The only reason the sky didn’t fall yesterday is because this damn heat rose and held the sky up.
Obviously, this puts you in a bit of a pickle. You made all those grandiose predictions about how terrible the record-breaking temperature would be, but besides that moment when you got stuck with a “don’t walk” signal before crossing the street on the way from your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned office, you barely broke a sweat all day. Embarrassing? Sure. Very much so.
Every time this kind of weather occurs, which it does often, inevitably, at least once a year, without incident, it feels like the first time for you. That’s because you’re an emotional person (some might say neurotic, alarmist, ridiculous), but no one should judge you for that. Don’t worry, plenty more predicted catastrophes have come and gone without incident — Carmageddon, Snowpocalypse, the “shoegaze” era in rock music. There are ways to make today’s walk of shame easier on yourself. (more…)
It is becoming increasingly hard to overstate human impacts on the Earth. The Industrial Revolution kicked off a trend of unprecedented population growth and development that has yet to end, and our effects on other life forms, on earth, air, and water, and on the planetary climate itself have been just as dramatic. Geological authorities are giving serious consideration to declaring the planet to be entering a new epoch defined primarily by human influence over it: the Anthropocene. A National Geographic article on the subject reports that “38 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is now devoted to agriculture.” At the rate that biodiversity is now dropping, researchers have projected that we could reach the level of mass extinction — a loss of at least 75 percent of plant and animal species, what would be only the sixth such event in the past half-billion years — in as little as a few centuries.
We can, and we may well, remake the whole planet, a fact humanity never had to face before the twentieth century. It must now sink in that we could nuke the Earth into a wasteland, render it a ball of grey goo, carpet it in cities and farmland, or bring about any other of a multitude of configurations — and the universe would not intervene to stop us. Barring some cataclysmic change, we seem to be on a path of ever-increasing human domination.
In these circumstances, a novel question arises: what should we make out of the Earth? I acknowledge that it may be akin to asking “If you could take this road trip anywhere at all, where would you most like to go?” as your car careens over a cliff edge. But if we wouldn’t know where to drive even if we could take the wheel ourselves — that bears noticing. There are certainly practical limitations on what we will end up doing, but what we ought to try to do is another question altogether. (more…)
“We have seen men sacrifice their lives to protect whales; the reverse is far less common.” — Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order
The classic questions in the branch of philosophy called ethics are some of the big ones: What is the good life? When is an act morally justified? What are our duties to other people? It has often gone without saying that humans are the only beings to whom these considerations apply. But, especially in the last half-century, some have questioned the moral status of non-human animals as well: do we owe them obligations like those we owe to humans, or obligations of a different sort, or any whatsoever? When we acknowledge this to be a question at all, we find our moral landscape complicated tremendously by it. Non-human animals range from the simplest plankton to the hauntingly human-like chimpanzee, defying any clean line-drawing; the categories we conventionally use to decide how to treat them (“wild,” “food,” “pet”) are haphazard and inconsistent. There can be as many theories of the value of animals as there are theories of value in general — and many of them, once extended to these creatures sharing the planet with us, develop problems we might otherwise have missed. My whirlwind tour of animal ethics begins, as in my previous post on environmental philosophy, with a look at the tradition of Enlightenment humanism. “Humanism,” normally a positive-sounding word, takes on a rather different tone when the whole animal kingdom is under review.
