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 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 the World Science Fiction Convention in Texas and at Orycon in Orgeon. 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.
This is part three of three. Now that I’ve listed some of the ways humans use animals (traditional and GM) and talked about ethics, I want to cover some reasons we may need GMO animals in the future. I want to remind readers that the highest ground is almost certainly to use conservation and respect to maintain a healthy ecosystem, to rely on care instead of test tubes. Of course, we haven’t done very well at that. Instead, we seem to be backing ourselves into a corner, which we will then have to fight out way out of. This is a very human way of being, even if it’s not particularly mature. I’m an optimist. We can get to a future we largely like, even though the corner is getting tight. The tighter we let that corner get, the more likely we are to need more dangerous and more radical innovation to escape.
Before I talk specifics, here’s a quick reminder of the ethics points I brought up in my post about GM ethics:
We don’t know how much the growing population and increasingly unstable climate will affect us, but I am certain life will not be business-as-usual. Here are a few of the ways that we may use GM animals in the future.
Pollinators: Bees are dying from colony collapse disease. Scientists have pointed to multiple possible factors, the latest of which is simply the stress of modern living. Seriously – it appears that any combination of diesel fumes, neonicotinoids (from pesticides), habitat loss, or parasites may cause entire bee colonies to disappear. I empathize with the poor bees – some days the stress of the modern world does seem tough to just keep going through! But seriously, we need pollinators for most crops and we may have trouble keeping enough healthy bees to manage all of the work. Perhaps bees can be helped so that they are more resistant to stress, parasites, and poisons. We need bees. Without them, we won’t be able to produce enough food to feed the world. Other key pollinators such as bats are also endangered. We may be able to make robo-pollinators, but bees are natural carbon-based beings that melt back into the earth for easy re-use, and I shudder to imagine stepping on the dead carcasses of pollinator nanobots on a hike through the woods. There is work being done (linked below) that may help create stronger bees without GM tools. That would be safer. Any useful deployment of GM bees will stretch the ethical constraint about minding the boundaries. Nevertheless, pollinators are so critical we should be working on every technique we might need.
Ecological Niche-Keeping: As mentioned early-on in this series, we appear to be heading right over the biodiversity cliff into a mass-extinction. In many ways, it has already started. Pollinators are only one of the wriggling and breathing parts of the ecosystem under severe threat. There are others. GM tools may help us bring back extinct species (including recently or not-yet-but-soon-to-be-extinct species). Think critical and sensitive layers of the food change, like krill. Think predators or prey necessary to keep a balance. We might prop up existing species (for example, by adding a unique biological marker that helps us track bears so we can be sure we know when they are outside of our door, or something that makes ivory trackable back to the originating elephant). We might have to bring back species after we drive them to extinction.
Adaptation Assistance: Some species may have a thin line between them and extinction as their habitats change in response to climate change. Making a bird a bit more resistant to cold might help it survive, for example.
To improve the health of the animal: Even when there’s no need to change an animal because its habitat changes, we may be able to simply improve some animal’s health. For example, we might find a way to eradicate collie-eye in dogs. In a current case, the Roslin Institute just published a paper on using DNA editing to create pigs that are more resistant to illness, and hoping that their work will migrate to wild populations (see the Pig 26 article linked below).
Improving food animals: Part of how we manage our wild animals is to manage the parts of land and the sea that are spent feeding us. That means getting more efficient and doing less damage with our farming. Many of the examples so far are either under heavy attack from the far left (think Monsanto corn) or stuck in a waiting game for approval (think AquAdvantage Salmon). Orange crops in Florida are threatened by citrus greening, and standard eradication methods are persistently failing. There is work underway on a GM solution. Yes, I know an orange is not an animal. Most GM food improvements are not animals, yet. I suspect there are a lot more corporate lab experiments waiting to see what happens with the salmon currently under consideration (they grow faster). I personally prefer we switch to others sources of proteins, but I’m a minority, at least at the moment.
