At the Rijksmuseum three days ago, before the main crush of crowd arrived, I spotted a couple of cranes in a 1680 painting, “The Floating Feather,” by Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The unmistakable spectacular Black Crowned Crane in the centre, which I’ve never seen, is found only in Africa. The other crane below and to the right of the big one seems to be a Sarus Crane (again, not yet sighted by me), which I understand is found only in Asia or northeast Australia. Why were these included? Did the artist see them live or just paint from specimens brought back from overseas? Fascinating.
At the end of May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a UN body, released a policyholder summary of its staggeringly ambitious global assessment report on the state of the world vis a vis the environment. I expected to read, and did read, about humanity’s progress down the road described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her stunning 2014 book The Sixth Extinction. Put simply, our collective responsibility for mass species extinctions accelerates. As IPBES reports, around 25% of animals and plants are “threatened,” meaning that a million species may within decades face extinction. Apparently extinction’s harvest is being reaped hundreds of times faster than in “normal” times. No surprise also that climate change is winding the whole process up.
Oh, how frail I felt when reading the summary! Too expansive, too much to handle. So I decided that one ongoing task would involve narrowing my lens down to the fifteen Crane species I’ve begun to research. What are their prospects?
IPBES says 14% of bird species are under threat of extinction. This is way better than mammals (25%) and amphibians (40%), but we expect flight-powered birds to be able to flee humans better, and in any case 14% is one in seven! On examination it turns out IPBES obtains its extinction-risk data from the “Red List” of another international body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Red List has been going for half a century and it has nine categories of extinction risk. Although coverage of some species of living things is spotty, that of birds seems complete. At the frightening tail end, some 5% of bird species are close to the edge, classified as endangered or critically endangered.
Four of the fifteen crane species are “close to the edge” on the Red List. Eleven are under threat but not so much so. Only four of the fifteen can be seen as healthy in terms of 21st Century survival.
All of which, once more, left me drained. I also felt more lost than ever. I realize classifying extinction risk is subjective. It’s also political: developers downplay any risk, environmental activists seek funding. Right now, I’m no closer to understanding how my cranes will fare over my lifetime, let alone that of my grandchildren. I sighed: more work needed!
Towards the end of a week of redrafting in Amsterdam, I hunkered down under streaming light on a Sunday morning, across the road from the glass-windowed frontage of the city’s small ARTIS zoo. My pulse had quickened on the discovery that ARTIS houses a pair of Red-crowned Cranes. In spite of general qualms about zoos, I knew the opportunity to observe grus japonensis in the wild would need to await a couple of years, so I was keen to make the acquaintance of this significant species.
So my education began with a limited trawl of websites. I acquired a commercial photo from DepositPhoto to accompany this post, taking care not to buy a snowfields one, that being the standard Hokkaido vista of the Japanese Crane, as it is known. The International Crane Foundation site told me that grus japonensis stands about as tall (my chest height) as my country’s Brolga but is meatier, the heaviest crane according to ICF, a kilogram and a half heavier at 7.5 kgs. It is a stunningly beautiful crane: an almost crimson red patch atop the head, a silken black band under the bill down to the neck, pristine white feathers showing black underneath in flight. My image might not do the species justice but look! The wing sweep! The powerful body, the elegance of neck and head.
The Red-crowned Crane is in trouble. ICF offers a precise census for its global extent, 2,800 to 3,300 birds. Status? Endangered, which broadly means likely to go extinct within two decades (though that status was accorded in 1970, so conservation efforts have had some success). Roughly a thousand permanently reside at saturation point on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The rest migrate from dwindling breeding sites across wild east Asia to either an eastern China delta or Korea (including in the hot spot North-South DMZ).
As I worked, waiting for our zoo visit in the afternoon, how I longed to check what Peter Matthiessen wrote about these culturally resonant birds in Birds of Heaven, but, regrettably, there is no ebook version to carry when travelling. Still, this would be a special day.
A few months back, Grist’s marvellous Justine Calma wrote a piece entitled “Humans vs. animals: Can the climate movement have both mascots?” Yesterday in Amsterdam, I took a break from the fugue of book drafting and mused about her short think piece. Essentially, she says that even though “polar bear imagery [as one type of climate change imagery]. Is pretty much tapped out,” nature documentaries, narrated under a backdrop of warming-world threatens, remain potent. Compared to even a few years ago, any narrative connections need to be more subtle and detailed – if our “furry and feathered friends” are suffering (and they are), how are they trying to adapt and what is the message for us humans?
Hmmm. I feel, at some deep level, that the fifteen species of Cranes can tell me how to live. But I know so little! I’ve no biology background that allows me easily understand the Cranes. Yes, 11 of the 15 species are “threatened,” but what does that mean in real statistical terms, let alone for majestic individual birds living their lives in 2019? Calma’s article also alerts me to a core writing issue: how do I write about Cranes in a way that intrigues and hopefully enthrals readers?
The Grist article foregrounds the new Nat Geo series Hostile Planet. I haven’t yet taken steps to access HBO series and now resolve to do so. And I resolve to complete the anxiety-inducing viewing of Attenborough’s Our Planet series.
