on all fifteen species of Cranes is tough, so I’m rewarding serendipity by gradually introducing myself to each unfamiliar species as it crops up in the news around me or in my reading. The August issue of The Bugle, the wonderful in-house magazine of the International Crane Foundation, features a stunning aerial photo cover of a triangular slash of an African lake in Chad (which, by the way, I know nothing about, almost as if it doesn’t exist, which I guess typifies the global exposure of a number of African countries), around which a couple of hundred Black Crowned Cranes stand and feed and dance. Hello, Black Crowned Crane, I whispered. It’s a resplendent bird of black body with white wings and a black-and-red-and-white head festooned by stiff straw-gold feathers.

“Zakouma, land of the Black Crowned Crane” is a long article by ICF President Rich Beilfuss, and it’s a missive of great hope. A map of northern Africa shows 13 actual or possible strongholds of this Vulnerable species in half a dozen countries, including Zakouma National Park in Chad. Beilfuss:

This spring, I had the pleasure of traveling to the wilds of Zakouma and counting the highest number of cranes ever recorded from the ground anywhere in Africa – 13,885 Black Crowned Cranes!

Since the ICF website enumerates this species, with imprecise knowledge, as 43,000 to 70,000 birds, we’re talking about a fifth to a third of the entire population!

I was heartened (and that doesn’t often happen these days) by the upbeat message:

The most exciting news is perhaps not the discovery of so many cranes, but the realization that the cranes are in such good (conservation) hands.

I can’t wait to see the Black Crowned Cranes for myself, perhaps in 2021!

Bjornerud agrees the Anthropocene notion

Environmental crises

A couple of days ago, I expressed gratitude for Marcia Bjornerud’s “Timefulness,” in particular its revelatory information on relative scales of time and activity. I was also reassured that she supports geologists calling our world today the Anthropocene Era. In the extract above, I show just how deeply she has examined the Anthropocene from various macro angles. And here’s what she says:

We are literally changing the configuration of the continents and remaking the world map. But does this matter on a planet that has seen so many geographies, constantly erasing old worlds and replacing them with new ones? It doesn’t to the Earth itself, which will eventually remodel everything according to its own preferences, either gradually or catastrophically. Over human timescales, however, our disruption of geography will haunt us. Soil lost to erosion, coastal areas claimed by the sea, and mountaintops sacrificed on the altar of capitalism won’t be restored in our lifetime. And these alterations will set in motion a cascade of side effects—hydrologic, biological, social, economic, and political—that will define the human agenda for centuries. In other words, thoughtless disregard for the work of the geologic past means we cede control of our own future.

Human time intersects geologic time

Mixing times

In her wondrous “Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World,” geologist Marcia Bjornerud educated me on the scaling of Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence. I read it during a time of inner turmoil, a time of weighing desk work against activism, a period crushed by competing projects. Bjornerud pierced my intensity with passionate prose and jewels of knowledge. For example, check out the table extract above. I was fascinated by the “residence time” of water, that is, how long it stays in a given place. In the atmosphere, it’s only nine days (really? water typically zaps in and out of our air over only nine days?), in rivers it’s two to six months, in glaciers it’s way over 100,000 years.

And this: we’re not only altering our home planet through carbon emissions, the scale of our impacts is huge in more prosaic ways:

The coal-mining practice of “mountaintop removal”—a deceptively surgical term—moves volumes of rock that rival the largest natural disasters. … Worldwide, humans now move more rock and sediment, both intentionally through activities like mining, and unintentionally by accelerating erosion through agriculture and urbanization, than all of Earth’s rivers combined. It can no longer be assumed that geographic features reflect the work of geologic processes.

Ornithologist’s odyssey

Maps from North on the Wing

A birder’s reading delight, ornithologist Bruce Beehler’s “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring” savours his 2015 four-month odyssey from southernmost U.S.A. to blighted woods deep in Ontario. I sipped the book, treasuring a rare look at the world through a naturalist’s honed eyes. Beehler was chasing thirty-seven species of warbler (amongst other more general aims) but I watched out for his sightings of my bird of interest, the Sandhill Crane. Let me extract them here:

Autumn migration here is famous for its Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and many species of waterfowl. … Standing on a dike cloaked in early-morning mist, I listened to abundant birdsong. Cranes were bugling. … At 8: 20 p.m., two Sandhill Cranes bugled. … Then a statuesque Sandhill Crane posed for me, allowing me to photograph him from various angles.

The three-hour drive from Duluth was punctuated by a close encounter with a Sandhill Crane family foraging at the very edge of the highway. In front of me, a large truck roared by the group, and its slipstream toppled the two rusty-colored and fuzzy young into a grassy ditch. The parent cranes appeared nonchalant about this.

Day after day I hunted the tall, bog-fringing spruces … A few pairs of tannin-stained Sandhill Cranes nested in some of the larger boglands, and their bugling sounded in the distance from time to time. This haunting voice, heard mainly at a far remove, is the song of the wild.

I’m writing this on a cool spring day about to warm up. Australia’s annual Backyard Bird Count runs for this week and shortly I’ll head onto my apartment’s balcony to do my requisite twenty minutes of birding and recording. But what I long for, courtesy of Bruce Beehler’s magic, is to head for the airport and fly to America and hire a car and go see, for my very first time, those statuesque Cranes.

(The maps above are from Beehler’s book and show his amazing journey.)