The Importance Of Mercy

I’m doing some reading as I try to frame a book project that will attempt to change the way we see (and therefore treat) animals, and there is an interesting, religious-based argument, that is not about animal rights so much as a plea for the exercise of mercy (which would makes us better humans, and better honor whatever God one believes in). In that context, I came across this prayer from Saint Basil in 375 AD:

Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

It appears to me that 16 centuries (and free markets powered by industrialization) has brought arguably more cruelty and less shame. But even though I am an atheist I like very much the concept of “fellowship with all living things.” In fact I would extend that idea of fellowship beyond living things to living ecosystems, and the living planet and all its environments. From fellowship would flow respect, moral consideration and compassion. Then the voice of humanity would indeed be a beautiful song instead of a terrible groan.

 

Wendell Berry Gets Me

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….

Earth Is Beautiful

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

“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.

Trumplandia

So, we now, to the shock of many, we live in President Trump’s world. The environment will suffer. Animals will suffer. Kindness and empathy will suffer. But the trajectory of our culture on these issues under President Trump, in my view, won’t be an order of magnitude different than what they would have been under President Clinton. And orders of magnitude is what is needed.

I have long thought the status quo was unsustainable and unacceptable. On that I agree with many Trump voters. But I certainly didn’t think Trump was the answer. Quite the opposite. Still, I also didn’t think Hillary Clinton, while she would point in a better direction, would even have the ambition to deliver the scale of change I think we really need, much less the ability. Yes, she believes climate change is real and would have kept pushing us toward incremental progress on environmental and other issues I care about. So in that sense President Trump will be a painful setback, because he will push in the opposite direction and we don’t have time to be pushing the wrong way.

But deep down I never felt either Trump or Clinton was the answer I have been looking for. They both live too much within the existing status quo. Their thinking and policy frame is too much within the status quo. Deep down I have long felt that the only real answer is a growing grassroots revolution in how we live, how we value other species, and how we value the planet. That’s the work I want to do, and it’s work any of us can pursue because no matter who is president we can make our own choices about how we live and what we choose to value. And we can try to lead by example, and make our case person by person. That’s the solution I seek. And nothing in last night’s election changes that.

Yvon Chouinard–Outdoor Evangelist

He doesn’t think politics and politicians are capable of dealing with real environmental issues. But he made sure his company–Patagonia–lived up to his ideals. This long profile of Yvon Chouinard is inspiring and thought-provoking. But also depressing because voices like his are never let into the mainstream:

The Chouinards undertook an environmental audit of their products and operations. For a few years, they’d been tithing ten per cent of their profit to grassroots environmental organizations. Now they enshrined a self-imposed “earth tax” of one per cent of their sales: a bigger number. “The capitalist ideal is you grow a company and focus on making it as profitable as possible. Then, when you cash out, you become a philanthropist,” Chouinard said. “We believe a company has a responsibility to do that all along—for the sake of the employees, for the sake of the planet.”

Eventually, they went so far as to openly discourage their customers from buying their products, as in the notorious 2011 advertising campaign that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It went on, “The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing.” Manufacturing and shipping just one of the jackets in question required a hundred and thirty-five litres of water and generated nearly twenty pounds of carbon dioxide. “Don’t buy what you don’t need.” (Some people at Patagonia had been considering declaring Black Friday a “no-buy day,” to make their point about consumption.)

Considering the upstream costs of EVERYTHING you buy or do is at the core of any approach to living that prioritizes nurturing and conserving the Earth, and trying to find balance between humanity and nature. It’s one of the reasons I went vegan, and why I almost never buy anything unless I have an absolute need (drives my wife crazy). But there is so much more I can do (I’m working on it!), and it is nice to read about an icon who promotes these ideals.

Staying Happy

One of the paradoxes of working on many of the issues I care about is that it is easy to get depressed. The more I learn about any number of topics I write about or would like to write about–climate change, factory farming, our treatment of non-human species, our treatment of one another, species depletion, the list goes on–the more I have to consciously fight against a sense of despair and hopelessness. Because getting from where we are to where I hope we can be seems like such a great distance, and so many people seem disconnected or distracted from what really matters. Over the years, I worry, I have lost some of my joie d’vivre because I am too conscious of the many things wrong with our planet, our politics and our culture.

