Monday, September 30, 2013

Pea soup

West Lake, Hangzhou, China 2007
Photograph by the author

While we fracture the habitat we can see — that is, the environment that larger organisms live in — the smaller one is turning into pea soup.

What I mean by this is that microbes, which are far more portable and perceive no real overall barriers to movement other than temperature and Ph, are spreading out of their micro-environments into new ones all over the planet at the greatest rate in the history of earth.

 This is because mankind carries and microbes with him wherever he goes, in his body, on his body, and in and on the artifacts, plants, and animals that he moves from place to place. Left to themselves, most of these objects (for example, floating logs) and creatures (land-based animals) don't move very far, or, if they do, carry a community of microbes that is in many ways specifically limited to the habits of their organism and the niches they frequent.  So a sea turtle, an albatross, a migratory herd mammal, do move microbe populations around, but within a describable set of boundaries.  The vast majority of microbes don't travel to completely new and novel environments so rapidly; their sheer size and attunement to the immediate surroundings prevent it.

Mankind has changed that a great deal, because he is extraordinarily mobile, especially in the past several centuries. Diseases have traveled with him; the introduction of smallpox to the Americas led to a holocaust which is only now being fully appreciated by archaeologists. It's possible that as much as 9/10 of the native populations, which used to be enormous, died off in a very brief period of time. More recent examples are the outbreaks of unique and objectively terrifying diseases such as AIDS, SARS and Ebola virus, which were originally resident in wild animal populations (monkeys, civet cats, and bats, respectively) but entered the human population due to increasing contact between wild animals and expanding communities of human beings.

These examples of dangerous diseases are just the ones that have come to our attention; and we are generally more preoccupied with diseases that affect us directly. Diseases such as white nose syndrome, which is wiping out bats on the East Coast of the United States, are equally destructive, but the overall tendency of the average person is to ignore what happens to animal populations.

What is completely under-appreciated is that similar outbreaks of disease, invasion, and the crippling and fundamental alteration of species mixes is taking place on a microbial level. Human beings are carrying microbes into every corner of the globe and having dramatic impacts on the microbe mixes in those communities.  When highly active agencies such as human beings arrive on the scene, size, which used to limit the spread of bacterial and microbial populations, is no longer a liability when it comes to dispersal— it is an advantage. Remember this phrase — highly active agencies — we'll get back to it.

There are invasive microbes, just as there are invasive types of grass, birds, snakes, and so on. Because these invasions and "species disasters" are taking place on a microscopic level, we are completely unable to appreciate them—unless they directly affect us, or another large creature.

The difficulty here is that we are unable to evaluate the mixing and fundamental alteration of microbial communities until it is far too late to understand it.

In order to understand why this is vitally important, it's necessary to understand the role that microbe communities play in the existence of larger ecosystems. This, also, has been largely ignored in the biology community until the last decade or two, because microbes and fungi were considered to be small and relatively insignificant. The study of them is esoteric and limited to a tiny cadre of experts; intensive study of microbes for over a century meant the study of infectious diseases, and almost nothing else. One might argue that it was only the advent of the understanding of extremophiles that led mankind to understand there were extraordinary things outside of the questions raised by the medical field going on in the microbe community.

 In the next post, we'll engage in a brief discussion about the role of microbes and the larger communities they live in. In the meantime, keep in mind that we are creating a kind of pea soup around us, in which bacteria mix in completely novel ways, fundamentally altering the way that our ecosystems function.

These alterations are microscopic, and will take many centuries to play themselves out, but they are poised to have a profound and fundamental long-term impact on the mix of macroscopic species that we share our environment with.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fractured habitats and the long time scale

In an earlier post, I explained that carving the landscape up into smaller and smaller fractions of itself with highways, barriers, fences, malls, and other forms of developments causes a greater and greater impoverishment of habitat and a steady deterioration of the entire environment, to the detriment of all species... not just the glamour species, that is, the attractive ones we love to celebrate (think pandas.)

This article in the New York Times  and this one in science daily news—bring the point home from a scientific point of view. It's not just paranoia; the evidence speaks clearly. When habitat is carved up by real estate developers and highway engineers like birthday cake, populations don't just suffer; eventually, they die off. The effect is the same whether water or concrete is the separating medium; genes can't mix, populations can't circulate, and animals and plants eventually loose the overall vitality they must have in order to remain viable.

Circulation of wildlife and plant material through the natural world is, you see, a form of breathing. It brings vitally needed materials from one place to another in exactly the same way that breathing delivers oxygen to cells. The majority of cells in your body are in a more or less static position: they need nutrients, that is, energy sources, brought to them by outside agents. If that circulatory mechanism is damaged—let's say, for example, that we tie off a limb with a tourniquet—in short order, cells begin to die. Soon enough disaster ensues.

The difficulty with the effect our fractured landscape is having on our world is that the effects are not immediate. The fact that die-offs, like other evolutionary processes, take place over what are geologic time scales ensures, unfortunately, that we can't actually see what we are doing.

