Brenda’s work as a Futurist
We are living in a time of great change, a time when we are surrounded by unexpected and generous opportunity, and also by danger. This is an important time to talk amongst ourselves so that we can share, see, and understand the promise and peril of our times. And even more importantly, so that we can create a future full of health, opportunity, and options.
Really, that’s the basic reason I’m a futurist.
Here’s what I do about it:
Obviously, first and foremost, I’m a science fiction writer. Yes, that is a futurist task – not for every story or even every book, but often. Many of our true visionaries have been science fiction writers. Ursula LeGuin. Jules Verne. George Orwell. Ray Bradbury. David Brin. Arthur C. Clark. I could expand this list easily. Yes, I want to be as good as they are! I write fiction almost every day, and I’m up to forty or fifty published stories and six novels. One of my favorite places to write for is Nature Magazine. They publish short shorts on the last page of the magazine. Here are links to my stories there:
I’ve been talking with, learning from, and writing for noted futurist Glen Hiemstra for over a decade. I admire Glen because he is both positive and realistic. Consider dropping by Futurist.com or DotheFuture.com to learn more about Glen’s work.
I’m a member of the Futurist Board at the LifeBoat Foundation, which seeks to assure that we survive as a species. It is a wild and crazy place full of brilliant people. I won’t pretend to agree with them all for even a moment, but I’m often learning by association.
There are a number of ways I work to contribute to the public dialogue about the future. I keynote business events and talk to schools. I only do a few talks a year, solely because of time, although I can regularly be found at science fiction conventions talking about the future on panels. Some of my next appearances will be at World Fantasy in Toronto and at Norwescon in Seattle. The next place you can catch me giving a solo talk about the future in a public forum will be at the World Future Society meeting in Chicago in the summer of 2013.
If you’d like to find out if I’m available for a specific event, please use the contact form.
Lastly, I am a technology professional. That is also a tangentially futurist profession. I work for the City of Kirkland as the CIO, which means that I spend some time looking forward at how technology can help citizens.
Recent Posts on Futurism
I wake up for coffee and the New York Times, enjoying both in the still crack of morning when the birds greet the day with soft songs. On one such morning in the spring of last year, I was still deciding whether or not to steal valuable time from my fiction career to do this work. An article in the Times helped to convince me. It was entitled “To save some species, zoos must let others die.”
Early on in this series, I talked about the anthropocene extinction, which is the casual destruction of entire species of plants and animals by a single species (us). Ecocide.
Most of us aren’t even noticing.
Here are a few recently-extinct species: The Formosan clouded leopard, the eastern cougar, the western black rhinoceros. The Japanese river otter. The Pinta Island tortoise.
I didn’t notice any of those specifically until I looked them up. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
In the last chapter we talked about land use planning with an eye to the preservation of the critical resources we need to live. There have been many successes, but we need more, and on a grander scale.
Typically, humans plan when there is a goal, and at least some risk of shortage along the way to achieving that goal. This shortage can be will, time, resources, or raw materials. In this case, we’re short of all of those. That means we’re going to have to plan carefully, monitor, and make choices.
Zoos are making these choices by deciding which radically endangered species to breed and care for. Even as they twist some of their mission to conservation, and communicate with each other all over the globe, there aren’t enough resources in all of the zoos in all of the world to save all of the animals.
They know this. Many zoos have banded together to create what is called the Frozen Ark. Re-usable DNA and cell samples are probably going to be critical to increase diversity in animals we are trying to save in the wild, or to restore animals after they become extinct.
But it’s even more important to do what we can to preserve biodiversity now and soon.
That’s still about making choices. Can we save all of the whales? Or will we need to abandon some populations of specific whales, or even whole types? The problem is complex. For example, scientists in the Pacific Northwest are studying the decline of killer whales in the area. There are a lot of pressures on these beautiful beasts, and one of them may be lack of food. The salmon they prefer are also threatened. If we save the salmon, we might accidentally also save the whales. If we save the whales from whale-watching boats and ocean acidification but don’t save the salmon, the whales may die anyway.
The news is not all bad. Species are being removed from lists as well as added. Sometimes we declare a plant or animal extinct and then find we were wrong. We are doing a good job of protecting some habitats and of blending wild and human spaces better. There have been increases in bald eagles, whooping cranes, and prairie dogs.
But the trend is still – strongly – to the negative. The great work that has been done so far isn’t enough to get us out of having to make choices.
Thankfully, we probably don’t have to directly decide to kill any species. But we may have to kill individuals of one species to save another whole species. We do this when we weed, and when we remove non-native species to restore ecosystems to native form. Recently, forest managers chose to kill invasive barred owls to save spotted owls in the Northwest forests.
Notice that the ethics get a little harder and a lot more complex as we move from plants to animals. I would find it nearly impossible to shoot a barred owl to save a spotted owl.
Most of our choices have been focused on one species at a time. They have been from the heart. Actively choosing how to spread a thin layer of money, attention, and labor across a thick layer of endangered species will be harder.
We can’t leave it all up to zoos.
We do have tools to help. We have detailed mapping, the ability to track many kinds of animals well, and big data tools to help us grasp problems and opportunities.
We don’t yet understand all of the interdependencies such as salmon and whales (and for the salmon, storm-water management on-shore, the day-lighting of streams, and more). The knowledge we need is growing fast, and there’s enough of it to act now. While we’re funding the science we need, it’s time to keep executing the work we’re pretty sure tilts the balance the right way (setting aside land to protect ecosystems, managing development new population ends up in the cities, de-toxifying as much as possible, managing carbon and climate change). Maybe most important, we have to keep educating. Projects with bad communication often fail. We need to keep up the pressure of knowledge that forces us to act. To notice to species we are losing and use their passing to illustrate how important it is to save what we can.
We can’t save all of the animals. It probably wouldn’t even be smart to try. Extinction is a variable in the evolution equation. The problem isn’t extinction per se, it’s the speed and stupidity and scale of the anthropocene extinction event that we need to turn around. Success will be one of our defining moments as a species. Failure, of course, means increasing our own risk of joining the extinction.
