Category: Ecology


I recently sat down with Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life to talk about my forthcoming book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Here is that video interview:

 

 

This is the second talk I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, on September 14 2013, regarding the need for an alliance politics that transcends the rigid divisions among the animal/human/environmental liberation movements.

This is the first of two talks I gave at the International Conference for Animal Rights in Luxembourg, on September 12 2013, and the first of seven talks I gave on my Fall 2013 speaking tour in Luxembourg, Germany, and Italy.

“Why are we here on Earth, except to grow?” — Robert Browning

“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.” — Alfred d’ Souza

Seedlings

Seedlings

As I recently described, I have been working on many levels intensively and non-stop for the last 40 years. In February of this year, I completed a new essay and a new book (entitled Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century, to be published in German, Italian, and English). And then I stopped. I was, and am, exhausted and spent. Every cell of my body told me what burnout is and means. For the last few months, I have not written anything and I have hardly been able even to read. My mind and body won’t let me. I had to find something new, healing, and regenerative for my soul, something radically different from reading and writing, and I found it – in gardening. I have become the constant gardener.

I reside in Anthony, New Mexico, just over the El Paso Texas border. With my family of rescue cats, I live in a ranch house, set on an acre and a half of land, surrounded by alfalfa fields and pecan groves. I have massive front and back yards, and the front yard spills into the green fields and I see the majestic Franklin Mountain range on the horizon. The sun rises over those mountains like a catapulted fireball every morning and pours light into my house. Too many times, working through the night, I have witnessed its fiery climb, as it throws a spotlight on a life out of balance.

New Fruit Trees and Franklin Mountains

New Fruit Trees, Alfalfa Fields, and the Franklin Mountains

In the obtuse, punishing loads of work I imposed on myself, such that I can now count 13 books and over 200 essays and reviews, and the first seven years in which I resided in my peaceful rural ambience, my land was completely neglected, nothing but fields of weeds as tall as summer corn stalks. After finishing my last book, in need of new stimulation, I decided to clear these fields. After a arduous month of chopping and burning forests of weeds, I beheld the clear ground, and saw that it was good. I then decided to start planting vegetables, flowers, bushes, and trees, and to learn how to garden. And not just on a small scale, but rather on a massive scale, to transform the land into something living and beautiful.

Grape Vines

Grape Vines

And thus I threw myself solely into planting and growing. I planted and transplanted a cornucopia of seeds (peas, beans, beets, corn, carrots, peppers, herbs, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, and more). I dug up massive patches of hard, sandy ground, enriched the soil, and planted vegetables into the ground. With awe I watched the seedlings grow and begin to bear fruit.

Jalepenos and Tomatoes

Jalepenos and Tomatoes

I planted hedges and rows of bushes. I created two large groves of fruit trees (apple, pear, orange, tangerine, lemon, lime, peach, plum, and cherry). I approached it all as a massive sculpture of form and function, of color and soil.

Apple Trees

Apple Trees

The labor was as satisfying as it was backbreaking. You can find me on any given day working in the yard from dawn to dusk. Everything I plant and grow is veganic – no synthetic chemicals and no manure (few people including vegans ever think about the animal shit in their food, even if “organic”!).

Vegetable Beds

Vegetable Beds

It is amazing how ignorant I was, and still am, about the food I eat, the basic elements of nature, and the process of life and growth. I never grew a seedling, never ate anything I myself nourished and cultivated until this late in my life. I knew nothing about the basics – seeds, soil, fertilizer, mulching, sunlight, and water – until I was forced to grow myself in new ways. I am learning a lot now, but am certainly no Picasso of plants. Yet the mistakes I have made this year will not be repeated next year.

To Plant ...

To Plant …

It is hard to avoid the easy clichés inherent in the rich metaphor of gardening. Yes, one is “getting back to the land” and “getting in touch with nature,” but it is not as romantic as it sounds. It is sweat-pouring, back-breaking labor, especially in the hot spring and summer of the American Southwest. A lot of what I am “getting in touch” with are blisters, sore muscles, sunburn, and insect bites.

Sun Parasol Climbers

Sun Parasols Climbing the Cat Cage

That said, I have found it to be true that gardening is soul-enriching, life-nourishing, and spiritually satisfying. In cultivating the sun-baked fields, I am cultivating myself in new ways; in planting seeds that will sprout into nourishing foods, I am also seeding a new future for myself.