Andrew Robbie at the CICERO Centre for International Climate Research puts out the above graphic (with full referencing for data sourcing). At that link you can also view it as a little film that builds up the layers. Look how carbon in our atmosphere never fails to build higher, even as we fuss over our plastic bags and food waste and all those wonderful “I can make a difference” options. Look how fat the increase over the corresponding number in 2018 is. I’ve been staring at charts like this one for two decades (I know, that’s a shorter period than it should have been, I also was asleep) and they make me dread for my cranes. But I remember advice given to me once: never look away from the data.
Melbourne trams pump out heat in noisy blasts. I was reading “The media are complacent while the world burns,” three months old now, by Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope. I normally wouldn’t find general media issues interesting but I knew Hertsgaard from a nuclear book he wrote years ago. And the article’s title was, after all, correct.
Hertsgaard and Pope cite an editor at The Nation dismissing climate change as a “palpable ratings killer.” Now “the brutal demands of ratings and money work against coverage of the biggest story of our time.” The two journalists have launched a project for reporters to “remember their Paul Revere responsibilities – to awaken, inform, an d rouse the people to action.” To a non-American, this call to action seems most notable for even needing to exist, but there you have it.
H & P praise the Guardian, Mooney, and some of The New York Times, but it seems the TV networks are a wasteland. They offer nine suggestion for media to lift its game to the European standard, including (I nearly wept when I spotted this one) “learn the science”! (How to do that? H & P: read McKibben, Klein, Wallace-Stevens, Goodell). Also: “cover the solutions” – my heart leapt. Finally: “don’t be afraid to point fingers.”
How then do I respond to Hertsgaard’s final clarion call – if American journalism doesn’t get the climate story right – and soon – no other story will matter: – in my own life? Well, I’ll read and support truthfulness. And 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene is my writing-based attempt to be truthful and helpful.
In The Conversation ten days ago, Canadian political science professor Matthew Hoffmann wrote about “Using language to make the world of fossil fuels strange and ugly.” After all this time, all this evidence, he writes, “the fossil fuel system remains dominant, normal and even invisible,” in part because there’s an “invisible and unspoken” language at work. We don’t call cars “petrol-fuelled cars.” Hoffmann caveats his advice by saying fresh language does not “preclude the hard work of political change,” but he is all for adding adjectives like high-carbon or polluting where they fit.
I’d just finished reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The End, the last book of his six-book masterpiece series My Struggle, and if anyone uses words, if anyone believes in the power of language, it’s him. I’d read nearly a million of his words by then. Being a circumspect person myself, the topic of how to talk about the Anthropocene Era with strangers or friends has always baffled me. I pondered and came across Vox journalist David Robert’s tweeted response to Hoffmann’s article:
The faith among academics & lefties that language determines our climate situation & that there’s some magic set of words that will solve the problem … is adamantine. Fixed & immutable. Floating utterly free of evidence. It BAFFLES me.
Words or actions? Actions or words? The sun was sinking fast in Melbourne and I was no expert on the human world and its ways, but I reflected on how little cutting of emissions has occurred in my lifetime, yet how many words I’ve read about the Anthropocene. David Roberts is correct, came the answer to me. Everyone knows the real vocabulary underlying all the surface words. Action is the only action that counts.
“I am at the moment at the Kaisaniemi Weather Station …” Sifting all the recent media and more direct reports of the European heat wave illustrating so starkly our human impact on a global scale, this tweet from Mike Rantanen carried so much heft. A boyish face, a plain patch of measuring equipment … he is there, at the moment, documenting Helsinki’s 33.2 degrees, highest ever since measurement began in 1844. It’s one thing to picture Parisians attempting to cool down, it’s another to picture our Earth’s northernmost realms baking. I halted. I held my head in my hands.
July 22, yesterday, I announced to myself, an audience of one: I, Andres Kabel, embark on a quest. Roll that word – quest, quest, quest – around your mouth. I’m guessing you taste foreignness. Doesn’t that q-word come across as archaic? Presumptuous? Quests take place in fables, I hear you tell me.
Sigh. A fable could well be the fate of my efforts. But, damn it, that first step I took yesterday was, indeed, my quest.
I am a city boy. The world of nature and I were separate for decades. I came to birding – the insider term for birdwatcher – late in life and, to tell the truth, in terms of quality of birding and knowledge of birds, I am mediocre. But all that makes no difference. I’m on a quest and my quest is to exhaustively learn everything I can about a particular set of birds, to understand them, and to champion them in a hotting-up world that inexorably encroaches on their continued survival.
Let me be more precise. Over the next years, I shall bear witness to our Earth’s fifteen species of Cranes – the Black Crowned Crane, the Black-necked Crane, the Blue Crane, the Brolga, the Demoiselle Crane, the Eurasian Crane, the Grey Crowned Crane, the Hooded Crane, the Red-crowned Crane, the Sandhill Crane, the Sarus Crane, the Siberian Crane, the Wattled Crane, the White-naped Crane, and the Whooping Crane.
The actors in this tale are not just the fifteen Crane species and me, but Earth in the Anthropocene Era, the first epoch in which the human race helps shape the planet at geologic scale. My quest must necessarily ask: what is the physical future on Earth for me and the Cranes? What is my culpability and what should I do?
Come join me. Don’t be at all daunted, you’ll see soon enough how ill equipped I come to my quest. That’s why I need allies, colleagues, and collaborators. You’ll hear more from me over the coming days, months, and years, but in the meantime do drop by for a chat via email, Facebook or Twitter.