This is a typical feature of man's psyche: we only register the immediate. Our awareness of long time scales has steadily deteriorated because of electronic technologies. Before the rise of secularism, scientific discourse, and modernsim... before the advent of electronic communication and the generalized collapse of "traditional" civilizations... man passed on his awareness of the long time scale, the existence of humanity throughout essentially ageless, or eternal, cycles, through a process of myth that penetrated the collective unconscious. Most of the romance and appeal of ancient and primitive cultures that still remains is attractive to us specifically because of its awareness of the long time scale. Yet we don't quite understand that, either; short time spans and sound bites, attention-destroying short term temporal phenomena, are as addicting as crack, and act like it: they overstimulate the nervous system, leading to a craving for more, and more. This accelerating phenomenon is taking over cultures everywhere.

The inability to see the long time scale has led to a lack of respect and even outright disregard and dismissal for the landscape and natural systems we inhabit. We don't see how what we're doing chokes off the circulation of the natural world; and we insist, perversely, not only that it isn't actually happening, but that all of the chaotic, destructive sprawl we generate is not only necessary, but desirable. Strip malls, superhighways, fast food restaurants, backyard barbecues: all are now for many people the better choice over lush forests and birdsong.

This is an extreme form of short term thinking, one that societies are not coming to grips with. The issue is that over the next several hundreds of years, a massive number of the plants and animals that enrich the environment, our lives, and our very psyches themselves are going to die out. Anyone who doubts this ought to pay a visit to the eastern seaboard of China— a place where I have spent years of time over the past three decades—and take a look at the paucity of plants, animals, and birds. It's not just the lack of diversity that is appalling—it's the lack itself. Spend a month there and you'll see that wildlife, as we know it in America, has nearly ceased to exist.

And, as a result of habitat fragging, that's where we're headed if we don't wake up.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cycles of myth and the long time scale

The human psyche wasn't built to think in a long time frames.

While it has the ability to do so, because of our intellectual capacities and our memory, the fact is that it evolved to deal mostly with the immediate. Time frames over hundreds and thousands of years simply aren't meaningful to human beings; they are, that is, theoretically meaningful, but they don't have any immediate effect on survival from day today. The long time scale is not a part of our ordinary psyche. It lies in the realm of the extraordinary; that is, outside the boundaries of our own lives. No matter how we parse it, it brings us to the edge of the unknown, and drops us off there as time marches off into territories where we can never follow.

Only man is, so far as we know, capable of having such thoughts.

This has both phenomenal and noumenal implications. The awareness of both short and long-term thinking are necessary in terms of biological survival; but they affect our emotional, our spiritual, life as well—those parts of us that don't yield so easily to the cold probe of the intellect.

We need short-term thinking in order to know what to do in the next minute, or hour, or day. This ensures survival in the moment. But precisely because of our ability to impact the environment and our overall surroundings over millennia— after all, we are the species that evolved complex culture as the means of passing technology on — long-term thinking is absolutely necessary.

Nature, which serves higher purposes we can't be quite aware of under ordinary circumstances, understood this, and produced mechanisms in order to provide the psychological underpinnings for a long-term thinking. We know these underlying thought structures as religions; as mythologies. Their mutually supportive traditions of storytelling and the positioning of man in eternally recurring cycles of event and experience are the mechanisms that position man in the landscape of time.

This is important because man needs to know where he is not only from the point of view of his immediate surroundings, but where the culture—where the tribe, the species—will be 1000 or even 10,000 years from now. Our romantic attraction to Native American traditions, for example, is because they see the big picture — they understand the long scale of time. The long scale of time, passed down through myth and tradition, connects us to the landscape, and to the natural environment we are currently in the process of destroying.

The advent of the so-called "modern" psyche, with its increasing and ever-accelerating emphasis on the short-term, on soundbites and fractured attention spans, is in the process of destroying this mechanism. 

With it are going most of the natural systems that keep us alive.

Human beings, in a word, have forgotten where they are. Both the philosophies and economics of modernism are in the process of destroying that which created them; and Western societies are unable to see this. 

The terrible violence we see emerging from tribal societies is almost certainly an immune system reaction from the planet to this distraction of the awareness of the long scale of time. They are, without a doubt, a terrifying thing; but we must imagine for a moment the desperation that births them, which is a misguided, last ditch attempt to defend essential and vitally important traditional cultures from the destruction of the long time scale of myth and religion. 

We don't see our behavior, in any set of circumstances, as connected to survival mechanisms for the species; yet all of them are. Even, as paradoxical as it may seem, terrorism. We may not understand that until we consider that the body will kill its own cells if it identifies them as containing pathogens. Cultures act in much the same way; right or wrong, these mechanisms aren't a unique aberration of the psyche. They mirror well known inner processes on a different scale, and in a different way.

In order to survive, it's vitally necessary to know where we are; and only the cycles of myth and a deep, religious understanding can bring us to that place. These traditions have an emotional, not intellectual, appeal; and it is precisely this appeal to the emotions that makes them work for human beings. The intellect is clever, but it doesn't have enough force to reach into the depths where the real decisions are made.

This is why we ignore the cycles of myth and tradition at our peril. They are not just romantic tales; they are deeply tied to our understanding of our long-term presence in this landscape, this habitat, that supports us. 

Both the inner and the outer habitat are bound together by the soul; and we must know this if we wish to live, on any scale of time.

May your soul be filled with light.