Herb Garden

Herb Garden

I can hear the critics mock this as a retreat from politics into a new-age lifestyle parochialism. But that is hardly fair or accurate. After 4 decades of compulsive, pedal-to-the-metal work, I am finally allowing my body and soul the rest and balance I long denied myself. When we reach a crisis point of deep burnout we have to stop and rest, or we will never return. Burnout is not just fatigue, it is losing the will and motivation to pursue the projects and causes that propel our lives and give them meaning. We are no good to others if we are no good to ourselves, and the personal and political are deeply intermeshed in many ways.

I doubt that when French existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre urged the politicization of knowledge, imploring intellectuals to acquire “dirty hands,” or when Italian Marxist theorist emphasized the important role of “organic intellectuals” in a revolutionary movement, they had community gardening, food sharing, veganics, and sustainable agriculture in mind. But these concepts — and the knowledge and practice — must become part of the radical politics relevant to the impending crises of the 21st century. And where, in the ending of his satirical masterpiece, Candide,  Voltaire writes, “let us tend to our own garden,” these words, properly framed, can be seen as sage advice not merely a satirical barb aimed at fatuous idealism or bourgeois individualism.

I am easing back into reading, writing, and speaking (I will undertake a short European speaking tour this fall). I am feeling the urge to return to old hobbies and passions, including jazz guitar, martial arts, and yoga. But for now, I am gardening, mostly gardening, constantly gardening.

Asian Jack Lillies

Asian Jack Lilies

Though I am currently anything but, I may aspire to the level of “master gardener,” for which one can become schooled and certified in Texas. If I become skilled enough, the surplus food I could produce would be donated to food banks for the needy, along with vegan recipes.

In the past, I have advocated a concept of “deep veganism,” which involves a much more effective type of “vegan outreach” than currently practiced today. Among other things, deep veganism involves community projects of producing and sharing nourishing plant foods, and politically organizing in many directions — human rights, animal rights, veganism, health, and ecology — from this basis. And producing one’s own food from seeds without chemicals is not only profoundly important for physical health, emancipating oneself from synthetic chemicals, genetic engineering, and global agribusiness, it is directly connected to the project of autonomy.

And thus, I have had to hit the pause and reset button on my life. I have been forced to stop, change, diversify, and reinvent myself yet again. At this existential crossroads I now stand before, I haven’t a clue what the future holds for me and I can again feel the angst of uncertainly and the challenge of self-overcoming.

I know one thing for certain, though: as I persist in struggle, I continue to grow…

photoCAJ13YLV

 Steven Best

(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)

“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.

Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.

 There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.

 Out of Africa and Out of Control

Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.

 There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?[1]

 Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.

Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.  Continue reading

The facts of catastrophic climate change have become so alarming that growing numbers of scientists feel they can no longer hide behind inscrutable jargon, masks of neutrality, professional decorum, and robotic objectivity. When paragons of affectless detachment and Spock-speak begin dropping F-bombs at prestigious conferences, undertake civil disobedience, and call for mass resistance movements to overtake the forces of planetary destruction, there is a sea-change in the scientific world, appropriately so, something that far transcends “value-laden” research to become thunderous calls for action, anger, and uprising.

It seems the top experts know something pacifists and delusional vegans (who can only talk of the temporary reduction of meat consumption IN THE US while ignoring soaring global rates and remaining mute about the severity of climate change) don’t — the earth is fucked, time is running out, ivy league vegan outreach adds insult to injury, and it’s too late for education. The courage and integrity of the new generation of activist-scientists to speak truth to power and lay their careers on the line also puts 99.999% of academics to shame, narcissists and cowards who would rather lose species and ecosystems over a career advance any day.

The choice is mass rebellion or catastrophic collapse. Despite the false impression given by the final sentence of this article, while vocal, confrontational, and politicized climate scientists could emerge as key forces of change, the true catalysts will be mass resistance movements erupting globally. But of that, we have no guarantee and as of yet, little hope to avert impending disaster on an unimaginable scale.

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Why Earth and Atmospheric Scientists Are Swearing Up a Storm and Getting Arrested.

By , Slate, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade.

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England

Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth Fucked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.

Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.  Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.

Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”

That’s probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: “Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?” He did not seem optimistic. “We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon” from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. “We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery.” A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, “What’s going on in the Arctic?” This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. “I’ve studied Greenland for 20 years now; I’ve devoted my career to it,” Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, “and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that’s continuous in 170 years.”

Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how fucked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?

Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet’s critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:

Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

That’s the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed fucked, unless we get our shit together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.

Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. “Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn’t seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. “I have a 14-month-old daughter,” he explained simply.

The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”

Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is fucked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.

I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”

Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. “Even if you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,’ that’s a decision that researchers have to make.” This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows’ work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. “The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions,” Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.

Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland’s ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.

As for the big question—is Earth fucked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”

Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”

That’s not too surprising either. But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely fucked. Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite fucked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.

The nature of evolution is speciation — to produce diversity of life, even in the harshest and most challenging conditions. Indeed, after the five previous major extinctions events on earth, nature responded not only by restabilizing ecological dynamics, but by proliferating even more life and enhancing biodiversity such as happened during the Cambrian Explosion.

The diversity of life involves not only the proliferation of plant and animal species, but also of unique human cultures and languages. At all levels, we are currently losing the rich diversity of biological, cultural, and linguistic forms; in a profound sense, we can no longer speak of “evolution” but rather must understand that planet earth is undergoing a profound devolutionary process in the sense that diversity of all kinds is rapidly receding not advancing.

Thus, in the midst of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of this planet that is currently underway, we are also witness to the precipitous loss of cultural and linguistic diversity as well, as we leave the prior Holocene epoch and enter the new Anthropocene era. This new and emergent geological epoch is  defined by the dominant role played by humans, not the natural world, in altering the planet, and clearly not in desirable ways. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the combined forces of the modernization, the Industrial Revolution, fossil-fuel addiction, a grow-or-die metastasizing system of global capitalism, the spread of agribusiness and rising world meat consumption, human overpopulation, mass culture, rampant consumerism, and other forces have brought about habitat loss, rainforest destruction, desertification, climate change, and species extinction.

In fact since the emergence of agricultural society 10-15,000 years ago, the now dominant mode of production began a war of extermination against hunting and gathering tribes that preserved traditional nomadic and non-hierarchical life ways, as opposed to the growth-oriented, hierarchical farming societies based on domesticating nature and animals, obsessive concerns with control, expansion, war, and conquest.

The war still being waged against indigenous peoples, first nations, and other non-modern/non-Western cultures certainly fully advanced with colonialism five centuries ago, but ultimately is a continuation of the exterminism agricultural society launched against all peoples who did not conform to the pathological imperatives of “civilization” and “progress.”

While from the standpoint of the earth and nonhuman animal species, the ideal would be for Homo rapiens as a whole to die off as rapidly as possible. But the alternative to what most humans find repugnant and nauseating, for those who believe we still have a right to inhabit this planet even if we prove we do not have the ability to harmonize our societies with animal communities and the natural world as a whole, is to do everything possible to resist global capitalism and its war against tribal and indigenous peoples everywhere.

For not only is it vital that indigenous peoples and ancient lifeways be preserved in their own right against the genocidal onslaught of global capitalism, and that we have more diverse languages, cultures, and lifeways than market societies and forces of cultural homogenization will tolerate. It is also crucial, if we want to preserve what biodiversity is left, that we protect and preserve premodern and non-traditional peoples.

One obvious reason — although this has often been overstated in romanticized ways — is that they retain a more reverential ethic toward the earth, they have a far deeper connectedness to life and land, they value tradition over novelty and create far more sustainable cultures, and that they are far more capable of caring for the earth and animals that predatory and rapacious capitalist societies.

Despite the fact that indigenous peoples (such as the Clovis Indians who first inhabited North America) have often throughout history overshot ecological limits and driven animals into extinction, they nonetheless are clearly more suited “custodians” of the earth than the IMF, World Bank, WTO, ExxonMobil, Shell, Monsanto, Cargill, Maxxam, Du Pont, Japanese whalers, NGOs, ignorant narcissistic Western consumers, and so on. 

As the essay below makes clear, the areas now highest in biodiversity are the same areas inhabited by indigeous peoples (and this is partly so because plant and animal species are struggling to adjust to escape the ravages of climate change). Thus, the key to preserving what biodiversity remains amidst the rapidly unfolding sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet is to preserve the remaining cultural and linguistic diversity — to support, help defend, and sustain the indigenous peoples inhabiting the areas with the most dense and diverse plant and animal species.

Thus, here we see yet another vivid example of the politics of total liberation, and how the multiple struggles to save humans, animals, and nature from the devastating effects of the capitalist-dominated Anthropocene era are ultimately one struggle ad must be formulated in theory and practice accordingly.

