Friday, December 30, 2016



At this mornings meditation, a solitary warbler flew into my visual field. I was filled with gratitude, made more acute by the following emotion, regret that it was only one bird. I thought back to William Bartram's eighteenth-century description of great flocks of birds flying overhead in North Carolina, so thick that he could hardly see the blue sky behind them. Today, if you were a film director shooting that scene, you'd be hard pressed to corral that many song birds from the whole western part of the state.

Not only are we well into the Sixth Extinction, with rates 1000x greater than the rate when we emerged in Africa, but the numbers of wild animals are dropping precipitously. By 2020, scientists predict that we will have lost 2/3 of their total number. We are already past 60%. This data reinforces personal anecdotal experience: numbers of butterflies and moths have dramatically decreased in rural WNC since I was a boy. And I know that the decline in insect numbers radically affects bird populations. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy  speaks of the loss of the “moth snowstorms” many of us remember from the 50's, when our car headlights revealed thick clouds of them every evening. Have you noticed how many fewer bloodied insect carcasses there are on your car hood? Soon, even the Jains will be able to drive our monster fossil-devouring vehicles without collateral damage to the web of life, because the web will have ceased to exist, replaced by a motley grid with large, sagging holes.

EO Wilson, father of sociobiology, who has worked tirelessly for wildlife habitat preservation and teaching ecological values (he calls it biophilia), used to advocate saving pockets of high biodiversity here and there over the planet. After a talk he gave at nearby Warren Wilson College several years back, I asked him whether he had thought about what might happen to these small biodiversity jewels in the era of climate change. Would not some of these third world pockets move into urban areas as climatic zones shifted? He waved off my question, saying that introduced too many variables. “One problem at a time,” he said.

Wilson has now had time to think this one through, and his response is a bold proposal for saving half the earth for wildlife habitat, laid out in his forthcoming book, Half-Earth. These preserves would feature both north-south and east-west corridors to allow migration in response to climate shifts. His idea builds on the longstanding proposal for a “buffalo commons” in the upper Midwest, possibly extending southward into the vast interior of North America. With 15% of the world's land already set aside as natural parks and preserves guaranteed by governmental action, we have a start. I have not read the book yet, but in the reviews I have seen, the proposed areas for these protected lands are in North America, where the work has already begun by private conservationists (Ted Turner's Flying D in Greater Yellowstone and MC Davis's Nokuse in the Florida Panhandle), and Europe, where the European Green Zone has worked for a dozen years to promote setting aside a corridor along the old Iron Curtain, including 20 countries. The idea is stunning in its boldness, and a salutary antedote to the bad news about both species loss and rapidly dwindling wildlife populations, with the loss of 10% of remaining wilderness in the last two decades amplifying the pressure on habitat.

I must say that, as soon as I read about Wilson's proposal, I wanted to see the plan for Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and China. I expect it would not be hard at all in Australia, and am aware of progress in Central and South America that could form a sound foundation for such a plan. Is there the political will for such a project in heavily populated China and India? Indonesia, where palm plantations sprig up, despite legal restrictions? What will happen to the rural poor? Does Wilson and others who share his vision envision any human sharing of this set-aside space, or does he see it as the pure and pristine preserve of other species? Does the proposal integrate the pioneering conservation work that includes indigenous people in monitoring the territories, while also making a living? Their participation in planning the set-asides and monitoring a half-earth zone seems absolutely critical to having a chance for such plan to work. These are all important questions in the context of anthropocene realities, and I plan to return in this blog with an analysis of his discussion on these issues. I do find it troubling that one reviewer (Guardian, April 11 2016) faults Wilson for the lack of specifics on how to implement his plan.

I started this blog during the George W. Bush years, and it matured during the Obama administration. I was highly critical of him during his first term, but ended admiring him for his work against the grain towards stabilizing the climate during the second. Now the unthinkable has happened, and everything we work for as earthkeepers is at risk under the upcoming Boy-King's administration. Resistance is in order, but I also plan to engage the few Republican senators (Lindsey Graham SC, Lamar Alexander TN, and Susan Collins ME) who are on record accepting anthropogenic climate change. NC's own “moderate” Republican, Richard Burr, has made carefully moderated comments on climate in the past, and his office worked quietly with Democrat Kay Hagan while she was in office on renewable installations in the state. He will be hearing from me very soon, as will Lindsey Graham.

But even if we have four years of serious backsliding on carbon emissions in Washington, there is a campaign sponsored by Avaaz for counteracting the Trump attack: big states and big cities ramping up their shift away from fossils. California alone is the sixth biggest economy in the world, and continues to lead the way on renewable energy, vehicle emissions, and other initiatives to stabilize climate. Other countries – Japan, Canada (finally, under Justin Trudeau), several South and Central American nations, and the politically vulnerable European Union – will continue to do their part. But if China and India become shirkers along with the US, then we are in jeoparday of losing any possibility of turning the tide of warming, for some of the positive feedback loops have already begun, and time is almost out.

Pray for your Mother, and love and appreciate every gift you have from her while you can.  Today, I'm especially thankful for those incomparable songbirds.

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