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A “Lonely” Whale, Needy People

January 27, 2017

I’ve long been bemused by the story of 52HZ, the off-frequency blue or fin whale that the human race somehow decided had to be lonely. It seems like such a bizarre example of how humans like to impose their own stories on animals they really don’t understand or know.

But I had no idea how many people 52HZ’s story (or the story that we assigned to 52HZ) truly mobilized and inspired until I read this story:

For all her scientific unease with the whole media circus, Daher admitted to me that, “It’s interesting, isn’t it, that people appear to identify with this whale?” There was a pattern to those who reached out to her, as if she could somehow help. “It’s amazing. I get all sorts of emails, some of them very touching, genuinely. It just breaks your heart to read some of them — asking why I can’t go out there and help this animal. We as humans, we are very softhearted, caring creatures. It’s mostly females who write to me — not always; I also get males — but there are a lot of females who identify, feeling they’re not part of a pack.”

The story is full of people who wrote plays, created art, set out to make documentaries or were otherwise inspired to take action thanks to 52HZ’s perceived loneliness. But I can’t help wondering what any of these people are really doing to help 52HZ and all the other whales who are inundated with human noise and pollution.

Are they forsaking seafood to restore ocean food chains and reduce stray fishing gear?

Are they reducing their consumption of container-shipped goods that has turned the oceans into noisy superhighways, and resulted in numerous ship strikes?

What changes to their lives have they made that might improve 52HZ’s life in some small way? I hope many (I know actor Adrien Grenier was inspired to start an ocean conservation foundation and at least struggles with the fact that his acting work celebrating conspicuous consumption is what gave him the resources to do so). A whale can’t do much with empathy.

It is the frequent disconnect between what people say they care about and what they actually do with the choices they make in their own lives that is absolutely central to what the planet will look like–and how 52HZ will fare–in coming decades.

I have a lot more changes to make (especially when it comes to carbon footprint), but in an effort to take some pressure off the oceans I stopped eating seafood years ago. I am also doing everything I can to NOT buy anything new. It makes me feel out of step with our culture. I sense my wife and kids experience a range of reaction from annoyance to mild understanding. And I have to make a concerted effort to not come off as too deranged.

But out of step is exactly where I want to be because being in step does 52HZ no good at all.


Nature As Tonic For The Human Psyche

January 27, 2017


Nature is good for you in oh so many ways. So says Florence Williams in her upcoming book The Nature Fix, and in this Wall Street Journal preview essay. Sadly, we don’t behave as if we understand this, as two social scientists learned when they mapped where people are happy:

“[O]ne of the biggest variables for their subjects (who tended to be young, employed and educated) was where they were. They were significantly happier outdoors, especially in natural settings, than they were indoors, even when the researchers tried to control for the effects of being at work.

But there was a catch: Most of the participants didn’t behave as if they knew this, because they were rarely outside. They were indoors or in vehicles for 93% of their waking hours.

The Mappiness study reveals our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors—an indictment not just of the structures and expectations of modern life but of our self-understanding. As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why don’t we do more of what makes us happy? Part of the answer is that we’re flat-out busy. But even when we have free time, we’re not always smart about how we spend it.

I have long been a believer in the connection between happiness, creative energy, and the outdoors. Put me on a bike or on a walk (throw in a dog for a multiplier effect) and I always come home feeling good and with at least three worthwhile insights into work or life. Put me on a boat and I come home transformed.

Busyness, as Florence notes, is a huge block to feeding our souls in the outdoors (and busyness is so often purposeless). Social media and cable news are also two indoor, soul-sapping, distractions (and connecting to social media while outdoors is a particularly odious felony). So do we have a formula for a better, happier, existence? I think we do: Fewer electronic distractions, less meaningless busyness, more time outdoors and unplugged. Pretty simple and pretty effective.



Wendell Berry Gets Me

January 27, 2017

This (via my cousin Elizabeth) perfectly captures how I feel right now. (And she took the picture above to illustrate).

THE REAL WORK by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

There is real work and a real journey ahead of me. But I am definitely baffled and trying to figure out exactly what to do and where to go! Perhaps I need to start singing….

Blurring The Species Line

January 27, 2017
Injection of human iPS cells into a pig blastocyst. A laser beam (green circle with a red cross inside) was used to perforate an opening to the outer membrane (zona pellucida) of the pig blastocyst to allow easy access of an injection needle delivering human iPS cells. (Salk Institute)

Injection of human iPS cells into a pig blastocyst. A laser beam (green circle with a red cross inside) was used to perforate an opening to the outer membrane (zona pellucida) of the pig blastocyst to allow easy access of an injection needle delivering human iPS cells. (Salk Institute)

Scientists have created a part-human, part-pig embryo:

“The experiment, described Thursday in the journal Cell, involves injecting human stem cells into the embryo of a pig, then implanting the embryo in the uterus of a sow and allowing it to grow. After four weeks, the stem cells had developed into the precursors of various tissue types, including heart, liver and neurons, and a small fraction of the developing pig was made up of human cells.