So there are two main options to save biodiversity: either through the collapse of “civilization” and the extinction of the human species, or through advancing the only politics suitable for the twenty-first century and era of global social and ecological crisis — a politics of total liberation that preserves biodiversity by preserving cultural and linguistic diversity. And this, unavoidably, demands a total war against global capitalism and the sundry institutions and forces of destruction bound up with advanced market societies and this nihilistic world system.

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By  NEWS JUNKIE POST, Oct 11, 2012

An unprecedented study of global biological and cultural diversity paints a dire picture of the state of our species.

Like the amphibians that climb to ever tinier areas at higher altitudes to avoid being extinguished by global warming, most of the world’s species currently huddle in a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface, and most human cultural diversity — as measured by the number of languages — occupies essentially the same tiny fraction of the planet.

We are dying.

A scientist would never say it quite this way. Instead, he would tell you that the world’s animal and plant species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than ever in recorded history. He might add that some areas of the world have lost 60% of their languages since the mid-1970’s, and 90% of the world’s languages are expected to vanish by the year 2099.

In Haitian Creole, we would yell “Amwe!” (Help!), and this would be right and proper.

As ever, the best scientific studies merely quantify what everybody has known all along. Life, in general, has suffered horribly from the runaway spread of European values and the notions of progress that began with the Industrial Revolution. A sharp bit of mathematics finally brings forth the maps that expose the poverty of the world’s major carbon emitters and the little wealth that remains in those parts of the world where the indigenous are making their final stand.

High-biodiversity wilderness areas

There currently exist very few places on Earth that could be considered intact. The researchers found only five such areas, which are numbered 36-40 on the biodiversity map and colored in shades of green.

These are, by number: 36: Amazonia; 37: Congo Forests; 38: Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Savannas; 39: New Guinea; 40: North American Deserts.

Together these intact spots amounted to only about six percent of the terrestrial surface but were home to 17 percent of vascular plants and eight percent of vertebrates that could not be found anywhere else. The same areas were the refuge for 1,622 of the world’s 6,900 languages, with little New Guinea topping the chart at 976 tongues.

The only glimmer of hope from the study was the discovery that, contrary to what conservationists might presume, a place does not have to be untouched by humans to serve as a refuge for the world’s plants and animals. Instead, habitats must be handled in the right way, and more than anything, they must be protected from the kinds of blows dealt by industrialization.

Biodiversity hotspots

The researchers additionally identified 35 “biodiversity hotspots” (numbered 1-35 and colored in shades of yellow to red on the biodiversity map), defined as places with a high density of endemic species despite having lost over 70% of natural habitat.

These were, by number: 1: Atlantic Forest; 2: California Floristic Province; 3: Cape Floristic Region; 4: Caribbean Islands; 5: Caucasus; 6: Cerrado; 7: Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests; 8: Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa; 9: East Melanesian Islands; 10: Eastern Afromontane; 11: Forests of East Australia; 12: Guinean Forests of West Africa; 13: Himalaya; 14: Horn of Africa; 15: Indo-Burma; 16: Irano-Anatolian; 17: Japan; 18: Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands; 19: Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands; 20: Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany; 21: Mediterranean Basin; 22: Mesoamerica; 23: Mountains of Central Asia; 24: Mountains of Southwest China; 25: New Caledonia; 26: New Zealand; 27: Philippines; 28: Polynesia-Micronesia; 29: Southwest Australia; 30: Succulent Karoo; 31: Sundaland; 32: Tropical Andes; 33: Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena; 34: Wallacea; 35: Western Ghats and Sri Lanka.

The biodiversity hotspots amounted only to about two percent of the Earth’s surface, but they were home to a whopping 50% of plant species and 43% of vertebrates that could be found nowhere else. Again, there was a stunning correlation of biodiversity with culture, with the hotspots being home to 3,202 of the world’s languages.

Biodiversity is being lost, but what’s far worse is that the ability to express this loss is vanishing. For example, 1,553 of the languages in hotspots were spoken by only 10,000 or fewer people, and 544 were spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Ironically, the American researchers who did this study are now regarded as experts on biodiversity, although the only real experts on how to maintain biodiversity in places occupied by humans are the world’s indigenous.