Thanks for reading this, which is the third entry in a three-post series on GM animals. If you missed the others, they are Human use of Animals: Lists and GMO Ethics. I didn’t spend so much time on this topic because I think it will be a major part of what we need to do the preserve and enhance our ecosystems in the future. I hope it isn’t. I hope it’s a small part of a program driven far more by protection of our existing ecosystems. I chose to spend this many words on this topic because it’s interesting, it’s emerging faster than many people seem to be aware of, and there are a multitude of questions we should be asking. I am also hopeful that we can avoid labeling all things related to GM animals as bad. Some will be bad, and should be fought in the legal system and online. But others may be critical to the future success of humans and animals alike.
As usual, here are a variety of related links:
Building a better bee, Maclean’s, Thursday, October 7th, 2010, Tom Henheffer Note that I couldn’t find a 2013 follow-up to this topic
In the last post, I simply listed both our traditional and our “new” ways of using animals. Perhaps I was a little harsh, since humans have treated certain classes of animals like family. We have even gone so far as to evolve essentially symbiotic relationships. For example, I wouldn’t want our family dogs to have to live wild. They don’t have those skills. On a related note, I read a recent article about how wild animals are adapting to urban environments. But I digress. This is a three-post series. It started with the lists of what we’ve done up to now. It will end with a post about what we might do in the future. And this time, I want to talk ethics.
Ethics can provide one framework for finding our way from now to a better future. They’re no guarantee, but they’re foundational. In this case, I’m hoping they might guide the direction in which we take our ever-growing ability to tinker with life.
I’m going to address the ethics of GM and other futuristic animals across a wide range of possible – and different – actions. For example, de-extinction is different from creating designer pets, and protecting cows (and thus humans) from mad cow disease is different than growing human organs inside pigs. If you’re lost, refer to post number one, and follow the links. I’m only going to attempt to talk about ethics within the context of this series, which is all about how we take responsibility for the ecosystem in which we live.
I want to be very specific. I’m talking about action we take via science to create new animals, to modify or help or de-extinct existing animals, and the use of animals as subjects for experimentation with GM tools for human or animal health or other reasons. I’m including mammals and insects – and not crops – in my thinking in this post.
I’ve got five points:
The animal must be no worse off
I’d like to see “do no harm’ here, but that’s not possible in this world or the new world. After all, we eat animals. Additionally, even this ethical bar will not be possible when managing ecosystems (see earlier chapters that discussed removal of invasive animals – a hard choice, but sometimes one population must be killed to save another). But in the sense of things we do to animals in the name of science or health, I think we can get to this place. We can stop experiments that harm animals. If growing human organs inside of pigs for transplant makes the pigs worse off, we should find another way. If making a goat with milk that adds in an anti-diarrheal which could save thousands of human children makes the goat no worse off, then that would fit inside of this ethical boundary. If giving a horse a new gait makes it weak in the spine so it has a short life, we should not do that, but if we can give it a blue mane and it’s no worse off, that’s all right (if silly). We should apply this backwards to breeding programs as well. My family fostered a dog that had been bred for its beautiful white coat but came out deaf with epilepsy – a common outcome of recessive/recessive crosses for this breeding. This cruel and legal behavior should not be allowed. New or changed or even “improved” animals must – at a minimum – be no worse off. And I far prefer if they are better off.
No animal slaves
You can buy kits now that give you the ability to make cockroaches turn the way you want with a remote control. Similar research is directed at creating bugs that can be used as spies. This should not be allowed. Note that there are PETA positions that suggest we should not own our pets. This is not what I mean here. Training a dog or a horse is a good thing, and can be done humanely in a way that allows the animals to make willing choices. And that’s the difference. My dog can choose not to sit (and sometimes she does), but military spy bugs can’t choose not to fly in the direction they are told. They will fly to their death. That is not a power we should develop.
