Thursday, December 20, 2018

What About Our Grandchildren?

Last person standing can turn off the lights. Don't bother locking the doors. The final solution to crime and all human folly will have been achieved. Welcome to the Sixth Great Extinction.

We see a lot of content these days about what is variously called “Global Warming,” or “Global Climate Change,” but only the scientists seem to agree on what is really happening. The entire earth is getting warmer in a manner and at a rate that are truly terrifying to people with scientific training. There is so much agit-prop opposing the theory that most average work-a-day American voters think that the whole thing is either a Chinese hoax or a bunch of bullshit. Moneyed interests form almost the entire opposition faction, and that's always trouble. They can afford that really good propaganda. They own the energy industry, plus numerous other industries that would suffer financially to pay for a meaningful response to our climate woes. Most of the media are on the opposition team, just whoring it up for the advertising money, I guess. I happen to think that our changing climate is a huge problem that is going to have a meaningful negative impact on the lives of my granddaughters, but who cares what I think? Almost no one is even listening to the scientists, so what chance do I have?

A lot of people, persuaded by the opposition's vast efforts at misinformation, seem to believe that it's all almost funny. They repeat the alternative facts, such as, “if temperatures go up by a few degrees within 100 years, what's the big deal?” Or the ever popular, “did you see that snow storm? It was freezing! So much for Global Warming.” It's discouraging to see presidents and members of congress among those mocking voices. Most of us know better than to mock scientific realities that we don't understand.

The Insect Apocalypse

There is another catastrophe in progress, related in some ways but completely separate in others. That would be the Sixth Great Extinction, also known as The Holocene Extinction, or the Anthropocene Extinction. There have been these great extinctions throughout the history of life on earth. All of the previous ones took place before humans became a factor in the ecology of the planet. The Holocene Epoch of geological history began with the end of the last ice age, which was about 10,000 BC. That, coincidentally, marked the beginning of the rise of human society. We began the epoch as a very small number of hunter-gatherers grouped in bands that were too small even to call tribes, and we now stand on practically every usable square foot of the planet as the dominant species.

We were heavily involved with the Holocene Extinction from the start. The first to go were the group called the megafauna, those super-large mostly mammals that you recall from pictures in books. Those mammoths, and giant ground sloths, things like that. We hunted them to death and we squeezed out their predators too. The dire wolves that you may remember from the tar-pits or museums that you have visited, and the mighty saber-toothed tiger. Gone, gone, and gone, and we've been at it ever since.

Our involvement led to the alternate name, “The Anthropocene Extinction,” which simply means the human driven extinction, the world that is being shaped by humans.

It is very interesting to me that we hear so little about the current great extinction. Keeping it all out of the media cannot be easy, but then again, people would much rather laugh at what Trump said yesterday than hear more bad news from scientists, and a lot of people are so consumed by the feud between those two female celebrities that they have little time for anything else. For the last ten or fifteen years, I recall reading very rarely about the decline in amphibian populations, mostly frogs. It gets reduced to, “some scientist somewhere says that the overall number of frogs is going down.” And that's it. It's all coming into clearer focus now.

Entomologists (the people who study insects) have suddenly begun to realize that since 1970 or so the overall numbers of insects have declined precipitously. Some species of insects are already gone, and others are approaching extinction. It's like that scientific community had a hunch, and then realized, wait! They really are mostly gone!

There is some exciting vocabulary that becomes important here:

Numerical extinction- true extinction; they're all gone; like the Dodo bird or the passenger pigeon.

Functional extinction- there are still some of a particular animal around, but there are no longer enough of them to have any meaningful impact on the local ecology. Seen any big American bison lately? They've been reduced to a zoo population.

Extirpation- localized extinctions.

Defaunation- the loss of abundance in certain animal populations. This can be in quantity, or size, or both. For example, murals in ancient Rome often depict fishermen in the Mediterranean catching very large groupers.* That was a popular fish with the Romans, as it is today anywhere in the world where they may be found. All of the groupers found anywhere today are much smaller than those in the murals from 2,000 years ago. This is also the experience of people who closely examine sport fishing trophy photos from the Caribbean. Much smaller fish now. Think of the experience of the poor cod, salmon, blue-fin tuna, and the sperm whale, over the last two hundred years.