The logical conclusion to take from this study is that modern science, with all its sophisticated technology, is completely trumped by the thousands of years of experimentation by the world’s indigenous, although their findings have been transmitted by oral tradition and other simple means. To be fair, it isn’t so much the fault of modern science as the fault of the industrialized world, which worships power, greed, and the absurdity of exponential growth.

One cannot disdain all other living beings, grind mountains to extract minerals, build roads without a thought for habitat fragmentation, design gardens to please only human aesthetics, or harvest monocultures that serve solely human needs, and expect one’s world to continue for long. There is room for humans at Earth’s banquet, but only those who have lived in place long enough to have learned the contours of their terrain, the language of their plant and animal neighbors and, more than anything, the needs of non humans.

When a shaman leaves a lock of his hair where he has uprooted a medicinal cactus, it is not a bit of imbecility, but a humble acknowledgement that, for each living thing taken, one must give a bit of oneself, however small. For centuries humans have spilled their most beloved animals’ blood to the earth to acknowledge the cyclical aspects of life in preparation for battle and celebration of life’s milestones. These are not concepts that a pharmaceutical corporation could ever understand.

As for every other scientific report, this one concludes that yet more study will be needed, but what is needed, and urgently so, is more humility, because as the world’s indigenous cultures go, so does all humanity.

By Dianey Toomey, Yale Environment 360

“National security expert Michael Klare believes the struggle for the world’s resources will be one of the defining political and environmental realities of the 21st century. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he discusses the threat this scramble poses to the natural world and what can be done to sustainably meet the resource challenge. His most recent book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, describes how the world economy has entered a period of what he calls “tough” extraction for energy, minerals, and other commodities, meaning that the easy-to-get resources have been exploited and a rapidly growing population is now turning to resources in the planet’s most remote regions — the Arctic, the deep ocean, and war zones like Afghanistan. Klare discussed China’s surging appetite for resources, the growing potential for political and military conflict as commodities become more scarce, and the disturbing trend of the planet’s agricultural land being bought by companies and governments seeking to ensure that their people will have enough food in the future.”

Michael Klare

Yale Environment 360: You make the point that when it comes to the age-old competition for raw materials, we’re in an unprecedented age. How so?

Michael Klare: I do believe that’s the case. Humans have been struggling to gain control of vital resources since the beginning of time, but I think we’re in a new era because we’re running out of places to go. Humans have constantly moved to new areas, to new continents, when they’ve run out of things in their home territory. But there aren’t any more new continents to go to. We’re going now to the last places left on earth that haven’t been exploited: the Arctic, the deep oceans, the inner jungles in Africa, Afghanistan. There are very few places left that haven’t been fully tapped, so this is humanity’s last chance to exploit the earth, and after this there’s nowhere else to go.

e360: Natural resource extraction has never been a pretty business when it comes to the environment, but you write that now that the era of easy oil, easy gas, easy minerals and other resources is basically over, and what’s left is in deep water, remote or inhospitable climates, or in geological formations that require extraordinary means to get at. So paint me a picture of what extracting these tough resources looks like.

Klare: We’re really going to be using very aggressive means of extraction, so the environmental consequences are going to be proportionally greater. For example, to get oil and natural gas out of shale rock, you can’t just drill and expect it to come out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to smash the rock, you have to produce fractures in the rock, and we use a very aggressive technology to do that — hydraulic fracturing — and the water is brought under tremendous pressure and it’s laced with toxic chemicals, and when the water is extracted from these wells it can’t be put back into the environment without risk of poisoning water supplies. So there’s a tremendous problem of storage, of toxic water supplies, and we really haven’t solved that problem.

And that’s just one example. Drilling in the Arctic presents a tremendous problem because the Arctic, by its very nature, is at the edge of survival and all the species there are living at the edge of survival, so any oil spill could push them over the edge into extinction. So [oil companies] must have on hand all kinds of extra capacity to deal with the possibility of spills, and that’s much more difficult to engineer than in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are tens of thousands of boats that you could hire on short notice to bring out skimmers and booms to contain a spill. There’s nothing like that in the Arctic. Moreover, if this were to happen in winter, there would be no way to move equipment up there to build a relief drill. Remember, it was a relief drill that closed the Deepwater Horizon spill, but you can’t do that in the middle of winter when the Arctic [Ocean] is covered with ice.  Continue reading

A vivid example of how the politics of nature – relating to the struggles to preserve animals, biodiversity, and ecosystems — has become at least as important as any social movement struggle. Of course, the article shows that the two political struggles are hardly inseparable, and that if we want to preserve biodiversity and ecological integrity, then we must also preserve the existence and rights of indigenous peoples. Because sure as hell, global corporations, bankers, dictators, imperialists, militarists, and mercenaries exist only to rob and destroy, not protect and disturb. Yet another example of how we need to speak of total liberation, or don’t speak of liberation at all.