Descartes, one of the Enlightenment’s most important forerunners, conceptualized all the workings of the material world as purely mechanical — including our bodies, and those of animals. However, he only attributed the special, immaterial substance of mind to humanity; we had someone in the driver’s seat, whereas other life forms were mere automata. Accordingly, the cries of an animal being dissected would be no more meaningful than the sound of malfunctioning clockwork, and Descartes’ followers were famously enthusiastic about vivisection. Kant, conversely, argued that it was wrong for a person to be senselessly cruel to animals — not because the animals deserve sympathy, but because the person committing the act would develop a cruel character and become desensitized to human suffering. As the above quotation from Luc Ferry suggests, thinkers in this stripe conclude that people, as sole possessors of the concept of morality, are morality’s only proper object. Animal-sympathizers’ examples of apparently heroic gorillas and dogs can be dismissed as anthropomorphization, because an animal, lacking even the language to conceptualize ideas like responsibility and altruism, simply cannot lead an ethical life as rich as that of a human. Ferry essentially agrees with Kant: “the most serious consequence of the cruelty and bad treatment inflicted on [animals] is that man degrades himself and loses his humanity.” For these thinkers, any concern due to animals is secondary, wholly derived from our concern for humans. (more…)
When it comes to the environment, the threat of climate change often overshadows all other topics. It is a huge issue with long-term, global implications — but, despite its current prominence, it may not be the most urgent. World Water Day, and, newly this year, Canada Water Week, were begun to raise awareness of a crucially important resource that we often take for granted. Last week, the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation ran a “high-level expert group meeting” to discuss water issues at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The goal of the group was to prepare a set of recommendations for the InterAction Council, an organization of former heads of government and state who meet annually to attack weighty international issues of politics, ethics, and economics. As the first panel — titled “Will the next wars be fought over water?” and chaired by IAC member Jean Chrétien — got underway, it rapidly became clear that it would have been harder to pick a weightier issue than water.
It’s widely said that there has not yet been a war over water, but it plays a part in many conflicts — water is a significant element in persistent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Tibetans and the government of China in western Asia, and over illegal immigration from dry northern Mexico into the United States. The probability of open clashes over water can only increase: faltering supply and rising populations are expected to widen the global gap between water “haves” and “have-nots.” At the Munk Centre, attendees heard that, in 1995, 250 million people lived in water-stressed or water-scarce countries; in 2025, that number is expected to be 2.5 billion.
The implications of such widespread water scarcity are deadly. As was stressed again and again in the talks, water is a necessary precondition of life; one panelist estimated that it takes fifty-to-one hundred litres per day to provide a reasonable quality of life. Yet 1.2 billion people on Earth lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion go without proper sanitation. As a result, diarrheal disease alone kills a whopping 1.5 million children every year, and harms countless others. Aid to the developing world has increased, but has not gone proportionally to the poorest countries and areas, nor has an adequate proportion of it been put toward sanitation by donors or local governments. (more…)
“When a forest is no longer sacred, there are no spirits to be placated and no mysterious risks associated with clear-felling it. A disenchanted nature is no longer alive. It commands no respect, reverence or love. It is nothing but a giant machine, to be mastered to serve human purposes.” — Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo, “Environmental Ethics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The passage above describes a fairly common vein of thinking in environmental circles. This “disenchantment,” beginning in the Enlightenment with Newtonian physics and philosophies like those of Kant, kicked off modern science as we know it: a universe composed not of spirits and essences, but of interlocking parts that act according to common rules, is one whose behaviour can be predicted — and thus controlled. The worst periods of European colonialism and the excesses of industrialization followed. As a species, we haven’t put our ever-increasing power over nature to the best of uses; hence a number of movements have attempted to repair our relationship with nature in one form or another. One of the most prominent of these in recent times is an ethical theory called deep ecology: proponents argue that the global ecosystem and everything in it are valuable in themselves — not to be protected because of their usefulness to humans, but for their own sake.