The human-pig hybrid — dubbed a “chimera” for the mythical creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail — was “highly inefficient,” the researchers cautioned. But it’s the most successful human-animal chimera and a significant step toward the development of animal embryos with functioning human organs.”

If that sounds creepy to you that it is because it is creepy, very creepy. And I can only imagine what “highly inefficient” is a euphemism for. Yet again, we have a perfect example of technology rushing forward because it can, before the ethical implications can be well understood.

And yet again, it is human interests and needs, with no real consideration of the interests of the other species involved, that is the driving force:

“Researchers hope that one day doctors may be able to grow human tissue using chimera embryos in farm animals, making organs available for sick humans who might otherwise wait years for a transplant.”

Now imagine a factory farm of sows, all nurturing chimera fetuses which can be harvested for human organ transplants. When are the fetuses harvested? How? When and how are they euthanized or killed? What happens to the sows?

There is a heated and growing ethical debate about the wisdom of these techniques, but some bioethicists are already arguing that the benefits these techniques are demonstrating for human health justify the means. That presupposes that you value human life and experience highly, and animal life and experience not much at all. And that is the real problem here.


Earth Is Beautiful

January 26, 2017

Ever since the first pictures of Earth from space it has been easier to comprehend Earth as a unique and fragile entity.

NASA’s new GOES-16 satellite continues that tradition by producing some spectacular images.

So behold. And marvel (full gallery here). And then let’s figure out how to live lives that don’t inflict a thousand wounds in a thousand ways.

One Primate Species Is Driving Many Others Toward Extinction

January 25, 2017

“Yo, your obsession with soap and cleanliness is killing me.”

Want to guess which one is causing all the trouble? Not hard, I know.

Okay, one of my pledges this new year (both for my own mental well-being and so as not to depress everyone around me) is to not endlessly disseminate devastating news about how the planet is dying. I assume if you are reading this blog you are already well aware of this, so I intend to focus more on positive actions I am trying to take to bring my life into balance with the planet. Figuring out how to live, how to eat and how to leave as small a footprint as feasible is worth doing. If I share what I learn and do, and others share, maybe we will be able to transform our modern, consumerist, materialist, carbon-spewing lifestyles into lives that give due consideration to the planet and all the other species trying to survive on it despite human-induced climate change and destruction of habitat.

But I am taking note of this story about how the human species is relentlessly endangering other primate species because it illustrates something important (beyond the fact that humans are the primary existential threat to the rest of the planet): the choices that you and I make in our own lives ripple all the way out to remote forests and impact remote primate species.

To wit:

Primates are also threatened by the wholesale destruction of forests to make way for agriculture. In the Amazon, the jungle is being converted to cattle ranches and soybean fields, while in Madagascar, rice paddies are taking the place of lemur forests.

Western countries are also helping push primates toward extinction. Palm oil can be found in everything from doughnuts to lipstick to biodiesel fuel. New palm oil plantations are completely replacing forests in Southeast Asia — one of the most primate-diverse parts of the world.

Even cellphones can add to the risks. In central Africa, miners go into rain forests to dig for an ore called coltan that ends up in phone circuits. Those miners hunt for their meals. “They live on primates,” said Dr. Rylands.

So whether we eat beef and other meat (much of the world’s soy is grown to feed livestock), and how often we feel the need to upgrade our smartphones, are two choices we face that have a traceable impact on the survival and future of other primate (as well as many other) species.

Figuring out how to make planet-friendlier choices, and how and why they make a difference, is something I have been doing a lot more of in recent years. And it is something I am interested in continuing to do in a serious way going forward. In fact my aim is to design a modern, happy, meaningful life that celebrates and helps sustain the planet rather than destroy it. And if I do, maybe others will join me in trying to lead that life.

I tend to think of this approach to living as Earthism, because it emphasizes the idea that we humans, for moral and existential reasons, should abandon the idea that our well-being, our comfort, our interests are paramount. Instead, we should seek lives that nurture and sustain all the beauty and diversity we have been endowed with, and elevate the interests and well-being of all the extraordinary and complex ecosystems, and nonhuman species, which define our unique planet.

It’s going to be an interesting, and hopefully uplifting, journey.

The Mind Of An Octopus (#432)

January 24, 2017

“You must be pretty dumb if you are endlessly surprised by how intelligent and interesting I am.”

Not sure how many articles and books it is possible to write about how darn smart an octopus happens to be. But they keep coming. Which is fine, because maybe if we read enough about nonhuman intelligence we will stop being so arrogant about our own.

Here’s the latest, adapted from from Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

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