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William Allen, Yale Environment 360, October 8, 2012

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

Conservation groups are helping restore scarlet macaw populations in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

But this magnificent creature and others that inhabit the reserve — jaguars, pumas, Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Baird’s tapirs — are being pressured not just by the standard threats common to tropical regions, such as illegal logging, fires, and commercial hunting. Even more virulent forces are gnawing away at the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including Mexican drug cartels that cut into the forest to build airstrips to transport drugs, Salvadoran gangs that carve out huge cattle ranches to launder drug money, and Chinese organized crime groups moving their illegal logging network toward the reserve to supply Asian markets with prime tropical hardwoods.

As a result, this natural and cultural treasure — the heart of the Selva Maya, a forest spanning the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize — has in recent years effectively been cut in two. The western side, which includes two of the reserve’s five national parks and is bordered on the west and the north by Mexico, is under siege, according to Guatemalan park officials. The eastern part of the reserve, where Tikal rises above the jungle canopy and which borders Belize, is lush and intact.

“The story of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has increasingly become a tale of two reserves — one of conservation successes and one of failures,” says Roan McNab, director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Guatemala program. McNab is a pivotal figure in a coalition of Guatemalan and foreign conservation groups battling to preserve the eastern half of the reserve and claw back some of the denuded lands of the western sector.

Much is at stake, as the reserve and the surrounding Selva Maya are the largest block of intact forest north of the Amazon Basin. The reserve supports 513 of Guatemala’s bird species (71 percent of the national total), 122 mammal species (64 percent), 95 reptile species (39 percent), and more than 80 species of neotropical migrant birds from North America. It enshrouds Tikal, a national park and World Heritage Site, and hundreds of other vestiges of Mayan civilization.

The international coalition struggling to preserve the heart of the reserve has enjoyed some important successes. Scarlet macaws are making a comeback thanks to intensive restoration efforts. The presence of the civilian government and military has grown. Prosecution of environmental crimes is up, albeit slightly. And community-based forest concessions have brought some rural Guatemalans sustainable income and empowered them in managing parts of the reserve.

“There’s a greater social awareness now of the importance of preserving environmental stability,” says Rolman Hernandez, director of the Petén region of Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), the Guatemalan park service. The reserve covers more than half of the Petén, the largest and northernmost of Guatemala’s 22 departments, or provinces.

Tikal

The World Heritage site at Tikal is among hundreds of historic Mayan sites in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The region that became the Maya Biosphere Reserve was once a vast mix of lowland rainforest, wetlands, lagoons, lakes, rivers, and mangrove forests. As many as 2 million people lived here at the peak of Mayan civilization, around 800 A.D., archeologists estimate. Then came the Mayan decline and Spanish conquest.

Until the 1960s, the region consisted of a few isolated forest villages. Then roads, built mainly to access oil and timber, opened the the area to illegal colonization and slash-and-burn agriculture. The reserve was created in 1990 to help control deforestation, but CONAP, financially strapped and often overruled by government officials friendly to the ranchers, has been hampered in its attempts to control the wave of destruction, McNab and others say. Today the human population is 118,000, with most living in poverty.

Criminal activity in the area began to intensify a decade ago, further accelerating the destruction of the western half of the reserve. An important factor is that northern Guatemala is ideally situated to refuel drug aircraft flying from South America and transfer narcotics to trucks for the easy drive to Mexico. The cartels operated in a “climate of impunity” since the army and police lacked the power to take them on, McNab says. The ranchers built dozens of airstrips, including one dubbed the “international airport,” which had three runways and more than a dozen abandoned aircraft. The result was a loss of 40,000 hectares of forest.

Guatemalans have developed a new term for what’s happening in the region: narcoganaderia, a combination of the Spanish words for drugs and cattle ranching. The cartels launder drug money by investing in cattle production and reaping profits from cattle sales in Mexican markets.