Operate inside the ecosystem
I truly believe that we are going to be in far more control of ecosystems than we are today. All of them. From watching the boundaries of preserves (to save elephants from poaching or allow sharks to mate) to managing the lives of urban wildlife, we’ll be more involved than ever. Any large-scale change needs to be designed to work inside of the ecosystems we’ll be managing. For example, the re-introduction of velociraptors should not occur in a temperate forest where we’re also trying to bring back or protect grizzly bears.
Mind the boundaries
GM and other related technologies are all comparatively new. We would be wise to err on the side of extra caution. Boundaries are should be designed based on the technology and animal in question. But they must exist and be enforceable. This may require tagging and tracking of gene-mod animals, or forced sterilization after they are finished with their work and adopted out (today, some are euthanized, which violates the ethical boundary “the animal must be no worse off.”). We are not yet as wise as nature, and we may never be. There are bound to be mistakes, and better models as we learn, and all of the other mess that comes with science. It’s a good mess, but we need to be sure to clean up after ourselves in a way that honors the lives we touch.
Animals are generally owned. I’ve owned at least a hundred in my lifetime, from gerbils to budgerigars to competition horses. Food animals are owned by a farm, then a butcher, then a store, then a restaurant and then whoever eats them. But I have never owned a line of animals, or a species. I believe that new animals that are created using GM should not be owned in that way either. This is a tough one, since a profit motive drives innovation. This is going to be tough at the court level as well. Drugs are patented for 20 years, with the option to extend for five more. Something like this seems reasonable for new creations, except that a standard of care should be added. For example, if you use GM tools to create a border collie with opposable thumbs, not only would you only have the patent for only twenty years or perhaps twenty-five years, but because border collies are living things, you should also be required to guarantee that the dogs are cared for, tracked (so that you don’t create a wild opposable-thumb border collie to kick-butt in agility) and so that intelligent decision can be made at the end of the patent period. This is even more important if you make an animal smarter (once more, think of David Brin and the concept of uplift, and then marry that with the animal personhood movement that is starting to hit the courts and which may grant some human-style rights to certain animals).
These are ideas – sparks for conversation. But they are important sparks.
There is another discussion about whether or not we should do any of this at all. I’ve never seen us put a genii back in a bottle. Even large and scary science like nuclear bombs have (at best) been managed. This – like nuclear physics – is a technology that can bring great good and/or great harm. Our values and ethics (with a sprinkling of fear) are the core of how we have managed not to spread mushroom clouds all across the earth. We need the same values, ethics, and fears to deal with new GM world.
This series is a discussion of how we take responsibility for the birds and the beasts and the fields and the oceans and whatever Genesis left out (for example, the Bible doesn’t mention the atmosphere). It’s time for some discussion of the future of animals and how we’ll use them. Yes, that’s blunt. Humans use animals. This entire post is two lists: traditional human uses of animals and ways we are changing animals via biotechnology.
Throughout this series I’ve talked about conservation, brought up one of my favorite causes (saving the elephants), and worried about both plants and animals in a land use context. I believe in preservation. Captain Paul Watson is one of my heroes. So is Jane Goodall, and Sylvia Earle. But now I’m moving from the topics of preservation and conservation into the edges of creation.
This is going to take more than one post. So without further ado….
Now that we have new tools available via decoded DNA, a bit of math, and a pipette, I’ve found many specific examples of animals we’ve changed. The historical list probably didn’t need any explanation, but I’ll add a short blurb and a link for everything on the GM list:
I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of examples from this list. if you have something I missed from either list, please add it in comments.
There are generally barriers (physical and legal) between most of these GM uses and the rest of the world. But not all – the Glofish that you can easily buy at Petco are a GM product. Some of the experiments I’ve linked to above have already been cancelled, and the GM animals euthanized. Some are about human health, some about science, some about commerce. A few are (sort of) about the animals.
Humans are not going to stop experimenting. Not unless we wake up tomorrow and discover that some handy aliens have come and dropped a pill that changes basic human nature into all of our water supplies.
I don’t have time inside of Backing into Eden to explore all of things on either of these lists, but I will look at why we might want to use GM animals in the future and how we might create an ethical framework for doing so.