The idea of making conscious choices about what to save is profoundly disturbing and unsettling. I believe we can save enough to thrive, to thread the needles of the near-future and come out on a side where biodiversity is growing faster than its shrinking. But this discussion skirts the edges of human hubris, and takes us perilously close to playing god when we are not that.
As usual, here are some of the links I’ve been following as I put this together:
To save some species, zoos must let other die, By LESLIE KAUFMAN Published: May 27, 2012, The new York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/science/zoos-bitter-choice-to-save-some-species-letting-others-die.html
Conservation Triage: Say you have an ark. Which species do you save?By Michelle Nijhuis|Posted Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, at 12:08 PM http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/animal_forecast/2013/02/conservation_triage_which_species_should_be_saved.html
Saving Species: http://savingspecies.org
Peak at Swoon’s Anthropocene Extinction, Brooklyn Street Art, May 2011: http://www.brooklynstreetart.com/theblog/2011/09/03/peak-at-swoons-anthropocene-extinction-opening-at-bostons-ica/ (This one is because art is a powerful form of education)
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org and related, a pretty long list of endangered animals and plants all together – the size of the list alone is daunting: http://www.earthsendangered.com/index.asp
The Frozen Ark: Saving the DNA of endangered species: http://www.frozenark.org
One Endangered Species Eats Another: Killer Whales and Salmon, NOAA Fisheries, January 22, 2013: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2013/01/1_22_13killer_whale_chinook.html
Killing one Owl Species to Save Another: NPR, June 12, 2011: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/12/137090033/killing-one-owl-species-to-save-another
This Sunday, I’ll hop on my bicycle at home, where we live in a charming neighborhood of older tract houses with grass lawns and flower gardens. I’ll zip down a trail beside a freeway into Redmond, the home city for Microsoft, and enter the 640 acre Marymoor park to arrive at the start of a Cascade Bicycle Club ride. A hundred or so other riders will have driven or ridden in from the surrounding urban areas, most travelling for less than thirty minutes. We’ll ride up a hill dotted with homes that all have land – mostly about an acre each, down the backside of that hill, and through farmland and small towns, returning to the park after riding about 60 miles.
This is possible because Washington State, and then our county (King County, which includes Seattle) did a great job of land use planning. In 1990, the state passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), which is designed to push urban dwellers together, reduce sprawl, save farmland, and preserve open spaces and vital waterways.
The joke is that we passed the GMA because the Californians were coming, and we saw what they did to California, and didn’t want them to mess up Washington, too.
Earlier in this blog series, I established that whether we like it or not, humanity as a collective has chosen to own pretty much all of the land. We’re using most of it. We use it for cities, suburban housing, livestock, food crops, and public utility like parks and national forest, roads, and sports courts. Much of our land in Washington is now used in line with the grand plan of the GMA (although certainly not all of it). But the uses of most places in the world are less planned, and much of the land serves short term needs at the cost of long-term human health.
Because we now have good maps, big data tools, and the internet to communicate across, we can create a vision. Once we have a vision, we can act.
In fact, environmental groups all over the world are acting. They are setting aside land, working to protect hypercritical systems like the Amazon basin, or even sailing around on big ships risking jail to save the whales.
One way to think of all of this work is many excellent visions…working…not quite together. At best, forces for good are in periodically cooperative competition with each other. Most of them are not directly about land use – they’re going after it to save an animal here and a plant there, or perhaps a whole delta.
But it’s all really one coordinated system.
It’s time to agree on a framework.
We’ve spent a lot of money developing models of the whole globe in order to study climate change. I suspect these models already include a lot of the information and structure that we need to design good land use policies.
To keep the mind-exercise small enough, lets start with the Cascadia ecosystem which includes Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and possibly parts of northern California and Idaho. It’s already been well planned compared to much of the rest of the Earth. There is still a lot of open space. There’s variety: cities and mountains and rivers and ports, wineries and ranches and a lot of raging, rocky coastline. It’s not all good. We have one of the worst superfund sites in America.
We could map out the ideal way to manage this land – design our garden if you will. Do the GMA exercise on a larger scale.
Cities: You’d have to put those where the cities already are and plan around them. Any region needs cities, preferably as attractive and functional as possible. These are economic engines and hotbeds of innovation. Not only are urban centers a cheaper place to keep people, but they’re where most people want to live. Over fifty-percent of the world’s population now chooses to live in cities.
Wild spaces: We have a lot. Keeping the ones we have is probably also a constraint. But we can certainly add to them, and if necessary we might be able to trade one for another in order to aggregate or spread out open spaces, and to protect the right land. This is harder than it looks. In some cases, we’ve protected pretty places that depend on vulnerable land or water we haven’t protected.
Farming: Keep a lot of open space for farmland, but reduce it. Use vertical farming to grow far more produce on far less land, and to farm inside cities.
This smacks of video games from Civilization to Sim City or Farmville. Planning a world is something many humans enjoy. If we look at Cascadia as garden plot, we’ve done quite a bit right, but we’ve also almost wiped out our salmon runs, thrown freeways down across major wildlife corridors, and soiled the beautiful Puget Sound and the great freshwater engine of the Columbia River.
Of course, this isn’t a real game and we can’t start over from scratch. I believe we can start with what we have, and make it better. Significantly better.
Governments have a role. They set land use parameters, manage utilities and parks, encourage or discourage development. Governments can (and do) use zoning and taxation and other tools to manage economic behavior.
Governments, however, are limited by their own boundaries. They can collaborate across them (usually with great difficulty). But non-profits are not boundary-limited. One of our regional non-profits, ForTerra, has purchased land, encouraged swaps of development rights to move development into the cities, and created shared visions for conservation of huge swaths of land in the Cascadia region. Perhaps even more important, they market ecological land use to people and businesses in ways that make it attractive. Some of their major sponsors are our biggest companies.
When I’m riding through forests and farmland for hours, the idea of humans as gardeners of the world feels like pure unadulterated hubris. But all of that land I’m riding through has allowed uses, and disallowed uses. Because of that, I can take my pretty rides. Between government and NGO’s (and others), we need to get about the business of creating a framing vision for land use on a grander scale than we’re used to. I don’t mean detail-managing every piece – centralized control is devastating. But a framework and clear principles that are flexible enough to allow for change and backed by laws would go a long way.