Indian rock, now surrounded by a shopping center.
Photograph by the author.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Man and Habitat

Shanghai, China: man's new habitat
Photograph by the author

Generally speaking, we think of habitat as an environment in which animals and plants live. For the majority of urban and suburban populations worldwide, earth is a place to be adjusted and manipulated and exists only to support economic opportunities and, when appropriate, to be exploited for entertainment value. Our habitat, in other words, is no longer the place we live; it’s a thing. So in a certain sense we have succeeded in turning habitat into a consumer item. The majority of modern peoples feel that if habitat value stands in the way of any economic activity whatsoever, the economic activity wins. I encounter this attitude all the time among an arrogant and growing class of people who assert that the interests of human beings must come before any other interests.

In the short term, this is a viable attitude. But it sells the sustainable aspects of our activities very short indeed. We’re an integral part of the landscape, and thinking that places us outside of it runs the risk of assuming that we aren’t dependent on it. Periodically, nature has a way of bringing us back to the brink of an understanding with cataclysmic events; but these are generally natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, not biological collapses.

Yet biological collapses have plagued and even destroyed earlier civilizations; we forget this at our peril. And the idea that we can avoid biological collapses is a dangerous one. 

The distance between understanding and not understanding in these matters is a cultural one. And thereby hangs a tale.

Technology has increasingly distanced man from any connection with his natural surroundings. Human beings evolved to take in impressions of the natural world; Edward O. Wilson’s hypothesis is that mental, as well as physical, health may well be determined not only by the foods we eat but by the visual, auditory, and other sensory material we absorb in day to day living. The increasing alienation of human beings from natural impressions of the environment, in other words, may be making us, quite literally, unhealthy. We need to see birds, plants, flowers; to hear the sound of wind in leaves, to feel the touch of bare earth on the soles of our feet. And when we don’t, we gradually, slowly, ever-so-subtly begin to go insane: depressed, anxiety-ridden, even psychotic. Man’s psyche, in other words, is just as much a product of habitat as physiology.

This disease is progressive; every generation is exposed to a greater degree of alienation. The advent of digital devices that we carry with us everywhere has accelerated a process that began with movie theaters and television sets; and now the majority of impressions we focus our attention on are unnatural ones.

This isn’t to say that man’s natural habitat can’t eventually change over time; and if the natural habitat of man’s psyche is morphing into a digital one, we can presume that over time, man’s psych may adapt accordingly. This is a difficult proposition, however; we’ve been evolving in conjunction with overwhelmingly natural impressions for millions of years, and the transition to technological impressions is taking place over a compressed period, a few short centuries which have produced entirely novel psychic environments which mimic natural ones, but actually provide a drastically reduced fraction of the sensory input that nature provides for us. Adaptation to this new environment may take hundreds of thousands of years, but the deterioration of man’s psyche is unfolding in real time, with entirely unpredictable results.

So what habitat do we choose? It would appear that man’s movement into the virtual habitat of digital realms is already a fait accompli. At the same time, our view of the natural habitat as a consumer product to be manipulated for our own benefit, a commodity to be exploited, drastically devalues it, to the point where we’re willing to do a nearly unlimited amount of damage in order to extract perceived value. 

The degradation of the natural habitat, unless it’s reversed, will eventually lead to a seriously impoverished life for mankind. There needs to be a retraining of attention and consciousness back towards natural impressions, and a re-valuation of them, in order to stop this trend. We're not, in other words, just destroying our natural habitat: we are destroying our spiritual habitat.

Whether human beings will be able to preserve the natural surroundings that are so vital to our psyche and navigate this massive transition of habitat without destroying ourselves remains to be seen. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Just a wee bit more about geologic timescales

Tappan Zee,  Hudson River, New York
 Looking North. The Tappan Zee was carved out of the 220 million year old Newark basin sandstones when glaciers carved the Hudson River Valley during the quarternary glaciation. The Palisades—the cliffs on the left side of the river—are basalt flows of lava that represent the eastern side of the rift that split the Continental Pangaea into North America, portions of Iceland, and Africa.

 Species evolution is determined in geologic time scales. There was never a “first” bird, just as there was never a “first” whale. At any given time, all a human observer would be able to see was a particular creature, occupying a particular niche, which might or might not display some or all of the characteristics of birds or whales.

 Human beings are time-bound by very narrow constraints lasting through, from the individual perspective, a single generation. Historical perspectives afford us a somewhat longer view, but, aside from the fossil record, our experience of living species and what they mean is restricted to our immediate environment and what we can see now. The practice of paleontology and the study of fossils is exotic enough that only a tiny portion of mankind studies it; and it is patently impossible for anyone to predict the future evolution of species.

 As such, we see everything through a tiny, more or less contemporary lens, and consequently feel relative alarm about the loss of individual species or the invasion of a local habitat by a foreign species. (We are, on the other hand, very comfortable with importing specific foreign species and planting them in our gardens—landscapes all over the world are populated with countless numbers of foreign species. Foreign species only tend to cause alarm when they successfully outcompete local creatures or plants. Our habit of moving species around because of their aesthetic values—pets, zoo animals, and exotic landscape plants—has resulted in any number of species invasions, most of them irreversible.)

