That Would Be Us

The quiet couple in the corner at the restaurant, reading and holding hands.

The couple laughing hysterically in the hotel room next door at some silly joke.

The couple that keeps striving to come up with the goofiest nicknames and terms of endearment for each other.

The couple that goes on those long bike rides on the hills in Napa, cursing all the while.

The weird-looking couple giving each other strange looks in the park.

The couple that decorates their house with gargoyles and stone dragons because, well, they’re cool.

The couple that has yet to run out of ways to say "I love you" to each other.

Yep. That would be us.

Happy first anniversary, Jennifer.

As Big a Grain as You Can

Last week, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (otherwise known by their old initials: WWF) released a report which states that our planet is going to run out of natural resources within 150 years, and that by the year 2050, all of the world’s population will face severe restrictions on their lifestyle, just because resources will start disappearing.

Pardon me while I grab this salt lick.

Over the years, environmental extremists have issued dire warning after dire warning. We were supposed to run out of fossil fuels well before the end of the last century, according to some early predictions. Clean water, by some other accounts, was supposed to have vanished by 1995. Worldwide famine was supposed to have hit in the 1980’s, as well as many incurable and highly infectious diseases. The Brazilian rainforests were supposed to be completely gone by 2001. And, of course, something like 75% of the world’s species were supposed to have vanished by now.

None of these things have happened. And, honestly, some of these warnings are getting tiresome.

Oh, there have been ecological disasters in the past, of course. Scotland, known now for its broad grassy meadows and highlands, was once almost entirely covered by forests ("the deforestation of Caledonia," one tourguide told me while I was over there, "is probably the worst ecological disaster ever, and it happened well before mankind developed the technology to destroy the planet completely"). Then, of course, there was the move by Iraqi forces to set fire to petroleum refineries at the end of the Gulf War, poisoning the oceans in that area. The Exxon Valdez incident is still fresh in the minds of many people. And, of course, the vulture population in India and Pakistan is taking a frightening nosedive.

And things are not completely rosy now, either. Climate change is widely acknowledged in the scientific community (the debate centers on what the nature of the change is, and what — and who — is mostly responsible for it). There are indications that global warming is damaging the ecosystem and economy of some places in Antarctica. And so on.

But is the earth really going to expire by the year 2050? That sounds pretty extreme, even by the standards of environmental extremism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want there to be a planet around when our children grow up. I believe that Conservation is A Good Thing, and I have religious convictions which support that belief. And if I could figure out how to pull it off, I would ultimately like to build a career that focuses on integrating civilization with the natural world.

But the WWF and other environmental extremist groups are doing for the environmental movement the same favor that the religious right has done for the Republican party. Whatever credibility is there is being eroded away by fear-mongers and doomsayers; and there are times when I’ve felt that some of them are much more interested in promoting an agenda of eliminating modern technology all together rather than finding actual solutions to many of the problems we face. I have actually encountered environmentalists who argue that scare tactics are what people listen to, so the scare tactics are what the movement should stick with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work in the long run. When Doomsday passes several times without incident, people stop believing the Doomsday stories, and eventually simply start laughing at them. You lose credibility.

I get frustrated with this sort of thing. I like the Earth; I want it to stick around for awhile, and I want future generations to get to enjoy it as well. I get frustrated at "Spare the Air Days" in my own area, where the air quality gets so bad due to pollution that "sensitive groups" of people — such as people with respiratory diseases like asthma — are advised to stay indoors. And I get overwhelmingly frustrated at people who deny that there are any problems at all with the environment.

All the same, though, there are just some times when the most appropriate thing to do is to take what you hear with as big a grain of salt as you can, even if you sympathize with the group putting out the information.

Further Excerpts

This is getting kind of scary. Some people, such as my wife, might claim that I am completely deluded and possibly insane. However, I think that this file, which I found in our web server in a password-protected directory, will prove that our world is in great danger.

Entry One:
This is my secret diary of how I came to conquer the world, which I haven't done yet. It's my fond hope that kitties everywhere who are working for world domination will read my diaries and find inspiration, and that this file will take its place right next to that cat who wrote The Silent Miaow. I think I could teach a lot.


Entry Two:
Okay, so things haven't been going as well as I was hoping. First of all, my agent Bob the Wonder Doberman wears this dumb cape all the time, and says that he won't work for me anymore unless I promise that when I'm done he'll be able to run free through the plains of Madagascar. Or maybe he said planes. I don't know. Sigh.


Here's a tip. never get a doberman to be your agent in South Asia. Get a golden retriever. They're much friendlier to work with, but they sleep a lot.


Entry Three
They tried to take me outside today! I am SO NOT READY! Okay, so all of the other cats like it outside (except Rosemary, who was troubled at having to be taken away from her Secret Mission, whatever that is). I just have too much work to do. It's really unfair.


Entry Four
Salmon today! Yay!