This time there’s no linking section. After all, I gave you links above! But I am going to recommend a book: Frankenstein’s Cat by Emily Anthes. I’m reading it. Grab it and read along with me.
Our front yard is different than our back yard. The front is sunny and bright and grows flowers and moss-free grass. The back is partly shaded and often five degrees cooler. The two spaces have different micro-climates. This isn’t new science. Thomas Jefferson understood it. When he gardened at Monticello, he planted grapes on a sunny hillside that saw significant warmth for two months longer than many of his other lands.
A hollyhock planted by a wooden fence will grow differently if that fence is painted white than if the fence is painted brown. In fact, it may burn against the white fence, since it will radiate more heat. A stream creates a microclimate of damper air and soil, which encourages certain plants and animals to live near it. Conversely, deforestation near a stream causes evaporation to increase, perhaps until the stream is no longer healthy or is gone entirely.
A primary premise of this series is that we’re going to have to do much of the work we used to be able to leave to nature. Whether on city blocks, vertical farms, or in rolling hills, we must manage the garden of the earth actively.
This includes the climate.
There is – of course – the macro discussion of climate change and carbon sequestration and big geoengineering. I will write about those. But there are also more subtle tools. We can use our two hands, and perhaps small teams, to whisper to the climate directly around us.
The sunny hillside at Monticello occurred naturally, but microclimates can be created. Microclimate creation and management can help protect threatened species. We might use it to manage animal, bird, or even plant migration. Microclimates could help us grow certain foods or protect existing crops, such as vineyards.
It’s probably safe. Climate control on a scale that stops rain over a major city (as China did for the Olympics) may have large-scale unintended consequences. But small-scale engineering work to use water, shade, color and selected plantings to manage micro-climates is unlikely to cause much harm. We can selectively plant (or create) a slope so that it grows a certain kind of grape, mow a right-of-way so that a rare butterfly can eat, or channel a cooling breeze across a meadow so that a native flower thrives in spite of larger-scale climate fluctuations occurring nearby. Microclimate is being studied as it relates to the burrows of turtles and the caves that bats hibernate in over cold winters. It’s certainly been part of the farming and gardening conversation for years.
While researching this topic, I came across a fascinating company ,“Whole Systems Design,” which self-describes as “…an inter-disciplinary team of land planners, ecological designers, builders, and educators that live in their designs. We unify conventionally disparate fields to develop resilient and regenerative places.” Microclimates are one tool they work with. They state, “Good design creates microclimates intentionally.”
We’ll have knowledge. Real-time data can be mapped , and big-data algorithms applied to a large amount of sensor data. This will help us see what microclimates do, how to design them more effectively, and how they react to fluctuations in the larger climate around them.
We can use information to guide the creation and maintenance of habitats, including habitats for humans. We do this now in a lot of energy intensive fashions (like the misters on outside patios in Arizona restaurants), but it can be done more subtly.
We already understand microclimates. When I lived in California, I looked for houses with shade trees. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I look for houses with un-shaded sunny places.
Innovative microclimate design can improve parks, wildlife preserves, and backyards. This won’t affect the big pictures of climate change, but could very well ameliorate some of the effects, at least for a while. It might buy time.
It’s not terribly difficult work for those armed with a bit of knowledge and a lot of real-time sensor data. Add in some better AI, which is coming along as I write this, plentiful solar power which is doing the same (and can power sensors and networks to collect data), and all of us will be able to whisper to the climate in subtle ways.
Really worth poking around on…these people are doing interesting work in resilience. Whole Systems Design website
An article at Huffpo that talks about microclimate management to save the Bay Checkerspot butterfly: And the Butterflies Will Come, Huffpost Green, The Blog, Mary Ellen Hannibal, June 4, 2013
Take a look at this to get an idea of the complexity of microclimate management: Vineyard Microclimates: What’s your ripening curve, Viticision, 2010
I’m irked at how many elephants we’re losing to the ivory trade. They are one of the most intelligent of animals, often ranked alongside dolphins. Elephants are beloved. They show up early in our lives, as the a common expression of the letter “e” in board books for babies. They are the central exhibit in many zoos. Whole websites are devoted to saving them. Rangers in Africa have died to save them, and yet more rangers risk their lives fighting poachers every day.
