Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Environmental reviews reflective of our environment

I had to put these reviews down because the first one made me laugh so hard, and the second frankly is a hallmark to a kind of second sight you just will not hear normally. It unfortunately does tell a real truth: The Wise Use crowd, that being those who only know the developed, metropolitan way of life, know what is best for the environment. These are the people who know nothing about the great outdoors and camping under the bright night lights. These are some of the people who would laugh at the mention of a healing and spiritual relationship with nature. These are the unplugged who would simply dismiss John Denver's environmentally-aware music as nothing more than granola-munching cheesiness. These are the politicians who base the environment not on the environment, but on economics. These are examples of all the people who are defending their right to live an excessive consumer-driven life without consequence.

For the sake of human progress, do I have the answer for the environment? No, I haven't a clue. The environment will continue to decline for our development. (Noting Front Page's "environmental experts" devotion to a more developed economic globe does not lead to a improved natural environment because humanity will in fact use up more land.) All the excesses though will one day catch up and be realized that these over-romanticized green nuts, who are killing the environmental message in many ways today, were right about this one thing after all. Humans did misread God's plan by thinking the land was strictly for the taking instead of as being part human developer, part caretaker.

Earth Report 2000
What a great read. Nothing like a good political book. We rightwingers enjoy books like this because it provides science that we know to be false that we can use to back up our profit-driven agenda through the usual propoganda outlets such as talk radio. For example, in the excellent chapter on Air Quality, the authors talk about whether or not we humans are actually causing the air quality to go down or not. Although we all know that pollution is real, when folks like me own stock in large factories, the financial bottom line is all that matters. If the Big Government puts heavier restrictions on such companies, that means their costs will go up, and folks like me will lose money in our stock portfolios. Not a good thing. The chapter on Pesticides provides another example of misinformation that we can use on our talk radio shows to make sure the masses will vote Republican. I don't really care if pesticides are hurting people or not; what matters is when I, like Tom Delay, have a vested financial interest in a pesticide company, the last thing I want are the liberal scaremongers causing the government to force us to shut down our companies, causing us more financial losses. It's all about money. And that's why a book like this is such a good thing. Sure, the science is bad and absurd, but it helps us push forward our agenda.

Ronald Bailey’s dumbed down “Earth Report” is nothing more than vulgar anthropocentrism marketed as feel-good ecology neatly packaged for the McMasses. Actually, even the title of the book is a misnomer. While Bailey’s book is a “report” of sorts, at no point does the author seem to express a sincere or grounded interest in the “earth”.

Perhaps the book's greatest flaw, aside from the curiously misinterpreted statistics and erroneous conclusions, is its perverse avoidance of addressing the spiritual and philosophical issues logically raised when considering mankind’s roll in the natural world. While the book does a good job of inundating readers with all sorts of statistics and corporate-sponsored meditations, Bailey refuses, in a rather disturbingly determined sort of way, to pose the “larger questions”. The result is a book that too often feels intentionally rushed and suspiciously simple.

In Bailey’s worldview nature is a tangible commodity with a value that can fluctuate (...). “Ecology” is seen only as a tool to better manage natural assets to meet corporate and economic needs. This “nature as product” ideology has been practiced by capitalist entities since the industrial revolution, but Bailey’s attempt to bring it to the masses, and the simplistic manner of his presentation presents a new and dangerous trend. Bailey even insists that we should judge a species as “good” or “bad” depending on its relative worth to mankind. For example, Bailey believes that North American white-tail deer are, “dangerous mammals” and “killers” because they have the audacity to stray onto roads and highways where they often cause serious accidents when struck by fast-moving cars and trucks. Not only do these deer/vehicle collisions cause human fatalities, they ALSO result in over 1 billion dollars worth of insurance claims annually. To Bailey this represents a prime example of poor asset management (the deer of course being the poorly managed asset). Bailey never once considers that the massive deer overpopulation (which has logically increased the risk of deer/vehicle collisions) may have something to do with reduced deer habitat and the almost complete annihilation of the white-tail deer’s natural predators (courtesy of mankind).

Bailey’s disarmingly pronounced hubris in “Earth Report” is matched only by his inane insistence that there aren’t even any real ecological issues at all (at least in the “green” sense)! Counter arguments are seen as radical and suspicious.

The technocrat-friendly ideas presented by Ronald Bailey in “Earth Report” are not only arrogant and misguided, they are downright dangerous. Bailey’s subtle and consistent suggestion that all is really well in the world, may just cost us that, the world.