Entry Five
A new cat tree! Yay! This one came equipped with all kinds of special radar antennas and radios and even a satellite uplink! The best part is the second shelf where you can sleep all day and look at the stairs.


Entry Six
My satellite uplink gave me some sad news today. Even though my armies are gathering up well in Mozambique, Bob the Wonder Doberman (he insists on being called that!) is having a hard time finding cats in Antarctica to go along with the plan. He says that Antarctica, being at the south pole, is just crawling with polecats, but he hasn't found any. He says that maybe they're in Alaska instead. Whatever!


Entry Seven
Ate a bug today. Allegra dared me. Gross!


Entry Eight
Rosemary still won't tell me what her Secret Mission is, but I think it has something to do with the dragons that keep moving all over the house. Whenever I ask her who she's working for, she just says that she's an Undercover Operative, and then she laughs. I don't get it.

The people have to know, so I’m spreading the word. Don’t let your cats use your computer, and make sure there are no satellite uplinks in your cat trees!

In other news, the scroll wheel in my mouse started working today under Linux. God knows why. But there it is.

The Mystery of the Vanishing Vultures

James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the mid-80’s. Lovelock, a mathematician and an engineer, had proposed a model of the global ecosystem which maintains itself homeostatically; in other words, whenever one part of the system goes out of whack, another part of the system fills in. That, at least, is the basic idea of how I understand the Gaia Hypothesis; the notion that the Earth is some sort of huge "superorganism" is a bit of a stretch for the Gaia hypothesis, and there certainly are no mystical overtones to be inferred except by some New Age groups.

Something I find very interesting, though, is the role that the politics and culture of our own species can play in the ecosystem, beyond the obvious technological one. For example: in the Indian subcontinent, cultural, religious, political, and emotional factors may be contributing to an ecological disaster more than any technology.

Vultures play an undeniably vital role in the ecology of the Indian sub-continent: they eat dead things, including dead people. Without the vultures, dead and rotting animals would pose a major health hazard in the humid and hot conditions of India. In some areas, people practice a form of air burial of the dead, in which they place their dead on a platform, and the vultures come along and eat the remains. It’s surprisingly hygenic.

But now the vultures of India are dying; and no one knows why.

It has been estimated that since the early 1990’s, nearly 90% of the population of two of India’s most populous vulture species has died out completely. Where flocks of vultures used to darken the skies near the Towers of Silence in northern India, now very few are seen. Such a huge drop off in population is pretty much an ecological catastrophe; the extinction of any species is a cause for sadness, but this extinction — which it looks like it might be — could cause massive disruptions in the ecosystem of the Indian subcontinent. Rat populations, without the vultures to keep them in check, are exploding, as are feral dogs. The rat and dog populations are causing major health problems in many parts of India.

The usual suspects have been examined. Toxicology tests show no environmental toxins or poisons present in the bloodstream of the autopsied birds. And there are no bacteria present. And yet, the die-off shows signs of being a disease of some sort: vultures get sick, displaying lethargy and malaise for something like thirty days before they simply die. Indians report seeing birds literally fall down dead in flight. This mystery illness seems to have an incredibly high mortality rate among the vultures.

And it’s spreading as well. Vultures in neighboring Pakistan are becoming ill as well, with the same symptoms and the same massive die-off.

Neither India nor Pakistan have the resources or the equipment to deal with the crisis, or even to study the corpses of the vultures in the depth that’s required, and, as NPR reports, getting the tissue samples out of either country is next to impossible. India is wary of "bio-prospectors", who take genetic material from India, patent it in the United States, and do not share the rewards; while Pakistan, since September 11, is wary of allowing scientists to take the three-foot tall steel canisters which carry the carcasses onto international flights.

So I guess I have to say that I’m fascinated by the fact that this crisis, while probably natural in origin, appears to be exacerbated by human greed and human fear and human apathy.

It’s a scary prospect; I can’t think of any human diseases that have such a high transmission rate coupled with such a high mortality rate; the most fatal human illness that I know of is rabies, with a 95% mortality rate for untreated cases. Even ebola and smallpox have higher survivability rates; and rabies is awfully difficult to contract.

At one time the vulture population in India was so dense that the sky was dark with them; now it’s possible to go for days without seeing a single one. If the two species vanish, then the ecosystem will recovery; the Parsi will begin cremating their dead after millennia of sky burial. I don’t believe humanity is to blame for this crisis, but I do think that some of our human tendencies towards fear and greed are hampering the recovery from it. And because of that, I can’t help but wonder about some of the other long-term hidden costs of business as usual.

And that, basically, is what I’m writing about. Fear and distrust have become business as usual in our post-9/11 world. Perhaps, in some vague ill-defined way, there is some good in that. But the bigger consequences are ecological instability and cultural degradation; are these prices that, in the long run, we can afford to pay?

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