What we tend to forget is that speciation and evolution take place on geologic time scales, that is, over tens and hundreds of millions of years. These forces are most definitely not under human control, but our interest in micromanaging species events has grown steadily with the environmental movement. While the movement is inarguably well-meaning, and its interest in in preserving biodiversity laudable, our habit of fighting pitched battles in what are going to be objectively losing situations is expensive and pointless. Battles must be fought; slowing and even stopping the extinction of whale species is a wise action. But this does not mean that stopping every invasive species makes sense; or that every species needs to be preserved. Only hubris leads us to believe that we are in control of the natural environment, or have any say whatsoever over the direction that develops in the long-term. Our habit of perceiving ourselves as separated from the natural environment, rather than being—indubitably—a product of it, and an integral part of the way in which it is evolving, has caused us to believe we have powers that don't in fact exists.

If the earth is taking evolutionary directions at the hand of man, these directions are in some ways just as much a natural product of the earth's overall evolutionary pattern as any other direction things might take. That is to say, argued from a cynic's point of view, habitat destruction, pollution, and the extinction of species is a natural phenomenon arising from the habits of a particular product of evolution, and has to be included, in a macroscopic view of the situation, as an entirely natural and acceptable phenomenon.

 Logical reasoning of this kind, which is difficult to refute, gives cold comfort to people like me, who prefer to see living things valued and preserved. I'll admit that perhaps it's the artist in me that believes that there is a fundamental goodness and aesthetic value in nature; and perhaps my affinity for nature itself begins with this aesthetic value, which for me is largely spiritual, rather than commercial or utilitarian. But if the aesthetes are not willing to preserve nature, who will? Those who view it as a commercial or utilitarian opportunity see little value in anything but its exploitation.

 The geologic timescale needs to be applied as a rough measurement of the significance of any evolutionary event, since it can only be measured from that perspective. Indeed, our alarm about the acceleration of extinctions arises specifically because of its association with geological events, the last 5 of which produced extinction rates that drastically altered the planet.

Here, self interest kicks in; what really worries human beings, after all, isn't whether other creatures will survive, but whether they themselves will. And this is a legitimate question. Yet once again, the preservation of individual species does not become the issue here. It's the overall health of the habitat that will ultimately determine survivability for both humanity and other organisms. This may not be seen on geologic timescales, but it is touched on them, because it involves landscapes and weather—both geologic forces—not salamanders and grasses. If the landscape is more intact, and more attuned to weather events, the preservation of canopy, groundcover, coastal buffer zones, etc., both mankind and the habitat benefit. The landscape is better able to absorb, process, and digest the results of man's activity, and the creatures that live in it are better able to survive accordingly.

 Civilization is peppered with the remains of earlier civilizations that believe they could manage nature effectively. Every single one of them ultimately came up against weather events they did not have any control over; in most cases, it led to a collapse. The bottom line is that our idea of how much control we have over our environment is exaggerated.  For example, when the US government undertook the massive water management projects in the western states at the beginning of the 1900s, after spending the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars, and building countless dams, the amount of arable land was increased by a paltry 1% or so at best, and it turned out that even this meager improvement was marginal and difficult to sustain over any long periods of time. One of the world's largest environmental engineering programs has been, in other words, of little value. The majority of the West is, as it always was, desert of one kind or another. Other major transformational projects such as Egypt's Aswan dam have proven to be equally suspect in the long run; if they do succeed in altering the local environment, as the dam did, they do so only at great expense, inflicting substantial long term damage in order to achieve what are fleeting, short term successes.

The odds are that the vast majority of human attempts to micromanage ecosystems and environments will, over the very long run, have a weak effect–that is, they will be nearly 100% ineffective, to the point where results will not be discernable.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Watershed stress

Yellow Sea, Shandong, China, as seen from Qingdao
Photograph by the author

Today I thought I'd say a little bit about habitat preservation in terms of watershed stress, a subject we'll come back to over and over again as we examine the overall impact of human activity on the planet.

The latest study on this subject reveals some alarming news about how we're managing water habitats, and water quality, all over America. Readers interested in the condensed version of this report can refer to the Huffington Post article.

Water supplies are dwindling all over not America, but the planet. And in areas where there is less and less water, one single unexamined fact stands out. The less water there is in any given area, the more polluted the water base becomes.

This is because pollution is measured in parts per million, or fractions of pollutant per gallon, to put it in simpler terms. Given the fact that in most areas, the amount of pollutants being input into the water system is either static or rising, the less water there is to dilute it into, the more concentrated the pollutants are. Natural "water-cleaning" ecosystems consisting of plants, filtering aquifers and microbial degraders of polluting runoff are more and more taxed, and less and less able to filter or purify the contaminants they receive. The same is true of manmade treatment systems. In both cases, the processing of human pollutants—chemical waste, human waste, medically hazardous microbial contaminants, and so on—is less and less effective over time. Both nature and man, in other words, rely on a steady and predictable relatively high level of clean water in order to handle the pollutants we produce.

Anywhere that water supplies are stressed and dwindling, this problem becomes greater and greater over time. The net result is that the plants, animals, and microbes dwelling in the water ecosystems are subject to greater and greater stress from contaminants with every passing year.

This situation is directly analogous to the air pollution in Beijing. Anyone who believes than man can tolerate an unlimited amount of pollution in an environment needs to think again, because Beijing proves that it isn't actually all that hard to pass tolerable levels and move into dangerous territory.  The exact same thing is happening to our waterways, only it's less visible and immediate. This is doubly dangerous, because it is hidden from both public consciousness and direct experience. Not only do we not appear to directly suffer from it; we don't even think about it. Problems of this nature tend to grow so large that by the time anyone does anything about it, it is far too late. It's the equivalent of an undiagnosed cancer which is steadily metastasizing.