This book is full of propaganda and misinformation. The general concensus of the larger scientific community is all but ignored by the various authors on virtually every subject. The one example I will site is in the essay Fishing for Solutions:The State of the World's Fisheries. Although the book has a copyright of 2000, and the author sites some data as recently as 1998, he chooses to paint a rosy picture of the fishing harvest by limiting his data to data available up to 1996. He fails to mention that it was at this point that the fishing harvest hit its peak and that it has been in decline ever since. Being a biology teacher, I have spent considerable amounts of time researching the literature on various environmental problems including population growth, global warming, loss of diversity and the state of our fisheries. In every case, the authors of this book are at odds with what I have found to be the general concensus of the larger scientific community. I find it troublesome that the publishers of this book apparently did no research of their own to determine the validity of the views expressed within the pages of this book. Such misinformation is dangerous and unconstructive and presents a real risk to our environment and the economic health of our country in decades to come.

I have been researching the motives of the good news industry for some time. As a population ecologist, my area of research concerns our understanding of the relationship between species richness and ecosystem function, as mediated through diffuse and strong multi-trophic interactions and feedbacks. What's scary is that, at present, we really have very little idea how large scale processes, such as nutrient and energy transfer in food webs, stabilization of the atmosphere and other life-sustaining ecosystem services at broad scales are generated at much smaller scales, where selection works at the level of individuals organisms. We do know that global ecological systems generate processes which serve as our life-support systems, and that their simplification impairs the ability of the biosphere to generate these life-sustaining processes for humanity. That's the state of the field right now. Many of my eminent colleagues across the world are working hard to understand how our continued assault on the natural world might affect the services upon which we depend for our own survival. In the background, are those, with virtually no scientific credibility, and who represent very vested interests (their paymasters in the corporate world) who dish out the news that everything in Eden is fine, without a shred of scientific credibility to support this. The alarming fact is that our current knowledge of ecological systems and their functions is too limited to support the argument that Bailey and his ilk (Easterbrook, Budiansky etc.) have been constantly dishing out to the masses: that the Earth is in a fine shape and can withstand everything that our species is throwing at it. While systems are somewhat resilient to change (bearing in mind that they are dynamic and become new systems in the face of environmental stress), there is no reason to believe that these same systems will be so robust in providing those services which permit our survival. This is a hard fact.

I am particularly dismayed by the non-scientific propoganda which spews forth from a long line of libertarian think tanks - The CATO Institute, the Hudson Institute, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Reason Foundation, are just a few - which contain very little credible science but considerable misinformation. Consider the so-called blurb at the beginning of the piece, which says that the list of writers are scientific "experts". Ronald Bailey's scientific credibility is about as thin as it can get: he has covered science as a writer for Forbes magazine and as a producer for PBS. That's it. And the ecological "authority" obtained a diploma in field ecology from the University of Zimbabwe. Unbelievable: considering the wealth of expertise available, they can only recruit someone with these credentials? I think that this is indicitive of the backlash and of their motives. I checked to see how many peer-reviewed papers this ecologist has published in relevant journals, and I couldn't find any. His chapter is a mish-mash of misinformation, misinterpretation of facts, and a basic misunderstanding of many important areas in conservation biology. I do not have the time here to expand upon this in detail: however, his take on the rate of current biodepletion and the consequences for nature and humanity was appalling. Invoking the use of classic species-area models to defend the backlash view that current extinction rates represent a fraction of the extant global biota was disturbing enough, but many key parameters were omitted in his thesis. For instance, diversity is multi-dimensional: extinctions at the species level are one problem, the other, hidden in this deceitful tome, is that of losses in genetic variation within populations. There is profound evidence which suggests that many, many species, particularly in tropical biomes, are declining rapidly and are therefore losing the genetic variation which enables them to respond evolutionarily to changing environmental conditions. Its part of a two-edged sword which may lead to a cascade of extinctions: reduction in habitat reduces the number of populations, which further reduces the ability of species to adapt to habitat reduction. Species lose their economic and conservation value long before they approach extinction. Furthermore, a reduction in the population diversity of a species coincides with the potential disruption of interactions with other species. Multiple interactions function by anchoring the stability of communities, and serve as cornerstones in our understanding of food webs.

There is an unspoken belief pervading these right-wing organizations that all government is harmful and that corporations are a boundless good, which underpins the motives of Bailey and his ilk in writing this patent nonsense. I would gladly debate any of these individuals on these issues, to expose the degree of their scientific illiteracy, which stands out in the pages of books like this. It seems to me that these publications are meant to dupe the nonexpert into believing the corporate line. However, these publications do serve a dual purpose: they have inspired me and my colleagues in environmental science to enter the public forum and to expose Bailey and his backers for what they really are.

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