The phrase “deep ecology” itself was coined in 1973 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, but the sentiment of deep respect for nature was already a part of the environmental movement, which began in earnest in the ’60s. Earlier books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”) were part of a shift in environmental thought from the question of what is in the human interest to what is in the natural interest. The idea that we are integrated, responsible members of a natural community — not a mere collection of detached individuals — was a perfect fit with the burgeoning counterculture’s rejection of Western individualism and consumerism. The disenchanting legacy of Enlightenment science was, and is still, blamed for everything from nuclear war to runaway overconsumption, and not without reason. The effort at reenchantment, and the ethical claim that nature must be protected for its own sake, certainly capture something morally important to us — but the idea may have its pitfalls too. (more…)
A letter from the home office, after a journey to the bottom of the world
Despite — or possibly because of — all the unspoilt natural beauty I took in during Students On Ice’s Antarctic University Expedition 2011, one of the most striking sights was a place of human intervention. Our group’s last day of visiting Antarctic terrain began at six a.m., landing inside a horseshoe-shaped caldera, the appropriately sinister-sounding Deception Island. The sun we had so consistently enjoyed throughout the trip had given way to a gloomy fog. This enshrouded the rundown structures and detritus left behind by early twentieth-century whalers, who made great use of the island until the Depression. The excesses of this industry were horrific: after hunting blue whales into scarcity, the hunters moved on to the next-most-profitable species, and then the next one after that, until a combination of ruined populations, changing public opinion, and long-overdue regulation put a stop to large-scale whaling in the ’60s. As if chiming in, the volcano at Deception Island erupted near the same time, laying waste to both more recent scientific stations and the whalers’ old boilers, tanks, and other structures. For our part, we wandered from over the ashy earth, stepping around chunks of brick and fragments of barrels, jarred after our time together in nature to see a place so littered with human debris.
Trip DiaryDavid Rusak’s posts about the Students On Ice Antarctic University Expedition 2011Orientation
From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice
Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice
Putting boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica
My Life is a Movie
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Enjoy the Silence
Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name
Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour
The Pursuit of Curiosity
Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism
It’s hard to conceive of the gulf between world views: the whalers hunted down, boiled, and dumped the remains of thousands of whales into this bay; mere days before, we had been scrambling out onto our ship’s outer decks in forty-five-knot winds, whooping and cheering at our first glimpse of a humpback fluke. We cherished their company as mysterious fellow mammals; the whalers created giant factory ships for the most efficient extraction of whale oil, and resorted to tactics like the deliberate wounding of calves, whose cries would attract still more victims. At least this insane style of hyper-exploitation — of those animals, in this area — has now ended. It’s a sign that humanity can, in fact, do better.
Another good sign is the quality of character of the students I travelled with. The gravity and complexity of conservation, particularly in a place as distant and different from home as Antarctica, was made clear to us by the professors and other experts who taught us about their respective fields on the trip. But, seeing the questions and interest at their presentations, it’s not hard to imagine a group this motivated and curious rising to the challenge. Students On Ice provided an ideal venue for this needed cross-pollination of disciplines, for making the connections the students will need if they want to do science in the polar regions, and for fostering the kind of personal engagement that really drives people to make a difference.
In his talk to us at the end of the expedition, one of the favourite phrases that SOI founder, executive director, and expedition leader Geoff Green returned to was “passing the torch.” It scarcely needs saying what a pleasure it was for me to join his group on this journey — but seeing in action their earnest commitment to spreading these values and knowledge was another pleasure besides.
Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism
“But, after all, it is not what we see that inspires awe, but the knowledge of what lies beyond our view. We see only a few miles of ruffled snow bounded by a vague wavy horizon, but we know that beyond that horizon are hundreds and even thousands of miles which can offer no change to the weary eye, while on the vast expanse that one’s mind conceives one knows there is neither tree nor shrub, nor any living thing, nor even inanimate rock — nothing but this terrible limitless expanse of snow. It has been so for countless years, and it will be so for countless more. And we, little human insects, have started to crawl over this awful desert, and are now bent on crawling back again. Could anything be more terrible than this silent, wind-swept immensity when one thinks such thoughts?” — From the diary of Robert Falcon Scott, written before turning back to end an expedition that took his party 320 kilometres onto the plateau
Aside from killer whales, if there is one thing I regret having been unable to see on this trip, it is the above. The ice sheet that covers 96 percent of the surface of Antarctica is so massive as to literally press the continent into the Earth; it averages 1.6 kilometres in thickness, making up 70 percent of all the world’s freshwater and 90 percent of its ice. Our expedition touched down on its friendliest shores on the Peninsula, never seeing the great frozen plateau. One tiny scion of this desolate world floated by us in the form of a brutally rectangular iceberg, maybe 400 metres square, which towered over our ship and touched bottom another 270 metres underwater. In comparison, the white wastes that Scott and the other adventurers of the “Heroic Age” trekked across are still unfathomable. It boggles the mind to imagine a continent two-thirds the size of North America which stands so astoundingly bare. (more…)
Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour
The other day the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 had a quick landing at Neko Harbour, a glaciated spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Rather than hanging out with the penguins at the shore, this time I hiked up a snow-covered hillside with the glaciology students who had come to collect samples from it. The snows of the glaciers all around us were riven with cracks running along and across their course — a sign, University of Ottawa glaciologist Luke Copland told us, that they are under pressure, highly active despite their apparent stillness. Our group stayed within a box of footprints laid out by the professors (a safe area from any such crevasses) as the students laboriously shovelled through 1.5 metres of snow to reach the solid ice at its base. From there, they could extract the cores: thick, translucent cylinders, bubbled with air that was trapped inside the ice as it formed. These surface-level cores only go a few years back; the record to be found in deeper cores reaches as far back as 800,000 years ago. Glaciologists are consummate analyzers of gradual change — but, as the occasional crackle or boom echoing out of the surrounding area reminded us, those changes can culminate in very sudden and serious results.
Just those kinds of results are happening (and are expected to continue) as Antarctica responds to the Earth’s changing climate. Olle Carlsson, a Swedish naturalist and guide now in his twenty-first season of extensive visits to Antarctica, has been to these sites every year since 1991. He has watched them change with his own eyes. He says these glaciers at Neko Harbour were not so crevassed, and came closer to the beach, when he first saw them; ten years ago, part of Brown Bluff that we’ve walked freely through was frozen and impassible; ice all around is thinning or disappearing. Our expedition kept hearing that the insufferably adorable adélie penguins should be at the sites we were visiting; but they have moved increasingly southward, and only showed up in handfuls among the gentoos, who thrive better in low sea ice conditions.
Studies have been somewhat ambiguous on whether Antarctica, taken as a whole, has warmed significantly since record-keeping began. But at the local level things look much scarier. While high-elevation, thickly iced-over east Antarctica has kept relatively stable, the warmer western parts of the continent — the Peninsula, where we have been, and the Amundsen Sea — are showing serious warming effects. Temperatures in the Peninsula have been going up about 1˚C per decade, one of the fastest rates of warming on the planet. (more…)
Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name
On our final outing yesterday, I ended up with a small group riding in a boat driven by Sonja Heinrich, touring the aptly named Paradise Bay. She’s a teaching fellow at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and the leader of its contingent of marine biology students, who have been (I hear) taking to the outer decks of the ship at obscenely early hours each morning to count wildlife. She introduced us to the animals we were cruising past, like the continent’s only land-based bird, the white, chicken-like sheathbill (which subsists, unglamourously, on guano and whatever else it can grab, earning it a variety of shit-themed nicknames). We idled in the ice-riddled bay — towering glaciers loom over it precariously, coming down from the peaks on all sides, and distant thunderings had us hoping to see some ice fall in. But with only a few falls of snow making their way down the mountains, and with dinner looming, we eventually headed out to see something more exciting, particularly for someone with Sonja’s interests: seals had been spotted a little further out.