CONAP officials say evidence of the work of Chinese-backed criminal groups lies in the yard behind the agency’s Petén headquarters, in San Benito. The yard is crowded with timber and confiscated vehicles. Victor Penados, CONAP’s coordinator of control and vigilance for the reserve, points to a pile of rosewood confiscated from suppliers to Chinese criminal groups. The wood comes from one of several recent timber-smuggling busts by the government reported in national news media. This pile, confiscated from a truck delivering the wood to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto San Tomas de Castillo for shipment to China, has a market value of $125,000, Penados estimates.

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging just south of the reserve, according to CONAP. McNab fears it won’t be long before the Chinese-backed groups start cutting inside the reserve itself and then turn to intensive jaguar poaching for body parts to serve a Chinese market that is already driving Asian big cats toward extinction.

This conservation drama is playing out under extreme conditions. CONAP and WCS staffers have been threatened many times. Some have been taken hostage, while others have had to “disappear” for several weeks after raids to reclaim illegally acquired ranchland. McNab himself was held at gunpoint by two looters of a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. I was accompanied into the forest with as many as five armed security guards as we traveled near cartel ranches. Always in the back of my mind were the nation’s poverty, corruption, history of dictatorship, lawlessness, and 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

The influence of illegal logging and ranching in the reserve is evident in a series of three CONAP land-use maps showing a wave of fires and land clearing that gobbled up large green swaths of forest from 2000 to 2011, especially in the western section. McNab warns that if law enforcement does not improve, the reserve faces a “chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala’s border with Belize.”

Maya Biosphere Map

The 2.1 million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve covers 19 percent of Guatemala.

Nowhere is the tale of two reserves more visible than at the Guacamayas Biological Station in Laguna del Tigre National Park. To the south, across the Rio San Pedro and beyond, stretches a vast plain of ranchland, the raw result of deforestation. To the north, the rainforest canopy rolls untattered all the way to the border with Mexico. In 2008, scientists discovered a 1,100-hectare clear-cut smack in the middle of that expanse. It turned out to be a large cattle ranch linked to a Salvadoran gang involved in drug trafficking.

Such forest destruction has in recent decades reduced by 75 percent the habitat of the region’s scarlet macaws, a subspecies of the scarlet macaws found farther south in Latin America and the last remaining macaws in the wild in Guatemala. By 2000, scarlet macaws had nearly been extirpated in the reserve. A 2003 WCS study estimated that the population, mostly centered in the forest to the east of Laguna del Tigre park, had dropped to 200 birds. That year, the researchers monitored 15 nests, but only one chick successfully fledged.

But a program of predator control, environmental education in local schools, and hand-rearing by veterinarians brought the number of successful macaw fledglings to 29 in 2011 and 49 for this year’s nesting season. Says McNab, “We feel pretty good about adding that number of birds to the population. That’s big in terms of saving the species.”

To halt continuing deforestation, CONAP and its allies have established what they call “the Shield” — a lattice of trails running along the eastern border of Laguna del Tigre park, anchored by three major bases for patrols by CONAP, the army, national police, and others. Patrols and arrests have risen steadily over the past four years.

If the success or failure of the Shield will determine whether the western front of the reserve holds, what happens in villages like Uaxactún will decide whether the eastern part will avoid destruction from within.

Uaxactún, population 280, is one of 14 villages awarded government concessions more than a decade ago as part of an experiment in community-based forest management. The concessions, covering nearly one-fourth of the reserve, require residents to protect the forest ecosystems and manage its wood and other resources sustainably.

The villagers must refrain from poaching, intensive logging, slash-and-burn farming, and other unsustainable practices, as well as patrol for and report any such illegal activity. In return, CONAP, WCS, and other groups provide technical and financial support for forest-product ventures. Dozens of residents now work in sustainable harvesting of timber, date palm fronds, chicle for chewing gum, and other non-timber products from the forest. Others work in the village sawmill and woodworking shop.

Village leaders say the concession is working well. But not all the concessions have been so successful, according to a study published in March in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Among reasons for the problems were limited funding, the low CONAP budget, pressure from illegal ranching, and land speculation.

The effort in the village of Cruce a la Colorada was one of the failures. In 2010, disputes between ranchers and concession managers became so heated that concession members received death threats. A community leader was assassinated. In the ensuing climate of fear, the project collapsed.

But the conservation groups remain hopeful.

“You can grapple with these governance issues and you can have success,” McNab says. “It takes an integrated strategy working with a huge suite of partners, but it can be done.”

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