Understanding what we have and seeing what we want to create matters. We know enough now to get going on that job. Then perhaps my grandchildren will be able to take large group rides from their urban doorsteps across wild lands from wherever they live.
The link list is a little more eclectic than usual. Bear with me.
The Vertical Farm: http://www.verticalfarm.com
Where farming is headed, we don’t need soil, business insider, March 26th, 2013, Dina Spector. http://www.businessinsider.com/farmedhere-vertical-farming-chicago-2013-3
Environment Washington: Defending Washington’s Waters: http://www.environmentwashington.org/programs/defending-washingtons-waters
Discussion on banning architecture at The Hieroglyph Institute: http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/forums/topic/banning-agriculture
When I was a child my parents loved to sail. We travelled from the California coast to Catalina Island on weekends, and I remember one specific trip back when the waters were full of bioluminescence. Dolphins surrounded us, jumping alongside the boat in playful streaks of light. They might have been fairies from another world. In those days, I had no idea where they came from or where they were going. All I knew of them was the magical moments when their lives intersected mine in the same space, when a land-being leaned over the water and water-beings leapt up into the air and we could see each other.
In the last chapter of this blog, I talked about how our ever-growing compute power is helping us gain insights into complex ecosystems. Knowing where an elephant herd is could help save them from poachers (particularly if the poachers don’t also have the same data). Knowing how elk herds migrate can help us plan interstates in ways that keep their freeways open to them. But good analysis depends on having good data. In this chapter, I’ll talk about how we’re gathering that data today, and touch on how we might gather it in the future.
We all have more data than ever, and a lot of that data is about location. Our phones broadcast our location to emergency responders. Many of our cars can be tracked (think LoJack or OnStar). GPS devices live on our bicycles, our wrists, and our tablets.
We own three dogs and they are all both chipped with RFID and collared with active GPS. Neither technology is at all invasive to the dogs, although the GPS is a little invasive to us since we need to charge the little devices attached to the dog’s collars.
Larger and wilder animals are also tracked with GPS collars and human minders. For example, bears are tracked all over the world – polar bears, black bears, grizzly bears. We learn what they eat, what they do, what other wildlife they encounter, and how they die. While I was researching bear tracking, I came across a really wonderful art piece called Bear71 which tracks a grizzly through her whole life. It’s a thoughtful, poetic piece that explores the difficulties for wildlife on human lands, which is essentially a part of what this blog series is about. I recommend that you actually spend the time to look at it, and to interact with it – don’t just watch. Use your mouse. Or your finger. But touch the video.
So how might this kind of data actually be useful? A recent study of tagged white sharks identified that all of the tagged sharks mated at the same location, but the population of females split in order to have their babies. The part of the study that discussed conservation said, “If further tracking reveals that females are philopatric [return to] to very specific pupping grounds, the preservation of genetic diversity will depend upon the proper management of both the adult females and pups that support specific nursery area.” In other words, these researchers learned that they must keep three specific sites safe in order to protect genetic diversity in white sharks.
Perhaps even more importantly, the article about sharks (linked below) is available under a Creative Commons license. That means that the information can be fairly easily re-used and combined with other information – and big data tools – to add to our ability to understand what we could do to protect vulnerable species. In fact, exactly this conclusion was arrived at in an article about the tracking of elephant seals. “Much of the data still needs to be analyzed… But for the first time, because of the tracking, the data exists.”
We are also using other tools to gather data. Video and still cameras provided data about starlings, and sophisticated software analyzed the positions and behavior of specific birds. This provided new knowledge of how bird flocks are formed and how birds stay together. And it no longer takes a lot of money to track and monitor animals with cameras. Wildlife cameras are now common, and can even be ordered from Amazon.com for a little over $200.00. People can set them up and use them with their home computers. In other words, you and I or our neighbors can have motion-activated cameras to watch trails or watering holes or our own backyards.
So what about the future? Problems with animal tracking today include catching and tagging the animals, monitoring them with human labor, battery replacement, and the animals moving out of range of the home device. In the future, animal tracking devices could be much smaller and less invasive (more similar to the ID chips under our dog’s skin than to the much larger GPS units on their collars), or may be off of the animal altogether. If we can watch areas and monitor who and what goes through specific locations, similar to trail cameras today, and stitch all of that information together, we might be able to see how wildlife moves without touching it. We might be able to track a grizzly (or for that matter an elephant, a whale, or a rabbit) by its movement across grids of cheap and networked cameras and sensors rather than by invading the animal and hanging something heavy and a bit obnoxious onto it.
Virtually all of the animal tracking data that we have is recent – as we track more and more animals through their full life-cycles and multiple generations, we’ll be able to learn more about how they interact. We’re still learning how to collect data and what to do with it, and of course, it’s the doing that matters. The tsunami of data and the power of the tools we can use to understand that data is swelling. With luck and care, we can turn the data into knowledge to help us act, to mitigate our affect on the wild world, and to give animals a better chance as surviving the next few decades.
Thank you, and please do comment on these blog posts. I enjoy hearing from readers. Oh, and really, do go watch Bear71.