While it's true that global warming, with the consequent addition of dramatically larger amounts of circulating (and therefore fresh) water to the world ecosystem, will deliver far more water to some portions of the planet, there are also heavily populated regions where it will deliver far less, as we are already seeing. Excess amounts of water produce equally devastating pollution problems by overwhelming and flooding out treatment systems and sewers, thus contaminating the area with biohazards and chemical contaminants that under ordinary conditions will remain isolated from the resident populations.

There is no absolutely substitute for excellent water treatment system management. It may not seem as important as preventing the operation of nuclear power plants in your area, but statistically speaking you're far more likely, over the course of your lifetime, to be exposed to waterborne hazards in the form of disease and chemical contaminants than you are radiation.

Yet no one mounts protests against bad water management.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Habitat preservation and its role in conservation

Baby snapping turtle, from the Sparkill Creek, Sparkill, New York.
 Photograph by the author, 2012.

In the last post, we examined the nature of species invasion over geologic time scales, explained the relative implications of biodiversity on macroscopic and microscopic scales, and discussed the fact that human beings are not, overall, in control of their own species extinction events anymore... the events, that is, that are causing them to render so many species extinct, and vastly accelerating the rate of species invasion worldwide.

 Because human politics and societies are fundamentally fractured and contentious, and because economic activity provides nearly limitless incentives for environmental violations, worldwide consensus of any kind on the destruction of the biosphere is, relatively speaking, a fantasy.  Catastrophes on an unimaginable scale would have to rise before any real consensus could be reached. Failing that, we are left with an examination of the best approaches that actually stand a chance of working.

 Prevention of species invasion

 While this is, in theory, an excellent idea, it has turned out to be completely impractical. Despite the proliferation of an endless series of laws regarding import and export of animals and plants, designed to limit species invasion, the accelerated scale with which materials and human beings are moving around the planet has resulted in the wholesale distribution of alien species into new niches. It is likely that every week, some 10 or 20 new species that will ultimately be deemed invasive find their way to new areas they were never seen in before; and these are only the species we can see. The blending of the microbial communities that form the understory of this activity is, no doubt, far more intense and pervasive, and much more difficult to measure.

The point is that species invasion is a fact that has to be lived with now. Whether experts, biologists, conservationists, fish and wildlife enforcement agents, or the general public like it or not, species invasion will continue to take place and accelerate. This is a fact. Arguing about it is very nearly pointless, because while the arguments take place, the invasions go on. And on. And on.  Globalization virtually ensures it, and no government or private organization has the resources to control this in any credible manner.

 Given that the situation is, for all intents and purposes, uncontrollable, an endless series of expensive responses intended to control it–when it is, already, definitely uncontrollable–are very nearly pointless. While the most spectacularly destructive examples of invasion involving insect species may be worth trying to counteract, in many cases, probably the majority of cases, human beings will simply have to make an accommodation with the new status quo as it arrives.

 Elimination of invasive species

 An impractical step to take, for the reasons described above. One of the principal features of invasive species is that by the time they are labeled as invasive, they are insanely successful. That is, they have managed to take over a large portion of the ecosystem they migrated to. A rule of thumb here is that by the time a species is on the radar screen as invasive, it's too late to eliminate it. We have seen this again and again:  the Japanese beetleKudzu in the southern United States, mile a minute vine  in the Hudson River Valley, and  the Burmese python in the Everglades are just a few examples. These plants and animals are here to stay; efforts to eliminate them are pointless.

 While elimination of invasive species may be achievable in specific, limited locations over short periods of time, lessons have shown us that such control measures are simply holding actions. In the end, invaded ecosystems become new and different ecosystems that have to be dealt with on their own terms. Trying to turn them back to the conditions they began with is almost always nearly impossible. As such, spending large sums of money, whether taxpayer or donated, to control invasive species is a waste of time, unless the species represent dire threats to agricultural activities or represent major health threats to human populations.

 Preservation of habitat

 Because species evolution is a fluid series of events over long periods of time, human attempts to control it through the micromanagement of species interaction within given environments is not only (as I point out above) doomed to failure, it distracts us from the more compelling and urgent matter of the overall health of the biosphere itself. Species cannot be preserved individually if their habitat, collectively, degrades; and preservation of habitat in the face of the many significant threats human beings bring with their relentless expansion on the planet surface becomes not only the greater challenge, but the one that it is more necessary to manage properly. Rather than focusing on the gain or loss of individual species, whether native or invasive, human beings need to focus on the negative impacts they themselves are having on habitats, and what can be done to correct that.

Negative impacts on habitat

 Let's examine some of the more alarming affects human beings are having on habitat worldwide.

Fracturing of habitat

Over the last 3000 to 5000 years, humans have divided the habitable and arable landscape into progressively smaller portions. This process accelerated dramatically over the last 300 to 500 years, and took a dramatic turn for the worse with the introduction of the automobile and the division of the landscape into millions of fractional environments, separated from one another by highways, fences, dams, and other physical obstacles to the migration and interaction of wildlife. Extension of city life into large suburban areas exacerbated the issue.  Almost all of this has taken place in the most fertile and habitable regions of the planet.