Of course, the work can be highly rewarding when there is an increment of progress in the right direction. Yet I still find myself wondering how best to try and be a joyful, optimistic person. Because not being that sort of person is not much fun (or very effective).

I don’t have the answer, so this analysis of ways in which you can “train” your brain to be happy naturally caught my attention. Key areas are: 1) Gratitude; 2) A Good Night’s Sleep; 3) Exercise; 4) Meditation; and 5) Doing Deep Work.

I would add 6) Spending Offline Time With Friends and Family. Especially In Nature. But, regardless, I am glad to see that I am at least on the right track in a number of areas (meditation is probably my largest untapped opportunity). What are your keys?

Food And Sustainability In 11 Charts

Or, “How To Ruin Thanksgiving But Save The Planet.”

There is no human activity which affects the planet more than what we eat and how we produce it. I’ve long argued that the single biggest thing any individual can do to reduce his or her impact on climate change, land use, water quality, soil loss, and biodiversity is to change what’s on the plate. Fewer calories, less protein, much less or (even better) no meat and animal products, and organic. That’s the simple formula for radically reducing the human footprint and giving the natural world a chance.

Here, courtesy of the World Resources Institute, is a visual explanation of that argument. Print it out and take it to Thanksgiving dinner!

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Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

2 Degrees Of Global Warming Might Be Too Much

An excellent look, by Justin Gillis at the New York Times, at how the world decided that it should try to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade, and how that target might not actually be the right target:

Yet even as the 2C target has become a touchstone for the climate talks, scientific theory and real-world observations have begun to raise serious questions about whether the target is stringent enough.

For starters, the world has already warmed by almost one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. That may sound modest, but as a global average, it is actually a substantial number. For any amount of global warming, the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface and absorbs considerable heat, will pull down the average. But the warming over land tends to be much greater, and the warming in some polar regions greater still.

The warming that has already occurred is provoking enormous damage all over the planet, from dying forests to collapsing sea ice to savage heat wavesto torrential rains. And scientists are realizing they may have underestimated the vulnerability of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Those ice sheets now appear to be in the early stages of breaking up. For instance, Greenland’s glaciers have lately been spitting icebergs into the sea at an accelerated pace, and scientific papers published this year warned that the melting in parts of Antarctica may already be unstoppable.

The 2 degree target always had a significant degree of uncertainty attached to it (though it was useful to focus attention on some target). To consider it a threshold below which we would somehow remain “safe” was the wrong way to look at it. Yes, 2 degrees might be a threshold beyond which certain irreversible catastrophes would follow (melting ice sheets). But there is plenty of catastrophe below the 2 degrees threshold, as well, as we are already seeing (most notably, the acidification of the oceans). It has always been the case that a lot less warming would be a lot better for the planet.

This is a challenge to global climate policy, and as Gillis notes:

So, even as the world’s climate policy diplomats work on a plan that incorporates the 2C goal, they have enlisted scientists in a major review of whether it is strict enough. Results are due this summer, and if the reviewers recommend a lower target, that could add a contentious dimension to the climate negotiations in Paris next year.

Barring a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime, it is not at all clear how a lower target could be met.

Actually, it is not at all clear how the 2 degrees target will be met, either. The point is that “a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime” is what is needed regardless of the target. And the sooner political leaders (and the media, and then the public) come to that realization, the better off we will all be.

Climate change is an unprecedented challenge, so there is an obvious case to be made for an unprecedented mobilization of societies and technologists. We may be in “peacetime”–and therefore relatively complacent– according to conventional definitions of peace and war.  But we are facing an existential threat that is arguably greater than any threat of war experienced in human history (and orders of magnitude greater than the threat posed by Islamic extremism and ISIL, to which we devote inordinate and inexplicable amounts of attention and resources). That should count for something.