Note that there I provided a lot of links to the research I used below, since I found this topic and the reading to be particularly interesting:
The Use of Biotelemetry in the Study of Animal Migration, Melissa Hay (Department of Biology, the University of Western Ontario) & Nebel Silke (Department of Biology, the University of Western Ontario), Nature Education, 2012:
Tracking Polar Bears by Satellite, USGS Alaska Science Center: http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/polar_bears/tracking.html and realted blog post at Mapping the Marvelous by Marion, http://mappingthemarvellous.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/tracking-polar-bears
Tracking Southern Michigan’s Black Bears, By Howard Meyerson, The Grand Rapids Press, January 14, 2013 at 9:40 AM: http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2013/01/tracking_southern_michigans_bl.html
Andean Bear Tracking: http://www.andeanbear.org/bear-tracking.html
National Film Board of Canada, Bear71 http://bear71.nfb.ca/#/bear71
Two-year migration of adult female white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) reveals widely separated nursery areas and conservation concerns
Michael L Domeier* and Nicole Nasby-Lucas, Animal Biotelemtry, 2013: http://www.animalbiotelemetry.com/content/1/1/2
A Tidal Wave of Data on Elephant Seals, By Sindya N. Bhanoo, The New York Times, May 21, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/science/seal-tagging-yields-huge-set-of-data-in-northeastern-pacific.html
Birds of a feather… track seven neighbors to flock together, Phys Org, by Anna Azvolinsky, February 8, 2013: http://phys.org/news/2013-02-birds-feather-track-neighbors-flock.html
Tracking A Puget Sound Orca To Northern California, OPB, Jan. 15, 2013 | AP: http://earthfix.opb.org/flora-and-fauna/article/tracking-a-puget-sound-orca-to-northern-california
I write in the evenings and in the early mornings. During the day, I’m a Chief Information Officer. In my case, that means I’m responsible for the data and information systems for the City of Kirkland, Washington, in the USA. The topic of the year for people in my business has moved from “cloud” to “big data.” For those not immersed in technology on a daily basis, that means that a lot of data is now available on the Internet. Data is also collected in large private datasets. This includes my Amazon shopping habits, but it also includes a lot of information about the Amazon rainforest. This data is in what is called the cloud, which really means that a lot of it is accessible. “Big Data” is all about making that data dance about and yield up its secrets.
This is necessary if we are going to manage our natural resources.
For example, just today, the IMF announced that it thinks energy prices are too low not only in the United States but in many other countries as well. This conclusion was based on analysis of huge datasets about the cost of gasoline around the world, the cost of extraction and delivery, and the amount and types of tax subsidies.
In January of this year, NASA released an article that warns us about the rate of forest degradation in the Amazon because of droughts caused by climate change. The article is complete with illustrative maps. Linked from the same page are related articles on climate change predictions and rates of de-forestation (which are getting much better).
About a month ago, I attended Microsoft Research’s Techfest “Day 0” where they let customers and press in to look at some of their work. Imagine a grown-up version of a high-school science fair. I watched a young man who was excited about an application he had developed. The application mapped threats (such as poaching or loss of habitat) on top habitat locations and also identified species on the “red list” of endangered species. It accessed multiple data sets from many locations to create the single view of the world. A few years ago, this information would have been hard to locate, the necessary data would have been invisible to most people (hidden behind corporate and government firewalls) and it would have been almost impossible to get big enough data pipes to access the data from different places across the world.
Yesterday, I was back on the Microsoft campus and I saw Excel being used to process huge datasets without almost no secret arcane computer-speak required.
Accessible big data tools means we are on our way to being able to learn some of the many things we need to know to manage ecosystems:
- We’ll understand what happens at the edges of reserves and be better able to protect them so that natural processes inside of reserves can remain as undisturbed as possible.
- We’ll be able to show the affects of various farming experiments. For example, we might illustrate how GMO crops actually affect other crops (good and bad), and see the affect of GMO crops on public health data and economic indicators.
- We’ll be able to track species movement due to climate change and predict possible extinctions better than we can today (which will let us make choices about whether or not to intervene, and how to intervene if we choose to).
- We’ll be able to actually model the various laws that govern private property use. This is a first step to modifying rights to support worldwide health (I never said this would be easy!).
- We’ll be able to combine datasets in new ways, many of which we haven’t even thought about yet. Perhaps it would be interesting to look at disease patterns compared to insect populations inside of metropolitan areas, or to compare air quality to disease vectors in mice all over the world.
- We might map algal blooms and manatee deaths in Florida against changes in currents and surface water temperatures across the world, and run that across historical data to verify assumptions and against climate models about the future to predict mass mortality in manatees.
Big data in this context is a tool for understanding the natural world. We’ll be able to grasp cause and effect more closely, and to use actual information to help us drive hard political decisions. Yes, I know it’s not as simple as I’m making it sound. Verifiable data quality is going to matter a lot, as is ways to share and explain the lessons we learn. But nevertheless, I am amazed at the possibilities. I grew up before cell phones and in the first technology job I held, we ran a whole city on less information processing capability than I have in my watch these days.
Big data is going to drive change as fast as the Internet did, and faster than other change drivers like 3D printing and nanotechnology. Costs are plummeting. Speed is increasing exponentially. Humans are curious, and this is going to be a fabulous tool in the fight to maintain our planet.
Linked Brazilian Amazon Rainforest: http://linkedscience.org/data/linked-brazilian-amazon-rainforest/
Amazon showing signs of degradation due to climate change, Nasa warns, Jonathon Watts, Guardian.co.uk, January 18, 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/18/amazon-rainforest-climate-change-nasa
National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis list of Ecological and Spatial Data Sources: http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/scicomp/data
The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org
IMF: Gas prices don’t reflect true costs, NPR, March 28th: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/28/175550949/imf-gas-prices-dont-reflect-true-costs
In previous essays I’ve covered the idea that we have decided to own almost all of the land on the Earth, and thus we have taken both individual and collective responsibility. I’ve also discussed the many ways we already choose what happens on most of the land, from growing crops and livestock to living and building businesses, from establishing preserves to strip mining. The latest entry was all about our fear that we may just not quite be up to that task.
But we can succeed, and there is already evidence of success.
First, we have information. In general, we know far more than ever about what ecosystems exist where and how they interact with each other. We are developing data about how they might change as a result of environmental pressures and human management or mismanagement. For example, river ecosystems are far better understood and monitored in the Pacific Northwest since specific goals were set for salmon recovery.
Between vastly-improved geographical information services, better sensor technology, an increase in the number of tagged animals, and the advent of big data, our ability to map the garden we live in is increasing exponentially.
As a middle-grade student, I was in the 4H program and showed rabbits and horses at regional fairs. There was never any talk of computers – just healthy feet and coats, feed options, and techniques to look good for the judges. Today’s 4-H clubs have GIS (electronic mapping and modeling) tools available to them to help their communities with emergency preparedness, and active programs to help them understand wind and water. The organization Conservation International showcases some of the GIS work that is being done on a global basis.