Climate change

 Human beings have pumped vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the planetary atmosphere, along with innumerable other airborne pollutants such as lead, other heavy metals, and particulate pollutants that affect the breathable quality of air around every major city. Global temperatures are climbing, which will definitely have a negative impact on many existing habitats. Under ordinary circumstances, creatures would in many cases be able to migrate to more suitable areas, but the fracturing of the landscape by development has had a negative impact on the ability of species to relocate. This will make transitions for many species far more difficult.

Waterway pollution

 Almost without exception, every chemical product manufactured by man is eventually discharged into waterways, ultimately reaching the ocean. This is a major issue which will acquire much more detailed treatment in future posts, but the bottom line is that chemical pollution represents the single greatest danger to man's biological health on the planet, this for multiple reasons. The first and most immediate reason is that man needs clean water to drink; a significant percentage of the world water is on its way to being too contaminated to use for that purpose. Contamination of water also affects the wildlife that inhabits it, and its usability for agricultural purposes. In perhaps one of the greatest ironies, contaminated water is no longer suitable for use in chemical processes.


 Man's real estate development in coastal and riverine environments has resulted in enormous tracts of land that are paved, landscaped, or otherwise altered so that water runs off them easily. This has vastly accelerated the amount of pollutant bearing runoff that reaches the waterways. It degrades existing underground water tables, since the water no longer percolates through the soil or rock into the reservoir; and it results in the portage of innumerable microbial contaminants such as e coli and other inimical bacteria into the waterways.

Soil erosion and destruction

 Poor soil conservation practices across most of the planet destroy soils at a much faster rate than they are created. This is of particular concern in tropical areas, where soils may be poor to begin with and are often thin and underdeveloped. Soils in temperate climates have not, however, avoided this problem, because they've been subject to far more intensive agriculture for much longer, and in many cases, soils in developed countries have already been so badly damaged that the majority of the original soil base is compromised.

Species depletion and ecosystem collapse

 Man's effect on local ecosystems has been dramatic and catastrophic. Many keystone species have been destroyed, destroying entire industries (such as the Pacific West Coast salmon fisheries) along with them.

Chemical pollution

 Probably the most inimical and underappreciated issue facing mankind today. Over the last 100 years, the number of novel wide-application industrial and agricultural chemicals, biocides, medicines, and toxins has multiplied a thousandfold or more, with little or no adequate scientific studies to predict the  medium or long-term effects of these chemicals on the environment.


 Habitats worldwide are under siege from multiple directions. Preservation of habitat in sound, unpolluted condition in sufficient areas to allow fluid species interaction, migration, and reproduction without constant interference from human beings has become a major challenge for environmentalists and conservationists. There is no point to preserving individual species under any conditions whatsoever if habitat preservation is not achieved. As such, attempts to control invasive species or propagate native ones tend to be quixotic when measured against the need for habitat preservation.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Invasive species: a perspective

Gaillardia, a species originally native to Washington state, was brought to the Outer Banks of North Carolina sometime within the last century. It turned out to be an aggressive invader which has blanketed the dunes up and down the islands with flowers. It is now an accepted part of the landscape. Photo collection of the author.

In the last post, we examined a single microscopic version of species invasion. Today we're going to look at the question from a much larger perspective.

 First of all, the context. When you look around you, you see bugs, fish, birds, dogs, and so on. There are also larger creatures, of course; but if you look at the question in any detail, you'll find out that bugs outnumber them by a wide margin. Insects and arthropods, and other words, win when it comes to the numbers, as far as what we can see around us.

 Human beings tend to discuss species diversity in terms of larger, visible organisms. When big animals like rhinos are in danger of becoming extinct, alarm bells go off. A rule of thumb is the smaller the animal, the less fuss people make about it if it disappears. An exception for that rule can be made in cases where small animals form huge swarms or flocks, such as the passenger pigeon. Even here, though, size (the flock) basically matters; things we can't directly see don't worry us much, at least when it comes to species diversity.

 The greatest amount of species diversity by far, however, exists at the microscopic level. Bacterial and other microscopic lifeforms outnumber life forms we can see by what is probably many, many trillions to one. What that means is that there are so many more of them that their combined biomass easily eclipses all other life forms.  (For more detailed information on this, read this article by Stephen Jay Gould.) This has been known to biologists for quite some time: the dominant life form on Earth is bacteria. Human beings are an insignificant afterthought, in terms of numbers.

 The point is that if mankind killed off, say, 80 or 90% of all the visible organisms on earth—that is, I mean, organisms that could be seen with the naked eye—it would be a tiny, tiny fraction of the total biodiversity of all species on the planet, because of the unimaginably immense diversity found at the microbial level.  This may be small comfort to naturalists and environmentalists; but it is a scientific fact. The loss of diversity we currently see is deplorable, but it is only deplorable to us. From the perspective of the planet, such things have been seen many times, and they have always worked out rather well in the end.

Extinctions of up to 95% of all life forms on earth are not unheard of; we know of at least 5 major extinction events from the fossil record, each one of which was (at least so far) immeasurably worse than the current extinction events taking place because of the actions of human beings. In each case, life rebounded, and the earth completely repopulated itself with an impressive and even incredible variety of new species. The last major extinction event, the Cretaceous extinction event, was what made it possible for mammals to take over many of the niches in the biosphere formerly occupied by dinosaurs, and eventually led to the rise of man.