Think of the elephants as giant canaries. If we can’t save a species so big that we can see it from space, and so visible to all of us in legend and film and books, what is going to befall the other flora and fauna we share the world with?
So far in this blog series, I’ve written about today. I’ve described the situation today, linked to current technology, and talked about what I think we need. But ultimately, this blog series is about tomorrow, and how we can assure ourselves of a future that can support elephants and mice, wheat and rice. A place where whales and coral reefs and plankton and humans can live. One with a healthy atmosphere and recognizable shorelines. So follow me through some ideas and technologies and social changes that might be good choices in the future. Today, I’m going to talk about elephants, shifts in jobs, and the commons.
The elephants: There is an ivory war, which is resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants a year. The situation in brief and simplistic form: Elephants are being killed for their tusks, which are sold into China. The money is used to fund militias. Tusks for guns.
Changes in jobs: It’s easy to find articles about how slow employment is coming back, to hear whispers of a jobless recovery, and to locate scare-tactic articles about how robots are coming for our jobs. There’s some truth in that, but I’m a perennial optimist who believes that while jobs are changing, there will be plenty of work in the future. Interesting work.
The commons: I’m talking about gardening the Earth in the blog series. It’s a land use problem. And the land that is perhaps the most abused? Land we own in common. The simplest illustration is to go out and join a group cleaning up American highways. The sheer volume of coke bottles and beer cans and other detritus along the road is way too great to have fallen there by accident. People are happy to trash the strips of land near roads. If that’s not enough, take a look at pictures of what marine pollution is doing to animals.
Land and air are not the only commons. Herds of wild animals are essentially either owned by nobody, or owned by all of us. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume they are owned by all of us. Or perhaps a less slavery-tinged way to think of that is that humanity is putting pressure on wild beings through hunting, habitat loss, and climate change. So we need to take responsibility for creating a path forward for them, especially as we are realize how dependent we are on a functioning ecosystem. I found a definition I really like at the website OntheCommons.org: “The commons include everything that we inherit and create together, from water and forests to knowledge and the Internet.”
If I follow that argument, many elephants live in the commons (in parks and preserves), and elephants themselves are members of the commons. Let’s add one more thing I’ve come to believe. Part of the way forward is to charge businesses for their effect on the commons. So we’ll have an income stream that we can use to pay people to take care of the environment. Money will flow from cap and trade or similar programs. It will come through government hands and be distributed to contractors, NGO’s, or perhaps through expansion of government jobs. I like the NGO’s best, but I anticipate a blend.
This money can be put to work saving the elephants (and a lot more, but at the moment I’m exercised about the elephants). So let’s imagine we use some of it to improve pay and tools for the rangers that are directly on the ground. At the moment, these forces are paramilitary – the average college student is not going to find a job in an African preserve unless they also know a bit about assault rifles and aren’t afraid to use them. But here’s what they can do:
The technology for all of this exists now, albeit in relatively crude forms. It will get better.
The elephant angel program could go further. Perhaps the elephant angels could watch out for other animals that share the same habitat, such as giraffes, zebras, and impalas. Perhaps the elephant angels program could also work for tigers, and if you can have tiger angels, maybe you can also pay for baboon angels….
Obviously we will have choices to make. Not every wild animal will have – or should have – a human angel. Elephants need them because there are human devils out to slaughter them for their tusks. Simply setting aside habitat (which has been done relatively well) is not enough. I am not religious about angels or demons, or much of anything else. But humans are certainly good and bad, and both side of our nature show in the ways that we protect, and slaughter, elephants.
I hope the elephants survive us. It’s possible. Especially if we help.
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:
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.
Third, 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.
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.