Second, we have a framework in which to make decisions. Not a perfect one, but a place to start. Between the UN, Davos, multinational corporations and NGO’s, and the global information web, we have much of what we need and we are, in fact, using it well from time to time. There’s a long way to go, but there is a path forward.
I read rather widely in order to support my thinking about this blog series, and one of the books I have used is “The God Species,” by Mark Lynas. This book specifically explores our current world in light of work done at the Stockholm Environment Institute that explores planetary boundaries research. Take 18 minutes to understand this important research and listen to an excellent TED talk on the subject. John Rockstrom on Planetary Boundaries at TED
I’m in my early fifties. Throughout my life, I’ve seen many changes in the way we treat animals. While some have been bad (the industrialization of egg farms, for one example), there is a relentless social pressure to gain more rights for animals and to treat them better. This is necessary if we want the commercial food chain to produce healthy meals for us. To take it a step further, there is a growing movement to grant animals “personhood.” This has already been done in some places for great apes and is being discussed for other animals. The more we actually learn about animals, the less any form of cruelty seems acceptable. Dolphins call each other by name. Dogs understand fair play. Elephants have complex and matriarchal family structures. From better rules and laws about simple animal cruelty to more rights, there are serious changes happening in many countries to improve animal rights.
Fourth, we are gaining the global will to care for the planet. It is one thing to have empathy and another to do something about it. Governments all along the East Coast of the United States are working to figure out how to design more barriers to rising seawater after Sandy. A recent USA Today Poll shows Americans are getting back around to believing that climate change matters. Reports suggest that China is about to enact a carbon tax. Climate change is not the only planetary boundary, but it has gotten far more media attention than the others. Still, I meet more people lately who are also aware of the current rate of extinction, of the dangers of chemical poisons, and of ocean acidification. Yes, I know that we aren’t doing nearly enough yet. But there is real progress in the tools we have available to us. In the next few chapters, I’ll dig a little deeper into once subject at a time.
I’m looking forward to what people have to say in comments or where more discussion happens – on FaceBook or Twitter. I can be followed on twitter @brendacooper and on FaceBook at BrendaJCooper.
A woman came up to me after I gave a talk about the future and said “It’s nice that you say positive things to make us feel better, but you know there isn’t any hope, right?” I’ve heard similar things after almost every talk. Usually from one person, sometimes a few more. Crushed words. Sadness. Wistfulness. Sometimes a deep sense of loss permeates these total strangers. This is not most of my friends or most of my conversations, but it’s a thread nonetheless. Some days, I can even hear the same voice inside of me. A still, small version of the hopeless voice, but a real one nonetheless.
It seemed like a good idea to just get this off of our chests. If you don’t want to think about your fears, skip this entry and wait for the next one. But if you need or want a chance to vent out the still small voice inside of you, feel free to let go in comments, or in your journal…
I have my own fears, and I’ll list my three biggest ones at the end of this entry. But I decided to start by asking others. At dinner recently, I asked the household sixteen year old what she fears about the future and the natural world. One thing she said is that she’s afraid we will stay selfish – that we’ll think about immediate gratification instead of the long term, and that we’ll leave all of this for her generation or her children to solve. Another fear was losing sustainability in a long list of things from animals in general to water to polar bears. My partner expressed a fear of toxins. “Whatever we leave behind could be ruined, could be contaminated.” She had just heard about small nuclear reactors that were portable and is worried about spills.
I asked on Facebook, and people talked about how we’re poisoning the sea and compounding the damage by strewing it with plastic waste. They talked about excess trash and water, and the dangers of big food. The front cover of The Futurist magazine sports the headline “From Land Grabs to Resource Wars? What the global competition for food, fuel, water, and other resources could mean for future security.” Almost every day a weather-related tragedy somewhere makes headlines, and often kills people. We are surrounded by bad news about our present that fills our view of the future with fear.
Here are my top three:
Nuclear War: Perhaps this a product of the pointless climb under your desks, grab your ankles, and kiss you life goodbye drills I suffered as a child. That was the 60’s. Fifty years later, we’re still worrying. Israel is rumored to be contemplating nuke-tossing at Iran, which may be on the verge of nuclear capability. North Korea is outright claiming to be targeting the part of the US where I live. I am not – perhaps oddly – afraid of nuclear energy. But I can vividly imagine a scenario where a small country in the Middle East or Africa tosses a bomb in a fit of anger, and then another one, and then another one….
Runaway Climate Change: We don’t know where the tipping points are. Over and over again, the wild world – the actual climate – is reacting faster than our models predict. Sea ice is melting quicker than expected. Methane is poised to outgas from the Arctic tundra or under the sea or both. Probably both. Yet we’re busy digging as much shale oil as possible out of the ground and burning it just because we can, and even though we know we shouldn’t. I feel a bit like the proverbial frog sitting in a pot of cool water while the heat is on, unable to feel the slow and inexorable rise in temperature. Unlike the frog in the pot, if we keep the heat on long enough – do enough damage to the climate – we may no longer be able to help simply by turning off the heat.
Political Freeze: We have it here in the United States in spades. Climate change is getting very little ink other than as a threat. Solutions are pilloried. Global corporations appear to be doing more damage than good via lobbying here and outright control in other places. Financial gain for the top trumps livability for the masses. All can be sacrificed. The Arab Spring is a messy, messy process with an uncertain outcome. Mexico is almost a failed state, at least near the borders with the US and many major ports. What we need is a world governance group that can broker global issues about toxins and overfishing and carbon; what we have is a sea captain chasing Japanese whalers, a few very rich men and women working across political boundaries (think Gates and Branson and others like them), and a multitude of environmental groups doing great work, but sometimes with more faith than science and far less data and money than they need. In America at least, we’re making decisions inside the long shadow of a huge mistrust of science. Maybe one of the worst tipping points we already passed is when we elected George Bush and should have elected Al Gore.
So that’s what scares me. Feel free to talk about the things that scare you or make you hear that still small voice of despair. In the next post, we’ll talk more ways we may be able to make our responsibility for the Earth we live on work out a little better.