 The lesson to be learned from this is that extinction events, no matter what causes them, are anything but irrevocable, and that the biosphere is well equipped to recover from them. It turns out that even a tiny reservoir of species diversity will rebound and repopulate the planet.

The issue with invasive species crowding out and even extincting native ones is thus of little or no concern on geologic time scales. The process is, moreover, absolutely natural. To give an obvious example, the Hawaiian islands originally rose from the sea as barren lumps of lava. Every single plant and animal you now find in Hawaii arrived there as an invader of one kind or another. Successive waves of creatures competed with one another to form the rich habitats we see today; but each one of them, when it first arrived, disrupted and dislodged other species. The implication, in fact, is that a significant number of species on every continent first arrived there as foreign invaders.

So the process of species invasion is an entirely natural one. The fact that human beings have accelerated it is of obvious concern only to human beings who are negatively impacted by it; the loss of native species can be seen, from an overall perspective, as incidental and unworthy of control or management. While we may be alarmed at the loss of a single interesting or unusual species in our own time scales, that is, in the context of recorded history, nature takes these things into account and recovers from them over the long run. It will, assuredly, compensate for man's activities in one way or another, given enough time. This means that the majority of biologists and conservationists occupied with the idea of attacking problems of individual invasive species, and individual species loss, are probably misguided.

While the argument can well be made that habitat diversity is better for overall habitat health and the health of all species in general, the idea that we have any actual control over habitat diversity at this point in time is something of a fantasy. The forces of economic development are pushing forward relentlessly, in nearly completely autonomous actions that can't be constrained by bureaucrats, biologists, or small groups of fanatics arguing against them. Things, in other words, are bad and going to get worse, from any pragmatic point of view. But they will only be worse from the point of view of human beings. Nature, which has a nearly infinite reservoir of resiliency to it, will remain supremely indifferent to these temporary events.

 This may sound like a pessimist's point of view; but, as I've always pointed out, pessimist is a word foolish optimists use to describe pragmatic realists. While we can make some difference in terms of species and habitat preservation, we can not make every critical difference, and we are certainly far from making all the difference that's necessary. Not everything, in other words, can be saved; and many more pragmatic biologists are beginning to recognize this. In a situation of this kind, triage in which habitat is preserved, rather than individual creatures, becomes the preferred method of conservation.

 And we will discuss this in the next post.

Of interest for today: the first and perhaps most dramatic event of speciation on earth was the cambrian explosion. This article sheds some new light on why it took place.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Invasive species: phragmites in the Piermont Marsh, Piermont, NY

This essay, which is part of a series of commentaries sent to the DEC, is part of a much larger discussion. Invasive species are affecting landscapes around the world; and human beings are struggling to keep up with them. In this essay, we look at a microcosmic example. The issues it discusses are actually worldwide issues: human beings in both developed and undeveloped countries are impacting nearly every environment they live in in this manner, so this story has innumerable variants. Wherever you live, there is definitely some intelligible parallel to this story in your own neighborhood.

In future essays we'll discuss the subject of invasive species in general, and examine the implications from a global perspective.

Dephragging the Marsh:
Why is Phragmites invading the Sparkill Creek watershed and the Piermont marsh?


The author's observations on local watershed conditions, based on living next to the Sparkill creek and Piermont marsh for 12 years.

 According to reports and historical data, some 20 or more years ago the Piermont Marsh carried a healthy mix of native species, which has been replaced by a large (almost, but not quite) monoculture of an invasive species, Phragmites.

The reasons for this may seem excessively complex, but most of it probably boils down to a simple set of issues. Almost all of them are not reversible on any short or medium term basis, because the essential cause is the increase in population and real estate development in the Sparkill Creek watershed over the last 20 to 30 years.

The human population in this part of Rockland County has undergone significant increases during that period.  This has led to the widespread building of new and additional houses, clearing of forests, and a significant increase in the number of spaces which afford less water absorption in an area where the bedrock is already near the surface and the water table tends to saturate easily. What it means is that there is a lot more runoff into the creek in the watershed area than there used to be.

 Secondly, real estate development has resulted in the addition of many lawns, large flat areas that, in addition to increasing runoff, invite the widespread application of fertilizers and pesticides. This has been compounded by the arrival of major chains such as Home Depot and Lowes into the area, who aggressively market large quantities (tens of thousands of pounds) of nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to the customer base. These products were not as readily available in the county in earlier decades, and it seems reasonably certain that the increased availability, strictly a function of the marketing of the products, has led to vastly increased use, and a dramatic increase in the amount of fertilizer runoff through the Creek into the marsh, which lies directly south of the mouth. All—100%— of this product has nowhere else to go; if 100,000 pounds of fertilizer are applied in the Sparkill Creek watershed, all of the runoff goes down through the creek into the marsh.

The critical point to remember here is that native salt marsh species such as spartina thrive in marginal environments where salt levels are higher and such nutrients are generally less available. They're not adapted for environments with richer, more fertile soils, and can't compete as effectively in them. The reason they succeed where they do is simply because of their ability to tolerate conditions which other species can't.

Added nitrogen and phosphorus favor more aggressive species such as phragmites, which grow much better under such conditions.