Biological annihilation- the widespread loss of all animal life in a certain area. Recall the oceanic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Those hypoxic (low or no oxygen in the water) areas were caused by excessive agricultural fertilizer run-off from upstream in the Mississippi River. Usually called, “nutrient pollution,” and the very definition of a man-made ecological catastrophe.

Tap, tap! Is this thing on? Does anyone care?

We know that no one cares if the temperatures go up a few degrees. Why, we'd hardly notice! Those scientists are just a bunch of Cassandras! Chicken Littles, yelling about the sky is falling! I'm betting that most people's first reaction to the loss of insect populations is going to be something similar. “Fewer mosquitoes? Fewer flies? I'm all for that!” If it were only so simple.

Where are all of these bugs going, anyway? What's killing them? The answer to that question begins with the obvious and ends with the ominous. It starts out frightening and finishes up with a really terrifying bang.

There are, of course, the usual suspects: pesticides.

It is unfortunately true that neurotoxins make wonderful anti-insect pesticides. Their use has become ridiculously widespread. Almost all agricultural communities use them; recreational and industrial areas use them; areas of human habitation use them. That covers almost all of the bases. Wind patterns and the physics of our atmosphere insure that the pesticides will be widely distributed to areas that we have designated wild or natural. They settle into the soil itself, and remain there for longer than their boosters would like to admit. And they kill a huge number of insects, some of which had been targeted for death and others of which are mere collateral damage.

One important class of neurotoxins was designed specifically to target individual plants. The new class of pesticides were also “shown” to be less toxic to birds and mammals than other types of pesticides. As so often happens in corporate science, the effects have been much more widespread and destructive than was originally advertised. These were called neonicotinoids. Their use has been banned in the European Union, but they are still going strong elsewhere.

These neurotoxins are now “suspect number one” in the disappearance of so many bee populations. Not the deaths of bees per se, but merely their disappearance. Entomologists find the hives, and they look fine, and there are a few bees in there, but the rest have simply gone missing. Current thinking is that the neurotoxins interfere with the bees ability to find their way home.

These neurotoxin based pesticides are drifting in clouds far and wide, getting into the soil and settling on the trees, and they are killing insects willy-nilly all over the place. As it turns out, one of the very best ways to kill birds, amphibians, lizards, and small mammals is to cause the deaths and disappearance of the insect populations that had sustained them. And sure enough, the bird, lizard, and amphibian populations of Europe and many other places have been disappearing. Mysteriously! Although you'd have to be pretty stupid, or gullible, or well paid by lobbyists to actually believe that it was mysterious.

The Worst Part

It turns out that pesticides, neurotoxins, and neonicotinoids are only the tip of the iceberg.

For many millennia, our bug buddies have become accustomed to living on the earth as they found it. They generated themselves, lived their little bug lives, and died, according to the same rules for a rather long time. Things are changing now, and they are not adjusting well.

One enthusiastic scientist studied a particular area of rain forest in Puerto Rico. He's been at it since 1970 or so. He counts the insects, the lizards, and the birds, and he takes appropriate measurements. He was down there recently and he found that a testing system identical to the one that he had been using for decades now yielded a lot fewer bugs. In the beginning he was getting almost five hundred milligrams of bugs in his bottles and nets. Now he was down to eight milligrams (8 mg.) using the same testing criteria. That's quite a shocking diminution. By the way, there was a corresponding loss of lizards and birds, creatures that eat bugs. (Frogs were not mentioned in the article that I read. Perhaps they were all dead already.)

Over this same period, temperatures in this rain forest have risen by about two degrees. (F) Even scientists don't think that two degrees should be the difference between life and death, so some studies were instituted.

The laboratory tests showed that even a moderate increase in temperature for these admittedly tropical bugs led to a dramatic drop in fertility.

It's that old Global Climate Change again! Maybe it's not a Chinese hoax after all. Maybe an increase of only a very few degrees makes a big difference.

If we don't trust our scientists to figure these things out for us, who should we trust?

Our politicians are all on the “I'll be dead and gone, so fuck it, I'm taking the money” plan. We are allowing them to do it. But what about my granddaughters? Perhaps you have grandchildren too. Do you love them? If so, you'd better get on the right side of this issue pretty damn quickly. We're running out of time.

*English is so strange. I was unsure of the plural for "grouper," so I looked it up. There was no guidance in my biggest dictionary, so I asked Professor Google. The plural is either "groupers," or "grouper." That was the source of my confusion. I've heard it both ways. English is unforgivably strange. 

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