Note: There are no specific links for places I researched this entry. There would have had to be too many, and much of it is the accumulation of essays and blog posts and articles over time, of books I’ve read and lectures I’ve attended. Eventually I will do a post that lists the books. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to what people have to say in blog comments or where more discussion happens – on FaceBook or Twitter. I can be followed on twitter @brendacooper and on FaceBook at BrendaJCooper.
Occasionally during meetings one of my staff – an avid birder – will elbow me and I’ll look up and glimpse a bald eagle. Each time, I am in awe. I live in Washington State, which is home to a plethora of eagles, where pods of Orca ply the waters near the San Juan Islands, and where roads are sometimes blocked by herds of elk. A mating pair of eagles lived on the river outside the home my son grew up in, and we would see them almost every day. During salmon season he and I splashed up the Coweeman river with fish slapping our ankles and calves and the eagles flying overhead.
The last Backing into Eden chapter was about how humans have taken responsibility for most of the land on Earth. We have asserted “ownership” and done both harm and good. We’ve chosen to carve the land up with roads and houses and cities and to directly manage between 25 and 50% of productive land for farms and grazing. We have also protected whole ecosystems on the land and in the water. In this entry, I’ll talk about the ways in which we have accepted responsibility for specific species.
Before we talk about specific species protection tactics, two pieces of groundwork are necessary.
First, there is a river of extinction happening now, and all positive action is swimming upstream against it. It’s been called the Anthropocene extinction, which means it is occurring during the age of man – the time we are living in now – and that is largely caused by our choices. In some cases (think elephants, sharks, and tuna) we appear to be trying to directly remove whole species. In others, we are destroying habitat by choosing to use land for our own purposes, by infecting the water with prescription drugs and pesticides, or through changing the climate faster than species can move their homes. Keep this background in mind as I go on to talk about some of the ways we are making conscious and positive choices about the life we share the Earth with.
Second, species are seldom saved in a vacuum. They are intrinsically linked to the ecosystems they live in, and those to neighboring ecosystems, and ultimately, we are all linked.
Species are saved when we protect ecosystems, police human behavior regarding wild animals, and when we tell compelling stories about those animals.
Let’s start with ecosystem protection, and specifically with fisheries. Not only are more and more reefs being protected, but other ocean ecosystems as well. The State of California has, for example, set aside numerous Marine Protection Areas near the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. Commercial fishermen have historically fought with conservationists who want to set aside whole areas of the ocean as preserves. Sometimes the conservationists win, and generally, the fishermen also win when that happens. According to Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Despite sport fishing industry predictions that a network of marine reserves around the northern Channel Islands would cause $50 to $100 million dollars in economic losses, scientific monitoring has shown that sport fishing actually increased in the five years after reserves were established, as did commercial landings of squid, sea urchin, and lobster.” In other words, creating projected areas in the oceans increases fish inside and outside of the protected areas.
What about just plain policing? There are times it doesn’t feel effective at all. In trying save elephants from being slaughtered for their ivory, the good guys seem to be losing. But they keep right on fighting and building preserves and educating and trying to stop the trade from being lucrative. In the case of elephants, it’s too early to tell if the poachers or the police will prevail in the long run, but the good news is that elephants are beloved all over the world, and their plight is well publicized. They have a chance. Policing has more clearly worked in other situations. There is a fascinating woman named Suwanna Gauntlett who has almost completely stopped the wildlife trade in Cambodia, primarily through creating a network of people called the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team to enforce existing laws in the country. I was floored by all that this one individual has done, and I recommend reading the article that I’ve linked to about her below. Suwanna is the founder and CEO of the Wildlife Alliance.
Humans react to stories. One example is the recent story of a dozen killer whales trapped in ice in Hudson Bay. While they may have been trapped by climate change, they did not need our help to get free. But people all over the world paid close attention to their story and watched Internet videos of the whales sharing a single small breathing hole. A few years ago, I was at Mark Anderson’s Future in Review Conference. The audience was treated to an early screen of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and a visit from its director, Louise Psihoyos. The film illuminates the purposeful destruction of dolphins, and also points out the dangers of our increasingly-toxic seas. Since the film, there has been much international outcry about the events it captured for us. The problem isn’t solved yet, but the film and the activists it inspired have made it harder for the wholesale slaughter of dolphins to go on outside of the public eye. There are many other examples of powerful stories that made a difference: Michael Fay’s megatransect journey, Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and from my own childhood, Marguerite Henry’s recounting of how Wild Horse Annie fought to save mustangs in the YA book Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West.
We have banded together or acted as individual heroes over and over in order to save the big species we know and love. I found many more examples, but this is enough to illustrate that we’ve taken responsibility for both the land and the animals of the Earth. Unlike land – which we’ve chosen to own – wild animals belong to both no one and to all of us. It will take continued work on our part to save any or all of the species I mentioned here, or to save the microscopic krill that the whales depend on, or to save the coral reefs from ocean acidification, or to really save any of it. I think we can, and that we already have a lot of successful models to follow, some wildly successful, such as Suwanna Gauntlet’s Wildlife Alliance and the clear resolve of the California government to expand safe places along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
This is the week to think about protecting animals, and maybe to donate a bit to them some how. Oh, and get your pencils out and sharp. Next entry will be the rant blog – the one where we get to trash ourselves and point out all of the awful things we’ve done. Because after that one allowed catharsis, everything else in this set of postings is going to be about strategies to thrive, and canted toward the future rather than laying groundwork for a common understanding of the present situation.
I have a special treat to go with this entry. One of my favorite flash fiction pieces was inspired by a talk that Michael Fay at an international conference of geographer’s in San Diego one year. The story first appeared in Nature Magazine. Here’s a link: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7104/full/442846a.html
Once more, thanks for reading. Comments welcome!
