Recent environmental intelligence. Part 5. Will the world of the future lack spine?

reindeerAs documented so far in this LOTRW mini-series, environmental intelligence from the past several weeks has told us that:

  • when it comes to hurricanes and other extremes, what matters is vulnerability;
  • air pollution isn’t just causing momentary health hazards, but irreversible damage to large numbers of children to an extent that imperils humanity’s future problem solving ability;
  • single-point vulnerabilities of special societal assets pose special risks that are both difficult to anticipate and hard to avoid; and
  • coming water scarcity is of such great scale as to test societal will and attention span.

But the environmental intelligence just seems to keep coming, and taking diverse forms. For example, last month also brought word that vertebrates are declining in numbers worldwide. According to the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Report 2016,

Global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, putting the survival of other species and our own future at risk. The latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report brings home the enormity of the situation – and how we can start to put it right. The Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020 – unless we act now to reform our food and energy systems and meet global commitments on addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.

New media were quick to pick up the story. Here are excerpts from the Washington Post coverage:

According to this year’s Living Planet Report, released by the WWF every two years, wildlife populations have already suffered tremendous losses in the last few decades. Vertebrate populations have plunged by 58 percent overall since 1970, the report states. And organisms living in freshwater systems, such as rivers and lakes, have fared even worse, declining by 81 percent in the last four decades…

…The biennial report relies on data from the Living Planet Index, an ongoing project that monitors changes in more than 18,000 wildlife populations composed of nearly 4,000 animal species around the world. Habitat loss and overexploitation are the two biggest current threats to wildlife, the report suggests. And much of the problem has to do with the growing human population’s ever-increasing need to feed itself…

…In the last century, the population has grown from about 1.6 billion people to more than 7 billion today, and it’s expected to exceed 9 billion by mid-century. As a result, many of the problems facing wildlife involve being over-fished or hunted for food and losing their habitat as more and more land is cleared for agriculture. The WWF estimates that farmland already occupies more than a third of the planet’s surface

…Other growing threats to wildlife include pollution, competition from invasive species and the ever-increasing influence of climate change, which can change the temperature and precipitation patterns animals have evolved to tolerate, strain their food resources and force entire populations to migrate or face extinction.

Is this cause for concern? The answer of course is yes. But the level and nature of the concern depends on you ask. Foresters, farmers, ranchers, and fishermen are torn between a rich day-to-day appreciation for nature that those of us in urban settings can only dream about, and the interference of nature with their own managed ecosystems. For many of the rest of us, the concerns vary depending on where and how we live, etc. – in short, how many degrees of separation isolate us from direct experience of the planet we live on[1]. As for academics? Economists, trained to see everything in terms of substitutable resources, may tend to minimize the problem. Ecologists, who have had growing opportunity to investigate the delicate balances and interconnectedness that shape ecosystems, are at the opposite end of the spectrum – far more worried. Everywhere they turn they uncover hitherto unsuspected links connecting flora and fauna, including vertebrates and each other and between vertebrates and simpler life forms. At a time when the web of the Internet is thriving, ecologists see the web of life unraveling.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of detail to the sweep of the larger narrative. Here’s just one example from the past two months: Russian reindeer. Science tells us that this population numbered around one million in round numbers, but then declined to some 700,000 around 2013. And this month we learn that 60,000 reindeer starved to death as a result of a single weather event[2]:

In November 2013, 61,000 reindeer starved to death on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. It marked the largest regional “mortality episode” of reindeer ever recorded, as ecologists wrote in a new study in the journal Biology Letters. An additional 20,000 had succumbed to famine in November 2006. The immediate cause, according to the team of researchers from Europe, the United States and Asia, was an unusual ice barrier that smothered the reindeer pastures.

 Reindeer can stamp through ice about three-quarters of an inch thick, using their feet to access the nutritious lichen and plants below. But in early November 2006 and 2013, the ice was an order of magnitude deeper — up to several inches, too tough even for the reindeer’s sharp hoofs. Unable to eat, the animals died…

This particular environmental intelligence is coming in belatedly – recognized only in hindsight. For local Siberians, the problem surfaced with little warning, and the impacts were severe:

…In early November 2013, it rained for a continuous and anomalous 24 hours. After the rain, temperatures plummeted. By Nov. 10, more than 10,000 square miles of the southern part of the Yamal Peninsula were blanketed in ice. The temperatures remained below freezing until spring 2014. By that time, the scientists wrote, “the private herders who had lost most or all of their animals to starvation were functionally stranded in the tundra. With no draft reindeer to haul their camps, they resorted to full-time subsistence fishing and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds, a multiyear process.”

Two points to emphasize: Once again, it’s not the extreme event per se that matters, but the vulnerability. And second, this is just a single story: reindeer in Siberia. The population collapse of vertebrates is the aggregate of thousands of such stories, only a handful of which are widely recognized and told. Most are going unrecorded.


All of this prompts the question: will the world of the future lack spine? Some might leap to the existential issue: will the animal world of the future be returned to “lower” forms of life – with insects, say, at the top of the food chain? But there’s a shorter term human context in which this question also matters.

Trends and events suggest you and I may be called upon to display more backbone in our everyday lives in the near term. That’s not backbone as in hot-temperedly seeking, provoking, and entering conflict, but rather the simple act of remembering who we are and remaining true to our deepest values and convictions.

Social scientists tell us that to do this is hard. The phrase they use is that “knowledge is socially constructed,” but it’s not much of a leap from that to the conclusion that “we believe what the people we want to like us believe.” In the old days, this might have been called peer pressure. Most of us, most of the time, go along with the crowd.

A special degree of focus, courage and conviction is needed to work this issue in the rapid flow of our daily lives: when should we be listening, and open to reexamining and perhaps replacing old preferences and habits of thought with something new? When are events, and circumstances, and people running up against those values and beliefs that we need instead to preserve? When should we push back? And in that latter case, how should we go about that in word and deed? And in such a way that we don’t burn bridges but maintain our ability to collaborate with and even continue to pushback against those around us with undiminished effectiveness? Come to think of it, could pushback itself be overrated?

The day after Thanksgiving seems a particularly important time to bring up such questions. Hopefully, millions of us have had a chance to press the spiritual RESET button, to be more receptive to the idea that we can be people of peace, but also people of spine.

In the way life sometimes works, this topic has bearing on transition documents. That’s the subject we will turn to in the next post.


[1] Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, (AMS 2014) covers this in Chapter 3.3 The Age of Virtual Reality (pp 33-36).

[2] The original article appeared in Biology Letters. It’s available here: Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia,Bruce C. Forbes, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Roza Laptander, Marc Macias-Fauria, Pentti Zetterberg, Mariana Verdonen, Anna Skarin, Kwang-Yul Kim, Linette N. Boisvert, Julienne C. Stroeve, Annett Bartsch Biol. Lett. 2016 12 20160466; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0466. Published 16 November 2016

[3] (footnote added, from Wikipedia material). Reindeer are also known as “caribou.” The name caribou comes, through the French, from Mi’kmaq qalipu, meaning “snow shoveler”, referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food. Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep it from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as “cratering”) through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss.

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