 A third factor to consider is the increasing affluence of the households in the Sparkill Creek watershed. People with more money tend to be interested in showing it off. This means more lawns, larger lawns, and more lawn maintenance, all of which leads to increased application of fertilizer to the acreage draining into the Sparkill Creek. People of lesser financial means do not tend to spend their money on bags of fertilizer to put on their lawn; people with money to do so are far more prone to take such action.  And indeed, the local authorities on home and lawn care — which are retail operations such as Home Depot and Lowe's, not geologists, biologists and hydrologists (that is, actual authorities, as opposed to sales organizations)— assure them in their marketing displays that this action is, in fact, necessary and desirable.

The principle is simple: affluence leads to effluence. These are pretty simple facts that anyone can understand without a degree in bio.

Before we go any further, let us take note that this situation will not change,  no matter how much wishful thinking is applied to it by conservationists of various stripes. As such, it must be considered permanent, and will affect the Creek no matter what biologists or conservationists do to the marsh.

I hypothesize that the main reason that the invasive species phragmites has come in and taken over in the last 20 years must be attributed principally to these progressive changes in the environment, since the species has been present in the area for much longer than that, and did not gain a stronger foothold before the 1990s.

As such, we need to look to said changes in the actual physical environment to explain the explosion of the phragmites, and the above cited explosion in fertilizer use and the resultant runoff into the creek has to be one of the major contributing factors, since it is the most obvious one. Occam's razor suggests one need look no further; yet there is a second major contributor to this runoff.

That second factor is sewage discharged both accidentally and deliberately by the Orangetown sewage works. Not only does the county allow the intentional discharge of this runoff into the river; repeated catastrophic blowouts of the sewage system lines on Ferdon Ave. (which I live on and have personally witnessed, reported, and documented with photographs on multiple occasions) has caused enormous surges of sewage to run into the creek and, of  course, the Hudson River. The nutrients from these surges end up in the marsh before they continue downstream. The roots of the phragmites slow water flow down, causing the particulate sewage effluvients (that is, poop) to drop out of the water column.

The street in front of my house has been afloat in wads of toilet paper during these blowout episodes, which are spectacular and involve water gushing from manhole covers for hours, and even days, on end. And E. Coli is present in Sparkill Creek sediments as a result.

 In the first case, it's quite clear that consumer choice and an inevitable increase in population and affluence over time has contributed to (if not caused!) the problem with the invasive species.

In the second case, the town has clearly mismanaged its responsibilities and is using the river as a waste disposal area. The marsh has directly suffered from this, and if anyone ought to be held financially responsible for the cleanup, it is not the taxpayer, but the utility and the county officials who have allowed it to operate in this manner. Unfortunately, the DEC plan does not contain funds to prosecute lawsuits against these operations, but perhaps that should be considered.

The overarching question to ask is whether there is any point to attempting to restore the marsh, given that the two main conditions causing excess fertilizer runoff (which, of course, is accompanied by a large amount of undesirable pesticide runoff applied by well meaning, but biologically uninformed, watershed residents) cannot actually be stopped. At best, the sewage treatment plant and the method in which it operates might be corrected — and this would by far be the most obvious way to improve conditions in the watershed. Nonetheless, given the way that the fertilizer market operates, and the heedless manner in which consumers apply artificial fertilizers to their gardens and lawns, any plan to restore the marsh will probably need to be a plan that is perpetual, since the conditions feeding the invasive species will not go away. There is no practical way to filter the runoff from Sparkill Creek; and if conditions of excess nitrogen don't go away, the task of keeping the marsh in a condition other than the one it is currently in will become a Sisyphean one indeed.

The situation is analogous to the fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River, albeit on a much smaller scale. It's well known to biologists that the most serious and devastating pollution in the Gulf of Mexico is this fertilizer runoff, which has resulted in a massive dead zone that dwarfs and eclipses any damage that the BP oil spill did; yet instead of going after the agricultural businesses in the Midwest who are wreaking havoc with their fertilizer applications, the country has decided to sue BP, with great fanfare, even though it is our corn farmers who are killing the Gulf. This is another case where expediency trumps both common sense and the facts — which is exactly what is happening in the DEC plan to restore the marsh. The factors creating the invasion of phragmites are almost certainly far too complex to actually correct; as such, the ecosystem, which is simply undergoing a natural succession based on suitable species and actual physical conditions, cannot be managed except as a landscaping project at taxpayer expense. If the marsh and the surrounding area are allowed to continue to evolve at the rate and given the conditions that are provided, no great harm will be done. If we interfere with the destruction of the current conditions at what is objectively great expense, by killing off the phragmites, it is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on cancer. It has no actual effect whatsoever on the root causes of the problem, which will continue to favor the regrowth of phragmites.

 I believe that this information is already well known to biologists, and should be self-evident to anyone with common sense who looks at the situation from a macroscopic point of view. This raises the question of why plans to spray herbicide in the marsh were ever forwarded in the first place, and why officials are not more aggressively looking at the proper management of the watershed area of the Sparkill Creek, which is where the problems originate. Cleaning this Creek and its waters up by progressive legislation to control the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and the discharge of sewage has to take priority over any meddling with the plant life in the marsh, since the undesirable plant life in the marsh is there because of these problems.

 The lesson to be learned is that we, the local residents, are ultimately responsible for the conditions around us. Better education of the public, intelligent application of restraints on poor watershed practice, and other measures are needed.

Spraying poisonous herbicides on marsh grass addresses none of this, and is in fact a distraction from the real problems.