Some of the resources I used developing this article:
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org/about/red-list-overview
- ConservationBytes.com: Not so ‘looming’ Anthropocene extinctions, CJA Bradshaw, 2009; http://conservationbytes.com/2009/11/04/not-so-looming-anthropocene-extinctions
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Program: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/map/index.html (A nice, interactive map)
- Mongabay.com, Cambodia’s wildlife pioneer: saving species and places in Southeast Asia’s last forest, Laurel Neme, May 11, 2011:
- Nature News, Reserves ‘win-win’ for fish and fishermen, Rex Dalton, 2/23/2010: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100223/full/4631007a.html
- Switchboard, Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, Karen Garrison’s Blog, 8/31/2010: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kgarrison/marine_protected_areas_hold_pr.html
- NBCnews, 11 killer whales free after being ‘locked’ in ice, mayor says, Miranda Leitsinger, Januuary, 2013: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/10/16437371-11-killer-whales-free-after-being-locked-in-ice-mayor-says
- National Geographic, Blood Ivory, by Brian Christy, October 2012: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/ivory/christy-text
- NBCNews, Orphaned elephants find sanctuary in Kenya amid rampant poaching, Roan Allen, January 2012: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/25/16699075-orphaned-elephants-find-sanctuary-in-kenya-amid-rampant-poaching#comments
- The Cove movie, The Cove Effect, and More, July 26th, 2010: http://thecovemovie.com/_blog/Blog/post/The_Cove_Effect,_And_More
- Outside, How the nomad found home, Michael Mcrea, October 21, 2011: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/nature/How-the-Nomad-Found-Home.html?page=all
- PBS Video, Saving the Ocean | The Sacred Island: http://video.pbs.org/video/1874606186
When I drive from home to work, none of the land I pass is wild. It’s lawns, or parks, or part of the city. On my drive in, I can see the Olympic Mountains as I crest the hill and head down toward the Kirkland waterfront. They are a mash up of native lands, national parks, and beach cities. Forks, the city of the Twilight books, is over there. The Olympics are largely wild, but they are managed carefully. I suspect there is no land in the whole mountain range that is not owned. Someone – a person, a government, a tribe, a company – someone manages everything I can see. Even the water between the mountains and me is managed by a series of laws and contains a lot of protected spaces and reserves– whether the deep and beautiful lake Washington that is used primarily for recreation or the troubled Puget Sound.
The primary premise of this set of blogs is that we are on our way to managing the Earth, to turning the whole thing into a garden. I am not even going to try to make a case that I view this as optimum – I don’t. But I believe it is happening. The short version is that we are already working large amounts of the Earth as farmland, setting aside other areas to protect and preserve, and closely controlling specific ecological niches. We plant, we water, and we harvest.
In this entry, I’ll talk about full ecosystems. In the next entry, there will be examples of how we care for specific species.
First, we farm. According to multiple articles that I found, we use something between 37 and 50 percent of the Earth’s arable landmass for farming (animals and crops). By definition, farmland is managed: farms are crops, and humans intervene over most of that acreage. Actual crops are planted, cared for, and harvested. Pests are discouraged via pesticides, genetic modifications to plants, or organically. Rangeland is fenced and patrolled. It is no longer wild.
Second, we set aside large areas of the Earth and the Oceans. We call them reserves, protected areas, and parks. In many cases, we limit uses. This is still management. It takes a combination of laws and rangers and myriad government or NGO entities. The cost of protection is significant. Rangers who work to save elephants from the ivory trade die for their troubles. Much of the Amazon basin is “protected” but deforestation occurs even inside the protected areas. Each year, we (the global community) are adding to the number of protected areas, which means we are taking responsibility for more portions of the land and the sea.
Third, we are working in microcosm to protect countless local natural resources. While humans generally do more policing than actively managing of protected areas, there are herculean efforts all over the globe to protect beloved local ecosystems. One of those programs is in my town: the Green Kirkland Partnership. Members of the community gather frequently to “weed” the park of invasive plants, to plant or re-plant or protect native plants, and to save urban forests. All the way across the country, Florida is working to save the Okeechobee through a federally adopted Everglades restoration plan. Transportation planners are increasingly planning and building wildlife corridors. These already exist in Banff, in the Netherlands, and here in Washington State. They vary from wide bridges designed for migrating wildlife to simple re-designs of ways that water already flowed under roads to allow for wildlife to pass through with the water (terrestrial and aquatic). Wildlife corridors are being designed into cities as well as built into rural areas. These stories are happening all over the world. Success varies, but the heart and energy and care that go into these projects does not.
Yes, we are still lucky enough that portions of the Earth remain largely wild (some of those, only through active preservation). Some will stay that way. But which areas, and how wild, will be our choice. Let’s hope that we can make good choices.
Today, we farm, protect, and work to restore our land. Yes, we are also destroying land, habitat, and animals, and that tension is not going to go away. We are already making conscious and unconscious choices about which ecosystems and species to save. I’ll talk about that in the next post. In the meantime, you might look around for conservation projects near you, and notice how the nearby land is used. Who is responsible for it? What do you see on your commute? On your favorite trips?
Some of the resources I used developing this article:
- Farming Claims almost half of earth’s land, new maps show, National Geographic News, December 9th, 2005, James Owen: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1209_051209_crops_map.html
- World Bank, Agricultural Land (% of land area): http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.AGRI.ZS
- The Guardian, UN warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013, John Vidal:
- New York Times, Rangers in Isolated Central Africa Uncover Grim Cost of Protecting Wildlife, December 31, 2012, Jeffrey Gettleman: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/world/africa/central-africas-wildlife-rangers-face-deadly-risks.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
- Mongabay.com, Protected areas cover 44% of the Brazilian Amazon, April 20th, 2011: http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0420-protected_amazon.html
- National Geographic.com, The Ocean, Marine Protected Areas: http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/take-action/marine-protected-areas (This is a nifty interactive map)
- City of Kirkland, Green Kirkland Partnership page: http://www.kirklandwa.gov/depart/parks/Green_Kirkland_Partnership.htm
- Everglades Foundation website: http://www.evergladesfoundation.org/the-everglades/saving-the-everglades
- City of Portland, Parks and Recreation, Westside Wildlife Corridor: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/article/204516
The childhood mythos that I grew up describes a humanity driven from a great garden by the weight of our sins. As an adult, I have come to believe the opposite: our sins are driving us to become gardeners. While I far prefer to imagine a world where humans are simply a harmonious part of a beautiful and mysterious ecosystem, we have left that future far behind. The pressures of population, energy, politics, and progress have pushed us to a point in history where we must take responsibility and become active guardians of the place we call home. Whether we were born in a garden or not, we must now learn how to manage the critical resources of our world, or perish.