It didn’t take long to find the group of four crabeater seals out basking their pale, torpedo-like bodies on an iceberg about the size of a small house (which qualifies it as a mere “bergy bit,” according to our group’s glaciologists). Sonja advised us to stay quiet: these seals were more skittish than other breeds we’d been encountering, liable to disappear if disturbed. As our Zodiac drifted up to the berg, however, another crabeater showed up in the water, nosing its way over to us. As it spent more time near the boat it became emboldened, sticking its head up right beside us, swooping around and under us, circling the iceberg only to suddenly pop up again on our other side. As it became clear the seal had decided to hang out with us, Sonja started taking out her hydrophone, an underwater microphone on a long cord, hoping to get a recording of its sounds. While we stood and craned our necks trying to get photos and video, she wore headphones, listening for seal vocalizations. (The only distinctive sound she could make out was what she thought might have been our buddy briefly nuzzling or mouthing at the mic.) Sonja was as shocked and thrilled by this encounter as the rest of us — she’d never seen a crabeater so curious. (more…)
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica
“I felt as if, all my life, I’d been mistaken about something important. I followed… in agreeably engrossed disbelief, as in a dream in which yellowthroats and redstarts and black-throated blue and black-throated green warblers had been placed like ornaments in urban foliage, and a film production unit had left behind tanagers and buntings like rolls of gaffer’s tape… as if these birds were just momentary bright litter, and the park would soon be cleaned up and made recognizable again.” — Jonathan Franzen, on being introduced to the world of birdwatching
After a couple of landings here in Antarctica, it is hard to shake a feeling like Franzen’s above: that the scenes I am witnessing are unreal, that the wild drama on open display before me could only be a contrivance, some tableau from a nature documentary. Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking, in the most hospitable parts of the world’s largest wilderness area, to see a couple of dozen penguins skipping across the water; fur seals basking, backs arched, on rocks; the occasional pair of whales breaching; a leopard seal cruising sleek and serpentine through the water around a great guano-plastered penguin rookery. Disbelief and detachment at seeing this kind of thing surely reflects the extent of the depletion we have created in our own surroundings, and it suggests that televised nature alone has made a poor substitute. But, regardless, the sights of the last couple of days have felt surreal.
Wildlife sightings thus far on the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 have largely taken place from the ship, but this morning our visit to Brown Bluff put us straight onto a rocky beach amongst a large, scattered crowd of fur seals, penguins, and a few shorebirds. Most of us without glaciers to examine or animal counts to complete wended our way past the grumpy seals and sat down on the rocks with our cameras, taking in the sleepy scene. It’s forbidden to approach the animals so closely as to disturb them, but with a sufficiently disarming visitor, penguins will sometimes get curious, wander up, and maybe take a peck — as one did to the hand of Fabrice, a student from Bordeaux. It was interesting to watch the seals barking, whining, challenging one another for good spots, and play-fighting in the surf, and the penguins dozing, squabbling, and pecking at their as-yet-un-moulted down; but we watched with anticipation, a certain focus in mind: a common desire to connect with a wild animal. (more…)
Boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica
The most dedicated members of the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 roused themselves at 5 a.m. today to witness our entry into the Weddell Sea, the great, ice-riddled body of water from which we will be visiting the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. Several wildlife sightings and a breakfast later, we got the news we were waiting for — the winds were high, but we would still be able to make our first landing on Antarctic soil today. The expedition’s ship, the Ushuaia, took us within a few kilometres of shore; we made the rest of the way on Zodiacs that manoeuvred us through the intervening field of icebergs. Conditions were choppy as advertised, and we stepped rather wetly out of the boats and onto a short beach overlooked by slanting cliffs. We had arrived on Seymour Island.
The geology students in our midst immediately set about examining the rock face. Our reason for choosing this rather obscure island had to do with their field of interest: it is one of few places on Earth known to preserve a fossil record encompassing the transition between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods of geologic time — and, of course, it is the southernmost of that group of about twenty. This transition, called the K-T Boundary, is better known to the rest of us as the mass extinction that ended the era of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, ushering in the Cenozoic era we occupy today. The cause of this tremendous upheaval remains contested, and, according to one of our experts, Carleton professor of Earth sciences Claudia Schröder-Adams, what can be found on Seymour Island plays a significant role in the debate. (more…)