There is no acceptable path to the future that includes going backwards. Humanity as a whole is not going to stop innovating, growing, interacting, and consuming. Any successful path forward must allow human prosperity to increase.
In this series of writings, I intend to explore what this means. Not all of it will sound, seem, or even be pleasant. Nor will every step be painful.
We are going to have to make some hard choices about species, about geo-engineering, about food and water and other fundamentals. We must make these choices with an eye on a future most of us will not live in, but which we can design to be rich, productive, and perhaps more important, possible.
This journey is sparked by the need to prepare for a talk I’ll be giving at the World Futurist Society meeting in Chicago in July of 2013, but it is work I started years ago, and work I expect to continue for years. I am a futurist and a writer and a technology professional. I work for the government, and believe there is a vital role the role for the government in this journey. There are also critical roles for individuals, corporations, NGO’s, foundations, and other organizations. We’re all in this together.
Comments, discussion, and dissent are all welcome. Purely political rhetoric is not. It’s important to reach beyond the simplistic slogans of the green or liberal parties and of the conservative and libertarian wings of the world. We do need to forge a future that includes the fondest dreams of all of these groups – clean air and skies, growing economies, hope, entrepreneurship, and public discourse.
I often hear from people who seem to have lost all hope, and perhaps all faith in humanity. I have not. Join me on this journey…
I intend to post at least once every two weeks. I’ll share my reading and draft essays. By mid-spring, I’ll have all of this happening on a separate website (backingintoeden.com). In the meantime, it will be here. I think this will be an interesting bit of work, so if anyone wants to see this mirrored elsewhere, send me an email and we can talk about it.
In the meantime, let me know what you think of the idea!
Every year I play a predictions game. It’s not really good futuring (after all, there remain no jetpacks). But I still like the game. So here goes an analysis of my results for 2012:
Publishing and Creativity:
There will be more attempts to make good franchises with rich multimedia (like Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson’s Mongolaid, like Al Gore’s Our Choice iPad App). I’m expecting more of this to come out in 2012 than 2011. One major success could drive this market – Twilight or Harry Potter like sales of something interactive and multimedia but that is not a movie or a mash up of marketing with a book.
I didn’t see as much of this as I’d hoped. David Farland did a nice enhanced version of his YA novel Nightingale that seems to be doing well. There are a few others out there. But no big change. Still, I will re-predict this for next year. Love to hear from any of you that have good examples of new format books that are for adults.
In the book biz, the end of 2012 will see:
- Most publishers doing better than the end of 2011, with some winners in the big companies and a few rising stars that keep rising in the mid-pack (Nightshade, for example, or Prime). Which ones succeed at this size depends on individuals rather than corporate culture. This is an ever-changing industry, but I couldn’t find a clear upward trend. This suggests the changing business models haven’t yet been really absorbed.
- Barnes and Noble will still exist.Yep. Although a few flagship stores have closed. Stock prices are just above what they were last year, and still a lot lower than five years ago. But they don’t appear to be in much trouble or poised for a big gain, either.
- Authors will gain a bit more leverage on things like e-royalties because self-publishing will remain viable, and smaller publishers with less overhead will be able to compete better against the big boys. Not sure about this one. Authors at the top have more leverage, but they would have had that anyway. E-book royalty rates don’t seem to be increasing as fast as I hoped they would. There’s some success for the self-published, but also a lot of slow sales and false starts. Kickstarter has allowed for a few good things to happen.
- I expect a dismal political year. So far, as an election year, it’s already boring and bad. Mostly right. The most dismal political season I’ve ever seen. The good news? For me, the election came out right. More good news on same-sex marriage, Obama a better bet than Romney, and we’ve landed a Governor in Washington State who cares about the beautiful environment we have here. But the scary schism between us all is getting worse rather than better. And that’s not good news. We need centrists on both sides and we haven’t got them. The Republican party continues to implode and intelligent conservatism is coming through the Blue Dogs, so the whole thing is more an argument within the Democratic party that doesn’t change much as the far right stops most progress.
- The economy is a heck of a wild card, and its global underpants are showing as the Eurozone and China affect us. My prediction, with a whopping barely over 50% feeling of a half-full glass? Our economy will keep struggling up. Outliers? Continued Eurozone problems are at worst a drag, but if China sees big change downward, we could teeter all over again. This is a time when every single strong economy helps the whole: We should root for everyone. This is not a zero-sum game. Yes. Struggling remains the right word. The US and world economy remains a house of cards. But we are trending up. At least as of the moment (the fiscal cliff remains undecided as I wrote this, and is overblown anyway. But economies are creatures of expectations and mood, shaped by news and spin as much as real action).
- We’ll keep having climate disasters and for the most part, the America public will keep (illogically) believing it’s not caused by us. Those of us who are NOT skeptics remain frustrated as hell and write brilliant essays that are ignored. Mostly right. The best news is that I’m sensing a shift in climate understanding after Sandy. Maybe that will play out next year, which would be great. If I had to be a little wrong on any of these, that was the prediction to be a little wrong on.
Regardless of the fact that it won’t impact America as much as it should, governance will be a topic for thinkers everywhere. The Arab Spring and Occupy are all about tearing down existing structures. The conversation of what to do after that will play out at least in actions (e.g. continued struggle like what is happening in Egypt today). I am sure this is a conversation happening behind the closed doors of the powerful. Hopefully it will also play out in the blogosphere and elsewhere is a truly meaningful way. Consider this a prediction of the conversation, but not of conclusions.
I don’t see much sign of this. We need a better form of governance and a more international one, since we have international problems to solve. But it’s not happening. The Arab Spring countries are seeing a thin spring at best, the cost of Syria is scary, and there hasn’t been a lot of settling. Let’s hope it’s just a matter of time.
Summary? More right than not, and not flat-wrong on anything. I’m a little disappointed that I’m not seeing the changes I was hoping for in publishing or better governance. At any rate, that wraps 2012. On to think about 2013.